Finding Our Way

 

I haven’t yet mastered the art of integrating photos and words; the WordPress iPad app is not entirely self-explanatory; but perhaps by the time we reach Grasmere I will have figured it out.   I’m also still just learning to use my new camera, so bear with me!

It’s been a lovely day.  As night fell,  we walked in the rain to the beach in St. Bees and then dined (fried haddock with mashed peas, baked veggie pasta) in an old inn/pub, “The Manor,” in the center of this tiny town, where it felt as if we were in someone’s living room. Throughout the day, I’ve been struck by the affability of all the people we’ve met. In the airport, on the train, at our b & b–we’ve already talked with all kinds of people, all of whom have been delighted to learn about our walk and to share stories with us.  The passport control man at the airport greeted me sweetly, quietly, “Oh, so you’ll be going to St. Bees,” he said when I told him we’d be walking on the Coast to Coast.

The Northern accent is thick and beautiful; one teenaged boy I was talking with on the station platform in Barrow was surprised that I could understand him. He wanted to know about New York, and he and his mates complained about how dull it is in Whitehaven, their hometown just north of here. The train along the beautiful coast from Barrow passes through Sellafield, the site of England’s major nuclear power plant disaster in the 1950s, and still a functioning plant that employs a huge number of people. It’s a grim and disturbing reminder that all is not fantasy-land here along the coast and even in the Lake District.  My past-time on the plane reflects the two levels on which I’m experiencing things at the moment:  I watched The Hunger Games and then re-read the first two books of the 1805  Prelude.    But Wordsworth too was aware of these unsettling juxtapositions.

When I asked someone at the Manchester Airport whether we should stand to the right or the left on the moving platform in order to let people pass, she answered me this way:  “In London, people get mad if you don’t stand on the left  They’ll walk right over you.  In the North, you can do what you want–left, right, middle, it doesn’t matter.”   This reminded me of the differences between people in the South of France (Montpelier in particular) and Paris.  There’s a great pride among those who live outside of the metropolis.  But it’s a welcoming pride, a pride that brings you in.

arrived

We’re here at the Abbey Farmhouse in St. Bees, the only guests tonight. Tomorrow we’re expected at another place in St. Bees, and then on Thursday we start the walk for real. it’s been a long trip. Joyce had to wait a couple hours for my flight to arrive at Manchester. We got a 1pm train to Barrow-in-Furness. It arrived at about 3:15. Joyce watched the luggage while I took a nice little walk through town and got myself a wristwatch. At four-forty we got the northbound train that got us to St. Bees in about an hour, through some nice coastal scenery. It’s been cool here, and overcast, good walking weather in Barrow, a nice steady rain in St. Bees for our short walk to our lodgings. It’s good to put the big bags down for the day. Today, at times, \i wished I had those little wheels on mine.

That canoe trip

It was around 1979, May or June. I was proud of the opportunity to introduce Joyce to the pleasures of camping by canoe. One of the things I emphasized was the importance of rain gear. An hour or two after we got onto the water, it started raining. Joyce brought out her poncho. I looked for mine — not there. No rain gear. Joyce shared what she had, but I got pretty well soaked. We set up the tent in the rain. For about a day and a half, I think, we waited for intervals in the rain to get out and stretch. We talked, and read Horace, and got along all right.
I still don’t prepare well for a trip. I’m working on it.

“My knapsack on my back” — why I’m walking

It would probably take many pages for each of us to give a full account of our reasons for taking this trip.  For me, the answer is both simple and complex.  As a child, “The Happy Wanderer,” taught to me by my counselors at Girl Scout Camp, became my favorite song, coming to me unbidden whenever I found myself outdoors with an unexplored expanse before me.  (The song, written by a German composer just after World War II, is featured still on Scoutsongs.com).

My two precious weeks at Camp Quidnunc on Lake Kanawaukee in Bear Mountain, NY, gave me a taste of life in the woods (we slept on elevated wooden platforms in wide canvas tents with open sides, waking early to the sound of birds and the sight of deer).  In the mornings and afternoons we swam in the lake, and every night we gathered around campfires, which we were taught how to build.  One day we hiked through the woods to the other side of the lake, carrying peanut butter sandwiches and apples in our small knapsacks.  Thrilling for me, an eleven-year-old Brooklyn girl, whose experience of the outdoors up until then had been confined to Brighton Beach and Riis Park, along with New York City’s Fort Tryon and Prospect and Central Parks.  Camping and hiking were not part of the vocabulary of our Middle Eastern immigrant family, but to me they came to represent everything American, everything free.  I enjoyed only one brief stay at Camp Quidnunc, but those two weeks imprinted me forever with the pleasures of a life lived outdoors.

