Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2008.09.05 : The West Highland Way
Day 0 : London to Glasgow
"The dramatic concluding stages of the West Highland Way equal in beauty to anywhere in the world. The Way has become a pilgrimage for mountain lovers keen to travel simply on foot into the heart of the Scottish Highlands. As you stroll along the length of Loch Lomond's celebrated wooded shore, lowland subtly transform into Highlands and rugged mountain grandeur begins to dominate the scene. The character of the Way becomes more serious as it climbs across the bleak, remote expanse of Rannoch moor, skirting the entrance to Glen Coe and climbing over the Devil's Staircase, the highest point on the trail. This is true hillwalking country and the extra effort is amply repaid by breathtaking mountain views. If you have energy left after this superb 95-mile walk, an ascent of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain, makes a fitting climax."
- Charlie Loram, West Highland Way, British Walking Guide Series, Trailblazer Guides

So once again I wasn't doing all that much and also good old Master Tim Corrigan was once again both free and keen (*) – so off we went for a third long-distance walk along one of Britain's National Trails. (Regular readers will remember the tribulations and occasional triumphs of the Coast to Coast Path and the Cornwall Coast Path.)

Once again we found ourselves lounging around a train station – King's Cross this time, rather than Paddington – and then sitting across from each other for a few hours of good conversation. This time, however, riding the full height of England, then a bit of Scotland, to Glasgow – our starting point for the walk.

    We reviewed the route en route. The West Highland Way officially runs 95 miles from Milngavie (a northerly suburb of Glasgow) to Fort William. However, we'd be adding on the recommended extra 10 miles in order to start right from the Glasgow city centre. ← Also, as the dandy Trailblazer guides all have a UK map showing all the the other national trails (for which they sell guidebooks, at any rate), we also got to revisit some past conquests. →

    When that stopped being interesting, we both had book book-type books to occupy us. In my case: the very last Graham Greene title. I'd been putting off reading (or, really, finishing) this one because it was going to be slightly melancholy to conclude of my project of reading every word Graham Greene wrote that made it under any kind of cover. Tim, for his part sprung a very flattering surprise on me: he'd brought my own personal second book along. He expressed hope that I wouldn't mind this. Please!

    And speaking of being wildly flattered: I was amused and chuffed (and flattered) to note that Graham Greene and I were on the same imprint. →

Rain, Rain, Sod Off

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In due course, we hit Glasgow's rather winning Queen Street Station, snapped our reflections to immortalize our stark coolness, and wandered through Glasgow pretty much the really long way around (not on purpose) to get to our hostel.

Also, within two minutes of stepping off the train we passed an enormous Blacks outdoors store. By this point, of course, one naturally has every damn thing one could need for the walk. But the allure of an outdoors shop is strong. Also, not incidentally, it was bloody freezing. And as this was the southernmost point of the entire trip – and as we were currently shivering pathetically on our walk through town, never mind a hundred miles through the Highlands – Tim suggested a pretense for going into Blacks: we could buttonhole the clerk and ask, "What have you got that's thick?"

Me: I'm glad I went ahead and brought one more garment than I was sure I'd need.
Tim: Yeah. You might just wear it . . .
Me: . . . Today!

Taking the wind out of my misery, Tim related that on his climb of Kilimanjaro last year he wore either three or four pairs of socks – and every single item of clothing he had for his upper body. Yowzers. (*)

We arrived at our lodging, a hostel called Bunkum (which we ultimately gave a lot of credit for truth in advertising), where we were greeted by an aging Slavic woman who made us stand in the dingy lobby for an annoying number of minutes while she Slavic'd with someone on the phone. When she finally led us to our room, we found ourselvs pining for the lobby – it was nearly bare, with only two steel-frame beds, two uncomfortable chairs, a floor lamp, an uncovered radiator, and a wall-mounted mirror. This motivated us to get back out again, and on with the serious business of drinking. On this occasion, I actually did remember to lock the door before clipping the key into my bag – but we mocked up a photo of me humping the door just for tradition's sake.

Actually, as on previous occasions, I tricked Tim again: right on our way to the pub(s) was an opportunity to get in our token bit of culture: The Hunterian Museum, part of the University of Glasgow. They had a few nice Whistlers, as well as a room devoted to the Scottish Colourists (I liked Cadell.) After not quite an hour, we deemed our debt to culture paid, and moved smartly on to:

Uisge Beatha! – the first recommended pub in our guidebook, and right in our neighbourhood (and on the road back into the city centre).

