In early August 2022 I decided that, as a 50th birthday present to myself, I was going to walk across the whole of England, from the Cumbrian Village of St. Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, following the path of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast. This is a journal of the preparation and, hopefully, completion of that trip.
August 5, 2022: Recently, while I was in the UK on vacation, I started thinking about Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, which is a 192-mile walk between the west and east coasts of Northern England, traversing three national parks: The Lake District, The Yorkshire Dales, and The North York Moors. While I was in London I stopped at a bookstore and picked up both Wainwright’s original guide and a modern, updated, and more practical guide to the walk. Earlier this week I watched a six-part documentary about the Coast to Coast from about ten years ago. Then I read a bunch of travelogues of people who have done it and websites which talk about it. Then I thought. And then I thought some more.
And then I decided, yeah, I’m gonna do it.
The biggest reason to do it is that it looks like a hell of a lot of fun. It’s beautiful country. The sort of country that God Himself could not improve upon if He were trying to craft a place more suited to my particular aesthetic and climatic sensibilities.
The next biggest reason is that it suits my particular speed as an outdoorsman. As in: I’m a pretty good day-tripper in the outdoors, but I don’t really feel like carrying 30-35 pounds worth of crap my on my back and sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere at this point in my life. One of the key selling points of the Coast to Coast is that, while one can camp and while many do, it’s also possible to simply end up in a little village or town at the end of each day’s journey, check into a B&B, have dinner and a pint in a pub, sleep in a bed, and get a nice breakfast before taking off the next morning. There are even services which, for a little extra money, will deliver your luggage to the next B&B on your itinerary when you leave each day so it’ll be waiting for you when you’re done with that day’s walk, so a day pack and a little lunch is all you really need to schlep with you on the trail. I don’t get a sense of accomplishment from being all rugged and rustic. I just wanna look at the pretty things and spend several hours a day in that zen headspace in which one finds oneself when one walks a great distance. Having a shower, a clean pair of underwear, a warm meal, and a beer waiting for me each evening will make that all the better.
The walk itself seems pretty doable. Yes, 192 miles is a lot, but if you break it up over 14 or 15 days, as most people do, you only have one or two days worth of 20-mile walks with the rest being 15 miles or fewer. That’s still pretty strenuous stuff, but I’ve gone on 15 mile walks fairly often, including many in West Virginia or California where the elevation changes over the course of a single walk can be just as extreme, or more so, than they are in the Lake District or the Pennines.
The biggest issue, of course, is that these are not going to be walks with days off in between them. One 15-mile walk is doable for me now, but I need a day or two for my feet and legs to recover when I do it. If I were to do a couple of them back-to-back it’d be pretty rough. Doing 14 or 15 days of walks, averaging 13.7 miles a day, will take some real training. Which leads me to the next consideration: timing.
I have decided that the Coast to Coast will be a combination of a 50th birthday present to myself and a reward/balm for becoming an empty nester. My 50th birthday is July of next year. I will become an empty nester the following month when Carlo goes away to college. As such, I have pegged mid-to-late September 2023 as when I will take my walk. That should give me plenty of time to train for it and save for it and it will fall at what I reckon to be an ideal time for a person like me to take the walk. It won’t be too crowded with summer hikers and northern England won’t be as likely to be hit by a summer heatwave, but it won’t be so late that I’ll have to deal with much in the way of real cold. Yeah, the chance of getting rained on increases as summer turns to fall, but it’s England. There’s always a chance of getting rained on.
I don’t view the next year as merely training time, however. It’s also going to be focusing time and, to some extent, distracting time.
I’ve been feeling a bit adrift of late. Anna leaving for college in a couple of weeks is really starting to get to me, but it’s not a sadness in response to her leaving as such. She’s more than ready to go so I’m not worried about her. As it is I text with her more than I talk to her these days, so as far as day-to-day conversation goes it won’t necessarily be all that different. I’ll adjust to her absence, in and of itself, pretty well I figure.
But her impending departure is causing me to wonder who and what I’ll be once both the kids are out of the house in a year. I’ve spent the last 18+ years defining myself, first and foremost, as a father. I’ll always be a father, of course, but what that means is about to change in a pretty major way and I really am not sure how that change will go. I will still be a husband and a writer and both of those things are extraordinarily important to me but one’s relationship with one’s kids is different than one’s relationship with one’s spouse and I’ll never be someone who lets their career define them, even if I like my career a whole hell of a lot.
I think a lot of people who suffer from empty nest syndrome do so because, suddenly, they don’t have anything nearly as pressing to do as raising their kids on a day-to-day basis. At best that can lead to some ennui. In some it can probably also lead to no small amount of angst and panic. I think in my case it’ll cause me to be a little bit lost for a while. I’ll have to deal with all of that in time, but having some goal to which I can commit myself in the meantime is important. As Alfred Wainwright himself says in his book about the Coast to Coast walk, “an objective is an ambition, and life without ambition is, well, aimless wandering.” Walking 192 miles across the whole of England will not give me Great Purpose in Life or anything, and it will certainly not give me an identity. But for a year or so, starting now, it’ll give me an objective and an ambition and might help me be less aimless.
First up: shedding the bloat I accumulated over the summer from my little jaunts to Texas and the Blue Ridge Mountains and my big jaunt to the UK. As I do that I’ll get back in my regular workout routine, which consists of incline treadmill work, pushups, squats, and at least attempting not to eat like a pig and drink like a fish. Once I feel back in reasonable shape — and once it stops being 90 degrees and humid every damn day — I’ll begin working up my walking strength. And, because I’m old and I have crappy posture which causes my back to start hurting before my legs when I hike these days, I’ll probably be investing in some trekking poles which is a thing I swore I’d never do.
No one said ambition was pretty, man.
September 4, 2022: I was a chubby kid from the age of about 11 until I was 15 or 16 or so. I played a lot of video games, watched a lot of TV, ate a lot of junk food, and, apart from football practice, which wasn’t exactly strenuous, I did’t get a lot of exercise. It wasn’t extreme. I was not teased about it or called names or anything, but it was something I was conscious of and which caused me a decent amount of self-loathing. When I was in the 10th grade something happened and I just shed a bunch of weight. It wasn’t planned. I didn’t exercise or consciously change my diet and I didn’t shoot up all that much in height or anything. It just happened. The day I graduated high school I was the same height I am now — a shade over 5’10” — and I weighed 185 pounds. When I bothered to think about it, which wasn’t often, I felt pretty OK about it.
In college, beer and pizza and stuff caused me to put on a few pounds and I’d end up spending most of my 20s a good 10-15 pounds heavier than I would’ve liked to be. Occasionally I’d creep up to 200 pounds, hate myself for a little bit, spend a couple of months exercising and watching what I ate until I was down in the low-to-mid 190s. By my early 30s my job had gotten stressful, the social pressures of my law firm encouraged heavy drinking, and fatherhood took away any time or energy I had to either exercise or eat right. I was no lower than 200 pounds from 2004 until 2010. At times I was north of 210 pounds — sometimes a good bit above it — and I felt absolutely awful. In my mind I was that fat kid from middle school again and I hated it.
In March 2011 I bought a treadmill and made a concerted effort to exercise regularly and eat fewer sweets and fatty foods. Between then and that October I dropped around 30 pounds. It’s probably worth noting that my marriage crumbled during almost exactly those same months so I suppose some of that weight loss was stress weight loss, but I am pretty confident that the exercise and watching what I ate was most of the story. Either way, on November 1, 2011, at the age of 38, I weighed in at 183 pounds, two fewer pounds than I was when I graduated high school 20 years before. My personal life was a wreck, but I looked and felt pretty damn good physically.
In the 11 years since then I’ve fluctuated up and down a bit, but I’ve never gotten back to that bad place I had been for most of my 30s. I’ve been as low as 179 pounds — that came in 2013, after a period in which I was making a concerted effort to exercise more as my 40th birthday approached — and as high as the mid-190s. Usually I’m hovering someplace between 182 and 190 pounds and I feel alright about it. Right now I’m just north of 190 and I don’t feel particularly good about it, but the many travels and excesses of this past summer are over and having the Coast to Coast walk a year ahead of me is now focusing me.
Not that the Coast to Coast is about losing weight. As I mentioned in the first post about all of this, it’s about much bigger things. I am noting it now, however, because I’m beginning to prepare for what will prove to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, physically speaking, and I wanted to mark the starting point. And to talk out loud about what I’ve come to accept in recent years is some weird, even if mild, body dysmorphia. I mean, there is no rational, let alone physical basis for me feeling like I’m in amazing shape when I weigh 185 pounds but like a horrible sloth when I weigh 195, but I do for some reason. I’m sure it’s all tied up in feeling bad about myself when I was 12. I’m pretty sure it’ll never go away.
Even a guy with a messed up body image knows, however, that for purposes of the Coast to Coast weight is nowhere near as important as physical fitness. That walk is about putting one foot in front of the other for two weeks while trying to put 192 miles between myself and the Village of St. Bees. One can do that wonderfully well even if they’re a few pounds north of where they’d like to be and one can be supremely ill prepared to do that at their ideal weight. Not surprisingly, as I’m writing this I have a LONG way to go until I’m ready for that.
I am going to mark September 1, 2020 — this past Friday — as the beginning of my training. That’s arbitrary, I suppose, but that day I did go for a decent walk outside for the first time since I decided to do the Coast to Coast and it gave me something of a baseline from which to begin. It was just a walk around town, the sort of which I do fairly often. The distances on those walks vary. Sometimes they’re only three miles. Sometimes they’re ten miles. I fall in and out of grooves with those walks, doing more of them in the late winter and early spring when cabin fever is getting to me, dropping back when it gets really hot in the summer, and starting up again in the fall until it gets too cold to bother. The walks aren’t workouts, really. Or at least I don’t think of them that way, as I still have that treadmill and use it when I want to properly exercise. To me these walks are just, well, walks.
This particular walk was only about three and a half miles. I never got tired during the walk — it’s flat here and I was not pushing myself to keep up a given pace — but my feet were sore when I was done and I could tell that I had exerted myself when I woke up the next morning and that’s far from ideal. Today I walked a little over four miles around town. My feet and legs felt a little better than they did on Friday but I began to feel a little pain in my middle-to-upper back toward the end of the walk, the sort of which I usually don’t feel until I’m pushing ten miles when I’m in decent shape. None of that, obviously, is a big deal given that I’m not walking the Coast to Coast for a year, but it certainly puts me in mind of just how far I have to go between now and then.
As it stands, the plan now is to try to work myself into generally decent shape by around the first of the year. Part of that will involve outside walks but I’m not too concerned about actual walking strength yet. I mostly just want to be at a foundation of good health and fitness heading into 2023 so that I’m well prepared to begin more specialized exercise — core strength, leg strength, back strength — and to ramp up walking distances starting in the late winter. My hope is that by late spring to early summer I’m in a place where I’m able to do 10-15 mile walks on back-to-back days without any sort of strain or physical discomfort, which is what the folks who train people to do long walks like the Coast to Coast say people should be able to do.
At the moment that doesn’t sound daunting. We’ll see what happens when the rubber hits the road.
September 15, 2022: For over 11 years my treadmill workouts have been accompanied by television. I tend to do about 45 minutes on the treadmill and that’s perfect for either one hour-long TV episode without commercial breaks or two half hour-long episodes without commercial breaks. When I lost all that weight in 2011 I did so while watching the entire 14-episode run of “Firefly,” the entire 76-episode run of “Battlestar Galactica” and as much of the entire run of “30 Rock” as there was on Netflix through mid-2011. Since then there’s always some show I’ve watched, though I’ve never been as regularly committed to treadmill work since then as I was that first year. Sometimes I think watching TV on the treadmill has been a hindrance, actually, as if there were no shows I was really into at any given time I’d feel less enthused about working out.
At the end of August I had to move Anna up to Vermont for college. It was an eleven and a half hour drive there and another eleven and a half hours back. While I’m usually good with music for even the longest drives, this time I decided that I’d listen to an audiobook. I listened to most of the Middle Ages history Powers and Thrones. It was excellent and the 23 hours on the road absolutely flew by. This was something of a revelation. It made me wonder if I could listen to audiobooks on the treadmill or when walking outside.
Yep, it worked. The next book I got was the World War I history The Guns of August, and completed that in between treadmill and outdoor walks. I’m just now starting Bill Bryson’s popular science book A Short History of Nearly Everything in the same way. Listening to audiobooks makes the workouts and walks, like the drive to Vermont, zip by with ease. It’s also significantly increasing my book consumption, which has fallen off dramatically in recently years, probably because I spend too much time online and, by the time evening rolls around, my eyes have reached the limits of their ability to consume words. My ears and brain are still in fine shape, though.
I don’t think I’ll want to listen to audiobooks while walking the actual Coast to Coast. I’ve found with audiobooks that if my mind wanders even a little bit I realize that I’ve missed entire passages. I hope and expect my mind to be distracted by all manner of wonderful things when I’m walking across England, so I’ll probably listen to music or, better yet, nothing. However that shakes out, I’ll likely get through a ton of books before the trip. It’ll help my training, too. I’ve already hopped on the treadmill a couple of times when I might not have otherwise done so, simply because I wanted to hear the next chapter.
September 24, 2022: I’ve been working out on the treadmill a bit more frequently and, on the weekends at least, I’ve been taking walks outside. Short ones at first, as most of September has been pretty hot, but cool fall air descended a few days ago and it’s been glorious. This morning I walked five miles around New Albany. My legs and feet felt fantastic. I could’ve gone a couple of more miles easily if they were the only consideration, but I got some of that middle back pain I mentioned before once again. It’s not a super sharp pain as much as it’s discomfort. It disappears as soon as I get home and stop walking and doesn’t trouble me at all until I’m out walking again. I could’ve continued walking with it if it was necessary, but it’s something I really want to figure out and address pretty soon. Maybe it’s a posture issue and trekking poles will help, but given that I have nearly a year before the Coast to Coast I’m sure there is some sort of back-strengthening work I can do.
That aside, I’m happy that it hasn’t taken much work at all to get back into better walking shape as far as legs, feet, and stamina go. It’s far too early to try to gear-up for super long walks but I got online and mapped out four, five, six, seven, and eight-mile walks around here for just regular walks going forward. They’re flat, so it’s less than ideal, but they’re right outside my door so I can take off and just start walking without much in the way of planning. I’ll try to work in some trips to Highbanks Metropark as well just to keep me honest and, of course, the incline on my treadmill is useful, even if there are some pretty significant differences between treadmill walking and covering actual ground (i.e. covering actual ground is harder).
All of that said, I still feel fairly fat and out of shape in a general sense. I’m still not weighing myself now because I don’t want to fixate on that, but I just feel bloated. We’re going to a friend’s wedding today. It’s the first time I’ll have a suit on in almost three years, I think. All of my suits are very nice, but they’re also slim-fit numbers, each of which I bought when I was in better shape than I am at the moment. The jackets will button but there is notable strain on the fabric. The pants will fasten, but they’re something less-than-comfortable. It’s not enough to justify a new suit and, even if I did, it’s not enough to justify going up a size, but it’s enough to where I’m self-conscious. I had the pants on my navy suit taken out half an inch just so I won’t be miserable. I wish I didn’t have to do that but I suppose I’ll feel better about myself if, six months from now, I have occasion to wear the suit again and realize that, oh no, it’s too baggy, best to wear the gray suit instead of this blue one.
September 25, 2022: A week ago I reached out to Packhorse, which is one of those companies that will handle logistics for people doing the Coast to Coast. I told them my plan and that I’m interested in getting a quote for booking and luggage hauling and stuff. No response. Packhorse is the company most prominently mentioned in the guidebooks, so I wanted to try them first but if I don’t hear back soon I guess I’ll go with someone else. The next one on the list is Maximum Adventure, LTD., which sounds like one of those rafting outfitters from West Virginia. Some of them are good! Some of them are shady as hell! Guess we’ll see. Me being in walking shape is the biggest factor in all of this, but having a place to stay each night is pretty damn important!
October 8, 2022: I just finished a freelance project. I’m not sure what the final name for it will be but I’ve been thinking of it as “The Stars of Major League Baseball.” It’s kind of a kids book a publisher reached out and asked me to do. It’s not exactly deep or mentally taxing — it’s an illustrated book with 500-word bios of the biggest stars of today, aimed at middle school book fairs and libraries and things — but (a) I remember reading a lot of books like that when I was a kid and I rather liked them; and (b) they paid me fairly generously for something that, honestly, didn’t take a ton of time to do, so I’m glad I did it. Of course even if the job wasn’t that difficult I, as I often do, procrastinated so it took over my last couple of weeks before the October 6th deadline. The biggest consequence of that was that I didn’t have a ton of time to work out or take walks, but now that that’s done — and due to a “Rethinking Fandom” presentation I had been slated to do down in Fort Myers, Florida at the end of the month has been canceled due to Hurricane Ian — my schedule is now wide open, so there’s more time for getting in shape.
This morning I took a just-under-seven-mile walk, out Dublin-Granville to Beech Road, up to Smith’s Mill, back to Kitzmiller, and then back home. I’ve done that walk before but I’m not in as good a shape as I was the last time I did it. Adding to the challenge was that it was 34 degrees when I left the house at 7:30am. Still, it went pretty well. I had three physical complaints but none of them are particularly concerning for me.
The first one was what, during the walk anyway, felt like a blister forming on the pad under my big toe on my left foot. When I got home, however, I realized that an actual blister had not formed, even if the skin was getting a little tender. I actually think that’s a good thing as it suggests the beginning of a callous there. Callouses are nature’s shoes, right? They develop to protect your feet, don’t they? I already have some around my heels and on the sides of my big toes by virtue of being 49 and, even if people pay a lot of money to get those sanded off, I want them, so go me. I will be watching to make sure that doesn’t actually blister, but I’m choosing to believe that today’s pain there was merely a function of me having grown soft over the last year or so and my body working to remedy that.
The second one was a new, though not particularly serious pain on the outside of my right quad, covering most of its length. It wasn’t a sharp pain and didn’t impede my stride so I suspect it was partially a function of the cold and partially a function of going a couple of miles farther than I had in a good while. Again, I’ll keep my eye on it but it didn’t seem like a problem.
Finally, the usual issue with my upper/middle back flared up. It was not quite as bad as it had been a month or two ago which was probably a good thing but it’s obviously going to continue to be my biggest issue. As I’ve said before, I think it’s mostly about posture and just the way I’m built and I’m hoping it goes away after I start using trekking poles. We’ll see.
We’ll also see how that long walk makes me feel tomorrow. As it is, I finished the walk at about 9:30am and it’s now 3PM and I feel pretty good. I can tell I walked nearly seven miles but I’m not feeling wiped out by it or anything. Maybe that’ll change tomorrow. If I wake up feeling OK, though, I’ll probably go on another chilly morning walk just to see how I do on back-to-back days.
UPDATE: The next day I felt mostly fine. A little soreness in the balls of my feet that could be bones or tendons or just general old man ache. I ended up not going on an early morning walk because some things came up, but since it was a lovely fall day Allison and I went to Blendon Woods Metro Park and walked a two mile loop. That wasn’t particularly strenuous but my feet actually felt better during and after the walk than they felt before, making me think it’s just soreness and stiffness I’ll be able to work my way out of with more walking.
October 14, 2021: My friend Ethan emailed me and suggested that we meet up for a hiking trip. At first he suggested Big Bend National Park and then, when we discussed how it’s really damn hard to get there, he pivoted to hiking in the Bay Area, maybe four hikes over five days or something, to be determined. It sounds like a fun idea so hopefully we can make it work.
Part of the impetus, he told me, is that he had recently been on a hike in Yosemite with a couple of guys. They were people from his industry — Ethan lives in Silicon Valley and has worked in tech for nearly 30 years — and they were all super talkative about this, that, and the other thing they all have in common generally speaking. Ethan, though normally talkative himself, told me that there he was in a quieter mood, that he wanted to appreciate his surroundings a bit more and was thus mildly annoyed. He said he ended up hiking way ahead of them so he could be on his own and that it ended up being really great and really peaceful. It made him want to hike more but to hike with what he called his “introverted friends” who can enjoy shared silences and leave it at that. I am one of those, he said, and he thinks it’d be great if we hiked together. I don’t think of myself as particularly introverted, but I do suppose he and I do shared silences pretty well. Going back as far as we do tends to make us serve more as each other’s historic, emotional ballast as opposed to chatty pals talking about our day-to-day goings on. There’s a lot that can be said about such a dynamic, but it makes for a great hiking partnership.
October 22, 2022: Allison went out of town with friends for the weekend giving me a pretty wide open Friday-Monday. I used a good bit of it yesterday morning in REI, beginning the process of trying to figure out what kind of clothes and gear I want for the Coast to Coast. Or, at the very least, as I ramp up training for the Coast to Coast. I have hiking shoes I like, but do I need boots? I have hiking pants and shorts that are adequate, but what should I get if I’m being super serious? What about base layers? What about some sort of headwear that can soak up a bald head’s sweat but also wick it away rather than just sort of sit there? Also, I eventually have to settle on the right backpack, because, while I have a decent Marmot day pack, it’s too small for what I’ll need and doesn’t have a water reservoir, which I have decided that I’d like to have.
I looked at all of that — and I think I settled on a bag: an Osprey Manta 24 — but I decided that I’d leave boots, hats, and gear like backpacks and trekking poles for another day. I ended up buying a pair of Kühl hiking pants, a nice merino wool quarter-zip base layer, and some decent wool socks with a bit more padding than the basic ones I usually wear.
This morning I went to Highbanks Metropark, getting there just before dawn, for a longish hike. It’s hard to do a long hike at any Metropark as the trails are usually between half a mile and a couple miles long, but in the bigger parks you can link together most or all of them to give you a substantial hike. And, of course, you can go in circles or go back over routes you’ve taken to increase the mileage. I had been shooting for ten — I did a ten-mile Hike in Highbanks a couple of years ago — but by the time I did all the looping I figured I could do this morning my pedometer said I only did eight. Still, an eight mile hike is pretty good so I called it a morning.
Less important than the mileage, though, was how I felt: pretty damn good!
There was zero in the way of that back pain I’d been getting of late. It could be a function of my being in slightly better shape than I was a few weeks ago. It could be that I was walking almost exclusively on dirt trails as opposed to sidewalks and roads like I do when I walk around New Albany. It could also be because, unlike my local walks, I took my little day pack with a liter bottle of water in it and having that on my back might’ve caused me to stand up straighter, fixing my posture problem. Whatever it was, I was super happy not to feel that little knife between the shoulder blades.
Also much improved: my feet, which I chalk up to the new, cushier and better quality wool socks, though I’m sure being on a dirt trail helped that a lot too. Either way, my feet and legs felt almost as good at the end of my eight miles as they did at the beginning. I stopped because I just found myself back at the trailhead again and figured it was a good time to head home — Carlo was home by himself and I like to limit that whenever possible these days — but if I had several more miles ahead of me that I had to walk I certainly could’ve. Hell, I could’ve done 12-15 miles easy, I suspect.
Another good thing about the walk: it was around 45 degrees when I started and, though it got really warm later, it was still only in the upper 50s when I was done, which are the sorts of temperatures I’ll likely get on the Coast to Coast during the time I’m shooting for. The new base layer and a fleece was perfect for the first hour or so. After that I put it in the pack and just went with the base, and that was perfect too. This merino one I got yesterday is much, much nicer than the synthetic blend North Face one I’ve had for years and years. I’ll probably get a second one of these so I can let them air out on alternate days when I actually do the walk.
I’m going to go on another walk tomorrow, I think, to see how I’m doing on back-to-back days. That sort of training is really not something I need to be doing yet — the idea is to get to where you can do long back-to-back days in the weeks leading up to the actual hike — but I’m curious as to how it’ll make me feel.
November 6, 2022: I went on a ten-mile hike this morning. It was a double loop of a five-mile hike at Blendon Woods MetroPark. I did the five-miler on Friday, felt great, and decided to double it today. It worked out well and I felt pretty good the entire time. I’m not ready to go do 20 miles yet but I can tell I’m in way better shape for this stuff now than I was even a couple of weeks ago.
This route is all woods, with a few ups and downs through ravines and a couple of places like this where it crosses a field before plunging you back into the woods again. It’s quite pretty considering that, as the crow files, you’re only a mile or two from a Home Depot, a Target, and a Whole Foods from any place in the park. You’d never know it, though. Columbus does a great job with its MetroParks.
I took advantage of the earlier sunrise due to Daylight Savings Time ending to start walking at 7AM. I didn’t push myself for speed, stopping a couple of times to take a little break and drink some water. I kept my little exercise tracker going when I did, so I ended up averaging only about 3.3 miles per hour. On the treadmill I usually set it to 4.0 or 4.2 depending on how I feel. I’ve been known to average four miles an hour walking out in the world when I’m really trying, but given that, ultimately, I plan to walk 192 miles over a couple of weeks speed seems far less important than sustainability.
To that end, I didn’t get the little pain in my back until I was at mile 8 or so, which is not terrible. It did have me thinking about trekking poles again. Which is why I laughed when I got home and saw that someone had sent me a link to a Washington Post article about the pros and cons of trekking poles. Upshot: old people love ’em because old people lose their balance more easily. “Old” in the article is defined as people over 40. Which, ugh, harsh, but here I am talking about using them so I suppose I can’t talk.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve taken to listening to audiobooks rather than music while walking. The one I’m reading right now is Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History by Lewis Dartnell. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: a comprehensive treatment of how things like plate tectonics, eccentricity and precession of Earth as it orbits the sun, ice ages, and other natural processes have directly impacted the development of human civilization. How the existence of mountains on the north coast of the Mediterranean led to democracy. How the draining of the long gone glacial Lake Agassiz in Canada led to farming in the Fertile Crescent. How the submergence of Doggerland shaped the entirety of European history. The book is Big History which synthesizes geology, oceanography, meteorology, geography, paleontology, archaeology astronomy, and political history in a really satisfying way.
One of the things the book does, like a lot of natural histories do, is to put human life in perspective. It serves as a reminder that the things that happen in the three score and ten that we generally get doesn’t amount to all that much. Or, for that matter, that the things humans have, can, and will do while we’re here as a species is likely to just be a fraction of a blip as far as the Earth is concerned. We may kill each other either indiscriminately or systematically or we may overheat this planet so much that it becomes uninhabitable for us, but nature doesn’t care. It had itself killed off most everything that has ever lived multiple times, millions of year before we existed. If we manage to hang on longer than it appears we might at the moment it’ll kill us off too, with our without our help. Then it will move on to the next thing. Earth is always starting over and it holds zero sentiment for that which came before. You’d think that all of that would be depressing or even frightening, but I find it all rather comforting for some reason. I’m not sure why I feel that way, but I do.
To be sure, I do not use this knowledge as a basis for nihilism or as an excuse for not caring about the fate of humanity. I can see how it might inspire such feelings, but I don’t take it that far. Or at least haven’t yet. If anything it makes me even prouder of humanity’s capacity for caring and compassion. Those may be things that are in short supply these days, but they still exist. The fact that they still exist in the face of both our own self-sabotage as a species and the certainty that, eventually, nature will erase us completely, is marvelous. Beautiful, even.
I still have the rest of my lifetime to try to truly understand all of that. To understand why the inherent contradiction between our inevitable doom and dauntless hope doesn’t bother me. Or, if that calculus changes and all of that either makes me feel hopeless, cynical, or numb, why that is. Maybe my current feelings on it are informed by how much of a miracle it is that we’ve even existed at all. Like, if some rodent had farted off-key 50 million years ago or if some protein took a right turn instead of a left turn in some primordial pool, it’s possible the bees would be ruling the planet right now and not us. That kind of thing should make all of us feel fortunate for being here, even if we’re in the process of fucking it all up.
All I know for now, though, is that going for long walks in nature while thinking about how unimportant the things we do are in the (very) grand scheme of things makes me feel peace and something akin to contentment. Even if it’s just a MetroPark a mile as the crow flies from a Home Depot, these walks give me the feeling that there is something much greater than goddamn human beings and that, ultimately, we cannot harm nature over the long term. Not really. I like that feeling and I’m glad that there are no shortage of books and places to walk that can deliver it to me whenever I need it.
November 9, 2022: I wrote a thing in my newsletter about the back pain I get while walking and how it has me considering trekking poles. A subscriber who happens to be a cardiologist replied, telling me that I should immediately get a stress test because inter-scapular pain can be a sign of an aortic aneurism. So that was cheerful. For what it’s worth, I do not think I have an aortic aneurism, but I asked my doctor about it anyway. My doctor said he does not think I have an aortic aneurism either. He said cardiologists, by definition, tend to see patients with cardiac problems so it can skew things and that in his several decades of being a PCP, he has had only two patients who have presented with inter-scapular pain that was, in fact, attributable to cardiac problems. He is not the sort of doctor who blows things off, though, and he said that I can come in and get an EKG and we can talk about it.
I am mostly writing about this here because, if I do end up dying of an aortic aneurism while ascending a mighty fell in the middle of the Lake District, this will make for fantastic content.
November 11, 2022: REI had a big sale starting today so I bought a bunch of gear. More high-quality socks, a Patagonia fleece, and another pair of Kuhl hiking pants. I tried to buy a backpack but all they have is lime green and, no. I got the backpack — an Osprey Manta 24 with a water reservoir — in black off of Amazon for the same price. I also tried to buy trekking poles but they didn’t have the ones I wanted: MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon Backcountry Poles. I got them from MSR directly. I hate even writing out the name of the gear. It feels so . . . precious. I dunno. I am not a gear-head about really anything. Obsessing on reviews and specs and everything is so exhausting. I generally just try to find things that people who know things recommend. If I get burned, welp, I get burned. I guess my views when it comes to this sort of thing are why I have so few actual hobbies. So many of them I’ve toyed with in my life — golf, cycling, various crafty things — seem to be so gear-centric that it just turns me off. I have no attention span for it. In the case of the backpack and poles the first dozen or so customer reviews and a couple of professional reviews at the website GearLab are enough I suppose. They sound fine. I suppose they’ll be fine.