As I grew older, I sought out friends who camped and hiked in the woods; I acquired a tent and a sleeping bag, and occasionally took myself into the woods to escape from the city.    Yet I never became a full-fledged hiker; I never felt safe or comfortable following a woodland trail by myself, and I never joined one of the many hiking groups that welcome solo travelers.  Still, alone or in company on a country road or path, “The Happy Wanderer” echoed in my head, and I was never happier than with a backpack on my back–even my bookbag, lugged onto crowded subways and buses, gave me the illusion of the open road.

When I taught for two summers in Innsbruck, Austria, I did avail myself of the local hiking group to go on exhilarating day hikes into the Alps; I felt as if I were living in a picture postcard, and I enjoyed how strong and alive I felt — though the speed at which the Austrians walked left me longing at every moment to stop for the view.

And then it happened:  in August of 2003 I traveled alone to England, and visited Yorkshire.  I had planned this trip because I was about to teach a graduate seminar at the University of New Orleans on the Bronte sisters.  Again, as a child, I had reveled in the Brontes’ descriptions of the moors; I had no idea what a moor looked like, but I decided that now–on the verge of immersing myself in the writings of the Anne, Charlotte, and Emily–was the time to find out.   I made my way to the village of Haworth, planning to spend just a night there, exploring the Bronte Parsonage and walking out onto the moors.

It must have been at the Bronte Museum and Parsonage that I picked up a tiny book (a pamphlet really), Walking Country: The Bronte Way – 45 miles through the Pennines, based on Haworth by Paul Hannon (Hillside, 2000).  The book details four day walks through “a remarkable variety of surroundings from canal towpath to windswept moor, including historic fieldpaths linking old textile settlements, and surprising wooded valleys” in Bronte country (6).  Booklet and maps in hand, I set out for the first simple walk, Haworth to Wycoller, 8-1/2 miles of moorland magic.  I used ladder-stiles and went through kissing-gates, following the path across farmer’s fields and along the Worth River.  I got lost; I found my way; I was entranced. Deciding to extend my stay, I continued to venture out for small walks during each of the next three days, using local buses to get to my starting points or to return at the end of the day.   While the Northeast of the U.S. suffered a massive blackout, I wandered through the villages and fields and forests of Yorkshire .  And although walkers in the North of England are warned against sudden summer storms, I never encountered any rain or dangerous weather during my rambles.

The Bronte Way introduced me to the world of British walking; I could see from the little book and the maps I had purchased that there was an entire universe of pathways and pilgrims through these astonishing landscapes.  I read about the Pennine Way and learned “The Country Code.”  I immediately wanted to return, to do a long-distance walk, staying in different villages each night.  I remembered the happy accounts of walking written by Wordsworth and Hazlitt and Coleridge; I wanted to be among them.

And so, every summer since 2003, I have said to myself, “I want to go walking in England.”  And yet, somehow, every year, something managed to interfere:  Katrina, post-Katrina, post-post-Katrina, and so on.  Finally, last November, after a lovely Thanksgiving visit with friends in Maine, I found myself on the train, watching the New England landscape go by.  Some of the villages reminded me of those I had seen in the north of England.   “I need to go for that walk” I said to myself.  “Now.”  And so, as soon as I arrived home in Brooklyn, I began to search on the Internet for the walk I would take.  I’ll save the details for another entry, but simply say that I made my decision within two days and had booked my trip within a week.  And, while I had initially imagined myself walking alone, prudence led me to invite a friend.  Lucky for me, the friend who accepted turned out to be Jimmy.  I’ll let him tell his tale.

— Joyce

Preparing for Our Walk

As the day of departure (July 30th) approaches, both Jimmy and I have been preparing–each in our way. Yesterday Jimmy emailed me to say he had gone out for a walk in the rain, to test out his rain gear. While there wasn’t much rain, he encountered some muddy spots that convinced him of the value of gaiters–which he had already procured. I will be picking up a pair later this week. Today I purchased arnica gel, homeopathic arnica pills, and rosemary oil — in anticipation of potential aches and pains. I also spent a happy hour putting my daily vitamins into little compartments in plastic holders–maybe not entirely necessary, but satisfying all the same. I haven’t yet tried packing my suitcase, though I hope to do this by Wednesday.