November 15th, 2012: Tennant Gill Farm to Horton-in-Ribblesdale (10-ish miles) …
Despite the rather inopportune placement of a large tussock directly beneath where we’d pitched the tent, a deep sleep still transpired. It’s a grand thing when the stresses holding me back have at least momentarily ceased fire, as it means I can snooze anywhere. Such slumber seems normal in Ruth’s case, though it’s not quite so typical for me. I always find something to worry about.
It’s interesting, this behavior. I’ve done it all my life. And you’d think by now, in my mid-forties, I’d understand what brings it on or how to manage it, but I haven’t the slightest; I don’t know even the words to my very own fight song. Sedatives couldn’t do the trick and I refuse to hit the bottle or inject or smoke anything. No, I just figure it’s just part of who I am and that I have to live with it (or not). For now the remedy is to hike---to avoid constantly reliving the past in my head and becoming fully disabled---but even it doesn’t always meet the demands, demanding though it may be.
On the Pacific Crest Trail my worries were legitimate: they were big and equipped with claws and sharp teeth. But here in England there is no animal that a human should fear. Not a single one can maul you. None can eat you. Nor can any inject venom into you. There are no spitting snakes or deadly spiders. Sharks don’t even chew at the country’s beaches. The place is generally pretty safe. And thanks to some non-archaic gun laws, even its bipedal population is.
My worries then are like most worries: made up. Conjured, imaginary, fake. They’re also frequent, intense and ineffectual, but never mind that. Mark Twain once wrote something to the effect of, “I’ve known a great many troubles in my life, most of which never happened,” and though I’ll never forget this wonderful quote I’m constantly forced to remind myself of it. Of course, having to remind one’s self not to worry is, itself, another worry.
Be they fake or ineffectual, they are there. Here. Here inside me. And they’re detrimental. Detri-mental. Not just to sleep, but to life. Any sense of optimism I’ve ever enjoyed is almost always offset by a profound uncertainty toward the future. Naturally, the future is unknown. That’s because it’s forever lingering on the fringes, just out of reach. But not knowing is what kills people like me. We over-think what doesn’t even exist!
Then there’s the past. I have to convince myself that the past no longer exists, only in our heads, but yet I have no choice but to learn from mine, else I’ll be repeating it forever more. And that is what leads me to a fear of the future. Some folks never stop and think. They never reflect on the past and they rarely give much thought to tomorrow. I don’t generally tend to mesh with these types, but I envy them. God, how I envy them. “Drag your thoughts away from your troubles,” Twain also wrote, “By the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.” I opt by the heels.
Atop our heels, Ruth and I tore down camp and continued our odyssey, Cloud Pennine. I’ve always liked naming journeys and this name just seemed right. For one, it’s an absolute dream to be out here. And two, the Pennines seem to know nothing but cloudy skies. Today was another such day, and as we lumbered toward Fountains Fell, the sky’s fountain threatened. The threats are always valid in England, but today the weather would only remain a risk, not an actual force. We walked through drizzle and wind and into near-freezing temperatures all right, but little of it had much of an effect. Maybe we were just growing hardened to it, like the Brits seem to have. Americans are accustomed to gun violence; Brits, to a crappy climate.
We reached Fountains Fell without so much as a hiccup in our stride. The only pauses we took were chosen, not those obligatory ones backpacking normally entails. Under brooding skies, we stopped near the summit to check out some old abandoned mine shafts. Each appeared to reach China and would’ve (therefore) provided the perfect place to take a dump, but their openings would not just swallow our waste, but us. They were big and surrounded by slippery grass. The few we saw were fenced in…inaccessible toilets. We laughed when we thought about those that hadn’t been fenced in. “Poor sheep,” Ruth said. “What a way to go.”
