Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2008.09.08 : West Highland Way
Day Three : Drymen to Rowardennan
Part i : The Weather on Conic Hill
"Santayana, with the romanticism of a foreign Anglophil, has written that what governs an Englishman is his inner atmosphere, the weather in his soul."
- Graham Greene, Journey Without Maps

During our breakfast at the big table in the big kitchen of the bunkhouse-y B&B, we were joined by a man leading a tour. (The members of the tour were either staying somewhere nicer, or somewhere crappier, I forget.) He asked the B&B matron if he could borrow a knife for the day, for cutting cheese. The woman, who was very nice but a bit dotty, said,

NbaBDW: Just don't stab anyone . . . you know, what with all the knife crime in the cities these days.
Me: In my homeland, we just shoot people. It's generally less messy.

Something about dotty people provokes me into provoking them. I also sounded her out about Palin, but her thoughts were rather silly and I'm sick of the topic now anyway, so I'll limit myself to noting that it came out that I wrote some books, and she launched into an animated discussion of middle-brow literature, which was nice enough, except that it started to look like we were never going to be able to extricate ourselves to do the day's damned 14-mile walk.

When we finally did so, by means of increasingly forceful and valedictory assertions of our need to move on, I at last filled up my little soya milk container from the remains of the large soya milk container I'd picked up the night before, and strapped it into its now-regular spot on my pack. A moveable soya milk feast. And we got moving.

After a couple of scenic overlooks, we started worrying about having to Photoshop out this one damned couple who kept dogging us up and down the trail. When we spoke to them, we saw they each had a 3rd-edition copy of the Trailblazer WHW guidebook. This told us, in no uncertain terms, they were having their luggage shipped for them. Which explained why they were keeping up with us so well. (It also, incidentally, said a little something about their relationship.)

From this here overlook, below, we got our first views of Loch Lomond – the "bonny, bonny shores" of which we'd be spending two or three days traversing. At 23 miles long, up to 5 miles wide, and 623 feet deep at points, it is Britain's largest area of fresh water. In addition to 200 species of birds and 19 of fish, they've got lampreys – an "eel-like parasite, growing up to a metre in length, which latches onto other fish with its sharp teeth and sucker mouth, producing a saliva which liquifies the host's muscles." That kicks ass.

    I've hacked this here map/sign we passed, enlarging the "YOU ARE HERE" bit to legibility. I've also added markers for where we had to get to that night; and where we intended to get up to the next day – the peak of Ben Lomond, the first of the two big climbs of the trip. A little daunting, c'est ne pas? Oui.

We passed through this large area of clear-cutting:

The reason for this is the "Millennium Forest for Scotland" project. Basically, in a small nutshell, in years past the UK government pretty much razed most of Scotland's native forests (if I have this right) and planted trees for timber for ships to whallop the Krauts and the Frogs. Overall, of course, this was quite a good thing. But now that the European wars are over and the Hun and Pierre are onside (and the Royal Navy is basically being phased out), the Scots thought it might be quite nice to have their native woodlands back. Accordingly, they are planting some thousands of acres of native oak, birch, aspen, alder, hazel, juniper, holly, and Scots pine.

One day this will no doubt all be lovely, but it's a bit grim in the meantime. Of course, it's their country. Damn, I'm getting crotchety; been reading too much Jeremy Clarkson lately, clearly.

    Speaking of things that make you crotchety: Here we made the rain instantly stop (and I'm not speaking figuratively) by pausing to put on our pack covers. Of course, we could only complain so much: The starty-stoppy rain was annoying – but we'd be begging for it back the first time we had to trudge an entire day in a constant downpour. So heigh ho.

On the other hand, one nice thing about this stretch, in addition to the early views of the Loch, is that it led right up to the foothills of our first climb of any real sort: Conic Hill (361m). We snapped some shots of the climbers ahead, stretched out, DEET'd up, and got climbing.

