Browsed by
Tag: walk

The walk of two seasons

The walk of two seasons

The walk of two seasons

That was a strange one. I was supposed to work all day today, but I woke just before dawn because of the cold. Winter, still.

But then noticed how clear and gradually cobalt blue the sky was. And so, by breakfast it was a case of “Dammit!”, laptop off, hiking shoes on, stuff thrown into overbag, and out the door.

This time I tried a few new paths heading straight south, but the second one did not exist; not for the first time, a large and monotonous housing estate, dwellings with tiny windows for new owners to hide away in, appeared where the map of a few years age marked only farmland. A detour, then heavy walking on muddy trails, and thenextremely heavy walking across what was, in summer, a cornfield; the effort made worse by the mini lakes left behind by horses and cyclists. Finally, a track on which I could scrape off the now several pounds of mud caked around my boots.

Zigzagged through a wood, along the side of a few more fields, then up a long lane I had not been before (new routes are always refreshing), passing expensive whitewashed farm buildings and driveways and picket fences, new England transplanted into old England. Then zigzagged around the side of the hill until reaching the double summit. Near the top, the remnants of recent snow and ice still clinging to the ground in places. Stopping a short while; inside my layers due to the mud-walk and hill walk; cold outside due to the wind; thighs hurting a bit, not used to the heavy mud walks.

At the summit, a plane was climbing from the south, probably out of Birmingham airport. Hence the picture. Followed by down the hill on the other side, a near-straight line through the woods, a short bit of road walking, more fields but still downhill most of the way, and back to base. Passing, in a few places, crocus and snowdrops starting to emerge from barren ground.

Spring, though not quite here yet, is on the way.

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Under a blue summer English sky, I continue this non-linear quest of Fellowship proportions to get my health back to something that won’t trouble the emergency room of a country without socialist medical treatment. You can probably guess which one.

This week just finished, one minor health setback but one major thing finally ticked off the medical list. In addition, and finally without giving up yet again, I’ve managed to back-up everything digital I still possess from the last 15 years or so to various clouds. And, I’ve made significant, possibly breakthrough, progress on rescoping my work plans for the long term.

So, a good week, ending with my favorite rural walk to date in this part of England. After the obligatory few miles of road and meadow and country lane, five miles of this route became a meandering well-worn footpath, a narrow hinterland between fields of barley and corn and a twisty, shallow, slow-moving brook that oft disappeared into copses and spinneys and woods. The evening was hot and cloud cover increasingly elusive, so the shade of many trees was quietly thanked, and the temptation, at stumbling across a shaded pool, of stripping off and jumping in was only narrowly resisted.

The footpath eventually turned away from the brook and trundled over a small hill, a copse to the right, becoming a bridleway of pitted, horseshoe-shaped ruts in dried soil. The path opened onto a road; houses, a church, rural English civilization. I cooled down in a gentrified rural pub, lemonade and ice rushing through me, and watched the sun set over a Nottinghamshire, or possibly a Leicestershire, hill of maize.

As the dusk fragmented into night, I strode to the next village, a mile and half again north. One footpath, a half-guessed jump across a stream in the increasing gloom, and wading up a hill of stout and unyielding corn. Behind me, the July harvest full moon, tinged pink but full and wide and slightly paler, a little more translucent than the previous, rose slowly above the ridge to the South.

I reached the bus stop, calculated the walk (9.5 miles; not epic, but not insignificant), and watched the moon inch upwards as the sky moved through the last few shades of blue before black. Tomorrow it’s back to typing and doing digital administration for a few days. But these walks, under a big sky, away from the babble of people and the industry of life, help; it’s not just the body that needs to repair, decompress, revitalize, rebuild, but sometimes the mind as well.

An intermission of rural England

An intermission of rural England

Rural England is a small place. All of England to start with is smaller than most US states, and can fit into Scandinavia many times over. Take out the cities, take out the airports, the motorways and main roads, the growing suburbs and industrial sites, and you aren’t left with a huge amount of area. Set your mind to it and in a few days you could walk across its width; in a few weeks, its length.

But, what there is still greatly varied in tone, color, views, flora and fauna. And it is a country to be walked in, not driven through or flown over. Rabbits and pheasants burst from their secluded places as they hear you coming, and leap or flap away. Herons move slowly from tree to riverbank. In the gloom of dusk, foxes trot quickly, sharply, on their routes across fields. Meadows filled with a million buttercups invite crossing. And there are thousands upon thousands of those fields, rolling and curving over hills; and hedgerows, and woods and copses and spinneys.

Yes. The trees.

So many trees.

