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The Hike

19 Jul

I am back. I am clean—well, almost clean, since I still need to shave my beard. And before I get started telling the tale, I want to take a moment and thank everyone who has supported me on this trip and also everyone who has donated to End Polio Now via my CrowdRise website. So far, I have raised $2,200, putting me very very close to my $3,000 goal! I have been honored and humbled by people’s generosity, and am so pleased that this trip has given me the chance to give something back to Rotary, who has made the past year in Scotland possible. It is still not too late to make a contribution! If you would like to donate to End Polio Now, please follow this link and click the big orange button in the top right that says “DONATE.”

Since before I even arrived here last August I have been wanting to do a coast-to-coast hike. My experience thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail gave me an appreciation for “slow-travel,” so to speak, and I enjoy taking the time to truly see and experience every single bit of land between point A and point B. With the help of my friend Michael Reader-Harris (who is only one munro shy of hiking all of Scotland’s 270 mainland munros), I began to chart out a route across the island. There was a lot to consider when planning the route; west-to-east or east-to-west? follow the glens or the ridges? how many miles? where should I start or finish? I began by picking the termini, settling on the Knoydart peninsula on the west coast because of its remote and rugged character, and Montrose in the east because many other coast-to-coast hikes finish there. Indeed, it wasn’t until after I had done my basic route planning that I learned that Knoydart is home to Britain’s most remote pub and that the scenic Scurdie Ness lighthouse is located in Montrose. After choosing the start and end point, I then began to connect the dots between the two termini, finding ways for my route to go through areas that I wanted to visit, such as Ben Nevis or the Cairngorms.

In the week before leaving, I spent a lot of time getting all of my gear together. Since this was an unsupported backpacking trip, this meant carrying all of my supplies and gear with me. I try to travel as light as possible, because every pound on the back feels like a ton on the legs. In the end, I carried in my pack a tent, sleeping bag and mat, a cook pot, stove, fuel, small first aid kit, waterproofs, clothes, food, and water. This of course is what most people carry, but the difference is really in the individual items. Whereas most people’s first aid kit could probably perform surgery, mine is essentially a plastic bag with a tube of antibiotic cream and some bandages. I met a fellow on the trail who was carrying one of those butane cartridge stoves that you see in fancy restaurants for cooking tableside omelettes or Bananas Foster; my stove was made out of an old can of catfood and weighs about 10 grams. Even with all of these weight-saving measures, my kit still weighed about 25 pounds without food and water!

But finally the planning was finished, and it was time to hit the trail! On Sunday July 3rd, I dipped my foot in the North Sea at the Scurdie Ness Lighthouse in Montrose. It was a great place to start the hike—I even saw a plaque there commemorating other long-distance hikers who finish their west-to-east hike at the lighthouse as well. I knew that I was in good company!

The first two days I passed through urban and then agricultural areas, and it was very satisfying to see the city gradually turn into countryside, and then pass into true wilderness. On my second day the paved road turned into a dirt road, and then the dirt road into a path, and then finally the path disappeared itself, and I was truly in the wild. From there, I set my compass to a westward bearing and just started to walk.

I did a mixture of wildcamping, bothies (stone shelters), and a few nights in hostels. The bothies were always interesting experiences because they were all so different. Some were simply a stone building with a door and a window, dirt floor, and a fireplace, while others were practically five-start accommodation with wood-burning furnaces, elevated sleeping platforms, and old furniture. The Corrour Bothy even had a guitar!

Shielen of Mark Bothy

Inside Corrour Bothy

Wild Camping on the shores of Loch an t-Seilich

Since I was walking through some very remote areas, I spent many nights by myself without any other hikers. The solitude was shocking at first, and felt like a splash of cold water down my back. After a few days though, I became accustomed to it and even savored it. There is something exhilarating about the solitude, realizing that you are the only human around for miles. It isn’t something I wanted every night though, and I was grateful for company when it was available, especially if they had a fire going by the time I arrived!

