The goal was to get an early morning start today. It seemed a good goal. (Then again, most goals seem good, else they wouldn’t be goals, now would they?) By the time I climbed out of bed, however, my goal already required modifying, as early morning had long since snuck by. It was now teetering on early afternoon. “Oh, well,” I assured myself, “at least it’s still early.”
Margaret, the B&B’s owner, prepared breakfast for me even after I had assured her that it would be more of a slow-break. She said she was used to slow-moving hikers.
“At this point along the path we see all types,” she mentioned, “But mostly just the walking dead.”
I joked to her that it was a description that suited me perfectly, if only I were certain I would walk again.
Margaret and her husband are the most gracious, friendliest two I’ve met at a B&B since Hawes, when Ruth and I stayed with Stuart and Janie McLoughlin at the Ebor House. You get the feeling that any one of these folks would have sat down and shared breakfast in a heartbeat, but their professional demeanor told them they best behave, hard as it may have been to comply with.
Margaret calls me “Chook,” so thick is her accent. Yet I understand everything she says, since her voice is so soothing to the ear, almost melodic. It’s not that it lulls me to sleep (I’d had enough of that for the day anyway), just that it is so calming, worthy of every word spoken. And, unlike me, Margaret doesn’t waste her words. Each one means something. For example, when she said, “Leave!” I knew exactly what she meant.
It’s interesting that there are so many different accents in England, despite its relatively diminutive size. The country is less than half the size of the state I tend to reside in, Colorado, and yet I’ve detected no less than three or four distinct variations of English vernacular along The Way thus far. Back home the only accents I can differentiate is that of any immigrants, or perhaps the inner city African-American populace. Hikers have their own language too, but no one really comprehends it. Or cares to.
As I strolled out of the Bridge View B&B and made my way toward Garrigill’s outskirts (in all of ten seconds, despite the hobbling), I took one last look back, smiling. It was one of the nicest little corners of the world I’ve been. The town consisted of little more than a pub, two B&Bs, a post office/shop and the Village Hall…the kind of place I’d like to call home someday. I could only hope I might return.
Within minutes of setting out, just as I’d emerged at the River South Tyne, I was forced to stop and check a few things inside my backpack. The rain had started up in earnest and I needed to be sure I’d placed everything in plastic bags. This simple task is absolutely obligatory when hiking the Pennine Way, or else everything carried would almost certainly become soaked. Moisture itself isn’t really the issue, just that wet things tend to weigh more than dry things. The burden of a few extra plastic bags is far more manageable to contend with than when your sleeping bag has played the part of a sponge all day. Worse yet, not only does a wet sleeping bag weigh a ton…it also does little to keep you warm when you need it most.
While I wasn’t opposed to sleeping in a B&B every night, I really didn’t possess the necessary resources, so keeping my supplies dry was especially necessary, that way I could camp in relative comfort. Of course, the phrase “relative comfort” is a relatively pointless one when germane to a Pennine passage in late November. In my case ‘comfort’ meant little more than avoiding death.
Safe and sound, I re-hoisted my pack and saluted a couple of older gentlemen about to set their kayaks into the river. Each of their vessels was a brightly colored florescent affair and not much bigger than a rubber ducky, though far more streamlined and lethal looking. How anyone could stay upright in something so small was beyond me.
Now I don’t claim to be a psychiatrist or anything, but these guys must’ve been suicidal, opting to end their lives by throwing caution to the current. The river, a normally docile affair according to Margaret, had transformed itself into a raging fury of frothy, white foam and deafening decibels. I had been warned not to hike anywhere near it, especially where it had engulfed the path, but these guys were getting ready to jump in the river. On purpose.
With England’s record rainfall this year, massive flooding has occurred all over the country (particularly along the Pennine Way, I quite think). Puddles have become pools. Pools have become ponds. Ponds have become lakes. Brooks have become streams. Streams have become rivers. And rivers have become tidal waves rushing to meet the ocean. And here were these two old farts, deciding to surf that wave. I hurried downstream so that I might capture a photo or two before they shot by. If nothing else, I figured I could provide them to search and rescue squads, if need be.
When the two came barreling down the surge, the smile on their faces far outshined that of any long-distance hiker, and certainly that of mine. With greater risk comes greater rewards, no doubt. No matter the outcome, these two were doing precisely what they wanted to be doing with their day and, at that very moment, with their lives. Slogging through shin-deep mud, groveling at a tenth their speed, I was doing exactly the opposite of what I wanted to be doing with mine (though I still don’t know what that is). I found myself envying them as they passed. It would take me two hours to reach Alston. They’d have taken a fraction as long and likely have been bobbing up and down in an ocean by then.
By the time I reached the old mining town I was ready to end my day. Even though it had only been four short miles since Garrigill the stretch left me wishing I had gills. The entire course was comprised of either mud, muck or water, or any combination of the three. I was thoroughly drenched and my resolve left unresolved---as uncertain as it had been the entire hike. It would take one hell of a town to raise my spirits, I concluded.
Turns out Alston did the trick. In just over an hour and a half I sat in no less than three separate cafés, not just to get the feel of the place, but to get the feeling back in my extremities. In Cumbrian Pantry I was afforded my large latte gratis, after the first one I ordered shattered the glass it came in. My cold hands probably had something to do with it, but the barista said he should have known better than to serve it in a glass. In any case the warm fluid felt wonderful all over my lap.
