The Great Glen Way (Part One)

The original plan for the September long weekend had been to walk the entire length of the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness.  After confirmation of what is wrong with my asshole body, I wanted to spend some time in the wilderness, alone, with enough energy at the end of each day to pitch a tent, eat some food, write a little, and maybe read a few pages of my book.

I took the train to Glasgow after work on Thursday and had dinner with my friend Grant, who had also offered up his spare room to me for the night.  The next morning he dropped me off at the train station on his way to work, and I began the somewhat-longer-than-anticipated journey north, to Fort William.  The forecast wasn’t great, and I watched the sun disappear behind clouds and mist as we became surrounded by landscape increasingly barren, bleak, and beautiful.  By the time I found myself in Fort William, the rain had arrived.

I grabbed a tuna sandwich from the Morrison’s near the trailhead, as well as a packet of tortilla wraps.  Having gracefully manoeuvred my waterproof trousers on over my hiking boots in the car park, I began my journey.

The start of the Great Glen Way is tacked on rather unceremoniously next to a McDonald’s parking lot on a busy roundabout.  The trailhead was underwhelming and uninspiring, and I had to slink (hard to do with a 30lb pack on your back) around a white van that was parked on the verge.  You begin by winding behind people’s houses on a mixture of gravel track, dirt path, and B roads, and during the first few miles it was populated by dog walkers, lunchtime joggers, and teenagers smoking pot.  It took a concerted effort to take in some of the beautiful surroundings beyond the way, particularly when my every step was accompanied by the distracting rustle of my waterproof gear. This is just the start I told myself.  Soon you’ll be elbow deep in natural beauty, free from distraction, far from another living soul.

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Except that didn’t really happen.  Within a couple of miles I found myself on a road entering a small village called Caol.  Most of the way was on road here until you take in a completely unnecessary path out on a small peninsula, before doing an about turn and essentially retracing your steps on a parallel path back towards Caol.  Although I got to see an abandoned boat, I was increasingly aware of time.  The train had arrived late and I had set out about 1.5 hours later from Fort William than I had anticipated.  Wanting to cover about 22 miles and reach Laggan Locks by nightfall, this detour has essentially robbed me of any opportunity to take a break.  I trudged on.

Crossing the A road that joins Fort William and Mallaig, the wide gravel path winds past Neptune’s Staircase and follows a canal parallel to River Lochy until a smattering of houses that make up Gairlochy, at the mouth of the least creatively named lake in Scotland: Loch Lochy.

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By this point I still had 11 miles to cover along the loch, and I was a little surprised to feel a few hotspots on my feet.  I wasn’t wearing new hiking boots or socks, and I’ve never had issues with them for anything under about 20 miles.  I ignored the nagging pain, and pressed on.

It was along the first mile or so of the lochside path that I finally felt like I’d found what I had come for.  Snaking along the path softened by golden pine needles, listening to the waves lap against the shoreline, my only companion the dull thud of my footsteps.

And the buzz of my phone.  I pulled it out of my jacket pocket and realised I hadn’t switched on airplane mode, and, to my surprise/disdain I had full signal and 4G.  Not long after, the route takes you back onto a tarmac road where you need to navigate the occasional traffic for a couple of miles, before you veer back into the pines onto a land rover track until Laggan Locks.  Although the only people I encountered on this stretch were a couple on mountain bikes and a dog walker (as I approached some holiday cabins), I could still hear the distant hum of steady traffic from the busy road on the opposite side of the loch.

Less than 3 miles from Laggan Locks I passed a wild camping site and was sorely tempted to set up for the night.  Light was fading, my feet had progressed from a minor inconvenience to near crippling pain, and I wasn’t sure there would be anywhere decent to pitch a tent when I reached my planned destination.  I had, however, read about a bar there, and I was jonesin’ for a beer.  I decided to keep going, and to hell with worrying about particulars.

Upon reaching Laggan Locks, I was approached by a man who clearly lived there.

“It’s getting a bit dark to keep going.”

“Yeah, I think I’m pretty much done for the day.  Know of anywhere I can pitch a tent?”

“See those trees?  Who are you hiking with?”

“I’m alone.”

“Oh, well, there’s a boathouse about 100 feet along the way.  You can stay there for £10 a night.”

“I’ll stick with the tent, thanks.  Is there somewhere I can get a drink or some food?”

“Same boathouse.  It’s a floating pub.”

“Ideal.”