I was pleasantly surprised with the pace I was able to keep through the hike. When I was planning my route, I set a 15 to 20 mile per day pace, and was a bit concerned that I was trying to cover too far a distance in not enough time. But I was very happy to see that I was able to make the distances without too many problems, besides the odd blister here or there. It helped that the sun rose at 3:30 AM and set at 11 PM, giving me plenty of time to walk! The hardest part was simply dealing with the rain and wet ground. Some days it felt like the land was simply a mud-soaked sponge, with water oozing up out of the ground with every step I took. There were many a time when I wished that I had brought Wellies with me, because my “waterproof” boots simply could not keep my feet dry in those conditions! I ended up using a fair bit of “duct-tape first aid” to keep my feet in good condition.

Duct Tape First-Aid

The Glorious Fried Mars Bar

When passing through towns I always took the time to sample the local cuisine, including my first experience with the fabled “Fried Mars Bar.” I ordered one from Braemar’s internationally acclaimed “Hungry Highlander” fish and chip shop. It was delectable, delicious, delightful, divine, but deadly. After eating one you feel like there’s molasses in your veins. I am convinced it would be a hit in the US, and if I can’t find a job by this fall then I think I’ll try to introduce it to the State Fair of Texas!

Although Scotland doesn’t have too much in the way of ferocious wild animals, I did see my fair share of wildlife along the way. I frequently came across grouse and ptarmigans while hiking across the high plateaus. They had the tendency to wait until I was right upon them to then make their presence known to me by squawking loudly and darting past me in a flurry of feathers. The surprise made me jump more than a few times! I also came across plenty of domesticated animals as well, including a herd of highland cattle on my second to last day, giving me one of my favorite photos from the trip.

Highland Cow in Glen Dessary

Although I did not plan it this way (I promise!), my route passed through many areas where they filmed scenes from Harry Potter. It was pretty neat to see signs like the one below, or walk past landmarks that I recognized from the movies!

Harry Potter Mania!

The Glenfinnan Viaduct, AKA the “Harry Potter Hogwarts Express Bridge”

My favorite moments on the hike were when I was hiking off-trail. As I was walking across the plateau from Cairn Toul to Glenfeshie, I stopped and looked around and realized that I could not see any sign of human civilization—no roads or even trails, no cars, people, not even airplane contrails above me in the sky. It felt like I had traveled back in time.

Glen Geusachan illuminated by sunlight 

The other highlight of my trip was my climb up Ben Nevis, the highest point in Britain. The mountain’s base is actually at sea level, so you have to climb all of it’s 4,409 feet! I climbed the mountain following the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête route, which is the more challenging of the two established routes to the top. The first part of the climb is easy enough because it follows a steep but well established trail up into the basin beneath Nevis’s North Face. But once I got to the basin, I saw that the trail disappeared and I essentially had to scramble straight up hand-over-hand a 60° scree slope, only to get to a knife-edge ridge which I was then able to follow to the summit. If you look the photo below, the route follows the thin ridge on the left, then up through the clouds to the summit. It didn’t help that the basin was covered in fog, so I truly had no idea how far I was to the top. The ridge walk to the summit was absolutely incredible, because when I looked to the right all I saw was fog, but to the left was crystal clear, letting me see literally thousands of feet down to Glen Nevis. It was a terrifying but thrilling experience that goes down in my life-list of best mountain climbs!

Ben Nevis and the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête, shrouded in clouds

At the summit of Ben Nevis

So finally, on Friday July 15, I arrived at Inverie beach on the Knoydart Peninsula, the end-point of my hike. It was a strangely anti-climactic experience ending my hike there. Unlike when I finished the Appalachian Trail, there were no people to greet me, no plaque commemorating the end of the trail, indeed no “end of the trail” to speak of at all since I had made up the trail myself. I took me about twenty minutes to even get a proper picture taken of me standing in the ocean, because there was no one there to take the picture and I had to keep trying to balance my camera on my backpack. It would have been sad had it not been so funny!

