I woke up hurting again. I gingerly clambered down from my top bunk and made my way to the ground floor for a breakfast, the specifics of which I can’t remember, but which left the impression of being slightly disappointing. I took my time over it, not particularly keen to get moving again. Eventually, Adam and I packed up our stuff and checked out. Adam left for the station, to catch a train back towards Beattock, where he had left his car four days before, and I turned to follow the river. The sun was out, but it did nothing to help the stiffness that was everywhere in my body. My progress was slow, and again I found myself resenting all the time it would take just to get out of the city.
I cut through the University of Glasgow area, which looked nice, to join the Kelvin Walkway. I descended some steps to follow the shady riverside below street level, where parents were out walking their children and dogs, every one of which I would imagine was having a better day than me. I followed this fairly pleasant section for about a mile before diverting back up to the street. I needed to resupply once more. An enormous Tesco Extra swallowed me up for an unknown length of time. I utterly failed to solve the travelling salesman problem as I drifted up and down aisles, torn between temptation and practicality – more food might make me feel better, but I would have to carry all of it.
Outside the shop, the backpack went up again like a millstone onto my shoulders, and I continued north-west. I rejoined the Kelvin Walkway a couple of kilometres further on in Maryhill, sat down on a park bench, and started eating the snacks I had just bought – no point in saving them. The path sloped up, and then, from the top of the rise, I could suddenly see the edge of the city, and hills in the distance. I sighed my relief. I always felt awkward and out-of-place lugging my backpack through the middle of towns and cities. I carried on past the last outskirts and picked up the river again as it wound through wet, green fields.
I tried to force myself into a regimen of marches and breaks, but repeatedly failed to stick to it, walking shorter distances with longer breaks in between. At one point, I missed a turn and wasted valuable energy bashing along the wrong side of the river for a few hundred metres before realising my mistake. Annoyed with myself, and knowing that all distance saved was precious, I cut out a loop of the walkway by following a road for a kilometre before picking it up again. My back was starting to tire, and I lay on a bench for a while, listening to a podcast. It was half past four by the time I reached the edge of Milngavie, disgusted by how slowly I had progressed that day. Fortunately, my arrival here came with a mental boost. Everywhere, signs, benches, and information boards proclaimed proudly that here was the start of the West Highland Way.
The West Highland Way – even the very name must resonate with all hikers and lovers of the outdoors across the United Kingdom and beyond. It conjures up images of lochs and rivers and misty glens, moors and mountains, high roads, low roads, and blooming heather. It exists as a call to leave the world behind; why sit at home when there are long paths to the wild highlands waiting to be trodden? For me, it represented the last lap, and, finally, the perfect route. It was built for walkers like me. There would be no need to navigate or worry about where I would sleep. There would be no need for shortcuts – it ran almost as directly as possible to the foot of Ben Nevis. The summit was less than 100 miles away. I still had to go fast. It was late afternoon on Monday, 14th October. I wanted to finish the journey with Zoë, and she and her dad, Steve, would be driving up on Friday evening. That meant I had to walk the Way in just over four days, faster than most people do it when they’re fresh, and I was so, so tired.
I had covered only 17km so far that day. I resolved that I would have to keep walking into the night. The path first followed Allander Water into the pleasant Mugdock Wood, green and mossy. I nodded and smiled to other walkers. Barely 3km out from Milngavie, however, a crick in my back started loudly complaining. I stopped and tried to work it out, lying down and curving my spine round in every way I could think of. The rest allowed the discomfort to ease off a bit, but there was no satisfying click and release. I carried on, past Scroggy Hill, down to the side of Craigallian Loch. The discomfort came back almost immediately, so I tried again to be rid of it. I did cat-cow poses, spinal twists, and draped myself back into an arch over my backpack. It was hopeless. I went on as best I could, shifting my pack around constantly to avoid loading my lower back.
Darkness fell, and I came out into open, rough ground. I passed two headtorch-lit backpackers coming the other way, presumably hoping to reach their journey’s end that night. I couldn’t go much further. I would have to stop and hope I could sleep my back pain off. I pitched my tent beside the satisfyingly hill-like hill of Dumgoyach, cooked my supper, and lay gratefully down. The end was in sight, but reaching it would still be a challenge, and if my back gave up, it could all go wrong. I hoped that the beauty of the highlands would drive me forward in high spirits. Plus, I had one more friend to join me, Con, who would be waiting for me on Wednesday at the far end of the great Loch Lomond. If nothing else, I’d make him carry things for me.