Sunday, May 31, 2009

from the Great Glen Way Trail in Scotland: tic tac toe

We’re in Inverness now. Sore, each in different parts of the body, but deeply content. Hiking clear across Scotland – initially, it seemed too big of a challenge. And yet, the things I worried about proved manageable. The thing I did not worry about proved to be the greatest problem, ultimately posing the highest risk. It’s like that in life – you worry needlessly over so much and you hardly give a passing thought to thing that do you in. More on that in a bit.

I left Ocean with a report on waking up on Saturday to the view of Loch Ness at the time of sunrise. Let me pick it up from there.

Refreshed. Onwards! We continue high above the shores of Loch Ness. Truly, I can not get enough of her!


But the trail begins to dive inwards now. We are leaving behind not only Loch Ness, but the forests at her banks. Still, this is enchanting countryside. Bucolic, serene, with the highland cattle and ever present sheep to remind you where you are.




After four hours of moderate hills and quiet landscapes, we are in Drumnadrochit. I have adjusted to the different rhythm of our days. Morning coffee cannot come in the morning. It has to come when the next village crosses our way. On this day, it comes in the late afternoon.

And I have a chance to post (see post below)! I hurry – it’s a long process to unload photos, pick better ones, adjust them as needed, put them up in flickr, transfer them to blogger, write the text – really, the more interesting the day, the more time it takes to put it on Ocean. The Loch Ness Center has functional WiFi, and for the price of a cup of tea, we sit down and I do my work. The Internet is grindingly slow. Finally at 6:30, I say the magic words – I’m done!

For his incredible patience, I reward Ed with a promise to camp again. And it’s the right thing to do. The last stretch is the longest of the Great Glen Way. Putting in some uphill miles now is a good idea, especially since the sun, normally so welcome, and giving vivid contours to the stunning landscape, gets to be significantly hot at midday. Ed goes through water at a speed I’ve never seen in anyone (he refills in streams and purifies with iodine). Now, in the evening, the hike is less of a toil.


We hike for several hours – through forests that are first dense and dark, then thinning, until the terrain looks like the stubs on a man’s unshaven face. With a few hairs left behind.


We pitch a tent just as the sun sets (close to 10). There isn’t a view this night. Nor do we have the comfort of a brook nearby. But it’s late and we haven’t eaten much and the map shows a tedious landscape ahead. And so we sleep here, along the road used once to haul back these trees that smell like pine heaven.

In the morning (today), we’re up early. It’s still a long hike to Inverness. At first, the views are tremendous. We’re away from Loch Ness now, and the moors and hills stretch into the distance – with patches of brown (the still dormant heather), yellow (the gorse) and green, all against a blue sky (note the windmills!).


But walking is a slow thing. There is a lot of hot path from one hill to the next. In this last stretch, the hike seems both interminable and magnificent.


And then, it all ends. We enter a forest and a few miles later, we are at the outskirts of Inverness.

We have walked from coast to coast.

So, where does the title for this post come from? And doesn’t it seem that all was simple and trouble free once the weather improved?

I’ll roll you back to my last post, where I wrote about moments of bliss. On this walk, we were reminded that even in moments of bliss, there is always that tiny element of struggle: nothing is without thorn or (more aptly, because it's Scotland) thistle. My toe, for example, got a significant and irritating blister (hence the “toe” in the tic tac toe).

But by far, the biggest issue came for us when, halfway through the hike, I found the first "tic". We had been warned of midges and we had come prepared for their onslaught. The midges stayed away, but the unheralded ticks did not.

Toward the end, we spent a good amount of time hunting our skin surfaces for tikcs. And we found not an insignificant number of them. Unprepared, we had to remove them as best we could. Lyme disease isn’t as widespread as it is in the States, but it’s here and on the rise. So, now we know. A warning to those setting out in the Highlands -- do as you would in Wisconsin (or elsewhere in the States): avoid brushing against their habitat, wear long duds, bring tweezers, know what to look for. Where there’s a sheep, there’s a tick.


Oh, why the “tac” in the title? Well, I’ve not mentioned that the village of Drumnadrochit has taken on the Loch Ness monster theme to a commercial level that is sort of, well, just a tiny bit tacky.


This is the village that has lured tour groups with an entire Loch Ness Monster Center. I’m not sure what’s on display there. But I am grateful for it – it’s where we found access to WiFi.

IMPORTANT NOTE: for the next eight 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!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

from the Great Glen Way Trail in Scotland: at the side of Ness

It’s almost 10 p.m. and still fairly light. If I lift the flap of the tent, I come face to face with heather. Not in bloom, not this early, but still, I can imagine the purple hue. Springtime, I make do with bluebells and buttercups and a host of other flowers.



The smell is of fir. Like sleeping underneath the Christmas tree. It’s morning now. Saturday. The sun is breaking up a few early misty clouds. Stepping out of the tent, I look toward Loch Ness – the southern tip, where we began our hike on Friday. So different now, in the morning light!


