55.9 miles on the West Highland Way, Scotland

Long before I ever hiked anything more than a couple miles in one outing, I learned about the West Highland Way and decided I wanted to trek it one day. Though I'd been to Scotland before and knew the country is incredible, one has a completely different experience (and otherwise inaccessible views and places) when trekking the land. 

Case in point: 

Because we trekked in April, we missed heather in bloom, but we also missed midges (well... mostly - I did get a number of bites around my ankles the last couple of days on the warmer southern part of the trail) and were compensated with a proliferation of daffodils.

As we were told a number of times on the trail, we hiked it "back to front", from Fort William to Milngavie, rather than the other way 'round as most people do. This meant that we saw a grand total of four other people hiking in the same direction as we were, while moving against the flow of dozens of others in the "proper" direction.

This gave us a distinct advantage in that we could grill the Proper Way hikers in the evenings for what came next - for me, it was always whether we had a stretch of military road ahead. Military roads almost always equated to roads strewn with jumbles of rocks that were exhausting and quite painful, tearing up the existing neuroma in my foot and exacerbating an IT band issue that usually only shows up at home after very long day hikes. In return, they also quizzed us as to their futures (and often seemed startled to see anyone traveling in the opposite direction.)

We did the trail in this direction because it worked best with our flights and travel scheduling. I also have a tendency, with everything in my life, to follow my maxim of "worst first, best last." Of course, when nothing about the experience is negative, this can translate to "most difficult first, easiest last." The trail in the Proper Way is recommended primarily because the trail in that direction starts out quite flat, with more gentle ascents; of the portions of the trail we managed to finish, the first significant thing trekkers in this direction experience is called the Devil's Staircase because it's a seemingly alarming and sudden ascent from Glencoe. Thereafter, they enter more astounding mountain ranges and, accordingly, more difficult ascents and descents on their way to Fort William. Because we started in Fort William and travelled south, by the time we hit the backside and then descent down the Devil's Staircase, it wasn't quite as scary as it sounded. 

But of course this also meant that by the end of the second day, between the altitude changes and the damn military roads, we realized that our aim of 20 mile days simply wasn't going to happen. This became alarmingly apparent when, on the second day, we reached Kings House, the mid-way point, at the very edge of some hypothermic-inducing weather and collapsed with an incredible malt while realizing that we would have to finish the day with a cab to our hotel for the night. It was vaguely disappointing because we'd walked every mile up until that point, but absolutely necessary, weather and physical-state wise. It was also more-than-vaguely liberating because it freed us up to realize that we wanted to enjoy the journey more than we wanted to hit every single mile. 

So we supplemented the next three days with buses and a ferry and one ride caught with fellow hiker, a Scot named Fraser. This cut out chunks of the trail at an average of about seven miles each chunk. A couple of the remaining days were around 10 mile days, the last was 15 miles for me, 21 for Jamie. We wonder about what we missed, of course. Every day was different and while I feel fortunate that the days of which we completed the most - the first couple - were also on the parts of the trail that contained the most awe-inspiring grandeur, we were astounded that up until almost the last half mile or so, we were still walking on quiet and lovely trails, despite being so close to a rather large city (Glasgow). The relief of the buses and the ferry allowed for different but still exciting adventures, including drinking coffee laced with whiskey at ten am on the ferry, as Jamie is doing in the photograph above. Okay, I admit, that was primarily my whiskey coffee but not to say he didn't touch it.

After our hobbling return home, Jamie talked with his brother Kevin, who has served several tours in the Middle East and has a long and storied military career. He explained that twenty miles a day is the outer limits of a daily march for highly conditioned military personnel. I wasn't feeling in the least disappointed in what I accomplished on the Way but had I been, this would've been reassuring.

On the West Highland Way, I reached two accomplishments: walking for more miles and for more days in a row than I ever have in my life (by far), and drinking more whiskey in my life than I ever have before (by far). 

Balance.