At approximately two hundred and sixty five miles, the Pennine Way is merely a tenth as long as the last long path I hiked, the Pacific Crest Trail. This would thus make it appear an easier trail to tackle from end to end. Oh, but the foolish minds of the mileage mongers! You see, here’s the thing. The Pennine Way is ten times as tough as the PCT, thereby equating to at least the same degree of overall challenge. This hardship, however, occurs in just a fraction of the time, which in turn means that hiking the Pennine Way proffers a much deeper level of intensity.
All told, the Pennine Way is a much harder trail, period. End of discussion.
I can honestly say that I will never do this path again, or at least until the next time (or the neist time, as the Scots would say). But definitely at no point prior.
There are just seventeen miles separating the Lamb Hill Hut and trail’s end, where I can turn my back on the Pennine Way and never look back. And with no remorse whatsoever. Ruth had already booked her railway trip north to meet me, but she’s been briefed: that I might not make it to trail’s end until tomorrow (and even then, that may be pushing things). Plans and I don’t mix during the best of times and this was eons from those times.
Snow covered every inch of the land and there was no trail to be found. Northerly navigation was entirely dependent on my GPS unit and its nifty internal electronic compass. The device would have earned my confidence had its batteries not depleted themselves so suddenly while I tinkered with the unit last night. Here now I was reduced to using nothing more than that old standby: dead reckoning. I plodded on, conscientiously keeping the sun at my back.
Humans, or most of them anyway, possess five “basic” senses: smell, sight, sound, feel and taste. And there is on ongoing debate whether or not humans possess a sixth sense---not common sense, which we know most don’t possess, but rather an innate sense of direction---a magnetic sense. (We can find our way to the bathroom, but if the sun, moon and stars didn’t exist, would we know which way is which?) Now I’m not sure about other human beings, but I personally know one human who possesses no sense of direction whatsoever. But I defend any such directionlessness by arguing that the Earth is a globe---a round, rotating, orbiting ball. There can’t be direction when traveling on a spinning ball, since you’re bound to end up just circling it anyhow, no matter which way you go.
Directing myself toward the top of that ball (which, admittedly, is carelessly counterintuitive when in the Northern Hemisphere in December), I plowed onward. Each step was one less I’d have to take later, I figured. It wasn’t the most wholesome of reasons for hiking of course, but it was motivation enough. There are days when hiking is all I care to do. And there are days when I’d rather be bed-bound. This was neither type, really. But I was ready to conclude the Pennine Way and move on to the next adventure, something a little less challenging.
By midday I’d slid down a preposterously precipitous hill (a cliff, really) and reached the third and final shelter along the path, the Auchope Mountain Refuge Hut. The hut was identical to the Lamb Hill Hut in every possible way, but for the sign on the door. There were still a few hours of daylight remaining and just seven miles to the end of the line, the dead-end of the Pennine One-Way, so I opted to linger only long enough to snap a few pictures and dispose of some of my belongings, edible or otherwise. When they’re on you, every ounce counts in large amounts. I nixed all but the priciest of items. It was to be my last day, so I could afford to unload.
It was Sunday and I still hadn’t seen another person, barring a handful of souls way off in the distance, tramping up the Cheviot. The truth is, I may have been seeing things, not people, as my eyes were paying the penalty for my failure to keep my sunglasses. The sunlight was severe and I had the preliminary stages of snow blindness coming on, the least probable ailment I figured one might ever contract out here.
Just like the Lamb Hill shelter, the Auchope Hut sat isolated, waiting only for weary wayward walkers. These were safe havens in more ways than one, offering safety and surviving safely, as vandals hadn’t desecrated either of the huts. Any such scoundrel willing to trek far enough to reach them would have a kinder, gentler heart. Or a change of heart en route. Walking is the perfect way to change your thoughts for the better.
I moseyed on, striving to change my thoughts for the better. They had been teetering closer to the negative realm due to a developing migraine, which had been embedded because of all the squinting. To defend myself from it, I pulled my bandana out and employed it as a makeshift pair of sunglasses. The idea sounded sound, but the act didn’t go quite so well, since I could scarcely see through it. I got up, dusted the snow off and carried on, bandana dangling around my neck.
With each footstep I lost considerable elevation and drew closer to the lowlands and Kirk Yetholm. I was in Scotland now, and for good; no more back-n-forth between the two nations. The snow was replaced with farmland mud. Leafless trees appeared, as did sheep. Always more sheep. Clouds started rolling in and I started dreaming of all kinds of food, but primarily unhealthy ones: French fries (or chips, as they call ‘em over here, as the English are known to loath anything French), hot chocolate, hamburgers, alcohol and so on. This, of course, is when a hiker is most dangerous.
The route became paved and soon passed beside a few small cottages and then, just like that, there it was: Kirk Yetholm. I came to a halt on the grassy island in the center of the tiny town, just outside the Border Hotel, the official end of the Pennine Way. It was nearing dark and starting to drizzle for the first time in days, a stretch, I figured, that must’ve been some sort of record drought in the UK. I stood there, unsure of what I was supposed to do next. I wasn’t expecting fanfare, but I had been hoping for a slightly more climactic ending than this, I thought to my lonesome. It began raining in earnest. Climactic, I sighed, not climatic.
I walked over to the hotel and entered. It was surprisingly busy for a Sunday evening. Ruth was seated at a small table and we traded smiles. Almost surrealistically, The Specials, one of my absolute favourite bands, poured out the overhead speakers: “You’re wondering now, what to do, now you know this is the end…”
“You did it!” Ruth said. “Do you want a drink?”
I needn’t reply, the answer was written all over my face.
The hotel offers a free celebratory bitter to every Pennine Way finisher, but before it had been served, I ordered an additional one...
“Let’s have two of your highest-powered bitters!” I said to our waitress. I glanced at Ruth and smiled, then turned back to our server...
“I’m not sure what she’s having.”