Travel and Sports–Bronze Winner: Somewhere Along the Way

By Rebecca L. Dougher

Shane beckons me from the opposite bank of the stream, arms outstretched.

“You can do it,” he shouts over the noise of the rapids. “Just try to land on this rock.”

“You’re out of your mind!” A hard second look at the slippery moss-covered stone isn’t reassuring. Still, it’s the only way: either jump, or turn around and hike back the four miles to town in defeat. After coming 75 of the most challenging miles of my life already, I really have no other choice.

Bracing myself and my weary joints, I back up, then take a running leap over the six feet of turbulent water that stand between me and the end of the West Highland Way. I can’t believe I’m doing this.

I won’t say that the 95-mile hike from the suburbs of Glasgow to Fort William has been a life-long dream; but it has been at the very top of my travel wish list for several years, ever since my first trip to Scotland. On that occasion, I’d been in search of my ancestral roots in County Sutherland – relatively safe in a rental car, and armed with a well-orchestrated itinerary. After a too-brief stop in the Highlands near Glen Coe, I was captivated. I longed to walk out into those great empty spaces and wrap myself up in their lonely grandeur.

So here I am on Day Six, the penultimate one on my week-long journey of discovery and vicious self-punishment. This unexpected rapid isn’t the first obstacle to come my way, even if it is the most dangerous. A sadistic trail designer and the notoriously disobliging Scottish weather gods have played their parts with zest. Worst of all: I still don’t have any Geri-crack.

“Geri-crack” is a term my husband, Shane, and I coined for the mysterious force that propels 70-year-old men and women down the trails with supernatural speed. They’ve been all but a blur as they race by us, two relatively healthy people in our 20s. Heaving and panting, we’ll reach the top of another hill just to see them calmly sipping tea and sucking boiled eggs; and by their manner it’s perfectly obvious they’ve been taking their time. A friend of mine once told me to beware these “Hell’s Grannies,” warning that they’re likely to skewer you with one of their lethally sharpened walking sticks if you’re too slow to get out of the way. At this point I just want to know their secret; they seem all but immune to the daily and hourly little miseries my body is inflicting upon me.

The closest thing I’ve found to Geri-Crack is the heavenly sensation of not walking anymore. At the end of the day I search out a pub near the campsite, order up a Scotch and a beer, and revel in the tiny foot orgasms taking place under the table. Much of the West Highland Way follows a rocky old military road that has turned each of my feet into an elaborate network of interlaced bruises and blisters, held firmly in place by a patchwork of Moleskin.

It’s amazing how much you take your feet for granted until you’re forced (or in this case choose) to use them all day, every day. Also incredible is your newfound appreciation for variations in terrain. It was only yesterday that I remarked, “I think the best is pine needles, combined with a little mud and sheep droppings.” As a self-appointed trail composition connoisseur, I was providing Shane my verdict on the winning recipe for comfortable feet. Walking through one of Scotland’s forests, with its dark pine canopy and mushroom-carpeted floors, feels like walking on clouds.

I’m not a whiner, though. There is plenty to make up for the aches and pain. I’ll never forget the morning we crested Conic Hill for a breathtaking view of Loch Lomond, a 24-mile-long lake stretching north into the highlands. Violet-hued heather blankets the hills and charcoal clouds linger over unfathomable waters. Islands are scattered across the lake like punctuation marks, and a tiny mass of white sails froth over at a distant harbor. Zipping up my jacket from the sudden blast of chilled air, I had to stop to put my jaw back in its socket – I was truly stunned by the scenery.

Only several miles north, but another world away, there is the desolate wildness of the Highlands Proper: wind-swept peaks, echoing spaces, and the sensation that I am utterly alone in a lost world. Mountains rear up, bald giants with gem-bright lakes in their laps, and dappled sunlight flows over the grasses as though it was reflected in water. We pass unmarked cairns, Bronze Age standing stones askew with age, and the less-and-less frequent oases of civilization where a pint and a haggis is always on the menu.

In fact, one of the highlights of the trip is Scottish hospitality and what I call the “Fellowship of the Way.” Each evening we are welcomed to the local pub with an empathetic smile and the heady smells of rich, hearty fare. This is the best moment of the day, a chance to catch up with parallel hikers (including the Geri-Crack contingent), relax in the dry warmth, and put our feet up by the fire. Hikers can stay in cozy Bed and Breakfasts, and there are baggage transport services that will move their suitcases from one B&B to the next each night. The Scots really know how to travel in comfort.

I, however, do not. My husband and I chose to camp, and it is in this manner that we’ve become acquainted with the little Scottish beastie known as the midge. Blood-sucking gnats, these guys can make your night a living hell, and it is largely due to their attentions that I’ve wimped out and called ahead to book a B&B room for tonight. Just this morning, as I sloughed across the marshes of Rannoch Moor, the dripping silence was broken when a woman draped from head to toe in black specks came screaming out of her illegally-pitched tent. She was ripping at her clothes, her skin, and her face to get them off; but the midges had tucked into their breakfast and weren’t ready to get up from the table yet. Her boyfriend followed from the tent, swatting at her ineffectively and only enraging the woman further. I decided it was best to keep moving along.

I won’t see many of these people tomorrow: I’m pressing on the full 18 miles today, while most of them are stopping after ten. Hard to believe, but I’m almost on the home stretch. It seems just a moment ago that I was tipping back my miniature scotch bottle in triumph, having reached the half-way point near Crianlarich. I’ll be sad to see this adventure come to an end, even though my feet will probably throw a party. Making good friends and sharing laughs has eased what’s been, for me, a trial of perseverance. I’ll look back on this as one of my proudest accomplishments. That is, if I can make it across this stream.

From seven o’clock this morning there has been a steady and relentless deluge of rain, turning friendly trail-intersecting gulleys into torrents like the one I’m leaping over right now. I’m worried I’ll slip and break my ankle, or at best fall in and be whisked right back down the Devil’s Staircase and have to re-climb it in cold drenched clothes.

“GOTCHA!!” Shane cries as he hauls me the rest of the way across and into the soggy grass. I sit down heavily on a patch of wild mushrooms like the ones we’d passed in the woods, too relieved to care about mud or mold. Looking up, I notice one of the Geri-crack men glaring at me.

“You’ve just crushed all those mushrooms,” he snarls, turning his back on me and walking a little more slowly.

That’s when it occurs to me: Could I have accidentally stumbled onto the secret ingredient of Geri-crack?

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