Trans-Siberian Railway, Orient Express, The Polar Express, well, maybe not the Polar Express but you get my drift, they are all famous and iconic train trips you dream about taking, having your eyes fixed on amazing scenery and you get that nostalgic feeling of traveling through a country the way they did in times of yesteryear. The train from Glasgow, Scotland to Mallaig, Scotland is one of these train rides, a five hour journey north on the West Highland Line and it is one of the great train journeys only a true locomotive lover would appreciate.
I thought it would be a cost effective way to get a lay of the land, take in some views that can’t be seen by car and it’s a great way to work on my writing. I mean who can’t envision piecing together your novel in a dining car with the clacking of the wheels on the tracks in the background, lush fern covered greenscape swooshing by the windows. It’s a lot more romantic than sitting on a bumpy bus ride next to someone eating smelly take out. I was blissfully unaware of how my George Stephenson dream ride would quickly go off the rails.
That morning my face was pressed against the windows more than it was buried in my journal, as the panoramic views of the mountains, forests and streams were all consuming, each scene through the window pane more beautiful than the last. Cool autumn wind and fog floated along the tops of the green peaks in the distance but the weather seemed to be a typical fall Scottish day. We started off expecting to arrive in Mallaig just before 6pm where I was to catch a short ferry ride to the Isle of Skye.
It was the middle of the week and just after the work day had begun so the train was quiet and I was able to spread myself out among several seats, bouncing from one side of the aisle to the other in order to catch the magnificent sights that came into view.
The weather, as I later learned, can change within an instant and as we chugged further north the rain began to fall. It seemed to look more and more ominous as the wheels clanked along the tracks and by the time we left the station at Fort William, an hour from Mallaig, they announced the last ferries would be cancelled due to weather.
“OK,” I thought to myself, “I’ll just get online, email the hostel on Skye and let them know and I’m sure I can find a place to stay in Mallaig, no problem.”
Problem, I’m in the Scottish countryside with not only no internet, but no service. Suddenly the vast green scenery I was marveling at earlier this afternoon started to look a little bleaker. I waived down the ticket taker and he informs me that the last train leaves Mallaig 15 minutes after we arrive. Great, so I have 15 minutes to run around town looking for a place to stay otherwise I’d head back on the sleeper car to Glasgow. If I would have known I’d be on the train for 10 hours today I would have applied to work the snack cart!
The mountains at this point were mocking me. The weather visibly worsened, streaks of water collecting on the windows and the trees waving as we rode by. We finally got to Mallaig and a sweet couple from Manchester offered to watch Big Red (my huge suitcase) so I could run down to the ferry terminal and see if they had any suggestions. Mallaig is basically a pier with a few places to eat and even fewer places to stay. I walked back from the ferry terminal accomodation-less and looked into the distance. Another damn rainbow. If I wasn’t in such a hurry I would have photographed it, perfectly arcing over me and diving into the water. I took it as a sign that something good was to come, thanked the sweet couple for minding my bag and hopped back on the train confident I’d formulate a plan that didn’t involve going all the way back to Glasgow.
I had several “Scottish Angels” helping me, one being the ticket taker that night who went out of his way to call his wife to help find somewhere to stay. By some miracle however my phone connected online and I found Chase the Wild Goose Hostel in Banavie to rest my head for the night with the plan to get back on the train in the morning and try try again. I checked in and went down the street for a late dinner, having the best Mac & Cheese to date so maybe the hassle was worth it?
The next morning I boarded the train bright and early and got to see the sights I missed yesterday when I was frantically trying to create phone service from nothing.
The air was brisk but the sun was shining and in the light of the morning the mountains were even more beautiful than yesterday.
Another “Scottish Angel” ticket taker after hearing my travel tale of woe let me peek my head out his work window while crossing a famous “Harry Potter” bridge on the route. I went back to my seat grinning, there is something invigorating about sticking your head out of a moving train window, a five year old boys dream maybe but no matter what age it’s still fun. Don’t believe me just watch! (Video disclaimer: My little freckled finger is in the shot for a second, I already lost my phone once this year and I don’t wan’t to make it a habit of it so I was holding on for dear life!)
After all of this how could Skye NOT be wonderful?