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.