But in it’s own way, it was a fitting end to the trip. Although standing in the ocean at the end of my hike was certainly an important experience, the trek was much more about the journey from ocean to ocean, about the places in between. That’s why when I look back on the experience, I don’t immediately think of Scurdie Ness or Inverie, but instead think about the amazing places between those points, like Ben Nevis or Cairn Toul.

The end of the journey, standing in the sea

After dipping my feet in the water and taking my photo, I headed up the beach to “The Old Forge,” which is Britain’s most remote pub. Although Inverie is located on the British mainland, it is an incredibly isolated town because it has no road access to the rest of the mainland. The only way into the town is either walking across the Knoydart peninsula, as I did, or sailing in from another port. Because of its remoteness, the pub certainly has its own distinct character. The food was amazing, easily the best mussels I have ever had, and the pint of ale was quite refreshing as well.

Stepping behind the bar at The Old Forge

And so now I am back home in Glasgow, safe and sound. My legs are definitely still recuperating from the trip, but I should be in tip-top working order after another few days of rest. I can’t believe it, but my time in Scotland is drawing to a close, with only a few short months before I head back home. The rest of my summer will be a busy dash to the finish line, working on my dissertation and looking for a job. But I am so glad that I will be able to leave Scotland with this trek under my belt. To hike coast-to-coast was on my proverbial “bucket list” since before I even arrived, and now it’s done! There are still a few other things I would like to do (like visit some of the western isles), but I will certainly be able to leave Scotland satisfied that I have “seen” enough it.

Again, thank you all for reading and supporting my endeavor. I could not have done it without everyone’s support! And now, as ever, onward.

Route Map

1 Jul

Just two days until go time! I’ve spent the last few days charting my route using this nifty website that calculates the exact distance between points on my route. I’ve been using it to put together a list of about 100 waypoints along the route to help me in navigation and pacing. My route is rather unusual in that it doesn’t follow an established coast-to-coast trail. Instead, I have cobbled together a mixture of roads, tracks, and trails, which I am connecting together to make my way across the country.

Anyways, for those of you who are interested, below is a detailed map charting my route across Scotland. Click the image for a full-size version!

As always, it is not too late to donate to End Polio Now. Just follow this link to my CrowdRise donation website. As of now, I have raised over $1,300, almost halfway to my goal of $3,000! If you want to learn more about Polio and how we are so close to its eradication, go check out this TED Talk by Bruce Aylward, who is the head of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at the WHO. He gives a hopeful and convicting message, and I’ll be thinking about his words throughout my hike as encouragement.

Help End Polio Now!

29 Jun

Dear Friends,

I have spent the last nine months at the University of Glasgow as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar, where I have been studying for my master’s degree in Economic Development. Working with Rotary this past year has been a wonderful experience that has given me an unrivaled perspective on Scotland and its culture, for which I am immensely grateful.

Since 1988, Rotary has led an international campaign to eradicate poliothrough a massive vaccination effort within the developing world. Thanks to their efforts, polio cases have dropped by 99% in the past twenty-five years. Through a $200 million fundraising campaign, Rotary is now making a final push to rid the earth of polio for good. In my classes this year we have learned how diseases like polio can trap countries in poverty. Eradicating polio will be one of the greatest achievenment’s man has made against poverty. I believe in Rotary’s mission and want to help them achieve their goal.

In an effort to help Rotary’s fight against polio, I am embarking upon acoast-to-coast hiking trek across Scotland to raise money for Rotary’s “End Polio Now” campaign. This Sunday, I will set forth from the town of Montrose on Scotland’s east coast, and will arrive at the Atlantic Ocean approximately two weeks later at the Knoydart penninsula, one of the British mainland’s most westerly points. My 200-mile route will take me through some of Scotland’s most rigorous terrain, including a summit of Ben Nevis, the highest point of the British Isles.

Thanks to a generous grant from the University of Glasgow, my charity-hike is now coming closer to reality. My goal is to raise $3,000  for the campaign, approximately $15 for each mile walked, or enough to protect approximately 1,500 children against this devastating disease.