I hobbled to the floating bar, climbed aboard, and descended the stairs into what was apparently a pretty happening place!  There was room for me at the bar and I ordered chilli and rice and a couple of beers, chatting briefly to the other patrons before turning feral once my food arrived.  It was while I was shovelling warm food into I realised that, apart from the tuna sandwich, I had only had a cup of coffee in the morning.  Satiated and floating in a slight beer haze, I hobbled back to the patch of trees, and erected my tent in the dark with my bike light in my mouth to guide me.  I climbed in and gingerly removed my hiking boots before slowly peeling my socks away from my aching feet to inspect them.

It was at this point I remembered a recent pedicure, booked to cheer myself up (and because it was one of the cheapest treatments on offer).  I had marveled at how soft my feet were after that, telling the woman who had hacked away chunks of hard, calloused skin how amazed I was at her handiwork.  If you take anything away from reading this, let it be this: Pedicures are for people who do not hike.  I had blisters upon blisters, and I decided, instead of dealing with the situation, to put on fresh socks and go to sleep.

Friday morning arrived, and I enjoyed a plain tortilla wrap for breakfast, along with some water.  A quick foot inspection and some rough first aid attempted, I was booted and packed up, ready to set off at 8am.  I tentatively took a few steps.  To my delight, my feet didn’t feel too bad.  My disaster plan of death marching to Fort Augustus and catching the bus became less of a certainty, and I began toying with the idea of continuing beyond there to Invermoristan as planned, and setting up camp.

A couple of miles into my walk another hiker, Nick, caught me up.  He was walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats both as a personal challenge, but also to raise money for the MS Society, as his dad was diagnosed with MS in 2005.  This was, as you can imagine, a springboard into a few hours of good conversation as we kept each other company on the predominantly traffic-free path.  His planned walk essentially mirrored my original plans, and I thought I’d maybe have made a walking buddy for a few days, but every mile we covered brought back the familiar, searing pain in my feet, and I knew that I’d be tapping out at Fort Augustus.  As soon as we arrived and I spotted a coffee shop, we wished each other well and he kept going.

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After a coffee and a sandwich, I limped to the bus stop and began the journey up the west side of the loch, a journey I’ve done twice before – in reverse – before running the Loch Ness marathon.  It was a beautiful day, and I know there are some beautiful views from the bus, but I fell asleep the minute we set off, and woke up ten minutes from Inverness, where I bought a train ticket back to Aberdeen and went to the pharmacy for some first aid reinforcements.

With 45 minutes until the train, I searched out a disabled stall in the shopping centre bathrooms and set up a mobile surgery.  I took off my left boot, peeled away the sock, and saw a blister on my heel the size of my palm.  The skin was taut and I poked it out of curiosity before cleaning it up, laying some toilet paper underneath it, and unleashing my scissors.

The release caused me about a second of intense, near-blackout pain before I realised that the sweet relief normally associated with popping blisters was nowhere to be found.  Chiefly because there was another, deeper blister underneath that one.  This was also when I felt something dripping from my face… Not only had the eruption covered me, but the walls and floor of the stall required some going over with my antibacterial wipes.  Sitting on the toilet lid in a disabled bathroom stall having not seen a shower for nearly three days and with pus drying on my face and a fistful of dirty wipes, I contemplated just how pleasant the train journey was going to be for anyone sitting near me.  I pulled my dirty socks back on, packed up, washed my face, and decided to wait until the comfort of my own home before attempting to look at the other foot.  (Spoiler: it was just as gross)

The following day the blisters had had time to mature, and walking was an acrobatic effort on the sides on my feet or on tiptoe.  Realising I wasn’t going far from home on foot, I decided to join a group that was going cycling, as the pressure points from my cleats didn’t coincide with the mangled sections of my feet.  It was a pleasant cycle in very autumnal weather with a coffee stop near Banchory and a brief trip to the Falls of Feugh to watch the salmon jumping (or attempting to jump) upstream over the rocks.

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Although I didn’t complete the entire walk, you might have noticed this post is referred to as ‘Part One’.  Once my feet have had a chance to heal up (and avoiding any further pedicures in future), I intend to get the train to Inverness and then the bus to Fort Augustus in order to complete the second half of the Great Glen Way before the weather has a chance to turn, and while the days are still long enough to put in 20 mile shifts.  Until then, I’m wearing sneakers to work and spending as little time as possible on the meaty lumps that once resembled feet.

Can’t live for tomorrow, tomorrow’s much too long

“The busy bee has no time for sorrow.”

