A Non-Hiker Walks the West Highland Way

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Last week, I was in a Scotland and I took a walk. The walk began just outside of Glasgow, in a town called Milgavie, and over seven days, we walked 96 miles through the countryside to Fort William, in the Scottish Highlands.

Anyone who knows me probably raised an eyebrow. I don’t camp, I don’t eat beans from a can (or whatever the fuck you eat when you’re camping). I’d never peed outside.

Because although I love nature, I am not outdoorsy.

There is something about general outdoorsy-ness in the U.S. that I don’t relate to — it feel like it’s for a particular type of person: male, white, and kinda bro-y or macho. Visiting a store like REI underscores this feeling of not belonging. It’s not something I feel when I’m outdoors alone, but that creeps in when I see the way others exist in the outdoors in the U.S. It kind of reminds me of being in gym class. 

But that felt decidedly different along the Way. There’s something different about how a walk like this is treated or thought about in the U.K. For one thing, it’s called a “walk”, not a “hike; the path itself is called a “way” and not a “trail”. It may seem like mincing words, but words matter.

(I recently heard a discussion on a podcast between two non-outdoorsy men: what’s the difference between a hike and a walk? It was determined that a hike makes you sweaty and miserable.)

The people walking the Way were varied — from kids all the way up to senior citizens. We met other first-timer long-walkers, like us. Lots of women, and tourists from around the world.

The journey was safe but not sanitized; strenuous but possible for someone like me (gym-phobic with obstreperous tendons) — especially since we were fortunate enough to be able to sleep in real beds at night, and have the bulk of our luggage transferred on ahead of us.

It was refreshing and surprising, to feel like I could belong in an experience like this. I felt new possibilities blooming.

But anyway. 

What I loved most about walking the Way was the variation of landscape. The route took us through farmland, up and down mountains, across moors, through forests, along lochs. 

One of the biggest challenges was, of course, the weather. It was changeable, often going from pouring rain to sun and then back again multiple times a day. Layers are a necessity. 

I was lucky to have found what turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to the walk: The Wild Places, by Robert MacFarlane,  which at times visits the very places we walked through.

Aside from having a book friend, here are a couple of other things I learned about having the best walk along the West Highland Way:

Make sure you test your rain gear before you go by walking in a downpour

Several of our allegedly waterproof things couldn’t stand up to the Scottish weather. The best thing I bought was this $15 rain jacket

Bring local guides to flora and fauna

I bemoaned my lack of a Scottish bird guide the entire walk

Break in your hiking shoes well

We broke in ours for about three months

Carry more socks, less water

The first day, I weighed myself down by carrying about 15 pounds of water in my backpack. Not necessary. The Way goes through towns at least a couple of times a day, so they’re ample opportunity to refill water bottles, in addition to the countless mountain streams. Dry socks, however, are a precious commodity

Bring walking sticks

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We saw lots of people walking the way without them, but I was grateful for mine — they prevented multiple falls, and helped take pressure off my knees when they were complaining (http://amzn.to/2huV9sE)

 

Walking the Way was hard and beautiful. Going by foot is a unique and fascinating way to see a country. To find out more about the West Highland Way, and the many other long-distance foot paths through Scotland, go to VisitScotland.com.