November 25, 2022: I’ve used the poles and the new backpack twice now. A five-mile walk last weekend and a seven and a half mile walk today. It only took like a half mile worth of walking to get used to the poles at which point they became second nature to use. Last weekend was super cold — high 20s — so I was pretty layered up. That’s a bit less than ideal but I’ll have to get used to that for winter hiking. Today it was in the upper 40s and sunny, which is just about perfect. I started with my fleece and a base layer and lost the fleece halfway through. If I didn’t have other things to do I would’ve stayed out and gone to ten miles probably. I just had a ton of energy despite the fact that yesterday was Thanksgiving and all I did was eat and drink garbage all day. It’s hard to quantify how much of the extra energy is a function of just having been walking more lately or if the poles are making a difference. Could be both I suppose.
December 9, 2022: We went to Texas to visit Allison’s parents last week so I didn’t get a chance to do any hiking. This morning I went out for the first time in two weeks. I figured that the layoff plus the fact that Thanksgiving and the time in Texas was full of nothing but bad-for-me food and too much to drink that I’d be dying today but I actually felt pretty great. The plan was to do ten miles but I had to cut it short because I had forgotten I had a haircut in the early afternoon, so I ended by doing somewhere between seven and eight. Still, it went amazingly well and I had plenty of energy. I could’ve easily done the ten or more. It was pretty encouraging. I’m going to go out again tomorrow and maybe Sunday too to see if I can’t manage something like 20-25 miles for the weekend. I suppose it depends how I feel when I wake up each of the next two mornings.
I do have some newfound inspiration to get moving with this and get in better shape: Ethan and I planned the California hiking trip I had mentioned back in mid-October. I’m flying out to San Francisco on February 9. We have four full days of hiking planned. We might even squeeze in a quick one the day I land. Specific hikes are not yet determined but we’re going to do 10-15 miles in the Mt. Tam/Stinson Beach area in Marin County and we’ll probably do a city hike, from the Embarcadero across to and through the Presidio. The other two are to be determined. On one of the days we may be joined by some of Ethan’s Bay Area friends.
I’m looking forward to the trip. Both for its own sake and because I want to see how I do on a few consecutive days of at least moderately strenuous environments.
December 11, 2022: I placed a deposit on the trip with the outfitting/planning company, Coast to Coast Packhorse. This will be the company that will make the booking for all of my inns/B&Bs and transfer my suitcase from town to town along the way so I can just walk with my backpack. It was $100 down for now. Not sure how much it will cost overall, but when I budgeted it a few months ago the idea is that it was going to be a couple of grand. But this is a 50th birthday present to myself, so screw it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.
I’ve sketched out a 16-day walking itinerary, with a few of days on the front and and back end for getting to Manchester, acclimating, getting from Manchester to St. Bees, and then getting from Robin Hood’s Bay back to Manchester and then home. Tentatively:
- I’ll fly out on September 13, land in Manchester on September 14;
- I’ll spend the night of the 14th and all day September 15th in Manchester, and then take the train to St. Bee’s on September 16, spending that night in St. Bee’s;
- The walking part will begin with Stage 1 on September 17 and stage 16 on October 2;
- On October 3 I’ll take the train from Robin Hood’s Bay to York, as I’ve never been to York and I kinda want to. On October 4 I’ll go from York to Manchester, stay in Manchester the night of the 4th and then fly home to the U.S. on October 5
|16 Day Itinerary|
|1||St Bees||Ennerdale Bridge||14||22½|
|13||Ingleby Arncliffe/Osmotherly||ClayBank Top||10||18½|
|14||Clay Bank Top||Lion Inn/Blakely Ridge||8¾||13½|
|15||Lion Inn/Blakely Ridge||Grosmont||13¾||21¾|
|16||Grosmont||Robin Hood’s Bay||15½||25|
Most books will tell you this is generally thought of as a 15-day itinerary, with day 11 and 12 combined for a Richmond to Ingleby Arncliffe/Osmotherly stage at about 23-24 miles. Those same books, however, all say that’s too long a day and that you should break it up somehow, with the way I’ve broken it up — a stop in Dansby Wiske — seeming to be the most popular option. I’m pretty sure I could do the 23-24 miles, but I’m also pretty sure that I don’t want to and as I am not pressed for time I see no reason not to break it up.
Seeing all of these town names laid out like this makes me laugh to myself. Despite quickly watching a documentary on the Coast to Coast, I don’t have clear ideas of these places and most of them are absolute abstractions to me. In their names alone they either sound like fairytale villages or places that could be sad, forgotten little towns in rural Pennsylvania or Ontario or something. It’s hard to imagine that, after I do all of this, I’ll have memories of these places and the path in between them.
After paying the deposit I went out to the woods and walked about eight miles. Again, I could’ve done more but I had some things I needed to do early this afternoon. I’m really happy with my progress so far and how much easier it is to put some miles on now than it was even a few weeks ago.
December 12, 2022: I mentioned back on September 15 that I have taken to listening to audiobooks while walking. Since that update I’ve read (well, listened to) the following books while walking:
- Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History, by Lewis Dartnell;
- Paul Newman’s posthumous memoir, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man;
- Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein;
- The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West; and
- Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis
The Dartnell book was inspired by me just wanting to keep up the popular science/big history stuff from reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It was more informative though a less entertaining read than Bryson and it was a better overall book. The Paul Newman book was more out of curiosity because I like Paul Newman. It not what I expected, focusing far more on his inner life and feelings than his career, which is probably why he never finished it and had it published while he was alive. Still, it was excellent and surprisingly introspective for something by a movie star.
I had obtained the Dickstein book back when my friend Steve and I were starting a since-aborted podcast about 1930s life and culture. We may or may not pick up the podcast again at some point but the book, though clearly thorough and well thought-out, was a chore, even in audiobook form. Way less as far as events than I expected and way more college English class close reading for my tastes. Still, it did remind me that I had never gotten around to reading The Day of The Locust, so it inspired that read, for which I am grateful as it’s an astounding book. I wanted to stay with the general era and re-read Babbitt, which I had read many, many years ago but don’t think I really appreciated, probably because I was half living George Babbitt’s life at the time without realizing it, and chafing against it so badly that the book unconsciously threatened me, even if I didn’t exactly put one and one together. With several years of life experience under my belt — and George Babbitt’s middle age upon me — I was astounded at how good it was and how well it holds up, even if it was written 100 years ago. Most aspects fo the book remain shockingly current. One wouldn’t have to change very much if someone were to write it today.
December 19, 2022: A couple of days after I placed my £100 deposit, the booking company sent an email saying they’d “try” to accommodate my desired dates and itinerary but that “September is filling up quickly” so there are no guarantees. They added that there were “plenty of days available in April and August” which, um, no, I do not want and I cannot do anyway. I was concerned that even though I was booking nine months out that I’d be screwed.
Phew: Just got this email:
“Dear Mr Calcaterra
“Thank you very much for your booking for a Coast to Coast Walking Package commencing on 16 September 2023. I have pleasure in confirming your holiday. Please find enclosed an outline schedule for your walk.”
Rooms requested – Single: 1
Sat 16 Sep 2023: Overnight at St.Bees
Sun 17 Sep 2023: Overnight at Ennerdale 14 Miles
Mon 18 Sep 2023: Overnight at Rosthwaite 14.5 Miles
Tue 19 Sep 2023: Overnight at Grasmere 9 Miles
Wed 20 Sep 2023: Overnight at Patterdale 8.5 Miles
Thu 21 Sep 2023: Overnight at Shap 16 Miles
Fri 22 Sep 2023: Overnight at Orton 8.25 Miles
Sat 23 Sep 2023: Overnight at Kirkby Stephen 12.75 Miles
Sun 24 Sep 2023: Overnight at Keld 12 Miles
Mon 25 Sep 2023: Overnight at Reeth 11 Miles
Tue 26 Sep 2023: Overnight at Richmond 11 Miles
Wed 27 Sep 2023: Overnight at Danby Wiske 14 Miles
Thu 28 Sep 2023: Overnight at Osmotherley 11 Miles
Fri 29 Sep 2023: Overnight at Claybank Top 10 Miles
Sat 30 Sep 2023: Overnight at Blakey 8.75 Miles
Sun 01 Oct 2023: Overnight at Grosmont 13.75 Miles
Mon 02 Oct 2023: Overnight at Robin Hoods Bay 15.5 Miles
There are a couple of very minor changes to what I had planned in there, but nothing that makes a difference.
Now that the hard part is done, all I have to do is to figure out how to make a 50 year-old, flat-footed body walk 190 miles.
Well, and pay for it too:
Cost of your holiday:-
1 x 17 Night Package………………………………………………………………………… £1619.00
Single Supplements x 17…………………………………………………………………….. £765.00
Booking Deposit received…………………………………………………………………..(£100.00)
Remaining deposit – due by return please…………………………………………..(£496.00)
Balance (due 8 weeks prior to departure)……………………………………….£1788.00
I love that it’s a £47/night premium to have your own room, but I figure that they figure they’re getting boned out of a couple of beers and a meat pie or a plate of fish and chips each night by not having a second person with me. Fair enough.
As for the rest of it, I figure that there have been a hell of a lot more midlife crisis vacations/50th birthday presents that cost dudes more than £2,400 + airfare, and you only live once, so the check will be cut.
January 4, 2023: I paid my first substantive deposit. In exchange for the £496 I sent them they sent me my detailed itinerary with the actual names of the inns and B&Bs where I’ll be staying after each leg of my walk. They are all, not surprisingly given the remote and ancient nature of the little villages along the way, impossibly British in both name and vibe. Most of them have photos like this placed prominently on their websites:
Yep, that’s pretty much what I had in mind.
Indeed, the websites of just about every single one of the 17 places where I’ll be staying prominently feature photos of cask ales, fish and chips and full English breakfasts. One of them, The Kings Arms Hotel in Reeth, offers a “lighter breakfast” that features fried eggs, sausage, and bacon. I like their definition of “light.”
The way I figure it, I’m gonna end up walking 190 miles yet coming out the other side five pounds heavier. I think I’m OK with that.
January 21, 2023: It’s appropriate that I wrote about my weight in that last entry, because it’s definitely a thing that’s been on my mind recently. Back in September I had a plan to drop a bunch of weight before the first of the year but that sure as hell didn’t happen. The holidays were particularly food-and-booze heavy this year for some reason and I was really bad about things from mid-November until New Year’s. I made a point not to weigh myself because (a) I try to remind myself that the actual numbers on the scale aren’t the most important thing, feeling in good shape is; and (b) I was not, by any damn stretch of the imagination, feeling in good shape.
Like so many people who indulge in the festive season my plan was to immediately crack into action once the calendar turned. Unfortunately, on January 3 I got COVID. It was the first time for me, if you can believe it. It put me in bed for most of a week and delayed my exercise plans. It was not until about ten days ago that I felt myself. Since then I’ve been doing well, however. I’ve been either walking outside or on the treadmill almost every day and, recently, I began doing some hiking-specific exercises like squats, jump-squats, calf muscle exercises, and some upper-body stuff. Despite the extra weight and the holiday bloat, I’m happy that I haven’t lost much if any of the walking stamina I built from September through November. I’m actually feeling pretty good in that regard. Which is a good thing given that in less than three weeks I’m supposed to do some big hikes in California with Ethan. Ideally you have more than four weeks of intensive-training before some major hiking — two months is more like it — but it’ll have to do.
And I’m pretty sure it will do. As I wrote a few months ago, I have some messed-up body issues. I always feel worse off than I am when I’m in less-than-ideal shape and I probably feel better about myself than I should when I’m feeling great. I’ll make it around California just fine. And after experiencing what even a month’s worth of solid ramp-up does for me there, I’ll feel extra good heading to England with many months of solid training under my hopefully tighter belt.
January 22, 2023: I like to shop in person for clothes because sizing can be so inconsistent between types and brands of clothes. I swim in some larges while others are far too tight. In jeans I’m a consistent 34 but sometimes, with some styles of pants, I need a 36. I hate shipping things back, so I usually make the trip to a store, if for no other reason than to make sure what size I need.
Today I went to REI today to look at (a) rain shells; (b) some lighter-weight hiking shirts for California and/or hiking this spring and summer; and (b) at least look at boots, knowing that I’ll need to buy either those or new hiking shoes — still haven’t decided yet — before the Coast to Coast. I got there and they were (a) out of stock of the couple of rain shells I’m interested in; (b) out of stock of most lightweight hiking shirts; and (c) the boot department was overrun and there weren’t many employees there to help. I stayed long enough to get the size on a particular UV-protective/moisture-wicking shirt I needed — they only had bright orange and I was not doing that — and then I went home and ordered what I needed:
Yep, XLs. Active gear almost always seems to run smaller than I like.
I did not order the rain shell I want — the Arc’teryx Beta — as it’s out of stock absolutely everywhere, including the manufacturer, at least in colors I’d accept (more blaze orange could be had!). I think I’ll be OK without it in California in February. I’ll absolutely need it in England, as one has to plan for a lot of damn rain on the Coast to Coast. Whether anyone needs this specific jacket is an open question, as it’s really goddamn expensive, but it’s also the best-rated, by far, at OutdoorGearLab, which I’ve come to trust as an independent source for gear reviews and information. I’m going to keep an open mind about other jackets, at least until the Arc’teryx comes back in stock, but there are two things upon which you absolutely cannot skimp when walking across the whole of northern England. One of them is, quite obviously, boots. The other is a rain jacket.
January 23, 2023: The actor Julian Sands has gone missing while hiking near Mt. Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains. Conditions were horrible not long after Sands presumably set off, with lots of snow and even avalanche warnings. They have not yet said that they presume him to be dead but it’s looking pretty bleak. For what it’s worth Sands’ brother, who lives back in England, believes that Julian is likely dead. I suspect he’s dead too.
Reports say that Sands usually hiked alone and was doing so when he went missing. “Never hike alone” is one of the first rules of hiking, though a lot of people do it. I’ve done it myself a lot and will be doing it on the Coast to Coast this fall. That seems pretty safe to me, though, given that it’s so well-traveled, it’s not particularly extreme in either terrain or weather, and you’re never more than 10 miles from a village or a town. I don’t think I’d ever do it someplace dangerous or prone to severe weather like the San Gabriels, though I suppose if you hike a lot you can talk yourself into believing that all manner of things that are, objectively, risky are actually not.
Sands, who was 65, was an avid hiker. In addition to hikes in California he has hiked all over England, including a recent trip over the whole of the Pennine Way, which is a 268-mile walk, from just north of the midlands to just inside Scotland, over the Pennine Mountains. The route intersects the Coast to Coast near Keld. Sands grew up in a small town right next to the Yorkshire Dales. I’ll practically be in his old neighborhood in a few months. I’m sure that he got his love of hiking in that country. I’ll no doubt think of him when I pass through Keld and the Yorkshire Dales.
February 4, 2023: I actually found that expensive Arc’teryx rain jacket I thought was out of stock everywhere. The company had one. It was an XL but between my experience with active wear running a bit smaller and both the product notes and customer reviews saying it ran small, I felt confident ordering it. It showed up a couple of days later and it was the size of a three-man tent. I spent about five minutes trying to talk myself into it — maybe if I tighten the velcro on the cuffs and layer it with 18 fleeces . . . — but no, it wasn’t happening. I sent it back. The next day I went to REI and found an Outdoor Research Foray II jacket which was the second highest-rated racket per Outdoor Gear Lab. It was about $180 cheaper and a large fits wonderfully. Part of me still thinks that I will find myself in a driving rainstorm someplace in the Lake District, soaked to the bone because I could not get the highest-rated jacket according to Outdoor Gear Lab, but most of me realizes I’m being absolutely ridiculous. The problem with having all of this time before the Coast to Coast is that I have very little to focus on except for gear.
It’s five days until I fly to California. The other day Ethan shared a Google doc with the hikes he has planned. This is all in his words:
Peninsula Redwood options, small-ish afternoon “welcome to CA” hike:
- Los Trancos (3.5 hours, 6.9 miles) – #1 choice due to storm damage at Purisima
- Purisima Creek – many options but storm damage – will re-assess next week
- El Corte de Madera 10 miles, too long for “welcome to CA” afternoon hike. Monday option!
Mt. Diablo options:
- Grand Loop (moderate, 6.2 mi)
- Mitchell Creek to Diablo Summit (not moderate! 13.1 mi) 🙂
- We can make a call based on how we feel on the drive over there.
SF / Presidio Options:
- San Francisco Crosstown Trail (16.5 miles) Super excited about this. The fact that we can intersperse beer, food, and sightseeing is just awesome. Also can bail at any point, will park, hike one way, Uber back to car
- Presidio Loop Trail If we’re tired, fallback option. But hell, why not just do half of the crosstown trail instead?
Mt Tam / Marin / Dipsea options:
- ** Epic – Stinson Beach to Mt. Tam (15 miles). Likely the highlight of the trip, and we’re signed up for this as a group hike. Excited! Buckeye Roadhouse will also be epic.
- The Dipsea – a classic (9.7 miles) (an alternative we’re not doing)
TBD, could be this or anything above depending on how we feel.
Point Reyes options:
- Coast trail to bass lake (6.0 mi)
- Bear valley trail
I feel pretty confident that I can handle all of the hard options on that list, but I thanked him for including shorter options and cop-outs in the event I wake up with dead legs one day or just crap out completely while on a trail. He told me that the shorter options and cop-outs were for him just as much as they are for me, as he hurt his back last Monday and was laid up for a couple of days. I asked him how he hurt his back. He said “I saw a pice of cellophane on the floor in the living room and I reached over to pick it up.”
Getting old is some serious shit, man.
February 10, 2023: I landed at SFO at around noon local time yesterday. Ethan picked me up, we dropped unnecessary stuff at his house, and we were on the trail at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space by 1:30. We walked 7.76 miles among beautiful Redwoods, patching together a few different trails to do it. Absolutely gorgeous weather and scenery, including peeks of the Pacific Ocean.
It was mostly downhill out and, as such, it was mostly uphill back. When we first started walking I was chatting with Ethan a lot, seeing as though I haven’t hung out with him in forever, and so I didn’t really appreciate that the first half was downhill. When we stopped and turned back, I was thinking to myself “you’re doing pretty good, Craigy boy!”
Then the walk back exploded my quads and my lungs about eleventeen times because I am an old man who does the vast majority of his hiking in flat-ass Ohio. I kept apologizing to Ethan for making him stop so I could catch my breath but later we looked at his watch and it showed us having averaged 2.5 m.p.h. even with the stops, and I didn’t feel so bad. I hike faster than that back in Flatassia, but I’ll take 2.5 in places with some elevation changes in a heartbeat.
After the hike — and a great burger and a beer at Jack’s Prime Burgers & Shakes — I wasn’t hurting too bad. I could tell I hiked something, but I was not aching or limping around or anything like that. Between being tired from the hiking and the switch to Pacific Time, I conked out by 9pm and slept like the dead until a little after 5am. That’s a lot of sleep for me but I obviously needed it. I was happy when I woke up, too, because my legs felt pretty great. January Craig was smart for starting to do all those squats, because I think they were the difference between hacking all of this and failing to hack all of this.
Today we hiked at Mt. Diablo. Its peak is 3,894 feet, but we did not do all that as we started midway up and then circled just below the peak, with a diversion out to Eagle Peak. But there was still a lot of up and down on the way up. We ended up doing about 2,500 vertical feet while covering around 8.8 miles. It was gorgeous. We had a lot of weather changes too, going from warm sun and clear skies in the parking lot to cold, gray, and blustery weather near the top. While walking along a ridge, under a steel-gray sky, with a fast, cold wind hitting us from the north, Ethan turned around and said “this is probably what England is going to be like.” He’s probably right. I liked the feeling.
As for the physical aspects, it was a more extreme version of yesterday. My legs are doing great, but my lungs less so. Any time the verticals got even mildly gnarly, I was pretty damn winded well before I would’ve expected to be. My heart rate, though high, was not particularly extreme. As mentioned, my legs, back, and all of that felt fine. It was just breathing heavy and hard, forcing me to take a lot of breaks. I felt bad holding Ethan up and began to get discouraged at times, wondering why I was so much more out of shape than I anticipated I’d be. Then it occurred to me that this could be a COVID hangover. It’s only been a month since I had it. I’m wondering if it has imposed some pulmonary limits on me which cancel out the overall fitness improvements I’ve made of late. It seemed plausible to Ethan and Rika. It seems plausible to me. Guess that’s something to watch going forward.
February 13, 2023: Saturday and Sunday were pretty damn epic days of hiking.
On Saturday we did the San Francisco Crosstown Trail. It’s around 16 miles from Candlestick Point to Lands End, going through countless parks and neighborhoods. It starts like this:
But ends a little after this:
So yeah, it gets better as you go along.
Overall it was a really rewarding hike that, because of its length and the fact that a lot of it is on sidewalks and pavement, my legs hurt a good bit when I got done, but nothing that wasn’t manageable with a hot shower, some stretching, and some Advil. The lungs thing from Diablo was not quite as much of an issue here. To be sure, there is still a lot of vertical on this hike — you gain something like 1,900 feet over the course of the walk with all of the ups and downs occasioned by the hills of San Francisco — but when it’s spread out over 16 miles instead of eight miles it’s a little easier to hack. Still, I had to take some breaks at the top of some of the hilly, curvy roads and stairways to catch my breath. Yes, stairways:
Not my favorite thing ever, but you do what you do when walking through a city built on hills.
Sunday was the BIG one:
Stinson Beach to the top of Mt. Tam and back down, in part, via the Dipsea Trail. You can see the San Francisco skyline in the top third of the photo, a bit to the right. Mt. Diablo, which we hiked on Friday, is clinging to the far left of the photo. Not pictured, but visible from the vantage point on the summit were the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, which are not often visible from up here. We just lucked out with the clearest day imaginable.
In all it was a 16.86 mile hike with 3,500 foot elevation gain. The four of us — Ethan, Ethan’s friends Mark Williams and Wayne Loeb, and me — started at 7:30am and we finished at 4:15pm. The lung stuff was still an issue for me, especially early when there are a lot of straight up goat trails when the elevation begins, but eventually we got to a place where the incline was less intense but stretched over more miles. I am still pretty convinced that I have post-COVID lung capacity issues but I also think it’s pretty manageable, at least as long as I pace myself. Thankfully my three hiking companions were very accommodating and took breaks when I needed them. On the way down one Wayne needed the breaks — knee issues — so I didn’t feel so bad about my limitations. During the course of the day we joked about passing the “gimp hat” back and forth depending on whether we were going up or going down. I mean, shit, we’re all roughly 50 year-old dudes. We all have our crap. Getting up the mountain and back despite that is a victory, not something for which to apologize.
The day ended at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley. Despite the name, I do not think it actually has any Ohio connections. It does, however, have excellent cocktails, oysters, and big-ass steaks, and after hauling my ass up and down a mountain, those were welcome indeed.
Today was my last full day in California. Ethan and I decided to take an easy recovery hike, which consisted of 6.48 miles around Belmont, where he lives. We went up and down the hills in his neighborhood, some of which are pretty substantial, and then did something of a loop around town. In the middle of that we grabbed some pretty great sandwiches at Mr. Pickle’s after which we looped back home.
By my count Ethan and I did 55.86 miles — with a lot of elevation — in five days. Given that our original plan was to do 50 miles in five days, I think we did OK. Oh, and though it was totally accidental, we averaged 11.17 miles a day. The Coast to Coast average walk per day will be . . . 11.29 miles a day. With way less elevation. Yeah, I think I’m going to crush it.
Overall the plan on this trip was to (a) have fun; and (b) assess where I was, hiking wise, seven months out from the Coast to Coast. The former has definitely been accomplished. What I’ve figured out from the latter has sort of surprised me.
I was fully prepared for my legs to be tired and my feet to be aching this weekend, on the assumption that I have not hiked enough over the winter to truly prepare me for it. That’s been totally wrong. While there has been some stiffness, it has not been severe, it has cleared up as soon as I have begun walking again each day, and it has not interfered with my hiking. My feet, likewise, do not hurt much if at all. Likewise, I have not had any back pain — thanks, trekking poles! — or overall fatigue in any way that matters.
The concern, obviously, is how quickly I’ve gotten winded on inclines. Granted, I don’t have much opportunity to do any sort of elevation in Ohio, but I honestly did not expect it to be as bad as it was. I think it’s quite possible that this is a post-COVID thing, but it’s still very clear to me that I need to improve my cardio health and focus less on all the squats and stuff.
I am convinced that, right now, I could do the Coast to Coast without too much trouble. The range, leg/foot strength, and overall stamina is in great shape. The breathing-on-elevation stuff is annoying, but it’s also the case that there is nowhere the ups over there that there are here. The absolute highest point on the Coast to Coast is Kidsty Pike, at 2,560 feet, which you get to over the course of a couple of days. Mt. Tam is 2,579 feet, to which we went from sea level to the top in like four and a half hours. I feel like England is gonna be a bit mellower.
Apart from physical stuff, a lot of this trip was aimed at sorting out my gear and things. On that score:
Shoes: Being able to go up and down the extremely rugged Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tam in my low-cut Keen Targhees has made me pretty confident about being able to handle the Coast to Coast in low-cuts as opposed to boots. Insight from Ethan, Mark, and Wayne, all of whom are far more experienced hikers than I am, bolstered that, with most of them saying that the best argument for boots over shoes is if you’re carrying a heavy pack. My pack in England will not be considerably heavier than how it was this weekend, so on that score it seems fine. As for terrain, it is impossible to imagine more ankle-challenging ground than what we dealt with on Diablo and Tam, so I think I’ll OK with respect to that as well. The one factor which could change that is moisture abatement and whether the extra few inches of a boot are preferable to putting gaiters over shoes. I have a few months to test that I figure. Maybe I’ll get some gaiters and go to Lobdel Reserve in Licking County, where I know there are creek crossings, and experiment a little. Ultimately, though, I like the lightness of shoes over the heaviness of boots.
Socks: Only today, on our 6.48 miles around Belmont, did I get sore feet in any way. I’ll chalk that up to (a) it being all on sidewalks and paved streets, which is way harder on feet; and (b) the fact that I wore thinner, more casual wool socks as opposed to my thick-padded hiking socks. I think it’s more than worth wearing the padded ones at all times and will plan to do that going forward.
Pack: It was a pretty good shakedown cruise for my Osprey Manta backpack. I’ve used it at home in Blendon Woods, but not to the degree I did here, what with needing to refill the water pack on the fly, access sunscreen and snacks, and pack and unpack my fleece or whatever over the course of a long day. I don’t have any complaints about it. I think I picked a winner, and the more I’ve broken it in the better it’s felt to wear it over the course of many miles.
Pants/Shorts: Both the hiking pants and shorts I have proved to be pretty solid. I could see myself maybe getting something a little lighter as far as hiking pants go, but it’s not essential. Honestly, the biggest factor in pants will be if I drop a few inches in my waistline over the next few months, which is possible. If so, I may get something else. That said, I discovered that I can wear shorts when it’s much cooler than I thought. I wore them on Diablo, when it was blowing a very cold wind and I wore them on Mt. Tam which, at least when we first took off, was just under 40 degrees. There’s something to be said for physical exertion warming you up. Upshot: I may be bringing along a couple of pairs of shorts to England and wearing them more often than I anticipated.
Shirts: I alternated my long sleeve/hooded sun shirts with my short sleeve sun shirts. Both were excellent for breathability and sweat-wicking. Despite working my ass off, they don’t stink in any noticeable way. I’ll obviously want to rinse them out or wash them a few times along the trail, but they or something like them will work wonderfully.
Fleece: My Patagonia fleece was plenty warm for the cold mornings and the cold wind on Diablo. Most days I shedded it after a couple of hours. I cannot imagine a situation in which I’d need more than it in England, especially if I wear my wool base layer, which I did not use at all on this trip and can’t imagine needing unless it wasn’t going to climb out of the 40s on a given day. I had some thoughts about getting a thin down jacket but it’s not going to be necessary at all. In the worst conditions the base layer, the fleece, and my rain shell — which I did not need this trip — will be more than enough.
Trekking Poles: It would’ve been unimaginable to do Diablo and especially Mt. Tam without them. Absolutely essential and my back felt fantastic the entire weekend.
So that was the trip. It was a load of fun, but it was also extremely enlightening and useful for my preparation. I am already glad I did it for its own sake but the experience has already paid for itself in terms of how much more ready I will be for the Coast to Coast when it comes time to do it.
February 20, 2023: We took a quick weekend trip to Denver. No hiking, but on the flight back I read a book Allison had gotten me. It’s a memoir by the Scottish actor Sam Heughan called “Waypoints: My Scottish Journey.” It chronicles his impulsive decision to hike the West Highland Way, which is a roughly 100 mile hike from Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands.
The personal memoir portions of it were mildly interesting, though I can’t say that I care all that much about Heughan’s journey from drama student to well known actor, so I skimmed those parts. The hiking stuff was fun, though. He lives in Glasgow and grew up in the Highlands, where he also films his show, “Outlander.” He’d never hiked that trail, however, but decided to do so in November 2021 during a filming hiatus.