It’s a safe place; there is little that can or will kill you. And it’s a gentle place, in weather and inhabitant. Everyone, no exception, I’ve passed this last few weeks on country lanes has nodded, given some variation of passing greeting, or observation on the current or coming weather. The invisibility cloak you are seemingly given on entering the city is not worn here.

But also, this is a visibly historical place, as you are reminded over and over. The way the country lanes either ramble off in dead straight lines (Roman), or zig zag around fields (Enclosure act), or make no logical sense at all (just … English). The buildings, almhouses and stately homes and passing a cottage called “The New House” with a date of 1573 above the front door, and the remnants of medieval or older settlements. The many churches, stone and bell; the place names, and the dialects.

And the, thankfully enduring, traditions and customs. Stumble into a pub of several centuries, parched after rambling across fields and through woods and over brooks and streams; pat the owners dog on the head, buy a drink and some pork scratchings then notice Morris Dancers preparing to shake their bells and clash sticks outside. Or wander past a village fete, decide to check out just one stand, and a few minutes late you wonder why you’ve just bought three cakes made by a 90+ year old, but you are glad you have as it’s probably made her day and you’ve contributed to some village restoration project.

Rural England is a seductive place. It’s better if you have the money, and the time, to enjoy and explore it (then again, so is everywhere). But above all, it’s a quiet place where nature has, at least partially, reclaimed the sounds. Sure, there is often the distant hum of traffic, or a nearby tractor, or a plane going overhead (and … so many planes, in recent years). But there are farm animals, and birds, and church bells near and distant, the sounds of water, morris dancers and cricket matches, and psithurism (look it up, then go outside somewhere and listen to it).

Though I was born in this rural land, and spent the first 20 years here and kept coming back, and I’m here again, wandering the lanes and fields, this isn’t home. That thing means something different now, and it’s a long way, physically and literally, from here. But I’m finding that it’s deeply satisfying, for a short while anyway, to wander down lanes, through woods and across meadows, again.

The solstice walk

The solstice walk

The summer solstice is but a few hours away. To be precise, it happens at 00:09 BST, on Thursday June 21st, 2012.

Five years ago, I was living on a small island, some three miles by two, in the Outer Hebrides. With a population that hovered around 130 residents, it was a relaxed place. And also very pretty, with one of the best beaches you’ll find in Britain.

On the summer solstice, and around that time of the year, it remains surprisingly bright at night. The first year there, we discovered it was possible to read a newspaper or a book in the garden. At midnight. Without a torch.

We also discovered that it was a really good idea to invest in some serious wartime blackout curtains, as opposed to the translucent thin stuff that’s prevalent nowadays. When it’s bright, it’s seriously bright. And at 4am, that’s a bit strange. And annoying when you need to sleep.

Back in 2007, it had been a hot and sunny June. Rainfall had been minimal, and the ground was drying and cracking. The island had been, even at the height of this good weather summer, quiet, with the occasional tourist, celebrity and broadsheet newspaper journalist popping up and hanging around for a while. The rumour that Prince Charles was returning for another summers retreat on Berneray proved unfounded.

The good weather also invited long walks on the west and east beaches, and the occasional dip in the sea. Though, even after several weeks of sunshine, the water was still damned cold. (Also, the sphere in this next picture was solid and hurt when you kicked it)

Ball

I spent that summer taking every opportunity to do beach walks, when I wasn’t fiddling around with doing virtual world work for Andy Powell et al in Eduserv, finding and cooking mussels, and sailing on the open sea in a serious boat.

As the summer edged towards the solstice, the idea of a little walk between sunset and sunrise during the shortest night came about. With this time being only a few hours, it wouldn’t make for a long walk. But, the perimeter of Berneray, taking in several beaches, the slopes of various hills, and the single track road for the last part, would do just fine at the right pace.

I mentioned it to Ruth, who was up for it. We mentioned it to a few other people who we thought would be into it and good to come along. Unfortunately, they mentioned it to others, and within a few days, half the island wanted to do it. Doubly unfortunately – this involved the most talkative people; every community seems to have a few people who try and fill every quiet second with their own voices, and the appeal of a walk round the island faded. And people started talking, and phoning me up, about schedules, and supplies, and driving bits of it, and perhaps bringing a radio along(!), and whether it was right to bring alcohol or not, and all manner of other pointless complications.

Rather than having just a quiet walk. Looking at things. Listening to other things. Having the occasional word, and sharing the occasional drink.

I lost interest. Word got around that the walk had been postponed. No bad thing. It was tempting go out in the boat again instead, as we’d been doing that month.

