Friday, October 31, 2014

Day 7: Nothing happened today. Well, okay, mostly nothing....

Karolina wakes up to blankets of Scottish fog.
Sept 14: Today, Karolina and I woke up to a very thick, "Scottish fog." I put Scottish fog in quotes because that's what Karolina calls it. It's not just fog, it's Scottish fog, which is an important distinction! It also left our gear swamped with condensation.

Previous days, the fog would burn off during the morning, but today, it never really burned off. The fog did rise and turn into clouds so eventually we got some views as the visibility improved, but since the thick layer of clouds lingered all day, it was never sunny or warm. I never even pulled out my sunglasses during the day.

Late in the morning, the trail guided us into the small town of Kinlochleven. My guidebook had this to say about the town:

The planned factory village of Kinlochleven was called 'the ugliest on two thousand miles of Highland coast' by WH Murray in his 1968 guide to the West Highlands. Sadly it is no more picturesque today, even though the aluminium smelter which necessitated its construction has closed.

If that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, you'd be correct. =) However, it was a necessary stop for us on the West Highland Way if for no other reason than it had a grocery store where we could resupply and clean water we could fill up with. And since we were there, we could get our passports stamped and get lunch.

The description of Kinlochleven, I thought, was a bit unfair. I didn't find the town particularly ugly. It had a nice creek running through town with comfortable-looking buildings and artwork along the trail. I suspect the 'ugly' reputation it has might be because of the six large water pipes leading down into Kinlochleven and scarring the countryside. I'll admit, it's not exactly a thing of beauty. However, it was a structure I found fascinating to look at. We passed a building that was labeled a 'penstock'--a term that Karolina didn't know and asked about and I could answer with some authority. It's a word I've heard on occasion for eons but never really understand what it was or how it worked until I read a sign on the Arizona Trail about an abandoned one and was able to examine its ruins.

"It's where debris in the water is removed before going into the pipes. They don't want the pipe to clog with debris, and its easier to remove debris from the water before it goes into the pipe than after it clogs a pipe."

I went on to say that I wasn't really sure how a modern penstock differed from the ruins of the penstock I saw that was built a hundred years earlier, but the other one I saw had bars across the entrance to block larger pieces of debris and a settling tank to remove small pieces of debris. Presumably, this one had similar features.

The first order of business in Kinlochleven was lunch, but we soon abandoned that idea when the first restaurant we tried was closed on Sundays and the second one we tried wasn't scheduled to open for another hour, and a third one we looked at had also not opened yet for the day. Trying to get food at a restaurant on Sunday morning was considerably more difficult that we had imagined and eventually we just gave up. We did, however, manage to get our passports stamped at one of the closed restaurants.

Instead, we went to the grocery store which was open and bought all of the food we would need until tomorrow when we would reach the end of the West Highland Way in Fort William. We also bought lunch there and feasted outside the store.

Leaving town, there was a short, steep section of trail which then leveled out into a desolate kind of wilderness beauty. We weren't surrounded by the large numbers of people like the day before--camping at the highest point of the West Highland Way got us between the large packs of people leaving Kingshouse and Kinlochleven.

Which isn't to say that we didn't see anyone on the trail. Some sort of race was being run and we saw all sorts of exhausted and tired people jogging (or more often, walking) in the opposite direction of us. That's where most of the people we saw came from.

In other news, today was Karolina's last full day of hiking. Tomorrow she had a flight home, and the day after tomorrow she was expected at work, so I had her check a train station schedule I had picked up earlier to figure out exactly what time she needed to be in Fort William. Her flight left Glasgow at around 3:00 in the afternoon, so she checked the schedule and was surprised to learn that there was only one train at about 7:30 in the morning that would get her there on time. She had assumed she had all morning to get into town, and maybe there might be buses that could get her there as well, but we didn't have a bus schedule to check. The only mode of transportation that we knew would get her to her flight in time was that 7:30 train.

So I looked at my maps of the trail, did some figuring, and we decided we should camp near the trail junction where I'd split off the trail to hike up Ben Nevis (the highest point in Britain) and she'd continue straight onward to Fort William. From that point, we figured it would be about a one-hour walk into town. She'd have to be up and hiking by around 6:00 the next morning which would give her an hour walk into town plus a half hour as safety in case it took longer than expected and to buy her train tickets and such.