-William Blake (Proverbs of Hell)

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William Blake seemed to be a firm advocate of embracing our desires and our freedom, which is absolutely an ideology I’m willing to adopt.  I’d like to imagine that the proverb above goes deeper than the idea of being so consumed with a task that you have no time to worry about things.  Instead of a task – with its connotations of being something burdensome or unpleasant or necessary – I’d like to think the bee is consumed by something beautiful, exhilarating, fulfilling.  The bee hovers over a flower until it has taken its fill, then moves onto the next.  For me, each flower is a unique experience and, like the physical beauty of flowers, their existence is ephemeral, but memorable.

My takeaway from this particular proverb is that Blake encourages us to fully immerse ourselves in the moment – to live in the present.  We should open ourselves to experiencing every moment without distraction or fear that we aren’t doing what we think we’re meant to be doing.

I find I’m at my happiest in nature, and I imagine that’s the truth for most people.  This summer I had booked a flight to Seattle with my friend Lauren, initially with the plan of hiking the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier.  After her debut camping experience about 6 weeks before we flew over, however, she decided that she hated camping, and upon discovering there were no hotels along the trails in the Washington wilderness, started dropping hints that she would bail on the hike.  Considering the hike was my main motivation for visiting Washington, I wasn’t about to let the prospect of being a lone wolf deter me, though in a strange place – where bears roam free – I did want some company.

Against all my friends’ advice, I met someone from Portland on tinder, and arranged to go on a 3 day camping trip along some of the trails in Mount Rainier National Park.  We met in a bar in Seattle the night before, armed with a map, and tentatively planned our journey (which we had to reconsider the next day due to campsite availability).  We left the next morning and spent the following three days walking the trails, and generally existing in some of the most beautiful alpine meadows with the snowy peak of Mount Rainier as our backdrop, and wildflowers, animals (including bears), and the low hanging haze from BC wildfires surrounding us.  Although it wasn’t the original endurance death-march I had mentally planned, I couldn’t have asked for a better hike (or hiking partner) for the limited time I had, and I relished being disconnected from the outside world completely, being around so much beauty, and getting to know someone new in an intensely concentrated way.  The whole thing could have been a complete bust.  I could have been pushed off a cliff or eaten by a bear or strangled in my sleep.  But I choose to believe that people are inherently good, and so far that has served me well.

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After Mount Rainier, and some time in Portland and the surrounding area, including a day hike to some of the waterfalls along Eagle Creek (with my now-established hiking companion), I flew south the Houston to visit my family.  For the first time in several years, my brother was clean, and it was so comforting having the one person who has had the same life experience as I have had be present and lucid and calm.  I told him about hiking in Washington, and he mentioned that he wanted to do more stuff like that, so we decided to get up early one day and drive out to Enchanted Rock.  Apart from his piece-of-shit car breaking down 10 miles outside of Austin, having to hire a tow truck, and being forced to hire a fancy SUV because there were no smaller cars available – it was a fun day trip.

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When I initially began having issues with my sight last October, I began a string of tests to try and determine the cause.  It was mentioned that there was a (small) chance that it could be the first presenting symptom of multiple sclerosis, but ‘that was getting ahead of ourselves’.  However, further tests revealed lesions on the white matter of my brain, which meant even more testing.  Last month, upon returning from my holiday, I had follow up MRI scans on my brain, as well as a spinal tap, which I thoroughly do not recommend.  Yesterday, September 11th, 2017, 11 months after this whole ordeal began, I was given my results: my body is an asshole.

Although I was fairly convinced multiple sclerosis would be the eventual outcome, it still came as a shock to hear it confirmed from the specialist, and I’m not entirely sure I took in everything she said after that.  I do remember mentioning my plans to leave my job in April and thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail, terrified that she would in some way try to dissuade me from doing it.  Thankfully my conversation with her only reinforced my gut feeling to go for it, and she fully endorsed my view that the disease is unpredictable, and manifests itself differently in everyone, and that it would be nothing short of tragic to sit around and wait for something to happen at the expense of experience.  She did drop into conversation that I’d probably have to pay a little more for health insurance, but what is the value of money?

So what’s the plan now?  I’ve bought a one way ticket to San Diego at the beginning of April next year.  I’ve upgraded my tent to something roomier and more lightweight.  I’m off to hike the Great Glen Way in just over a week.  And I’m seriously looking into dropping bank on a personal satellite messenger and locator beacon, mostly to stop my parents and friends from worrying, but my secondary reason would be for safety.  If my legs decide to stop working when I’m days away from civilization, it might be useful to be able to contact people to let them know.  Overall though?  I’m pumped about my upcoming adventure.  It may turn out to be a catastrophic bust, but that’s a future-me problem.  Besides, as Blake says, “Exuberance is beauty.”  And it looks like I’m using his proverbs as mantras right now.