"Schlaraffenland", the German Arcadia.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The High Road, Definitely The High Road

 You know that old Scottish song that goes, "You take the high road and I'll take the low road..."?
You want to take the high road. Not only for the views and the favourable general metaphor, but because in the song the low road specifically signifies a spirit road which you can only take when you are dead. You don't want that. Most people don't get past that first line, but if you know a little more of it you'll know that it goes on to sing about the "bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond".

    "They are bonny!" John said when he had caught his breath.
    I nodded in agreement, too winded for the moment to reply.
    The loch gleamed far below where we stood on Conic Hill. This was definitely the high road, although we felt half dead.
    "Aye, the bonny banks of Loch Lomond," I finally said when the panting had subsided.
    "No Philipp, LOW-mund, Loch LOW-mund, not le-MOND," John reminded me, again.
    "Ok, right, le-MOND. No damn it, LOW-mund, LOW-mund, LOW-mund."
    I don't why the oddly French sounding version stuck so tenaciously in my head, but it did. Over the next six days on the West Highland Way I would mispronounce that name no fewer than 271 times. That is an estimate.

    Looking down on Loch Lomond, bright quicksilver against the darkening hills all around, it was astonishing, surreal in fact, to consider that just earlier that same day we had stepped off a flight from Canada. It took us no more than an hour to deplane, clear customs, grab a taxi to the trail-head in the Glasgow suburb of Milngavie (perversely pronounced "mul-guy"), and begin the hike. I tell you, there is no better remedy for jetlag than to walk 32 kilometers. It's like pressing the ctrl-alt-del on your body and brain. There was no jetlag in the sense of feeling out of synch with the local time, but a 32 km hike over the hills after 3 hours of sleep in a cramped aluminum tube certainly made us tired. But at least we were tired at a time of day that made sense in Scotland as we had walked until dusk. This brought us to the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha, on the shore of Lomond, where we were able to shed our now accursed boots and reeking socks and then stagger (yes, this is the right word) into their restaurant with the refrain 'beerfoodbeerfoodbeerfood' having comprehensively displaced 'you take the high road...'

    Now let's play a word association game. I say Scotland, and then you say...? Bagpipes, kilts, haggis, rain. Am I right? Probably even in that order. Well, the reality is that in over a week in Scotland we saw nobody playing the bagpipes and the only kilts were worn by two Belgians on the top of Ben Nevis (another story). And rain? Yes, statistically the chance of rain on any given day when we were there is 75%. And that's for Scotland as a whole. We were in the west where it is "even wetter". But we had no rain. Not only did we have no rain, but we both got sunburns. But haggis, there you are spot on. I don't know whether it is making a comeback or whether it never went away, but haggis is everywhere and in a delightful array of forms and presentations. We vowed to have haggis every day. That night we tucked into a haggis and blood pudding pizza, which we immediately dubbed the "Blood & Guts". It was delicious, absolutely delicious. I am being completely serious.

    We slept like dead men. Like on the low road. The next morning the very un-Scottish sun filled our rooms and roused us for the next leg of the hike, this time 33 km along the entire length of the loch. If this strikes you as unwise, then you can give yourself a point. This is not the recommended way to hike the West Highland Way, but alas, we had left the bookings too late and the more favourably spaced accommodations were booked out. This is a surprisingly remote area, so hotels and B&Bs are very thin on the ground.

    But no matter, we had survived the first day, including bizarre encounters with, first, a fake gypsy and his alleged wolf, and then, a real, apparently famous, dwarf. I'll leave those to your imagination as further description would distract from the narrative. Both of us were understandably a touch footsore, but felt fit enough that the 33 km did not seem excessive. At least not at first. At first there were carpets of bluebells on either side of a lovely meandering path that skirted the lake shore and then wound up through woods sprouting bright fresh green. It was sunny! The lake sparkled! The path was gentle! There were bluebells! This was at first. (foreshadowing)

    By early afternoon the path had become decidedly more rugged and John was beginning to lag a little. At first I hoped that it was just the tiredness and the terrain. But we usually match pace very well, so I was concerned. Sure enough, John told me that his knee was starting to bother him. He had injured it a few years before on Mount Elbrus in Russia (an excellent tale in its own right). Something about the distance we were covering and the torquing twisting nature of the increasingly rock and root strewn path had grievously reactivated the injury. He rapidly went from lagging a little, to having to stop frequently, to hardly being able to walk at all.

   There were still about 12 km to go of what was reportedly the most difficult stretch of the entire 155 km West Highland Way. And we were losing time. There was no way we would make it to our hotel, the Drover's Inn in Inverarnan, by nightfall. Absolutely no way. Fuck.

    So, call a cab then you twat! Fine idea, but the problem is that the road is on the other side of the loch. The loch is 40 km long and we were close to midway along the roadless northern half of the east bank.  However, just ahead of us was the remote Inversnaid Hotel. We had actually wanted to stay there, but it was booked out months before. It did have a service road connection and one could theoretically call a cab there that would take us up into the hills away from the loch and then on a great long looping detour way the hell around the southern end of Lomond and then all the way back up the other side to get us to the Drover's, which was to the north. Even if available this would cost literally hundreds of dollars. Fuck.

    Well, no sense in worrying about you can't change. The Inversnaid had a pub. This was the immediate goal. One small step at a time. So we limped in, leaned up against the bar and ordered two pints. The barman was pulling the first pint when I asked, "I don't think we're going to make it any further today. By any chance, is there a ferry or boat that crosses the loch?"
    "Yes, there is." He glanced up at the clock above him. It read 4:27. "The last one leaves at 4:30."
    I looked at John, eyes wide. John looked at me, eyes wide.
    The barman looked at both of us, "You'll not be wanting that second pint then I take it?"
    "No! Thank you!" I put some cash on the bar, grabbed my glass, poured half into the waiting empty glass, handed it to John and out we went, John hobbling as fast as he possibly could.

    And there it was, a ferry was casting off from the dock in front of the hotel. We waved and shouted. The ferry was slowly moving away.

    For a long sickening moment it looked like we had missed it by seconds.

    But then the captain noticed us. He called to his deck hand to be ready with the rope and maneuvered the boat back into place. Having heroically chugged our half pints on the run, we put the glasses down, boarded and collapsed, laughing, onto a bench on the deck.

    Across the loch we would meet an amusing Dutchman who had done the same thing and we would share a cab with him for the much shorter distance on the main road to the Drover's. And there we would admire the eclectic taxidermy and the ancient carpet and there we would enjoy many many pints and drams and live music and, yes, haggis. But for now, as the ferry began to pick up speed, leaving the east bank behind, we were just content in the knowledge that while you should always take the high road, if for some reason that is not possible you could actually take a boat instead, and that would be very good too.

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