It was late in the season for anyone to hike that trail and Heughan, despite being in fantastic overall shape, was not necessarily in fantastic walking shape. Despite this he planned to do it in five days instead of the usual seven. He also planned to camp it and filled his pack with like 60 pounds of gear. He got through the first day, camped, and then embarked on a 20-mile slog in the rain on day two and was absolutely miserable, to the point of wanting to quit. When he got to the end of that day’s walk he checked into an inn rather than camp. That night he got on his phone and made reservations at B&Bs and Inns for the rest of the route, extending his overall walk to give him more manageable daily distances and to make it a seven-day trip. When he set out the next morning he buried all of his camping gear — stove, tent, sleeping bag, etc. — in a garden outside of the inn and walked off relatively unencumbered. He still had a big walk in front of him but a doable one. And yes, he finished the walk.
It was quite amusing, and encouraging I must say, to read about a guy who is seven years younger than me and who is in infinitely better shape than I am getting humbled to the point of settling on an itinerary not unlike the one I’m doing. And the West Highland Way sounds gorgeous. So, hmmmm . . .
February 26, 2023: Someone on Twitter sent me a link to a guy who chronicled his LEJOG hike. Which stands for “Land’s End to John O’ Groats.” The entire length of England from the very southwest end of Cornwall to the tippy top of Scotland. It’s over 800 miles by car and, with all of the twists and turns it’s over 1,000 miles on foot. Rather than just one trail it’s a series of networked trails. It also sounds like an absolute mess. Basically everything south of the Midlands sounds like a boring and annoying slog, with big parts of it tracking freeways and things. This guy took 12 weeks to do it, which is a bit on the short side. He also camped it for the most part which, no. All of it sounds like a no to me and the sheer distance of it only like the fourth or fifth reason I wouldn’t want to ever do it.
I did, however, start looking around the guy’s site. He’s from from Arizona and he flies over every spring or summer for a different British hike. He’s done a 100 mile Cotswolds hike that seems lovely. The Cleveland Way. The Dales Way. And yes, the Coast to Coast. I read his whole Coast to Coast diary — he did it in 2017 — and while it had a lot of interesting insights and observations, it also made me shake my head a lot.
He did it in 12 days, which is way too compacted, with far too many big, 20+ mile walks. While the guy seems to be in really good shape he complained constantly about his knees and his feet and it’s not hard to understand why given how much ground he chose to cover. I was willing to be charitable and believe that he had to do so because he was short on time but he did take over three months for LEJOG, so his schedule is pretty flexible.
The other thing that made me shake my head was just how much the dude drank. I personally plan on having a pint or two at the end of most of my days on the Coast to Coast, so I didn’t think anything of him talking about hitting this pub or that pub. But at the end of the diary he tallied all of his miles and elevation and other hike stats, including how many pints of beer he had. My man drank 62.5 pints! In 12 days! That’s over five a day, with extra long hikes the following morning! Oh, and he smokes cigars basically every day. No wonder the guy kept talking about how hard it all was. I’ve got a fairly decent tolerance for alcohol but I cannot imagine drinking five pints and doing anything productive, let alone walk 23 miles. Hell, I can’t imagine he slept all that well before those miles either. The older I get the more beer just sits on my stomach like a brick and causes me heartburn. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it than this guy, but he had to have been hurting some mornings.
Not that I’m just going to complain about the guy. He’s a good writer and his hiking diaries are interesting. He takes good photos. There is a lot of very useful hiking/gear/navigation advice sprinkled in. And of course he’s given me some good ideas for other hikes. Finally, he dropped a C.S. Lewis quote that I liked which reinforces my decision to hike the Coast to Coast alone:
“Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to a farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned.”
March 26, 2023: It’s been a lazy month with some treadmill walking but almost nothing outside. It’s just been cold and wet and I’ve not felt motivated at all. As I’m writing today it’s pushing 60 and sunny so I’ll probably go walk a couple of miles this afternoon. The trip is in just under six months so I have plenty of time, but I do need to return to activity. I’ve felt like such a lazy schlub lately.
I did accomplish something, though: I bought boots: Saloman X Ultra 4 Mid Gore-Tex hikers:
Previously I said that I’d probably be OK with low hiking shoes, but these seem to be the best of both worlds: light as a feather yet still higher on the ankle for support and better waterproofing. At least that’s what all of the reviews say. I should have them in a few days and I’ll decide for myself, but for the moment I think I’ve made a good choice.
March 27, 2023: I didn’t realize that I needed the actor Andrew McCarthy to provide me with 800 some-odd words about the value of walking great distances but I apparently did:
Hippocrates proclaimed that “walking is man’s best medicine.” The good doctor also knew that walking provided more than mere physical benefits when he suggested: “If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” He was alluding to what so many who came after would attest, that walking not only nourishes the body but also soothes the mind while it burns off tension and makes our troubles recede into a more manageable perspective.
Soren Kierkegaard agreed when he confessed, “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” And Charles Dickens was even more direct. “If I could not walk far and fast,” he wrote, “I think I should just explode and perish.”
But walking does more than keep the devil from the door. The Welsh poet (and sometime vagabond) W.H. Davies wrote:
Now shall I walk
Or shall I ride?
“Ride,” Pleasure said.
“Walk,” Joy replied.
Walking buoys the spirits in a way that feels real and earned. It feels owned. And walking, like a generous partner, meets us more than halfway.
He’s mostly quoting other people about walking here, but given that he has now — twice! — walked 500 miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, I think he knows of what those whom he quotes speaks.
April 7, 2023: I ended up returning the Saloman boots. They were too snug, so I went to REI to try on a larger size and they still felt wrong. They were squeezing my toes and generally giving me bad vibes. I ended up doing exactly what I had planned to do in the first place and bought a pair of Keens –the Targhee III Mid Waterproofs — that are exactly like the hiking shoes I’ve worn for a decade, except higher in the ankle. By every metric, according to the gear reviewing people, they are inferior to the Salomans. But they fit wonderfully right out of the box, give me ample room in the toe box, which is pretty important given the shape of my feet, and will give me nothing to worry about. If I find myself in the middle of a bog in the Yorkshire Dales with my boots soaked through because they feature a KeenDry Waterproofing Membrane™ instead of GORE-TEX,™ welp, fine, you live and learn. But at this point I consider the footwear matter sorted.
More importantly: my air travel is now sorted. I fly out to London on September 13, landing on the 14th, and fly home on October 6. The original plan was to fly to Manchester but there weren’t decent flights there for which I could use all of the Virgin Atlantic points we have accrued, making London a way less-costly option, even after you figure the extra train travel north.
Also, at present anyway, Allison is planning on flying with me there, spending the couple of days with me before I begin walking, finding something else to do for a couple more, and then heading home. If she does do that there’d be more for us to do in London anyway. If she doesn’t do that I’ll just land at Heathrow and take a train directly up to Manchester and stay there for a day or two, perhaps. Or maybe I do just stay in London until the 16th and go straight up to St. Bee’s. I honestly don’t know yet. And I kinda don’t care. Flexibility is the key and, in so many ways, a big part of the promise of this trip.
May 15, 2023: Change of plans. Allison, realizing that there wouldn’t be much worth doing in London in the short couple of days before I start walking has decided not to fly over with me. Rather, she’s going to go to London in late July to meet her friend Annette and the two of them are going to see a Pulp concert and generally hang around. She may head down to Brighton to see her friend April, who lives there too. It makes way more sense for her to use her airline points that way. I’m going to be preoccupied with hiking thoughts in the couple of days before I set off and I won’t be in a particularly social headspace. Honestly, I think I’ll be better off heading over there alone.
June 4, 2023: It’s been a bit since I’ve updated but there hasn’t been much to update as far as the hiking goes. The past two months have been extremely full, however. First with travel — Texas and New York for Depeche Mode concerts and up to Vermont and back to get Anna back from college — then with Carlo graduating high school. Then something more exhausting: house hunting and buying.
We decided to sell our place in New Albany, where I’ve lived for over 18 years, and buy a place in Columbus proper. Much of the past month and a half or so has consisted of looking for a house, first in Clintonville and then, when that proved to be a giant pain in the ass, in German Village. We close on a townhouse on Grant Avenue this coming Friday and take possession on June 19. We put our house on the market two days ago and immediately got one great offer and one strong backup offer in the first day. Assuming that all goes smoothly we’ll be out of this place no later than June 30.
Needless to say, all of that has caused me to fall way behind on hiking prep. I went close to a month without walking at all. I also sold my treadmill in anticipation of moving. And with all of the stress and travel I’ve been eating like garbage. I’m in frankly terrible shape right now, but I took a 4.5 mile walk a couple of days ago and did about six miles this morning and I felt fine for each, so I presume there’s a psychological component at work there. Whatever the case, my original plan of losing a lot of weight by July and then spending two and a half months concentrating only on hiking shape is out the window. But with over three months before the trip I think it’ll be good enough to simply begin regular training in earnest now and see where that leaves me. I am confident that that’s more than enough time to be ready to hike 192 miles. It may not be enough time to do it while looking the best I’ve ever looked and weighing the least I’ve ever weighed, but if I have to take ten extra pounds with me on the trip I’ll take ten extra pounds with me on the trip.
June 28, 2023: They found a body in wilderness near Mount Baldy in California. It was confirmed to be that of the missing British actor Julian Sands, who I talked about in the January 23 entry.
Five years ago Sands was asked about his approach to acting and why he was been drawn to so many eccentric roles that took him far outside the mainstream of both British and Hollywood moviemaking. It was a path that he didn’t have to take. He was a strikingly handsome man and an extraordinarily talented actor who, if he had approached things more conventionally, could’ve had a very different sort of career. Like, he could’ve been a Liam Neeson or a Pierce Brosnan type maybe. In response, Sands said “I was looking for something exotic, things that took me out of myself. I think I found myself a little boring.” He also said that he was happiest when he was “close to a mountain summit on a glorious cold morning.”
I can relate to those things. I can relate to anyone who finds themselves in a system in which they, broadly speaking, wish to be and don’t wish to truly rebel against because rebellion is not in their nature, but against which they more than occasionally chafe. People who try to both be within and apart from from that system at the same time and who carve out a little place for themselves to be weird and maybe a little difficult. It’s a tough balance to strike, but I think Sands pulled it off, and for that he’s a hero as far as I’m concerned. May he rest in peace.
July 14, 2023: I turned 50 today. I don’t have any ruminative thoughts about that. It’s corny as hell but I truly do believe that stuff about being only as old as you feel. And my recent bitching notwithstanding, I feel pretty good right now.
Part of that is because I joined a gym in my new neighborhood and have been working out pretty regularly for a couple of weeks. I’ve quickly discovered that, while I still have work to do before I set off from St. Bee’s, I’m in better shape than I gave myself credit for in the last entry. I can walk for a very long time at a very fast clip on very steep inclines and feel pretty damn good. I’ve been doing leg presses and calf and core work and I already feel appreciably stronger than I did. Maybe all of the physical labor that moving entailed helped me out some? I don’t know. All I know is that while there are still a few extra pounds on me, my legs and my lungs could pull the walk off right now if need be. Assuming I keep up my current workout schedule — which will be augmented by actual long outdoor walks here starting this weekend — I’ll be exactly where I need and want to be two months from now when my Coast to Coast walk begins.
Mentally speaking things are more of a mixed bag.
The move mentioned in the previous entry was fairly hellish. Simply moving one’s stuff to a new house is pretty straightforward, but downsizing is hard. I did a pretty brutal first pass of getting rid of things — some sold, some donated, most thrown out — and had the kids and Allison do the same, but we still had a lot of crap to deal with. I got a storage unit for the overflow and I’ve spent close to three weeks now arranging, sorting, shoving, and storing things to make the new place feel organized and sane. It’s still not perfect but we’re moving toward mostly settled.
The emotional impact of this move took me by surprise. Some of it, but nowhere close to most of it, was tied up in getting rid of tangible things. Indeed, it was actually cathartic and even cleansing to throw away objects, even objects I’ve had for a long time. But the overall process was like traveling in a time machine. It placed me in constant conversation with Craigs from 1999, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2020. I caused me to float through the various houses, jobs, lives, and loves I’ve had over the past 25 years. In the space of just a couple of weeks of purging, packing, and moving I watched my first marriage grow into maturity and then crumble into dust, I watched my life and love with Allison begin, grow, and mature, I watched my kids grow up and grow older, reliving their triumphs as well as their struggles, some of which have been harrowing in the extreme.
Throughout this I have been trying to contend with the fact that this new house will never be a place my children really consider their home. Anna will likely not come back home from college again next summer. I figure, at most, Carlo will come back for one more summer. After that I’ll just see them on breaks and, before too long, only on visits. This place will be like the places my parents have lived after I went away to college and they moved away from Beckley. Nice, welcoming, and in many respects homey, but not really their home. Part of me wishes I had just stayed in the neighborhood they’ve lived in for their entire lives so that I could stand, waving to them from the familiar front porch, as they go off to their lives, knowing that if anything went wrong, there would be a safe and familiar space waiting for them.
But, I have a need to move on and I have to honor that. I have to begin living the sort of life I want to live in my 50s-on. One that is not anchored to the past. One that does not cause me, like it has caused so many other parents of adult children I’ve known, to freeze in time and live the rest of my life as if it was all postscript to my child-rearing years. I have friends whose parents’ living rooms haven’t changed since the day of their senior prom and whose childhood bedrooms still have the Guns ‘N Roses and Duran Duran posters on the wall. For as much as my heart has screamed at me to keep the status quo and to stay put and wave from that familiar porch come August, I never, ever want to be the sort of person who calcifies. Who stops growing and evolving the day their youngest moves out of the house. If that causes me some angst in the meantime it’s angst I just have to process and deal with. I think my kids understand that and I hope that, be it now or later, they appreciate it.
A big part of my decision to take this walk was to help distract me from whatever feelings I’ll be dealing with once the nest is actually empty this fall, but as time goes on I’m increasingly feeling like I don’t need a distraction from it as such. I simply need to live through it and feel it all, even it’s momentarily difficult, knowing that what comes next is every bit as important as what came before. More so, actually. For the past is already written and I have so much more to write.
July 18, 2023: I just paid off the £ 1,788 balance for my trip, so I guess I’m really doin’ this, huh?
July 21, 2023: I’ve been working out at the new gym regularly since I’ve joined, and it’s already made a big difference. I feel stronger and I have more stamina than just a few weeks ago. All of that is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. The only way to truly prepare for a long walk is to, well, walk. I haven’t really done that since the move — walking to bars and restaurants don’t count — so I took advantage of some slightly cooler weather this morning and took a 6.21 mile walk around downtown Columbus:
Part of that was to get some actual miles under my feet. Part of it was to get to know the part of town in which I now live. Part of it was take my new boots on their first shakedown cruise. It was a success on all counts. The walk was pleasant — based on how I felt when I finished it I could’ve easily done a full second loop with no problem. The boots are exactly what I wanted and expected. A bit stiff but they loosened up nicely after a couple of miles, just as most new boots do these days. The route was nice too.
I’ve lived in Columbus for over 30 years, and I’ve been all around downtown a zillion times, but I haven’t walked around it for non-utilitarian purposes much. I had never been to the new-ish Scioto Audubon Metropark, which is that big green patch on the southwest corner of my loop. When I moved here that whole peninsula was the city impound lot. Acre after acre of towed-away cars and related industrial ugliness. It took them years to do the environmental remediation on that, but it’s pretty lovely now, with a gorgeous path along the river that gives you views which are frankly amazing for downtown:
I didn’t take a photo of the detour off the trail in the northern part of the park where they’re sinking massive pillars for the construction of a huge flyover for a re-routed I-71, but just know that when you’re in the city, city shit is gonna happen.
Overall, however, it was a lovely walk. The sort of which reminds a person that despite the fact that Columbus made a bunch of horrible choices 70-75 years ago as to how it would grow — around automobiles and suburbs instead of people and neighborhoods — there are still parts of it where, if you look at it just so, a different reality and an alternate history present themselves.
July 22, 2023: I have been worried that my hiking pants — Kuhl Radikls — were going to be too heavy and too moisture absorbent. Part of this was because, since they’re so comfortable, I wore them a lot while doing all the stuff I had to do while moving. They’re fine, and breathable, and rugged, and articulated in all the ways hiking pants are supposed to be. On a couple of occasions, however, they got wet from doing stuff in the rain or excessive sweating or whatever and they didn’t dry particularly quickly. This is not a big issue when it’s 85 degrees in Ohio but when it’s in the 50s in England, and when the rain just doesn’t stop, it will be. So I did a bunch of research and, yep, that’s a complaint a lot of the reviewers had with them. Great pants all around, but not the best if you’re going to be in cool, wet weather.
So I went to REI after my hike yesterday and tried on a bunch of different hiking pants. I’d like to say I found a sensible, budget-friendly pair, but friends, I did not. I bought some super damn expensive Arc’teryx Gamma pants. In my defense (a) they have excellent reviews for exactly the sort of hiking I’ll be doing in the sort of weather I’ll be doing it; and (b) I look really fucking amazing in them.
So you see: sensible. Now I just gotta get a second pair, perhaps in another color, just to be safe. And to look fucking amazing in them in a different way.
Oh, I also hiked again today. Just under ten miles in Blendon Woods.
The general advice for getting ready to hike the Coast to Coast, apart from just being in decent shape, is being able to do back-to-back 12-miles hikes on four occasions prior to departure. Yesterday’s six and change and today’s nearly ten is not that yet, but on both days I could’ve done more. There are seven full weekends between now and when I fly out. When I got home from today’s hike I marked four of them on which to do two 12-milers: the weekend of July 28-30, the weekend of August 11-13, the weekend of September 1-3, and the weekend of September 8-10. I can work in more in all of the open weekends except that of August 25-27, as I’ll be moving the kids into college then, so I do have some flexibility in case the weather or my body or events conspire against me. During the week I’ll continue going to the gym for cardio and weights.
After so much waiting and after so many distractions, I finally feel like I can focus 100% on getting ready for the hike. And I feel 100% confident that I’m going to be in great shape for it when I set off.
July 29, 2023: Allison is in London to see Pulp and visit with friends. She left Thursday and will be gone until Wednesday. I feel like she’s over there doing some advance scouting.
Earlier this week I turned the mostly mental list of gear and supplies I will need into an actual written list. A couple of them, actually: things I have and things I still need. As I buy things from the latter list they get put on the former list which will then, in turn, serve as my packing checklist. Here’s where I am as of this morning, having spent some dough on some rain pants, some gaiters and three pair of Darn Tough hiking socks while sipping wine, listening to music, and reading reviews at Outdoor Gear Lab, which is easily the most fun part of hiking prep:
Merino underwear (3)
Short sleeve base layer/hiking shirt (1)
Long sleeve base layers (2)
Hiking pants (2)
First aid kit
Soft-side laptop sleeve
Beanie cap for cold
Another short sleeve/base shirt
Dry map/passport case
Portable power backup for phone (maybe: InfinityLab InstantGo 5000)
Moleskin/pen for notes
I bought the merino wool underwear last week and took them on a trial run on that very hot and sweaty ten-mile walk. A lot of people recommend those both for comfort and because you can wash them out in a sink and they’ll be dry before morning, which saves you a lot of packing and hassle on a long trip. I can now attest to both their hiking comfort and the ease of washing/drying. It’s a bit galling to pay like $27 for one pair of underwear but this is what I have done with my life, so whatever.
I’m wary of the rain pants. I had tried a pair on at REI last week — large REI brand — and I was swimming in them. Last night, after reading reviews, I settled on some Outdoor Research pants which are from the same line as my rain jacket. The size charts have me right on the border between short/regular cut. I almost always wear large regulars in everything but after trying on those at the store and reading some reviews I suspected that regulars would be too long so I ordered the shorts. I still have time to exchange them if they show up and are too small. I feel so weird buying shorts in anything though.
Anyway, beyond the stuff on those lists I have a separate list going of just general travel crap like my phone charger, power adapter, headphones, toiletries, and all of that stuff but it’s a pretty boring and standard list so I don’t figure I need to share that.
This is a two-twelve-miler weekend. The plan today was to wake up at 5AM and be out on the trail at Highbanks MetroPark by 6am so that I could get in 12 miles by 10:30 or 11AM thereby beating the oppressive heat we’ve been having this week. The waking up at 5AM part was no problem. The being ready to go part was no problem either in that I was smart last night and packed my backpack, including in it most of the things I’ll be bringing with me in England so I can get used to the weight. When I went to bed last night the forecast called for some early showers but that it would clear off by 8AM or so. Fine, I thought. In addition to everything else I’ll need to get used to rain so no worries there either. Out the door I went at 5:30AM.
Then, a few miles up I-71 a torrential downpour with thunder and lighting started up. I got off the freeway to see how long and how bad it was supposed to be and discovered that a severe storm system that was supposed to track north didn’t track north enough and that we’d be having severe thunderstorms for the next couple of hours. England rain is one thing but Midwestern summer lightning storms are quite another. Hiking in the woods during one of those is not wise and the last thing I want to do is go and get electrocuted before my trip. So I turned around and drove home. It’s 6:30AM as I’m typing this. The storms are supposed to pass in the next hour and a half or so. Rather than head up to the park I may just do two loops of that six mile walk around Scioto Metropark that I did last weekend in order to get today’s twelve miles in. Those miles are happening one way or another.
UPDATE: I walked almost exactly 12 miles. Rather than do the same six I did last weekend twice, I looked more closely at the Scioto Audubon map and realized that the trail extends out west past the part of the riverfront I had reached last weekend, crossed the river and followed it back down on the Franklinton side, eventually looping back into the park and then back home. The loop from my house and back was 9.8 miles. When I got back here I stopped, ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and apple I had packed for the trip when I didn’t think I’d have a chance to stop at home, ate it, reapplied sunscreen and walked back out. I went down to Schiller Park, around it, and back home again, giving me the two miles and change I needed to get my 12:
I should’ve not paused the tracking when I stopped to eat lunch because knowing my pace with rest breaks and things is probably more practically useful for me than knowing just my active walking pace, but oh well. I will, of course, take that active pace which is around 3.3 miles per hour. Not too bad for wearing a pack and not trying to push things too terribly hard. Obviously it’ll be slower with elevation gains, of which there was almost none today because, welp, Ohio. But I trust my legs and, increasingly, I trust my lungs. My little bout with COVID in January and what it did to my lung capacity in California in February feels like a long time ago. Though, I suppose, I’ll not know for sure until I get to some real hills, as elevation on the treadmill doesn’t do real hiking justice.
Tomorrow will be part two of the first of four back-to-back 12-mile weekends.
July 30, 2023: I woke up super early again and did 12.5 miles in Blendon Woods today, so mission accomplished on the first of four back-to-backs. This time I kept the clock going when I took little breaks so I don’t seem quite as fast:
You have to do two and a half loops of the three patched-together trails I usually do out there, but distance is distance. And while 705 feet of elevation is not exactly extreme, it’s decent for Ohio I suppose. There’s really no good way to climb around here.
August 6, 2023: The latest audiobook I finished was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Several people suggested it to me when I said that I planned to do the Coast to Coast. I finally got around to it.
The plot: a timid, older, ordinary man named Harold Fry learns that a former friend and colleague with whom he hadn’t had contact in years is seriously ill. He sets out with the intention of sending her a letter but rather than go back home after putting it in the mailbox he keeps walking, with the plan to go and see her, believing that as long as he keeps walking she will live. His journey takes him from his home in Devon, the southwest of England, to Berwick-upon-Tweed way up in the northeast corner of the country, some 600 miles away. He does the whole walk in yachting shoes, a rain jacket, a sweater, shirt, and a tie.
It’s a lovely story about regret, redemption and self-examination, though it also has heartwarming and, at times, sentimental aspects to it that may turn some people off. Normally that sort of sentimentality is a dealbreaker for me but there is not so much of that here that it took away from the more sober and contemplative aspects to it. Without going into detail, both in the interests of spoiler avoidance and the preservation of some personal privacy, there is a specific plot point which, while likely not necessarily remarkable for most people, was difficult to the point of harrowing for me to read. But I got through it and I’m glad I did.
The biggest takeaway from the book is that we should do our best to take notice of the everyday things and everyday people who surround us, even if we’re often too preoccupied to notice them. The book’s message walks a perfect line between (a) accepting that we are not the center of the universe and that none of us and none of what we do is so significant that we need spend our days fretting about it; and (b) knowing that what we do does, indeed, matter and that it is never too late to live a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Those two concepts are putatively at odds but, I believe in them both. Indeed, I spend a lot of my time trying to reconcile what I believe to be the inherent meaninglessness and indifference of the universe and our absolute obligation to care for one another and to make the best of our brief existence. I don’t mean to suggest that Harold Fry is a philosophical book — it just got made into what appears to be a soft-focus, heartwarming movie, complete with a score aimed at maximal heartstring manipulation — but it did make me think of that stuff all the way through it. It also does a good job of capturing one’s mind space when one is in the middle of a long walk, so it gets points for authenticity.
August 7, 2023: I was casually perusing the route of the Coast to Coast in my Ordnance Survey map yesterday when I came across this section near the end of the walk:
Oddly, none of those lists that tell you what gear you need to bring on the walk suggest a black light. Though, now that I think about it, the less I know the better.
August 8, 2023: In 2018 and again last year I stayed at an Airbnb in Manchester managed by a man named Scott. They were two different apartments, actually, in the same, wonderful 19th century apartment building right in the middle of the city center. Scott didn’t actually own them. He lives in the building but I think he managed the rentals, along with a few other units, for their owners who used them as pied à terres or investments or something. He’s a young guy who works in graphic design or something and does the Aribnb thing as a side hustle.
Scott is a great host. Both times he met us at the train station, helped carry out bags for me back to the apartment, gave us a full orientation, including restaurant recommendations, tourist sites and walking tours, and everything. He bought milk and put it in the fridge for us and held bags for us in his apartment after checkout when our trains were later in the day. He checked in with us to make sure we had all of the bookings we needed and to make sure we were enjoying ourselves. The fact that I’ve only been to Manchester a couple of times but, each time, had a wonderful experience which has helped me get to know and love the city as if I had been going there for years and years is in no small part attributable to Scott and his generous and thoughtful hospitality. While the Airbnb model as a whole is pretty problematic in a lot of ways, if it is to be a useful and viable business, having hosts like Scott, who truly seem to care and who make it a warm, human experience as opposed to a mere transaction, seems pretty damn critical to the mission.
In light of all of that I absolutely planned to stay in one of the properties Scott manages for my two nights in Manchester before I head up to St. Bee’s for my walk. Back in June I found his listings and booked my place with him. We exchanged some nice messages as well, with him asking after Allison, Anna, and Carlo and saying that he was sad that he wouldn’t get to see them this time around.
Then, last night, I got three messages from Airbnb: the first one saying my reservation was cancelled, the second one saying that I was getting a full refund, and the third one confirming the refund with a receipt. There was no explanation for the cancellation. So I messaged Scott and asked what the deal was. he replied, “Hi Craig — Thank you for your message. It’s with deep sadness and upset, I have to advise you that Airbnb are deleting me from the Airbnb platform.I’m extremely sorry that you have experienced this cancellation. The apartment you originally booked will be back online shortly under new management, so please do look on Airbnb again in a few days time. Please be assured of my best intentions at all times. Thanks Craig. — Scott”
I can imagine all manner of things that could cause Airbnb to 86 a host like that, some of which reflect poorly on the company, some of which reflect poorly on the host, but I honestly have no idea. Really, I’m less annoyed about the cancellation — there are a zillion places to stay in Manchester and I’ll find one easily — but I was actually looking forward to seeing Scott again. It felt nice staying in a place run by someone who seemed to give a shit. Oh well.
August 11, 2023: This is my second weekend of back-to-back twelve-milers. I walked the downtown/Scioto Trail route again today. I felt better at the end of it — and now, about four hours after finishing it — than I did two weeks ago. Like, much better. It’s almost as if the more you walk the better shape you’re in. Someone should probably look into that.
The highlight of today’s walk was taking a new hat out on a shakedown cruise:
It’s a Fjällräven Singi Trekking Cap. Sort of a paramilitary field cap I guess. I’ve been wearing my usual New Era baseball caps for most hikes but, even if they’re not made of wool anymore, they still pretty hot and they really don’t breathe as much as I need a cap to do when I’m active. Also: it takes forever for the sweat to dry out of them. When you don’t have hair to soak up sweat a LOT of sweat hits your hat band.
There are way more utilitarian hiking hats out there but they tend to be big-brimmed things that look rather silly to me and look rather silly on me. Maybe if I was hiking someplace out west where sun protection was a more critical thing I’d err in that direction, but I’ll be in rainy England and my neck will be covered with clothes almost all of the time anyway. This cap will cover the dome, protecting it from sun, wind, and mist. If I get sweaty it’ll dry out much more quickly than my baseball caps. And, hey, it actually looks pretty cool. Best part: it actually fits. Which is not a thing that is easy to find when your head is as big as mine.
August 18, 2023: I was talking to a friend yesterday who asked me how my hiking training was going. I told her about my 12 mile walks and all the time I’ve been spending in the gym and she said “OK, that’s the body. But what about your mental training? Are you prepared to be out in nature, walking by yourself, in your own head for all that time?” It’s a fair question. In my case, however, I think the answer has to be that I am extremely prepared for it. Indeed, it’s as if I were made for it.
I live a weird life. While a lot of people have gotten used to working from home since the pandemic hit, I’ve been doing it for 14 years. And unlike pandemic-era work-from-home people, I don’t have Zoom meetings or spend time on Slack or anything. I haven’t had coworkers for over three years and even in the 11 years before that I only rarely talked to them. My professional life has been primarily a laptop and me since the first year of Obama’s first term. Which, at times, has created minor problems.
