Day Twenty-Nine

December 1st, 2012: Byrness to Lamb Hill Mountain Refuge Hut (10-miles) …

Sometime before the right time I reluctantly stirred. I had aged significantly overnight. Everything beneath my skin ached, and blisters and chaffing made sure that my pelt wasn’t impervious. As I lay in bed for a few extra minutes, feet throbbing to their own beat, I started to write down an inventory of aches, but quickly realized it would’ve been easier to compile a list of what didn’t hurt. (Eyebrows, earlobes, teeth, tongue.) The first steps down to the breakfast nook were the toughest I’d yet taken on this trip, and I was fortunate I didn’t trip.

The mornings must start especially gently when hiking long distances week in and week out. Each step, each move and each thought must be exercised with great caution. When the body has caught wind of the brain’s intentions, and the blood has begun to flow and warm the sinew, only then can the hiker stride along thoughtlessly and devoid of care. Fail to heed this and you will assuredly fail.

Joyce served the fullest Full English breakfast I’ve had yet and after I consumed what I could, I waddled back upstairs to use the restroom, a communal one at the end of the hall. Hostel living often means sharing the facilities with others, but since I was the sole guest signed into the Forest View Inn, I could poop as long as I liked. Door propped open and all. I grabbed a book and settled in.

The tome was Tolstoy’s War and Peace and it took so long to finish that I developed a severe case of hemorrhoids and nearly starved to death. Okay, not really. I grabbed another OS map, the OL16, to learn a little about the next two or three days’ topography. But this time, I got smart. First I finished wiping and departed the water closet. And then, since I knew I was going to forget everything I’d just studied, I pretended to be James Bond for a minute and used my microscopic camera to capture some digital images of each side of the map. Thanks to the camera’s view screen and zoom capabilities, each picture could easily be enlarged to an impossible clarity and I would thereby have no chance at getting lost. Or, at the very least, I would know the vicinity I got lost in.

Just a half hour or so later I was on my way. A diamond-clear azure sky assured those below would remain unscathed. Kirk Yethom, the northern terminus of the Pennine Way, lay just over a marathon a way. If I were Kenyan, I thought to myself, I could run there in a smidge over two hours. I am not Kenyan. In fact, I’m about as white as the snow beneath my feet, and what an African runner is capable of doing is nothing like what I’m (in)capable of. At best, I was looking at two or three days, not two or three hours.

The route leaving Byrness was not worth writing about (though that seldom stops me, and it shan’t here). It was unrealistically steep, almost comically so. I could have just as easily cried but decided instead to laugh. Worst of all though, the path went straight through one clear-cut after the next. Navigation was impossible since a foot of snow blanketed everything but the stumps. My digital back-up maps were useless. James Bond could never hike the Pennine Way!

Eventually I topped out onto an amorphous crest overlooking the narrow, darkened valley in which Byrness sleeps. But the views didn’t end there. To the north I could perceive my next goal, Ravens Knowe, a rounded but lofty knob directly in front of me. Scotland was also within sight, as was the Cheviot, the massive mound I would essentially be aiming for over the next day or two. Although it stood an imposing, brooding figure, the giant sno-cone offered a great sense of relief, as I knew now which way to go! I could use my camera for capturing pictures and not just studying those already taken!

The picture-taking opportunities would end up superb! (The pictures themselves, not so much. Of course, this is expected when I’m behind the lens, but trust me, it’s better than when I am on the other side of it.) The sun was shining unremittingly, and the landscape was swathed in virgin snow. It made for some stunning scenery, but I was without sunglasses and I almost---dare I say---wished for gloomier conditions. With the exception of walking with my eyes closed, I had no way to defend myself against excessive squinting. I could’ve easily been mistaken for Clint Eastwood, save for a relative lack of masculinity. I pulled my visor down low and walked on, blinking as often as possible. I even tried alternating eyes---one open, one closed---for a spell, but quickly became dizzy. I never thought the sun could pose such a problem in the UK. We must always be careful of what we wish for, I suppose.

The trail was identified by the occasional cairn. The GPS unit acted as a back-up, helping to erase any unnecessary worries (as all worries seem to be). Sheep dotted the hillsides, but their fleecy white coats were almost completely camouflaged in the winter wonderland. Every so often I’d take a bearing off a mound of snow, only to watch it stand up and wander away. But what the sheep didn’t allow for, the Cheviot would, all 2,674 feet of it. It held a magnetism for both the eye and the needle.

But the peak never got any nearer. It just loomed large and largely unobtainable. Even half a day onward, when I finally crossed a knee-high barbed-wire fence into Scotland, it sat out closer to the horizon than it did to me. I worried the mountain might have just been an enormous sheep, roving farther and farther north. At one point it vanished altogether, but only because I’d descended into a deep ravine next to the River Coquet.

Up to this point I hadn’t taken a single step on anything other than snow. No grass, no stones, no bogs. My feet were dry and my spirits high, but the effort was beginning to take its toll. Every step offered a slight slip one way or another (or both one way and another), and the muscles in the feet and lower legs were in a state of constant confusion. It was wearing and my progress pathetic. For a while I’d actually wished I was done, but knew all too well that the Pennine Way doesn’t easily yield to a hiker’s hopes.

Worse yet, I was back in England now. The Pennine Way skirts Scotland not just because the Scots wear skirts, but because it is, well, defectively designed. But never mind that. The route follows the unimposing barbed-wire fence dividing the two nations, zigzagging in and out of every turn. For good measure it crosses the fence regularly, encouraging the hiker to investigate said fence with his tongue, in hopes it might be an electric one, ending the agony. I’ve attached a drawing of the divide. Scotland is on the left-hand side, to the north, whilst England is on the right. The Pennine Way is represented---accurately I might add---by the meandering dotted line.

Hiking is a great romance of mine, perhaps the grandest love I’ve ever been fortunate enough to take part in. When a tree falls in the forest...I want to be there to hear it. And I am seldom hurried when hiking, as the whole point is to slow life down. But I will forever find it exasperating to zigzag when straight will do. “As the crow flies” is as it should be, methinks.

I gave up on the emotional and corporeal fight and prematurely called it quits at the Lamb Hill Refuge Hut, ten miles from the day’s start line. (Or about a mile as the crow flies, I’d guessed.) Prematurely because there were still a couple hours of daylight to burn, but I had had enough; the struggle was old.

Save for those mounds of moving snow, the day would pass without seeing another soul. There weren’t even any crows around (which might help explain why the trail-builders zigzagged so much: they had no reference point). It was a lonely day and the hut only magnified the feeling, as it is firmly stuck as far from civilization as a building can be in England.

Made entirely of dead trees, the 6-foot by 9-foot structure sits atop a small knoll overlooking miles and miles of lonesome landscape, all of which was blindingly white on this sunniest of days. The wind was by now absolutely pummeling the shack and I remained as grateful as ever for humanity’s help. My tent would not have stood a chance in such conditions, as it would not have stood.

Inside, there were two benches running lengthwise and a visitor’s book that I’d hoped would supply much of the afternoon’s entertainment. A few of the remarks were pleasing to peruse, but most comments confirmed the age-old truth that hiking does little more than deaden the mind. The last visitor to sign in, a day-tripper, had swung by nearly three weeks prior. He had written that it was lonely then. I pitched my tent on the wooden floor and settled in for another long night, escaping outside only to color some snow.

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