Well, not quite DEET'd up enough. Here I discovered that those clever, blood-sucking midges will actually fly up your trouser legs.

"A Useful Piece of Data'd Be How Long a Midgie Bite Actually Lasts"
"I Think That's a Piece of Data You Might Be About to Acquire"

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

And before we got to the hill proper, we had some serious mud to traverse. Just like old times.

Here we had occasion to note that our packs were today by far the heaviest they'd been – as it was our longest walking day yet, we were most laden with food and water. I'd claimed in advance that without the camping kit, we'd be floating on air. But, today it was, Yeah, we've got packs on our backs. But I was glad of the new running style I'd developed recently – up on the balls of the feet, which evidently did wonders for my calf strength.

I'd need it for the old triumvirate from the Coast to Coast:

Mud, Rocks, and Uphill

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    Oh, wait – wasn't there a fourth element in the unholy quadrilogy? Ah, yes. The path of enlightenment – or the path up the mountain, at any rate, and seemingly invariably – is covered with sheep shit. At least we would never get lost.

And, just like that, we were on the shoulder of Conic Hill – looking down on Loch Lomond to the north, the lowlands to the south – and the hill itself directly above.

We were also high enough that my visible public urination from high overlooks instinct kicked in. I did sort of move down the slope a little, slightly out sight of a family climbing above us.

Me: Don't want to traumatize the little girl over there.
Tim: It's amazing.
Me: Isn't it? In fact . . . I think I'm going to go ahead and change out [by which I meant change from my dark to light glasses] . . . with my cock out.

It didn't rhyme, but it scanned, and that was quite enough to amuse me. And to horrify, utterly, Tim.

That left the short climb up to the peak. As you'll note from the photo of Tim photographing his bag above, he chose to leave his big bag, and I couldn't be arsed to take mine off. This meant that I schlepped all my stuff in a steep circle; and Tim didn't get lunch on the peak.

A castle's just a castle – but a climb is a good day out! However, just when we were feeling all bad-arsed . . . we found ourselves summitting with an eight-year-old girl (the one I'd tried to save from me) – and her gran. So much for the mountaineering studs.

    And, once we'd gotten to the top, looked in all four cardinal directions, snapped a few trophy pictures of each other, and sighed out loud . . . we proceeded to do what all red-blooded young men of our generation do in such situations: post to our blogs and send off picture messages.

"Here We are in One of the Greatest Places on the Entire Planet . . And We're Fucking Around with Our Phones"

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    Actually, in what fairness I can muster for myself, we did at least greet the first person we met up top – a smiling, elderly gentleman in a red mackintosh – I in my usual way:
Me: Nice day for it!
Him: It is. Was lashing down when I started.
Me: Where'd you start?
Him: . . . The bottom.

O-kay! I liked this guy straight off! His name, it transpired, was Bob – and you can see him for one second in the video below, standing there bemused as I adulterated the moment.

It Could Be Raining

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We three started chatting. When we said we were walking the West Highland Way, he smiled and shook his head slightly sadly and said,

Bob: Ahh – when I was invited to a meeting to plan a walking trail through the Highlands, I never thought it would turn out like this.
Me: When was that?
Bob: Forty years ago.
Us: <boggling>
Bob: I don't much like long-distance walking trails. You end up with one big furrow connecting all the B&Bs.

Of course, we were hooked at this point. He went on to tell us that he still did a fair bit of walking, despite having a lot of trouble with his knees – especially on the descents. When I asked him about walking sticks, he pshawed them: "Ah, hate 'em – just a fashion thing." I think when he saw me scribbling surreptitiously – though not surreptitiously enough – in my notebook, he told us he used to be a journalist. Twenty years at the BBC – but he still can't keep a journal.

He further admitted that he doesn't like crowds much, really just wants to hide from people. That's one reason he's lived in Scotland most of his life. (He's English – with a truly hybrid accent now.) Now, he says, you go walking in some parts of the Highlands and the line up the hill is "like the Yukon trail. And mobile phones ringing all the way up." He says that, back in the day, he used to do long-distance walks with a pack pony!

