Before leaving for Scotland, I watched the movie “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon, based upon the book by Cheryl Strayed chronicling her journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I related to the feelings of being stuck, and not understanding the next move or where that move would take me–only knowing the intense desire and undeniable need to take that next move. Most of all, Strayed’s stirring story fueled the flame of my own excitement to start my own adventure studying abroad in Scotland.
When it came time to make Spring break plans during my semester abroad, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of destination possibilities. Some of my friends sought after Spain’s cities and beaches, other friends wanted to take a European tour visiting 8 major cities in five countries in 10 days. I knew I needed to visit and experience all of these important places and I heard the same small voice inside of me telling me to move, but none of these moves seemed right for me. One afternoon, I did what I often do when I need to think something over: I took a walk. I strolled along the West Sands (cue Chariot of Fire background music) that separate the North Sea from the Famous Old Course in St. Andrews. I took my shoes and socks off and felt the soft and cold grit of the sand between my toes. Then, for whatever reason, I began running towards the icy water. The wind coming off of the North Sea whipped my hair across my cheeks and the piercing cry of the seagulls rang throughout my ears and my entire body. Numbness replaced the pain from the icy water as I became intensely aware of the the smell and taste of salt in my mouth. In one word, I felt wild.
At this moment, I was reminded of the inspiring movie I watched before coming to St. Andrews and of Cheryl Strayed’s journey to find herself while walking a trail. Instead of experiencing a breadth of places, I longed to experience depth in one place, this place–Scotland. I wanted to move deeper into the country I was falling in love with as well as move deeper into myself. I began my research on “Walking Holidays” and somehow convinced Scarlett and Kaelen, two of my closest friends within the IFSA-Butler St Andrews program (we were all incredibly close), to forego the glamorous trips to Paris and Prague and hike the West Highland Way with me.
The West Highland Way, a 96 mile (154 Km) hike begins at Milngavie, follows along the shore of Loch Lomond, crossing Rannoch Moor, to the head of Glencoe Mountain, climbs up Devil’s Staircase, descends upon Loch Leven before snaking through Glen Nevis, and finishing in Fort William (just for a point of reference). Scarlett, Kaelen, and I would walk the 96 miles in a week’s time, hiking from one small Scottish town to the next, averaging about 13 miles a day. We booked each of the hostels and B&B’s ourselves and stocked up on the necessary hiking gear from Trespass and the even more necessary groceries from Tesco. Without any idea of what we were getting ourselves into, we were ready to walk the West Highland Way.
Before even taking the first step on the Way, our journey began on a short bus ride from Glasgow to Milngavie. Our feelings of excitement and apprehension of the trip before us took form in our darting glances to each other, nervous giggles, and foot tapping, as the bus motored away from the bright lights and traffic noises of Glasgow into the soft rumblings and enveloping darkness of Scottish country roads. Suddenly, we realized we did not have the address nor the directions to our lodgings for the night–only the phone number. I began to think, and halfway believe, that maybe we were in over our heads. A Scottish elderly couple seated next to us struck up a conversation about the bulky backpacks laying claim to the bus seats around us. We explained that we were about to start hiking the West Highland Way. The woman loved that we were about to embark on an adventure, and explained to us that they had just returned from a six week trip to New Zealand. Her eyes lit up us she recounted all of their adventures while there. The smiling couple spoke to us about our trip through the Highlands, study abroad experience, and future plans; they told us about their jobs, children, grandchildren, and places they traveled. They then asked if we knew how to get to our B&B, The Best Foot Forward, in Milngavie. Ironically, we did not. The kind man insisted upon calling the B&B for us to get a sense of the directions himself so he could help us arrive safely, taking care of us like we were there own children. The couple was from Milngavie and knew exactly where the B&B was and how to get there, pointing us down the right path. We said goodbye to our new friends and found our way to The Best Foot Forward to rest before we started our journey on the West Highland Way.
In those first moments of the first night, I learned that not always knowing the exact direction you are moving in opens one up to the discovery of new places. In a couple who had never stopped exploring themselves, we discovered a kindness and warmth that felt a lot like coming home. We immediately felt like we belonged to them, and at the same time, belonged in Scotland. By not knowing the way, we found a place with that couple, who then helped us find the exact place we wanted to be. This experience with the elderly couple echoed throughout our minds and set the tone for our journey as we ventured deep into the Highlands, no longer tourists or visitors, but friends who belonged there. We learned that the joy is in the journey, and rather than seeking out an important place as a destination, finding yourself within a place, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, makes that place important to you. I found my place in Scotland not after reaching a particular destination or after a certain amount of time, but somewhere along the Way.
Just in case you wanted to know…
My trip walking the West Highland Way was a success! As we traveled 96 miles through moores, along Loch Lomond, over glacial hills, past crags, and up into the Highlands, I experienced more beauty than I had in my entire life. Going on a weeklong hike also gave me a lot of time to get to know myself. After spending 24/7 with Scarlett and Kaelen, I got to know them pretty well too. Rolling out of bed each morning and mentally preparing to walk up to 29 miles in the day ahead proved to be a challenge at times, I was surprised at how easy my body adjusted to the demanding physical exertion and endurance. Walking the West Highland Way affirmed my passion for hiking, and will be an experience I will never forget.
Molly Rogers is a student at Sewanee: The University of the South and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.