|The Bronte girls, painted by their bro|
As expected, I could not sleep. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, but with earplugs and an eye-shield, I gave it a good crack. Of course, trying to sleep is counterproductive. Unlike hiking the Pennine Way, it shouldn’t take effort; it should come naturally. But, as I had inscribed yesterday, there’s nothing natural about crowding around a bunch of malodorous men during bedtime; I’m not sure we evolved that way. It’s not that I’m a homophobe---I am not---it’s just has more to do with being a claustrophobe. Of the many phobias I’ve developed or have been bestowed over the years, this one reigns supreme. It’s one more reason I cherish the great outdoors; because there’s plenty of space. Walls not only impede us physically, but also mentally, emotionally and (I believe) spiritually. The nicest church I’ve seen so far here in England is the 270-mile one we’re currently walking atop.
The thing is, I love sleeping. Not only does my life keep from falling apart during it (unlike when I’m not sleeping), but the act also enables me to survive these physically demanding desires, ala the Pennine Way. Without it, I slowly shut down, before incurring an inexorable break down.
The others in the room were still soundly asleep when I crawled out of the bottom half of the bunk bed, where hobbits usually slumber. Soundly, as all I heard was snoring, farting and mumbling. I couldn’t write or think with all the racket, so I headed down a creaky set of stairs to the breakfast room, where I began jotting down my usual non-amusing musings. Hiking doesn’t prevent me from over-thinking everything in my life, alas. Writing it down certainly doesn’t either. But it allows me to get the thoughts out there, which sometimes enables me to move onto other ones. Sometimes.
But I have innumerable recurring thoughts. At this point in my life I sense they’re pretty much unstoppable. They’re mostly sad ones about my fucked-up family, but also about an unrequited love (and a subsequent love lost, and how rapidly I was replaced) and a profound fear that I’ll be on my own all my life. Ruth and I are friends, not lovers (though we had once been). We talk about everything. I know I benefit more from our friendship, as she’s willing to listen to me drone on and on. She knows these thoughts keep coming, like a historic trail of hurt and a worried walk ahead. I’d walk through a mountain of mud if it meant I could escape them all.
This year, for the first time in my life, I admitted I needed medicating, to help calm my overactive mind. I’d have opted for a tasty tranquilizer, something sweet and fermented, but I’ve never really been much the drinker, nor do I care to be. (This, by the way, is not the encouraged code of conduct in the UK and I’m learning to abide and imbibe.) The medicine I’d been on was an anti-anxiety drug, designed by nerdly folks wearing lab-coats, those poor saps stuck in sterile work environments and thereby all too aware of anxiety as they head to the lab each day. Needless to say, I trusted them. And, despite the long list of possible side effects, one of which was actually increased anxiety, I took what they prescribed.
In my case it was a drug called Lorazepam, more commonly known as Ativan and also commonly sold on the black market, or so I had read on the Internet. (I’ve never been to this Black Market, though I have shopped at Marks and Spencer.) The drug has a sleep-inducing element to it, so I had hoped I might finally get some much-needed shuteye. A hyperactive brain never really sleeps and mine
was is definitely killing my poor endocrine system. My adrenal glands pump out more adrenaline than if I were climbing Everest in a blizzard. That would be a vacation for them, I think.
The whole brain/body stress link is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, a perpetual downward cycle. The brain comes up with the worry and the endocrine system reacts accordingly, which sets up the brain for more worry as we grow more tense, as the reaction has us do. Fright is supposed to lead to fight or flight, except of course in a human’s case. Rather, fright leads to fretful fits and not much more. In times of stress, at least at night, my reaction is inaction...action within, which isn’t action at all.
In the darkest of moments I begin to lose hope. It worries me to no end, though I almost always find it again, because it wasn’t really lost, just misplaced. But how do I go about avoiding misplacing it again? Where does one place his or her hope, so that it doesn’t become truly lost? In God? In themselves? In humanity? In what?
The human head is a weird thing. Inside it, or at least inside some folk’s heads, is a brain that manufactures all kinds of thoughts, many of which center around a bunch of man-made entities, thoughts that other people designed in their heads, like technology or money or bills. We worry about shit that really wasn’t even shit until someone else had thought of it. While I like to curse those so-called pioneers, the shit they’ve designed isn’t what worries me. What worries me is far more abstract and not yet invented, even though plenty of thought is given to it by each of us. I’m talking about the future.
