Thursday, May 28, 2009

from the Great Glen Way Trail in Scotland

I’m in a warm bed and I had a dinner. Two hours ago, I was sure I’d be without both tonight.

Sure, those are things to be grateful for, but even more remarkable is this: on our bus ride from Edinburgh up north (total bus hours: 6), the skies turned from mostly cloudy…


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… to mostly wet.


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But when we reached Inverness (the northernmost big town in Scotland), patches of blue began to appear again. And for the rest of the evening, the threat of rain receded to only a mild possibility.


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Inverness was, for us, only a temporary stop. We wanted to drop off some equipment at the b&b we would eventually return to some days in the future. But we were there long enough to realize that things have changed up north in Great Britain. First of all, great coffee is now easy to find and secondly – Inverness is no longer just an English speaking place. The second language here is Polish.

At the bus station, the signs are printed out in two languages – English and Polish. Around town, I hear my language again and again. At the cafĂ© where I purchase the wonderful coffee, Roman, the (Polish) long haired barista, gives me a strongly accented lecture on how he cannot rush my cappuccino order, because if he does, the foam will be too frothy. I want to tell him that I prefer frothy foam to a missed bus, but I know that arguing with my fellow countrymen is a long and drawn out and mostly futile enterprise (and besides, I want my coffee), so I stay silent.

Our final bus ride puts us in Fort William. Here we begin the Great Glen Way hike.

It’s a trail that runs from the western shores of Scotland all the way to the North Sea on the east (for a total of 72 miles). The recommended hiking time is six days, but we want to do it in four and a half. Indeed, that half is highly suspect, since we don’t reach the trailhead until 5 pm.

The deal is that occasionally we’ll sleep in a warm b&b, but even more occasionally, we’ll camp (this last is entirely an Ed preference).

And so we set out.


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This day’s segment is only 11 miles and it is an easy walk: mostly along the banks of the Caledonian Canal.


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The plan is to reach the endpoint: a bridge that marks the end of the Canal segment, and to then call the booked b&b for this first night (Ed occasionally succumbs to pleading). At the bridge, you’ll find a red phone booth. Call us when you get there! – said the friendly farmer when Ed called from Madison to book a room.

After three hours, we began to look for the bridge and the red phone booth. At each bend, I shout back to Ed – no bridge yet! A dozen corners later, I ask the unanswerable question – why aren’t we there yet? We hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The b&b host was supposed to pick us up, drop us off in a village where we would find food, then take us to his home (a common practice to get hikers to stay at the off-trail places). But things were getting uncomfortably late for all that to happen.


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Ed takes out his trusty cheap cell phone and dials. No ring. A weak signal. Low battery. All portend of trouble ahead.

We amble over to the one solitary house by the trail. Our knock is answered by a guy who looks like he is very tired of living in the one solitary house by the trail. But, after some discussion, he tells us that something’s off with the phone number. He disappears inside his house and we think we’ve lost him for the day, but 15 minutes later he comes out and gives us a new number. Try that – he tells Ed. We thank him and, as we leave, I ask – so, how many lost and confused souls do you get at your door? Thousands… -- he answers with resignation.

And I can see it. Ever since the trail opened some half dozen years back, hikers have been passing his front door, wondering where the hell they were and how long it would take to get to the bridge or a road or some sign that the canal path will finally end.

One mile later, at Garliclochy, it does end. And there is the identifying phone box.

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We call and our hosts pluck us off at the intersection and drive us to the only open eatery in the area -- the Little Chef. [In case you don’t know this chain, I’d say it’s like an upper-end fast food place. When I ate in one some two dozen years ago, I distinctly remember crunching on a burger that was like meatloaf with more loaf than meat to it. This time, I was pleasantly surprised to find free range chicken and sustainable fisheries salmon on the list. Basically, Little Chef has taken on the challenge of serving well-sourced foods. It’s still fast and short on flavor, but I’ll take free range chicken over McNuggets anyday.

Even in this northern outpost, the light is almost gone when our host drives us the short way home. We are at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Great Britain, typically shrouded in cloud cover, but now, tonight, almost visible to us.


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At the b&b, I’m too tired to sleep. The hike isn’t taxing (thus far) elevation wise, but we walk briskly and my pack is heavy, what with sleeping gear, the camera and my computer. Still, can you imagine – we’ve stayed dry so far. And on the telly, I hear that Great Britain is in for a warm spell. How good is that?!

IMPORTANT NOTE: for the next eleven days (until June 9th), my Internet access is going to be very uncertain. Over my years of blogging, I can think of only a handful of times where I could not post because of a connection problem. This may well be another such time. I will try – I’ll be hiking and kayaking with my computer in my pack (scary thought that it is). But we’re not sure if we’ll find places to stay (we have our sleeping bags) let alone places to hook up. So, stay patient please!