I start the rituals of a stream bath. It’s not really a big stream – we’d passed more gushing ones earlier, but it doesn’t really matter. Gone are the days where you could bathe in a mountain brook. Now, it’s all about porting water and sudsing away from the banks. So it takes time. Instead of a mirror, I stare at the face of the primrose, clinging to the stone by the trickling stream.


The water is cold, but that’s the only thing that’s cold. We have hit (finally!) a warm spell in Great Britain and suddenly, with that blast of sunshine, life is easy, life is good.

Our morning yesterday (Friday) was quite different (and equally pleasurable): our sweet, sweet b&b hosts (a mother daughter team) let us sleep in and dry out from the previous day’s rains before feeding us a wholesome breakfast of eggs from the back field, where the dozen chickens roam (see that one? -- I’m asked, she’s a regular hen pecker – never leaves him alone!)


… cooked tomatoes, mushrooms, Scottish pancakes, toast. We pass on the sausages and hams because I track the eating habits of my traveling companion. It’s funny how easily that happens: one day I cannot have enough of prosciutto for lunch, the next, my plate is empty of meats.

Filled with the b&b’s wholesome foods, we hike down to the village of St Augustus (at the southern tip of Loch Ness) to stock of on essentials and to watch the boats work their way up the docks.


And still, we aren’t in a hurry to set out. The day could not be more different than the rain drenched previous one. Brilliant sunshine! And my legs are moving again, without pain! But when a sense of leisure enters the soul it’s hard to throw a heavy pack on the back and get going.

So we play with the b&b dog for the rest of the Friday morning.

But eventually, just after noon, we get going. Up, through the forest, to a ridge from which we begin to appreciate (now that it's not lost in a misty rain) the stunning beauty of the area...


and especially -- of the extraordinary Loch Ness.


They say that if you combined all the lakes of England and Wales, you still would not have the water that Loch Ness has. She is deep, she is narrow, she is long. The books tell us it takes more than two days to hike her northern coastline.

Walking along her side is sublime. You’re in the forest, she is hidden behind the tall pines and then you come to a series of clearings and there she is again!


At one point, we sit down, there, high above her and then we take off our packs…



..and eventually we lie down on the soft moss and grasses of the Glen and we doze. I think then how these moments are so rare – of complete tranquility. At a café over an espresso, looking out at a beautiful square or street; at a morning breakfast outdoors surrounded by potted flowers; or now -- stretched out on a bed of moss, looking out over Loch Ness on a warm, clear day. They are what we work for, right? They are what gets us through the tedious stuff and dark February days.

Half an hour later, we’re up and hiking again.


Past timber operations. There’s a lot to be said about forestry in Scotland. I’ll just note here that there are signs explaining the attempt now to promote diverse growth in places where timber operations made the land barren (and I don’t just mean recently: cutting down Scottish timber during the period of industrial growth depleted the forests so much that in the construction of the Caledonian Canal, needed timber had to be imported from across the Baltic).



We reach the end of the day’s segment at 4:30. We’re in the village of Invermoriston. Where the bridge from 1805 provides a vital link between Inverness and Fort William.


The plan is to grab some refreshment here, but the restaurant is still closed. We settle in at the pub...


... and this time, without hesitation, we each order a pint. One dark, one light.


I ask if by chance they have WiFi. They do! But you need your own computer.
I have my own computer…
The guy with the knickers shakes his head in total disbelief. When I get away for vacation, I don’t want contact with anything or anyone!
I like checking in to see if my daughters are okay… (I skip mentioning checking work and blogging – no hope for sympathy there at all).
The couple at my other side are listening. The guy agrees. We’re on vacation (from England) and my wife and daughter are texting nonstop!

I think – how nice that we all have available the tools and we can use them or not use them, but they are there. I log on. All’s well back home. I’m at peace.

At 5:45 we begin what is regarded as the next day’s hike. We didn’t get the meal in the village that we wanted, but between nuts and ale and an ice cream bar from the local grocer, we feel fortified.


Up the hills again, up past ferns and firs, up toward the ridge, where the views of Ness are so magnificent…



We want to make progress and we do. Our legs are stronger. We are used to the packs.

A few hours into the hike we begin to search for a spot to pitch a tent. It’s so easy here. The trail is empty, so finding a quiet spot is only a matter of taste: forest, or grass? Proximate to stream? Or view?

We find our piece of heaven. We eat our bread and cheese and tomatoes, I take one last look outside – the glen is still, in the shades of dusk.

And now, Saturday, cleaned, refreshed, I’m ready. I’m looking forward to the next village of Drumnadrochit. Only 10 miles away. I’m hoping they have coffee there.

IMPORTANT NOTE: for the next nine 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!

Friday, May 29, 2009

from the Great Glen Way Trail in Scotland: pushing

I had thought of several subtitles for this post: every pain has an end; exhaustion; it was not my fault; it very much was my fault; it was the fault of the British telly; etc. None capture the essence of the day well. I’m still trying to understand how it came to be that at 9:30 p.m., I could hardly put one foot in front of the other and the end to the day's hike seemed intolerably distant.