When I started writing these thoughts, now was the future. Strange notion that: now was once the future. But now here we are and it’s already the past. (Recall the They Might Be Giants lyrics a few days ago: “You’re older than you’ve ever been…”) It’s truly weird to worry about it so much when it comes and goes so quickly. We don’t worry about each breath we take; we just keep taking them, until we no longer can. (We do, however, worry about each step we take, at least when atop the Pennine Way.) And we worry about a moment that doesn’t even exist, one that’s almost assuredly going to slip by unnoticed. My goal has always been to notice each of them a little more, but without the worry for the next one. We’ll see if it works. The medication did not. Sometimes, no matter what we put into us, we still out-think ourselves.
“When I woke up this morning my girlfriend asked me, ‘Did you sleep good?’
I said, ‘No, I made a few mistakes.’”
When Ruth awoke and joined me in the breakfast room, we ordered our food, food that was dispensed of rather quickly, even though we weren’t in a hurry. Hunger creates haste and little goes to waste. I ate Ruth’s eggs and her fried tomatoes, while she filled the void with a large bowl of cereal. After eating, we sat there and discussed the day ahead, despite everything I’d just written about getting ahead of myself.
One of Ruth’s two knees had been acting up, to the point she could hardly walk. It bothered her most when going downhill, but was pretty much aching nonstop already this morning. The path is indifferent to a hiker’s hurt and we concluded that, rather than risk further damage, I’d walk the next stretch alone, while she took the bus (or buses, as it’d turn out) up to the next trailside stop, Ickornshaw, a town name that can be rearranged to spell can show irk and is pronounced nothing like it looks. Anyway, the decision meant I’d have to deal with my thoughts myself, but I figured I could do so quite easily, since the path looked to be challenging enough.
Indeed, it would be.
When the Pennine Way faces upward, it tends to get right down…to business. Elevation is gained in the shortest possible manner. There are no switchbacks or zig-zagging traverses, those normally designed to spare the hiker thoughts of suicide and to help keep erosion at bay. The descents are equally as abrupt. Ruth’s decision was the smarter of the two options she’d faced. I’d almost wished I had a reason to be off the trail, but the toil definitely took the edge off my mind’s aches.
After some sightseeing in Haworth, I’d taken the number 664 bus back to where I’d left off yesterday, the one-street hamlet of Stanbury, where I rejoined the trail and began yet another day’s walk. One reason I love long-distance hiking so much is that it allows me to escape the routine of everyday life. Trail life, of course, possesses its own routine, though it is rarely monotonous. There’s a new delight unveiled around the next corner and it’s always worth seeing. Always.
Not long after Stanbury’s decorousness I reached an even tinier “town” called Ponden, home to little more than its name and a weed-lined reservoir. Then began the arduous slog up through farmland toward Old Bess Hill, more of the same exposed moorland overlooking Brontë Country. Brontë Country is not a genteel realm. It is bleak and harsh and rugged in every possible manner, but there’s an attractiveness to it that simply cannot be denied. Summer here has to be wonderful.
November, not nearly so much. It had been another gloomy day, replete with moisture moving in from all directions, no thanks to the gales. At times, the rain was almost imperceptible, while at others it was wholly torrential. I’d end up slipping and falling on grass or in the bogs no fewer than four times, throwing out a flurry of curse words each time. Most curse words were commonly known, but a few I invented as I went.
As I neared Old Bess Hill’s rounded summit, I met a couple hiking in the opposite direction (of me, not from one another). They looked to be in their late forties or early fifties and appeared quite dissimilar. The most noticeable difference was that the guy stood a good foot shorter than the gal, but he seemed to be levitating a few inches off the ground, thanks to some easily identifiable excitement. He asked if I was hiking the Pennine Way, telling me, before so much as a handshake, or even before I could fully respond, that they’d hiked it earlier in the year, in May. “It rained a lot, but we loved it!”
“What’s been your favorite part so far?” he asked, after introducing themselves as David (him) and Jackie (her).
“Ooh, let me think. Probably the first day. Even with the rain, the hills leaving Edale were aglow with light and Jacob’s Ladder and Kinder Scout were both, well, phenomenal…”
He nodded, as did she. “And how about the worst part so far?”
