Day Twenty-Five

Yo! Hadrian!

November 27th, 2012: Greenhead to as close to the middle of nowhere that England is known to have (mileage unknown, maybe thirteen?) …

Upon waking, the second thought to strike me was how weird it is that England has so many aliases. Admittedly, it wasn’t a groundbreaking, earth shattering thought, but it was one of my first of the day and slowed me enough so that I didn’t hurt myself while traveling to the bathroom, or, as the English call it, the loo, the lavatory, the washroom, the water closet. Specifically, I was heading to the toilet to take a leak when the thought struck. Oh, as for my first thought, it’s not really fit for print, virtual or otherwise(1).

Anyway, the island is also called Britain or Great Britain (humble, eh?). It is sometimes also called the British Isles or the United Kingdom or more simply, the UK(2). It’s as though the land doesn’t know its identity, even after all these years. And I’m sure had the Romans remained all these centuries later, the place would almost certainly be called something else.

No matter what you care to call it, it is a fine country. For instance, I now know that its rural populace is some of the most welcoming found on our planet. (I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled a fair amount and can thus claim this with a fair amount of confidence; as for other planetary people however, I’ve yet to meet any.) I also know that its landscape is some of the nicest I’ve ever bathed in. If, for example, I ever want to swim the English Channel, the bogs alone will have prepared me, and prepared me well.

After yet another Full English Breakfast I settled my bill, collected my gear and stepped outside. I’d stayed at the Greenhead Hotel overnight, where during the early part of the evening I got so paralytically inebriated that I’d suffered great difficulty in finding my way home from the pub, even though said pub was in that hotel. Thankfully, I had my GPS unit with me, and a bartender/sherpa to lead the way up the stairs. It was impressive he could carry me over his shoulders like that. I’m not certain, but I believe he even tucked me in.

Outside in the fresh air, my first priority was to find a mud puddle and walk straight through it. “Might as well get it over with,” wrote Alfred Wainwright in A Pennine Journey. “You’re just gonna get muddy anyway, so the sooner, the better.” Truth is, his words were slightly more eloquent than that, but that’s the gist.

But something was amiss. There were no puddles to be found and, worse yet, there didn’t look to be any that might suddenly form. The sky was mostly clear (mostly is as good as it gets in England, I’m afraid) and shadows snuck a peek here and there. There was even, I kid not, a rainbow hovering nearby. It was a dandy day. Had it not been for the freezing temperatures, and the resultant dearth/death of flower and insect life, one might’ve mistaken it for springtime.

With hangover in tow, I carefully made my way back to the Pennine Way proper and then straight off it to check out the Thirlwall Castle. Built back when jousting and sword fighting were popular, during medieval times, the fortress stood for some five hundred years before falling into disrepair in the seventeenth century. Things are always falling into disrepair in England, it seems. My guess was that the rain had something to do with it. With enough of the stuff, nothing can last. And England has had enough of the stuff. The oceans aren’t rising because of ice-melt; they’re rising because England is going underwater.

Shortly beyond the castle, after laboring up a steep grass slope, I happened upon a deep wide ditch. This was no ordinary ditch, though. It was The Vallum, a conduit that had once run from coast to coast to the south of Hadrian’s Wall, which I would soon be paralleling. Built by the Romans back in the first century AD, it is believed that it helped to demarcate the southern boundary of a military zone bounded on the north by the Wall itself. The zone between the Vallum and the Wall would have been an “off limits” region to intrigued civilians and those with no official business being there.

My original thought was that it was designed for the same reason as the Wall itself, to keep those pesky northern barbarians out. It looked to be about ten feet deep and twenty feet wide, though water and grass had filled much of its bottom, but then it made no sense that it would have been built to the south of the wall. And anyway, would a simple ditch really stop someone from trespassing? Would it even slow his progress?

With this second question in mind, I removed my backpack and pretended I was one of those blasted barbarians from the north, attempting to run down into, then up and out of the ditch as fast as I could, carrying and brandishing one of my hiking poles as though it were my trusty sword. The aim was to see if the ditch might have offered any real defensive capability.

This didn’t go so well.

Had I grasped Newton’s First Law a little better, I might’ve known why. Upon reaching the bottom of the ditch, my momentum was at full-tilt. The ditch’s other side was every bit as steep as the side I’d just run down and looked, from my new angle, like nothing more than a vertical barricade, a second wall. To make a short story a little less long, I ate shit. Hard.