Sure, we had planned to push ourselves a little – to do more than the recommended miles for each day. Yes, I know, we’re not athletes and we’re both getting very close to the what some would call the golden years, but still, we are full of energy and our physical stamina is high.

But there is the matter of the heavy packs – I’m carrying a lot of gear in addition to the usual daily stuff. And then there’s the issue of the weather. It was supposed to clear up (the telly said!). Instead, it clouded over and what started out as a gray drizzle…


Progressively turned into a heavy drizzle and then somewhere between that and light but constant rain.


And still, our first segment – 13.5 miles through the National Forest that borders Loch Lochy – had segments of hope. My hood would come off, I would grin and pose for photos…


…I would hum a nice ditty and tally forth.

The ditties stopped when the trickle of wetness felt its way down my neck and the breeze lost its warmth and the climb began to reflect the hilliness of the terrain.

I would still occasionally take out the camera – the green forest is dense and beautiful and the ferns and wild flowers at the edge of the path are stunning even in the rain.



But mostly, I would keep it under cover.

And so we lumber forth. We like to pause in our hikes – to look out, to admire, to sit quietly and reflect on the landscape around us. We try once and I get chilled and that puts an the end to our beloved pauses.

Except, as we leave the forest...



... and approach the end of the day’s segment (at 4 p.m.) at a wee village just at the tip of Loch Lochy, we do pause. There is a barge, artfully converted into a pub. Used to Scottish weather, the owners have a woodstove going, and a room to hang up wet garments and more importantly, in addition to the tea and hot chocolate, they offer us bowls of hot soup. It all goes to my head.


And, Ed in an uncharacteristic move, suggests that we split a pint. After going back and forth as to whether it should be pale (my preference) or dark and bitter (his preference), the bartender prompts that we should each get a half pint and therefore stay with our own likes and I think – how cool! Bartenders understand that sometimes compromise is tough to accomplish.

For example, compromise in the matter of camping. I have agreed to occasionally camp. But the rain has caused me to reconsider. We’ve pitched tents in damp weather plenty of times. To me, these are the tough times in camping. So, if a few more miles can put you in a warm b&b, wouldn’t you rather hike the extra miles than pitch in a puddle and throw wet gear in a tent?

It is this kind of reasoning (on my part) that leads me to suggest that we walk the whole next segment and push for Fort Augustus – another 10 miles up the trail. Fort Augustus has b&b’s. In Fort Augustus we can dry off. Then, in subsequent days, we can camp. Especially since the bartender assures us that the barometer is on the rise.

Ed agrees. He's less into the "dry off at the b&b idea," but the man likes a physical challenge. We call a handful of b&b’s, find one with an available room and set out.

I notice right away – the minute we leave the barge, that my upper legs are hurting. I shrug it off. That’s what you get for sitting down for too long.

At least the barometer appeares to be on target. The rain is definitely pausing. The clouds are still there, but they are higher, as if they're giving up on the likes of us, looking for other souls to torture elsewhere. I take out my camera again and snap one for the road as Ed moves ahead of me (note the Great Glen Way trail marker at the side -- it is an exceptionally well marked trail).


But still, we do not pause. I begin to realize that I am very tired. And that when I do pause, my legs stiffen. The pain of getting them to a working state again is too much.

And so we push ourselves. Along a rail bed that has shreds of the Industrial Revolution still in evidence. [On the one side – the old and in this case failed rail link, and on the other – a canal that was as important to commerce in the centuries of Britain’s industrial expansion.]

Now, of course, it is all very green, very forgotten.


On the other side of the water we can occasionally hear cars moving along the road. You have to wonder if that, too, will become obsolete two hundred years from now, so that this area will be a museum to failed forms of transportation.

Occasionally we pass pleasant meadows – ideal camping places. And of course, we should have pitched a tent (the recent law in Scotland permits hiking and overnight tenting on any private land, with very few restrictions; it’s a camper’s dream to be able to do this at will!). But now I feel obligated to the place we have called. Someone is holding a room for us. Someone is counting on our promised payment.

We walk on.



By now, even Ed is hurting. We each develop a list of short complaints – mine are heavily concentrated on gnawing pain – legs, feet, shoulders. Pain. We smile to each other in support, but the smiles are fleeting, hardly worth the physical effort.

We are back at the side of the Caledonian Canal and I remember yesterday’s endless walk along an earlier stretch of this same canal, hoping that each bend would be the last. How poorly we learn the lessons of our past!


I call our b&b person and tell her that our pace has slackened considerably. Indeed, that we are basically without strength. It would be close to 10 before we would arrive.

Each trail has an end and each day ends with the hope that tomorrow there will be sun and the limbs will loosen up again. But on this night, we are spent. The b&b person senses the tiredness in my voice. She sends her daughter to fetch us just at the point where the trail enters the village of St Augustus. It saves us the half mile hike to her guest house. I have never felt more grateful.

IMPORTANT NOTE: for the next ten 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!

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…


… to mostly wet.



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.


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 café 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.



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





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.


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.


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.


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!