Bob: Ah, well, I'm holding you young men up.
Me: Not at all! Believe me, people are the most interesting part of this trip.
Bob: True. I remember I used to come upon farmers out in the middle of nowhere. And I'd hide a tape recorder in my jacket before approaching. Get the whole conversation on tape.
Me: <boggling again> I'm doing it now! [pointing to my notebook] Just worse!

    So, basically, this guy had my routine beat dead – decades ago. Wow. And just like that, with only a kind but lapidary expression of parting, Bob made off back down the slope. Soon we would follow.

Next: Part ii of Day 3 – to include beaches, pissing on video, glorious sunsets, the smelliest and crappiest YHA bunkroom (and bunkmate) of all time . . . and . . . a mid-trail run-in with 1,100-pound, long-horned Highland Cattle!

2008.09.08 : West Highland Way
Day Three : Drymen to Rowardennan
Part ii : 1,100 Pounds of Nice

So then it pretty much a matter of getting ourselves down off of Conic Hill, and onto the shores of Loch Lomond – the bonny banks of which we'd be walking along for the next two days.

Albeit, as you can see from our attire, the weather had taken a turn for the wet and wacky again.

And but then, on the other hand, at the last second I veered off of the trail proper, and out onto an adjacent overlook. I was chasing some sheep – whom I only ended up scaring off – but also figured, based on my elevated view, that I could hack my way back to the trail pretty easily (and without ever really losing sight of Tim). Basically, as regular readers will know, I just kind of like to off-road it sometimes.

And shortly after I made my way back onto the trail . . . the wildlife took a turn for the wild and woolly – and freakin' huge. The video below pretty comprehensively captures the event. (And burnishes my bid for a new career as an Internet news correspondent.)

The Most Dramatic Thing to Happen on the Walk

I was subsequently to learn that A) these are called 'Highland Cattle' (I got it wrong in the video); B) despite the huge horns, this is what the females look like; and C) also despite the huge horns, they're really incredibly docile. We were in about as much danger here as we would have been in a petting zoo. Sorry to spoil the drama. It was exciting at the time.

Between the peaks and the water's edge was a rather dramatic bit of steep forest. As we got in out of the weather, we warmed up; I took my hat off and clipped it on – just to get some air on my dome. With that thought, I started, probably ineluctably, singing this Insane Clown Posse Song: "We be doin' murder every day / We be good enough to get away / You won't even know a wicked clown has hit the door until your melon hit the floor and roll away" Oh, wait, that's "melon" – it's another ICP song that talks about a pipe to the dome. No matter – too late. Get the Flash Player to see this player.

The magic forest – with its cottony moss slopes – seemed like a fine place for a lunch stop. Mmm, nectarines and Hobnobs. Makes life worth living. Before we left we had to make a weather call, vis a vis donning or doffing rain kit. Tim – whose instincts had been spot-on so far – geared down. I couldn't shed my inherent cautiousness (one soaked pack will do it to you) and kept the armour on. Within minutes of our departure, the rain had cleared with authority.

Me: Tim with the call. Damn, and I was feeling pretty confident, too.
Tim: I feel fine.

Notwithstanding that we had just stopped for lunch, when we hit the Loch-shore there was a cafe – and Tim plumped for stopping for tea. He's an Englishman.

Me: I've got to be the only hiker on this trail with onboard soya milk.

We then got moving north, up the beginning/bottom/southerly part of the eastern shore, which had boats and ducks and such like.

Tim: I feel like I could walk seven miles now.
Me: You English. You can do anything as long as you have your tea.
Tim: I actually do feel really good.

    And then we came to the lochside beach. Loyal readers will remember some issues with walking along beaches on the Cornwall Coast.

"Hold on a Second . . . We're On Another Beach!"