At the Alston House Café I partook in a large cappuccino. Although it was twice as hot as the latte had been it didn’t shatter anything, though I did worry about my teeth as I guzzled it down. I ordered a small tart looking thing to accompany it, but its filling was not what I had expected. No, not at all. I ordered it thinking it was going to be Danish or donut-like, sweet and creamy, luscious and dreamy, when in fact it was filled with some sort of minced mystery meat. As a devout pie lover and connoisseur of all things pastry, I strongly hold to the notion that there should be a law against salty meat-filled pies. But, given my weakened condition, I devoured it without a qualm.
At Blueberry’s Teashop I ordered a coffee. Black, unsweetened, sans cream. No ‘cino or ‘cano or ‘esso suffix. Just plain ol’ coffee. The kind a cowboy would drink before spitting and saying something like, “yep.” I figured there was no way they’d get it wrong and they did not. It helped wash down the pie and topped up my tank with enough caffeine to power a small army. I marched out of Alston re-supplied and revitalized, albeit drug-induced and a bit hyper. My veins were percolating.
The executive decision had been made: to take full advantage of my newfound liveliness and carry on toward the peculiarly named Slaggyford and its neighboring settlement Knarsdale. Neither place sounded especially inspiring but, as any long-distance hiker will tell you, it’s not about being there; it’s about getting there. Indeed, getting there isn’t half the fun…it’s all the fun.
The fun eroded promptly though, as the mud, muck and water returned with a vengeance. It was time for Executive Decision Number Two: the decision to beeline back for the River South Tyne. Just before it lay the South Tyne Trail, an obedient, passive path adjacent to an old narrow-gauge railroad track. It was flat, gravelly, dry and predictable, like a path should be. As it perfectly paralleled the Pennine Way, I was to follow it for the next number of miles, free from the rigors of trudging through English farmland. “Fuck the muck!” I shouted to neighboring sheep. “And fuck you too!”
I didn’t feel like a cheat doing this, as the en règle “purist mentality” had long since escaped me. When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail back in 2002 I walked every inch of the trail. I would drop down to a resupply town and return to the same exact place I departed the trail. In fact, once, when a passing motorist offered to take me down to a town for resupply, he picked me up on one side of the road and later dropped me off on the other. I waited until he left so I could cross the road, only to cross it again and resume my hike.
This psychotic conduct no longer suits me (there are other psycho behaviors I now opt for). I feel it detracts from the true spirit of doing a long-distance hike, which is to seek, and experience, adventure. The truly free hiker is one who knows no rules. Or obeys none, anyway. Rules don’t belong in adventure and the more of them we’re bound by, the less adventure we will find. Adventure is exploration, not simply connecting the dots or doing precisely what the guidebook commands us to. Guidebooks are written by others who’ve already enjoyed their experience. They’re then edited so that they sell. And selling an adventure destroys the very nature of that adventure. Your experiences should be yours, and mine…mine. In this sense I’ve come up with my own set of loose guidelines when seeking adventure…
Loose Guideline Number One: It’s your adventure; live it how you see fit
Loose Guideline Number Two: Always take the scenic route, always
Loose Guideline Number Three: Scribble outside the lines; challenge yourself
Loose Guideline Number Four: Stick with planning, not plans; adapt, adjust
Sure, I shall walk the Pennine Way (or, as it happens to be this year, swim it). And I shall do so from Edale to Kirk Yetholm. But I refuse to be tethered to the trail or to pass up any opportunity to squeeze more fun from life. A hiker can put his head down and trudge the trail’s length to impress himself with a show of great stamina, but it’s much more interesting to use the path as a trajectory, and to come off it at any point that strikes your fancy and have a taste of whatever is available. The South Tyne Trail would allow for just that.
One or two last thoughts regarding “purism” and I promise, I’ll leave it alone. The Pennine Way is a “way,” a route, a suggestion…not a track in which we cannot risk derailment. It’s not even a trail, let alone a rail! It’s just an uneven, spasmodic, bi-polar strip of mud that humans have arbitrarily assigned a name to. There are points along this route that are up to twenty feet wide and others where optional routes appear, or where no route appears. There are side-routes, shortcuts and suggested sights to see along the way. No two individuals will ever hike the exact same Pennine Way.
Finally, the path evolves and changes, particularly on years like this one, when Mother Nature forces change upon the land (like, for example, when that land has become a large body of water). There’s simply no way to retrace your footsteps from year to year, even though you might still be on the same path. Be anal if you want, just don’t be an ass.
Atop the South Tyne Trail the walking was especially pleasing. I was actually afforded more views than I had been on the PW since I wasn’t forced to stare at each of my footsteps (for fear I might fall had I not). My pace quickened, even though I had slowed down. I could see more, feel more, think more and experience more. And sometimes, despite my ‘Less is more, more or less’ creed, more is okay.
By the time I passed Slaggyford and Knarsdale, it was pouring and getting dark. The sun sets so early now that one is forced to wonder why it even bothers appearing in the first place. Whereas in summer it works long, sweaty hours, here now it skips out of work early, and only after showing up late. If I were employing it, the damn orb would receive no benefits, that’s for sure. As an employee, it provides so few benefits this time of year, even when it’s up and (purportedly) working, so why should it receive any?
I’d retire the day up on the moors, in a mix of mud, grass and shin-high heather, overlooking an old Roman road called the Maiden Way. Back then, in the days of the Romans, it was heavily used. Here now it’s barely perceptible, except that my maps promise me it’s there. I’m forced to trust the mapmakers and the Romans both, but all I can see is rain and muck and grass, and everywhere I look.
Unless the climate was completely different back then, the Romans must also have had to deal with this shitty English weather. I sat there trying to visualize the troubles it must have presented when they were building such roads. I also wondered, if indeed the weather was this bad, why then they’d have wanted to expand their sovereignty to these parts. Foolish, if you ask me. It’s no wonder the empire folded.