I took my first English walking tour in 2015 after nearly two decades of daydreaming of such a walk. At the time, I thought it was a once in a lifetime trip. As the summer of 2016 approached, however, I began fantasizing about going back. I thought my wife would not be keen on the idea but to my surprise, she was all for it.
I was back a mere week from my 2016 Dales Way walk when a friend approached me about a group walk in the summer of 2017. Within the course of a week, a group of 5 friends committed to a walk. My enthusiasm for English walking tours was apparently contagious.
As excited as I was for a group walk, I felt like I would be forfeiting my cherished alone time. Another outlandish idea began to form. How about a group AND and solo walk? It was in my 40th birthday that I found the dubious justification that I needed to take two walks in one summer. Initially apprehensive, my wife quickly supported my scheming.
So in the summer of 2017, I took two walks, totally just over 300 miles. I was hardly back from the Cleveland Way when I began to think about this summer’s adventure. It was about this time that I began to reflect and realized that I was happier than I had been in years, maybe decades. I found something about which I am truly passionate. Something I can look forward to every year. I could hardly have a conversation without annoyingly steering it back to my walks. At the same time, I found myself frequently fielding unsolicited questions from friends and acquaintances about my walks. My identity, personally and outwardly, became entangled with my new found passion.
I immersed myself in walking history and literature. My skeletal ideas about walking grew flesh and became more focused and nuanced. I feel like I’ve tapped into something that has been largely forgotten.
As my thoughts turned to summer 2018, I identified a few long-distance trails that were interesting. But another idea began to form: I wanted to ramble. Ramble in the truest sense of the word. No itineraries. No reservations (RIP Chef). Go where the wind blows.
It wasn’t long before my daydreaming took on an absurd scope. Could I walk from the most two most extreme points in Britain? As I tried to figure out where those extreme points were, I stumbled onto “LEJOG.” LEJOG is an acronym for Land’s End to John o’ Groats. While not technically the most extreme points, Land’s End, on the southwestern tip of England, and John o Groats, on the most northeastern tip of Scotland, are the two most extreme inhabited spots on the island.
LEJOG is not a path, it’s more of a challenge. The challenge is simply to get from one point to the other. It’s a very popular cycling challenge but it’s also frequently taken up by walkers. Because there is no set path, the walker is free to set their own course. The shortest route, which is all road, is 838 miles. The inspired walker employs footpaths, avoiding roads at all costs, resulting in a typical distance of 1,200 miles. While it’s possible to cover the 1,200 miles in two months, if you want to explore and not tax yourself, three months is recommended.
Three months. That is a hard sell. At first, it was a fantasy. The fantasy began to annex more and more mental real estate. I started to talk about it with my wife in sincere abstract. To my utter astonishment, my wife began to encourage me to do it. Not mere acquiescence but advocation.
Every time I think about writing this post I feel the need to defend myself. There’s a part of me that feels like I am doing something wrong. By disappearing for three months, I am asking a lot from my wife, kids, mom and all the people who help with keeping the household together – a chore which is amplified by the demanding needs of my disabled son.
It’s a very hard sell. But ultimately it’s a choice that’s up to my wife and I. Most spouses would not even consider taking on so much for their spouse’s midlife fantasies. I don’t know why my wife is such a supporter but she is. And I love her for it.
I’ve reached a place in my life where I am done accepting excuses to forgo the things that make me happy. As long as I have Anna’s support and my absence doesn’t put undue stress on my other obligations, I choose to say yes. In fact, I feel an obligation to say yes.
I have serious reservations about such an ambitious trip. Besides the domestic issues, I don’t know if I can pull it off, physically or emotionally. I’m terrified that I will become bored or injured. I love being alone, but I’ve never been alone for so long. Can I endure it? Will it be fun? Whatever the risks, I choose to say yes. If I fail, at least I tried.
I plan to have friends meet me for discrete portions of the walk, hopefully with enough frequency that I won’t go for more than a month without seeing a familiar face. My wife will join me towards the end to walk a trail that ends in the Scottish town where she was born.