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Tim: If it's beach, where's the zoom?
Me: Where's the zoomee? . . . Hmm, it's officially beautiful again. I'm going to stop and disrobe . . . otherwise known as The Raindance.

To Tim's cost, he took advantage of the stop as well – without keeping a close eye on me. Heh.

"Had To Be Done."

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Next: Part iii of Day 3 – to include, erm, that previously promised glorious sunset and smelliest and crappiest YHA bunkroom (and bunkmate) of all time! Plus Giant Fizzers! And a Near Late-Night Drunken Ascent of Ben Lomond!

2008.09.08 : West Highland Way
Day Three : Drymen to Rowardennan
Part iii : [It Smelled Like] 300 Pounds of Arse

So, there we were with still quite a lot of Loch Lomond to put south of us – and it wasn't speeding things up one bit with me stopping and shooting everything that flapped.

We then climbed up from the shore, into a dappled forest, and over some more nice castle-door brigdes. We got somewhere or other. My notes say something about Millarcochy Bay. I don't think this is it.

Here We Are. Yes, Here We Are.

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We climbed up to a rocky, crumbly path that followed along about 12 feet off the nice smooth road.

Tim: Is this by any chance the kind of path that would annoy Mark?
Me: Oh, yeah. He'd be down on the road now. Grimacing and shaking his head at us.

We did end up doing a bit of tough, rocky scrambling across narrow cliffs overlooking the Loch – reminiscent of Day 2 of the Coast to Coast, on the shores of Ennerdale Water. And then it got flat again, and the late light got very nice.

    Then one last brutal climb, which cut off a corner of the loch-side, with only maybe an hour left on the day. When we topped out, we got our first glimpse of the top of Ben Lomond, brooding as it did over the edge of the water.

This was when Tim broke out the sweets – Giant Fizzers, specifically. (*) His theory and praxis was to apply, toward the end of an exhausting day, an acute sugar energy burst – combined with a big, happy mood elevator. (Tim: "And that, your mood, is the real issue anyway.") I'm a believer.

After that, it was pretty much flat along the lakeside into Rowardennen. These shots are pretty awesome (IIDSSM):

Me: I never really imagined I'd be using New York, New York a marching cadence.

Get the Flash Player to see this player. Of course, anything about 120bpm, straight, with a heavy downbeat works pretty well.

We'd had, we realised, really good luck with the beginnings of walks being the more dramatic bits – good luck because, toward the end of every long walk, there comes a point where you just want to put the dammed thing to bed.

Me: I think it may be the Midging Hour.

The YHA was all the way through Rowardennan, such as that was, to the north. On the other hand, the setting was lovely – right on the loch. That third photo, below, is basically the YHA back yard.

And then the bad decisions came home to roost. I've had good experiences with YHAs before. I have. I mean, no young people stay in them. And they're not the Ritz. But they're generally clean, and comfy, and cosy, and cheap, often situated in castles or churches – and, almost always, quite a bit nicer than you have any real right to expect from a youth hostel. But today.


When we stepped into our shared room, the stench hit us like a sneaky left hook. Boom. I staggered and reeled over to the one window; it wouldn't open any further. (I'd go over and yank on it another three or four times, hoping against hope.) Further, if not worse, before we'd really even settled in, the room had filled to capacity – every bunk full, and not much space around or amongst them. The only tiny consolation was that we'd checked in early enough to pick one of the pair of bunks by themselves. I.e., neither of the pair of bunks with walls on their outsides – and a total of two feet of shared space between them. Those went to the four enormous Scotsmen who came in slightly later. Watching them bang around into one another at least provided a little schadenfreude.

Me (to Tim): Got any more candy? To wash out the taste of my antidepressant, which I now desperately need?

While Tim investigated the clothes washing situation, I sat and scribbled acidly in my notebook. My one solace was that horrifying places always make for good dispatches. (Anyone remember Kande Beach?)

