Total miles = 12.4 including water stops
Total miles = 12.4 including water stops
Before I go into the details of my most recent section hike, I want to start by getting real about some of the things I was feeling out on the trail. Sometimes, people begin hiking the Appalachian Trail because they have something they need to conquer emotionally or mentally, inner demons, grief, loss, life changes, PTSD…there are so many reasons. Personally, I’ve had a really hard time coming up with a concise answer when people ask me why I want to hike the trail because there are a number of things that keep leading me back to this footpath.
The trail is a beautiful place. My love for the natural world and all the mysteries it holds is fulfilled when I’m in the forest. This ties in with a longing to be surrounded by beauty. Even off the trail, there is a constant effort to create beauty by gardening like a busy bee, planting, replanting, moving things around, painting color into a landscape that draws birds, butterflies, pollinators, and every lovely, flitting thing that brings a dash of wonder into an otherwise ordinary existence. On the AT, those who hurry and rush miss the beauty revealed with every step. The sweeping mountain vistas are enough to make the heart stop, but the tiniest of snails clinging to dewy morning leaves also bring so much joy. This is a place where one can wake to the sound of the wood thrush and fall asleep to the owl’s night cry.
The trail helped me tap into an inner strength I had no idea I possessed. When faced with mountains, the only thing to do is climb. In the pouring rain with the sound of thunder in the distance, the only thing to do is keep walking. I can’t even describe how hard this trail can be, how brutal it can feel when you are exhausted. In the words of Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.” The options narrow sharply in the wilderness. You simply have to keep going until you reach your destination. When gear fails, terrain changes, and the unexpected happens, the solution lies in the ability to adapt. Aside from the physical aspect of hiking the AT, the mental game is strong. There were several days on this last section where I headed out in the morning and had no idea how I would make it 16+ miles to the next stopping place. Yet somewhere along the way, a second wind gave me strength. We’re all capable of more than we think we are. So often we stop ourselves by saying, “I can’t” when the reality is that we very much can.
The trail allows me to be myself. For years I’ve fought off feelings of inadequacy, of not being “good enough,” because existing from a place of lack is not how I want to live my life. The trail is one of the only places where I feel strong, whole, and complete. I am more myself in that space than in any other area of my life. Never have I felt so free to simply be who I am. I don’t completely understand why, but it definitely has something to do with getting away from the expectations of the world about who I should be as a woman, friend, coworker, wife, daughter, person of faith, on and on. There are so many trappings that go along with all the labels, and when those are peeled away, the only thing that remains is the true self. A friend sent the first lines of this quote to me, but there’s a part in the middle that really stuck with me. “Your playing small does not serve the world.”
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson
The trail asks all who travel it to let go of fear. Many times when I head out on a solo hike, people ask if I’m scared. The honest answer is yes. Rarely do I leave on a trip without feeling some trepidation about what I’m getting myself into. However, I’ve learned to do an assessment of whether or not my fear is based in reality. There are a lot of unknowns in the outdoors, the weather, wildlife, trail conditions, gear reliability, the actions of others on the trail. I know what I can control and what I can’t. As soon as I step foot in the woods the fear falls away with each step. It took a while for me to be comfortable alone, to not whip my head around at the sound of a tree branch dropping, or have a panic attack when a squirrel crashes through the leaves and scrambles up a tree. Eventually, I learned the sounds and began to hear the language of the forest over the beating of my fearful heart. Now, as much as I enjoy hiking with friends, I also love the solitude I find alone.
The trail does not allow for vanity or pride. I can’t even begin to explain how humbled I was by something that happened the first day I was out there. I fell. Around mile 8 of the first day, I stumbled and fell on my face, hitting the ground so hard that I figured I had finally broken my nose. I say finally because I’ve looked into getting my nose fixed, but eventually gave up on it and have had a few close calls where I’ve slammed into things and thought, “Well, insurance’ll have to cover the surgery now!” Miraculously, the darned thing remained stubbornly in place, some gross scabs formed, and eventually a black eye came into play around the third day.
Being out in the woods forces you to embrace humanity. You can’t wash your hair, you sweat, your body stinks, and everyone around you stinks. I just so happened to be hiking with a group of guys, so not only was I trying to be comfortable with no makeup, my own stench, and dealing with women’s issues in the woods, my face freaking looked like I’d been in a bar fight. Awesome. I did buy some makeup in one of the towns in an attempt to make things look less garish, but every single day I had to remind myself that my reasons for being out there had nothing to do with how I looked. Get over the black eye!!! Get over it! It doesn’t matter! No bruises, scrapes, scary puffy eyes, or gross scabs mattered in the scheme of things. The people I met were still amazing and kind, I was able to do the miles I had to do and make it up and down all the mountains. Having a messed up face was just another lesson in getting over myself. I work in an industry that is image driven, and it is still so easy to not feel pretty/skinny/attractive enough. Out on the AT, I am forced to find comfort in my own skin, even if it is a little banged up.