Late June to late September, summer solstice to the autumn equinox. Roughly 1,200 miles, perhaps significantly more. As little road as possible and avoiding cities. I’ve cobbled together a network of footpaths that will take me from the most south-westerly tip of England to the most north-easterly tip of Scotland. More accurately, I’ve cobbled together a number of potential paths I could take, picking and choosing as I go. A true ramble.
In a bid to keep costs low and my itinerary open, I’ll be backpacking and camping. Britain is full of campsites and it’s legal to camp anywhere in Scotland. My biggest challenge will be finding reliable sources of food. While most villages have a pub, they tend to be hit or miss whether they serve food, often choosing not to if it’s busy or they just don’t like your looks. In the rural areas, reliable grocery/convenience stores can be hard to find or open for only a few hours a day.
I’ve outlined a route from which I will detour and rejoin as the mood strikes. This route takes me inland through Cornwall and Devon, mostly along either the Mary Michael Pilgrim Trail and the Lands End Trail. A quick cut over to Cheddar and up to Bath to connect to the Cross Cotswolds Path, Heart of England Way (with a detour through Burton Upon Trent), Limestone Way, Pennine Way, east to Glasgow through Melrose, West Highland Way, Great Glen Way and as much of the John o’ Groats Trail as is traversable in September.
I’m not taking a computer so regular blog posts may not be feasible. I plan on making weekly vlogs with my phone. Otherwise, I’ll try to post to Instagram and Facebook regularly. See the sidebar for links to my social media accounts.
I’ve put in about 500 backpacking miles since January, 300 of those miles in the last month and a half. It’s been difficult. The heat and daily obligations meant that I was up at 4 am many mornings, sometimes earlier. I am about as conditioned as I am likely to get. I hope it’s enough.
While I’m certainly not soliciting monetary support, in the past I’ve had people try to buy me beers on the trail as a gesture of emotional support. Therefore, I’ve added a button to the sidebar where you can buy me a pint or 12 and send a little note. One of my goals is to drink enough beer to equal the volume of a UK beer barrel, 288 imperial pints. If you feel compelled to encourage me in this worthy endeavor, I’m all mouth.
You are hereby cordially invited to virtually join me as I embark on my next once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Here’s a short video of my walk on the Cleveland Way.
I love to read. During the course of the last two decades, I’ve had periods of voracious reading followed by prolonged periods of nearly none. I find that it’s not the actual reading that’s a chore but finding the next book. For a long time, I refused to read fiction, feeling I was somehow wasting time on stories rather than facts. Once I mined a subject to my satisfaction, I’d spend months trying to gather enough interest and commitment to tackle something else. Other years, I’d latch onto an author or fiction series and, when done with that, fall into the same trap.
Almost three years to the day, I finished East of Eden. It was in the middle of this Steinbeck kick when I realized there was a trove of rich American literature of which I was completely ignorant. The following weeks were spent searching the internet for an enticing list of classic American novels.
Ultimately I landed on a list of 100 American literature titles compiled by American literature teachers. It’s not a perfect list by any means but it was worthy enough. After a cursory scan of the list, I determined I’d already read a paltry 13 titles and set to begin the remaining 87.
For about a year I plowed through the first half of the books on the list. At which point I lost interest and either picked something else up or stopped reading altogether for a few months. For the next two years, it was an on and off affair, occasionally getting stuck in some novel I truly hated. I put down the list about 9 months ago and watched the small stack of ten or so already purchased books gather dust in the corner of my room. About three months ago, I determined to give it another go. There were a few books in the queue I really didn’t want to read but I pushed on and managed to finally finish this week.
The experience was challenging but more rewarding than I expected. Because the books were picked by teachers, there was a definite preference towards stories about minorities – frankly, books I would have never otherwise considered. It was one of these threads that nearly threw me off the list for good: a group of books bunched together towards the end of the list about 1st generation female latin American immigrants, which often all pulled from the same tired script. I could have done with two rather than six. Also, there were four Toni Morrison books. The first three of which I really did not like. Any time I thought about picking up the list during that last year, a 300 page Morrison book, sitting on top of the stack, mocked my commitment. To my utter surprise, I ended up really enjoying that last Morrison book (Song of Solomon).