The mines were originally intended not solely for the sake of swallowing unsuspecting sheep, but for coal. Back when they were dug, coal was used to power trains and boats and factories building trains or boats. The shit is still used in vast quantities today, but for fireplaces and “wood-burning” stoves. Thanks to those assholes from yesteryear (those who’d created bogs with all their axe-wielding), there’s a shortage of available firewood in England and coal is the primary present-day answer, albeit a dirty one.
As we skirted the mineshafts and some piles of rock denoting the apex of Fountains Fell, thick mists came and went. With it, visibility. We couldn’t quite make out our next obstacle, a prominence called Pen-y-Ghent, until we’d worked our way down to a lonely road dividing the two chunks of land, a vast col. There, we could see that Pen-y-Ghent was not like anything we’d negotiated yet. This was a mountain, not a hill, and it was the first real peak the Pennine Way had dished up.
Ruth grew hesitant as we drew closer to it. The path gives the northbound wayfarer plenty of time to ponder the peak, as it meanders beneath it for a solid mile or two. During this time, the trail is actually just part of a slim stretch of lonely road, so you’re given ample opportunity to gawk as you walk. The muddy melee normally in attendance on the Pennine Way doesn’t give you much opportunity to worry about what’s ahead (though of course I manage).
We sat down for a bite to eat where the road abutted a farm driveway, where the PW veered off-road but not back on-road, back into the bog. It wasn’t the most scenic spot to dine, but famine demands real food and not just eye candy. A couple of garbage bins allowed us to lighten our load even further. It always feels triumphant to free some weight from your back, even if it’s just a Snickers wrapper or two (or five).
Not a single car had passed us during the road-walk, but now a number of them stormed by, ruining any would-be serenity. We packed up and paced on, thankful the Pennine Way is seldom a highway. But that would change as we worked our way toward Pen-y-Ghent’s shapeless broad summit. Humans began to appear, the first we’d seen all day, swapping places with the grouse that had lined the route all morning. It was a bit surreal in that they seemed to materialize from thin air. But as we reached the base of the mountain we could see another trail joining in on the fun.
Unlike the waves of humanity, the bogs we worried about never materialized. They were there, but had been covered with a long series of “duckboards,” an elevated wooden walkway usually found on those pretend “nature paths” through parks and reserves. Where the wood came from nobody knows, but it was as heavenly as walking in the Pennines can get. There were no ducks.
There were, however, more grouse; we humans hadn’t scared them all away. Of course, it’s fair game to scare grouse, since each time they’d make their presence known---about four or five times a day---they’d do so in a shrill manner, fluttering furiously from low-lying thickets, bequeathing unto us a near heart attack experience. I was wrong when I had previously written that no animal in England could kill a human. The grouse can, and the grouse will.
The upper slopes on Pen-y-Ghent were less slope-like and more wall-like. The guidebook promised us we’d be cozily situated at its broad zenith in a little over fifteen minutes, but by now we knew better. In fact, to this point, we’d taken each line in the guidebook and chalked it up as yet another half-truth, only in ink, not chalk. If, for example, the guidebook told us it’d take fifteen minutes to climb a particular peak, ala Pen-y-Ghent, we’d double it. This always ended up closer to the full truth.
Ruth worried she’d bog our two-person team down, but I assured her I was loving life, because, well, I was. Mountains hold a special place in my heart and this was a bona-fide beast, unlike anything prior. In the UK, there are few other opportunities to climb anything so formidable and I swore to Ruth I wanted the moment to last. The longer she took, the better. I have never cared to hike or climb fast.
I leave the hustle and bustle of society and our “real world” behind, in order to slow down and appreciate the plodding pace of nature. The world man has fabricated moves much too fast for me, and the last thing I care to do is bring such haste with me when leaving that world behind. (While there are times I feel the need to outrun the demons chasing me, it seems the slower I go, the slower they go, and the more ground I gain.) Everything today seems to be about instant happiness or instant gratification. There’s instant communication from afar, instant travel, instant access to information, instant access to money, instant “ownership,” instant food, instant coffee, instant everything. I prefer to adopt a slower approach whenever possible, as often as possible.
