Just as on the Camino to Santiago in Spain it’s usual to bump into the same people more than once on the West Highland Way in Scotland, and it was on the first encounter with a man who was cycling (or rather trying to cycle!) the route that I picked up my expression of the week.
Having finished a pretty gruelling nineteen miles on Day 1 from Milngavie, just North of Glasgow, to Balmaha on the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond Yim Soon and I had a ‘mere’ fourteen miles on the second day, albeit a challenging hike alongside the loch with lots of steep ups and downs and scrambling over rocks. After just a couple of miles we had a first meeting with Ian and Lauren, a father and daughter from near Inverness who were great company and with whom we were to share much food and friendship during the week. While Yim Soon walked with Lauren, a similar age to our daughter, I strode along with Ian, a similar age to me and with similar interests and memories when it came to things like music and sport. We got chatting with two sisters along the way, one of whom looked super-fit. She explained that she was a trail runner and usually ran the ninety-six mile route! We all had a drink together before parting company at Inversnaid, our destination for the night, as the others had a further, very arduous, six miles to Inverarnan.
The view from the hotel at Inversnaid is one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, down across the length of the loch and with a waterfall cascading down the nearby banks. After the others departed I was into the loch for a swim in glorious sunshine, before we headed to our lodgings for the night at the Inversnaid Bunkhouse, a converted church with a decidedly ‘young’ vibe! It was there that I had my second encounter with Rory. I’d got chatting with him earlier in the day when he’d been carrying a bike laden with luggage over the rock-strewn path alongside the loch. He was part of a group of five from Glasgow which had made the inexplicable decision to take the low road instead of the high road! It was impossible to cycle on any of that long and tough stretch, and Rory was cursing his companions, one of whom only had one arm and so was having particular difficulty. Rory shared with me that he worked in drug rehab and that many of those he came into contact with had spent time in prison, so he was very interested in the work of the Irish Chaplaincy.
At a certain point on that day’s walk, before an especially steep and rocky ascent, Rory spotted two ‘apparently’ abandoned bikes. One of them had a luggage rack, Rory’s one having broken to add to the other disasters that had befallen the cycling group. “Hey,” he said to me with a smile, “the Universe provides!” That was the last I saw of Rory until later in the evening when I was leaving the Bunkhouse to go down for another look at the loch. Up the steep hill came a bike, complete with new luggage rack, and the person riding it called out, “Hey Eddie!”. Rory went on to mention to me that he’d been talking earlier to a woman about the work of the Irish Chaplaincy and that it had made him feel better about the world. I was incredibly touched by that.
I didn’t really expect to see Rory again now he was back on the road but at the Kingshouse Bunkhouse at the end of Day 4 (twenty miles!) there he was and back together with three of his companions, the one-armed man having been rescued en route. Yim Soon and I had spent a few minutes with two of the cyclists on our Day 3 walk (nineteen miles!) and Yim Soon had given one of them her cheese and pickle sandwich. Rory, who greeted me at Kingshouse like a long-lost friend, explained how one of those two guys had informed him at the end of Day 3 how a woman had given him a pickle sandwich during the day and that it had been the best pickle sandwich he’d ever had!
The cycling gang of four had ended up in the next room to us at the Bunkhouse and I was expecting a ‘lively’ night; and it was! So too the morning. As I was sitting quietly in our room at 7am doing my morning prayer there was the sudden sound of very loud music coming from the bathroom down the corridor with the cyclists singing along to the 80s hit ‘Nothing’s gonna stop us now.’ I could have found myself getting annoyed about this interruption to my peace and quiet but it was actually a lovely moment, and some of the lyrics seemed especially apt for doing a long-distance walk like the West Highland Way, with it’s inevitable ups and down, in mood as well as geography:
‘I will stay here with you. Take you to the good times. See you through the bad times.’
We left Kingshouse on Day 5 and followed the track through the bleak, barren and beautiful Glencoe towards what was ominously called ‘The Devil’s Staircase’! There didn’t seem to be another soul for miles around but suddenly I was aware of a faint but special noise being carried by the wind. We stopped dead still and could just about make out the sound of bagpipes. Sure enough, far down on the road running through the valley somebody had got out of their car and was playing ‘Flower of Scotland’…just for us! Shortly after that rather magical moment, who should appear coming down on his bike from the start of the Devil’s Staircase but Mr Cheese and Pickle Sandwich! “Did you change your mind?” I asked. “I didn’t want to waste my electric motor on it,” he explained. Then, just before he disappeared off on a more appropriate cycling path he added, “It was nice to meet you two.”
What gifts we were given during those six days: great walking, stunning scenery, fantastic food and wonderful companionship; even a bit of 80s music and our very own bagpiper in the glen. As Rory said, the Universe provides.