The trail provides space for thoughts often drowned out by the traffic of everyday life. I had thoughts, soooooo many thoughts, while hiking. There was time to process as my feet moved. Some things in my heart that have been dormant for a long time were unlocked. I’m not even sure I understand some of what I started to internally deal with out there, but I’m so thankful for the time to unearth what I’ve been burying with busyness. How often do we allow ourselves to sit in quiet places and rummage around in the depths of our hearts, sorting, unpacking, tossing old crap out the window? What we encounter isn’t always easy to face, but sometimes if we Marie Kondo that garbage out of ourselves, a transformation takes place.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” That old, overused John Muir quote that makes me roll my eyes and warms my heart all at the same time. Yes, the draw of the trail is strong, the ache caused when you leave it is real, the mountains are calling…and hell yes, I must go.
This post originally appeared on All Women All Trails, a community of adventurous women sharing their experiences in the outdoors.
If you refer to my previous post about planning to walk the West Highland Way, you’ll remember that we used a baggage service and stayed at B&Bs and inns along the way. So this list is not comprehensive if you are planning to wild camp. However, this is what we packed in our luggage and/or carried which worked well for us.
This post was originally published on All Women All Trails, a community of adventurous women sharing their experiences in the outdoors.
Today began with a drive back through Glencoe to the Kingshouse Hotel where we began the next portion of our journey. At the hotel, the parking lot was packed with Lambourghinis, I’ve never seen so many in my life. Our driver told us that the hotel is run by new owners since being updated and now caters to higher end clientele. The establishment is no longer walker friendly and apparently WHW walkers staying in the bunkhouse have been asked to leave the bar area. This is an unfortunate turn of events that has many in the walking community upset, but reinforced our decision to stay in Glencoe.
We walked parallel to the A82, which took us to the gorgeous white cottage that sits at the foot of Buchaille Etive Mor, another popularly photographed spot.
Directly across from the cottage, the WHW takes a right turn uphill toward the Devil’s Staircase. As we went up, I kept looking back as the view behind us expanded, opening up the whole of the Glencoe in one direction, Glen Etive in the other, and waaaaay off in the distance, the Glencoe Ski Center where we’d taken the lift up the mountain just yesterday. Weather was rolling in, and there were patches of bright sunshine beside dense rolling foggy rain, just before another field of brilliant blue sky shone down on the hills. The light play is fascinating to watch, and even though the climb was steep and strenuous, with what felt like a hundred switchbacks, I was distracted by the view.
The WHW could be seen snaking behind us, drawing more walkers into its twists and turns. Once at the top of the Devil’s Staircase, the trail splits, continuing upward to the left where walkers were aiming for the peak, or continuing onward and over which is where we were going. Weather started rolling in and before we knew it, beads of snow were raining down on us. The wind had picked up and I had to protect my face by wearing my sunglasses and a buff up around my cheeks. For the next couple of miles, the wind and snow continued to challenge our steps. I preferred it to rain, and we have been incredibly lucky not to have had any downpours on this entire hike. Going over a grand pass like that in the wind and snow felt epic.
As we continued on, we heard the motorbikes before we saw them. The Pre Trials are taking place in Kinlochleven today and tomorrow before the Scottish Trials begin in Fort William. There have been signs along the way alerting walkers that the path will be shared in certain spots. It was actually pretty interesting! We passed several bikes headed up to some of the low spots in the hills. As we continued to descend through a burn area into town, we passed some truly hideous industrial water pipes that lead into a power plant at the base of the mountain. The path became pretty ugly at this point and we were dodging motorbikes and people heading up into the hills to watch the trials. Once we entered town though, Kinlochleven was quite a charming place.
Starving, we headed straight to the MacDonald Hotel where the Bothy Bar welcomes walkers with pub grub, ales, and an incredible view of the loch. We were the first ones there and the place soon had other walkers filing in with the same look of exhaustion and relief on their faces.
After enjoying lunch we walked back across the river to the Bank House B&B where we’re staying. By some stroke of luck, when I was booking months ago, there was ZERO availability in this village because of the pre trials, however, I kept looking and there was one room available here. The owner told us there had been a cancellation and it had been filled within 30 minutes. Our room looks out on huge, gorgeous mountains, and I’m watching snow fall on the top of them as I write this, like confectioners sugar being sifted onto a cake.
The town was bustling! We went to the Ice Factor where there is a cafe, outfitter, and the largest indoor ice climbing walls in the world.