I went through a stretch in the first year or so of my work-from-home life when I didn’t leave the house all that much and the only people I talked to regularly were my kids, who were in preschool and kindergarten at the time. I remember, about six or seven months into my writing career, going out to lunch with my wife. I met her downtown. Lunch was fine, but as we left the restaurant I sort of mindlessly walked right out into an intersection and almost got hit by a car, not really paying attention to my surroundings. A little ways up the block I saw a billboard or a sign of some kind I had not seen before. I can’t remember what it was — it was some then-trendy/viral ad campaign — but I stopped and gawked at it and said something to the effect of “well, that’s clever.” My wife, who was out in society every day, was sort of shocked I hadn’t seen it before because apparently everyone had talked about it a few months prior and the novelty had worn off.
The whole exchange lasted only a moment but it made me feel like an alien who had just landed on Earth. Between not paying attention to stoplights and not having encountered some ubiquitous bit of pop culture, it sort of dawned on me that I had been isolating myself way, way too much. I adjusted things a bit at that point, making a point to leave the house more. A little over a year later I got divorced and the socializing, traveling, shopping, kid-hauling and everything else that accompanied those adjustments I had made helped me rejoin society in a much more appropriate way. I still don’t get out as much as I should but these days I am far closer to being a normal person than I was for a little while there.
I may be better-socialized now and I may get out of the house just enough these days to be normal, but something definitely changed, or maybe broke, inside my head when I stopped working in offices. I don’t have problems interacting with other people — in social settings I’m pretty chatty, I can be clever and funny when necessary, and I generally do just fine — but it takes a lot more effort for me now than it once did. Part of that is probably just being out of practice. It’s been years and years since I’ve lived a life where idle chitchat was part of my daily existence. Part of it is also likely due to the fact that I just write all the time now. That combination has made it so that whenever I find myself getting into anything approaching a non-superficial conversation with someone I start to think how I’d be able to express my thoughts on the matter so much better in writing and wish I could just send them an email, possibly delayed by a few hours to allow me to think about it, rather than to talk in real time in the meatspace.
Life, of course, does not always let you be the sort of person I’ve become. Humans are social beings and we live in a damn society. I have a family and they need me. I may not have coworkers but I do have readers and I’m a better writer when I engage with them than when I pull back. Life demands that we not disappear into our own heads like I am inclined to do when I’m not careful about it. But . . . giving myself permission to do it for a few weeks sounds heavenly. Being able to walk for several hours a day and simply be alone with my thoughts sounds like the definition of comfort.
Maybe I’m all wrong about this. Maybe I already spend far too much time in my own head and maybe I’m overstating how much I need that kind of time. Maybe three days into my walk I’ll be so hungry for a conversation that I’ll team up with some 65 year-old dude I meet in a pub and walk ten miles with him. I have no idea, but I am greatly looking froward to finding out.
August 20, 2023: Hmmm . . .
August 28, 2023: On Friday I drove Carlo down to Athens to move him in to the dorms for his freshman year at Ohio University. On Saturday I drove Anna up to Burlington to move her in to the dorms for her sophomore year at the University of Vermont. Today I drove back. That’s a lot of mileage, a lot of effort, and a lot of emotions for one weekend. But I’m home now and I’m officially an empty nester. I leave for England in a little over two weeks. There are no big events or obligations between now and when I start walking. The countdown is on.
August 31, 2023: I had planned to do my third set of back-to-back 12 milers this weekend but I looked at the forecast yesterday and saw it was going to be in the 90s. Yesterday and today, however, were an unseasonably cool 70-ish each day so I moved up the plan and did 12 miles at Blendon Woods yesterday and 12 miles around the river downtown today.
That sorta messed with my work schedule — I feel like today’s newsletter was sorta half-assed since I didn’t start writing it until the afternoon yesterday — but it was worth it. I’m so damn sick of walking in hot and humid weather. It’d be one thing if I was training to walk 192 miles in the heat and humidity but I am absolutely-fucking-not doing that. Indeed, my hatred of heat is a huge part of going to the north of England in September and October in the first pace. I’d rather walk in freezing temperatures than the horrible hot mess that is the American summer.
Anyway: each day went fine. Whereas, a couple of months ago, a walk that long would have me sore all day the next day, each day this time featured some leg stiffness for a couple of hours after I got home but which mostly went away by mid-afternoon. Today’s walk was certainly not negatively impacted by yesterday’s — indeed, I was faster today than yesterday even though I wasn’t trying to be — so I suppose that means I’m basically ready. I’m sure stringing 17 of these things together as opposed to two will be a different story, of course.
In other news, I am flying over there on Virgin Atlantic, and paid for almost all of my airfare on points thanks to us using a Virgin Atlantic credit card for almost all expenses, and then paying it off each month, for the past year and a half or so. Because of that I was able to book a Premium seat on the way over, which is basically business class. I’ve flown over there on that before and it’s basically the equivalent of first class on domestic flights. It’s quite nice. Nicer than anyone really needs, in fact.
Except I’m spoiled now, I still have some leftover points, and I’ve been checking the Virgin Atlantic website which tells you if there are available seats for which you can use points to upgrade on the flights you have. I’d been checking it once a day for a couple of weeks to no avail, but this morning they showed one Upper Class seat — their name for first class — that was points eligible. I sorta want to do it because I’ve never done it before. The seats fold down like beds and you can use the club at Heathrow when you land to take a shower and all of that kind of thing. Like I said: completely unnecessary but . . . doable.
So I called and tried to upgrade. The woman on the phone said “oh, sorry, there’s nothing available.” I told her I was looking at the screen that said there was. She said “sometimes the website is wrong. Sorry!” I wanted to be mad. Then I realized that I had already said and done enough to get myself thrown up against the wall the moment the revolution comes so I figure I need to drop it.
Not that I’m not gonna check the site again tomorrow. Do you know how nice it would be to take a shower right after an overnight transatlantic flight?!
September 4, 2023: From the BBC:
A five-year-old boy is believed to have become the youngest to complete the near-200 mile Coast-to-Coast.
Ollie completed the gruelling challenge from St Bees, Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire on Saturday. The boy, from Ashbrooke, Sunderland, wanted to raise money after witnessing a Great North Air Ambulance (GNAAS) helicopter rescue.
“He’s been absolutely incredible, he’s been so determined,” father Paul Sainthouse, who walked with him, said . . . Mr Sainthouse told the BBC: “I’ve never had to prise him out of bed or anything. He’s just wanted to crack on, he’s so proud of himself, bless him. “I thought it would be a struggle at the beginning with the terrible weather but he has proved me wrong.” Despite Storm Betty generating up 60mph (95kmh) winds and heavy rain in the first three days of the walk, they managed to continue as scheduled.
Shit. Now I’m gonna feel even worse if I don’t finish the walk for some reason. Fuckin’ Ollie.
September 7, 2023: Six days from flying over to England. The overseas flights and the hiking accommodations have been sorted for months, but it’s been a busy week of planning all of the subsidiary stuff. The train from London to Manchester. The hotel in Manchester for my two days worth of acclimating, chilling, and revisiting one of the best breakfasts and one of the best dinners I’ve ever had. The train from Manchester up to Saint Bee’s where the hike begins. Getting from Robin Hood’s Bay, at the end of the hike, down to York, where I will stay and visit a couple of days before heading back to London and home.
I am no one’s idea of a super traveler, let alone a super travel planner, but I greatly enjoy sorting out this kind of stuff and putting the finishing touches on a grand adventure.
September 8: Some Virgin Atlantic point-eligible tickets became available so I was able to change my flight on Wednesday from Heathrow to Manchester. That saves me a two hour train trip right after I land. I was cautiously optimistic that I’d be able to do it as Virgin tends to release more points-eligible flights closer to departure date, and yep it happened. Oh, and I upgraded to Upper Class — Virgin’s name for first class — because this is a once-in-a-damn-lifetime trip. I’ve never flown first class on an international flight. Should be pretty trippy. I’ll report back on how the other half flies after I land on Thursday morning.
This morning I took my second-to-last training walk before I leave. It, like the others, was supposed to be 12 miles. Except I apparently hit “pause” on the AllTrails app at some point and didn’t realize it when I checked it later and thus ended up hiking, I’m guessing, about 14 miles instead of 12. For what it’s worth I felt fine afterwards so, after one more 12-miler tomorrow, I suppose it’s time to bring on England.
September 10, 2023: I did that last 12-miler yesterday. It went perfectly. Legs felt fresh as could be when I woke up and I walked all 12 miles without taking anything more than a couple of 30-second breaks to re-tie boots or grab something out of my pack or whatever. I was making serious time too, likely because I’ve hiked in that park dozens of times and I’m bored with it.
If anything I went too fast, though, which is probably why I started to develop a bit of a hot spot on my right heel. I haven’t had any blister problems to date, but it’s something I’m definitely concerned about for the upcoming walk. I already had a basic blister kit for my pack but when I got home I decided that I needed to be a bit heavier-duty about it so I bought a whole roll of moleskin — as opposed to the little patches from the kit — some alcohol wipes, and some Neosporin. My hope is that I never need them but I think I’ll be happy I have them.
Ultimately I won’t be going anywhere near as fast on the Coast to Coast as I go in boring, mostly flat Ohio MetroParks, and I’ll be extra careful about making sure my boots are appropriately snug and my socks stay dry.
And with that, the training is over. I fly out Wednesday. I begin hiking on Sunday, September 17.
September 11, 2023: My friend Ethan had some fun with ChatGPT on my behalf:
“Please write me a blog post about the first day of a 20-day trip hiking across England. Talk about the trail, the scenery, some people you met along the way, how your equipment worked, and what may happen tomorrow. Use a breezy informal and slightly awkward style, with some personal revelations and plenty of words.”
Day 1: The Idyllic Beginnings of My 20-Day English Extravaganza
Ah, the Grand English Outdoors…
Today marked the first day of my great English hiking escapade – a 20-day journey across the undulating terrains of England, that little country with a big heart.
The sun greeted me with a cheeky wink as I set out, all strapped up with my spanking new backpack, which carries pretty much everything but my kitchen sink. The trail began at the small yet utterly charming town of Idyllville (not its real name, but let’s roll with it). The pathways were a mesmerizing patchwork of cobblestone streets, guiding me into the heart of England’s countryside, a place so green, you’d swear the color was invented here.
Oi, You’re Going the Wrong Way, Mate!
I’m not too proud to admit this, but I might have taken a couple of wrong turns. But in my defense, the trail was weaving through fields and forests like a startled rabbit. It was during one of these impromptu detours that I encountered a fellow hiker, a beacon of wisdom in hiking boots, who kindly guided me back to the righteous path with a friendly shake of the head and a hearty laugh.
Of Sheep and Men
I wouldn’t have experienced the day in all its glory without mentioning the picturesque landscapes I traipsed through. Rolling hills playing hide and seek with herds of sheep, all under the watchful eye of an azure sky. I stopped to chat with a shepherd — yes, a real-life shepherd! He shared tales of the land, his sheep, and even recommended a homey inn for tomorrow night. It felt like stepping into another era, a chapter from a storybook sprung to life.
The Chronicles of Gear
Speaking of life stories, let’s talk gear. Oh, my boots, my precious new boots, they squeaked and protested with every step, a relentless reminder of their brand-newness. Despite this, they held up well, guarding my feet against the angry protests of stray rocks and roots. Meanwhile, my backpack seemed to develop a personality of its own, sometimes cooperating, other times just being a right pain in the back.
What Tomorrow Holds
As the day winds down and I set up my humble abode for the night (read: a two-man tent that barely fits one), I can’t help but wonder what adventures tomorrow will bring. Maybe I’ll meet a group of hikers to share stories and snacks with or perhaps stumble upon a hidden glen that’s straight out of a fairy tale. One thing is for sure; it will be another day of wondrous landscapes, endearing encounters, and yes, my still squeaking boots accompanying me every step of the way.
Here’s to open trails, kind strangers, and the joy of exploring — squeaky boots and all.
Ethan, realizing that I’d never use the phrase “the sun greeted me with a cheeky wink” and that I’m not going to be sleeping in tents, then revised the query:
“Can you make it a little more world-weary and less cheerful? Also staying in an English inn, not a tent.”
“Day 1: Trudging through England, One Step at a Time
The Unforgiving Embrace of the Morning Sun
Today heralded the beginning of my 20-day journey, trudging through the well-worn paths that crisscross England’s daunting landscapes. The morning sun wasn’t so much a welcome friend as a herald of the long, potentially grueling day ahead.
The Well-Trodden Paths of Yesteryear
The starting point, a nondescript town whispering tales of more vibrant days long past, was the gateway to trails laden with memories of yesteryears. Every cobblestone underfoot seemed to recount stories of the countless others who had embarked on similar ventures, a constant reminder of the path that lies ahead, both beaten and unbeaten.
Chance Encounters with Solitary Souls
It wasn’t long before I crossed paths with others — a lone hiker with a nod of acknowledgment, a fleeting connection in this expansive yet oddly enclosing environment. There was a shepherd too, a man embodying the enduring spirit of the English countryside, his stories echoing the melancholy and steadfast spirit of the hills that surrounded us. It was a poignant reminder that even in the face of relentless time, some things remain unmoving, stoic in their essence.
A Symphony of Creaks and Groans
Ah, my gear — a new pair of boots, so unyielding and indifferent to my pleas for comfort, and a backpack that seemed determined to challenge my physical limits with every step. The day became a symphony of creaks and groans, both from my gear and myself, a duet of man and material in this seemingly never-ending dance.
The Weary Traveler’s Rest
As the sky draped a blanket of muted hues signaling the day’s end, I trudged into a welcoming English inn, a beacon of warmth in the fading light. Its wooden beams groaned with age, the floors echoing the weary sighs of countless travelers who sought refuge within its walls.
The room is a reflection of my state — functional yet devoid of any pretense of luxury, a space that promises rest but not comfort. Tomorrow beckons with the inevitability of more paths to tread, more stones to overturn, and the ever-present reminder of the solitude that accompanies a journey such as this.
What Tomorrow Might Bring
Tomorrow is but a foggy landscape in the distance, a continuation of today with its mixture of reluctant anticipation and an underlying pulse of dread. Yet, amid the weariness, there is a glimmer, however faint, of hope — that the paths yet to be traversed might offer moments of quiet beauty, silent companions in the form of ancient trees, and perhaps, just perhaps, a kindred spirit sharing this road less traveled.
Here’s to the hopeful heart of a weary traveler, venturing forth into the unknown, one laborious step at a time.”
I’ll grant that I spew on and on at times, but at the moment I feel pretty secure in the notion that ChatGPT is not gonna put me out of a job any time soon.
September 12, 2023: I almost never pack too far ahead of time — I’m often putting things in my suitcase the morning I leave – but I packed my bag last night, at least preliminarily speaking. Packing for this trip is different than any trip I’ve ever taken, I have a lot of weird gear and things, and I wanted to make sure I had time to optimize stuff if I ran into any unexpected issues. It went generally fine. Everything fits into my big duffel and I’m well under weight limits for both air travel and the bag hauling service during the hike. Still, I am almost certain I overpacked. Which, to be fair, I almost always do, but usually I’m just going someplace, dumping my bag and staying in a single place so it doesn’t much matter. With moving, unpacking, re-packing, and moving again almost every day for three weeks overpacking seems far more irresponsible, so I’m gonna re-do it today. Obsessive traveling Craigy is obsessive.
Today is also filled with all manner of last minute house things I want to do before I go. Cleaning the cat water fountain thing. Putting the screens in a couple of windows that don’t have them because it’ll be cool enough to open up here not long after I leave. Spreading some of those ant killer granules around the foundation of the house because in the Midwest you tend to get a lot of little ants in your house when the weather starts turning cold, especially if you have cats who scatter little crumbs of cat food all over the kitchen floor. Preparing a bunch of chicken breasts for the freezer for Allison so she eats well while I’m gone. There are some other things too. I have a list.
Yes, Allison could do those things. Yes, I am weird about taking care of things around the house and I worry too much about everyone around me to just let it all go. All of which is probably an excellent argument for me actually leaving for a few weeks and not thinking constantly about taking care of everything.
September 13, 2023: I’m off!
September 14, 2023: For someone who is generally thought of as a cranky-ass socialist I enjoyed my upper class flight from JFK to Manchester far more than I should have. I’ve never been able to sleep on planes because my head bobs around and wakes me up the moment I fall asleep but when you have a seat that converts into a totally flat bed it’s not a problem. Now all I need to do is to become rich so I can do that all the time and not just on a special occasion solo trip in which the entire purpose is to go a bit crazy. It’s probably tough to thread that socialist/rich dickhead needle, but I’m willing to give it a go. I’ll pay my taxes and everything.
I landed in Manchester just before 8AM. My hotel room wasn’t ready until 2pm so I dumped my bag and wandered around for a few hours. This is my third time in Manchester and I like it more each time I come. London is great but I feel like Manchester is just more human-scale. Just as I have always felt more at ease in Chicago than New York I feel more at home in Manchester than London. It’s just my speed.
Since I had no room to go to yet I spent some time in the People’s History Museum and then went to the John Rylands Research Library. I’d been to the former five years ago. This is what I wrote about it then:
[The People’s History Museum is] dedicated to chronicling the advancement of worker’s rights, women’s rights, voting rights and social and political justice in the United Kingdom over the past 200 years. Many people — most Americans, I presume — would call the museum’s mission “radical” or “socialist” but the Museum refers to itself as “the national museum of democracy,” which seems far more apt, given that any society which does not grant workers, women, minorities and the marginalized an equal voice is not truly a democracy . . . it’s shameful and telling about the state of current American politics that so much of my time there was spent marveling at the museum’s very existence and thinking about how impossible it is to picture such a place in the United States.
Same feelings held for my second visit. It’s a sad goddamn statement how unabashed advocacy for workers’ rights, womens’ rights, gay rights, and disabled persons’ rights seems transgressive, but it’s important to remember that there are a hell of a lot more people who need and want those things than modern America and, to a large extent, modern British society would have you believe and it’s really damn nice that there’s a space that acknowledges that, both in an historic and a modern context.
I had walked by the Rylands Library in both 2018 and 2022 but it was closed both times I was here. This time it was open and I went and checked it out. Architecturally speaking it’s stunning:
It looks like a church but it always was and always will be a library. It opened in 1900 and became part of the University of Manchester in the early 1970s. It’s still an active research library and reading room. You can go in, find a table, sit down with your books or your laptop or whatever and work. Or you can take out some 200 or 500 year-old book or manuscript for (on-site) perusal. Or, like me yesterday, you can just walk around and admire the whole neo-Gothic vibe. A vibe, by the way, which was very much in style in late 19th century England, when Rylands was built. The Industrial Revolution had alienated and dehumanized society in a lot of important ways by then so there was a push on to go back and build Gothic-style buildings because they were thought to evoke a time when, unlike socially-stratified Victorian England, entire communities revolved around the same institutions and buildings and routines. So, yeah, it was a lie designed to comfort people, but I suppose that explains a lot of history and architecture.
After the Rylands I walked across town — it’s painfully easy to walk across central Manchester, which is wonderfully compact — to the Northern Quarter, which is the hipper part of town. It’s not quite as hip as it was a few years ago because gentrification stops for no one, but it’s still cool by my lame standards. I had lunch at Smithfield Social, which Allison ordered me to visit because Liam Fray, the lead singer of the band Courteeners owns it and Allison is justifiably in love with both Liam and Courteeners. It was after 1PM by then but my body clock was so messed up from a transatlantic flight and a relatively small amount of weird sleep that I had breakfast. Not a full English — that’s for Friday, at a full English mecca — but it was damn good all the same.
My hotel room was ready by the time I got done so I went there and crashed for a couple of hours. I wrote back on August 8 how the Airbnb I had stayed at the two times I was here before went away. That’s probably fine because (a) Airbnb is not a business I should be supporting; and (b) the hotel I booked is lovely. The only weird thing: it’s located in the heart of Manchester’s Gay Village, and it’s quite clearly a gay-friendly place, but its website constantly refers to it as being in “Manchester’s Village” and as far as I can tell no one refers to it as the “Village” or “Manchester’s Village.” It’s “Gay Village.” The street signs say so and everything. Maybe I’m just missing an extant malleability of the moniker but part of me wonders if the hotel is afraid of alienating conservative types. I suppose one purpose of this trip is to get me to stop overthinking everything with my blogger brain so I should probably just let that go but it’s only been a day and I’ve yet to be able to turn it off.
Dinner was at Higher Ground, a farm-to-table kind of place that, because it’s not 2010, does not call itself a farm-to-table place but it is. Its founders, chef, and workers have serious culinary pedigrees and the food was out of this world. I sat at the bar directly in front of the open kitchen. The chef, Joe Otway, ran a kitchen that put me in mind of “The Bear” — lots of “yes chefs” and crazy choreography that caused even a low-anxiety guy like me no small degree of anxiety — but it was orders of magnitude more chill than that. Joe was in total control of everything going on but still took the time to come over and talk to me and the others sitting at the kitchen-view seats. Upon realizing I was an American he wanted to know if I was enjoying Manchester so far and he asked me questions about my hike and stuff while simultaneously tasting sauces, directing line cooks and dish traffic, and finishing plates himself before sending them out. It’s unreal how anyone can do that kind of thing. I can’t even do a basic Thanksgiving dinner without a bottle or two of champagne and a lot of stress.
Here was what I had. Not pictured: a custard tart and cup of coffee I had for dessert:
Clockwise from left: “Atomic grape tomato and Pitchfork Cheddar tart,” “Pea and Quickie’s Cheddar Fritters,” and “Ice queen lettuce, Garstrang blue cheese, burnt leek and toasted yeast.” Every bite was exquisite. And for as amazing as that food was, all three plates, plus dessert, plus two glasses of wine, plus coffee, was only 65 pounds, tip included. I suppose the fact that I got all vegetarian dishes helped but while there is a lot of meat on the menu here you can tell they’re more about vegetables and cheeses here and those all seemed way better anyway. Can’t complain at all. One of the better meals I’ve had over the past several years. People who slag on British food are simply not eating the right British food.
As I write this I’m back in my hotel, trying to stay up late enough to where I can be back on a human schedule tomorrow. I’ll still probably wake up at 4am, but I’m hoping for better.
September 15, 2023: A full day with no real plans in Manchester. I added the day in so that I can be 100% sure that I’m over jet lag and fully relaxed before I begin my hike. Not that I rested much. I mostly wandered today, covering like 20,000 steps. Which is fine, as I prefer to wander when I travel anyway. Let’s just do it via photos and summaries:
Gotta do the full English breakfast at least once when you’re over here, and you have to include the black pudding in it or else it doesn’t count. The Koffee Pot’s full English is legit, even if they put ice in their orange juice. As for the full English in general: it’s about 75% more than anyone needs for breakfast, but the British came up with it when they had an empire to run and that takes a lot of energy. The empire is gone now, but they’re still going on inertia.
The Midland Hotel. It was built in 1903 by the Midland Railway to serve passengers who arrived at Manchester Central Station next door. It’s been alleged that Hitler greatly admired the Midland and that he had plans for it to be a major Nazi headquarters if and when Germany conquered England. American intelligence believed at the time that that’s the reason why Nazi bombers mostly spared the area around the hotel. That story, which I’ve seen repeated in multiple places, reminds me of kids in the early 1980s who claimed that the cities they lived in were at the top of the list of Soviet nuke targets because of some auto or chemical plant or something. Which is to say, it smells like bullshit, but it’s a good story anyway.
It is verifiably true, however, that Rolls met Royce in this hotel and that from there they built their auto/airplane engine empire. It’s also true that the Beatles were once refused service at the french restaurant inside because they were not wearing ties. Same reason I didn’t stay there tbh.
The Peterloo Massacre Memorial in front of the Manchester Convention Center, which was once Manchester Central Station. There’s a lot that can be said about the Peterloo Massacre, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that armed authorities basically murdered 18 and injured 700 people who had come to protest Parliamentary representation, which comically favored relatively uninhabited country lands while overlooking city dwellers (sound familiar, Americans?). The massacre is generally accepted as the beginning of a movement of democratic reform which benefitted the working class and, ultimately, led to the rise of the labor movement and the Labour Party.
Fun fact: there’s a sign on the side of Manchester Central noting that European Union funds made the conversion of the old train station into a convention center possible. If Brexit had happened earlier there’d probably be a parking garage here.
This is just the extension to the Manchester Town Hall which, while it’s a cool as hell building, is completely under wraps due to a multi-year renovation so no photos. The extension is pretty impressive in its own right, even if architecture critics of the time called it “dull” and “drab,” which, OK. There was a newlywed couple getting their photos taken in front of the phone boxes but I just missed them as they walked under the arches to the right.
Beetham Tower. Some offices and some apartments. It’s only 47 stories tall, but from 2006 to 2018 it was the tallest building in Manchester and the tallest building in the UK outside of London. There are some boring, taller towers in a cluster just south of here now. I’ve always felt that Beetham looked like a big toothbrush. I read that circa 2005 or so Manchester, as a city, was trying hard to become a UNESCO Heritage Site due to its industrial history but that the construction of this building, looming over so many Grade 1 and Grade 2 listed buildings, sunk the effort. Oh well. At least some rich people have some nice condos up in the bristle part of the toothbrush. Also: due to some quirks of engineering and physics and whatever when it’s windy the building literally hums. Like, you can hear it all over the city. Great job, gents.
The Castlefield Viaduct is a 1,082-foot Victorian era railroad bridge that was decommissioned in 1969. It was basically abandoned and became overgrown with vegetation. Last year the National Trust turned it into an urban park, sort of like New York’s High Line, though it’s not as integrated with the city as the High Line is. Like, you can’t take it through to anywhere. It’s an out-and-back. Half of the length — the second pic of that three-pic sequence — consists of paths through raised garden beds featuring native plants, flowers, and trees with explanatory signs and features. The other half — the third pic, which you can see through glass but can’t access — consists of the still-overgrown bridge bed as entropy has designed it since 1969.
It’s cool, but it’s also apparently just a temporary installation kind of thing as opposed to something that will last in its current form. The city is seeking permanent funding sources and is working up ideas for a longer-term life for the viaduct. It’ll need a lot of funding for that, which the National Trust is apparently not willing or able to do. It has another year in its current form, though, and in the meantime it’s pretty neat.
The viaduct is next where the original Roman settlement here — Mancunium — existed. It was basically a fort where two main Roman roads met, along with a granary and habitations for the families of Roman soldiers and assorted tradespeople. It was undisturbed, though crumbling, until the late 18th century when industrial development cleared it all out. These foundations are reconstructions of what had been there, as is the fort wall in the distance in the center of the photo. I guess early industrialists didn’t have much reverence for history. Which makes them like modern industrialists. It’s still kinda neat to even see the reconstructions. I’m from a country in which stuff that’s 200 years old is considered really fucking old, so I’m pretty easily impressed in this regard.
I had been walking around for a few hours at this point so I popped into the Deansgate Pub. It, like a great many pubs in the UK, is part of a big corporate chain that has bought up smaller breweries and pubs, but I first came here in 2018 and really liked it and in the 21st century you just have to get used to that kind of crap and find joy where you can. It’s pretty obvious that they’ve renovated the place pretty extensively in the five years since I was last here but it still has a classic feel to it and they still have a bunch of great cask ales, so I don’t have any real complaints. I limited myself to one pint considering I’m supposed to walk 200 miles starting Sunday.
Guy: “So, have we run the name of our restaurant by the lawyers?”
Guy 2: “Yep, he said it’s totally cool to call ourselves KFC. We’re good, mate.”
This place is literally 100 feet around the corner from the first place. I’m guessing they had the same lawyer.
I always stop by Sackville Gardens to say hello to Alan Turing. The inscription on the plaque at the base of the sculpture: “Father of Computer Science, Mathematician, Logician, Wartime Codebreaker, Victim of Prejudice.” Hello, Alan. Fuck the haters.
Canal Street in Gay Village. My hotel is right around the corner and I’ve walked through this area a lot over the past couple of days. It’s full of gay men and women, trans men and women, and drag performers. As I’m writing this it’s Friday night at around 11pm. I’m on the fourth floor with the windows open. There’s a refreshing cool breeze coming in and I can hear the music and the the revelers from the bars and cafes. Given how things have been going for LGBTQ+ people in the United States of late it’s wonderful to see and hear people who have not become the targets of hateful and cynical politics to the same as extent here as they have back home.
My evening ended at Bundobust, which is an Indian street food place. Carlo, Anna and I ate here last year and it became an instant favorite. I’ve been looking forward to coming back here for a year. It did not disappoint. Clockwise from left, with descriptions per their menu: Bhel Puri, consisting of a samosa pastry and puffed rice with peas, onion, pomegranate, and tomato in tamarind chutney, Tarka Dhal & Rice, which is lentil curry spiced with cumin, garlic and chili over basmati rice, and Aloo and Dhal Kachori, which is fried potato and sweet potato patties stuffed with a spicy dhal mix served on mint and imli sauces, topped with crispy mung beans. The beer is a black German-style lager. It was all to die for. If someone told me I could only eat one restaurant’s food for the rest of my life this place would be in the conversation.
And with that, my time in Manchester is over. I catch a train on Saturday morning for Saint Bees. I start walking on Sunday.
September 16, 2023: It’s Coast-to-Coast Eve. I’m in my B&B in St. Bees. I’ve spent the last hour making sure everything I will need on the trail is in my backpack, everything I don’t need is in my duffel, and that I have everything necessary to navigate in my head, on my devices as a backup, and in hard copy form as a backup to the backup. I begin walking tomorrow.
I woke up in Manchester and had a sausage/egg roll at Greggs. Greggs is the farthest from what most people would consider good food or good coffee but it’s a total guilty pleasure of mine. It’s just efficient, dammit, and I figure that I had enough great food during my first two days in Manchester that I could afford an efficiency move. It got the job done.
