The Benign Way...NOT!
November 22nd, 2012: Kirkcarrion to Langdon Beck Hotel (9-ish miles) …
It seemed like a good idea at the time, this Pennine Way jaunt. It had always been one of those outings I wanted to take part in…to experience, and to live. Why, I can’t always put into words. (Never mind that words always tend to fall short of experience anyhow; nonetheless, it is still worth trying, methinks, if for no other reason than to have something to look back on later in life.) Perhaps it was the challenge, the English countryside and its people, the canal crossings, the sheep…I don’t know. I just knew it was another of life’s infinite possibilities that I desperately wanted to taste.
But last night and today would leave me wondering why. Throughout the evening, the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced pounded the tent, and without a single let-up. I thought I was safely cocooned, having laagered alongside a head-high stone wall and well within the puny but protective forest, but the sadistic winds swirled everywhere, and they knocked down my tent on no less than five occasions. It was like one of those heavyweight fights in which the boxers don’t waste their time boxing…rather, they fight and try to slaughter one another, only I am not a good sparring partner and the opponent I was forced to face has never ever lost. Last night She won yet again.
I tried to shoot some video of the situation, but the noise ruined one take after the other. Finally, I captured a short snippet and immediately pressed playback, only to get hit in the head with an airborne branch that had fallen from a nearby tree. Well, at least I think it was a nearby tree; the winds were carrying even the heaviest of objects vast distances. With enough lift, everything can be considered a kite.
It was essential to mull over how I was going to break camp and tear down the tent, for fear it and everything else might otherwise fly away. So, while inside the fluttering tent, I stuffed everything I could into my backpack before stepping outside and removing the tent poles. I’d left the tent securely staked to the ground, carefully removing one stake at a time. The tent flapped violently enough to have caused some serious harm, had I not closed my eyes in time.
At last loaded up and ready to go, I double-checked the area behind me, knowing damn well that if I had forgotten anything, it wasn’t about to sit obediently still and was, in reality, likely already well out of eyesight. I’d never felt such powerful gales. These were the kinds of winds that could grind down a diamond, given enough time. I’d estimated them to be in the eighty to ninety mile-an-hour range, but whatever their speed, they were strong enough to have toppled one or two of the trees. I was fortunate that those closer to me all still stood, or else I may never have again(1).
Oddly enough, within minutes of departing the top of the hillock, the wind almost completely diminished. I had chosen the worst possible place to camp. I’d learn in town that Kirkcarrion was a tumulus---it had once been an ancient burial site (sure enough,‘Kirkcarrion’ means ‘ancient burial ground’ or ‘church of the dead’ in olden day English) and that it was all too obvious that I had infuriated the gods by attempting to sleep there (trust me, I never slept). A cashier in the local Co-Op couldn’t believe I stayed where I did, assuring me I was lucky to be alive.
“That place is haunted,” she said at point blank range, with not even the slightest smirk. “It’s not only an ancient burial site,” she went one, “But I’ve heard of numerous Pennine Way hikers who’ve slept up there and never woke up.” She paused. “Ever.”
She reminded me of the movie American Werewolf in London, in the scene where the all the local yokels sitting and drinking in The Slaughtered Lamb tell the young Americans to “Beware the moors, lads.” Of course, by now, like any other Pennine hiker would, I knew to be wary of the moors, but how was I supposed to know I was sleeping in a haunted cemetery last night? I counted my blessings and shall forever look at every single day from here forth as a bonus (though not a windfall).
Few towns are as divine as Middleton-on-Tees. Unfortunately though the place looked to be going under (metaphorically and physically speaking, as the River Tees was no longer teasing). When I stopped in at the local outfitters, to purchase some much-needed new boots, the proprietor admitted she too was going out of business. Everything in the store was fifty percent off, and although I benefited from it, I hated seeing tough times befall such a charming lady and such a wonderful town. She assured me she had bigger concerns anyhow, in that she was recently diagnosed with a form of multiple sclerosis.
I walked around Middleton a dejected man, enamored with the beauty of the place, but saddened to see it changing so rapidly, and in the wrong manner. Each business I swung into looked to be barely hanging on, a deathly air rising rapidly. Like so many others in Northern England, the town was founded on mining, way back in late 1700s to early 1800s, but those days had long since passed and the only economic stimulus available now was that of tourists and Pennine walkers. I tried to do my part and bought some waterproofing wax and some extra laces for my new boots.
The route from town took me along the River Tees. At first the going was straightforward and civilized and even quite picturesque. The farms were scattered but flourishing. A kaleidoscope of fall colors lined the path and the river was as pristine as a newborn baby. But things eventually turned sour. The rain shifted from innocuous into overdrive, backseat driven by a remorseless wind. And of course the muck returned, as it always does on The Way. A muck-less crossing through the Pennines is only accomplished by car or train.