Any defender standing atop the ditch’s brim could have easily thrown a large rock down atop my head and killed me, that is once he had wiped away the tears of laughter. Ditches, no doubt, do their job, even when their job isn’t really their job. After cleaning the mud from my teeth and nostrils, I crawled from The Vallum and continued along my way, the Pennine Way.

The path soon fell into step with Hadrian’s Wall and would meander alongside it for the next eight or nine miles. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, I was so excited! Here was perhaps the oldest man-made thing I’d ever laid eyes upon, that ratchety old Colosseum in Rome notwithstanding.

Set in motion in 122AD and largely completed just a handful of years later, the Wall was seventy-three miles long from coast to coast, or roughly eighty Roman miles. Its width and height depended entirely upon the available construction materials nearby. For the most part it is constructed from smooth, squared-off stones, but west of the River Irthing the Wall was fashioned from good ol’ fashioned mud and grass, to which England knows no shortage. Where I walked, the Wall was a constant seven feet wide and anywhere from underground (thus underwater) to ten feet high. In many places it no longer exists, as stones have been pilfered and reused not to hold barbarians back, but those damn sheep.

Near one of the turrets that had once dotted the Wall every one-third mile or so, I stopped and stooped down, placing my hand on a hard-to-reach stone that I could only imagine had last been handled by one of the Wall’s builders. I sat there in long silence and thought about what his life must’ve been like. He’d likely have been a soldier in the Roman Army or perhaps even a slave, confined not only to reside within walls his entire life, but to erect them. I wondered if he knew how long his work would last and whether he’d ever thought about those who might one day appreciate his efforts. It’s doubtful; his life was not one likely riddled with idle time.

My own life, of course, contains nothing but such time. And as I sat there contemplating my navel, delving further and further into my imagination and the Wall’s history, I actually nodded off for a brief spell. The skies were not yet their usual menacing threat and the Wall itself offered some protection from the barbaric wind. I awoke when the first wave of raindrops arrived, saddened to be back in the twenty-first century, where alas, that many more impedances exist.

As I soldiered on along the Wall, beyond a B&B dubbed ‘Burnhead’ (reminding me of some of my friends back home), another rainbow appeared. Like the previous one, it lay to the north, seemingly inviting me toward it. The rain had become an ‘on again/off again’ affair and each time it had ceased, enormous views would open up in all directions. The views are always there for the (picture) taking, I guess, but if one cannot see them are they really there? If a tree falls in the forest…

And of forests, for the first time on the journey, they made their presence known. These weren’t just small tracts of trees but bona-fide forests. Thick, dark, ongoing. The kind within which a big, bad American Werewolf might maul the shit out of a naive Little Red Riding Hood. Imagine her fright walking through them. I didn’t need to imagine mine; I’d be there by day’s end.

But I wasn’t there yet. I still had a handful of challenging miles to negotiate along the Wall. The Romans didn’t have bulldozers or heavy machinery, so they couldn’t mow down the hills that play host to the wall. In fact, they embraced them, to make life a little harder on those irritating Scots seeking to slip through to the south. The Wall sits atop a geological fault-line called the Whin Sill, an escarpment of rock presenting the Scots (or whatever they were called back then) with that much more of an obstacle. Crossing it would’ve been difficult I’m sure, but following the fault-line was downright wicked. Like the teeth of a saw, it was up, down, up, down, repeat.

The saw continued to cut into my resolve and when I reached the Steel Rigg car park and the junction to a vill called Once Brewed, I could no longer hack it. I stood there and debated hanging a right and heading down to the uniquely named parish. The rain had started up once more and with it the wind. Up to this point the prevailing weather had been at my back the entire hike, but an arctic front was now moving in from the north. Unfortunately, Hadrian’s efforts weren’t tall enough to stop it, so I had to stop and rethink my options.

The problem was that Once Brewed was twice as far as I’d hoped it to be. Every mile off the trail means another mile back and Once Brewed was about that, a mile off. A mile might not seem like much when you’ve walked close to two-hundred of them, but I assure you: it is. Especially when it’s followed by another, one that only spits you back out where you’ve already been.

Side-trips and backtracking are hell on the thru-hiker. Most the suffering is mental of course, since the thew--the bodily strength--has long since been acquired. If the Pennine Way was five hundred miles, I’m absolutely convinced it would attract the same number of hikers each summer (though maybe not the same number each November). Indeed, it would almost assuredly attract that many more hikers, as the challenge is a big part of the lure. But if it were just ten miles, with a hundred miles of recommended side-trips and optional routes, it would sit deserted, left to decay, forever forgotten.