I was on the train and pulling out of Piccadilly station at 10:20. My route took me through Preston, up to Carlisle, and then back down along the coast on the milk run to St. Bee’s. Last year the kids and I planned to take that train on up to Edinburgh but, due to a perfect storm of mechanical failures, threatened labor action, and a series of trains that were dangerously overcrowded, we got stuck in Preston, unable to go any farther north. We ended up going back down to London instead, missing Scotland. That all worked out pretty well but in the moment it was the single worst travel day I’d ever had and I was thus dreading hitting Preston station again. I held my breath as we got there and didn’t exhale until the train began moving out of the station. With the exception of one little delay later that’s not even worth mentioning I made it down to St. Bees by about 3:30. Phew.
I’m staying tonight at a place called Stone House Farm which is the lovely Georgian-era farmhouse pictured above. Because I’m booking single accommodations I expect to get the smallest rooms in most places I stay and that’s certainly true here, but it’s a charming attic space with it’s own bath that is perfectly fine for my purposes. The skylight window in the roof in the photo is my room. There’s a cat running around here too — I saw it briefly — but it’s staying in the innkeeper’s part of the house so I can’t go find it and give it scritches and tell it “pspspspspsps.”
The Stone House only does breakfast, not dinner, so I ate down the street at Queens Hotel. I was back here by 7:30. I hope to be in bed by 10:30 or so. Breakfast is at 7, after which I begin my walk. Tomorrow will be a little over 14 miles. There’s some pretty big elevation gains right off the bat as I leave the coast. I’ll know by lunchtime if my training was sufficient.
I’m a little nervous, but I think the nerves will be gone as soon as I dip my boots in the Irish Sea and then set off around St. Bees Head. At the moment I’m thinking of the entire walk and that’s sort of daunting. Once I get going I’ll be doing what one has to do to accomplish such a thing: think only about putting one foot in front of the other.
Some photos and some observations from the day:
This is the little cafe/refreshments room in the Carlisle station where I waited while transferring trains. I took this photo for two reasons.
First, if you replaced some of the furniture and the sorts of food and drink they serve at that counter, you could almost squint and imagine it as the refreshments room at the train station in the 1945 David Lean/Noel Coward movie “Brief Encounter,” which is a favorite of Allison’s and mine. I tried to see if black and white made it work any better, but I suppose it’s only marginal.
Anyway, anyone who has seen the movie knows that the refreshments room is the most important setting in the film and the clock on the wall — like the clock here — is super important as well. I imagined the lady in the center chatting off the ear of the man next to her as he tried to say goodbye to his lover. Again, if you know you know. And yes, I realize that there is no one at that table to fill the Celia Johnson role, but that’s what imaginations are for.
Worth noting: the train station scenes in “Brief Encounter” were filmed in Carnforth Station, which is on the route between Manchester and Carlisle but my train did not stop there. They have apparently made a little tourist attraction out of the refreshments room, having done it up like it appeared in the movie, but I didn’t get a chance to go.
The second reason I took that photo is that the place where I was sitting is at the extreme northern end of the room, sits about 25 yards north of where I got off the northbound train from Manchester, and about 50 yards north of where I got on my second train, on a different platform, to head back down south/southeast toward St. Bee’s. Which means that where I was sitting when I took that photo was the farthest north I have ever been, geographically speaking, in my life. The previous best was inside an Aldi in Preston back in 2018, but again, the less we speak of Preston the better.
For what it’s worth, the farthest south I’ve ever been was somewhere in the Bahamas or Key West. It’s hard to tell because I’m not sure how far south the cruise ship I was on went on the Bahamas trip. Either way it’s close and either way I’m gonna break that mark in January when Allison and I go to Mexico. For completeness sake: the farthest east I’ve ever been is Murano Island just off of Venice and the farthest west was Cape Mendocino in California. Both of those are gonna hold for the foreseeable future.
A view out of my train window somewhere south of Carlisle along the Irish Sea, looking west. It got very, very gray once we got into Cumbria. There was a brief moment of sunshine not long after I got to St. Bees but it went away quickly. I feel like the sun is going to be an occasional-at-best visitor for me over the next couple of weeks.
My train went out of service at a town called Workington and I had to wait an hour for a replacement. It was actually kind of fun because the Workington station is sort of a time capsule. The signage and a lot of elements of the station are very old and they seem to have consciously preserved them, some with little historical notes next to them, some as-is with no explanation. This sign, which a bored station attendant told me was about 100 years old, is the latter, but it was a necessary sign until shockingly recently, as trains before the early 1990s used to just dump piss and shit from the toilets right onto the tracks. Which, British Rail decided, was perfectly fine while barreling between stations but icky if the train is just stopped at a platform. Now almost all trains have closed sewage systems and dump them, sanitarily, at end stations. The sign is pretty sweet, though.
St Bees Priory. It’s currently the Anglican parish church for the area but it’s been a church or a monastery of some form or another since before the Norman Invasion in the 11th century. All that is left of the pre-Norman site is the shaft of a cross that bears design elements from the era during which the Vikings were converting to Christianity and bopping back and forth between Ireland and the northern English coast. There is a massive Norman-era door on the west side that I stupidly did not take a photo of because I was unaware of what I was looking at until I got back to my room and looked it up. There are gothic elements from its pre-Reformation days when it served as a Benedictine monastery. Henry VIII decommissioned it and everything else Catholic in the 16th century and it’s been various levels of Anglican since. At times it has fallen into relative disrepair and there have been a number of renovations and patches of various stripes. But because it was never really important enough to raze in anger or to renovate in any comprehensive or utilitarian way, there remain a hell of a lot of super old and fascinating design elements.
It has a pretty badass graveyard too. These graves are not terribly old — a couple hundred years — and you can see some 21st century graves in the still active cemetery up on the next level in the upper right of the photo. There is a plaque on a cornerstone of the church, however, marking where the remains of a 14th century knight from the area was entombed after he was killed off on some crusade. His body was uncovered during an 18th century renovation, examined, found to be in shockingly well-preserved condition, and was re-entombed.
After checking out the Priory I walked back up the street to have dinner at Queens hotel. They were out of Guinness and steak pie, so I had the fish and chips, some mushy peas, and a pint of bitter. OK, two pints. And, yes, they spelled my name “Creeg” when I reserved my table a couple of hours earlier. When in St. Bees, etc. I should’ve kept the little placard and tied it to my backpack.
Tomorrow Creeg begins his 192-mile trek.
September 17, 2023: I slept wonderfully last night and woke up ready to get going. I had a big breakfast during which I met and talked to a couple of other hikers. They were Canadian men, both from Winnipeg, both a good bit older than me but both also far more experienced hikers than I am. One of them, retired in his mid-60s, had done a number of trails in Chile and Portugal. They were quite friendly, but I was worried that they’d ask if I wanted to join them today, which is something I really don’t want to do much of on this trip. Like, one of my readers who lives in Scotland has made tentative plans to pop down to join me for a day at some point, but that’s a one-off, I know them in that way you know Internet people, and so it seems different to me. What I don’t want to be in the business of doing is pairing up with hikers for extended periods simply because we’re staying in the same places or whatever.
My reluctance to do this is not an anti-social impulse as much as it’s about not wanting to have to force myself to keep up with stronger hikers (having to drag along weaker hikers is not nearly as likely). I just want to hike my hike, at least this time out. Maybe next year I’ll do another hike like this one or, if I love this one, maybe one day I’ll do the Coast to Coast again and do it with someone else, but I really am trying to use this time to think and reflect as I enter a new phase of my life and I won’t do much of that if I’m forcing myself to keep up with someone or chatting a lot or whatever.
Thankfully the Canadian guys did not make the suggestion. They did, however, hang around the beach in St. Bee’s, where the trail begins and offered to take my photo in front of the sign, after which they took off up the bluff overlooking the sea. I hung around for a few moments more just soaking it all in, got into a brief conversation with a local dog walker about how public parking lots which require you to pay with your cell phone are a sign that everything is going to hell (his view), and then I headed off.
I won’t give a granular play-by-play of the day’s hike but basically it starts off circling around the perimeter of St. Bee’s Head, cuts inland through some farm country and a couple of little villages, ascends Dent Fell, the first fell of the Coast to Coast (“fell” is a derivation of the old Norse word “fjäll” which means any mountain that ascends above the tree line and is a word still used in this part of England), dives deep into the dale on the other side of that fell, and then follows the dale, which is extremely steep-sided, into the town of Ennerdale Bridge. In all it was about 14.5 miles and it entailed 3,271 feet in aggregate elevation gain. I finished in a little under six hours, not counting a brief lunch break.
The fell was a tough climb but nothing like what you’d find out west in the U.S. or even in parts of West Virginia where I’ve hiked before. I was happy how easy it was on my legs and that, while I had to stop to catch my breath a few times, I had none of the sort of struggles I had last February when, just barely post-COVID, I hiked with my friend Ethan in the Bay Area. That being said, I did run into the Canadians right at the base of the fell. They had taken a different, longer route to get there and we arrived at the same time. I told them to go ahead and I’m glad I did as they went straight the hell up way, way faster than I ever would’ve. I didn’t see them the rest of the day. I assume they got into Ennerdale a good half hour before me.
I checked into my BnB, took a loooooooong hot shower, rinsed out my socks, base layer, and underwear with hot water, hung it all up to dry, put on fresh, dry civilian clothes and went downstairs and had a beer. It was a genuinely good Lake Country bitter, but after a day of hiking it could’ve been a Natty Light and I would’ve thought it was delicious. A bit later I had dinner. The place I’m staying is said to have a pretty good Sunday roast so that’s what I did and I did not regret it. I cannot imagine doing all of that today, let alone the harder fell hikes I have ahead of me over the next week, and climbing into a damn tent someplace, all stinky and crap. I guess that’s not an issue for hardcore outdoors people, but I’m not one of those. I’ve really taking to hiking but I’ll always be someone who likes to clean up and sink into a warm bed at night.
There were two negative things today.
First, the hot spot that began developing on my right heel during my last training hike came back again and now I know it’s gonna be a recurring problem. It’s basically a blister now, though not a particularly gnarly one and it doesn’t really hurt. It will eventually, though, so I suppose I’ll just cover it with moleskin tomorrow, keep my boots tied tightly, and hope for the best.
Second, and more significantly: A wave of moderate melancholy started to wash over me as I was sitting down at dinner. There was no specific trigger for it and I could not tell you what I was sad about, but I know this strain of sadness very well. It’s specific to my being in a new place in the evening. It could be a new hotel, a new city, or someone else’s house. When I was a kid I’d get it when we’d go RV’ing and we’d check into a new campground. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. It normally does not hit if I’m with someone, but it can and it has. If I’m traveling alone it’s more likely than not. It always hits around sunset. It’s made worse if I’m watching other people, particularly families, particularly if someone, usually a kid, seems unhappy or if I get a vibe that not everything is great. It always goes away by the morning. Indeed, it’s often replaced by the excitement of traveling or being someplace new the next morning. It’s night and day, literally. It’s akin to homesickness I suppose, exacerbated by my being tired after a day of traveling, but it’s not homesickness as such. I really cannot explain it or put my finger on what it’s all about. I’ve never examined the feeling. I just feel it and wait for it to go away.
Last night there was a perfect storm leading up to that feeling. For one thing, I was exhausted. I also saw a forecast that says the weather is gonna be dreadful, even by Lake Country standards tomorrow and that makes me worry about my feet staying dry and my blister getting worse. There was a family eating dinner near me, with young daughter. She was watching a Bluey video while they waited for their food and someone at the next table over said something kinda rude about the volume and it upset the girl which in turn upset me. Then I started doing that thing when I remembered my kids being that age and it made me sad that my kids aren’t that age anymore and then I inexplicably felt guilty for being over here even though they’re both off at college. It was just a really dumb cycle of emotions, the sort of which I’ve felt before in these sorts of situations.
Thankfully, it mostly went away not long after it arrived. I’ll credit the two English guys who were sitting at the table next to mine. One was around my age, the other maybe in his 60s. The older one was teaching the younger one how to play cribbage. One of them asked me if I was interested in playing and I politely passed, but we began talking. They’re doing a half-Coast to Coast, going a little less than 100 miles. The older one had done it before, the younger had not. They told me they saw me at breakfast back in St. Bees this morning but I didn’t remember seeing them. We talked about the weather at first. but the older one said don’t worry about it because it’s always rainy here. The younger one dropped the line about there being no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. Those are cliches but they made me feel better, as did their friendliness. As I’m back up in my room writing this and preparing for an early bedtime I feel pretty much back to normal.
Maybe I just needed to talk to someone. Maybe that stuff above about wanting “time to think and reflect” is just horseshit and I need other people more than I usually convince myself I do. For someone who has lived deep in his own head for most of his life, I’m increasingly thinking that I don’t know much about how my brain and my feelings work.
But like I said, things will all be better in the morning. Now some photos, and a bit more levity, from the day:
The first thing you’re supposed to do when you begin the Coast to Coast is to dip your boots in the Irish Sea. The last thing you’re supposed to do when you finish is to dip your boots in the North Sea. So I dipped my boots in the Irish Sea. But because it was low tide — and because the tides are super extreme in this part of the world — it added like half a mile to my walk today. Stupid traditions.
The second thing you’re supposed to do is to pick up a stone from the extremely stony St. Bees beach, put it in your pack, carry it with you the 192 miles to Robin Hood’s Bay, and chuck the stone into the North Sea. I wisely chose a smaller stone for this, even if you can’t tell because I didn’t bother to focus on the stone when I took this photo.
I took this photo standing next to the Coast to Coast starting line. The first part of the walk, which you begin before your breakfast even digests, forces you to climb this bitch. Personally I would’ve chosen a route that lets you ease into things, but no one asked me.
I saw a hell of a lot of sheep today. On the bluffs over the sea. In the green spaces in the little villages. On the fell. In the dale. Fucking sheep everywhere. The only thing that rivaled them in number were the huge, huge slugs all over the path. Like, 3-4″ slugs, just chilling out and thanking you for not stepping on them.
I also saw some cows, though far fewer than sheep or slugs. In England people generally have the right of way across farm fields — in the U.S. you’d get shot the moment you stepped on someone’s property I figure, but here the land is for everyone for limited purposes — and thus these trails go across people’s farms. I entered one field with a sign that said “Beware of the bull.” I did not see the bull, thankfully. Part of me wonders if English farmers don’t like hikers having the right of way and put signs like that up to fuck with us.
On a clear day you’re supposed to be able to see the Isle of Man, southern Scotland and, at times, the Irish coast from up here on the bluffs. This is all just theoretical, of course, as there are no clear days in northern England.
St Leonard’s church in the town of Cleator. It’s not as big as the church in St.Bees I talked about yesterday but it’s got just as much history. There are pre-Norman elements to it, mostly inside. There are pre-Reformation parts, during which it was a monastery. Inside those arches are some stone benches. They’re “new” as they only date back to the 19th century. There’s a sign on the gate welcoming Coast to Coast hikers and suggesting that the benches are a great place to eat their packed lunches and get out of the rain for a bit. So that’s what I did. Not another soul passed by while I was there so it was just me and the people in the graveyard. It was lovely.
The view from the top of Dent Fell, with a couple of cairns in the foreground and the Irish Sea, which by then the trail had long left behind, in the distance. Dent Fell is not particularly high — just under 1,200 feet. Still, it’s pretty damn steep. The photo doesn’t do justice to how steep it was, but my AllTrails app did:
There are much taller fells ahead of me over the next couple of days but they have more gradual ascents. And actually, the descent from Dent Fell was in a lot of ways more challenging. It was both steep and slippery. Thank God I have solid knees. Thank God I have trekking poles. If I didn’t I might’ve Westly-from-“Princess Bride” As-you-wished my way down the damn mountain.
Down on the other side of Dent Fell, and through the couple miles of narrow dale behind it, things flatten out and you walk into the village of Ennerdale Bridge, where I’m staying tonight. In the distance, though, you see what I have in store for me over the next couple of days.
Time for some sleep to both recharge both my physical and emotional batteries.
September 18, 2023:
Weather is all about expectations, I suppose. If, like me this time yesterday, you expected sideways rain for eight straight hours, but only got like two hours in the morning and then two hours in the late afternoon, with some actually sunny but cold and blustery weather in the middle, you’re probably feeling pretty good about things. That’s how I’ve decided to think of it anyway after what can only be described as a wonderful day, even if I ended it soaked to the bone.
The morning started badly, though the bad was limited to the time before I left the BnB. I think something I had eaten the night before disagreed with me because I woke up nauseous. I felt like I was gonna barf. It was only worse when the guy brought me my breakfast. I had ordered scrambled eggs, sausage and toast the night before — no one needs a full English every day — and when it came the eggs were severely underdone and swimming in eggy water. I took one small bite of the sausage and I had to chew it for like eight hours. It was not helping. I was actually scanning the room for exits in case I had to hurl. I pushed the food away, made some apologies and asked if I could just have some more toast and maybe some corn flakes and yogurt. Normally I’d not eat anything if I felt like that but I knew I had to walk close to 15 miles with massive elevation gains today. I managed to get it all down and keep it down. I actually began to feel a bit better as I left the BnB. Maybe I just needed the fresh air, even if the fresh air was accompanied by a driving rain.
I began following the road to Ennerdale Water, which is a big, long glacial lake around which I’d be walking most of the morning. When I got to the start of the lake I saw two guys there looking at a map and, wouldn’t you know it, it was the two Canadian guys, Guy and Greg, from the morning at St. Bees yesterday. They had stayed at a different place than me but since we all ended up there at once we decided to walk together. I know what I said yesterday about wanting to walk alone, but between that weird anxiety I had the night before and not feeling too well in the morning the idea of some company was appealing. Guy and Greg are about the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and they were totally agreeable.
Someone I spoke with before leaving said that the trail for the usual route around the lake, to the south, might’ve been flooded due to the rain and that maybe the north side would be better but we decided to stick with the map, confident that we had sufficient rain gear. It ended up being OK, though there were what I call, without any hyperbole, waterfall-like deluges of water coming down from the mountains and into the lake that we had to cross. It was a bit dicey at times but none of us splashed in and got washed away. I’ve never been the fastest hiker and I’m certainly not the strongest climber, but one thing I’ve always been pretty good at is crossing creeks and rivers and things, as I seem to have a good sense of what rocks you can step on, how deep the water is, and stuff like that. Being able to cut though all of that gave me a much-needed confidence boost. Before too long I realized that my morning nausea was completely gone and the residual anxiety I had been feeling from the night before had completely dissipated. The rain was still terrible, but I was feeling pretty great.
The rain stopped not long after we reached the far end of the lake. From there the route cuts through some Forestry England land (public forest land) where they are in the process of replacing old, tapped-out commercial pine growing operations with native deciduous trees and doing things like reintroducing beavers and stuff. That all follows a well-maintained forest road for a few miles that rises a good bit but not so steeply that it gives you any trouble. Finally, after a very long time, you reach the end of a valley and find Black Sail Hut, which is a former shepherd’s hut that was turned into a youth hostel a very long time ago. As in, the kind where young people are brought to experience nature, not a commercial lodging. It is open to anyone now and is a good place to stop and have lunch, dry off, and because it has a stocked kitchen, you can make yourself a cup of tea or get some cakes they leave out. It’s mostly unattended during the day but they leave an honor box for you to pay whatever you think is fair. As it had cleared up by then we put away our rain jackets and rain pants, had lunch, and began our climb out of the valley and a couple thousand feet up a steep fell.
Before I get to the fell, allow me to note how insane the wayfinding is on the Coast to Coast. Alfred Wainwright, who created this hike, was a famously imprecise writer who would never tell you something straight if he could tell you something in oblique and/or poetic language. I have a copy of his original book on the Coast to Coast and it’s a wonderful read but as a guide book it’s not exactly user friendly. For some reason, however, the people who have written the couple of modern guidebooks everyone uses now still sorta channel their inner Wainwright. They actually say things like “at the end of the path turn toward where [Whatever] Cottage used to be” and “The path to the right is the obvious path. Don’t take that one.” It’s just high comedy all the way down. I mention that because when we left the hostel we started walking down the obvious path before we realized, about 100 yards into it, it was the wrong path. We then took the non-obvious path up Loft Beck.
Loft Beck is about 2,000 feet high and it’s no joke. Dent Fell from Sunday was just over 1,100. That one was a straight grass track up the hill. Loft Beck is rocky and steep. The rocks are more like steps, actually, but they’re not anywhere nearly as helpful like steps are, because half the time they have become temporary water falls and when they do, like they did today, you really can’t stop because there’s nowhere to balance. I have to rest a lot when I do big climbs, and each time you rest on Loft Beck you either have to lean forward or risk falling back, and you don’t get a lot of great rest when leaning forward. It was here where I told Guy and Greg, who despite being in their mid-60s are like a couple of sherpas, to go on ahead as I didn’t want to hold them up. We said our goodbyes, as they’re staying elsewhere tonight and are on a far more accelerated schedule after today, so I doubt I’ll see them again. It was truly enjoyable hiking and talking with them today, however. So much so that I’m rethinking my “I really just wanna do this hike alone thing.” I still want to do it at my pace, and I don’t want to plan around anyone or have them plan around me, but if happenstance pairs me with someone else for a few miles here or there over the next two weeks I’ll be happy to join them.
All of that said, Guy and Greg going on ahead made my ascent of Loft Beck feel like a personal victory. I wasn’t being paced by anyone or losing my sense of the moment by worrying about falling behind. I put one foot in front of the other, rested precariously when I could, and just steadily made my way to the top. It was maybe my most satisfying physical accomplishment ever. It’s not as tall as some things I’ve climbed — Camelback and Mt. Tam are higher — but it was certainly harder and steeper and, again, I did it on my own. I was rewarded with one of the best views I’ve ever experienced:
Yes, that’s actually my photo. It looks like a goddamn painting because the view looks like a goddamn painting. This is the view they put on guidebooks and stuff. I’ll be thinking about this view for the rest of my life. I’ll be thinking about this view in the moments before I die.
Not long after I took that photo I saw a couple who had been behind us for much of the day also ascending Loft Beck. They’re from New Zealand. A husband and wife, I’d say late 60s, but hard to tell. I waited for them to get up to where I was. They asked me what had happened to Guy and Greg and I told them they went on ahead. They asked if they could walk with me and I said sure, so we covered the final miles of the day together. Those miles take you back down the other side of Loft Beck, past the last operating slate mine in England, which is also a tourist attraction now, and then down a rocky descent into Borrowdale, where we are staying tonight. Wouldn’t you know it, of course, that an unexpected downburst hit us a mile or so from the hotel, coming on us so fast that we didn’t have time to get all our rain gear back out before we were soaked. Knowing that my hotel has a drying room in it — a sauna for your wet gear — I decided, fuck it, and just let myself get wet because I was exhausted.
As I write this, my clothes are drying down in the drying room, I have a very full stomach of a very fine and, dare I say it, fancy meal, and I’m happy to actually be in a proper hotel with a bit of refinement and comfort after a couple of nights in some quaint but bare bones BnBs. I may have climbed a steep, rocky fell today, but I’m a fancy boy at heart and sometimes you just need an olive plate, a modern gourmet meal, some good wine and some toffee cake for desert, with evening coffee and tea service in the lounge afterward.
Tomorrow starts with another tough fell, but it’s a much shorter day overall. It’ll end near Dove Cottage, where William Wordsworth lived for most of his life. I hope I’m there in time for a tour. I wanna see the room where Samuel Taylor Coleridge got blitzed on laudanum.
Some more photos:
This was after the morning weather had improved. It was raining so hard when we set off that I didn’t dare take my phone out.
Greg and Guy, my Canadian hiking companions for part of Day 1 and most of Day 2. If I can be half as nice and in half as good a shape as they are 15 years from now I’ll be lucky.
About a third of the way along the south coast of Ennerdale Water, the first lake you encounter upon entering the Lake District.
The far eastern end of Ennerdale Water, looking back to the west.
The River Liza, which feeds Ennerdale Water. The mountain to the left in the far distance is Loft Beck.
Black Sail Hut, the former shepherd’s hut that is now a hostel. When you leave it, don’t take the obvious trail.
Chris Brasher was an athlete and sports journalist who, among other things, founded the London Marathon. He apparently also liked to come up and party in Black Sail Hut in the Lake District. This memorial to him is what all people should aspire to have written about them when they die.
The top of Loft Beck was that first pic way up above. This is from near-ish the bottom looking up. That stream coming down is supposed to be the trail. A great deal of time you just have to walk up the stream because there aren’t a lot of great options.
This is the visitor’s center/cafe/whatever attached to the slate mine. I stopped in to get some water as mine was almost gone but I left with a white chocolate raspberry bar that was calling to me. My lord food tastes good when you’re deliriously exhausted.
My fancy dinner at my hotel tonight. It’s hard to see because it was a crap photo, but there’s a pretty delicious, crispy-skinned roast chicken breast in there. I sent the photo to Allison. She asked why the vegetables were on the other end of the table. The only answer I could come up with was “because England.”
And now I sleep the sleep of the dead.
September 19, 2023: I slept like a baby last night. The bed was huge and soft and wonderful and the sound of the rain outside my slightly open window served as the best white noise ever. I sat down for breakfast in the same fancy dining room where I had dinner last night. Here’s video of me ordering:
Actually I once again eschewed full English breakfast entirely but I loaded up on granola and yogurt, toast, fruit, croissants, coffee, orange juice, and pocketed an apple and a banana on my way out the door. Just night and day compared to yesterday. I felt fantastic.
It was absolutely pouring rain when I set out but unlike yesterday I didn’t care a bit. My clothes were dry, I was waterproofed from head to toe, and I just got on with it. When in England do as the English do. Well, some things they do. Like, I’m not gonna impose my murderous imperialist agenda across the world and then, decades after my global power has waned, try to make myself feel better by engaging in erroneous, toxic, and xenophobic self-mythologizing, but I will try to adhere to more mundane customs and habits. I’m an Anglophile but I have my limits.
I left my hotel, which was in Seatoller, and walked a mile and a half up the road to Rosthwaite, where the trail began. Like yesterday I ran into someone I knew just as I hit the trail: the couple from New Zealand, Richard and, um, crap, I forget his wife’s name but I wanna say . . Ellie? OK, doesn’t matter. I had talked to them yesterday and I like them a good deal so I was happy to be walking with them again.
Well, only so happy as one can be in some of the hardest driving rain you’ve ever been in and with extremely strong winds right in our faces. The trail at this point was more of a stream and there were few options to walk around the water flowing down it in our direction. The trail at this point followed a river called Langstrath Beck, which was very high and moving very fast. Or so we thought. Because a bit up the trail it joins a larger river called Greenup Gill which made Langstrath Beck look like a babbling brook. The guidebook says Greenup Gill becomes “one long torrent of white water and waterfalls” in heavy rain and it had been raining heavily for about 14 straight hours at this point. I’ve rafted Class V rapids in the Gauley River in West Virginia and Greenup Gill looked like the most intense parts of the Gauley. Maybe more so.
We kept hiking, eventually catching up with a couple from Michigan I had met the night before, making us a fivesome. The farther we went the worse the trail became, to the point where we were simply wading as opposed to hiking. In a couple of places some small becks that ran down the mountain — the sort of which you normally happily walk across on stepping stones — became more like rivers themselves. We were able to cross them but it took a lot more effort and care than usual. I have great boots and I put on my gaiters and my rain pants before setting off but at some point things become so wet that the notion of “waterproof” becomes non-operative. By the time we had gone about three miles my socks squished with each step.
Then we came across this:
This, by the way, is the trail. Those three little poles sticking out of the water form the sides of a bridge that’s supposed to go over the beck coming down the mountain. The bridge, however, was submerged under nearly three feet of water. The raging Class V+ Greenup Gill is just to the right of that stone and timber barrier. There are grates between the stone posts but the bottoms are open to let the water flow, as they’re there to stop debris like branches and things. If a person slipped and fell while attempting to ford this beck — which, let’s face it, was no longer a beck but a raging river of its own — they would, without question, plunge into Greenup Gill and they would almost certainly die. Again: this is not hyperbole. I have never encountered anything like this with the expectation of, you know, crossing it.
Here’s a look left up the hill, which gives you a better idea of the beck rushing down. That’s the couple from Michigan next to it. Again: this is supposed to be a cute little stream you hop across while thinking gaily of the gingerbread you’re gonna eat once you get to Grasmere:
Just after this photo was taken the two English guys who were playing Cribbage in the restaurant back in Ennerdale the other night arrived. One of them — who, I will grant is in amazing shape — decided he was going to give it a go. Acknowledging that there would be no room for error if he fell while wading across the swamped bridge, he went up the hill a bit and attempted to cross up there. Of course up there the rocks split it into two raging rivers. His companion watched him as he began.
Before those two had arrived the New Zealanders, the Michiganders and I had decided that it was far too dangerous to even attempt to cross and had began talking about our options. We all but determined to go back the way we came and either try to find a road route to Grasmere or take the bus or something, but we hadn’t left yet when cribbage guy began stepping out onto the stones. New Zealander Richard pointedly asked the guy’s friend if he thought that was a good idea. The friend said something half-confidently about how the dude knows what he’s doing but it did not seem like he believed it. Richard, ostensibly speaking to the four of us but clearly intending it for the ears of the cribbage guys, said “well, I didn’t come this far to watch someone die” and we all began walking back toward Rosthwaite. We encountered about a half dozen hikers as we made our way back, telling them about what was up ahead. When I showed them my photos they all said there was no way they were doing that and they fell in behind us, though some wanted to walk up to the spot and see it for themselves before turning back.
