I’m on a train speeding towards London. This is not the train I booked. This morning, my second of three trains was just late enough that I watched my third train pull out of the station as we pulled in. A few conversations and two trains later, I’m back on track, albeit a few hours behind schedule. I’m not too upset about it.
But here I am, just now starting to reflect on the whole of my Coast to Coast walk. It seems like months ago that I stepped off another high-speed train in Carlisle. While I knew then that my walk would be a challenge, I was not yet aware of the extent and shape of those challenges.
It was certainly tougher than I thought it would be. I think much of that extra effort was self-imposed by choosing to add an extremely demanding alternative route very early on. I don’t think I had the time to recover from that endeavor.
I never imagined I would face the long and nearly impossible ascents and descents. And I certainly never thought I would be scrambling up and down rock faces. One South African walker later exclaimed with annoyance, “this is not walking, it’s mountaineering!” I’ve never had knee issues in my life, so it came as an alarming development when I found myself limping and cursing with every step.
I certainly never imagined that there would be a physical issue that would cause me to consider quitting. And yet, there was a brief hour at the beginning of day 5 that I started working out contingency plans in my mind due to the knee pain.
And then there was the day up and over Kidsty Pike. No visibility, completely drenched with gale force winds blowing me off the path, my gps disabled, alone not having seen a soul in over an hour and a half, there was a period when I realized that it was probably wiser to turn back.
But I just kept moving forward and eventually my knees hurt less and the fog dissipated.
It’s easy to dismiss those issues in hindsight as being ultimately inconsequential but I later found out they were anything but.
While eating breakfast the day after I finished, I struck up a conversation with a Canadian couple (late 50s) who had finished the day before me and took quite a few more days to cover the distance. They were with a party of 16. They told me about all their mishaps. Illness and injury abounded. A doctor broke three ribs, another younger guy dislocated his shoulder, and a few other managed to seriously bloody and bruise themselves. But there was also a death. Not in their group but a much older American woman walking a few days ahead of them, all alone, carrying all her own gear for camping, fell and hit her head and died on the trail. I haven’t been able to verify the story.
Two people I started with had to bow out as well. There was another American woman, mid-50s, attempting to walk the whole trail and back (she did the same thing four years ago) but she injured her knees early on and was cabbing between each of the accommodations (she prepaid for her entire trip). Then there was a fortysomething English beast of a man with a dog who quit with 3 days left because his feet were injured and his dog became lame.
It certainly was a challenge and I’m fortunate I was able to overcome all my obstacles. And I learned an important lesson about walking tours, a lesson I thought I already knew. The first few days of the walk were more or less the same as a grand canyon trip. Tough hikes where the payoff was the experience of the local natural beauty. Going somewhere completely untamed by man.
While I was impressed by the fells in the Lake District and the beauty was regionally unique, this is simply not the type of walking I enjoy. I do not get a thrill out of conquering a peak. I walk in England because I want a historical and cultural experience. Nature is very much a part of that equation but the larger part is experiencing the history and continuity of tradition. These qualities, as I want to experience them, are unique to walking a well-worn path through environments long tamed and inhabited by men. It’s the approach to the ruins of an abbey thinking about all the long forgotten devote that made the same approach. It’s standing in a Norman church built from the rubble of an Anglo-Saxon church that itself was built from the rubble of a Roman fort. It’s the drinking in an old pub where the same conversations have been on repeat for centuries. It’s connecting to the past in a way that is simply impossible in America. It’s tangible history.
In the future, I intend to pick my walks with more attention to the quality of villages and historical areas. If I want pure natural beauty, it exists in abundance just a couple hours north of home.
One other lesson: In the future, I will limit my walking daily miles to around 15 or less when feasible. There were too many 20-mile plus nights where I was just too tired to go out and explore the places I was visiting. I don’t want my vacations to turn into an endurance challenge.
Obstacles and lessons learned aside, this was a fantastic trip, one I will look fondly back on for the rest of my life. The accomplishment of walking the entire trail is only that much sweeter because I had to work hard for it. When I look back this trip, it won’t be the sore knees and soggy socks I recall. It will be the quiet, secret, lonely moments, which are “the bliss of solitude.” Bushwhacking my way to the George & Dragon, strolling through narrow alleys of postcard perfect Mucker in the long shadows of the morning sun, chasing the miscalculated sunset in St. Bees, a wild hedgehog sniffing at my toes, the first hard fought glimpse of Innominate Tarn, the enveloping steam cloud of a train leaving Grosmont Station, the conflicted shuffle into Robin Hood’s Bay, a single draught pint of Wainwright at the end.
Here’s the low down:
Miles Walked: 199.5 to the beach at Robin Hood’s Bay
Days Walked: 12
Accumulated Ascent: 19,500 feet
Pints Consumed: 62.5
Variety of Beer Consumed: 43
Pubs Visited: 26
Blisters: At least 8. I think there was a blister with a blister.
Bugs In Mouth: 7
Bugs Swallowed: 1
Items Lost: One trekking pole, one glove, one mini bottle of mouthwash