“Hmmm, I don’t really know that yet,” I replied.
“I guess I haven’t experienced a worst part. I suppose it still lies ahead of me. In fact, I know it does.”
“What do you mean?” David asked.
“Well, I think the worst part of any long-distance hike is when the hike has come to an end, when I have to leave the path. I really don’t want it to. It’s why I hike so slow!”
The quiet solitude of the Pennine Way offers enormous challenges and stimulation. But the return to civilization can be a deadly letdown. Thru-hikers call it “re-entry,” as though they’re re-entering a once-familiar atmosphere. And that they are, though it’s no longer so recognizable. Or favorable. Or tolerable. On the trail, life just seems to make sense. It may take a while to reach such an understanding or such inner serenity, but it takes much longer to relinquish it.
When we parted ways I realized I had fibbed. The worst part, by far, had been the bogs. But then every Pennine hiker already knows that. Some things aren’t only better left unsaid; they just don’t need to be.
The ground beyond Old Bess Hill was boggy in places but more often spongy soft, like walking atop a trampoline. Puddles formed here and there, but none formed a pond that couldn’t be bounced over. Silver ribbons of rain did what they could to saturate the ground, but stone slabs had been placed where they needed to be and the going went without a hitch. At least until I dropped off the moors and back onto the grass.
This is when the slipping and falling began, and when the inventive curse words followed. To boot, the path had pulled a bit of a disappearing act and darkness had begun to disembark. I’d left Haworth around 1pm and it was just 4pm now, but 4pm at the 53rd parallel in mid-November is, well, early evening. Had it not been for the dark clouds overhead the remaining remnants of twilight might’ve helped illuminate the way, but naturally, this wasn’t the case. Instead, I relied heavily on my fancy new GPS unit, the one I hadn’t yet taken the time to learn, walking around pushing a bunch of buttons, while the conditions started to push mine.
Ickornshaw could be seen down the hill in front of me, only about a mile or so ahead, but yet a route between it and me could not. I tried brainstorming: if I were the path, where would I go? The GPS unit told me to bear left, then right, then left once more, but town remained directly ahead. I’d thought of forging straight forward toward it, but remembered that GPS waypoints lead you in roundabout ways for a reason. And while the route may have not been straightforward, the reason certainly was.
It’s simple, really. Straight travel isn’t quite as feasible on land as it is at sea. There are canyons and mountains and buildings and jungles and farmers with guns, all of which slow forward progress, or, in the case of the farmer, might end it altogether. Just as it’s a dumb idea to take a bearing off of a sheep (something I learned back near Black Hill a handful of days back), so too is it to try to travel in a straight line. I’d continue to connect the dots.
The GPS swore to me I was in the immediate vicinity of the path and I had no choice but to trust it. It was GPS or SOS. Still, no path would appear the entire way down to town. I’d made it though, and with only a few bruises on my backside and a run-in with an armed farmer (who I had to convince I hadn’t been worrying his sheep). Ruth was nowhere in sight but we managed to get a hold of one another thanks to a keen sense of telepathy and a couple of cell phones. She’d thought it wise we carry them on the trip, and this proved just how wise it was, and just how wise she is.
The problem was in finding a place to stay. Our options were limited, at least those affording us the chance to sleep underneath a (less flappy) roof, so we trudged on into the night. Ruth’s knee was still painful, but nothing like it had been six hours earlier, she’d said (after I drug it out of her). Any normal person would hobble or limp or cuss or carry out any of the three, but Ruth is made of sterner stuff. As we moved northward, back into soggy fields of grass and mud, she didn’t mention it even once. Few things hurt worse than missing out on something you really want to do, and I think she decided some knee pain was much easier to handle than missing out on the odyssey. She had become a true adventurer!
We ended up residing atop pellets of sheep poo and a mound of saturated grass, concealed by a waist-high stone wall in the northeast corner of a farmer’s field, about a mile shy of Lothersdale. Strangely enough, the paddock contained no sheep whatsoever, so we’d be forced to conjure them up if we needed their help when it was time to slumber. The truth is there may have been some black sheep about, but it was too dark to tell. In any case, we wouldn’t need their help; the lights were out in minutes.