Having enjoyed and endured twenty-five years of each other’s company in marriage, we thought it was time for a treat and rewarded ourselves with a trip to Scotland and a walk on the West Highland Way with our kids. I wanted one of those luxurious hikes where you spend the night at a cozy inn after a day of walking and the luggage (for a fee) miraculously appears each night at the appointed destination, without one having to haul it oneself. Some day’s walk segments were a good deal longer than we’re used to, cutting into the luxury feeling, and our rain gear got a good workout, but the scenery was stunning as promised, the company was excellent, and, yes, knowing we didn’t have to set up a tent and huddle over a camp stove at the end of the day, that a pint and a hot meal and dry pajamas were waiting, absolutely took the edge off the sore, soggy feet. And the sun did come out, the rain lifted.
We’ve tended to hike where there aren’t many people, where crossing paths with four or five parties in an afternoon leads to grumbling about crowding and special places overrun. The West Highland Way is not a private, isolated trail. But it was fun, finding familiar faces and exchanging greetings as we leapfrogged one another along the trail or met up at the pub in the evening. We shared ibuprofen and bandages, whisky and photos and tales of improbable encounters with distant relations in unexpected spots. We took turns taking group shots of different parties, though we didn’t take pictures with each other, and we didn’t exchange last names. I thought I had a picture of the train of folks ahead of us (and yes, slow as we were, there were a few behind), brightly colored pack covers standing out against the green and mist, but apparently not. So imagine a trail, uphill and down, dotted with yellow and orange and bright blue ovals, rising and falling gently in the rain.
Even so, there was a sense of isolation, of abandonment and loss in the scattered ruins of stone cottages and barns, stone walls cushioned inches deep in moss. There was the long, empty, expansive view across the moor; if you squinted, you could pretend you didn’t see the trucks on the highway way over there.
And there was birdsong. Maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention, but I have not been hearing that kind of depth and variety of birdsong in my yard (scrub jays, crows, yes; not the same). I rarely saw the birds, and I certainly couldn’t identify them, but I loved to listen to them.
Chaffinch–I did learn one
And I loved to listen to the sound of water. I collected a lot of waterfalls. (Long ago, when I lived in the Finger Lakes, I hypothesized that it might be possible to accumulate too many waterfall pictures; I was wrong, of course, even way back then before digital photography; I’m well past any such foolishness now). Small streams cut through the moss and grass and bracken, narrow streams that seemed to roar like rivers and then were surprisingly narrow, if fast. Drum-like resonance against the rocks, small gurgles, far-off hillside whitewater lace; sudden, brief, unexpected quiet. Bridges small and large and sometimes missing.
As always when I’m hiking, some of the time I thought about stories and writing (and waterfall collections, and my near-total ignorance of birds), some of the time I thought about how much my feet hurt, and some of the time I thought about the view. And about how lucky I am to be walking through the world with these people, the ones I know and love and would take with me nearly everywhere I go, if I could, and those encouraging, embracing chance encounters.
Loch Lomond from Conic Hill