The great challenge in climbing Mount Everest, so said George Mallory, is “because it’s there.” The great challenge of the Pennine Way, so said Barry Pilton, is “because it’s not there.” They’re both right, of course, but I’m inclined to think that it’d be less problematic to take on a challenge that you can see, as opposed to taking one on that you cannot.
It’s easy to see that the Pennine Way is not always easy to see, thanks mostly because of the murk, the open moorland, the bogs and the knee-high heather. We’d cross the threshold into the same unsettling setting today, from a lovely, languorous landscape up into what would become our toughest test yet. But that would have to do more with the skies pounding us than the ground pounding. On the Pennine Way, you get used to being pounded from all directions and all sources.
In spite of its lame name, Hawes was my silver-medal-winning town to this point, regardless how I described it in yesterday’s journal. The place had all the makings of a Funnybone! Approved hamlet: it was nowhere enough yet somewhere enough; it was rooted yet unhinged; it had enough pubs for all its citizens and some leftover tourists to take up permanent residency; a creek split the city in half; there was a camping store and an ample grocery store; the streets were cobbled and the buildings were old and made of stone; it was relaxed (and thus relaxing); and it sat securely nestled underneath endless rolling hillsides. Had it played host to a canal and a few thousand more single women, I would not have left.
Still, I couldn’t get over the name. After seeing so many unique town names, ‘Hawes’ just stalls and sputters as it drips off the tongue, despite a lone syllable. There’s no enduring aftertaste or anything, just a bittersweet sourness that escapes the instant the name does. I figured that the name was merely a disguise so that hordes of hefty tourists wouldn’t be inspired enough to come. City councils sometimes do what they need to, in order to preserve the city’s way of life. We’d never know in the case of Hawes, as November ain’t tourist season.
It is, however, hunting season. Yesterday, as we walked down the steep grassy slopes into town we could hear sporadic gunfire off in the distance. We hoped that what the distance was then wouldn’t be less distant today. The weather looked to be good enough for hunting and I prayed that Ruth and I wouldn’t be mistaken for grouses or pheasants. The backpacks might’ve been a dead giveaway, but I never trust those with a gun in their hand, no matter what---or who---they’re aiming to shoot.
We left town after collecting groceries and a fruitless rummage around for mittens. Most days out here my hands are inoperable and I am in desperate need for some sort of solution. “Amputation,” Ruth joked. I did not laugh, as amputation is no laughing matter.
After crossing the River Ure (as in ‘yur’ gonna freeze if submerged), we skirted the atom-sized parish of Hardraw. As we walked on through meadows of panicky sheep, I wondered if it was Hard + raw or maybe Har + draw. With the Brits, you never really know; it’s probably pronounced in a manner that makes no sense whatsoever: Hurrah or some such. If I’m ever born English in a future life, I hope I’m either deaf or mute. Then again, the country does produce some phenomenal rock bands, so if I had to choose between the two, I’ll go with mute. Not only will this serve others well, I won’t be mispronouncing anything, which always makes me a trifle nervous.
Not long after Hurrah, we left civilization on its own. Camaraderie would only come by way of one another, as even the sheep started evaporating. After some seriously steep climbing, a few hundred stile crossings and some tricky gate negotiating, we reached the moors. Open, austere, uninviting moors…the worst kind of nothing. The route would continue to be entirely uphill. Into a headwind. And driving rain. The Pennines are as violently malicious as they are engaging.
The wind was categorically ferocious and we each had to use our hiking poles to remain upright citizens as we worked our way toward the 2,350-foot Great Shunner Fell. Ruth and I both admit to being wildly uncoordinated, and now we had to use the entirety of our focus on staying perpendicular to the earth. The act involved a preposterous amount of leaning, and each time the wind let up, if only just briefly, we’d risk toppling. This wasn’t walking; it was full-contact hiking.
With each turn in the trail the wind would switch directions, so that even at our pathetic turtle-envying pace, we had to be alert and constantly alter our lean as we trudged onward. Crosswinds were the worst since there was little we could do to make ourselves more aerodynamic. I’m a thin guy, but my profile with backpack and all was similar to that of a barn…not terribly sleek, really.