Thru-hiking is a goal-driven activity, no matter what any thru-hiker tries to tell you. The goal is to walk the length of the trail, in this case the one called the Pennine Way. If it meant wandering around to see everything within striking distance of the path, or even just wandering around aimlessly, there would be no thru-hikers. (And no one is a thru-hiker until he or she is through hiking, though it’s the intent that labels us as such.) Trails may not always be designed with a specific goal in mind, but the longer the trail, the more obvious the goal becomes.

This may contradict what I’ve previously written about ‘purism’ and my own reasons for thru-hiking, but the truth is, I’m just as enslaved to the long walk as the Wall builders were. I don’t care that I stick to every inch of a specifically labeled strip of dirt (or in the case of the PW, a specifically labeled strip of mud), but I do like knowing it’s leading me somewhere, even if at the end I’m nowhere in particular. Going nowhere is as good a goal as is going anywhere else, as far as I’m concerned.

Once Brewed was going to have to wait my arrival for another time. It was back to the task at hand (and foot).

Near a small lake called Crag Lough, where part of the movie Robin Hood (no relation to Little Red Riding Hood) was filmed, I met a dad and daughter, who had driven out from Newcastle for the day, to enjoy a walk along the Wall. It was the first conversation I’d shared all day, at least with other people. We didn’t talk about anything in particular, but it was pleasant nonetheless. The lake was likewise as lovely, as only a wooded lake can be, reflecting the sky like a humongous mirror.

Not long after Crag Lough we reached Rapishaw Gap, where the path parted ways with Hadrian’s Wall, and I parted way with dad and daughter. She looked to be about twenty-eight or so and he about sixty; it was so nice to see that family still matters over here. Or at least that they still mattered to one another. As I began making tracks from the wall, I glanced back to watch them walking in unison. For the first time on my journey I felt terribly alone and, worse yet, lonely.

I trudged on straight into the rain, heavy-hearted and thoughts ablaze.

Adding to my anguish, the path soon became an absolute mess. I felt as though I was walking through the world’s longest pigsty. At one point I planted a hiking pole into the ground, or what looked to be the ground anyway, and watched it sink halfway. My poles are each about four feet in length. Peat bog was now quicksand and each footstep became an exercise in futility. No wonder the barbarians wanted to move south.

Without immediately realizing it, I’d crossed the 55th parallel, either somewhere along the Wall or just beyond it. Transoceanic flight notwithstanding, it was the highest latitude I’d ever been. Each successive stride would be record-breaking! Each successive stride would also be breaking other things (my ankles, my legs, my will to live, etc), but I was thrilled to be so far north. The landscape was vast, rugged and open, just as I had hoped it would be. With a barbarian’s vantage, I looked back and caught one last glimpse of Hadrian’s Wall, bidding it adieu.

Trees would soon smother all other views, but it was a fair trade. For the first time, the sweet scent of pine infiltrated my nose and it was absolutely invigorating. Up to that point the Pennine Way had only cut through tiny tracts of trees, none of which secreted any noteworthy notes for the nostrils. But here now stood miles of woods, fragrant forest. Almost all of it had been planted and due for harvest, nothing more than a giant crop, but the smell alone gave the impression of wilderness.

It wasn’t just the fragrance that had become noticeable. All sound had been lost soon after entering the forest. There was no longer any wind to beat upon the eardrums and what rain fell only did so by stealthily dripping from the canopy overhead. I decided I’d set up camp in the darkest recesses, where the only meteorological threat I’d face would be the temperature, or lack thereof. My biggest threat was my own meandering mind, but the day’s hardships had seemed to tire even it out.

(“Foot”note of the Day #1: Okay, fuck it. My first thought was this: if there are so many people on the planet and each is a result of sex, how come I’m not getting any? Interestingly, 80% of the Earth’s 80 million species don’t need sex to reproduce, but reproduction, of course, isn’t why I’m fond of the deed.)

(“Foot”note of the Day #2: ‘England’ is its own place, while ‘the UK’ refers to the union of what were once four separate countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland [most of Ireland is now independent; only Northern Ireland remains part of the UK; the UK’s full and official name is the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”] The ‘British Isles’ includes many islands not even part of the UK, while ‘Britain’ and ‘Great Britain’ are comprised only England, Scotland and Wales. Keep in mind that the Scots have a legal right to punch you in the nose for wrongly calling them ‘English.’)

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