The sun had climbed its way across the sky for five hours when I stopped to cool my feet in the shores of the lake. I watched my toes sink into the tiny pebbles, the cold water inching up my ankles. Minnows darted frantically in an arc around me, keeping a safe distance. The air was rich with oxygen and I breathed deep. Aside from the beaten path, there was almost no evidence that any beast that walked on two legs had been here. Rabbits rustled the endless forest. I was alone.
“Three hours, maximum,” Bob had told me as he helped me settle my pack onto my protesting back. This was coming from a man who had nearly summited Everest with, as he put it, his “hands in his pockets.” His faith in me was misplaced, but I hadn’t wanted to tell him that.
The hills had started out of Balmaha. The path wound up and down the old, time-beaten mountains - up rocky stone steps, down beaten-mud slopes. I took the journey slowly, very aware of how dead I would be if I mistepped even once. My bag would drag me down harder and faster than I ever would on my own. Baby steps. Many breaks.
But I had run out of water, and I was two stubborn kilometers from the next place I could stop. Time to press on.
The town of Rowardennan consists of a hotel with an attached bar, a small park with a visitor’s information center, and a youth hostel. My map told me there was a free campsite, and I stopped in to the hostel to ask about it. The woman behind the counter shook her head. “New bylaw, the closest camping spot is four miles off the trail. Sorry.”
I was a little relieved, I guess. There was no way I was trudging four miles into the bush to pitch a tent. I was forced to take a ridiculously overpriced hostel bed, but it was a bed. Can’t complain much about that.
The ferry across the loch was nine pounds, and the bus to Glasgow was another ten. I had four pounds in small change in my purse. I was told I could probably get cash back at the bar, so I retraced my steps. I ordered some cheese and wine and a twenty pound note and handed over my credit card.
“We don’t do cash back on credit cards.”
“Oh. Well, um, could you tell me where the nearest cash point is?”
He pointed behind him, back along the path the way I’d come. “About eight miles that way.”
I took my cheese and my port and I sat myself down with a view of the water and the mountains and I thought. I thought hard. The bus back to Glasgow that I couldn’t afford glided soundlessly across the opposite bank and I could feel the wheels turning hard in my head while I wondered what in all holy hell am I supposed to do now.
And then, suddenly:
I looked to my right. Two young women were sitting there, feeding the ducks that walked about their ankles. They had a bottle of wine, and they waved me over.
“Come sit with us!”
And that’s how I met Manu and Jill. Three bottles of wine and a couple hundred stories later, they had not only pooled their collective pocket change (enough for at least the ferry) and handed it over, but given me an alternative: there’s a service that drops off your bags to your rest stops along the West Highland Way, and they knew the guys who drove the van. They had given them rides to Drymen and Balloch before, and there were public transport options back to Glasgow in both places.
After sharing a pint with the bar staff past close, we all started stumbling back to the hostel. We were laughing far too loudly, leaning on one another, helping each other stand.
“Want to jump in the Loch?”
Before any of us could change our minds, we had stripped down to our underwear and thrown ourselves into the water. It was cold, but not as cold as I expected. I lay out on my back, the sand and pebbles of the shallow waters pressing their gritty fingers into my thighs and shoulders while the water lapped about my ears and breasts and belly. I heard the laughter of my new friends, saw how the black water blended into the grey-green trees, the navy blue sky below me in all of her best diamonds. The same stars in unfamiliar homes.
There are certain things I won’t let myself forget. You need places like that, when things get bad. So I wrapped this up: the cold water on my sunburnt skin, the thousands of colours that night can be, the relief those girls had brought with their causeless desire to help a fellow human being.
I took it with me when I left.