Raining Cats and Bogs
November 20th, 2012: Tan Hill Inn to Bowes (via deep lows) (roughly 8 miles) …
Throughout the night we could hear the wind howling. There were no other objects but the Tan Hill Inn to impede its advance. The window shutters outside our room banged back and forth incessantly, loosening their latches that much more. It was as though they were advertising their discontent of having to be stuck on the outside. Who could blame them? Had the building been built in the present era it would almost certainly take the wind into account and have anything jutting out placed inside or altogether removed: shutters, wires, signs, chimneys, roofs, and so on. My guess is that if it survives to see another four hundred years the place will be smooth and round, so goes the windy, rainy erosion process. Maybe that’s why the joint is up for sale (because it’s up for sail)(1). Future historical markers (fashioned from cement and firmly anchored into the ground, naturally) will read: Here once stood what is now known as The Tan Hill Heap.
Inside, we were agreeably cozy, borderline restored, though complete restoration never really occurs over the course of a thru-hike, irrespective of that course. Our room was more like a steam room than a bedroom, but we knew we had it good. Had we slept outside we’d not have slept, and we’d never have awakened. Sometimes it’s easy to be happy to be alive.
We were the first downstairs, emptily equipped to ingest whatever came our way. There were a few other guests staying but none so foolish as to have walked in or to cut their sleep short just to do more walking. The eating arrangement was adjacent to the bar and guests were encouraged to sit beside one another, due to a deficiency of tables. A pair of young lovers (or so I had assumed) would end up seated at our table, sharing both space and conversation, though I assured them that no food would be shared, at least not on my part. As per custom, I had the breakfast of champions, a full English. It was a feeding frenzy; sparks flew from my utensils.
The two, it turned out, weren’t lovers. Rather they were writing an article about the Tan Hill Inn for a national weather magazine. She was the writer, he the photographer, cousins bonded in their search of whatever work they could find. Writing about the weather seemed a bit farcical to me, but then work would never end, so what the hell do I know? I’m sure in its lengthy lifespan, the Tan Hill Inn has seen all kinds of weather, and so I told the young, comely gal I could save her the time of writing by saying just that. She forced a smile. I forced myself to speak no more.
When breakfast ended and the remainder of the coffee supply had been polished off, we got ourselves dressed, slung our packs over our shoulders, and headed back out into the dark, damp abyss. We weren’t exactly fervent---the day exuded gloom---but we had a schedule to keep, or at least Ruth did. This was to be her last day on the Pennine Way, at least this time around, as she needed to return to London for that crazy little thing called work. At work himself, the photographer kid followed us out the pub, past the resident sheep awaiting their daily scraps, so he could capture the two irrational Yanks being yanked off the ground by the storm.
We said our goodbyes to the skinny bloke and walked on into the slop, quickly departing the Yorkshire Dales National Park boundary, the second of three national parks the Pennine Way intersects. The first couple of miles after the pub, through the gigantic Sleightholme Moor, were some of the worst I have ever walked in my entire life. While it’s accepted that a mile on the Pennine Way is nothing like a normal mile, this was especially horrific. The ground was fraught with peril and absolutely saturated, the navigation next to impossible, and the weather shadowless and appalling. It was raining cats and bogs, we joked, though neither of us laughed.
The rain fell in near-constant sheets, first soaking our right sides before working its way around to our left. The wind was so strong we couldn’t hear ourselves think and so we could only think about thinking, but even thinking about thinking was tough to think about. As expected, trail markings were few and far between. Wooden posts periodically marked the way, but many had toppled over in the wind, soon to be swallowed by the peaty soup.
Nature’s shenanigans were getting to be too much to handle and when Ruth accidentally dropped a plastic bag, I laid into her. The bag went sailing with the wind, immediately escaping capture and ending up somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. I wasn’t mad at her necessarily, just nearing the end of my rope. Negativity had a hold on me and was squeezing tight; Ma Nature had me in Her noose and left me choking.
I apologized to Ruth and made it a point to be nice for the remainder of the day, no matter how mean or mocking the weather was, no matter how much madness was dealt...or incurred. If it sounds easy to behave gently, you haven’t been on the Pennine Way. Hardship pulls on the emotions and it’s in times of struggle when we identify our true nature. Ruth was as steady and resolute as ever; I was caving in.
Positivity is only positivity when found in a negative environment, or so I used to tell those athletes I’ve coached over the years, but I had to fight hard to enact it now. With every cold blast of wind, and every bucket of rain, and every knee-deep bog, I wanted to quit. This was a first for me. I’ve never cared to quit hiking in my entire life. Indeed, I usually wish my entire life was hiking. But here now, no.
Near yet another endless field of boggy barrenness, this one called the Wytham Moor, we regrouped and tried to make sense of the guidebook, which suddenly seemed to be written in German or Swahili. We wanted to take the Bowes Variant of the path(2), but had no idea where it branched off from the other official route. Both routes are considered official, because both are officially hard to find. We joked that the only difference between the boggy shit and the shit found in a toilet is that the toilet can be flushed. Who let the bogs out?
After much too much zigzagging, backtracking and back-again-tracking, we found our way. Bowes was merely a mile or two away, and while we generally knew what vicinity it could be found in--England--we hadn’t the slightest idea how to get there. The path petered out in a series of small farms, and had it not been for Ruth’s keen sense of direction, I’m sure I’d still be stuck out there somewhere, bogged down and waterlogged.
As we charged on, through more mucky mayhem and past some lifeless voles hanging from a fence, the weather began to ease up. Happily revived from the soppage stoppage, we weaved our way past a farm or two and finally into Bowes, where we promptly checked into the only hotel we could find, the Ancient Unicorn. I mentioned to Ruth that at times it felt more like we’re hiking from town to town, rather than living life on the trail. But on this afternoon, we both knew it was our only option and completely satisfactory. Ruth was to catch the bus back to the “real world” the following day, while I would return to my world, another toil through the soil, a daily dose of the morose.
(“Foot”note of the Day #1: For a cool 1.2 million £.)
(“Foot”note of the Day #2: The Pennine Way has a few “official” variations in which the trekker can pick and choose which way he wants to get lost.)