My very first serious hike turned out to be something of a comedy of errors, as you’d expect from someone who has no idea what he’s doing. The hike was part of a challenge organized by the Boys Brigade, a youth organization which is a rough approximation of the Boy Scouts movement in the U.S. Unlike the Boy Scouts however, little, if any, instruction was given in map reading, survival skills or orienteering. The BB, fundamentally a Christian organization with quasi-military overtones, was mainly about drills, gymnastics and football. And for me, as with many others, the main attraction was the football . We’d meet twice a week: Wednesdays, informally, and Fridays, in uniform. On Saturday the football team would play its matches. Although each summer, we’d have a two week camp in a variety of places around Scotland, most of our outdoor activities revolved around the football.
I don’t recall exactly how the prospect of the hike first came to our attention. One of the officers must have been notified of the West Lowland area’s annual competitive hike and been asked if our company would be entering a team. At any rate, we were asked if anyone was interested in giving it a go. At 18 years of age I was already in the habit of taking solitary walks, nothing that took me too far afield, although I had already walked the old road over the hills from Greenock to Largs, about 12 miles in distance. I didn’t consider myself a hiker though or, as it’s known in Scotland, a hill-walker, but I guess I was amenable to the notion of a competitive hike, and so I said, “Why not? I’m up for it!” It was to be a 3 man team however, and my close friend Davy along with another friend Robin, both of whom were very athletic and ever ready for a challenge, agreed to go along.
It would be a 3-day event: an evening of introduction and orientation followed by two days of walking. We travelled to Muirkirk in Ayrshire on the Friday night where, in a local school, we met up with the other teams. I don’t recall the exactly how many teams participated, but it must have been in the 30 to 40 range. We were served dinner, and then given instruction on the rules, hiking basics and good safety practices. Saturday would be an all-day walk, with stations set up along the route where we’d be given some task, mental or physical, to complete. Points would be earned for your performance on the task, and also for the time taken walking between stations. Sunday would be a repeat of Saturday but over a shorter distance. It all seemed pretty straight forward, so to speak. After the meeting we laid out our gear and sleeping bags in the school gym where we spent the night.
The next morning, we woke to beautiful clear blue skies, the perfect conditions for first-time hikers. This being Scotland, however, the weather had a nasty sting in its tail. We set out full of optimism, heading toward the first check point. With no experience of map reading we went on the assumption that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. But the straight line we’d chosen took us through thickets of bushes, down into a deep gully, across a fast-flowing burn, then up a steep slope to struggle through more annoying bushes. We quickly realized our strategy was seriously flawed, and was taking up far too much time. The 55 minutes we’d been allocated to reach the first check point had elapsed and the check point was nowhere to be seen. Finally, after 78 minutes of wandering, we got there. It was an inauspicious start. Zero time points were gained for obvious reasons, but we at least earned 12 points on the task, the nature of which I don’t recall, but it clearly didn’t relate to map reading. We had already failed that test.
On the next few legs of the walk, we began figuring out how smart people might handle this hiking business, and our times between checkpoints started improving. As a result, our points total happily increased. However, other clouds soon appeared on the horizon, literally. As we went on, the sky was becoming ominously overcast, and before long a few spots of rain could be felt. Soon the rain became more persistent and a mist descended on the hills around us.
Our lack of hiking smarts was clearly illustrated by our mode of dress which was a complete travesty of today’s sensible and effective hiking attire. No moisture wicking base layer, no GORE-TEX rain jacket, and no lightweight waterproof hiking boots. My attire was fairly representative of that of my two companions: denim jeans, green canvas parka with imitation fur rimmed hood (those were very popular in the 70s), and industrial safety boots with steel toe-caps, a get-up more suited for working in the local shipyards than for trekking across the Ayrshire hills. As the rain intensified the unsuitability of our dress became increasingly more apparent.
We had done reasonably well advancing through the early afternoon’s checkpoints, the rain being more an inconvenience than an obstacle. But now it became an unrelenting steady downpour, and our inappropriate clothing just soaked it up. The parka in particular which was quilted with polyester fill became a huge sponge, a dead-weight draped around shoulders. Our jeans were saturated and cold against our skin. Walking became more and more arduous and uncomfortable, but we persevered and eventually we reached the day’s penultimate checkpoint, very tired but surprisingly only 5 minutes beyond the allotted time.
