Day Two

Saint Peat, My Ass!

November 4th, 2012: From the top of Kinder Downfall to Devil’s Dyke (5-ish miles) …

Kinder Scout
“I’m not your steppin’ stone.” ~ The Monkees

“Day two!” I exclaimed to Ruth when daybreak disembarked. “We should go for a hike!”

Already, the two of us have learned a few things about this Pennine Way. Its name suggests a certain clarity of direction, but this is far from reality. Way is definitely the most apposite label for it. It is not necessarily a path or a trail; it is a route, a bearing, a trend. “Go that way!” it beckons, even when The Way or your reasons for hiking it aren’t clear. There are times when The Way is a road, others when it is a trail. Sometimes it’s grass, other times it is sand. Quite often it is rock. Mostly though it is bog. Wet, algid, muddy bog. 

A Better Way to Travel
“What exactly is bog?” you might ask. (Or perhaps you might not, in which case I shall tell you anyway.) Bog, as any old Merriam-Webster dictionary will testify, is wet spongy ground; in particular, poorly drained wet spongy ground. Just how spongy depends on where you dare stride. Here in England it’s less spongy and more sinky. Spongy implies you bounce back after placing your foot down, but this has not been the case. Not yet. The stains from bogs are also known to remain with you longer than many contagious diseases. 

Bog is also a six-point word in Scrabble, but if you were to ask either Ruth or I, the stuff is pointless. Absolutely pointless. Bog always spells trubble, whether it’s spelled correctly or not. It’s nice to know we only have about two hundred and fifty miles of it left, two hundred and fifty moor miles.

Perhaps the worst part of bog is that it is, in effect, man-made. You’d scarcely guess it now, but the entire countryside was once covered in trees. Today the landscape tries to pull one over on the unsuspecting Pennine passerbyer, coming across as a natural wilderness habitat untouched by human hands. But, in fact, the formation of the peat bogs is the result of early man clearing woodland in order to graze his animals and, perhaps, to beat other cavemen over the head with the clubs he’d carved from all the leftover wood. All that manly axe-wielding gradually impoverished the soil, and when a colder, wetter climate moved into the British Isles around 600BC, the two events led directly to a decreased potential for any sort of tree growth. Good, ol’ man…ruining his environment from the onset, clear-cutting and shortcutting his way through evolution(1). We are, no doubt, Planet Earth’s worst nightmare. The future will look back at us angrily.

As I swam on, I thought of the irony: cursing the bogs is really just cursing ourselves.

“Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down 
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground...”
~The Talking Heads

Danger: Deep Bogs
My favorite tread along The Way was already becoming plainly obvious: anything but bog, and specifically the slabs. In place to help limit erosion, these stone slabs tend to be loved or loathed by the Pennine hiker. Ruth and I decided immediately that we loved them. I even thought about making love to them, but decided against it, figuring it was probably best not to freak Ruth out just yet.

Erosion on the Pennine Way is a major problem and as long as walking remains a popular pastime it will continue to be. Thousands of hikers hike the Pennine Way each year and the placement of the stones, it’s hoped, will result in a Pennine Way that is a pleasure and not an eyesore. It’s a far cry from what the route’s founder, one Tom Stephenson, had envisioned way back in 1935---an undefined route requiring a compass to navigate---but such is the case as more people take to the hills.

Yours Truly atop the Slabs
The slabs would spare us much grief today, that is when they remained above ground or above water. As we headed down Kinder Scout, past the junction to Hayfield and onto the slab superhighway at Featherbed Moss, we’d come to learn that they too could sink, just like a misplaced foot might. So many had drowned, since the surface upon which they’d been placed was never really all that stable or secure.

In all, there were miles of slab today. I think the Romans would have even been impressed. It was quite the sight and as we strode along, we each clutched our cameras. Never before had I witnessed a trail made almost completely of stone. Most these were about two feet wide, three feet long and eight inches thick, like a big sofa cushion, though not nearly as soft. There was roughly a two or three-inch gap between each, but often times the slabs would be laid down so that each one kissed the next, laid out before you like a seamless yellow brick road.