Emerson once wrote, “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” So few of us seem capable anymore. Of course, I’m thankful the backcountry is not crowded and I prefer society to leave those of us who need and cherish the space (and the place) (and the pace) alone, but we need wild places. And we need to slow down. While the PW isn’t precisely a wilderness experience, it allows us the chance to explore the wilds within. And only slowing down can do this. Exploration and haste are diametrically opposed.
It was nice to see Ruth experiencing that which I absolutely cherish. She was enjoying herself out here in spite of the hardships. The Pennine Way is made of mud, but she’s one tough mudder. Maybe she really didn’t want to go slow, or to do so while laboring, but that’s the nature of backpacking, I told her. “There’s no need to fight it.” There was always going to be physical strain whether we went slow or fast, or whether we pushed hard or took it easy. It made more sense to take it easy, and to take it as it came.
Nowadays, unfortunately, it seems an increasing number of hikers head to the trails to prove their worth or to flaunt their mettle, rather than to seek enjoyment or enlightenment. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve flipped through various visitor books or trail registers and read about the speed at which hikers intend to travel or are indeed traveling. So many boast about doing a path like the Pennine Way in “record time” or well under the time they’d planned, as though they are racecourses. The guidebook even points out the “record” for the trail: just under three days. That’s two hundred and sixty miles in less than half a week: hardly hiking.
When faced with these types it almost always starts with a simple question: what day did you start? But then comes the predictable boasting about daily mileages and planned completion dates. “I started in late May,” an Appalachian Trail hiker may say, “and I’ll be done with the trail by September.” Done with, as though they’re serving a prison sentence.
As an ex-professional endurance athlete I’m as fit as anyone who’s ever endeavored to backpack long distances, but I never understood the urgency to complete something you love so much. Well, unless lightning was striking, or unless I needed to get away from an annoying hiker. Whether ahead or behind or beside, Ruth was anything but annoying; that was my department, I told her (as if she needed the reminding).
I’m all for the “hike your own hike” precept, and I stand even firmer for the “to each his own” tenet, but where I tend to have a problem is in the manner so many of these hikers expose their true nature. Some write innocently enough in the trail registers: “ahead of schedule” or “making good time.” Most, however, sing their own praises about how quickly they are moving, seemingly in need of further recognition and admiration…a pat on the ol’ backpack (that is if they’re even carrying one)(1). Some disturbed individuals actually take it a step further, possessing the audacity to tear down those hiking any slower. I can’t help but smirk when I think about these types actually heading to the lonely trails to seek attention or status or fame or prestige, or to make enemies. Trails are certainly not the place I’d pick if I possessed such neurotic needs. Ultimately, this behavior is sad to see, and on so many levels.
I learned long ago that there’s a fine line between those who need the attention and those willing to do whatever it takes to get it. As a coach, I know the psychology well. Sport is plagued by self-absorbed cheats like Lance Armstrong of Li
vestrong---no, make that LIE-STRONG---fame. Hell, my ex-girlfriend, a well-paid professional triathlete, was arrested for grand theft while we dated, for thieving money from lockers at a gym we’d joined in Park City, Utah, a felony she admitted to in front of a judge, after lying to everyone involved, including me. She didn’t want such recognition of course, but this is the mentality of these types: themselves first, always. And in most cases they need you to know they come first.
All told though, the most peculiar thing to me about bringing competition to the trails is that records, of course, are a complete sham. Not only are there no record keepers or sanctioning bodies; there are no entry fees or waivers or releases of liability to sign. There are no checkpoints en route and no finish line tape or fanfare at the end. And of course there is no drug testing (and in any case very few hikers would pass such tests). Ultimately, each hiker sets a “record” by way of the honor system and only the honor system (a system repeatedly proven not to work), and only a few ego-ridden hikers give a shit. I certainly don’t. And again, I’ll never understand why anyone would want to be in a hurry to finish what they proclaim to love. Life ain’t a race! The first hiker done loses!