Youth hostel and the north end of Berneray

Then come the day before the solstice, the weather forecast looked good and we thought “Heck, why not.” Leaving it as close to the time as possible, we roped back in a few of the quieter people, and the five of us were set. Ruth, Andrew, Chris, Shonnie and myself.

Chris came to the gate of our house for sunset and we set off, picking up Andrew at his house, and Shonnie at the bottom of the road to his house. Mary, his kind wife, had loaded his pockets with sweets and a flask of something illicit smelling, and gave us a friendly but firm “make sure he comes back” parting.

Up to full strength, we walked past various ruins, up the east beach, and round the north headland.

The magnificent five

As you can see from that, and the next picture, it’s not easy to photograph at night on a cheap camera. The light is strange, and you can watch the bright area western sky slowly move clockwise, north then east, as dawn approaches.

Like hobbits, we stopped (increasingly) for meal breaks. It was a nice group to be in. Small. No-one spoke much, and no-one spoke loudly. All of us had some local and natural knowledge, so between us birds and animal sounds were identified through the night.

We carried on, anti-clockwise, and hit the west beach; three miles of unbroken white sand. Never monotonous, and never crowded; the most people I ever counted on it at the same time was eleven, a day that was acknowledged to be “freakishly crowded” and people talked of moving on as the “place is being over-run”.

The beach offers an uninterrupted view of the island of Pabbay, which I spent a heck of a lot of time over half a decade looking at, with its volcanic-like shape, green slope and beaches. We went there by fishing boat on my birthday two years before, wandering over the now-deserted island, posing for photos and watching herds of tame deer run uncomfortably close to us.

But tonight, on the summer solstice, Pabby brooded, darkly, watchfully, sentient, over us from across the few miles of placid north Atlantic.

Pabbay from the west beach

Despite being three miles of sand, we spent two hours on the beach. The sounds of the waves, bird noises, some kind of distant, deep, thudding far out to see, and the occasional startled otter, were pretty much it during that stretch of the walk. I’d gone ahead of the others who’d stopped to look at some unidentifiable dead … thing … washed up on the beach, and had an hour to myself. Recent adventures exploring Finland had given me a lot to think about and a deeper itch, troubling thoughts, to figure out various things (though at the time I wasn’t sure what) were pressing heavily in conscious and unconscious thoughts. That hour of solitude, 2 till 3 in the morning, on the west beach of Berneray, is still really vivid in the mind, staring at the unmovable, silent Pabbay.

The group reassembled and carried on. Rounding the south west corner of Berneray, we were starting to head for home. Or my home where I’d promised breakfast for any of us who completed the circuit. Crossing the cockle bay, at low tide, revealed many otter prints as they slept, hung out and ate their catch here in significant numbers at the time.

Despite some fatigue, the pace picked up. Mary would be waiting for Shonnie (he wasn’t allowed to linger for breakfast). We got back to the house before dawn, realising that we hadn’t passed or seen a single vehicle for the whole walk. I walked Shonnie back to his place, then doubled back to mine. Before tucking into what was left of breakfast (Chris having eaten most of the contents of our fridge), I took a pre-dawn snap of the view from my office:

Dawn

Deeply satisfying, the whole walk, the whole night, every part of it. And possibly the best thing I’ve organised, specifically because it was kept simple in the end. Let’s go for a walk; start after sunset, breakfast before sunrise. And that’s it.

People regularly ask me if I miss the place. Or how could I possibly move away from such a beautiful place to live in. And they’re right about how it looks; there are few places (and I’ve travelled a lot) that compare to the scenery of the Outer Hebrides, all the year round.

But there’s more – a heck of a lot more – to living in a place than just the scenery. And there’s more than a few grains of truth in Local Hero on this, and if you watch the whole film, on living in a rural place on the periphery of northern Europe (not just Scotland). Things to write and publish about, in much greater detail, another day.

Despite having “broadband” there that is unbelievably bad to sign up to, and unbelievably bad to actually try and use, I’m still in touch over the Interwebz with a fair few people on Berneray and the other islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. It’s interesting, the conflict some of them have, the yearn to get away for many and varied reasons, but the pull of the place they feel is home. Some stay. Some leave and eventually come back, need to come back to feel content again. Some leave and never come back. The way it’s always been on the periphery of Europe; the way it’ll probably always be.

But no, I don’t miss living on Berneray; there have been many adventures since (not all of them good, or desired), and I’ve a much better, possibly brutally simple and personal, concept of what ‘home’ is now than five very long years ago. Though, there is one thing I really do miss from those years; being on a boat with a sail in the open sea.

Shooting along

Yeah; my own boat (think I’d name her the Liberty Rose) on the open sea. Something to dream about, and sail, in future years.