When Tim returned, I in turn clomped off for a shower. To my equal amazement and horror, I found that the showers ran on a single control: when you pushed the button, the mono-temperature/mono-pressure water came on. Five seconds later, it automatically went off again. FIVE. SECONDS. Oh, GodDAMNit. I was at least smart enough to have hit on the strategy of leaning on the goddamned fucking button, while attempting to wash and rinse.

Did I mention that this YHA was housed in a former, beautiful, Victorian hunting lodge? As I returned to the room, I could only think that it smelled better before – with the the felled elks hanging from hooks, bleeding out.

Even before getting dressed, I stonily asked Tim for his phone – no service on mine – and immediately rang up the single other, posh hotel in town. I'd decided I'd rather eat my own head than stay here for the night; and I was certainly willing to eat double lodging charges. But they were totally booked. Of course. I tried to open the window some more again.

That, I think, was when I noticed the bunk lump. Big, round, lumpy guy – lying on one of the bottom bunks in the back of the room. Was there when we came in. Hadn't moved an inch since. I started to imagine maybe he was part of the olfactoriness problem. I mentioned this to Tim. Mentioned that the guy was just lying there all evening, like a sack of something.

Tim: He was taking time out!
Me: He can take time out when he loses the weight. For now, he should get his ass up and walk around.
Tim: . . .
Me: I wonder if he actually lives here. He doesn't believe in long-distance trails – and just pitches up to horrify hikers into staying home.

I got dressed and we high-tailed it out toward the public house (which was in the hotel I should have booked us into).

Me: I'm not sure what we're going to do after this. At the last place, we could go back to the room and read.
Tim: We can read in the lounge.
Me: Or maybe sleep in the lounge.
Tim: That's not a completely stupid idea.

On the walk in the dusk, Tim made his nightly girlfriend call – and I got a bit of a support call from a distraught girlfriend on the home front. While I made soothing noises, I also juggled the camera alongside the phone, trying to shoot this absolutely stunning sunset over the water. I mean, I felt bad. And I confessed and apologised later. But look at this sunset! Yowzers!

By now in a really arsey mood, my first thought in the pub was, Great, they've got crap beer, too. Miller on tap anyone? But I did actually find a new lager I really liked; and after 2.5 pints and a bit of Scotch – and not to mention a ginormous meal of curry, rice, onion rings, bar peanuts, and two huge salads – my mood was much improved.

    I was also highly amused to note that they vended the famous moisturizer – later discovered to be, accidentally, the world's best insect repellent – Skin So Soft, against the midges. I of course thought of my wonderful Grandma Bobby, who did a brisk trade in the stuff for many years as an Avon Lady.

Tim was in terrifically fine comic form on the walk back in the dark – having me laughing too much to take notes on whatever he said that was so funny. I do recall that, when we took a brief wrong turn and found ourselves back on the WHW itself, Tim mooted the plan of abandoning our luggage and just carrying on – optionally, with a midnight ascent of Ben Lomond on our way out of town.

Back in the room, the human lump was snoring now. Though, later, in the night, he was completely out-snored by one of the huge Scotsmen – who was chainsawing such huge slabs of lumber, that his own mate had to wake him and tell him to shut up. And I hit on the idea of propping the door wide open with a chair, which did work in markedly reducing the room stench. So, not all bad.

Next: Day 4 – the Ben Lomond Ascent
Indeed - and in a way Bob actually beat you when it comes to technological approaches - with a tape recorder you wouldn't have had to obviously stand scribbling notes whilst having conversations. Of course the discreet but always on live web cam feed is the way to go on our next trip.         (hide)
The internet population have been waiting for this moment.         (hide)
I actually improved the smell situation by sleeping with my nose tucked under my arm pit!         (hide)
I was chatting to Liz whilst taking the same pictures 20m up the road.         (hide)

  danger     graham greene     hiking     humour     mountains     music     people     photography     rants     tim     video     walking     west highland way     wildlife  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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