After Pen-y-Ghent’s pinnacle, where we could only remain long enough to snap a photo or two (no thanks to the unruly wind; Pen-y-Ghent means Hill of the Winds), we started down toward Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Those in the know compress the name to a more succinct ‘Horton,’ as ‘Horton-in-Ribblesdale’ is more than a mouthful, even for those nutty Brits who possess an affinity for lengthy or strange township names. The Pennine Way alone passes by Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Middleton-on-Tees, Lumbutts, Midgehole, Mankinholes, Slaggyford, Newbiggin, Burnhead, Once Brewed, Forest-in-Teesdale and plenty of others like it. I don’t have even the slightest idea what I’d name a town if given the chance, but I’m pretty sure none of these would be it. I mean really, Man-Kin-Holes. What the---?
Ruth’s knee began hurting soon after the downhill began and it was the most pain she’s had to endure yet. I offered to carry her backpack for a short while, but it did little to offer any relief, nearly killing me in the process. I no longer possess any upper-body strength and cradling a fully laden backpack in the arms, as though it were an obese child or perhaps a limp walrus, is a short-lived undertaking. I considered rolling it down the mountain, but it was one big amorphous lump and wouldn’t budge.
Nothing can ruin a good time like an injury, but in spite of her woes Ruth remained fairly upbeat. The views were majestic and it was almost impossible not to appreciate our surroundings, no matter the struggle. Small rocky outcrops took the cake, as beams of sunshine periodically pierced the clouds and lit them up like fireworks. Pen-y-Ghent stood magnificently beside us, a lingering reminder of what we’d just accomplished. Even the footing was reasonably pleasant, or as much as the traction in England can be.
Cognizant of the clock, we hurried toward Horton in hopes we might get there before the shops shut. But there were no shops, only shop, and it had closed for the winter. We weren’t just minutes late; we were months late. And town was barely town. We joked that perhaps the place had gone out of business altogether.
A large quarry sits above Horton, opposite of the Pen-y-Ghent side, and the entire area was unreservedly uninspiring. Horton’s role in life is to is to make everywhere else on this planet look (and smell) better in comparison, and it does this exceedingly well. Nowhere else on this trip would I encounter a place so conspicuously bereft. Toxic fumes filled the air, perhaps from the quarry, or perhaps from decaying residents, while the overall lifelessness of the place penetrated the rest of the senses. Horton was depressing in a most depressing sort of way. Suitably, we’d end up taking up residence directly across from a graveyard, at the Golden Lion Inn.
Our first order of the evening was to feast. Ruth stuck with lasagna whilst I partook in a gammon steak. Gammon was essentially a mystery meal to me, but, as is my rule of thumb when traveling abroad, I wanted to experience all that I could. That meant ordering chow I might not be accustomed to, then attempting to eat it. I figured I couldn’t go wrong with the word ‘steak’ beside it, but I worried I might puke this one back up, a foul version of backgammon. It turns out that gammon was nothing more than a big slab of pig. I’d have called it ham, while most of Britain would call it bacon. No matter its name, it was filling and full of flavor. And though it will likely remove one year from my life, it seemed a fair trade, given its tastiness.
After dinner and a few bottles of highly intoxicating cider, we crawled back up the steep stairway to our room and attempted to decode the TV’s remote control. Aggravation quickly set in and we gave up the fight. In any case, the TV guide assured us there was nothing worth watching, despite the two or three hundred channels. Instead, we just laid there on our tent-wide “double” bed, happy to be horizontal. One thing hiking teaches you is that the simple pleasures tend to be the best.
(“Foot”note of the Day #1: There’s an entire cottage industry along the Pennine Way comprised of those willing to transport your backpack up the trail for you, so that all you are required to do is walk from town to town, free from the deplorable rigors of actually having to backpack.)