Last time I said a bit about long-distance trail walking, having just come back from doing the West and East Highland Ways. I set myself the aim of relating posts like that to poetry.
Well now, one thing at a time…
Here’s a brief Q and A on long-distance trail walking, bearing in mind that more poets than hill-walkers will be reading this.
Q: What’s long distance?
A: I wouldn’t call anything under 70 miles a long-distance trail. Even in Britain trails extend up to 630 miles (The South-west Coastal). In bigger countries it can be much more, like the 2,200 miles of the U.S.’s Appalachian Trail.
Q: What can you do in a day?
A: It varies person to person – and according to the nature of the country. My view is that pushing yourself to extremes like 40 miles in a day must mean you can hardly enjoy the sensations on the way. The most I’ve done on a trail in mildly hilly country is 27 and 30 in flattish country, but 20 in hill country is a good session. Take into account, as far as you can, not only the ascents, but the nature of the paths. You can make much quicker progress on a broad cart-track up a hill than on a narrow path going up and down between rocks, strewn with tree roots and rocks at all angles.
Q: They’re all in hill country, right?
A: A lot are, both because the scenery is impressive and because you encounter fewer areas you can’t walk through, fewer roads and fewer towns (navigating a trail through a built-up area of any size is really complicated). But most of the hill trails have lowland stretches and Britain has several coastal trails.
Q: Is it right you can have sherpas carrying your bags?
A: It’s not illegal, but in Britain sherpas of the sort that assisted Himalayan mountaineers it would cost the earth. The “sherpa” services contract to carry your pack from one day’s walking destination to the next by van, relying on the fact that many people will be walking the same stages and staying in the same places. This leads to fun walking, but to me it’s cheating. If you say you’ve walked the Pennine Way, you should mean you’ve done it carrying everything you needed on your back. As a Dutch businessman said to me at the end of the Coast to Coast, “It’s good to know that everything you really need in life you can carry on your back.” Deciding how you can cut the weight you carry, deciding what’s too important to leave out, is part of the challenge. And keeping the weight low is VITAL!
Q: Where do you stay overnight?
A: Some people camp (mainly “wild camping”, a term that’s quite new in Britain, though the reality isn’t). That gives you lots of flexibility and a nearness to nature, but it means you have to carry more food plus the tent. Crucially, it also means that if you finish the day with wet boots, they’ll be wet next morning (and this leads to foot problems). I prefer to stay in bed and breakfast, guest houses, inns or reasonably-priced hotels. Inns are my first choice and on many routes they’re quite numerous.
Q: What do you take with you?
A: NOTHING you don’t need – so I recommend no reading material other than maps and a guide book. I wouldn’t take a kindle either unless you can enter the guide book and maps on it, the display is really clear, which it wouldn’t be in black and white, and it doesn’t mind getting wet. On any walk of more than five days, count on washing some clothes and re-using them, but properly-washed socks are important. Even pared to the minimum, the list is too long here, but take insect repellent, sun screen and disinfectant (in the smallest, lightest versions possible) and two hats. Hats are useful against sun and rain, but they’re easily lost and it could be four or five days before you come to a place where you can buy a replacement.
Q: I’m pretty fit and can walk 25 miles in a day. Am I ready to take on a trail like the West Highland Way?
A: Probably not. You need to know what you can do over several days. If you count on repeating day after day for a week with a full pack what you know you can do for a day with a half-full pack, you’ll come unstuck. I always fit in a bit of practice before taking on a serious long-distance trail, ideally one or two weeks before. That might mean four days’ tough walking in similar country with a similar weight and the same boots.
Q: Are you a masochist?
A: Not quite. On every trail I’ve done (except the West Highland this time – the low point came when I took on the East Highland straight on from that) I’ve paused for sweaty breath on a gruelling climb or retraced my footsteps having gone wrong on a particularly long stretch, or pulled myself upright from a glutinous fall in a bog, or forced myself forward into driving rain, and said to myself, “You don’t have to do this – so why ARE you doing it?”. But the answer always came in a day or two at most. The scenery is fantastic, the sense of moving from one kind of country to another by the power of your own legs is marvellous, reaching the end of the day’s stage with a soft bed to snooze on, a bar to have a beer in and the prospect of a good meal is wonderful, the sense of achievement on reaching the end is unrivalled – and there’s something more than that, particularly on the longer trails. You’ve become a nomad. Your home is not in Birmingham or Bremen, but in your pack and in your head. You move on each day. It begins to seem like a way of life.
The quiet, the beauty and the lack of much else to do at the end of the day can help produce poetry too!
Next time I’ll look at a couple of my poems and see how long-distance walking might have influenced them. Then maybe I’ll find a relevant poem or two by other people (Wordsworth?). Any suggestions for that?