The downside--for me, at least--was that we'd have to hike until almost dark. We didn't arrive at the junction until just after 8:00 in the evening. It wasn't dark yet, but the sun had already set and darkness was descending fast and taking photos became a study in how to hold the camera extremely steady.

The road we were walking along was less than ideal for camping, and we spent a few minutes scouting around looking for a flat, large enough place on the side of the road to camp and didn't really find anything. Ultimately, we just camped on the very edge of the road at the junction. Hopefully no vehicles would drive over us during the night!

And I told you in the title that nothing really happened today. See! I was right! =) All-in-all, a mostly uneventful day. =)

Careful of those dangerous bends!

The trail followed alongside these giant water pipes for quite a while before crossing them on this bridge.
Karolina makes a new friend. =)
However, it seems to me like she's taking advantage of her new-found friendship with the local fish!
If only I could share a Coke with Amanda....
Whenever Karolina stopped to go to the bathroom, she'd saying something about going to fight the "toilet monster." When she came back, I'd ask how the fight with the toilet monster went, and she'd say something like, "I won." She fought the toilet monster, and she won. *nodding* Today, though, I had asked exactly what the toilet monster looked like--perhaps she should draw it. And this was her drawing of the toilet monster. I just love it! =) It's funny on so many levels....
Kinlochleven was a factory town, and although the smelter is no longer in business, there's a lot of history to put in this aluminum museum! (And no, they didn't spell aluminum incorrectly--that's just how the British spell it.) Unfortunately, being a Sunday, we couldn't tour their museum--it was closed! =(

I battle an epic Bird Monster in Kinlochleven!

Looking back towards Kinlochleven--which is now behind us on the trail.

Karolina pretends to be a cow crossing the cattle guard.

More of Karolina's drawings. For most of the hike, Karolina's "trail name" was Trail Intern. Backpacking is a fairly new experience for her, but as most of you probably know, I have some experience in that matter. So she'd call herself my "trail intern." (That's her in the upper-right panel, which says, "Trail Intern, a.k.a. Karolina SLOW." I'm in the upper-left panel, which she labeled "Green Tortuga a.k.a. Ryan FAST." The bottom left panel is us camped at the "top of the world" (a.k.a. the highest point on the WHW) and the bottom right is Karolina wearing her new "midge-net."
Another Karolina drawing. Earlier in the day, we thought up a new trailname for Karolina: Laughter. It came to light that that's what her last name means in Polish and it seemed fitting for her since she does laugh a lot, so I said that could be her trail name and she decided she liked it. =) I'm supposed to look like a turtle in this drawing (I think I look more like a dinosaur, though!). But I love the little camera she has me taking photos. Since I was taking thousands of photos to create the Scottish Highlands Way route on Walking 4 Fun, I always had my camera out.

Ruins along the trail.

Mountain bikers on the trail.

Karolina fords a creek.

Evidence of a race on the trail!

Karolina fords another creek.
The sign next to this cairn reads (in part): The MacDonalds did pursue the fleeing Campbells. To mark the spot where they broke off from their chase, they raised a large stone which was known as 'Clach nan Caimbeulach' (Stone of the Campbells). A cairn has replaced the stone, traditional has it that MacDonalds (or sympathisers of Montrose), should add a stone as they pass and Campbells (or sympathisers of Argyll), take one away.

The mountain ahead with its top in the clouds--that's Ben Nevis and the highest point in Britain. Tomorrow, I would make an attempt to climb to the top of it. Will I make it? You'll just have to tune in for the next post. Same bat time, same bat channel... (Karolina will not be joining my attempt since she had a flight to catch home, much to her disappointment because she really wanted to do the hike up Ben Nevis too.)

The hump ahead is part of Ben Nevis, but the top there is only halfway to the real top of the mountain (which is just off the right side of the photo and in the clouds).

This would be my last photo of Karolina. Since she left camp at 6:00 the next morning where we parted ways, I wouldn't be getting anymore photos of her tomorrow and this was the last photo I got with her in it before we set up camp for the night.
We set up camp for the night at the base of this signpost. It was probably our worst campsite of the hike!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Day 6: A Beautiful Day for Cussing!