Will you help make polio history? We are fortunate to live in a place where diseases like polio are a thing of the past—let’s help create a world where that is true for everybody. If you are able to make a donation, please follow this link to my CrowdRise.com donation website, and click the big orange button that says “DONATE” at the top right of the page. It’s easy, safe, and for an excellent cause. All donations go directly to the End Polio Now campaign.

Recommended giving levels:
Munro Climber| $200, ($1 per mile walked)
Corbett Hillwalker| $100, (50¢ per mile walked)
Country Rambler | $50, (25¢ per mile walked)
Mile sponsor | $15

Please see www.rotary.org/endpolio for more information about Rotary’s fight against polio. Visit my blog or follow me on Twitter for the most up-to-the-minute updates about my hike.

Thank you for your generosity,

Robert

Coast-to-Coast for End Polio Now

4 May

[UPDATED 30 June 2011, 4:58 PM]

I am now three days away from leaving on my coast-to-coast hike across Scotland to raise money for Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign! On Sunday, I will set forth from the town of Montrose on Scotland’s east coast, and will arrive at the Atlantic Ocean two weeks later at the Knoydart peninsula, one of the British mainland’s most westerly points. My 200-mile route passes through some of Scotland’s most rigorous terrain, including a summit of Ben Nevis, the highest point of the British Isles! I have been very busy the past few days making last minute preparations, checking my maps, and packing my gear. I can’t wait to get out on the trail and see Scotland the best way I know how—one step at a time.

So far I have raised about $1,000 for End Polio Now, and my goal is to reach $3,000 before I return to the US in September (roughly equivalent to $15 per mile walked). If you are interested in making a donation, please follow this link to my CrowdRise.com donation website and click on the big orange button that says “DONATE.” It’s easy, safe, and for an excellent cause. All donations go directly to the End Polio Now campaign.

For the latest updates on my hike, follow me on Twitter. I’ll be trying to post something every day while I am out on the trail, so check back frequently!

—Robert

[Original post follows below]

So…it’s been a while since I’ve posted, about six months or so I think. As you have probably noticed, I have been more interested in photography than writing as of late. That being said, I am planning something exciting for this summer that I thought I should bring to your attention.

But before I get there, a brief answer to “How’s Scotland been recently?” It’s been quite lovely actually. The weather has been fantastic for the past few weeks, full of long sunny days and blue sky. I finished my semester over a month ago and am getting ready for final exams. I also went back to Texas for a few weeks in there, which was really nice. I’ve been making lots of friends with other students in my program, who are from all over the world. So I am here for the summer, working on my dissertation and then coming back to the states in the fall. Okay, that’s enough of that, let’s get to the exciting bit.

I am going to walk across Scotland, from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea. It’s roughly a 200 mile trek, should take about two weeks. Oh, I’m going to use the hike to raise money for Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign, which I think is one of the most important charities in the world today. My goal is to raise £2,000/$3,000, or enough to vaccinate about 6,000 children against this devastating disease.

As many of you know, a few years ago I hiked from Maine to Georgia along the Appalachian Trail. Although this trip will be similar in many ways, it will have its own unique set of challenges. For instance, there is no single coast-to-coast trail in Scotland. Instead, I’ll make my way across the island by piecing together a variety of different paths, including deerstalking trails, range-rover tracks, old military roads, and good old-fashioned bushwhacking.

Right now I am in the planning phase of the trip. I’ve been working with my friend Michael Reader-Harris to chart my route (pictured above). Michael and I go to church together here in Glasgow and he’s pretty much an expert on hiking in Scotland (or ‘hillwalking’ as the locals say)—he is only a few summits away from having climbed all of Scotland’s 283 Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet tall). As of now, my route will take me through some of Scotland’s wildest regions and will include summitting Ben Nevis, the highest point in the British Isles. I’ll even swing by The Old Forge, which holds the record for the world’s most remote pub! Pretty cool!

So. That’s what’s new. I’ll keep you posted as things develop!