Please note: I recommend listening to this at a low level while reading today’s entry. You may have to open it in another window; and you might need to play it twice, if you’re as slow a reader as I am.
After yesterday’s mandated ‘no-hike’ day, I was keen to hit the road. And the road is precisely what one must hit when leaving Bellingham on the Pennine Way, as there is no trail proper. This is often the case along the route, but few roads---indeed, few stretches of trail---are as challenging as the one leaving Bellingham. This challenge was due in part to an earlier than normal wake-up, as well as a thick coating of ice. The road was also primarily vertical and seemingly allergic to sidewalks, adding to the test.
Morning commuters buzzed within inches of me as I slid my feet upward, past a small cluster of houses on my right and an even smaller trailer park to the left. Motorists always seem to be oblivious to the world around them, I thought, squeezing between a thorny shrub and a speeding Land Rover, the official vehicle of English outback. They’re in too big a hurry to experience it. And here now, this was certainly the situation.
I’d stayed at the Demesne Farm Bunkhouse/Youth Hostel in Bellingham and though there were fifteen or so beds, I had the place all to myself. It was absolute opulence. I slept in three different beds over the two nights, because, well, I could. If I’m ever rich beyond belief, I shall have three beds per room, I’ve decided. One for me and one for each of my masseuses.
Bellingham was one of the more captivating towns along The Way. I realize I’ve inscribed this a number of times now, that such and such place was parish nonpareil, but as I continue slogging north, I gain a better understanding, as well as a better appreciation, for which towns I like best. I can’t help myself, but I tend to quantify these sorts of things when I travel(1). One needs something to think about when alone on foot all day, or else the thoughts could very well backfire. Bellingham, all told, was a sure medal contender.
By the time I reached terra non-pavé and made my way past the torpid Blakelaw Farm, the sun still hadn’t risen. The giant orb seemed a trifle reluctant, but who could blame it? Snow blanketed the ground everywhere and the cold might very well have extinguished it. When it finally peeked over the horizon, apparently debating whether or not to continue, I was well out of Bellingham, overlooking the world from high atop the frozen, snow-swathed moors. The sunrise would be one of the finest moments on my trip, a spiritual orgasm of unsurpassed magnificence, a scene so sublime, so sickeningly splendid, that I would choose the ensuing photos to head this blog. I do not worship the creator, but how can anyone in his or her right mind not worship the created? Sadly, it seems so few of us do.
“The sun is the same in a relative way
But you’re older,
Shorter of breath
And one day closer to death...”
I strolled along in a state of bliss (they don’t really have states in England, but I brought this one with me). I realized I was as content as I’d been on this odyssey. The ground beneath the snow was frozen solid and I could waddle without worry. A long, thin shadow led me north. It was the first time I had such clear guidance. A series of poles stuck out of the snow and marked the route, and the going was as easy as it can get along the Pennine Way.
And then I entered the forest.
More boggy mayhem, more struggle, more questioning of thyself.
Struggle aside, the forests in these parts are not wild by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, nearly all the forests in England are planted with geometric precision, in tidy rows as straight as a die. Each tree stands equidistance from the next, and it’s obvious tape measures were utilized. It is a birth control of sorts, and it is as ugly as trees can be. Their death is also controlled of course, as trees are only ever given birth by man so that they can be killed, not unlike so many other plants and animals in “The New Natural” that is today. And the sooner, the better, for fast profit margins are the real demand! England’s Forestry Commission is no different than the US Forest “Service,” both being a big disservice to Mother Earth.
The Countryside Act of 1968 required the Forestry Commission and other public agencies to “have regard to the desirability of conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside,” but everyone’s definition of ‘natural beauty’ is different. Your definition is likely to be skewed when you’re paid to cultivate crops; uniformity becomes a thing of beauty.
Although any semblance of biodiversity had been lacking, the conifers still offered something new, and swapping moorland for them is always welcomed. These may have been managed, but I’ve never met a tree I didn’t like. (If poison oak were a tree, this would not be the case.) Some people idolize other people; I idolize trees. And rocks. And rivers. And oceans. And mountains. And jungles. And deserts. And someday, when my planned world domination kicks in, I will let these things and these places be my spiritual sherpa. Even leaders need leading, after all.