When our group of about ten finally made it back to Rosthwaite we looked on the map and saw that the only road route was about 19 miles (the hike cuts across the mountain the bus has to go around, natch). None of us were up for that after the seven or eight or we had already walked. There’s a frequent bus along that route, however, so after only about a 15 minute wait one came by and we took it. It was a double-decker hop-on-hop-off tourist deal with half of the upstairs open to the air. Since the rain stopped just before it came we all decided to sit up there and at least attempt to dry off. The bus stopped in Keswick and we all transferred to a proper municipal bus that runs down to Grasmere, on to Windmere, and then on to Lancaster. I know this is a touristy area and everything but it’s pretty gobsmacking to be in a remote, rural place and be able to hop two separate busses with no advance notice, from street side bus stops, with almost no waiting time. I think such a thing is against the law in the U.S. what with public transit being woke and all.
It actually turned out to be a fun bus ride. All of us had a pretty zen attitude about not being able to complete the day’s hike. We were all joking with each other, talking about how we would’ve told each other’s families we got swept away to our deaths in the middle of gingerbread/William Wordsworth/Beatrix Potter country. I had been talking with Richard a good bit and had mentioned Allison several times. He said “even if you made it across that water your wife would kill for doing so when you got home.” Richard is pretty astute. Not that I would’ve even considered it. I am a risk averse person. Walking up the steep fells is about as out there as I get. I wasn’t going to cross that deluge even if you paid me.
I lucked out when I got to Grasmere in that, even though it was only about noon, my room was ready. I had to wait two more hours for my bag to arrive but I took a hot shower anyway and then sat around in a hotel bathrobe until my clothes showed up. Once dressed I took my wet stuff down to the drying room, put my rain jacket back on, snagged an umbrella from the lobby — the rain had begun again and it has kept up all day as I’m writing this — and took a little stroll around Grasmere. I went to Dove Cottage, which was William Wordsworth’s home, and took a tour. I had some gingerbread at the little gingerbread place all the tourists go to. I walked by a parking lot with four large tour busses full of senior citizens unloading and wondered what this place must be like when it’s not raining and it’s not offseason. Then I stopped in a pharmacy and picked up a little pair of scissors to better shape the moleskin I’ve been using on my blister. Which, despite walking in soaking wet boots for seven or eight miles today, didn’t really bother me, partially because of the moleskin I’ve already been using on it, partially because it’s in a spot that, while kinda annoying, is not super annoying. It doesn’t hurt at all.
Dinner was at the bar/restaurant attached to my hotel, both of which are called “Tweedies.” The bar was full of people watching the Milan-Newcastle Champions League match. The food — potato and leek soup and half a roast chicken — was excellent. For desert I had a cup of coffee and some rhubarb panacotta that was to die for. Not bad at all.
After dinner I came back to the hotel. The Wi-Fi in my room is pretty terrible because it’s way out in a far end of the building so I’m down in a little sitting room off the lobby with big leather armchairs, soft lighting and no other soul but me. The wind and rain is raging outside the window but it feels warm and cozy in here. After dinner and before writing I took the opportunity to read some Wordsworth and Coleridge from the books they have in the adjacent library. It’s heavenly.
My only concern: by the front door, where the luggage transport service leaves the bags, is a suitcase for a Coast to Coast hiker. As I’m writing this it’s nearly 9PM and no one has claimed it. Check-in here closed at 6 and there is no one staffing the hotel for the rest of the night, so there’s no one aware, I suspect, that a bag is here for a hiker who has not claimed it. I sent a message on to the transport company to let them know and they replied, thanking me, saying they are looking into it. I Googled the last name on the luggage tag and cannot match either of the cribbage guys, form whom I only know their first names. I’m more than a little worried, frankly. I hope whoever this bag belongs to is OK. If I don’t hear anything before bed tonight I’ll follow up in the morning.
Some photos from the day:
This was the drying room at last night’s hotel in Seatoller. It’s full of damp, rain and sweat-soaked wool and the heat is cranked up to about 85 degrees. Try to imagine the smell. OK, now make it about 50% worse. OK, now make it another 500% worse. You’re still not there yet, but you get the idea. The drying room is right off the lobby. When I paid my bill this morning I asked the woman there if they ever get used to the smell. She said “it’s me perfume!” Then she got serious and acknowledged that it makes her wanna barf. But hey: dry socks and boots are important.
Greenup Gill. This is the relatively calmer portion of it, well before we got to the place where the beck flowed down into it, swamping the bridge. It got way rougher farther along the trail. I couldn’t take a photo of it there because it was raining so hard that I was getting worried about how wet my phone was getting. Anyway: double that level of chaos, and put it right next to you and that’s what we were dealing with at the swamped bridge.
I get what you’re laying down, bus.
Richard and, um, Ellie (?), the New Zealanders on the bus. Behind me were like eight other hikers who thought better of soldiering on. It was kind of like a party on top of the double decker. Them, me, a couple from Massachusetts, the Michaganders, three women from Cornwall. All of us agreeing that it’d be really dumb to die just to say you didn’t cut nine miles out of your 192-mile hike.
A view from the bus of the fell we did not climb today as we took the long way around. There will be more hills tomorrow.
Grasmere is weird. Definitely a touristy destination with all that entails, but there are a couple of interesting things. Like this. It’s St. Oswald’s church. It was founded in 642 by the King of Northumbria, which was a Saxon kingdom that covered what is now southern Scotland and northern England. It’s roughly equivalent, I reckon, to there being some ancient king of, like, Pennsylvania and western Maryland. The original church building is gone. This is the new one. It was just built in the 14th century so it still has that new church smell. William Wordsworth is buried in the graveyard. There were a lot of old ladies who got off the tour busses looking at his grave. Wordsworth, who devoted himself to “plain living and high thinking” and who was distressed at the notion that “our life is only drest For show” would likely not be a big fan of his mortal remains being a tourist attraction.
Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home. Despite him probably not wanting to be a tourist attraction, the fact that he was famous in his lifetime is the reason this place is still, more or less, like it was when he lived there. After he left it in 1809 it was rented out to various people for a while but soon came to be known as “Wordsworth’s Cottage” and thus avoided renovation or demolition because people as early as the mid-19th century wanted to see it. Of course it wasn’t all perfect: a lot of these people built large townhouses to rent to tourists right next to the place, thereby blocking the cottage’s view of the lake that inspired Wordsworth’s poetry. This is why we can’t have nice things. All of that being said, I was really impressed with Dove Cottage. And, for as spartan as it is, I sorta wanna move in there and write for basically the rest of my life.
Oh, one other thing: I said I wanted to see the room where Coleridge got high. Turned out Coleridge really only visited from Keswick, a few miles up the road and presumably got high at home. The guy who lived here after Wordsworth, though, the writer Thomas De Quincey, got fucked up here on the daily. Indeed, he got famous for his book, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which was based on his experiences drinking quart after quart of laudanum here at Dove Cottage. It was a smash hit, but De Quincey was criticized for giving too much attention to the pleasure of opium and not enough to the harsh negatives of addiction. Not that I’m gonna judge. Maybe he had a point. You don’t meet a lot of laudanum heads these days, so who’s to say? Far more unforgivable is the fact that he messed up the garden the Wordsworths had spent a lot of time and effort on, pissing them off pretty good. So the guy was a mixed bag at best, it seems.
I’m generally not the type whose heart leaps up when he beholds a rainbow in the sky, but it’s easy to feel that way when you spend a chunk of your day and evening reading Romanic poetry and visiting Wordsworth’s pad.
And no, I am not likely to keep the budding beard. I sorta wanted to see what it looked like 30 years after I last grew one and, dear lord, it has a lot of gray in it now. Consider it a Coast to Coast only thing that isn’t even likely to last the whole Coast to Coast.
Tweedies, where I’m staying tonight. I’m not entirely sure the place isn’t haunted but it seems like, if it is haunted, it’s haunted by friendly ghosts.
We’ll see if the trail is any more passable tomorrow. Here’s hoping I don’t have another bus ride in my future.
September 20, 2023: First off, an update: I spoke with the woman at the front desk this morning and she told me the unclaimed bag from the night before was for someone who had broken off their hike and headed home, but who couldn’t contact the transport company before it got dropped here. It’s being delivered to them today. So: all is safe and clear on that front. Phew.
Second off: I have sustained my first Coast to Coast injury. It did not occur while hiking. I slammed the middle finger of my left hand under the windowsill of my room last night. I don’t think I broke it but I suppose it’s possible I did. For what it’s worth it isn’t swollen, it just hurts. I can grip my trekking poles, I can bend it, and I can type with it just fine, but it hurts if I have to manipulate anything in any sort of complicated way. Like, you go through a lot of gates with latches on the C2C and I can’t really unlatch the gates with my left hand unless I take my middle finger out of the equation. Otherwise it didn’t interfere with anything today, which as I explain below, was a hard fucking day, so I’m choosing to ignore it. Kind of a dumb thing to do, but I suppose there are worse ways to get hurt on a trip like this.
As for that, I woke up to this forecast for the day:
I was sure that post-10AM stuff had to be a mistake. It was absolutely dreadful all night, with the wind-driven rain pelting the windows. It did not look at all promising when I first looked outside:
The woman at the front desk said she had to drive through flooded roads to get to work this morning. She said this is bad rain even by Lake District standards. More like what they might get in late November, not in September. Whether that meant the trails would be bad as well was uncertain. As today’s hike was to be the shortest of the trip — only about eight miles — I decided I could afford to leave later and hope that the clearing weather would make the going easier. If I started out and ran into the same sort of trouble as yesterday I’d just turn back. I packed up my things and went down for a later breakfast.
Down in the dining room a young woman I had seen on the trail yesterday who likewise turned back at the swamped bridge was eating by herself. She’s also doing the Coast to Coast solo. I asked her if she was hiking again today and she said she wasn’t. She booked the hotel for another night and would try again on Thursday. She had not booked ahead like most Coast to Coasters do — she’s camping some and staying in hostels some, though yesterday’s rain was so bad she wanted to be in a hotel — so she could afford to be flexible.
A couple who were clearly hikers came in a few minutes later. They appeared stressed and concerned. After I ate I decided to wait out the weather in the sitting room I hung out in last night. The woman from the front desk suggested I talk to the couple as, according to her, I had superior information on the weather and maybe speaking to them might help them decide what to do. I told them my plans and what I thought, but I didn’t see them all day so I get the feeling they called off their day.
I got on the trail at about 9:45 as the worst of the rain seemed to be subsiding. It was still a steady downpour, however, and the first time the trail came to a beck crossing it was mostly swamped. But just mostly. There was a clear path over some large rocks. It looked a little dangerous, but as I was considering what to do I looked up and saw someone with a lime green pack cover on the other side. It was the young woman from the dining room who had obviously changed her mind about hiking. I gave the crossing another look, found a route that seemed stable and made my way across. She waited as I did so. When I got over she told me that she gets anxious in the evenings and early mornings and though it took her a bit to talk herself into hiking today she did so. Also: she’s a lawyer — from Bristol — who just quit her job because it was making her miserable and she’s on a sort of find-herself trip. I didn’t want to weird her out so I didn’t say “ME TOO ON BOTH COUNTS!” but my inner monologue screamed it. Her name is Nina and we, not surprisingly, had a lot to talk about throughout the day.
About a half mile farther along we ran into four people I had already encountered: the New Zealand couple, Richard and Frances (I remembered her name!) and . . . the two cribbage players who I had last seen trying to cross the raging beck at the swamped bridge yesterday. The guys Richard had sorta snapped at. Turns out that they made it across that torrent only to find a worse one another mile along and had to come back. Re-crossing the swamped bridge was harder than crossing it the first time, they said. They too got a bus to Grasmere. I guess it all worked out.
The six of us mostly stayed together up Seat Sandal, the day’s fell. Normally this is one of the easier, more pleasant walks of the C2C, and it’s the shortest of all at only a little over eight miles. But today it was absolutely treacherous.
The torrential rain of the past few days had swollen every beck and flooded about 85% of the trail. What would normally be easy and casual crossings became legitimately dangerous. There was never one we couldn’t make it over, but it was pretty harrowing. Frances fell hard crossing one, landing on some rocks on her stomach and I was concerned she had broken a rib or something but she said she was fine. All of us figured out pretty early that if there was a choice between trying to keep our feet dry and trying to stay steady, steady was the better option. This meant that we waded across the becks in rushing knee-high water and lived with the soaked boots and squishy socks the remainder of the day. Even then, “steady” was a relative term. Many of the crossings had strong currents. At a couple we did the thing where one of us crossed, stuck out our trekking pole to the people behind us and helped steady them as they crossed.
Though it had thankfully stopped raining by the time we got to the top of Seat Sandal, the wind picked up. It was a sustained 40 mph with frequent gusts. That put the kibosh on two of my plans for the day.
The first one: to stop and eat my lunch at Grisedale Tarn, the mountaintop lake just beyond the peak of Seat Sandal with a majestic view of the valley below. It was just too cold and windy to stop there for long, but I got some photos.
The second plan it ended was diverting to the south and, rather than just walking down the valley to my ultimate destination in Glenridding, climbing up a second fell called St. Sunday’s Crag, which parallels the valley and gives one amazing views, weather permitting, of Ullswater, the massive lake on which Glenridding sits. The skies cooperated — it remained mostly clear and rain-free for the rest of the day — but those winds made the idea of going higher than the valley route absolute madness. There’s an even higher option on the north side of the valley, Helvellyn, which is England’s third-highest mountain, but I wouldn’t dare attempt that even in perfect conditions. It descends on a narrow spine of rock called Striding Edge that even Wainwright, who notoriously understated the difficulty of almost every climb on the C2C by saying things like “keep you head about you and you’ll be alright,” warned people away from if they aren’t comfortable balancing precariously in high places and said that absolutely no one should do it if it’s particularly windy. I can’t stand on a six foot ladder without sweating a little, so F to the No.
Not that I missed much in the way of beauty. Even with all of the trails mostly flooded and my hike taking place, for the most part, in several inches of water, it was absolutely spectacular. There were still some tricky crossings due to swollen becks, but they seemed far less daunting coming down the fell than going up. On the way down our impromptu hiking collective broke up, with Nina deciding to use her massive backpack as a windbreak and eat some lunch, Richard and Frances stopping for a rest at one point as well, and the cribbage guys, both very strong hikers, going on far ahead. Before they left, though, this exchange happened:
Cribbage guy to me: “I like your rain jacket. We had to buy new ones in Grasmere yesterday. Ours were shite. These are better but not much.”
Me: [thanks him, explains what kind it is, and what features I like about it]
Cribbage guy: “I’ll give you 250 quid for it right now.”
I did not even pay 250 American dollars for my jacket but there is no way I’m parting with it. As I said yesterday, there is no such thing as 100% waterproof, but of all my gear, the jacket has been the best at it.
I finished the day’s walk alone. It was the hardest day of hiking I’ve ever experienced, but it was incredibly rewarding. Partially for the views it afforded. Mostly because I pushed myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself and I fucking made it through. My feet were soaked, by body was tired, and I had taken more risks in six hours than I have in the past six years. But I fucking did it. I walked into the village of Glenridding on a cloud.
Leaving Grasmere for that.
The Microbus was pretty cool. Even cooler: the name of the house, per the placard on the side, is “Helm’s Deep.” It looked much more impressive in the movie.
Another swamped bridge, though this one was passable by clinging to the wall on the left, swinging your right leg around the far edge and then sorta falling onto a big rock just beyond. From there you could cross some substantial stepping stones in the rapids on the left. The sheep were no help. They just watched and judged.
Richard and Frances. Richard is asking one of the others if we’re gonna cross that. We crossed that. More amazing than that: some blue sky.
Almost to the pass at Seat Sandal.
You’re supposed to be able to walk right across that water, which is normally a calm little stream, but we went a long way around.
Another fun crossing. And by “fun” I mean “not fun at all.”
Just below the summit of Seat Sandal sits Grisedale Tarn. It looks sorta small here but it’s a 27 acre lake. Ideally you sit next to it and enjoy your lunch but the wind had other ideas.
A long look down the valley from Grisedale Tarn. To the left is Helvellyn Mountain, the one I wouldn’t even consider due to the perilous descent. On the right is St. Sunday’s Crag. Which while a bit of a tough climb up is said to give you spectacular views of Ullswater, the lake on whose shores I’m sleeping tonight. I did end up getting something approximating that view later, although from a much lower elevation.
Richard and the cribbage guys make their way down the valley. In the far, far distance you can see the Pennine Mountains. I’ll be there in a few days.
This was the trail for the rest of the day. Sometimes you could walk on the grass next to it to avoid the water. Most of the time you couldn’t.
The last gnarly crossing of the day. By now I’ve become pretty good at deciding which rocks are stable, which rocks are wobbly, and which places where you don’t bother with rocks at all.
By now I had left my companions, or they had left me. But I wasn’t alone.
Ullswater, the day’s destination, with the Village of Glenridding on its shores. Ullswater is about seven miles long and a little less than a mile across. It’s one of the larger lakes in the Lake District.
This is where I’m staying tonight. That’s Helvellyn behind it. That descending ridge is Striding Edge. I repeat: nope.
My final stop of the evening: the pub. Because it was too scary to stop and eat lunch until very late in the day I had it when I checked into the bnb and then, a few hours later, got myself a beer, a bowl of soup, and some chips and cheese here. It was all well-earned.
One more Lake District hike, and one more Lake District fell, tomorrow. The weather looks pretty nice right now, but we’ll see.
September 21, 2023: When I wrote my diary entry yesterday I was still coming down from the adrenaline rush of the day’s hike. After it was gone, I realized that I was more mentally exhausted than physically exhausted. Absolutely drained, in fact. Then I slept poorly, waking up due to hyper-realistic dreams in which I was crossing rushing rivers and clinging to rocks while trying not to fall on flooded trails. Which is to say: I was reliving Wednesday’s hike with some mild post-traumatic sprinkles on top. I gave up on sleep at 4am and looked at what the day ahead of me had in store.
It was not inviting. Another fell but larger and steeper and with more water crossings than yesterday. Perhaps they had calmed down but not necessarily, as it still rained overnight. Oh, and after the descent there would still be another 11 miles worth of walking. It sounded like absolutely nothing I wanted to do, so I called an audible and took a roundabout route that Wainwright himself advised people to take in poor weather. I did this despite the fact that today’s weather was absolutely lovely, because (a) who knows how long those becks will surge; and (b) I was kinda over it.
There was a time in my life when I would’ve been disappointed in myself for making this decision, but I don’t have any regrets. The Coast to Coast, like all long walks, is more of a mental challenge than a physical one and, even though I was exhilarated after getting through yesterday, and even though I felt strong enough physically to get over the mountain, I was in no mental state to do it again. I still have a lot of miles ahead of me and I have to listen to what both my body and my mind are telling me. Ultimately, the point is to get across the country and enjoy myself, not count off mountain peaks and spend a fifth straight day in extremis.
The roundabout way takes you northeast up the lake to the village of Pooley Bridge followed by a southeast turn that takes you around the back of the mountain. It still takes you up a fell — Askham Fell — but it’s a very modest one of about 1,000 feet compared to the 2,700 or so feet the standard route takes. It’s a true leisurely hill walk, not a scramble or a climb and there are no becks to be found. After the small fell you descend through a bracken-filled moor which puts me in mind of the kind of terrain I’ll be covering for many, many miles later in the trip. The route crosses High Street, the old Roman road that, extending south, ends up climbing and crossing the high fell route I skipped today, and where the name “High Street” is more famously applied. It then takes you along an absolutely charming road through the countryside, going through a couple of tiny villages, then more countryside, and then deposits you in the village of Shap, where I am staying tonight.
With the exception of some light rain when I woke up in Glenridding but which subsided before I set out, it was sunny all day. There was no complicated navigation so for the first time I could listen to some music and put myself in that mindspace that best lends itself to miles and miles of walking. I painstakingly studied the Coast to Coast for the past year so I knew full well how rugged and difficult the Lake Country portion of the walk was going to be, but today’s walk was like what most people imagine I’m doing over here as far as scenery and terrain are concerned. Indeed, based on conversations I’ve had over the past several days, there are no small number of fellow walkers who believed the whole walk would be like this too. The Lake District smacked me in the face a bit, but I imagine it really smacks you in the face if you’re not ready for it.
It’ll be an early bedtime for me tonight. I’ll sleep well, knowing that I made the smart choice today, even if it wasn’t the boldest one. To thine own self be true, ya know?
Before I get to the day’s hike, I absolutely HAVE to share this from last night at the Fairlight back in Glenridding. This may just look like a utility closet with a water heater and random cleaning supplies, but it’s also what passes for the Fairlight’s drying room. When the proprietor showed it to me I had to try hard not to show my dubiousness, especially considering how fully soaked my clothes were, following my day of fording raging becks. Particularly my boots, as it’s really, really hard to get your boots fully dry once they’ve been drenched. But friends: my boots, which I balanced upside down on the top copper pipes, with my socks and other clothes below them, came out a dry as a bone and pleasingly warm. This sad looking closet is the absolute best drying room in England, of this I am certain.
The scene as I left Glenridding this morning. The Lake District is ridiculous in all the best ways.
Just east of Pooley Bridge, looking south toward the route I was supposed to take today. Yeah, no. Not today. Maybe another time.
The gentle rises of a walk in the countryside agreed with me.
The scenery of the Lake District is the obvious draw, but the second most impressive thing is just how damn many stone walls there are and just how damn long they are. Some of them go straight up the mountains for thousands of feet. Others stretch for miles and miles. I get that people have lived around here for thousands of years and they’ve had plenty of time to build walls, but I cannot stop thinking how much labor and how much time it must’ve taken to do it. I’m sure this is obtainable information but I’m enjoying myself much more not knowing but simply marveling.
A lot of stone barns too.
Not gonna lie: I’d watch a Superman/Batman/Kylo Ren crossover
Bampton has almost nothing in it but a few houses, a little store, and a lot of sheep, but its church, St. Patrick, is pretty cool. This building dates to 1726 but there have been churches of various stripes on this site or over 800 years. Its graveyard is pretty trippy. A whole lotta extremely descriptive headstones, like “Jane Cartwright, died in childbirth, aged 28, along with two daughters, Rose and Mara, newly born, 1820.” Death, particularly young death, was a much more day-to-day fact of life back then.
I was so happy to be in the sunshine that I did what you’re not supposed to do and took a photo of it.
The village of Shap. Just beyond it, though it’s hard to see, is the M6 motorway and the West Coast Mainline Railway I took on the way up from Manchester to Carlisle and then down to St. Bees on Saturday. Shap is still, technically, in the Lake District, and Orton, where I’m going tomorrow, is still Cumbria. But the M6, which I’ll cross and track south with tomorrow, unofficially marks the end of the Lake District section of the Coast to Coast, and puts me just past the 1/3 mark for the walk overall.
The Hermitage, in Shap, where I’m staying tonight. It was built in 1691 and contains a LOT of late 17th and early 18th century furnishing and antiques and things. It’s truly impressive. Though I’ll admit, I’m a bit intimidated by the lady who owns and runs the place. She’s nice in that way that certain sorts of English people can be nice but in which they’re really being kinda mean. Check-in is listed at 4PM. Everywhere else on my trip is 3PM. Every place I’ve been to so far lets you in early, even if your room is not quite ready, so you can take a load off. I got here at about 3:45. Jean, though clearly inside, kept the front door locked until 4pm and I had to sit on those chairs out front. When she let me in she immediately made me take my boots off, which was totally understandable, but she did it in away that made me feel like a six year-old boy being given a talking-to by his mother. Also: I was told that if I got takeaway from the chip shop down the road I was NOT allowed to eat it in my room, I was to eat it in the kitchen, because she will NOT have crumbs and grease on her antique furniture.
I’m not gonna complain beyond that, though, as my room is big and nice and cozy and, as I write this, Jean is doing my laundry. I really, really, needed my laundry to be done, you guys.
Tomorrow is a short, easy and pretty flat hike, mostly because the trip anticipates that you just killed yourself doing the hike I peaced out on. Oh well, guess I get two relatively chill days in a row. I’m still hiking about 24 miles between those two chill days, but after the Lake District, folks, that’s easy.
September 21, 2023: I slept wonderfully last night. The clear skies caused the overnight temperatures to drop down into the mid-40s and the old house in which I was staying was the sort in which the upstairs rooms get quite chilly at night. That’s perfect for me, actually. I absolutely love to sleep in a warm bed in a cold room. Anticipating that I might have nights like this during the trip I brought with me a pair of warm pajama pants, some fuzzy wool socks (non-hiking variety), and a fleece pullover that I wear as much as possible in the winter. Rather than eat out at a restaurant last night I got a sandwich, some treats, and a pint bottle of ale from the shop down the road, took it back to my room, got into my warm, cozy clothes, got under the covers, and ate and drank while watching a movie. It was absolutely lovely. What I wouldn’t give to spend a whole winter in a house like this.
I knew two other people were staying in the house with me but I had not seen them last night. When I came down to breakfast, wouldn’t you know it, it was the cribbage guys. They looked extremely weary and not particularly happy. They had taken the long, hard route that I eschewed yesterday and it beat the hell out of them. The climb, they said, was brutal. The descent was even worse. It’s steep and precarious as it is, but with all of the rain many of the usual footholds were either wobbly or had given way entirely. The long walk following the descent was through extremely boggy terrain which was later replaced by rocky terrain. One of them described it as a “death march.” Their boots were completely soaked, their knees and hands scraped, and their backs and legs were in serious pain.
I didn’t mention this in the previous diary, but yesterday was to be the day that a subscriber of mine from Edinburgh, Pete, was to hike with me. The night before I had emailed him, telling him not to come down because I was having second thoughts about taking the tough route but he had missed it and arrived anyway. I had breakfast with him in Glenridding and explained where I was, mentally speaking. I apologized for bailing on a hike he was looking forward to but he was supremely gracious about it all. After some pleasant conversation Pete, an avid hiker and hill climber, said he was going to hang in the area and do some day hiking up on the high peaks before making his way back to Scotland in the evening. This morning when I woke up I opened an email from him:
I’ve just caught up on your diary for the last two days. My goodness, your photos from Wednesday look brutal! I can tell that one or two of these are definitely not meant to be proper rivers. Just little streams across a field, except that they turned into raging torrents especially for you. Yesterday must have been quite a contrast for you.
The “high” C2C route for yesterday ends up along Haweswater reservoir, crossing some streams that have a very large catchment area. So I am convinced that you made the right call in not trying that route. When it’s too far to go back and not safe to go forward, that’s a big problem.
Have a good day!
Between what the cribbage guys said and what Pete said I am even happier now that I made the choice I made than I was when I went to bed last night. And I was already pretty satisfied when I went to bed last night.
Today the cribbage guys, who are on a tighter schedule, took yet another long walk — over 20 miles — to get to Kirkby Stephen, which I won’t get to until tomorrow evening. They had seen Richard and Frances, the New Zealanders — who, despite my concern, seem to be doing alright — and Nina, the lawyer from Bristol, up on the peaks yesterday and they were pretty sure that group was also doing the long hike today. With Guy and Greg, the Canadians, already well ahead due to their aggressive itinerary, that pretty much means that this morning was the last I’ll see of any of my impromptu Lake District companions. That makes me a bit sad but it’s how these things go. I’m glad I had the chance to meet them and walk with them, all of whom helped and encouraged me at one time or another and all of whom, I am pretty sure, I helped and encouraged at one point or another as well.
Today’s walk was to the little village or Orton. Shap to Orton is an optional short walk for either (a) those who need to recover from that last massive fell I skipped yesterday; or (b) those who have no desire to do over 20 miles to Kirkby Stephen. I didn’t need the recovery but, after a pretty long, though mostly flat walk via Pooley Bridge on Thursday, I also didn’t feel much like walking over 20 miles. Big shoutout to my booking company for presenting this option when I booked last winter. Though all of my early-hike companions are going straight through, a lot of people take the same 16 days I do, go all the way to Kirkby Stephen today and build in a rest day someplace down the line. I think a “rest day” being a short walking day is a better option. Honestly, none of these villages in the middle of the trip, post-Lake District, justify a whole day in them so I’d probably get a bit bored. And honestly, a day of not walking is a day in which I’d be likely to stiffen up some and maybe lose some momentum.
Leaving Shap I crossed both the West Coast Mainline Railway and the M6 Motorway, which is like a U.S. Interstate. Being around that level of traffic and civilization is kind of jarring after nearly a week in the sticks. I soon left those behind, however, and spent most of the short, eight-mile walk in rolling fields which, on occasion, pass by big boulders, a cairn or six, and a couple of the dozens (hundreds?) of ancient stone circles scattered across England. These are definitely not Stonehenge quality, even if they may have served similar purposes for someone at some point in the past. Most of the rocks are barely bigger than three or four feet across and most have fallen over so from ground level they just look like a bunch of small boulders. They aren’t marked in any way and if anyone ever studied them they ceased doing so many, many years ago. I’ll pass an actually significant stone circle in a couple of days and make a note of that but these deals don’t really jazz me.
Orton itself is a pretty cute little Village. Its best feature is Kennedys, a small family-owned chocolate making company with an attached tea room. As the day’s short walk got me into town well before I could check into my hotel I made the wise decision to get a cup of coffee and a chocolate/peppermint crunch traybake, which is what I suppose we’d call bars. It was every bit as satisfying as some of the post walk beers I’ve enjoyed. Not that there won’t be a pint later. My hotel tonight is actually in the town’s pub. I’m one floor above the bar. It’s not the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in — it’s fairly run down actually — but (a) the water pressure was good and the water was nice and hot; and (b) you can’t beat the location.