Near the aptly-named High Force Waterfall I stopped to gather my thoughts and a few pictures. The cascade fell a vertical seventy feet and there were no fences or barricades to keep tourists from peering too far over the edge and falling to their deaths. Nearby a rambunctious dog ran around and I worried he might do just that. A youngster was chasing him and I couldn’t see any parents around.
“Your parents didn’t fall down the waterfall, did they?”
It was perhaps an inappropriate question to direct to a ten year old, but he seemed a bit young to be wandering alone around such a hazardous setting.
“No, my parents are visiting friends who live just over there, across the river. They’re all old people and my dog and I were bored.”
“I like your dog,” I said, patting him on the head (the dog, not the kid).
“He ate our neighbor’s cat,” he replied.
“Really?, I replied, taken aback. “That’s not good.”
“It’s okay though, I didn’t like the cat.”
“Oh, in that case it is okay.”
“He’s my best friend,” the kid told me.
“Yes,” I replied, “I think he’s worthy of that. He seems a good dog. If only he didn’t eat cats. Dogs probably should not be doing that.”
The dog didn’t look the sort to go ingesting cats. He was a mongrel amalgamation of too many breeds to decipher, but seemed much too friendly to be violent. He buried his nose deep into my crotch and never stopped wagging his tail---the type of pooch who yearned to be petted.
“It surprises me he ate a cat. Did he eat it or just kill it?”
He paused. “Whole.”
“Hmmm. Well, I like him,” I answered.
“He’s my best friend,” the kid repeated.
“Well, I have to keep walking. I’m hiking the Pennine Way.”
By the look on his face, the kid had never heard of the Pennine Way.
“I’ve never heard of the Benign Way,” he said. “What is it?”
“The opposite of the Pennine Way,” I replied. “Which is England’s longest hiking path. It’s beautiful, though anything but benign.”
“It’s beautiful even today?” he inquired.
I paused. It was a damn good question.
“Well, not so much today.”
I paused: “Well listen, it was great talking with you. But I have to carry on. I become too cold if I’m not walking. Be careful around here. That’s some serious water flowing overboard,” I warned, pointing to the frothy mess. “We don’t want your dog to slip and fall in. Who would control the cat population?”
The waterfall was as loud and powerful as any I’d heard or seen in years. With all the rain, the river was swollen to two or three times its normal flow, taking down with it all kinds of detritus: parents, rocks, trees, dogs, hillsides, litter---you name it. A small orange life preserver float/ring thingamajig was mounted on a post beside the river, just upstream from the cascade. I glanced back to check on the kid and the dog, but they were already out of sight, though hardly out of mind; I worried I might be seeing the headlines in the following day’s papers.
By early evening I was completely soaked and made it a point not to camp two nights in a row, or at least not this night. I set my sights on the Langdon Beck Youth Hostel, but when I arrived the place was closed. A lone tenant told me his buddy owned the place and that he himself was only staying because he was doing some construction work nearby. The place’s owner was on some sort of hiking vacation in France. I tried to convince the guy that I was in desperate need of a warm bed---I was, and it was fairly obvious if you were to have asked me---but he would have none of it. I even promised I’d leave the place cleaner than I had found it, but with one glance at the mud encasing me, he knew better. I walked on into the night, shivering and cussing humanity.
A house next door, the East Underhurth Farm B&B, was also closed down for the season, and so I snuck into a barn next to a couple of warm cows and debated what to do. I seriously considered walking throughout the night. It was nearing 8pm and it’d been dark for four hours already, but the thought of trudging for nearly twelve more hours before a new day dawned was too much to bear, as was the tang of the cow patties I was standing in. Strung out and hoping to be wrung out, I strode toward the last possible option, the Langdon Beck Hotel.
Thankfully, not unlike the slanting rain, luck was on my side. The owner, a charming older lady with a warm smile and an engaging disposition, showed me to my room and even turned the radiators on, a deed most hotel managers seem to oppose adamantly. Once she left me to my own devices, I quickly stripped down to nothing; washed all my clothes in the en suite sink; dried everything with the en suite blow-dryer; hung everything in the en suite closet; and kicked back for the short remainder of the night, cracking for the first time in hours, a sweet en suite smile. Once warm, I could chill, if that makes sense.
(“Foot”note of the Day #1: One of my friends from high school, Sammi Galuski, was paralyzed from a tree fall that killed her fiancé, and I thought of her here now, and the stark reality of the possibility.)