We had tea and coffee, then headed to the Co-Op where we bought lots of Cadbury chocolate for when we’re home and missing Scotland. We caught up on WiFi in our room, rested our weary feet, and headed out later to the Riverside Chippy for popcorn chicken, which we ate beside the river, and then the Highland Getaway for a pint. I love it here.
Tomorrow is going to be bittersweet. I’ll be really glad to be done with the cobbled roads and foot pain, but the views and the Scottish people have been so lovely. The WHW has been a great experience in so many ways. I don’t know if I’ll do it again, but it does make me want to walk other trails in Britain. I’ll walk wherever my feet will take me.
DAY 7: Kinlochleven to Fort William, 16 miles
The morning started with a lovely breakfast at the Bank House where the owner told us about an unmarked trail we should take off the WHW out of town. We said our goodbyes and headed out, hoping to beat some of the motorbikes that would also be sharing the trail for the pre trials that day. Everyone seems to stress out about doing the Devil’s Staircase because of the elevation gain, but the climb out of Kinlochleven is just as bad with just as much elevation! My calves were feeling super fatigued, so I stopped a lot on the way up.
Once we cleared the tree line, snowflakes began to float in the air and we had an incredible view of the village below. “Like a box of chocolates” is what our B&B owner called it. We found the unmarked trail off to the left side so we continued about .3 miles up a hill to the most incredible scene of Loch Leven. The WHW takes you around this hill, so most walkers miss this view if they don’t know about it. Gorgeous! Felt on top of the world.
We headed back to the trail, through an industrial area where work is being done on the water lines. Another unimpressive area, but the WHW opened up before us and we could see for miles to where we’d be walking. This area is very open to the elements and the wind whipped through here and made us freeze, then we’d climb a hill and be sweating, then freezing again. It was like musical chairs, except with layers. On off, on off, on off. One thing I did keep on almost the entire day were my mittens. We had a few motorbikes pass, and a few mountain bikers. Everyone was very polite, making way for the others, waving and saying thank you. When I first heard about the trials, I was really bummed, thinking it would change the experience for us, but it really didn’t detract from it at all. In fact, being in town while all the bustle was happening was actually pretty fun.
Miles ticked past until we came to a section where the forest had recently been felled, so there was quite a distance of walking through stumps and debris. The views behind it kept getting grander and grander. We hoofed up another hill, the last day is full of exhausting ups and downs, until finally we rounded a bend and saw a massive snow covered peak before us. Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak. The mountain is impressive, rising majestically above everything around it. We stopped to eat lunch and enjoy the peace of the scene before us. Onward, we had a couple of big climbs yet to go before we’d be sailing downhill into Fort William, or so we thought.
We came out to a forestry road and took it all the way toward the Braveheart Carpark, twisting and turning, descending into the shadow of the behemoth, Ben Nevis.
The last couple of miles of the WHW go straight along the A82, so there are a couple of alternate routes that people often take to avoid walking beside the highway as an anticlimactic end to a long journey. One of these is the Peat Track, which ascends up and over Cow Hill. The other is the Cow Hill Circuit, which skirts around the edge of Cow Hill before dropping into Fort William. We though the Circuit would be easier, but it ended up being quite a challenging and exhausting finish.
The trail takes you up onto the side of Cow Hill and then goes up and down the entire way into town. It’s worth it though because the views from here are awesome. We could see Loch Leven and then down into Fort William from above, and it was quite a bittersweet feeling, knowing we were reaching the end.
We headed into a neighborhood, then down into the main strip in Fort William that leads to the end of the WHW with a man sitting on a bench holding his foot, the Man With Sore Feet, the most appropriate way to end a trail that battered my feet more than any trail I’ve ever done. The stops along the WHW are etched into the sidewalk, and we stood there for a moment, getting pictures, taking other folks’ pictures, and then heading to the St. Andrews Guest House where we were staying to relax for a bit before a meal at the Grog and Gruel.
Being finished with the WHW, I can say I am so glad I did it. I am not dying to do it again. The scenery was truly lovely, but the terrain underfoot was hard and unforgiving. This experience did give me the desire to explore more UK trails, like some of the coastal paths, or Hadrian’s Wall. However, there is more of Scotland that I want to see, and that is most efficiently done by rail or car.
The train trip from Fort William back to Glasgow was beautiful. Half of it went right along the WHW and we could see the path from the train. Having that perspective and seeing how far we’d come was really gratifying. Rob kept saying we should have just taken the train the whole way instead of walking. I’m already looking forward to my next section hike on the AT. I’m ready to be back in the green tunnel, camping out, having softer ground beneath my feet.