Ruth on the Slab Causeway
Mind the gap, I thought to myself as I strode on, fearful I might fall in one. The stones weren’t always stable, of course. Some sunk as you’d step on them, others would rock side to side. Many were off-kilter and leaning heavily to one side of the path or the other. Most offered a good grip, but quite a few were cut too smoothly and as slick as ice. But even the rough cuts could play host to lichen or moss, increasing the slickness. All told though, the slabs allowed us to strive, to seek, to find, and not to sink too much.

Like the people who strode atop them, none were uniform is size or shape. But there was little doubt that each of these steppingstones was big and heavy. I’d reckoned that each weighed in around five hundred pounds. How they got there was beyond me, as most concepts are. Helicopters likely did the job, but these things were so hefty, and there were so many of them, literally thousands, so it had to have taken hundreds of helicopters or hundreds of helicopter trips.

“What do you do for a living?”
“I haul rocks.”
“Oh, by truck?”
“By hand?”
“By oxen?”
“Then how?”
“By aircraft.”

Not the safest of jobs, I’d surmised.

My only real contention with the whole scenario was that my gait never really changed when atop the slabs. Obstacles present modifications to the stride and these changes allow different muscle groups to be called into play, dispersing the workload. But stone walking entailed the same stride over and over, and it didn’t take long before we’d break down and require a break.

More Bog-n-Slab
We took our break along Snake Pass Road, a narrow strip of pavement not much wider than the slabs. The cold driving rain assured us that there’d be no rest for the weary, and although it was getting late in the day, we continued on. There was nowhere to camp on the desolate windy stretch and I felt it important to hide from humanity. England doesn’t have the plethora of psychopaths that the US does(2), but it’s always wise to pay heed to the old proverb: better safe than slayed.

The path to the north side of the road was a study in contrast compared to the south. The slab causeway gave way to wide gravel footing. The gravel had been crushed into tiny pieces and, had the weather cooperated, the walking would’ve been pleasant. Naturally, the weather did not cooperate. Instead, it operated on its own accord, its main mission of which is to subjugate those stupid enough to subject themselves to it.

Our own undertaking was to take cover under anything hanging over. But as we ascended away from the road and the waves of cars that continually appeared and disappeared, no such protection presented itself. This was pure, unadulterated moorland…open, bleak and merciless. As we walked, I remember wondering how the hell the road didn’t sink into the peaty abyss. Saint Peat, my ass.

“As you value your life or your reason, keep away from the moor.” 
~Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr. (creator of Sherlock Holmes)

It’s a weird thing to walk without any idea of where you might be nesting for the night. The thing is I’ve always thru-hiked in such a manner. I figure it’s impossible to know just how I might be feeling in the future, immediate or otherwise, and so I let the rhythms of the trail run the show. To plan where you should stop hiking for the day not only ignores your body’s needs, it also contradicts the whole spirit of adventure. Adventure is best when unplanned and life should not always be scripted.

Of course, when the shit is hitting the fan, as it was now with the rain and the wind, it’s nice to know that, soon enough, you’ll be okay. Plans provide hope and hope, as per Shawshank Redemption, is a good thing, maybe the best of things. We needed more of it as we trudged upward, onward.

Looking South from Snake Pass
Oddly enough, we’d find protection in a gully known as the Devil’s Dyke. In moments of darkness, it appears the devil can be a good friend. We were going to take whatever help we could get. Barry Pilton referred to the Dyke as a “giant’s crotch” in his book, One Man and his Bog, but we thought the area quite accommodating. Quickly, we threw the tent up and swiftly dove in, wet clothes and all. We’d shiver much of the night, and man how the tent stank, but it was the best we could hope for. It wasn’t hell, but it was close(3).

(“Foot”note of the Day #1: Or de-evolution as it may be. There have been numerous predictions over the years as to when the world will end; in fact, the Mayans had predicted it in just over a month from now, on 12/12/12. My prediction is that the world will end when we’ve killed it off.)

(“Foot”note of the Day #2: Some might argue, however, that the Pennine Way wayfarer befalls such a description or even that the Pennine Way itself is a psycho-path.)

(“Foot”note of the Day #3: Though Devil’s Dyke is never mentioned in the bible, we presumed it safe to assume that it couldn’t be far from hell.)

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