The final checkpoint was only about 2 miles away, but the weather conditions had deteriorated so severely, that the organizers had considered cancelling the event, as we later learned. We set out on the day’s final stretch feeling that the hike was now less of an adventure than an outright ordeal. By now we were absolutely exhausted. Putting one foot in front of another required a major effort on the soft, waterlogged ground. In the distance we saw a helicopter which apparently had been called in to airlift someone suffering from exposure. While my attention fixed on the distant aircraft, out of the corner of my eye I perceived that Davy had curiously been reduced to half his normal height. When he let out a yell, I realized he had stepped into a marshy area and was up to his midriff in the muddy water, continuing to slowly sink! Robin and I each grabbed an arm and, with great difficulty, hauled him up and out onto firmer ground. It was the last straw. We felt like lying down right there on the sodden ground, to wait for someone to come to our rescue.
It may have been Robin who urged us on. I can’t be certain, but I remember someone saying, “The checkpoint has to be over that next hill!” We somehow gathered our resolve and pressed on. But over that next hill was just another hill. So we dragged ourselves over that one, only to see yet another hill awaiting. Somehow or other we got to the top of it, and miraculously, there below us were the grounds of Sorn Castle, the location of the final checkpoint, and the campground where we would spend the night. Our relief was trans-formative! The two miles we had just walked had felt like 20. All three of us all agreed that never before, in our young lives, had we felt more physically drained.
We checked in and proceeded, zombie-like, to our tent where we just about had enough strength to get out of our saturated clothing and into something dry. Thankfully, our sleeping bags had remained dry, so we laid them out, collapsed on them and lay there utterly exhausted, until we were called to eat. Fortunately our appetites were more powerful than our fatigue and we somehow got ourselves along to the dining tent. I don’t remember all that our meal consisted of, but I do know that baked beans and sausages were involved, and they never tasted better.
As soon as we’d eaten, around 8 PM, we returned to the tent, got into our sleeping bags, and slept like babies until the breakfast bell was rung in the morning.
On Sunday morning we woke to find it cloudy but dry, and there was apparently no rain in the weather forecast. Remarkably, all three of us felt completely refreshed, and ready for our push to the finish line. I’m uncertain where the finish line actually was. I recently conferred with Davy, who normally is Mr. Memory Man, but he too was unsure. From the hike booklet we were issued to record point totals and times (see above), I’ve calculated we must have walked about 8 miles based on the time allocated to reach each checkpoint. Having studied a map of the area I’ve come up with two possibilities. We could have taken a wildly circuitous route to Mauchline which is just 3 miles, as the crow flies, from Sorn Castle. As I remember it though, the building we ended up at was very similar to the one we set off from, so it now seems to me more likely that we actually returned to Muirkirk, by way of an entirely different, shorter and less challenging route.
In all, there were 5 checkpoints to pass through, including the end point. As I said, we were completely re-energized, and with the lessons learned from the previous day’s mistakes, along with the gentler terrain and more benign weather, we pretty much breezed through the remainder of the course. Our times were close to, or less than the times allowed, and with each task being successfully completed, we made a significant addition to our points total. Despite the trials and tribulations, not to mention incompetence, of our first day, we were quite satisfied with our overall performance.
When every team had completed the course, we all assembled in the school cafeteria for the final placements to be announced and awards to be given out. It really didn’t matter to us where we were placed. We were just happy we’d managed to complete the course. We were awarded a certificate which I had pretty much forgotten about, but I retained the impression that it showed we hadn’t disgraced ourselves. I recently looked it out when I decided to write about the hike for this blog, and on reading it for the first time in many years, I was shocked to see that we’d finished in 16th place. Considering how inexperienced and even inept we were, we did remarkably well. Looking back I’m very proud of our modest achievement. For me it was definitely one of the most memorable episodes of my life. I lost touch with Robin a few years later, but Davy has been a lifelong pal, and I like to think that the Boys Brigade’s West Lowland Hike of 1972, played a part in the formation of our close, enduring friendship.
And now, with my walk on the West Highland Way fast approaching, memories of the difficulties encountered on that first hike suddenly have greater resonance. I’m much more experienced now, but the magnitude of the challenge revives the uncertainties and doubt I felt in those youthful days. Will I be equal to the physical demands of six consecutive days distance walking? Will the notoriously unpredictable Scottish weather present intolerable hardships? Hiking in the northeastern U.S. does have its risks, but generally it is comfortably familiar and predictable. Scotland is an entirely different world though. There’s a wildness, a chilly rawness to it, with its sullenly grand open spaces, its constant rushing waters, its solemn silent mountains and constantly shifting clouds overheard. Its great majesty can be intimidating, but it is mesmerizing and irresistible too. And so I’m looking forward to the challenge of the West Highland Way with a mix of apprehension and hopeful excitement.