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Day 8: The End of the West Highland Way

Updated: Nov 6, 2019

What was it I said at the beginning of this walk with these five courageous writing women?


The end is just a new starting point for beginning.


The West Highland Way saves the longest walk for last, 15 (plus or minus) miles from Kinlochleven to Fort William. Guides call this leg "difficult."


As I started the gradual ascent up a logging road right out of Kinlochleven, I thought: How difficult can it be? We've already passed "the hardest part of the trail" between Inversnaid and Inverarnan. We've already survived the steep up and unending down of the Devil's Staircase. How difficult could this last bit be?


Answer: It's wasn't difficult. It was HARD.


Those first upwards miles felt incredibly long. Although it wasn't more than an hour of hiking, it felt like many hours to me. Usually I would take a break around the 3-hour mark, but on this last day I stopped for Second Breakfast before the first hour was up. Still, when the hill finally gave way to flatter ground, I have to admit I was, again, amazed by the views looking down on Loch Leven. As thousands have seen and said before, they were, indeed, stunning.

By Sharon Mufin

The rest of this last day's miles, while relatively flat, were tricky. Lots of rivulets, streams, and large puddles to ford, difficult foot work over quite wobbly stones, on-again, off-again rain showers. All the while this part of the Way wound through majestic mountains on either side, along a glen, through woodland areas, past forestry plantations, and through wide open spaces.


I had to look at my feet much of the way, lest my foot go one way and my knee another. Then, at one point, I looked up and was shocked to stillness as Ben Nevis (that highest mountain in Britain) as he came fully into view. One word: Breathtaking.


Although my knees started to go a little numb on the long and deep descent, I decided to take the small detour to see the ruins at Dun Deardail. The purpose of this fort is still unknown, but archeologists say it was built around 500 BC. They continue to try and figure out its story. So far all they know for sure is that it was consumed by fire.

For on fire!

Walking around the site, I was invited by the signage to recall one of the only Scottish-Irish myth's I actually know: the story of Dierdre of the Sorrows.


Some believe the fort was named after Dierdre, who's tragic story has been told for 2,000 years. I ran across the myth before we got to Scotland, when I was googling for Druid-related stories to color my decidedly stereotypical understanding of Scotland. And also so I could report back to my best friend Mary with at least some background knowledge on all the mystical, magical, Druid-y things I knew would happen on this walk.


Ok, I didn't know. I am a huge skeptic of all things dragons and fairies, but I was open to magic. Here's the short version of the myth:


Helen Stratton - A book of myths (1915) New York : G. P. Putnam's sons; London, T. C. & E. C. Jack. Copy at New York Public Library.

A Druid chief prophesies that a girl child will be born in the land ruled by King Conchobar. Her beauty will cause men, warriors, and even kings to fight and die in hopes of winning her hand. When King Conchobar hears this prophesy, he orders the child, Dierdre, to be raised in seclusion so that he can eventually marry her himself. One day, the blossoming Dierdre tells the wise woman assigned to raise her about a vision she has had: in her dream, a raven reveals to Dierdre her destiny to fall in love with a dark-haired warrior. The wise woman tells the maiden that the man she is describing is Naoise, a warrior and member of the king's court. Dierdre and Naoise meet, fall in love, and, of course, try to run off together. But, as angry kings will do, Conchobar sends out his troops to hunt the couple down. Naoise is killed and Dierdre is forced to marry the king. She lives in sorrow the rest of her life, her destiny thwarted by the reality of powers bigger than her heart. For a longer, more detailed version, here's a good link:



This short (uphill!) Dun Deardail stop was one of the highlights of the walk for me. I felt a sense of mystery and the dark clouds set a moody stage as I stood there in the mist. I thought, yes, it could have happened here, just as the myth described. Sometimes just believing makes it so. Although I guess the archeologists working this site would beg to differ.


A wee bit unexciting for an end . . .

Back on the road it was long, slow, amble down the mountains and into Fort William and the end of the West Highland Way. For the two of us from our writing group who completed the 15 miles, the end was rather anti-climatic: a small sign at the entrance to town.


We stood there and took photos of each other before wandering separately to our last lovely bed and breakfast as a group. I looked forward to breakfast. (Aside: I am telling you, the Scots put on a good morning meal. However, locals assured us it's all show. While we tourists each eggs, black pudding, bean, bacon . . .they eat porridge. After four days of eggs, I became a big fan of porridge.)


Today's walk brought me my first blister. Which slso seems anti-climactic for this, the next-to-last post of the West Highland Way part of my Scotland story.


So what else did I discover as we came to the end of this particular road? And what, if anything, could be the connection between me and Dierdre and of the sorrows?


The myth, to me, is about destiny versus reality, what is in our control and what is not. In the Iron Age of kings and warriors, Dierdre was a beacon of beauty with no real choice. Despite being shown what would bring her a life of happiness and joy, she had no control, and so was destined to live in sorrow, forever trapped in the prophecy: that men would kill and die for her forever.


I am at a place where I am examining my reality and asking the question: Is this my destiny? Does the path I am on lead to a future life of joy or to sorrow? I hope I come to a place of clarity soon and with that clarity, acceptance of what the universe and, yes, I will say god, most want for me. I hope too, that when I see that crossroads, I take the path of joy.


And the lesson? Reaching the end of a road, doesn't have to mean the end of the walk.


Last year, when we completed the Camino de Santiago, I put my shoes away. I came back and presented my findings from that walk to my colleagues at the University of Montana. The upshot: after a year of creative doldrums, walking had turned on my creative juices, led me to new forms of writing, re-launched a daily practice of writing, and returned me to the joy of photography.


A lot of research reaffirms my experience: walking opens the mind, enhances creativity, and, with its rhythms and liminal leanings, offers a physical experience of "flow." That is, it facilitates the sense of oneness between body, mind, and spirit that highly creative people, especially artists, need to thrive. The points on both of these long walks when I moved forward rhythmically, my breath metering my step, my mind buzzing with energy, my eyes taking in all angles of light, that was FLOW.


Near the end of the West Highland Way, along which I felt that same surge of creative energy and sense of flow, I wondered what would have happened if I'd never stopped walking after the Camino? How much more of the year between walks would I have lived, worked, and created in this physical-spiritual-timeless frame and space? What more might have flowed from me onto paper or canvas, into soups, teaching or birthing rooms?


Each of us in our group of walking writers had lesson to learn from this walk. Those will remain personal to the walkers. But, a mile out from Fort William, I understood what this road had to teach me:


Keep walking.

 

The prompt today was to write a letter to oneself. I am honored to have listened to the letters of my fellow writers. They were filled with pride and compassion and truth about facing challenge and meeting oneself in it. They will remain a private correspondence. If you've gotten this far and have interest, I'll post mine tomorrow.

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