Lunch: Bought from Kinlochleven (didn’t happen)
Dinner: At Glen Nevis Youth Hostel (didn’t happen)
All the plans above went out of the window. A phone call the night before and in the morning meant I didn’t get out of Kinlochleven until 9.30am and so I didn’t buy any lunch and threw the last of my wraps and chorizo in the bin (WHY??!). I got a bit lost finding The Way again and the way out of Kinlochleven, but got there eventually.
Despite the morning drizzle and midges, the day was a sun masked in a whitewashed sky. The climb was steep but I enjoyed working out my upset in my lungs, instead of my feet. In the forest, web hairs tickled my face and arms as my body cut through them like a winning runner. The trees were a welcome variety from the bracken and heather skinned moors. I used my phone most of the way, but lost signal at mile 83 and left the black loch Leven behind. But my husband was coming to see me.
Gordon and Eric came upon me just before Tigh-na-Steubinaich ruin. We sat around the fallen bricks and a building without a roof. I watched, amused as Gordon tried to fix the trials of another fellow walker and his bad ankles and knees. He had five new knee supports on him and I joked that he was the WHW first aider. They bought goodies back in Kinlochleven while I ate cheese and nut bars. They gave me some malt loaf and I moved on, knowing they’d overtake soon.
My feet started to crumble after mile 85. The views were stunning, and the weather framed them, but I was breaking. I couldn’t do it anymore, but I knew I had no choice. There was only one way out and it required my feet. Miles 86 to 91 lasted forever. I tried to rush it, in the hope that I could end it quicker. But the miles seemed only to expand. Woods that weren’t woods anymore, just more tree graveyards made it impossible to pinpoint where I was.
I wanted it to be over. I never wanted to walk again. I wanted to quit. I bumped into a group of guys who I’d met before – with too many names to remember who were walking with a legally blind man. It made my achievement seem tiny. Insignificant. They had such good spirits too, despite their ailments.
At Mile 89 I saw the majestic Ben Nevis break out into the sky and I collapsed, wondering if I’d be able to make the final 3 miles to the Youth Hostel or if I’d ever walk again. The path finally finds an actual forest running with rivers under Ben. I met the group-of-many-men a few times after that. One of them was eager to show me pictures of when he climbed Ben Nevis in June when there was 9ft of snow on it.
My signal kicked in under Ben Nevis, a mile from my final stop and I got a flurry of messages. My husband had gotten the train, but it would be going to Glasgow and wouldn’t get in until 10.30pm. My only option was to meet him there – which meant I had to walk another 4 miles to Fort William (the end of the West Highland Way) in two hours and catch a coach. I despaired on the phone – said I could never make it. I was in so much pain.
But I walked physically faster than I thought was physically possible for me to do. I said goodbye to my reservation at the beautiful Glen Nevis Youth Hostel and bullied my feet into Fort William. The train station toilets were luxurious (there’s a fee) – you can pay for a locker and there are showers. The coaches picked up next to Morrisons, and because I couldn’t go a step further I went in there to have a ‘baked’ potato, salad and diet coke. Oh how nice it was to have fresh veg! It wasn’t quite the celebratory meal I’d envisioned, but I had finished. I had finished. And as the coach pulled away into the dark night, I promised I would come back to see the end properly, to see the Youth Hostel and climb Ben Nevis.
And as I finished that brutal walk, I left more than Fort William behind. I had broken open, but something new was waiting for me now. A weight had lifted. The West Highland Way was more than 96 miles. More than just a hike. Sometimes the hardest things we do are also the best of what we do. Everything that hurts will end. And how amazing it is that those ends look very much like beginnings…