In early spring, I’m traveling to Scotland to undertake my greatest walking challenge yet. Along with my brother-in-law, George, I will be walking the West Highland Way, one of the country’s top hiking attractions. It’s 96 miles in length, stretching from Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow all the way north to Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain. We will have 6 full days of walking, doing an average of around 16 miles a day. The shortest daily distance will be 12 miles, and the longest, a daunting 20 miles. While I’m really excited about it, I’m also a bit apprehensive. Will I be up to the challenge? Will my aging body handle the physical demands? Will the pleasure I normally find in walking turn into an ordeal? And what about the notoriously unpredictable Scottish weather?
The longest I’ve walked in any one day was 17 miles, along the entire length of the Columbia Trail here in New Jersey. It was a slog, but it was mid-summer with the temperature in the high 80’s. On the plus side, early April in Scotland certainly won’t present those conditions. So 17 miles in one day is manageable, especially when you have the following day to recover. But on the West Highland Way those 17 miles, give or take, will be repeated 6 times with no days off. Now that is a challenge!
However, I have found whenever I’ve been on walking holidays when you’re required to walk one day after the other, each passing day you become increasingly stronger. That was the case with Ramblers in Bavaria and Norway, and just last year with HF in the English Lake District. Hopefully the same will hold true for the West Highland Way.
But to give myself the best chance of successfully completing the trek, I’m now working on being as well prepared physically as I can possibly be. I have been doing leg and core strengthening exercises at home, but I’ve read that the most effective way to train for a long-distance hike is frequent long distance walking, and I’m now trying to do that on a weekly basis. Early on a Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago, I walked from my Nutley home all the way to Montclair State University and back, 13 miles in total. Then, this last Monday, Martin Luther King Day, I did an out-and-back along the Saddle River Pathway, from Saddle Brook to Ridgewood with a detour to Glen Rock, about 14 miles in all. Granted, there’s a huge difference between a pathway through suburban Bergen County and the terrain to be traversed in Scotland, but right now the point is to extend distance covered and time spent on the basic act of putting one foot in front of another, since I’m starkly aware that on the day we have to cover 20 miles, we could be walking for as long as 10 hours.
The Saddle River Pathway is paved all the way. You’d think that would make for easier walking, but constant impact on a hard surface for a long distance is quite tough on the feet, so this route has its own challenges.
The trail follows the meanderings of the Saddle River, winding its way through parks, recreation areas, and housing developments. It passes underneath several busy highways and roads, including Route 4, one of northern New Jersey’s busiest roadways.
However, although you’re usually within earshot of traffic noise, the surroundings are quite pleasant and even soothing, with the river your constant companion, gently flowing and reflecting the light of a cold, sunny day.
I started out from Saddle Brook’s Saddle River County Park which is where Google indicated the trail began, but the first mile marker I encountered showed I had joined the trail 1.5 miles beyond the start point. I resolved to complete that section on the way back. It was straightforward pleasant walking apart from having to negotiate the occasional ice patch in shaded areas, remnants of the weekend’s snowfall. Around mile marker 4.6 the trail splits along with the river, one branch leading to Glen Rock and the other to Ridgewood, and the trail’s northern end. I decided to explore the Glen Rock branch and it brought me to an attractive, spacious park surrounding a sizable pond. As far as I could tell the park’s name was Glen Rock Duck Pond. I circled the pond and returned to the Pathway, heading back to the beginning of the Ridgewood branch and followed it through a wooded area which was the most isolated and tranquil section of the Pathway, and then continued all the way to the end in Ridgewood’s Saddle River Park, in the center of which, like neighboring Glen Rock’s park, was a large pond with a duck theme, this one named Wild Duck Pond. I guess the ducks are domesticated in Glen Rock!
Here I ate lunch on a park bench looking out over the pond, facing the sun, its warmth punctuated by the occasional gust of chilling wind.
When done, I returned to the Pathway, retracing my steps back to the 1.5 mile marker. The path has a distance marker every 1/10 of a mile over its entire length. On the way back the markers became quite annoying. When you have racked up the miles, nearing the end of a walk, and beginning to tire, markers repeatedly ticking off incremental distance, make the walk seem longer than it actually is. Nevertheless, at 1.5 I soldiered on to the zero marker where, rather disappointingly, was an unremarkable road in the shadow of a Garden State Parkway flyover. I just turned around and walked the 1-1/2 miles back to where I’d parked my car, satisfied that I’m another 14 miles further on, in my West Highland Way preparation.
As a footnote, the Pathway was fairly busy since it was a public holiday. I was struck by the fact that most people I encountered were speaking Russian. Apparently, as I later learned, the area around Saddle Brook is home to a great many Russian emigres. Fair enough, but over the years I’ve noticed in public parks, when I encounter others who are out for the specific purpose of walking for enjoyment, more often than not they are foreign born. Considering native born Americans are in the overwhelming majority they are scarcely represented when it comes to walking for pleasure. Why do Americans have such an aversion to walking? A question for another day…