At first look, I was a little crestfallen: on tap, they had Cronenburg, Fosters, San Miguel – we could have been at any run-of-the-mill pub in London. Except, we quickly realised, for two things: one, the Scotch. The dumpiest pub in Scotland, we'd come to find, has a stunning array of Scotch whiskies (See photo, above left). And, two, the prices: A pint, a half-pint, and a packet of crisps came to 4.50. "I love leaving London," laughed I – until, that is, I got my change back on a twenty, and was immediately stuck with fifteen quid of Scottish funny money. (*)

Tim made his first moblog posting within two hours of hitting the ground. Not only was I in no position whatsoever to complain about someone posting dispatches obsessively while on a trip; but I found this made a curiously good fit. While Tim moblogged, I fiddled around with my camera and notebook, and shot off the odd "Here I am somewhere cool" picture-message text. Technology!

They played Death Cab for Cutie's "Summer Skin". I made my first (and predictable) cultural observation: Glaswegian women are really beautiful. I ultimately realised this is because they strongly tend toward pale skin and black hair, which, gurgle. Anyway, I only really figured that out in the bustle of the Friday night streets, on our way to:

    The Pot Still! – the other recommended pub. Here, we learned the last place didn't have a Scotch selection; this place had a Scotch selection. (See photos above. That's pretty much all Scotch.)

We struck up a conversation with a fellow named Neil. He was perusing a guidebook, so Tim thought he was another visitor, but it turned out he was long-time Glaswegian, just planning a trip to South America (his third). He was incredibly friendly, and works as a civil engineer, and that's him and his guidebook with Tim in the video below.

Aye, A Wee Dram

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    We were joined by Neil's mate Drew. Another civil engineer, Drew is also a cyclist (of 22 years) – and like Tim, he's done the End-to-End, the 1000-some-mile ride diagonally across Britain from Land's End to John O'Groats. Though, unusually, he did it "top to bottom." He's also ridden in the Pyrenees and some stages of the Tour de France. He has a hardcore cyclist's angularity; and actually rather reminds me of Joe Laltrello. In the photo above, he's marking all the good after-hours places on our map. The theme seems to be that they're all places where bibulous university women congregate.

I quizzed these two a bit about their stance on American politics – particularly the whole Sarah Palin thing. (It was amusing to me to see how she struck Europeans.) While admitting that they found it hard to imagine how someone could be anti-polar bear, they claimed they weren't actually all that transfixed by the U.S. election. "We've got our own muppet to worry about," Drew deadpanned. I kind of would have thought that having a Scot as PM would have made people happy up here; but Gordon Brown's power to get on people's nerves is truly prodigious.

Neil was also pretty familiar with the West Highland Way (henceforth: WHW). He said that many people throw in the towel in Rowardennan – last place to catch a train back south! When we told him that we'd be staying at the West Highland Way Sleeper in Bridge of Orchy – a unique bunkhouse in a decommissioned train station – he wished us good sleep, what with the trains going by all night. "What?! That line is still used?" "Aye," Neil said, "it's the main line! In fact, you'll come back that way from Fort William." We hadn't known any of this. In the words of King Leonidas, we were in for one wild night.

But we didn't want tonight to be it. (Rule of thumb: don't have a big night out right before a 100+ mile walk.) So we steeled ourselves for the traditional death march all over town looking for the veg restaurant that didn't exist anymore. (They almost never exist anymore.) Imagine our shock when the Grassroots Cafe not only existed – but was even open, to boot! They served me a Christopher Hold Organic German lager – literally the best beer I'd had in years. They brought us a stunning mezze platter that included candied pecans, cashews, and pistachios; creamy falafel; and steaming hot pitta bread. I forget what Tim had as a main because my eyes were rolled back in my head, but I had the butter bean, vegetable, beetroot, and ale stew – with horseradish dumplings. And the coup de Oh my God was a banana split. A banana split.

This trip was off to a cracking start.


Tomorrow: 10 miles to the Official WHW Start in Milgavnie. But not before a return visit to the cafe for whole-grain pancakes and frothed coffee drinks. Seriously. Plus more moblogging (lots). Also, more incredibly friendly Glaswegians (including even the hooligans).

I decided to give vegan food a chance (opting for vegan rather than veg options) and was seriously impressed. Ok the "rashers" were nothing like bacon - but they were pretty great all the same. The two meals we had there were right up there with the best of the trip, if not THE best. I'm now waiting for Michael to invite me out to a vegan restaurant in London!         (hide)

  west highland way     drinking     graham greene     my books     photography     tim     travel     veg'ism     video     walking  
about
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 : Odyseey, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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