Oh, and the solstice walk. It never got repeated. Well, that’s not strictly true. It was never publicly repeated, though I gather some Berneray residents have quietly, with few words and no announcements, done it on their own since {smiles}. Hoping more do it tonight, and in future years.

Do bears…?

Do bears…?

Mountains

Yes they do. Because I nearly trod in it. In an attempt to shed some of my “Amtrak pounds” (I swear I will take my own healthier foods on their trains from now on), decided today to climb a significant mountain. By far the most convenient is Big Mountain, which is a few miles north of Whitefish. I hired a taxi to take me to the touristy resort from where the “Danny Oh” trail winds up the mountain, ending at an altitude of 6,817 feet. Sounded good. The taxi driver, a friendly Montanan turned up, on time to the minute.

“Where you going?”
“Big Mountain. Going to hike the Danny On trail to the top.”
(Long pause) “You packing a gurn?”
[Eh?] “Oh, gun. No.”
“You doing this on your own?”
[Well, there’s only me in your taxi] “Yep.”
“There’s bears in them woods. People die in bear attacks. They get messed up real bad.”
“The people in the Chamber of Commerce never mentioned this when they gave me the info on the trail yesterday. How common are these bears?”
“I had one of those bears in my backyard on Tuesday.”

Hmmm; an interesting variation on the usual taxi driver comment of “I had that Robert De Niro in the back of my cab on Tuesday.” The taxi driver went on about graphic incidents involving bears and tourists. She dropped me off at the resort with a friendly “Well, I hope you don’t become bear poo.” I had a look around and saw this sign:

This is Bear Country

I popped into the only place, it being out of season, open. The three people busying around gave varying opinions on the bear situation. The upshot was:

  • Sing and make lots of noise, and they won’t be startled by your presence.
  • Try not to smell bad e.g. of food.
  • Carry bear repellant. Bears have very sensitive noses and it makes them back off.

One of them disappeared, reappearing with a cannister of bear repellant called Counter Assault. I practised flipping the safety off and pretending to stun Winnie The Pooh with a well-aimed blast.

Grizzly bear repellant

And with that I started up the mountain. Being weighed down by the cannister, in addition to a (healthy) packed lunch, three litres of water, my laptop (hey, a man’s gotta blog), camera and some other junk, it didn’t take long in the surprisingly intense October heat to perspire somewhat. This was partially negated by the views unfolding around every corner. After about an hour, a sudden stench of something rotting really badly assaulted the nasal passages. Next to the trail, a pile of poo. Correction: a massive pile of poo, the size of which Armitage Shanks would never have planned for.

I’ll save you the details, and the photo (which is too gross to put online), but whatever did the dump was obviously a meat eater with a fast-working digestive system. I walked on a bit quicker, and started making lots of noise. Between the poo mountain and the top of the mountain I saw eight deer, many squirrel-like creatures (which were very noisy) and I think a bobcat. Alas, no mountain lions, which according to a more reliable source than the “Bears swarming the mountainside” taxi driver, were in the area. The summit was spectacular. My camera can’t do justice to this, but from the top the views extended over to the Glacier National Park and the Canadian Rockies. Oh, Canada: one day I’ll visit you.

Track down

Thankfully, despite the warnings on the park limit, no effects whatsoever of altitude sickness. The trek down the mountain was, not surprisingly, much quicker, stopping only to take in the view across the valley floor several thousand feet below:

To the valley floor

At the resort I got chatting to the staff. I described the poo to one and showed her the picture. She identified it as “probably bear”. So the nearest I’ve got to a bear, apart from the tinned one I bought in Finland last year, is by nearly treading in it’s bowel movement. Rather than take the taxi back down, they advised that Montana was one of the few places in the US where it was totally safe to hitch. After handing back the bear repellant, that’s what I did. Within 30 seconds, the first vehicle pulled over.

He was heading past my hotel (bonus!) and was called Ray. Lived in El Paso, then Chicago where he’d been an electrician for 23 years. Had enough of city living, visited his daughter in Montana three years ago, never left; now worked on the mountain. Hoped to see McCain win next week, but would just be glad when it’s all over. With friendly goodbyes, he dropped me off at my hotel. Aching from several hours of trail, I made a bee line for the hot tub round the back of the hotel and had an utterly blissful 30 minutes of deep heat aqua treatment. Every hotel should have a hot tub and pool.

Checking email and seeing messages from delegates starting to pick their route to the midwest, thoughts are turning now to GLLS2008 – the ALA TechSource Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium. This being a work trip, am presenting there on election day in Obama’s home city, on the subject of Nintendo.  Methinks with the political events, it’ll be a long day…