Themes emerged. Male African American authors generally decried the racial inequities, while female African American authors more often criticized the dominating violence of the African American patriarchy. Native American authors generally did not write about the evil of the white man but the fear of ostracization from their own community. Almost all the Latin female American stories recounted coming of age in America with traditional parents, sexual awakenings, and the inevitable discovery that their ethnic culture was full of previously unknown beauty and poetry. The handful of plays on the list were very powerful, two day reads that somehow cut to the marrow of man’s fallibility and mortality.
One of my favorite books, Ethan Frome, told a disaster story of a man who decides to leave his wife for a pretty young woman, which was all the more powerful because it followed one of my least favorite books, The Awakening, about a mother and wife who decides she was just not into her family anymore and deserts them to lead a much more interesting and successful life as a budding artist.
The ultimate picture derived from this tapestry of stories reveals a country of outsiders: immigrants, underclassed, poor, heavily occupied and marred by constant war but, more often than not, optimistic and hungry for adventure. The exercise has forever changed my understanding of this country.
If you’re like me and find yourself struggling to settle on new books to start, I encourage you to find a similar list and give it a go. There’s something kind of fun about picking up a book blind, not knowing a single thing about the plot or even genre. There’s little doubt that after some dedication, you will glean a new and unexpected truth.
After a couple of post-list books that I’ve been meaning to get to, I think I might pick up another list. I’ve already found one that’s a bit more ambitious than this one. Wish me luck!
A Prayer For Owen Meany – John Irving
Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
Native Son – Richard Wright
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
A Gathering of Old Men – Ernest J Gaines
1. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn- Mark Twain
4. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
5. To Kill a Mockingbird– Harper Lee
6. The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
7. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
8. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
9. The Crucible – Arthur Miller
10. The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
11. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
12. Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
13. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
14. A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
15. The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
16. The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros
17. The Jungle – Upton Sinclair
18. A Separate Peace – John Knowles
19. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
20. Anthem – Ayn Rand
21. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
22. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
23. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
24. A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
25. The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd
26. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
27. Native Son – Richard Wright
28. My Antonia – Willa Cather
29. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave – Frederick Douglass
30. Beloved – Toni Morrison
31. Hiroshima – John Hersey
32. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
33. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
34. Black Boy – Richard Wright
35. Bless Me, Ultima – Rudolfo Anaya
36. Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
37. In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences – Truman Capote
38. A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines
39. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
40. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
41. The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
42. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
43. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
44. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
45. The Chosen – Chaim Potok
46. East of Eden – John Steinbeck
47. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
48. Walden and Other Writings – Henry David Thoreau
49. The Bean Trees – Barbara Kingsolver
50. Billy Budd – Herman Melville
51. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother – James McBride
52. Maggie – Stephen Crane
53. Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison
54. The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
55. Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
56. Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid
57. The Call of the Wild – Jack London
58. Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
59. Fallen Angels – Walter Dean Myers
60. For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
61. The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
62. Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
63. The Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
64. A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
65. Pudd’nhead Wilson – Mark Twain
66. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
67. Sula – Toni Morrison
68. When I Was Puerto Rican: A Memoir – Esmeralda Santiago
69. The Namesake: A Novel – Jhumpa Lahiri
70. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
71. All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
72. Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
73. The Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
74. The Freedom Writers Diary – Erin Gruwell
75. Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trumbo
76. The Light in the Forest – Conrad Richter
77. O Pioneers! – Willa Cather
78. Out of the Dust – Karen Hesse
79. McTeague – Frank Norris
80. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven – Sherman Alexie
81. Dreaming in Cuban – Cristina Garcia
82. Before We Were Free – Julia Alvarez
83. The Autobiography of Malcolm X – Malcolm X with Alex Haley
84. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman – Ernest J. Gaines
85. Caramelo – Sandra Cisneros
86. The Dollmaker – Harriette Anrow
87. Ellen Foster – Kaye Gibbons
88. Fences – August Wilson
89. A Gathering of Old Men – Ernest J. Gaines
90. The Glass Castle – Jeanette Walls
91. Going After Cacciato – Tim O’Brien
92. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents – Julia Alvarez
93. Kindred – Octavia E. Butler
94. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
95. A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
96. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water – Michael Dorris
97. Our Town – Thornton Wilder
98. Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin
99. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life – Langston Hughes & Zora Neale Hurston
100. If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin