What a nice surprise! Today the weatherman is gravely handing out weather warnings for torrential thundery downpours and the risk of local flooding, but is this the forecast for Scotland? Nope; it appears that Scotland is going to enjoy the heatwave for a little longer, but Devon and Cornwall are currently experiencing major rain and the south is sweltering in severe humidity and uncomfortably high temperatures. For once it's a good thing that Scottish weather is a law unto itself; today there's not a cloud in the sky.
I still didn't want to get up and go to work this morning, though. Yet again I'd much rather spend the day with Peta, wandering around at a leisurely pace, visiting pubs, eating well and generally doing the kinds of thing that happy couples do on their holidays. I'm obviously suffering from too much walking and not enough leisure time, but despite my reservations, today again turned out to be a lovely walk along the shores of Loch Lomond.
It didn't start off well, though. The West Highland Way is a popular track and because it's relatively easy (at least compared to walks like the Pennine Way) it's a great track for those looking for a week-long holiday walk. A whole industry has sprung up around the Way and it has become one of the most popular walking destinations in the country for visitors from abroad. The resulting commercialisation of the Way might make purists wince, but it's good for business; perhaps the best example is the official accommodation guide for the Way, which contains a section at the back selling an amazing array of merchandise. You can buy West Highland Way mouse mats, glass tankards, car stickers, neck pens, baseball caps, coffee mugs, sewing kits, clothing, belt bags, paperweights, posters, cutlery sets, wallets, golfing umbrellas and badges, all emblazoned with the Way's logo; hell, you can even buy a miniature bottle of whisky called the 'West Highland Way Dram' that comes complete with its own etched dram glass. If there's one walking track in Britain that knows how to pull in the tourists, then it's the West Highland Way; funnily enough you don't see Pennine Way merchandise for sale, even though there's a definite market for a T-shirt that says, 'My Boyfriend Waded Through Hundreds of Miles of Boggy Shit on the Pennine Way and All I Got Was This Lousy and Surprisingly Stinky T-shirt.'
The impact of tourism on the Way might be the reason behind the ignorant racism I stumbled into within a few minutes of leaving Rowardennan. It wasn't particularly evil and compared to the kind of racism you get in the inner cities it was pretty tame, but the fact that I was standing by the side of Loch Lomond and minding my own business made it all the more irritating.
I'd decided to take a photo of the loch from the dirt track that leads from the car park at Rowardennan, but my digital camera was having a really tough time focusing on the loch's glittering water; I kept having to point the camera at a piece of land, focus, move the camera and click the shutter. Presumably one of the fat bastards on the stone beach thought I was taking a video of the loch, because in the spirit of global togetherness that so often afflicts the British, he decided it would be hilarious to jump up in front of me, jumping up and down yelling 'G'day Skippy' in one of the most inaccurate Australian accents this side of Sydney. His mates thought this was a quality comedy moment and collapsed into laughter, and while I idly wondered who he was yelling at, it suddenly struck me that I was wearing my Aussie bush hat. He was taking the piss out of me, an Englishman in Scotland, because he thought I was an Australian.
This incensed me, especially when I walked past the two women who were unlucky enough to be the better halves of these two apologies for manhood. One turned to the other and whispered, 'Watch out, here he comes,' and they both dissolved into laughter as I approached, trying not to meet my eye. So there I was, starting out along the next section of the West Highland Way with a bunch of xenophobic wankers laughing at me because they thought I was a foreigner and therefore fair game. How rude is that?
Although I did the right thing and simply blanked them out, I couldn't help stewing over it as I stomped off up the track. I wished I'd come up with some witty retort that would have shut them up, but ignoring pillocks like this is the only real option because it's a reaction they're after in the first place. The fact that their racism was laughably ill-informed only added to my irritation; how sad it all was.
So I started today with grinding teeth. Ignorance tends to have that effect on me.
You Take the High Road
Probably because I was so wound up, I missed the turning to the loch shore. This section of the Way has two accepted routes, a high road and a low road, and I'd wanted to take the low road after yesterday's wonderful shore hopping. But I never saw the turning and it took me a mile or two to realise I was stuck on the stony road that cuts through the forest, avoiding the shoreline and climbing the sides of the loch at a steady but easy gradient. I wasn't too bothered because the high road is the easier route, but it's also less interesting, so I ended up stomping as fast as I could, passing the poor souls who were struggling with their full packs in the utterly unforgiving sun.
Luckily the Way still manages to shine, even on the high road. Sure, most of the walk is relatively mundane, plodding through forests under the hot, dry sun, but every now and then the trees clear and the view is as stunning as it is beautiful. Loch Lomond really is a special place, and for the few miles to Inversnaid I was happy enough with just a few glimpses of the loch.
I was also pleased with the new elephant tape that Peta brought with her. My left boot has been wearing through steadily and it's now reached the point where I can feel the contour of the next layer just under the toes. It's only a matter of days before the outer seal goes and I've worn through to the inside of the boot, but the next rest day I have is in Fort William and if I'm going to buy a new pair of boots that won't lacerate my feet, I need to take my time over buying them. Back in Linlithgow I decided the best thing to do would be to strap up the end of my boot with tape, so the tape would wear out and not the boot, but Elastoplast really isn't designed for this sort of treatment; luckily Peta managed to track down some super-tough elephant tape in London and yesterday I stuck five layers over the front of my left boot to see what would happen. This morning they were still there, holding up pretty well considering the tough treatment they got, and at this rate I might actually make it to Fort William without having to walk barefoot.
So the grassy patch in front of the Inversnaid Hotel found me checking the state of my boots as the other walkers on the Way slumped on the lawn, soaking up the sun while day trippers stared at the view up and down the loch. Groups of fellow walkers laughed and joked all around me, and I found myself feeling unpleasantly alone; for most of this trip I've been the only walker for miles around and I like it like that, because the locals are always interested in finding out why someone is trudging through their part of the country with a backpack slung on his back. But here walkers are two-a-penny and most of the people on the West Highland Way appear to be in groups or couples, which means that for a lone walker like me, it's like being at a cocktail party where you don't know anyone and haven't yet drunk enough to lose your inhibitions. I'm finding the social aspect of the Way a difficult one to crack; people are friendly, but they're also self-contained. It's almost as if it needs a nightmare section to break down the barriers; after a few days on the Pennine Way there's a sense of bonding that comes from the collective survival of such awful terrain. Here it feels more like the Glastonbury Festival than a long-distance walk, and when you're alone in a crowd like this, you really feel it.
Up and Down
According to the literature, the section of the West Highland Way from Inversnaid to Inverarnan is the most challenging section of the whole walk. I can see why; if it had been raining this afternoon when I walked it, it would have been a nightmare because this is real lochside walking. If it's not the tree roots it's the boulders, if it's not the constant up and down it's the slippery mud, and if it's not the rain it's the motley collection of streams that dribble across your path. But the sun has been shining for days and, more importantly, I did today's walk without a heavy pack on my back, so I waltzed along the Way like a mountain goat.
Others weren't so lucky, especially those with heavy packs, and as I zoomed north I passed plenty of people taking it easy in the hundreds of tiny stone beaches that line the loch along the Way. Jumping into a freezing freshwater loch has to be one of the best ways to cool off, and the sun was so fierce that even the midges gave up and decided to stay undercover. But I didn't want to hang around, despite the pretty views; the loch might be as pretty as a picture, but the lure of an afternoon with Peta was far stronger than yet another gorgeous walk in the Great British Outdoors, so I kept pushing on, sweating buckets as the path reached the northern end of the loch, climbed over Cnap Mor and led me to the Drovers Inn at Inverarnan.
I wonder whether I'll get back into this walk once Peta leaves tomorrow. Frankly, at the moment, I have better things to do than walk...