The Wayward Way
A dusky cloud followed my hobble
from Doctor Ehlingers B&B up High Street toward the Inn of the Buggered Bullock.
No bother. Its eventual outpour washed off the patina of moss that had stubbornly clung to
my trousers since an early-morning wallow in a peat bog. After days of interminable
downpour I was beginning to wonder if those whod wished me "Godspeed!" on
my journey hadnt really said "Gods peed!"
Like most English pubs the inn was decked with medallions of Birmingham
brass and was dimly lit. I eased my way through the Saturday night crowds suppliant
"beg pardon" and "so sorry" up to the bar. Brits are always so polite,
forever apologizing even when it is your fault. I ordered a pint and dinner and paid on
the spot. They are also keen on keeping tabs, though not big on running them. The pint
drawn, I sloshed it up and settled in beside a middle-aged couple at a table near the
"New here, are you?" The inquisitor brought Miss Marple to
mind. Not entirely because Marple was my next destination: She bore a striking resemblance
to Margaret Rutherford, both in manner and in dress. I replied that I was in town merely
overnight, that I had just finished hiking the Pennine Way. Her mousy mate looked puzzled
but had the uncommon courtesy to keep it to himself.
"The Pennine Way?" She seemed perplexed. "But that ends at
Kirk Yetholm." I told her that, perversely, I had begun there. "Well then,"
she said, "you should finish at Edale! What on Earth brings you here to
"Im hiking from Edinburgh to Istanbul." I smiled.
"Im trying to shorten the distance a bit."
My throwaway line was cast well above her head, so I explained that I
had decided not to follow the Way to its terminus in the Peak District since that took me
too far east. Instead, I was switching over to the Cheshire Canal Ring Walk. It joins up
with the Staffordshire Way, which leads to the Heart of England Way and ultimately to the
Cotswold Way. From Bath I would cross the Salisbury Plain down to Portsmouth where
Id take a boat to France--if I hadnt yet learned to walk on water.
She caught that line but didn't firmly grasp it. Then she grew pensive,
though merely long enough for the waitress to set down my plate. Still incapable of full
comprehension she finally submitted. "Yes, I suppose that is a rather long way."
Britons are masters of understatement. And like most island dwellers,
especially those that rarely travel out of their milieu, they have absolutely no concept
"Where are you lodging?" She quickly asked, as if afraid
silence might be mere fool's gold. After finishing a mouthful of microwave chicken curry
(served with rice and fried potatoes), I replied that I was staying with Doctor
"How lovely. A marvelous man!" She began a discourse
extolling his many virtues, not the least of which was his great humanitarianism. I was
grateful; it allowed me to finish my meal. She said that he had successfully helped her
through a long depression after a miscarriage. Although now retired, he was still treating
the gentleman reclining in a chair at the table immediately in front of us. "Have you
met Tom? He's with the Queen's Park Rangers."
I raised my glass in the time-honored toast. "Cheers!" (The
lorn Ranger's saturnine expression led me to believe that he might benefit from some.) Tom
resembled the actor Sam Waterston. He was about the same age, build and disposition and,
stretched out as he was, seemed well over six-feet tall. He turned obliquely and returned
my salute with the mug he held in his good hand. His other arm occupied a plaster cast
cradled in a sling.
"Did you find the boy who got lost last night?" I was
referring to the hullabaloo of helicopters and police sirens that had taken place after
midnight outside the Globe Farm Bunkhouse, where on the previous evening I had tried to
get a bit of sleep.
"We found him, alright. Up on Round Hill. Bloody bugger! He'd have
stayed up there were it left to me."
"Why? What did he do?"
"The little sod stole a car! And when he finished with his
stinking pleasure cruise, he crashed it into a bollard and lit out across the bogs!"
Though it may have been presumptuous, curious about his disabled arm I
asked if he were the one who'd apprehended the kid. "What, this? No. I had an
accident at work." He said he hadn't participated in the chase. He had, however, told
the constables where to find the boy. "I knew exactly where he'd be. I know the
Pennine Way like the back of my hand." I assumed he was referring to the usable one.
"I wish I could say the same, Tom. I was constantly getting
He raised a stern black brow and spoke skyward, as if to a dimwit.
"Why? It's very simple! All you have to do is look at the grids on your map, which
are two-and-a-half inches to a mile . . ." I interrupted to say that the only maps I
had managed to find were on a much smaller scale; he winced and said it was unimportant
(though clearly it was) ". . . then you look at your watch, and at a pace of
three-and-a-half to four miles you should cover approximately ten inches or four grids in
an hour!" He looked askance. "Or, in your case, five inches or six-and-a-half
I took no umbrage. He was a professional.
"Well Tom, I like to stop often--to look around, enjoy the scenery
and talk to the birds and the beasts--so my usual pace is closer to two or two-and-a-half
miles an hour." His brows drooped noticeably. When I told him that I didn't wear a
watch, his eyes followed suit. By the time I finished relating that other than the two
Ordnance Survey maps I had when I began the Pennine Way, now all I carried were the
Footprint guides and a road map, his chin was firmly nestled into the pit of his damaged
arm. Then, when I said the most I'd ever strayed from the path was a few miles, after a
minor convulsion he almost slid from his seat.
Head, eyes and brows raised simultaneously. "A few miles? The
Rangers could have searched forever and not found you! We recently pulled a man out of a
peat hag who'd been buried there for two thousand years!" I wasn't embarrassed to say
(though in retrospect I suppose I should have been), "It never occurred to me that
they'd come looking." Both hands shot up to join his face in its superior position.