Karolina starts the morning with all of her "onion layers"
on--including her headnet to keep the midges at bay.
Sept 13: Our first stop of the day--not even a half hour after we started walking--was in Inveroran. We had camped on the hill overlooking the town, but we stopped to fill up with water from a spigot behind a hotel and got our passports stamped. Inside the hotel, we could tell the place was filled with other hikers. Lots of people with packs and a look behind the front desk had a dozen or so sack lunches named and numbered for their guests.

I knew that sack lunches were available for purchase at many establishments, but it didn't really strike me as odd or weird until I saw them behind the counter there. I imagined the owner of the hotel sending off their guest. "You be careful now. And don't forget your lunch!" Perhaps with a quick pinch on the cheek or patting their head like a mother talking to their young child.

It never even occurred to us to buy a pre-made lunch. Karolina and I shopped for food at grocery stores or, occasionally, stopped in town at a restaurant where we ate the food at the establishment where we ordered it. Sack lunches? I was a little curious what, exactly, was in those sack lunches, but I didn't ask.

The Scottish fog started burning off early in the morning and opened up into some of the most spectacular scenery of the trail to date. Giant mountains towering thousands of feet high surrounded us as the trail followed largely flat valleys between them. The only blot to the views was the hazy atmosphere. While visibility was good--I'd guess it was at least 10 to 15 miles--it could have been a lot better without the haze.

As the fog burned off, Karolina would remove another "onion layer" of clothing. Most of the time, this wasn't particularly interesting, but one of the layers long underwear under her pants and required taking off her pants to remove the long underwear. Being the gentleman that I am, I turned my back so she could remove the pants without my watching and instead looked back on the trail from whence we came. And seconds later, I saw another hiker turn the corner in the distance walking to us.

"There's a hiker coming," I warned Karolina.

And she didn't believe me! She thought I was "pulling her leg" (an expression I did teach her previously), trying to be funny by making her think a hiker was coming just as her pants were down.

"No, really!" I said, with slightly more urgency in my voice. "There really is someone coming!"

She finally looked and sure enough, there was a hiker coming. I shifted over a bit using my body to hide hers, and she was saying it wasn't that big of deal in any case. She did have underwear on, after all, but it did sound like she hurried her shorts back on a bit quicker than she might have otherwise done.

She was once again fully dressed before the hiker arrived and I'm not even sure the hiker realized what had happened. He hiked by us saying nothing more than "hello" and we continued the hike.

"I can't believe you didn't believe me when I told you there was a hiker coming!" I said.

"But it's you!" she retorted.

"Hmm... yeah, good point." It did sound like something I would have said just to pull her leg.

Karolina and I stopped at the Inveroran Hotel for water and to get our passports stamped.

The trail today was positively packed with people! When we stopped for a snack break, probably two dozen people passed us during the half hour break. They were everywhere! I'm sure they'd been everywhere all this time, but since Karolina and I were camping between towns, we were largely "out of sync" with the "herds" of people leaving towns. Most people stayed in towns. Even other campers would stay at established campsites in towns which always puzzled me. You could camp in solitude and quiet for free on your own, or set up a tarp in a field with a bunch of other people. Not for us, no thanks. But it meant that the vast majority of people were staying in towns, which meant they all left those towns at more-or-less the same time each morning in large herds of people.

Although Karolina and I hadn't camped in town last night, we had set up camp less than a half hour walk into town and wound up leaving that town along with all of the hikers who had stayed in it.

So comparatively speaking, the trail seemed especially busy with people today. The fact that it was a Saturday, a weekend, probably added to the numbers as well.

Karolina tries on a new hat she found on the side of the trail but ultimately decided not to keep it!

At one snack break, we were talking about languages, and Karolina told a story about a boss she once had: "He walked up to me and told me that he knew one word in Polish: F***!!!!"

And let me tell you, Karolina practically shouted that last word--which took me a little by surprise since the lead-up to it was in a completely normal tone. I started giggling because, unbeknownst to her, several hikers had been coming up behind her. Without a doubt, they had to have heard the explicative--but not the story that went with it. Oops!

But I wanted to clarify... "Did he actually say it like that? Practically shouting?"