Tomorrow I go a little under 13 miles to Kirkby Stephen, which is a bit of a bigger place. Then on Sunday it’s on to Keld, at which point I’ll be just beyond the halfway point of my walk.
Walking over the West Coast Mainline. That’s a Transpennine Express heading south from Penrith to Lancaster. I took this train, up in the other direction, last Saturday so, hey, I’ve been here before!
Attention Gen-Xers who were led to believe by cartoons, old sitcoms, and movies that quicksand was gonna be a bigger concern in your lives than it has been: I found the place for you.
This was the sort of terrain I covered today. This is looking east, where the Pennines loom. And for as foreboding as those skies look, I managed to avoid rain all day today. Huzzah.
Made it into my second national park of the walk. And yes, the Yorkshire Dales extend from Yorkshire into Cumbria. Weird, but it’s their country and they can do what they want with it.
In navigating for this walk I have almost exclusively used digital Ordinance Survey maps uploaded as GPX files into the AllTrails app, which can then be downloaded and used while offline while your phone, even without any cell signal at all, tracks your position via satellite. This method tells you where you need to go, your elevation, what elevations are ahead, how far you’ve gone, your pace, how long until you arrive. and it notifies you if you’re off the trail by anything more than a few dozen yards deviation. As a backup I have a paper Ordinance Survey map and a compass and I know how to use them so if something happens to my digital method I’ll be OK. In between those methods are the hand-drawn maps created by Wainwright himself and guidebook writers in the 50 years since that give you practical directions with sketches and things, saying stuff like “at the leaning boulder continue straight for a good while.”
I look at those sketches and read those colloquial directions in my hotel rooms in the evenings, but if for some reason I found myself having to use them I’m pretty sure that, when I reached the next village, I’d immediately get on a bus to a town with a train station and get my ass to London or Manchester for an early flight home. That kind of wayfinding just makes me want to bash my head into the wall.
A lot of hikers find this kind of country to be boring. At best they see it as a necessary place to get through between the mountain stages. I get that on some level but I think this landscape is beautiful. Peaceful. At times mesmerizing. A person can get a lot of deep thinking done while walking over land like this.
As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the best things about the UK is that, more often than not, and with a few pretty moderate restrictions, the public has the right to walk over private land, which has left the country crisscrossed with walking paths and bridleways and things. It’s pretty jarring, then, when you see signs like this, which are everywhere in America but are unusual here, especially up in the part of the country where I am. Maybe an American lives here.
At the edge of the Village of Orton is a bus shelter that doubles as a little library with donated books and DVDs and things. No one staffs it. There’s a charity donation box which people are encouraged to use if they take something, but there are no prices and it’s not required. I decided to eat my lunch on the bench inside. The last thing I want to do is carry another book around with me but I dropped a couple of pound coins into the box.
The inside of the bus shelter/library. The mural, painted by schoolchildren in the 1950s and freshened up every few years when the elements get to it, depicts the four seasons and surrounds the entire interior. It may be the most adorable bus shelter in the history of bus shelters.
My coffee and peppermint crunch traybake at Kennedys. They even give you a couple of chocolate wafers with the bill.
My hotel for the evening. My room is the one behind the two windows on far left of the second floor, right under the sign and right above the pub. As I’m writing this I’m gettin’ kind of hungry. Know what? I think it’s time to go get a pint and something to eat.
I’ll be checking in from Kirkby Stephen tomorrow.
September 22, 2023: Most mornings I wake up at around 6am or so. Breakfast isn’t until 8 at most places so I take the time to read up on the trail for the day. In this I want basic, objective information like, is there a section that has been damaged or is rough going because of recent weather or whether there is anything of particular interest along the way. Today, for the first time since I’ve been here, I went to the AllTrails website and read some reviews that recent walkers have left. This one was near the top for Orton to Kirkby Stephen, which I walked today:
“Wide open vistas on a mostly grassy trail. Unbelievable amount of sheep and sheep shit though.”
Honestly, I can’t think of a less helpful review than “unbelievable amount of sheep and sheep shit. That’s like reading a review of the Grand Canyon and finding “FYI: it’s a big hole that stretches for miles” or one for Niagara Falls and that says “a lotta water.”
I dunno, maybe I should pay attention to the sheep shit warnings. Yesterday, while coming into Orton, a couple of dog walkers were heading out from the village toward me. We were on the most nondescript little patch of grass you could imagine and, as we did the smile/nod/tip-your-cap thing walkers passing each other tend to do, I lost my footing for a moment and almost fell on my ass. The guy asked me if I was alright and I just sorta laughed and said yeah. Based on my gear I’m obviously a Coast to Coaster and he said “you made it over all them mountains; don’t break your arse slipping on poo.” Which, once he said it, I looked down and realized I had, in fact, slipped on sheep shit.
I actually find myself talking to the sheep if I’m by myself when I pass them. My comments to them break down into three categories:
- If they’re just standing near the trail looking at me, I say “Hi, ma’am” or “Hi, mate.”
- If they bolt when I come by, I say something like “oh relax” or “take it easy, buddy”
- If they’re either blocking the trail for too long or casually walking up a cliffside while I’m struggling, I say “fuck you, dude.”
Yes, I’m probably going slowly insane.
Before I got going today I needed to stop at the post office in Orton to mail some things home. The post office is actually just a counter in the village shop — the closest real post office is in a town about seven miles away — but the counter is only open certain days of the week and yesterday wasn’t one of them. It is open Saturday at 9am, I was told, so I waited around after breakfast this morning for that. Here’s how I killed time:
It was the one where Lisa gets a pony and homer has to take a job as the Kwik-E-Mart to help pay for it. I haven’t watched a Simpsons episode for years. I still laughed.
I left the hotel and started walking down the street toward the shop at about five minutes to nine. A man walking down the other side of the road said “you the American with the parcels to post?” I wasn’t aware this was town news, but it apparently was. I said yes. He said “he’s waiting for, ye. Got there early for ye.” I waved a thank you but found it really, really weird that the 11 second conversation I had with the lady in the shop yesterday about how I’d have to come back tomorrow to send some packages had become A Thing.
I got to the shop and a nice older man was at the post office counter. “You must be the American with the parcels.” This was clearly the biggest thing that has happened in Orton in some time. I told him yes. I handed him the packages. There is a LOT of paperwork involved in sending packages to the U.S., apparently, because I was in there for quite some time as he filled out little stickers and entered things into a computer. It also required some conversation:
Guy: “The postal code: is it ‘OH43206’ or do you keep the ‘OH’ and the ‘43206’ separate?”
Me: “Separate. The ‘OH’ is the state, Ohio, and our postal codes are just the five-digit number.”
Woman behind the shop counter: “Are you from Ohio?”
Woman: “Is that where they have the tornados?”
Me: “Sometimes. There are states that have more of them, but yes, we get tornados there.”
Woman: “That’s simply terrifying.”
Me: “You get used to it I guess. When you hear the sirens go off, though, it can be jarring.”
Woman: “They run sirens when you get a tornado?”
Woman: “Who runs them? The fire brigade?”
Me: “I honestly have no idea. The county I suppose? The weather service says if tornados have been spotted and then someone turns on the sirens.”
Woman: “I’d die if I heard sirens go off like that.”
Me: “Where I live they go off ever Wednesday at noon when they test them.”
Woman: “What if there’s a tornado at noon on Wednesday? Everybody would ignore it!”
Thankfully the guy at the mail counter saved me by finishing up with my packages. I paid for those and then asked the woman at the shop counter if the girl from yesterday had put in my order for a sandwich to take with me. She had. The woman produced a lovely sandwich for my day on the trails, and I was off. I made a mental note to try to find a tornado-themed postcard or greeting card when I get home and mail it to the Orton village shop, thanking the woman for the delicious sandwich.
Today’s walk was fairly uneventful. A little over 12 miles of rolling countryside over a mostly grass track. A few hills, a few dales, a lot of stone walls, some stone barns, a neat old bridge, a cool old 19th century railroad viaduct, and a lot of sheep. It was another day in which I was able to just sort of turn my brain off an rack up the miles. I like days like those. Especially when it doesn’t rain which, for the third straight day, it did not, thank God.
As I approached the village of Kirkby Stephen I encountered two groups of people. The first was about six or seven young boys with two adults. It sort of looked like a scouting situation, though no one had any uniforms on. It was obviously a “let’s show the boys some nature” kind of thing. As the adults were looking at a map, the boys were taking turns trying to jump over a big gorse bush or heather or whatever the hell the bushes on the moors are. It wasn’t huge but none of them could quite get over it in one jump. Just as I passed a space next to it cleared, so I bolted to my left where they were, planted my trekking polls and leapt over the bush. One of the boys yelled “no fair, you have poles!” I said “get some poles?” and went on. I’m sure they thought I was the biggest doofus ever.
The second group I encountered was a group of about 15 older people — all in their 70s at least and maybe a couple of spry 80s-somethings in the group. They all had on boots and little day packs. Some had poles, some did not. All had little guidebooks or maps. It was clearly a walking club of some kind, spending their Saturday climbing the fell, walking along the moor, and heading back into town. They were just a little ahead of me and I passed them but they were, in the aggregate, all pretty fast and it was sort of hard to shake them. At one point I walked off the path a bit to take a photo and they all passed me. Again, I caught up and passed, but again, they all did a pretty good job of staying close. And it wasn’t like they were trying hard to make time. They were all in conversation and casually looking around at stuff. I was finally able to lose them at one of those wall crossings where you have to climb up and over on some extended stones, as it takes a while for 15 people to navigate that.
Still, I was pretty impressed. I’m not the world’s fastest hiker but I’m 25 years younger than them and presumably in better shape. I’d guess, however, that all of them have been the sorts who have just walked everywhere their whole lives, in town and out in the country, and that that does a lot of good things for a person. The Coast to Coast notwithstanding, I’m never going to be any sort of extreme hiker or anything, but I’d certainly like to be like those folks are when I’m their age. It probably just takes a lot of walking rather then driving whenever possible and making a point to get out in the countryside and get some fresh air and put some miles on on as many Saturdays as you can. Seems like a good way to have a good healthy life.
I made it into Kirkby Stephen at around 3pm. It’s by no means a city, but it is a market town of a couple thousand people and has multiple pubs, a Costa coffee shop, an outdoors store, and even an Indian restaurant. It even has a couple of stoplights and I haven’t seen any of those since I left Manchester a week ago. It’s amazing how jarring it is to be in a town of even a little size after a week in, basically, the middle of nowhere.
Tomorrow I cross the Pennines and reach the halfway point of my walk. For now, some photos:
It was gloomy for much of the day but it never rained.
The lesser-known prequel to Dickens’ Bleak House. Or you can insert your favorite British food joke here.
Most of today’s route was a bridlepath in addition to being a walking path. I didn’t see anyone riding horses, but there had been some recently.
Everywhere I looked today could’ve been a Led Zeppelin album cover.
Most crossings feature gates of some kind. And those gates have any number of little latches, almost all of them different from anything you see in the U.S. and almost all of them more clever and efficient. If someone wanted to they could probably make a pretty weird coffee table book called “The Gate Latches of England” or something. I almost wish I had been cataloging them for the past week.
Sometimes, though, you get these little step-ups in which large stones extend from either side of the wall and you walk up, swing your leg over and then walk down again. I rather like the step-ups. Sometimes, if there are step-ups and gates at the same wall, I take the step-ups anyway because they’re fun.
I stopped along this wall to eat my tasty sandwich from the Orton village shop. Yes, I am still growing a beard. Yes, it has a lot of gray in it. Whatever.
As for the headwear: I simply can’t do my baseball cap or the little hiking cap I bought before I left as they both get sweaty too easily and then I’m either too hot or, more commonly in this cool weather, they never dry out and they’re just cold and damp all day. The company which handled my bookings and is transporting my luggage gave me a little welcome pack on day one that had a company-branded buff-style multi-function headband thing in it. I’d never used a buff before but I’m finding it to be absolutely perfect for my purposes. It goes on my head and stays on securely with no tying and no fuss. It soaks up sweat but it breathes so it never really gets damp. It’s got SPF-30 protection. It’s warm in the cold wind. I don’t much care for being a waking billboard for the transport company so I’ve been wearing it inside out, but I have no complaints. I fully plan on getting a non-branded one or three soon. They’re a godsend for a bald hiker. Oh, and for what it’s worth, I’m wearing it “beanie”-style, which you can see at the three-minute mark of that linked video. I’m nowhere near skeezey enough to wear it like a bandana or legionnaire style or whatever but all bets are off for next summer.
Lots of hills and dales today. Nothing extreme. Only gained about 1,600 feet on today’s walk, but it was a nice workout all the same. Indeed, while walking today it occurred to me that a similar walk to today’s only a week ago would’ve been a lot more work for me. I had it in my head for so long while preparing for this trip that I had to be fit and strong enough to make it over 192 miles before conking out. It, embarrassingly, never occurred to me that I’d be getting stronger as I walked as well. Obviously there is wear and tear happening — my knees are starting to bark a bit toward the end of each day’s walk so I can’t go on forever — but my leg and lung strength are building as I go.
Smardale Bridge. Dates back to sometime in the 18th century.
Smardale Gil Viaduct. It opened in 1861 and was in use until 1962. It was built by the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway to carry coke across the Pennine Mountains for the iron and steel furnaces in Cumbria.
The seniors walking group encountering a foal. It’s blurry because I tried to get the photo fast, before the horse bolted to go be with its mother, who was just out of frame.
I’ve been catching glimpses of the Pennines — the spine of England — for days, but now I’m right at their base.
Fletcher House, in Kirkby Stephen. My digs for the night. It’s a lovely and grand old place on the high street. There was tea, cakes, and biscuits when I arrived. There’s a well-appointed sitting room with big leather chairs. My room has a big comfy bed. And, even though every room has its own bathroom and shower, it also has a large hall bathroom with a huge clawfoot tub that any guest can use. The woman running the place said that the couple of other people staying here tonight had no interest in using it so I took advantage. I’m not a big bath guy — I maybe take two or three baths a year, if that — but I cannot tell you how great stretching out in a hot, hot bath felt on my weary muscles and bones.
The high street of Kirkby Stephen. For the first time in several days I had my choice of any number of places for dinner.
Tomorrow: over the mountains and on to Keld.
September 24, 2023: Today was absolutely miserable. There was constant hard rain driven by a nearly constant 40-50 mph wind. The terrain went through peat bogs that could suck your boots off — mine stayed on, thankfully — and which made finding the trail close to impossible at times. While the Grasmere to Glenridding hike was more dangerous, today’s conditions were the worst I’ve experienced of any kind in any situation ever, hiking or otherwise.
All that being said, I did see something cool and I did reach a milestone. First, the milestone:
Given that I chose to do this in 16 days, and today was my eighth day of walking, I’m halfway done both in terms of miles and in terms of days. And honestly, being through half the days feels like the bigger accomplishment. The miles just happen. You keep putting one foot in front of the other and you cover the distance almost without thinking about it.
The days are much more difficult.
You have to wake up. You have to remember where you are, which is a lot harder than you might think it would be. You have to talk yourself into keeping going and, on some days, you really don’t want to. You have to check the weather, repack your bag and backpack, double and triple check your route for the day, get down to breakfast on time, have your bag at the front door for the transport driver on time, and then get moving. Once you’re moving, it’s all pretty easy — it’s just that put one foot in front of the other thing — but getting to the part where you get moving is a lot.
But again: today’s was different. Today the moving was much more difficult.
The route from Kirkby Stephen to Keld is, on paper, simple enough. You walk out of town, go up the 2,200-foot fell to the Nine Standards — more on those down below in the photos — and then take one of three routes down the other side of the fell to the tiny village of Keld. In all it’s about 13 miles.
The conditions of the trail and the weather made it much more difficult than that, however. All three routes down from Nine Standards take you through those massive peat bogs I mentioned above. Which route you take depends on the season and the weather as, the wetter it is, the more miserable and even perilous the bogs are. Given all the rain we’ve had here, and given how late in the season it is, the “easiest” route down was the only option. That route has you beeline due south from the summit to a paved road and then you walk six miles to Keld rather than navigate southeast down through the bogs to be deposited closer to the village. Today even the beeline route was horrible.
The trail is simply not marked in any real way and it’s not, like other unmarked trails, practically visible because people have not really trampled in one spot. They’re all over it out of sheer survival and thus it all just looks like an undifferentiated hillside of shrubbery and pits of muck. One step may have you on solid ground and the next may have you sinking up to your knee in a boggy morass. Yes, per the maps and GPS wayfinding there is technically a trail there, but because of the wind and rain, pulling out your phone, your GPS, or a paper map was not something you wanted to do very often on this day. You don’t want your phone getting soaked in the rain or risk dropping it into the bog. A map would get soaked or, if you had it in plastic, it’d be difficult to read. Even a waterproof GPS device was tough because devoting one hand to it means not having both hands on trekking poles which was an extremely risky proposition today.
I decided to go with the GPS and it worked, but it was super slow going and by the time I was down to the road my boots, socks, and feet were soaked due to plunging into bogs. My legs were soaked through my rain pants. My torso was the driest because of my jacket, but that’s really only a relative thing. The six mile walk to Keld was on blacktop, yes, but it’s a high road that follows a ridge line and the wind and the rain picked up even more once I got on it. It felt like being lashed to a ship’s mast in a hurricane. It finally stopped when I was within a mile of Keld, allowing me to get a few cool photos, but I nonetheless squished the entire way.
As I write this now I am in my room at the modest but comfortable Keld Lodge. I have put my wet clothes in the drying room (likelihood of my boots being dry by the morning: 25%). I have taken the longest, hottest shower I’ve ever taken in my life. I have made myself a cup of tea. I feel human again. In a little while I will go downstairs and get a pint of Black Sheep Best Bitter and have a nice hot meal and will feel even more human. Then, tomorrow, I will walk through the Swaledale Valley to the village of Reeth. As of now, it’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow. I’ll believe it when I see it.
But yeah, I am halfway there. And I’m still going. I’m not gonna stop until I can throw my rock from St. Bees into the North Sea.
The cats of Kirkby Stephen.
They say that if you can’t see the Nine Standards from down in Kirkby Stephen that you probably shouldn’t bother. Welp, despite the fact that the top of the fell was socked in even before the big rain began I bothered. I’m not sure it was the wisest thing I’ve ever done, especially considering that I could’ve just made a ten mile walk to Keld on the surface road and at least stood a chance at having dry boots, but I didn’t come over here to walk surface roads.
A dozen or so mountain rescue vehicles and a helicopter were staging at a parking area just before heading up the fell in earnest. I asked one of the guys if they had lost a hiker. He said no, it was just a training exercise. I told him that if they did lose hikers today that there was a fiver in it for him if he rescued me first. He gave me a wink and said “sure thing.” I’m glad I did not require rescuing today because I really don’t believe he would’ve held up his end of the bargain.
At this point I was far too committed to climbing up to the Nine Standards to go back but given how socked in they were, completing the climb up there was something less than fulfilling.
I made it up to the top. In the foreground is the the trig point that marks the watershed divide across England. From this point, rivers flow west toward the Irish Sea and east toward the North Sea.
On top of the trig point is a metal plaque that guides the eye toward distant viewpoints. None of which one could see on a day like today.
The Nine Standards themselves. Or at least six of them. It was hard to get all nine in frame while the wind was blowing and the rain was hitting me sideways. They’re around ten feet high, though some of them were as high as 14 feet in the past. They’re sort of crumbling.
Neither the provenance of nor the original purpose for the standards is known. Manuscripts mentioning them exist dating back to the 1500s. Some believe they were to mark the border between the ceremonial counties of Westmoreland and Yorkshire in the first couple hundred years after the Norman invasion. Sort of a territorial pissing match thing between dukedoms or whatever. Some go even further and say that it was a military rallying point that dates back to the Romans and that the structures were built to look like great massing soldiers lying in wait for those who might think about challenging them. I sorta doubt that as that doesn’t sound like a very Roman thing to do. Romans wouldn’t have wasted time with such trickery. They would have just walked the fuck up and annihilated your cute little tribe of ancient Briton warriors and would be home in time to have an orgy or whatever.
As you can tell, I was really happy to be there.
This was some of the better footing on the way back down from Nine Standards. At some points I had to taking a running jump several feet over deep bogs. At other points I had to feel my way around deep bogs, going as much as a hundred or two hundred yards off of what I guessed to be the trail and hoping like hell I could find my way back.
There are people who go on AllTrails or various other hiking apps and websites and complain about how poorly marked the Coast to Coast trail is or how it’s not well maintained. For the most part I dismiss these people — most of whom are Americans — because you can tell they don’t expect to find real wilderness in England and believe that the standards of, say, the United States national parks should be universal. That said: the trails off of Nine Standards Rigg are atrocious and dangerous and they really, really need to either improve them somehow or simply cut it out of the Coast to Coast altogether. Maybe make Nine Standards an out-and-back thing from Kirkby Stephen or whatever. I have no idea, but this whole hike sucked.
Things finally began to clear up after six miles of horrific rain and wind. The approach into Keld is beautiful.
Falls near the head of the River Swale, which I will be following all day tomorrow. The river is said to be the fastest flowing in England and can rise extraordinarily quickly. The brown color is from the peat in its upper sections. After trudging through said peat earlier in the day, I was happy to see the river beating the shit out of it.
Wain Wath Force, one of the many waterfalls on this section of the Swale. The word “force,” which is applied to a number of falls in northern England, comes from the Viking word for waterfall, “foss.”
I’m staying here, in Keld Lodge, tonight. It was once a youth hostel. You can tell that from the large number of small rooms it has. As I’m traveling alone, this is perfect for me. I’m finding the place quite comfortable.
A Black Sheep Bitter in the sitting room. Both the beer and the sitting was much needed after a day like today.
September 25, 2023: What a difference a day makes.
Today was not the most spectacular day on the Coast to Coast — it’s impossible to beat the Lake District for views and for sheer exhilaration — but it may have been my most enjoyable day of the hike so far. But before I get to that, a story from last night.
An American couple and I had dinner together at Keld Lodge. They’re probably in their late 60s. They’re avid hikers and have done these sorts of trips often over the last 30 years.
I mentioned to them yesterday that at one point before I got onto the fell heading up to Nine Standards a car drove by me and stopped, probably because I was stopped, I was looking at my map, and I may have appeared confused. The driver rolled down his window and asked me if I needed a lift. As it had not yet begun raining and I was still optimistic about the day ahead, I said thanks but no. He nodded and drove away. At dinner we all laughed about how all of us would’ve killed for a ride on those last six miles and what a missed opportunity it was for me not to accept the one offered.
We then started talking about how, while no one in America hitchhikes anymore, it used to be a lot more common. The woman said that she used to hitchhike all the time in the 1970s but hadn’t for years. That changed when she and her husband began hiking in Europe in the 1990s. Hitchhiking, at least in rural areas, is still fairly common in France and Spain, for example.
Then she told me that once, in the mid-90s, they were in the south of France. It had been a hard day and it was hot, so they decided to stick out their thumbs to get to the next village. A car pulls up and the driver offers them a lift. He’s an English guy. They chat for a bit about what they’re doing in France, what they all do for a living and that sort of thing. The driver says he’s a writer.
“Have you written anything I would know?” the woman asked.
“Um, yeah . . . ironically, I wrote some books called The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.”
Yes, the couple I had dinner with last night were actually picked up fucking hitchhiking by Douglas Fucking Adams.
As the story was way too perfect I sort of playfully pressed them on it but I am confident they are telling the truth. I asked them if they got starstruck or geeked out about it but the woman said that while she was aware of the books, she had not read them. She had only heard the radio shows which her local NPR station had re-broadcast in the 1980s and that she didn’t much care for them. She didn’t share that with Adams. My guess, though, is that if she had he would’ve thought that was wonderful and would’ve laughed his ass off.
All of that has me wondering if, like Rob McKenna, I am a Quasi Supernormal Incremental Precipitation Inducer (i.e. a Rain God), but I probably should’t dwell on that lest I depress myself.
A couple of more things from Keld before I talk about my Monday:
- After posting yesterday’s diary entry someone messaged me the link to the Wikipedia entry for “Bog Bodies,” which are human cadavers that have been found, naturally mummified, in peat bogs. There but for the grace of my Keen Targhee boots, a pair of good hiking poles, and a GPS go I;
- After I settled in last night I looked at my map and realized that I really missed out when it came to lodgings. Yes, Keld Lodge was nice, but I feel like the inn across the road would’ve been a much more happenin’ place:
Oh well. Maybe next time.
There are two options for the hike from Keld to Reeth, my next stop on the Coast to Coast. Wainwright favored the high level route which takes you up the surrounding mountains and across the desolate moors and through areas where lead mining prospered in the 19th century and where the ruins of those operations can still be seen today. Basically every non-masochistic hiker, however — and almost all of the more recent guides to the Coast to Coast — favor the low level route that follows the River Swale through the valley below the high ridge. I’ll give you one guess as to which route I took. And, oh boy, am I glad I took it, as it was positively lovely.
The Swale rushed in some places and meandered in others. The hillsides were gorgeous and the meadows and fields between the two were postcard-perfect. In some places it reminded me of part of the New River Gorge in West Virginia. The valley was wider and the ridges were not as high, but there was a similar vibe in places. I felt the same way when I was in another part of Yorkshire — Calderdale — five years ago. Maybe growing up in West Virginia hardwired something into me that makes me love this sort of terrain.
I passed through a couple of quaint little villages along the way to Reeth. I had hoped to get a little snack or maybe even some lunch in one called Gunnerside, but its little tea room was closed, presumably for the season. Eating my packed lunch beside the river in sparking sunshine was a wonderful fallback option, of course.
From Gunnerside you make your only truly big climb of the day, up the roughly 1,300 foot hill — is it a fell? I’m not sure if it’s technically a fell — to the northeast of the village and you follow the ridge line above the valley for a couple of miles before dipping back down to river level at which point you follow the Swale into the lovely village of Reeth, where I’m staying tonight.
The route, which is just under 12 miles, was something of a recovery day for me. If you would’ve told me that walking 12 miles was “recovery” this time last year I would’ve said you were crazy but I suppose it’s all relative. Either way, between the wonderful weather, the flatter-than-most-days terrain, and the beautiful scenery, I felt better entering Reeth a few hours ago than I did when I left Keld this morning.
I had taken a selfie in front of this when I got to Keld yesterday afternoon but I was so wet, weary, haggard, and unhappy-looking that I decided to take another one when I set off this morning. Much better.
By light of day — a dry day, thankfully — I was able to get a better look at Keld as I headed for the trail. In his original Coast to Coast account Alfred Wainwright wrote, “A sundial records the hours, but time is measured in centuries at Keld.” He nailed that vibe. Keld is a beautiful place.
I am going to choose to believe that these are the boots of hikers who died in the bogs at Nine Standards the day before.
Missed opportunities, man.
I got my first look at the Swale before reaching Keld yesterday. Today I crossed it just outside of the village and walked on its north bank, only straying periodically, for the next 12 miles. It slowly grew wider as I followed it. Eventually it will merge with the River Ure and finally, the River Ouse, after which its waters flow out into the Humber Estuary near Hull and into the North Sea.
I have, for the purposes of this hike, become a sun-worshipper. All Hail to my god, The Mighty Sun!
When this is your view the miles come easy.
I bet I ate lunch at a prettier place than you did today.
That ridge to the north is the high route, through the old lead mining land. I get that some Coast-to-Coasters are purists who will only do what Alfred Wainwright told them to do back in 1973, but I just cannot imagine that’s a better walk than the one I had today. Always go for the better walk.
As I began walking up the hill from the Village of Gunnerside, I witnessed a crime. APB for a sheep suspected in a brazen garden invasion.
Craigy of the Valley. And no, those clouds did not produce any rain, at least where I was. They disappeared as soon as they appeared. It was a glorious day.
One last look at the Swaledale Valley before it begins to get spotted with little villages and some minor industrial sections.
A Hillman Minx in front of some abandoned buildings in the tiny, kinda shabby roadside hamlet of Low Row. The Minx was a British car produced between 1931 and 1970. This one is from near the end of the run, likely between 1967 and 1970. Right across from it in this little parking area was a late model Bentley in gleaming condition. I’d really like to know what the hell is going on in Low Row.
Back down next to the Swale, about a mile outside of Reeth.
Reeth. It’s a cute little place. There are three our four inns, a couple of pubs, a tea room/cafe/ice cream parlor, a couple of little stores selling candy and basic foodstuffs, and some nice houses, probably belonging to people who work in Richmond, an actual city 12 miles to the east, which is where I’m going tomorrow. I took this photo from the village green. God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.
I got into town before I could check into my room so I stopped at the tea room. I got a cup of Yorkshire Gold and a piece of lemon cake that was to die for. I sat at the counter and talked to the woman who runs the place. She’s from Sheffield. I told her that all I know about Sheffield is that that’s where the band Pulp came from. She then told me that when she was in her early 20s she dated one of Jarvis Cocker’s friends. She’d see Jarvis around a good bit — this was before Pulp really broke — and she said that everyone knew that he was bound for big things. She said his friend ended up being a dickhead, though. Alas.
I’m staying here. It’s open during its facelift. Thankfully my room faces the back, so while my view is nothing special it’s at least not of scaffolding. As far as inns above pubs go it’s . . . an inn above a pub. The two I’ve stayed in so far have been nothing to write home about but they have been functional and clean and have had nice hot showers and that’s all you really need on this kind of a trip.
The best part is that my room faces west, on a day with a strong westerly wind. That’s helping to dry the socks and the buff I wore up to Nine Standards on Sunday, which even the drying room at the Keld Lodge could not remedy. My boots were actually pretty good when I put them on this morning but after over 100 miles, every little bit of fresh air helps.