He winced in pain and quickly lowered one. "Of course we'd come looking! That's what
we do!" To further enlighten me, he launched into an anecdote:
"I once had to rescue a couple lost up on Black Hill." (I
knew the place; it's where I'd gained the patina on my pants.) "I found the
woman, dazed and wandering about in a circle. She had no idea where her husband had gone.
I told her to stay right where she was, I'd find him. . . . Well, I found him alright,
buried in a bog up to his ballocks. When we returned, his wife had strayed off. It was a
complete cock-up! . . . If you can't find the path--especially in a quag--the safest
thing you can do is stay right where you are. Don't worry: We'll find you."
I innocently said, "I always followed the water-filled prints of
the previous hikers." He winced. "If there were too many footprints, I'd go to
the highest mound to see if I could find the right path." A slight, apoplectic tremor
rippled up and down his wiry frame. "If there was no mound--figuring that if the bed
of a grough was solid enough to hold water it should support my weight--I'd simply follow
a burn down to the bottom." My last utterance left him slumped in despair, vacantly
staring at the floor.
After a long, brooding disquietude he spoke. "You mean to say you
never told anyone when you were leaving? Or what time you expected to arrive at your
destination? And that if you hadn't rung them up by a certain hour that they should
initiate a search?"
"No, Tom. I like my independence. I don't like being tied down by
time schedules and guidebooks. Never have. Sometimes I like to explore on my own. And to
tell you the truth, I find British telephones confusing--that is when I could find one at
all. I'm intelligent, and resourceful. I'm also old enough to still believe in
self-reliance. If I can't take care of myself why should I expect the Government, the
Rangers or anyone else to look after me?"
It grieves me far too much to describe his reaction. Some things are
best left unsaid.
We sat in awkward silence awhile. He seemed in great pain. At first I
thought I might have been the source of his discomfort. Upon bending down to recover my
fallen serviette I saw that his right leg was bandaged, too. And he was worried about me?
To allay his fears for my safety I told him I wasn't as reckless as I
might seem. "When I began this walk around the world, a friend told me 'God wouldn't
send you out on a journey like this if he didn't intend for you to finish it.' I believed
him. So far he's been right. I know how to navigate--in my fashion. I also know the proper
safety procedures. Right or wrong, I choose not to follow them. I've been a musician all
my life. Walking, for me, is like playing jazz. Give me a rough guide and I'll find the
flow. And I'll walk with it. Actually, my friends consider me one of the better walking
He was not amused.
"Sure there are times when you lose your place, times when you
forget what comes next, times when you're so involved that you feel you've fallen over the
edge and floated off into space. But those stolen moments are what you hope for. When
you're in tune with the moment, it's time-out from fear. You know that somehow, just in
time, someone or something always saves you.
"When I said the most I'd gone out of my way was a few miles,
there was never any real danger. Mostly it was on carriageways: first near the Ministry Of
Defense firing range above Byrness, then near the Air Ministry poison gas testing grounds
before Bowes. Truly, I was safer on the road. And if I couldn't find the path any other
way, I asked the animals to show me the right track. And they did. Always!"
While I spoke, his stern expression gradually relaxed. The tension in
his wiry frame ebbed. He slowly raised his gaze from his feet. For the first time all
evening he looked at me head-on, with respect. Mine was clearly not his way of walking but
he seemed to understand that there could be other approaches. After all--by whatever
method--I had made it a third of the way around the world with no major mishaps.
"Did I hear you say you're not going on to Edale?" I nodded.
"You really should, y'know. It's the best part of the Way. I was planning to walk
Yorkshire's Three Peaks tomorrow, but I'll be happy to guide you through the last
Speaking of legs, I looked at his, then at his arm. My lower limbs were
wobbly after three-hundred-some miles, and since my walking staff failed near Pennyghent
(one of the Three Peaks) and was now reduced to a mere cane, my right arm and shoulder
were troubling me, too. But I could still grit my teeth and walk--with the help of an
occasional yohimbe tablet (legally obtained at my local health-food store) and a
codeine-laced aspirin (illegally obtained from a friend). How in hell did he expect to
walk the Three Peaks in his condition? Much less complete the trek across what I was told
was the most horrendous, tortuous and torturous section of the entire Pennine Way.
"It's kind of you to offer, Tom, but I think not. Judging from my
map, nearly the entire route is through bogs. Quite frankly, I've had enough bog-slogging
to last a lifetime. It's been raining for the past several days, and if what I've heard is
true, even in dry weather the peat gullies on Kinder Scout are thirty to forty feet
deep." To reinforce my disinclination, I joked. "I've also been told
that--unlike the innkeeper at the Border Hotel--the Old Nag's Head in Edale doesn't even
treat you to a pint when you finish."
His dark eyes suddenly blazed with previously undisplayed zeal.
"That's all quite true! But you've never seen such unbelievably magnificent, rugged
land in your life!" Then, in a voice that Satan might use to convince reluctant souls
of the resplendence of Hell, he tempted. "Meet me here in the morning and I'll guide
you through it. What do you say?"
I'm not a lazy man--obviously. Neither do I fear dangerous or difficult
situations. I welcome challenges. Distasteful as the prospect of more bog-slogging was,
had I come to Britain to walk only the Pennine Way I would have completed it. But I'm not
a fanatic. I also like my comforts. So when you're contemplating a trek of some two
thousand miles you do tend to take a few shortcuts when you can. I'd already taken
several. This was only one more. Something in his smoldering eyes, however, and something
in his posture--like a panther ready to spring--told me that if I didn't finish this Way I
would miss my greatest adventure.
"Do I owe it to myself, Tom?"