"Yes!" (Except, of course the f*** was whatever the Polish version of the word was--obviously, Karolina translated it into English for my benefit.) I couldn't imagine what the hikers who walked by where thinking, but they didn't stop to chat. Or even wave at us as they passed. *shrug*

I could just imagine the scene and it made me laugh. I'm not sure if that would have broken any laws where it happened, but surely it had to be inappropriate to be shouting known bad words in a foreign language. On the upside, Karolina was probably the only person in the room who would have known what it meant.

In any case, the story led into another conversation about bad words in non-native languages. She knows that f*** is a bad word, but to her, it's just another English word. It doesn't sound like a bad word to her. Which I totally understand. I know more than a few Spanish bad words, but they don't really feel "bad" to me. They're just foreign words just like any other foreign word to my ears, and if nobody ever told me it was bad, I wouldn't have had any way of knowing they were.

So I asked about bad words in Polish, and Karolina told me one which had a pretty good R that required being rolled. "Yeah, I could never say that," I told Karolina. "I can't roll my R's to save my life."

Interestingly, though, she said that the more you rolled it, the more angry/annoyed/worse the word became. You get out your angers and frustrations with a really long R-roll.

Fascinating stuff! I think I tried to say it, and although I knew it was a "bad word," it still didn't sound like one.

We stopped for another break and a drink at the Kings House Hotel. We took out an outside seat at a picnic table since the weather was so pleasant. We filled up with water and drank our Cokes. Then we made a simmer ring for Karolina's soda can stove. I had already given her a simmer ring, but she managed to burn the edges of it off the night before, but simmer rings are easy to make and we both got a can of Coke to make them with. Karolina seemed fascinated to watch me tear up one of the cans and turn it into a simmer ring on the spot.

Late in the afternoon, the trail headed up one of the steepest, longest climbs of the entire trail--up the so-called Devils Staircase and to the highest point of the West Highland Way at 1,797 feet (548m) above sea level. Yes, I know... that doesn't sound particularly impressive, and it's not. I've done a heck of a lot more difficult hikes and higher! But this was, according to my guidebook, the very highest point of the entire West Highland Way. That has to count for something, right?

Even at the top, the mountains around us towered even higher. The views, however, were absolutely incredible. The haze gave the towering mountains a sort of spectral look that glowed in the sunset. We had made our miles for the day and after a quick consultation, we decided to set up camp right there at the very top of the pass and the highest point of the West Highland Way.

For the first time on the trail, I took out my iPod to listen to. I hadn't even realized I had my iPod when I flew out to Scotland, but I did. Unfortunately, it ran for about 10 minutes before I got the "low battery" message. More unfortunate, the wires I needed to recharge it were back in Seattle. I would not be recharging the iPod until I got home. Karolina and I talked about songs we liked and didn't like, but eventually I wandered off to pee.

Because sometimes, you just have to. And it's the kind of thing you'd rather do without an audience. Or in camp. =)

I walked off trail and towards a view of the Devils Staircase, which was absolutely spectacular, and after doing my business, I just stood on the mountainside watching the views and sunset, rocking out to my iPod, and generally feeling on top of the world. Life was good!

We were surrounded by gorgeous mountains today!
Stay hydrated! We called this Karolina's "Scotch bottle" because of the color, but it only held water!

The cairn was a bit off from the West Highland Way, which you can see snaking across the background in this photo. You can even see a small dot in the photo (near the left) that's a hiker on the West Highland Way.
Looks like Karolina made a new friend!

A caterpillar hiking the West Highland Way!

The views would have been even better if the air wasn't so darned hazy!

Karolina was rinsing her socks and when I tried to take a photo, she turned feral!

No, I don't know who these people are.

Karolina is so excited to be walking on a road (?!?!) she has to do a happy dance! =)

I'm not always the best of role models....

I stopped to make Karolina a new simmer ring for her stove.

Karolina asked me to take this photo and said I should caption it, "Guess which one is the flower and which one is Karolina." More interesting, though--if you look really closely, you'll notice Karolina's left eye is brown and her right eye is blue! It's really kind of freaky....

Karolina's following the switchbacks up the Devil's Staircase.

Even on the trail far away from towns, you can find signs about the upcoming vote for Scottish independence.
I approach the cairn at the highest point on the West Highland Way!

Camping at the highest point on the West Highland Way.