Tomorrow it’s on to Richmond. With a population of over 8,400 people, it’s the biggest town I’ll go through on the whole trip. I hope I don’t freak out from being in actual civilization.
September 26, 2023: I followed my transport company, Coast to Coast Packhorse, on Facebook a while back. They update their feed with a lot of hiking photos, primarily from groups that pay to have one of their guides lead them. This morning I woke up and saw this one:
When I saw that my first thought was “God, that looks hard, I hope —” and then I realized that that’s the route up Loft Beck, which I climbed eight days ago.
Part of the reason I keep this diary is because I am structurally incapable of not writing about my experiences. A much bigger part is that I expect that all of the experiences on this trip will overwhelm me in a lot of ways and will start to mash together in my mind. That’s certainly happening, so I’m glad I’ve written it all down so I can revisit it all in the future.
Also: I climbed up that fucking mountain. I’m pretty damn good, eh?
The King’s Arms in Reeth is . . . not one of the better places I’ve ever stayed. I don’t wanna put too fine a point on it or anything because people gotta make a living, but let’s just say that hotel rooms with toilets that actually flush are preferable to the alternative, as are hotels where someone is around to actually address that issue when it arises. I thankfully discovered this early and likewise discovered a common bathroom down in the pub that remained accessible to me even after the pub closed at 10 last night. Glad I did because, again, without putting too fine a point on it, a non-working toilet is not a thing you want to discover once things get more . . . serious. Whatever the case, I was happy wake up this morning, get on the trail, and put several miles between myself and the King’s Arms.
My haste to leave the place might’ve bitten me in the ass a bit. Given how sketchy the hotel was and how sketchy the dinner was — the fish and chips made me long for Long John Silver’s or Captain D’s — I was not at all looking forward to breakfast so I just settled my bill and left. For breakfast I had a protein bar and a banana and a cup of instant black coffee from the post office/corner shop on the way out of town. The bar and banana were enough to get me through, but even with my drastically reduced coffee intake since I’ve been over here — I usually have about two cups during breakfast compared to my zillion cups at home — that cup of instant joe was not enough. I was sluggish and at times even a little grumpy while out walking today.
It’s possible, of course, that today’s walk was just underwhelming. The first two miles were lovely as they continued to follow the Swale, but the trail soon deviated and tracked over farmland most of the rest of the way. And, unlike what I encountered in Cumbria, this wasn’t even quaint and picturesque farmland. It was like walking around in Madison County, Ohio or something. The one thing I was sorta looking forward to in this section — an old 12th century Benedictine priory — was not accessible. The final eight miles of the 10.5 mile walk were thus mostly just blah.
Things picked up early this afternoon, however, because today’s destination was pretty damn cool. I’m writing from Richmond, the largest town on the Coast to Coast. It only has about 8,500 people but after the one horse towns I’ve been in for the past ten days it felt like London. It has a castle, too, some nice pubs and shops and anything else you might need. It almost made me wish I had planned and packed worse, because today would’ve been a great day to re-supply or pick up something I’d been lacking. As it was I just had a better lunch, a change-of-pace dinner, and actually did some sightseeing.
Just before entering Richmond I officially left the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which makes me kinda sad because I rather like the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The next couple of days may be a bit boring as well, as I have to cover the stretch between here and the final of my three national parks, the North York Moors. Some people cover that whole stretch in one day so as to limit their time in nowheresville, but I have a rule about 25-mile walks, so I’ll arrive there on Thursday evening. And hey, maybe I’ll come across something in nowheresville anyway? Or maybe I’ll just get blown away in a storm.
Seriously, though: I’ll be in the best possible place to weather that storm tomorrow. I’m in a boring stretch of low, flat land tomorrow, I will not be in any sort of wilderness where rivers or terrain will affect me, and based on current forecasts, rain should not be hitting me until about 3pm, by which time I should be at my destination anyway.
Sunrise over the Swale as I skedaddled, under-caffinated, away from the King’s Arms. This view gave me hope of another lovely Swaleside walk, but it was not to be.
Last look at the Swale for several miles. Wish I could’ve just gotten in a kayak and booked it to Richmond.
Marrick Priory was a Benedictine nunnery established between 1140 and 1160. In the mid-16th century Henry VIII kicked all the nuns out as part of the English Reformation. He did not, to his credit, burn them at the stake or anything, even though his daughter Mary might’ve. Rather, he gave them all pensions and sent them away, converting the place to an Anglican church, which it remained until 1948. After some years of neglect it was converted into an outdoor education and residential center where teenagers can learn rock climbing, canoeing, zip lining and stuff like that. There have been many piecemeal stabs at renovation over the last several centuries, but there are apparently many 12th century elements still in existence.
All the Coast to Coast guides I’ve read say that, even though it’s now a youth activities center, you’re able to walk onto the priory grounds, take photos and look at what remains of its nearly 1,000 year-old history. Except there was a sign on the locked gate today explaining that there is a dispute about whether the grounds should be accessible to the public and, until it is settled, no one can come in unless they’re actually staying there. I found that kind of irksome because you couldn’t really get a good photo of the place from the road but I suppose it’s not my business, really. I did manage to get this kinda crappy photo from the hill you climb after passing it.
Not that the hill isn’t cool. These are the Nuns Steps, leading from the priory up over the hill and through the woods. They were used by the nuns for 400 years to travel to the nearby village of Marrick or on to Richmond. There are exactly 365 of them. Some people think that was intentional and they have some connection to daily penance or something. I would guess that there are 365 of them because that’s about how many steps it took to get up the hill, but I’ve been known to be something of a killjoy in this regard.
The next several miles were boring as hell but at least the sun was out. I will never not be grateful for a sunny day in England.
Passing a barn today I noticed this line of barbed wire with five rat corpses hanging from it. They were clearly intentionally hung there. Like they were a warning to the other rats or something. It was kinda freaky.
A lot of mobile homes on today’s route. Some occupied, some being taken over by nature. Between that, some rusty old cars, and some piles of tires, I felt like I was just wandering around rural Ohio or West Virginia or something. Oh, I also saw a house with a big Union Jack hanging from the side of it and a handmade sign that said “Warning: trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” I didn’t take a photo because a guy was walking around the property and I didn’t wanna piss him off, but it was the most American thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here. Well, except for which flag it was, but you get the idea. In not surprising related news, this part of England voted nearly 60% “Leave” in the Brexit referendum.
Gonna miss you, Yorkshire Dales National Park.
After miles of nothing you walk through some woods and then, when you emerge, there’s Richmond and its castle, waiting for you.
Richmond Castle was built by Alan Rufus, a friend and companion of William the Conquerer with whom he fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The castle, built from 1071-onwards, was a product of William’s “Harrying of the North” in which he brutally put down rebellion to Norman rule throughout northern England and established fortresses to consolidate his rule. Rufus was named the first Lord of Richmond and made sure the north stayed under William’s thumb.
Over the centuries successive Earls of Richmond built on to the castle, adding the 100-foot tower and completing the keep which enclosed what is now most of the main town square of Richmond beyond the tower here. This shot is looking north at the tower from the walls near the edge of the hill upon which it sits above the Swale, which served as a formidable natural defense.
This is Scolland’s Hall, once the great hall of the castle, named after one of the castle’s stewards in the 13th or 14th century. While the tower and most of the walls have remained in good repair for the better part of 1,000 years, most of the interior of Richmond Castle looks like this.
The castle had fallen out of use as a fortress by the end of the 14th century and was basically in ruins by the early 16th century. The rise of tourism and an interest in antiquities led to a number of repairs being made to the keep in the early 19th century, after which the castle became the headquarters of the North Yorkshire Militia, with the great courtyard of the castle housing a military barracks.
During the First World War conscientious objectors who agreed to participate in non-combat support duties were based here while conscientious objectors who refused to undertake service of any kind — so-called “absolutists” –were imprisoned in a cell block that was built just off the main tower. Included in this group were The Richmond Sixteen, who were transported from the castle jail to British army headquarters in France where, pursuant to what can only be called sham proceedings, they were charged with treason by a military tribunal and sentenced to death. Thankfully those death sentences were commuted, but the Richmond Sixteen were still given ten years’ hard labor. You should totally read the Wikipedia entry for the Richmond Sixteen, dudes. It’s enraging. Fuck Lord Kitchener, always and forever.
Anyway, the lesson folks: don’t build castles. They’ll be used for tyrannical purposes for centuries. They just lend themselves to that kind of thing, ya know?
The view from the castle walls down to the River Swale. I’ll be walking out of Richmond on that bridge tomorrow.
The view from the back of the tower down onto Richmond’s main market square. The outline of the buildings adheres to the perimeter of the castle’s keep back in its heyday. Unlike now, however, they did not have a Gregg’s in the castle keep. Not sure what they did for sausage rolls and coffee. It wasn’t called the Dark Ages for nothing.
After being in the wilderness for days, being in an actual city — even a small one like Richmond — is giving me sensory overload.
My digs for the night. My room is the one above the door. It’s impossibly cute, well-appointed, and comfortable, which is everything I need after the King’s Arms in Reeth. I am getting laundry done and plan to go get some Italian food tonight because I need a day off of roasts and fish and chips and stuff. And yes, the toilet in my room is functional. Thank the lord for small mercies.
Tomorrow it’s on to the tiny village of Danby Wiske. On the one hand it’s a pretty lengthy walk for me compared to what I’ve been doing — about 14 miles — and there is absolutely nothing there except the house I’m staying in and a pub. On the other hand there are absolutely no hills between Richmond and Danby Wiske, which is the lowest point on the whole Coast to Coast. I’m not gonna complain, frankly.
September 27, 2023: First off, a correction. I was told by the innkeeper at my place in Richmond this morning that those dead animals on the barbed wire were moles, not rats. She said that there are professional mole killers who are paid by the kill and that they hang their victims on fences in order to justify payment to the land owner. Upon closer inspection of the photo, and comparing it to photos of live moles, I can now see it. In my defense they were fairly shriveled up so they looked more ratlike. As for the professional mole killer thing: I’m gonna take the innkeeper’s word for it and assume she wasn’t just pulling my leg. Which, honestly, you can do pretty damn easily when agricultural matters are concerned because I really don’t know anything about that stuff.
As I mentioned yesterday, today’s walk was the first of two in a row which do not take place in national parks. Rather, they’re connector walks to get me from the Yorkshire Dales to the North York Moors. As such it did not take me by anything particularly historic, notable, or particularly beautiful. It was nonetheless a lovely walk which took me down many a pretty country lane and through a couple of handsome little villages. Best of all it was flat as a damn pancake, which made today’s 13.3 miles feel like nothing at all. If I had to I probably could’ve carried on and made it to the next town but (a) that’s not how I booked it; and (b) I am sure that after a couple more miles even the flatlands would start to make my body ache. Why push it when you can just stroll into your village of the day feeling great?
I walked rather fast today in an effort to minimize my exposure to Storm Agnes, but it appeared to have slowed and perhaps tracked a bit farther north than first expected so I managed to beat the rain altogether. My pace, however, got me to my next village, Danby Wiske, two hours before the B&B’s check-in time. Often a place will let you in early but no one was home. The pub is next door but it didn’t open until 4. Knowing the rain was coming I scanned around for someplace to be where I could keep dry when Agnes finally hit. I saw a sign for a tuck shop around the corner. An Australian couple with whom I walked the final mile or so into town and I went there and discovered that it was basically just a little hut with a fridge of drinks and some snacks with a price list and an honor box for payment. I got a bottle of water and a candy bar and dropped a couple of pound coins into the box. A few minutes later a man came over from the RV park across the lane and invited us to stay in the park’s little clubhouse — a converted barn — that has a table with places to sit, a tea kettle and stuff like that. “The owner’s not here, but if he comes by just tell ‘im Derek said it was alright.”
Derek, whose wife Elaine soon came over and joined us for tea, are staying in the RV park. They live down near Birmingham but come up here in their motorhome often. They were truly lovely people and the hour and a half or so we still had to kill before our B&B opened flew by. Elaine and I talked about our shared interest in genealogy. I told her about how my great grandmother — the wife of one of the axe-murderer’s sons — was born and raised in West Bromwich, which is just outside of Birmingham. She told me where I should stay if I ever decide to visit there to look for relatives’ graves and stuff. Elaine and Derek then regaled us with stories about RV life, many of which tracked pretty damn closely with stuff my family and I experienced when we’d take RV vacations when I was a kid. Mom and Dad: I know you’re reading these, so I want you to know that you are not the only couple whose worst fights happened while attempting to level the motorhome after arriving at the campground. Derek and Elaine said that leveling the motorhome has almost ended their marriage on several occasions.
After a while one of the Australians called the B&B and found that the innkeeper was back so we bid Derek and Elaine adieu. Elaine gave me her number and asked that I text her so we can keep in touch, which I did a bit ago. She texted me back a photo of their cat Tommy, who travels with them. Such fun people.
Jean, the innkeeper, greeted the three of us with tea and freshly baked scones. A few minutes later the other two guests for the night arrived: the American couple who got picked up hitchhiking by Douglas Adams. I had figured I’d not see them again as I thought they were doing the long hike from Richmond, but apparently not. Later the five of us went to the pub for dinner and found that Nina, the patent attorney from Bristol with whom I braved the flooded fell between Grasmere and Glenridding last week, was there. She got into town a little after we left the campground where she has set up her tent for the night. She, the Australians, and I had dinner together. At another table were the Douglas Adams hitchhikers and a couple from Vienna with whom I have not talked much but who have been on the basically the same schedule as me. At a third table were four more hikers who all of us have seen on and off over the past 11 days.
The pub itself is small and, apart from our group of hikers, only one local was in there, which made it feel like a big family gathering. I’ve always been friendly with people but I don’t really make friends easily. As such I’ve been surprised at how quickly and easily I’ve been able to make personal connections since this hike began. I suppose shared and at often times intense experiences are better for that kind of thing than is happening to live in the same neighborhood.
What a fun and memorable day this has been. All on a day’s hike that, on paper, did not seem particularly promising at all.
Despite its size, Richmond has not had passenger train service since 1969. The closest station is Darlington, 13 miles to the northeast. Its old station was abandoned for years, but in 2007 it was repurposed. It now has two cinema screens, a restaurant, a café/bar, an art gallery, a heritage center, rooms for public use, and houses a local farmer’s market.
A lot of this today. It was sorta like hiking in MetroParks back home.
A lot of this too.
I was hoping for, like, The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers to come storming through here but no dice. I did, however, see and hear a lot of military jets flying by as much of my day was spent in the takeoff pattern for RAF Leeming.
For the first time since I’ve been in England I’ve encountered actual cultivated farmland. I also saw the fewest sheep today out of any day since I’ve been here.
Speaking of farming, the one local at the pub tonight was a 70-something year-old man named Andrew, who was dressed in plaid and tweed from head to toe and who had a big David Lloyd-George-lookin’ mustache. Nina and I began talking to him for a bit when we went up to the bar to settle our bills. He asked me how many miles I had walked today. I said about 13. He said “I did as well. But then again, I’m a farmer, so I’ve done that every day of my life!” It turns out that he’s in charge of the farming operations at Kiplin Hall and Gardens, which is a few miles away from Danby Wiske. It was built by George Calvert, the founder of Maryland. Andrew then explained to me that Calvert failed at soldiering, at farming, and business, and at politics, “so he then moved to America where failure is far more readily accepted and expected.” He gave me a little wink when he said that. I feel like that’s part of his spiel for tourists who visit Kiplin Hall. If I get back to his part of England, I’m definitely gonna go visit. Andrew sold me.
I passed by this place at one point today. It had not occurred to me that I might call myself a “rambler.” That sounds so much more badass than “hiker” or “walker.” Based on all of the old folks and blues songs, however, I feel like being a rambler implies a far bigger badass or troublemaker quotient than I could ever hope to possess, so it’s probably a bit of a reach.
St. Mary’s Church in the cute little village of Bolton-on-Swale. There has been a church on this site since Saxon times. This one was built in the 14th century, and was restored in the 19th century, though it has some components from the original Saxon structure. It also has a grave in the graveyard — its most prominent grave, so it caught my eye — for a man named Henry Jenkins with the dates 1500–1670 on them. I looked up Henry Jenkins a few minutes ago because I was really wanting to learn about a 170 year-old man I had never heard of before. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that he was full of shit, but he does sound like an interesting dude all the same.
Not my B&B, though it’d be pretty cool if it was.
The trail actually crossed through a horse’s paddock. Here is where I met the Australian couple, who were stopped there, unsure if they should be walking through. They seemed a bit uneasy to be near this fella. Because I’ve been around horses a lot since I’ve been with Allison I walked right up to him and gave him some scritches on his snout and patted him on the neck. He was a pretty chill bro.
Elaine and Derek, the RVers in the campground clubhouse. They were so sweet.
Ashfield House in Dansby Wiske, my B&B for tonight.
I was a bit nervous about this place when I booked it because it does not have a website and, as the only real game in town, maybe it wasn’t that great? I was wrong about that. It’s nice and cozy and pleasant in every way you want a place like this to be. Jean, the innkeeper said she doesn’t have a website because she doesn’t take bookings from the general public. She only books Coast-to-Coasters and only takes bookings through the transport companies who serve them. That ensures quality clientele, she said, because “the riffraff doesn’t go hiking across the country, now, do they?” I suppose she has a point.
Jean’s cat. Jean told me that while the cat spends most of its time inside the private residence, it’s not supposed to be on the guest room side of the house. She said that someone who stayed in my room last week left their window open and woke up the next morning with the cat sleeping on her legs, so if I see him about, don’t leave my window open wide enough for him to get in. You guys: I plan to leave my window wide open tonight and see what happens. I miss my cats and wouldn’t mind having a snuggle with this dude.
Dinner and drinks were here tonight. As the sign says, only 60 more miles to go.
September 28, 2023: Not the best of days. The walk itself was another mostly flat, kinda boring route through farmland and on surface roads without much to look at. At the end of the day I just made it into the North York Moors National Park and then it got pretty, but that was only the final bit.
Worse: at about the eight mile mark today I started to get a ton of pain on my upper ankle, just to the outside of it and below the outside of my shin. It’s not sharp and it’s not on the shin bone so I don’t think it’s shin splits. I didn’t twist it or bang it or step funny either. It’s just a dull but significant pain on the outside flank of my high ankle which made walking the last three miles or so quite a chore. As I’m writing this I’m at my inn and having gotten a look at it and there does not appear to be swelling. If there is any it’s slight. There’s no pain while standing still or sitting down or otherwise at rest. There is no pain when I press on it anywhere, even if I press hard. There is pain with each stride, however. The only thing I can think is that two straight days with a lot of flat road walking made it angry.
At the moment all I can do is stay off it as much as possible late this afternoon and this evening and see how it feels in the morning. If it doesn’t get any worse I am pretty sure I can power through and walk on it each day and do these last 48-49 miles or so. If it gets worse I’m going to have trouble. I don’t even want to contemplate that, though. I’m going to believe that I can finish this thing. I have to believe I’m going to finish this thing. If I have to call it off so close to the finish line I just . . . like I said, I’m not going to contemplate it unless and until I have to.
Apart from that it was a pretty easy day. The trail took me past some horse farms and I talked to the horses because, duh, you have to talk to the horses. The trail also took me (a) over active railroad tracks; and (b) across the A19, which is a four-lane divided freeway, with no bridge or underpass or anything. You just have to look right, get to the median, look left and get to the shoulder. It’s a very busy highway and I’ve heard people say that they’ve been stuck there for ten minutes before getting a chance to cross. I lucked out I guess as a break in traffic hit and I was able to get across all four lanes and the median in one go. Part of the deal with the Coast to Coast being turned into an official National Trust trail involves things like that being taken out of it because National Trust trails are supposed to, you know, not have dumbass things like freeway crossings on them. The only way that’ll happen here is if they build a footbridge over the A19. They say they want it to be a full National Trust trail by 2025. Ain’t no way they’ll have a bridge over it by then so good luck to future walkers who are led to believe that the Coast to Coast is up to National Trust standards by then.
Following the freeway crossing I entered the little village of Ingleby Arcliffe where I ate my lunch. It’s just at the base of the Cleveland Hills which marks the beginning of the North York Moors. A lot of people I’ve been walking with are staying down in Ingleby tonight, but even with the sore ankle I’m pretty happy that I’m staying 800 feet up the first hill in the Village of Otmothersly. For one thing it’s prettier. For another thing I’d rather start my very hilly, very challenging day tomorrow with one fewer climb to do.
I sat and had a cup of coffee as I was waiting for my inn to open up and the Australian couple I walked with and ate dinner with yesterday came by. They had dumped their stuff at their place in Ingleby and walked up the hill to Othmothersly because there was nothing to do down in Ingleby. We got a beer together and I asked them whether it was worth it to come up the hill knowing that they’ll just have to do it again in the morning. They said “nope” and laughed.
I realize I forgot to talk more about the Australians yesterday. Their names are Nick and Lori (or maybe Laurie). Turns out Lori is a native West Virginian, from the town of Lewisburg, which is about 50 miles east of where I’m from in Beckley. She met Nick when she was in her 20s, moved to Australia and married him and has been there for nearly 40 years now. She speaks with a hybrid West Virginian/Australian accent that is almost impossible to replicate (believe me, I’ve tried since yesterday) but it is is absolutely lovely. The two of them are great fun and I’ve come to like them a great deal. I believe we’re staying in the same place tomorrow so I’ll get to hang out with them a bit more.
Tonight I’m staying in a pub/inn called The Golden Lion. It’s a much nicer place than the other pub/inn combos I’ve stayed in so far. It has a large, hot shower that helped wash away a lot of my concerns about my ankle. It has a big comfy bed with good quality sheets. I haven’t had dinner yet but it’s known for being the best restaurant in town. I think that means something in Othmothersly, which appears to be a pretty well-heeled place with a lot of really posh houses up on the hill above town. I caught a glimpse of Porches and Jags — and a vintage touring car from the 1930s — in some open garages. I feel like people with dough from places like Leeds, York, and Middlesborough have weekend homes up here.
The only accommodation hiccup: my room is in the far back part of the place and the WiFi barely works in there. So I’m writing this down in the pub before the dinner rush comes in. Which, oh no, means that I’m having my second pint of the day as I do this. The bartender is playing a Fleet Foxes album. “Blue Ridge Mountains” just came on. The Cleveland Hills look a lot like the lower parts of those mountains and, for that matter, like the hills of southern West Virginia. It makes me feel like I’ve entered some sort of vortex linking England and home.
A mirror at a blind turnout gave me a chance to make an art.
A lot of walking through this kind of thing today. And through grassy fields. It barely rained a drop on me and I didn’t cross any sort of water but my socks were STILL wet at the end of the day because of all the wet grass. Feels like the biggest ripoff ever. Like, fine, if I step into a bog up to my knees I’ve earned those wet socks. But just walking through fields? Total bullshit. I don’t think England has ever been dry.
This little lane gave me a brief respite from pastures and gravel access roads. But not for long.
I am just going to assume that this patch of corn is Ohio’s consulate for the United Kingdom.
The Coast to Coast is dreadfully marked. Like, you can go 40 miles without seeing signage in some places. In this final third in the east I’m seeing a lot more homemade signage, likely put up by farmers who want to keep walkers to the path rather than wandering around their pastures unnecessarily. The homemade signage is usually about as clear as mud, however. Like, look at this. Do I go right or left? The answer was right, but I only knew that because I was using an Ordnance Survey map uploaded to AllTrails.
Some of the homemade signage is at least kinda funny. Best part: when I stepped on the little cross-over step to get over the fence a motion sensor set off a loud recording of the Wicked Witch of the West’s “I’ll get you my pretty!” line. Scared the hell out of me. Then I laughed.
Right before I got here a Transpennine Express train came through at full speed. Believe me: I stopped, looked, and listened.
The A19. This was a little bit after I crossed it. It’s nuts that the trail goes over this but no one asked me about it.
Some of the only color I saw all day.
My cheese, onion and pickle sandwich the innkeeper back in Dansby Wiske made for my packed lunch. I really respect England’s sandwich game. Sure, on the top end of gourmet deli stuff America can’t be beat. But for regular sandwiches for the working man — what the innkeepers throw together for you or the ready made stuff at convenience and grocery stores — the UK has us beat. Like, even if you don’t want a cheese, onion and pickle sandwich — which you should, but I get it if you don’t — there are so many high-quality, dirt-cheap sandwiches available that you actually look forward to eating later when you buy them. I’m partial to the chicken and bacon and any number of cheese and herb variations. England is just streets ahead of the U.S in this department. It almost makes me angry. We deserve better!
The Cleveland Hills are no Pennine Mountains or Lake District Fells, but after a couple of says of flat ground it was actually kinda nice to have to climb something, even with my barking ankle.
Looking back west from the top of that hill. I covered all of that flatness over the past couple of days. In the distance, through the haze, you can just make out the Pennines. It crossed those too. My god, what a walk this has been.
Othsmotherly. Such tidy little village. I get something of a weird vibe from it — a lotta rich people are here who don’t seem particularly welcoming — but it’s pretty to look at.
I was in town before my inn allowed check-ins so I stopped into a little tea room next door to kill some time and rest my aching ankle. It was quite cozy — and the chocolate/caramel shortbread I had with my coffee was tasty — but they had no cell signal and no WiFi. I asked about WiFi and the woman running the place said “why would we have that? We pay for it and we get nuthin’ back from it!” OK then.
The Golden Lion doesn’t look like much from the outside but my room is spacious and quite comfortable and the food looks like it’s gonna be good. No complaints.
Well, the WiFi not really working in my room is a complaint. But hey, I can just walk downstairs into the pub and use it. And if I have to have an extra pint or two of Timothy Taylor Landlord, welp, sometimes you gotta take one for the team.
Into the heart of the North York Moors tomorrow. My ankle willing.
September 29, 2023: In the hours after I posted my diary entry yesterday the pain in my leg got worse and worse. Also, what had begun in my ankle was also now much higher, alongside my shin. Sitting in the pub and taking ibuprofen helped some but he pain shot up my leg every time I walked and it woke me up every time I shifted in bed last night. When I woke up this morning it was unbearable. I can barely walk on it at all right now.
So, yeah: I have called off my hike.
This morning I got a bus from Osmotherly down to Northallerton and from there I got a train to Manchester. The pain was so great that I decided to get it checked out at the NHS ER/urgent care, which is not far from where I’m staying tonight in Manchester. I just got back from that and the verdict is anterior tibial tendonitis and a strain of my tibialis anterior muscle, which I likely suffered while unconsciously compensating for the tendon. I’m to stay off my feet as much as possible for the time being. I can make my way around to do the things I need to do in the comically over-the-top limping way I’ve done for the past 24 hours but I’m not to hike or take purposeful walks or work out on a treadmill or anything for a couple of weeks. Eventually it’ll just get better.
I asked the doctor if there was anything I could’ve done to prevent it. He said maybe stretching it more might’ve put it off some but even the most conscientious of people tend not to put a lot of effort into stretching that particular tendon/muscle area. He said I can be happy that my calves and Achilles and quads and hamstrings and knees held up because that gets more hikers than this does. Either way, though, he said that walking nearly 150 miles in 12 days over hill and dale is just going to get a certain percentage of people. More who are older. More who have flat feet like I do. But it can get anyone. Tough break, kid.
Someone at the inn who saw me leaving this morning asked if I had given thought to following the trail the rest of the way by bus or taxi or by hitching a ride with the luggage transport company or something but I couldn’t possibly do that. I really don’t want to see Robin Hood’s Bay right now. I’m just emotionally not in any place to do that. Nor am I in any condition to be doing tourist stuff (i.e. walking) in York and London as I had planned after the hike. As such, I made all of the cancellations and re-bookings necessary to get myself home this weekend while heading down on the train. Before I left I took the rock I collected from the beach at St. Bees, which I was supposed to throw into the North Sea when I got there, and placed it with some other rocks near the bus stop at the Osmotherly village green. That’s as far as I got so that’s as far as it gets. And while I understand that people may ask me, no: I’m nowhere approaching a mental state in which I can or will consider the possibility of trying again next year or some other time in the future. I’ll never be less-equipped to consider that than I am right now. That’s for another day.
I’m impossibly sad about this. I’ve cried more than once since last night and I probably will again tonight. I spent so long preparing for this and looking forward to this and it’s hard accepting that my body gave out while my mind was still willing. It’s particularly hard knowing that it gave out from simple overuse while I was walking across flat, boring farm fields. It’d be way easier to accept this if I had wrenched my knee topping a fell, broken my ankle scrambling down a boulder, or dislocated my shoulder getting pulled across a raging beck. I was prepared for failure due to more obvious injury, horrible weather, or even mental breakdown. I was not prepared to just . . . wear out.
Eventually I am going to feel differently about this. Eventually I’ll focus more on the 75% of the Coast to Coast I did complete rather than the 25% I did not complete. I’ll cherish my memories of walking through the Lake District, the Pennines, and Swaledale, of all of the people I met along the way and of all the interesting sights I saw. That’s not today, though. It’ll take a bit of time for me to be zen about this. Today the only thing that is making me even a little bit happy is that I experienced efficient public transportation and socialized medicine — both of which worked really damn well, comrades — and that I get a bonus dinner at Bundobust tonight and a bonus breakfast at The Koffee Pot here in Manchester before I go home tomorrow.
I had planned to take off all of next week as I finished my hike and hung around England for a few more days. I’ll probably still do that even though I’m going to be home. This hurts and I need some time.
Thanks for following along everyone. Your encouragement helped me more than you’ll ever know. I’m sorry this didn’t end the way I, and I presume all of you, hoped it would. It would’ve made for a much better read.