I walked on in silence, passing in and out of plantations, hands tucked in my windpants to help alleviate my ever-present Raynaud’s symptoms. The wind had a teethy bite to it, and though it was an absolutely clear day, the weather was definitely arctic, with the temperatures ranging from cold as shit to fucking freezing. I grew closer to death with each breath, and not strictly because of the passage of time(2). “Nothing burns like the cold,” wrote George R.R. Martin, and few things can alleviate an inhumane chill that digs down to the marrow. I was fighting my own cold war and thought of building a fire, or perhaps setting myself on fire. I laughed to my lonesome when I thought about that very adage…
Build a man a fire and he’ll be warm for a night.
Set a man on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.
When I led myself out of the hideous tracts of trees, I was already within spitting distance of Byrness, the penultimate town along the Pennine Way for the northbound rambler. (The term spitting distance took on a whole new meaning here, as even spit froze before it left the mouth; I was that close to Byrness.) The Pennines had petered out and the Cheviots had kicked in. Fields of stumps---knee-high relics of livelier (and lovelier) times---periodically lined the route, but trees were in abundance near the day’s terminus.
I’d check myself into the Forest View Inn, run by a gracious couple named Joyce and Colin Taylor. There was nowhere else to stay but for my tent, so the decision was a no-brainer. (No-brainers always come naturally for me, for some reason.) To call Byrness a town is to flatter it. There were only two businesses (a petrol station and the Inn) and a smattering of residences, all of which seemed deserted and left to decay.
Joyce and Colin were surprised to see someone pull into their place on foot, even though their business card dubs the inn a “Walkers Accommodation,” and even though Ruth had arranged for me to stay the previous day. “We never get anyone this late in the year,” they both echoed. “But when we do, it’s almost always someone from the US.”
I took that as a compliment, and as testament to just how hardened we American adventurer-seekers can be, but I’m pretty sure they meant it in another way. Indeed, their next query confirmed this.
“Are you mad?”
I knew what they meant but opted not to explain my mental state, for fear I might be kicked back out into the cold.
“I have nothing to be mad about,” I replied. “I’m hiking.”
I’d spend the evening pouring cup after cup of tea. I’d also pour over a collection of maps that Colin had set aside for wayfarers. The tea was that Earl Grey stuff, closer to black than grey, but never mind that. The Brits love anything remotely grey---it reminds them of the weather, I think---and Earl Grey is an English custom, maybe even a law. Irrefrangible law. The stuff looks and tastes like volcanic ash, and it has always left a brackish tinge in the back of my throat. I dumped six sugar cubes and four ounces of milk into each eight-ounce serving, to take the edge off. Of course, with all that sugar and caffeine (not to mention the looming terrain), I’d be on edge all night.
The maps were the Ordnance Survey brand…maps, as Bill Bryson puts it, that “are in a league of their own.” The detail is unreal and I could literally picture the terrain I was about to take on, if not the grouse and the sheep scattered about atop it. If only the map had had a ‘YOU-ARE-HERE’ arrow on it somewhere, I could’ve gotten started.
Arrow or no arrow, like most outdoorsy types, I love maps. And there comes a time in every adventurer’s journal when they must assert their love. This is that time. Maps inspire more than a well-written book ever can, and this is especially the case with the OS brand. Every cliff, every twist in the trail, every glen, every dale, every beck, every barn, every detail can be visualized and consequently dreamed about. Of course, all of these features will be forgotten the second I fold the map back up, but I love pretending I at least know what I’m getting myself into. And if I ever learn to use a compass, I could see myself getting deeper into the wilderness, where I can get into deeper and deeper trouble.
I’d have enough trouble over the remaining twenty-seven miles, I’d surmised, so I depleted my tea, attempted to fold the maps up the way they had been, and immediately forgot what I’d just examined. It’s impossible in this day and age to roam anywhere that hasn’t been mapped, but it’s easy to un-map an area just the same. You can either neglect to bring the maps (ala Chris McCandless) or have a mind like mine, a mind so entirely forgetful that even the same old place is always new and exciting. And to think some people say forgetfulness is a bad thing! And to think some people say forgetfulness is a bad thing!
(“Foot”note of the Day #1: And even when I don’t travel. I enumerate everything, from experiences to appearances. I certainly count my blessings. Music and art are also graded (and consequently ranked), of course. But above all else, I love ranking movies. Shawshank Redemption is a great movie, perhaps my Best of Show.)