My Scottish Travel BlogThe Guardians
To be honest, I thought my first Scottish Travel Blog from the trail would be filled with an abundance of waxing poetic about the beauty of the land. About solitude, inner peace, and about the friendships I had built with the other long-distance hikers that I met along the Way. That it would be filled with tales of the great expanse of wilderness, about the tough climb, and the intrinsic lessons this journey had taught me thus far. But the reality is, although those stories need to be told, this tale is about what should have been the last three grueling miles of the trail on my first day out, and about the two local Scotsmen who made it an absolute pleasure instead. It was they, by pure chance, who managed to become my good friends along the Way. And so, the story goes as follows:
On Tuesday I left the small town of Milngavie, Scotland (pronounced Mil-guy) which bore the concrete post marking the beginning of the West Highland Way deep in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. Before my departure, I helped capture the photographs and still frames of the other hikers posing for their cherished memories and they for me. Once I got started on the trail, I periodically came across the same hikers again and again throughout out the day. It was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining, the scenery was spectacular, and the Way an easy jaunt. At least at first. It quickly became apparent to me that most hikers were doing the first 12 miles out to Drymen and some, the more adventurous ones, beyond.
Keep on Keeping On
After thoroughly enjoying the first 6 miles, I realized that I too could make it a bit further and headed for Drymen with the rest of the pack. About ten miles in, I decided that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. I had reached what I thought would be my accommodations for the evening, but the campground was overgrown from disuse and apparently closed. Although my body ached and my feet screamed at me “no more,” I had no choice but to move forward. Within a few minutes, I ran across Monica and Pierre, who were from France. It was they who had taken my picture in Milngavie. I found them sitting in a little town called Gartness which consisted of three dwellings. One quaint house had a small refrigerator out front with a sign that read “Honesty Box.” The fridge, with the box sitting atop of it, was filled with chocolates, snacks, water, and sodas. We all took what we needed, paid the box, and sat upon a stone wall gratefully eating our treats and talking about the day. After a brief rest, I headed out along the dirt road. Although I set off before Monica and Pierre, they overtook me and were out of sight before long. As was par for the course for most of the hikers that I had met along the Way.
Three more miles, I thought as I continued to drag myself, my pack (that now felt like it weighed 100 pounds), and my weary legs up the next gigantic mountain. Okay, so it was just a little hill on a road, but it felt like a gigantic mountain. Again, I found myself alone at the back of the pack, slogging along, trying to enjoy the scenery through my tired legs and aching everything. I was thinking to myself as I walked, how tedious the last miles had become when I heard voices that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Just moments before I had looked back and saw no one coming up the long road behind me, but there they were nonetheless. Behind me, coming up the hill, were two older men carrying small day packs. They were smiling, laughing, and speaking amicably to one another. I stopped and waited for them to overtake me as I said my perfunctory ‘hello’ as they pulled alongside. I could immediately tell they were Scottish as they returned a “ello” with a smile. We made our way down the road together for what I thought would be a few moments. I naturally assumed that they would pull away as most other hikers did after a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries. This, however, was not to be the case. “Are you hiking the Way then?” One of them asked me.
“Yes. Yes, I am. Are you?”
“Ah, no we live here. We just like ta walk ya know.” (Now for the rest of this story just think of Sean Connery’s thick guttural Scottish accent when you read these gentleman’s lines. It will lose something in the translation if ya don’t) “What’s ya name?”
“I’m Kristine.” I said with a smile.
“I’m-a David, Kristine, this-‘ere is Michael.” We all stood in the middle of the road and shook hands. “So how far have ya come taday, Kristine?”
I responded as I peered back down the long dirt road, “Only about 10 miles, but I’m exhausted.” The three of us continued down the Way chatting about this and that as we went. We paused at the top of a hill to catch our breath and enjoy the view. Michael took off his pack and began rummaging about in it. “Hey, Kristine, woulda like a beer?”
I just looked at him, “huh?”
“A beer Kristine? Woulda lik’a beer?” Michael repeated, digging several Budweiser out of his pack. Now I have had many people offer me a beer in a pub while Scotland or Ireland, but on a dirt road, out of a backpack, in the middle of the hills in Scotland? I have to say I was a tad taken aback. Pleasantly, so of course. “Why thank you but, I can’t take your beer…”
“Whey-not? We have plenty din’t we, David?”
“Aye, aye, sure we do. How about a smoke then too, Michael?” Michael smiled and handed me a bottle of Budweiser, then out of his backpack he pulled a large, crumpled-up joint and placed it casually in the crook of his grin. I just looked back at him and smiled, popped the top of my beer, and shook my head with delight. The thing is, instead of walking the last three miles of that day with my head down, chugging away, just trying to make it the last bit in sheer desperation to get somewhere I could pitch my tent for the evening, I found myself casually strolling along a Scottish country road, drinking a Budweiser, watching two Scots getting high while giving me the grand tour. David used my name each time he addressed me. And he was, without doubt, a wealth of information. “So ya see here Kristine, this here use ta be a Roman encampment here… And ya see this, Kristine? This is used for triangulation… Stand here Kristine then and ya can just see Loch Lomond there” he bantered. “So, where ya going to stay tonight, Kristine?” And so, it went. Strolling, drinking, and smoking. Then pointing and laughing all along the Way. After a bit, some familiar hikers caught up with us. We all strolled along down the hill heading toward Drymen until eventually the hikers went on to town and I was left wondering where I was going to be able to pitch my tent. “So, you sleepin’ un’ ya tent ya then, Kristine?”
“Yes. I am if I can find a place to pitch it.”
“Aye, well not ta’ worry Kristine. Michael, and I we know where ya can pitch it din’t we Michael?”
“Aye” Michael replied. “Let’s ge’ down here on the Way and we’ll smoke anuther one and I’ll show ya.” We ambled off the road along the Way, across a stream, and down into a place that was protected from the wind, was right along said stream, a safe distance from the trail and the roadway and by chance had a rope swing tied to a giant oak tree. I un-shouldered my pack and set it upon the soft, green grass which covered the banks of the stream and peeled up the hill as far as the eye could see. It was perfect. Michael took out another joint and David handed me another beer. David then proceeded to climb up on the swing which was hanging near the brook and launched himself off the bank. He swung to and fro on his rope swing twirling and giggling all the while. Michael got high. I stood and sipped my beer in quiet delight.
We Have to Look out for One Another
It was there, somewhere near a small Scottish town, in the gentle twilight of a Celtic afternoon, where one could hear our laughter echoing out across the hills and valleys. It was there that a new friendship was born. All good things they say must come to an end, as did these few precious hours that David, Michael, and I spent together. Michael eventually indicated it was time to move on. He asked if I had enough food. Although I indicated to him that I did, he nonetheless left me the meats, buttered rolls, and fresh tomatoes they had brought for themselves to munch upon along their walk. David left me another beer to wash it all down with. I hugged them tightly before they left. As they made their way up out of the hollow, I lifted my voice to thank them for all they had done for me. It was Michael who turned back towards me and replied, with just a hint of a twinkle in his eye, “it’s what we da’ Kristine. We all have ta’ look out for one anuther.” And with that simple statement, the guardians made their way up out of the glen, over the lush Scottish hillside, and disappeared into the fading sunlight.
Does this amazing story leave you wanting more? Read my hilarious travel blog “The Italian Job” for a hair-raising tale of my journey to Mt Vesuvius!
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