Nothing more important has ever happened to me than the first lick of beer I drank one afternoon at the end of September in the garden of a pub on the shores of Loch Lomond. As the cool liquid washed down into me I remember thinking I was living the defining moment of my life.
A twenty one mile walk can do that to a man.
Descending into the village of Balmaha as the Loch stretched out before us, we limped our way to the bar and raised our bounties to one another. We toasted the great outdoors and the pain in our calves and a day so well lived it felt like four, and asides from the cold gold flooding our souls and the beating drums of our happiness nothing existed.
Having a mate addicted to walking long distances in strange corners of the world means you’re never far from something remarkable. When Jules suggested a five day trek through the Highlands he had spent weeks researching weather systems and trains and hostels for, all I had to do was tell him to calm down and say I was in.
The West Highland Way runs 96 miles from the outskirts of Glasgow to the foot of Ben Nevis, and Jules’ idea was to walk it before the weather turned. In years past when summer left the building sometimes my mood would follow suit, so this felt like the right time of year for an adventure. Five days in the sticks with a friend shooting the breeze, breathing the air of the hillsides and the creaking pines, can fill up that part of a soul that longs for something and has forgotten where to look.
With backpacks, walking trousers, hiking boots, maps and a stash of slow release energy bars, we set about the trail. Twenty miles a day broke down to something like seven hours of good walking pace. We were headed north, away from civilisation into the bowels of the Highlands. On our first morning as distant peaks loomed up darkly on the horizon we looked at each other uneasily, knowing that was where our route was winding.
You tap into something primal when you walk long distances, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. You are in a process you can’t imagine any end to because the landscapes are simply too big, but there is a softly beating satisfaction in moving through them, inching your way ever so slowly along the trail. Your legs pump and arms swing and your engine hums, there is sweat and mild aching and pumping blood and purpose.
Even the clouds look excited to see you.
I don’t know if Liv loves the walking, or if she just loves coming with me when I do these things, says Jules. Nobody could love the walking as much as you, I think. He is a like a child exploring an unknown part of a garden, he whoops out across the valley, laughing to himself. In the new year Jules will become a father for the first time, and then it won’t be long before the three of them go explore the hills.
Each morning we would rise, eat a good breakfast, sling our packs over our shoulders and hit the trail once more, the night would reveal a new ache in a new body part, the dawn would bring with it some new thought, the familiar crunch of gravel under foot, while ahead of us stretched another twenty miles and space to breathe and talk and think of anything whatsoever.
In 1699 Joseph Addison, returning from a Grand Tour of Europe, wrote ‘the Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror’. It was the beginning of the idea of the sublime, an appreciation of a fear-instilling nature that dwarfed men with a greatness beyond calculation or measure. As we moved farther and deeper into the belly of the Highlands, an agreeable kind of horror began to rise up inside me.
In this unending land of bogs and whisperings one is small and insignificant and the weather changes in the blinking of an uneasy eye. There are valleys off into the distance, and valleys leading off those valleys, and you wonder what goes on there. This is a land of secrets. The wind blows hot and cold, the heather and the highland grass are beautiful and harsh. And everything is wet. This is a realm that lets you in for a brief moment and tells you to hurry along and mind your back, a glance to the side or behind and you can feel its eyes on you, watching.
Of Rannoch Moor, T S Eliot wrote:
Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
Moon cold or moon hot.
Sometimes the going was hard and nasty. There were times when a mile felt like five and an hour lasted all morning. The aches would spread and multiply and begin to wear you down, or unkind thoughts would worm their way inside your brain and not leave. Sometimes the majesty of the surroundings wouldn’t speak at all and I would stare down at my boots. And the whole thing would feel pointless and I would ask myself what the fuck I was doing out there in the middle of this barren nowhere.
But the walking would still uneasy voices. Always the same, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. Somehow the continuous motion would walk you through an invisible door into a different place and the clouds would clear and things would become easier. All you had to do really, was keep moving.
Just before Kirkton, where the Herive Burn winds its way down towards the river Fillan, the West Highland Way passes through a forest of otherworldly beauty. It is a fairytale thing, existing firmly in the realm of fantasy. In the cool air of the morning as the forest dripped wet and the sun reached through the trees lighting the edges of all it touched, I felt supremely happy. And creeping softly through the air came voices. It was our third day, where we met Dustin and Fraser.
Fraser was a Scot from Kilmaurs, he had been planning this walk for weeks from a desk he couldn’t wait to get away from. Dustin was over from the US, sinuous black lines tattooed on his body showed trails he had walked around the world, bringing with him always the ashes of beloved family he would scatter on the hillside. How do you know each other, Jules asked. We don’t, they replied.
We walked the next two and a half days with them, and became four. We shared jokes, told long-winded stories, drank triumphant beers together, all sharing in the grand adventure. You forge strong bonds with people you walk fifty miles alongside. Maybe walking these things takes a certain type of person that recognises themself in the other. It was a strange process of half chance that brought us together, and strange too how emotional a goodbye can be with people that two days before you had no idea existed.
As the train teetered along the track out of Fort William and back to the land of the living, I looked across the moors and thought it would be cathartic to catch a last glimpse of the land we’d spent five days traversing. But what would I know. I could hardly see straight. The exhilaration of the finish had been too much for us, Jules and I had got absolutely totalled in Fort William, we had strangled the night and died with the dawn, and were blurry-eyed ghosts of men.
A month has passed now, and we are back in our respective places.
London is darkening in the mid-afternoon. Autumn is coating the pavements and the street sweepers are working overtime. Fraser is back up north planning a long overdue wedding. Dustin is back across the ocean half-interestedly going on dates. Jules is keeping Liv company while her tummy grows, and I am writing this. Right this second, out by the Loch we passed on our second day, the wind is tugging at the branches of the little tree by the water’s edge, as tiny little waves lap over the pebbles below.
It’s funny to think this is happening right now.
As if it is always there, waiting.
Cities can be gnarled and crooked unkind places, full of the sadness of life and the hardship written on the faces of people walking by. But there are places that exist that make your soul soar. That are terrifying in scale and have a majesty you feel privileged just to be in the midst of. You mean nothing out there, but you don’t need to, you just move through it open-mouthed.
The older I get the more I realise that shittiness is a matter of time. We don’t know when the things we take for granted will get taken from us. So maybe any time not spent in pain or anxiety or emotional turmoil is a heaven on earth.
Somewhere in the cracks of the everyday are the spaces where the earth exists in all its force and magnificence. It changes everything. Strange corners of the world that simply take your breath away. That are only a good idea and a train ride away.
And are always there, waiting.