And then came the bogs. The black holes got so unruly in places that I’d yell Land ho! each time I extracted myself from one, only to fall back into another just a few steps thereafter. What we needed were waders, not gaiters.
And then came the mist. “Back into the soup de jour,” I shouted to Ruth, but she was well out of earshot (though at most a few meters away; thus was the effect of the wind).
And then came the snow, which had traded places with the rain as we grew nearer to Shunner’s crown.
We were now wearing the bulk of our clothing, which meant come nighttime we’d need to sleep naked or find a warm bed. Surviving a night dressed in sopping clothes is a sure-fire formula for hypothermia and might not mean surviving. A bunny rabbit further exemplified this as he lay lifelessly atop the trail, another casualty of the unsympathetic conditions. Without so much as a word, we knew we needed shelter come nightfall. The village of Thwaite, a taxing ten or eleven miles beyond Hawes, was now in our crosshairs, come hell or high water or snow or bogs.
But the decision didn’t make the going any easier. A climber knows when he’s reached the summit of Everest that he’s only halfway. We weren’t even that far. The walking was especially perilous when the stone slabs replaced bogs, since ice had already formed atop most of them. Ruth had to skim her feet along, to ensure her safety. I opted to stay off the slabs altogether and walked just beside them in the muck.
Back at the Ebor House B&B, the proprietor, an energetic middle-aged bloke named Stuart, assured us we’d have no problem making it to Thwaite…
“I have friends who run there and back before breakfast!”
Never mind that his friends probably didn’t pull off the feat in conditions quite so atrocious or diabolical, and certainly not with a rhinoceros strapped to their back, which is nearly as tough as pronouncing the plural form of rhinoceros. Rhinoceroses? Rhinocerosi?
Stuart happened to be a volunteer for the local search and rescue squad and didn’t think what we were doing was wise (no arguments there), going on to tell us about the number of rescues he’s been a part of in these hills (um, large). Ruth and I would later joke that as kind-natured as he and his wife Janie were, we didn’t want to ever see him again. I’ve never been searched or rescued, and I plan never to be, save maybe by a future wife.
Just prior to Great Shunner Fell’s characterless high point we ran into two older men out for a ramble. I’d mistaken them for long-distant hikers since they were carrying as much or more than either Ruth or I---sumo-hikers or heavy truckers, I call ‘em---but they swore they were day-trippers. One of the fellows was wearing a down jacket, which seemed an odd choice what with all the moisture here in the UK, but he looked a little less miserable than we did. The thought of murdering him and helping ourselves to his outfit was difficult to deny. Survival isn’t always so civil. We’d just need to be careful not to tear into his jacket and let all the feathers escape, I thought to myself, probing for my pocketknife.
By late afternoon we departed the hiemal, hateful conditions and stumbled into farmland, before stumbling into the splendid crossroads that is Thwaite (population: fifty and shrinking). The farms we ventured through were like most those in England: tiny, tidy and attractive. Unlike in the US, there are few, if any, FrankenFarms over here. There are no mono-crops with endless fields of corn, wheat or soy, and the animals here don’t feed on these unhealthy fillers. They eat lovely, verdant grass. The rain practically comes daily in the Pennines and though we hikers despise it, it encourages all other life forms.
When we left the grass and the sheep behind we emerged in Thwaite. We were astonished the place was even on the map (or in the guidebook). There were just seven or eight buildings and five or six of them looked to be abandoned, a ghost town in the making. One building, however, had a sign out front, advertising that it was not yet deserted and indeed open for business. The place was called the Kearton Country Hotel. We sloshed our way in, shed what water we could, and paid their asking price for a room. Had they charged five times as much we still would’ve paid. Sometimes money is meaningless.
The hotel was absolutely unforeseen, not just because of its placement in such a small town, but because few hotels could ever rival it in its elegance and exquisiteness. This was a five-star accommodation in a no-star setting and Ruth and I agreed: it was just what we needed. The best has always been good enough for us.