At the end of the trail

At the end of the trail

I’m on the West Coast line travelling south from Glasgow. I had breakfast in Fort William then took the bus to Glasgow city centre, almost retracing the steps we’ve taken this last week. Our 100-mile, 7-day hike swallowed into a 3-hour coach ride courtesy of Citylink. It gives a different perspective on time, life, the past, the future.

The world looks different today.

Yesterday. Day 7 and the last day of our West Highland Way. It followed two days of feasting on highland Scotland. On Day 5 we trekked through a sweeping valley where the little railway track accompanies the trail for the few miles from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy. Then up into the woods above a sombre loch and out onto the moor to join the Drovers’ Road across Rannoch Moor, a 12-mile stretch designed by Thomas Telford and laid by hardworking men with pick, shovel and stone, to speed the journey of cattle from the northwest highlands to markets in the south. What a feat of engineering and labour we tread on as we gaze around a panorama of hill, moor, endless emptiness punctuated by the occasional stand of trees that seem to have no purpose except to ease the eye. No sign of habitation for mile after mile. Just the Drovers’ Road traversing moorland and water courses as they carry their load to unseen rivers or lochs somewhere lower down and afar. A chance to gaze out at a wild world and yet dwell quietly within oneself. This kind of huge landscape in fine weather gives me a sense of peace with the world. Life feels simpler: the trail, the steady progress along it, the day’s journey. All contained, uncomplicated. At the end of the day, with feet aching after 20 miles, we turn a corner and Glencoe is there, guarded by a slab of rock – its Herdsman.

Come Day 6 we leave Glencoe via the Devil’s Staircase, a steep climb that felt steeper, longer, harder by far than the last time. That was 11 years ago. Enough said. Turn away from Glencoe and you look to other glens cut through with other rivers at the foot of other, less famous mountains. Peaks pleated into the distance, smudged by mist. Heads down against the chill autumn air, we descend deep into the valley where a night’s sleep in the best B&B on the trail prepared us for the last leg.

Yesterday. Between the woods above Kinlochleven with their steep, stony path and the forestry plantations below Ben Nevis lies a vast, empty valley hidden away from the hurly-burly of the A82 far off, a road carrying earthly beings north or south. Other hikers share the trail, usually quietly, reverently, awed by the landscape. It’s a 15-mile trek across open vistas of mountain and glen, soundscapes of water with a backing track composed of wind whistling gently in my ears and the firm, often fierce beating of my heart. Human fingerprints were sparse – a line of stout squat pylons carrying power were the only markers of man apart from the trail itself and a couple of simple dwellings long abandoned. Damp clumps of fleece scattered here and there where sheep must shelter when they graze this glen. This feels like back country, like another world. Maybe it’s the closest you can get.

At the end of the trail it didn’t matter that we’d done it before – still it thrills and amazes. We hiked the trail with people we barely knew who became firm friends. They had not passed this way before and so they helped us see it through new eyes. At the end of the trail there’s a feeling of relief, of something achieved, a challenge met. And, also, a sense of loss. Journey’s end.

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