A few years back, I went out for a walk. The walk lasted three and a half months and covered something like 1,400 miles. This was in England.
Now, two knee operations and some twenty pounds of belly fat later, I’ve started training for another long walk.
Naturally, I am sensible about training for such an enterprise: I threw various heavy bits of camping equipment into my backpack, along with a twenty-pound box of kitty litter. I also added a five-pound bottle of Ibuprofen, which I like to call “I-be-hurtin.” I think of the little brown pills as old man M&Ms. Munch a bunch and keep going.
Happily, backpack design has improved enormously since my Boy Scout days. Actually, back then I think we used mule teams. The key improvement is internal frame packs with well-padded hip harnesses that take the weight off your shoulders. This is a brilliant innovation, except for one thing: the hip harness buckle in front is not actually visible to me. I’m guessing backpack designers are young and flat-bellied.
Or very cruel.
So my short term training objective is hideously, embarrassingly simple: to be able one day to see my buckle. Since I know how to train safely, I set out the first day with modest plans: ten miles.
You might think this somewhat ambitious for a mostly sedentary older novelist with a heavy pack and bum knees. And you’d be right. It nearly killed me. When I limped up, half dead, to the coffee stand I frequent the next morning my friend Bad Michael suggested I go back and finish the job. What a pal. But because I was at risk of locking up in a full-body spasm from the previous day’s exertions, I went right back out again, and that’s what I have been doing, weather permitting, ever since.
If you move at hobbling speed like I do, you have lots of time to make all sorts of discoveries. For example, one of the first things I discovered is that the Pacific Northwest island on which I live is diabolically hilly; it is riddled with brutal, breath-snatching gullies and hills. How’d I miss that in the car?
Another thing I discovered is that, unlike England, there are very few quaint 17th century stone-built country pubs here. In fact, none. My current theory is that this is because there is no stone from which to build them, since the island is made entirely of clay and rubble left behind by the last glacier that left town. As a consequence of this dearth of pubs one must carry one’s own hydration system. And it’s water, not ale. This is deeply disappointing: Why would one keep going, if not in anticipation of a welcoming pub just over the next hill?
Anyway, when you walk along our island’s quiet roads, you meet people. Strangers are kind: their inevitable greeting, so typical of the Northwest, is: “What are you training for?” (I forgive them the dangling participle.) I like the fact that they assume I have something significant and muscular in the offing, something I am “training for.”
After pounding the pavement awhile, I discovered that our island is laced with peaceful and bosky off-road equestrian trails. “Equestrian,” as you know, is a fancy, four-syllable word for large, steam-snorting quadrupeds upon which humans sit pretending that they, not the horse, are getting the exercise. Unfortunately, the best and most scenic of these trails are on private land where only horses, and presumably their riders, are permitted. Not walkers.
Which brings me back to England. There are tens of thousands of miles of jealously protected public footpaths, bridal paths, and green lanes (formerly livestock drover’s routes) in Britain upon which all are welcome. They crisscross private land (because all land in England is essentially private) but, because the paths pre-date roads, or cars, or unfriendly landowners, they are maintained for respectful public use.
Our little island’s parks and land trust people have spent years acquiring and protecting small parcels of land here and there for public use. This is terrific. But stringing them together is impossible. I should like to suggest the English model. Identify and guarantee access to certain specified and mapped rights of way across private land, such that a walker, or even a rider, might move across this island’s open spaces unchallenged, so long as they do not stray from the route they’ve been permitted to follow. It’s so civilized.
Meanwhile, if you should happen to see a ridiculously tall fellow trudging along the highway with an enormous royal blue backpack on his shoulders, please remember I’m in training.
Don’t offer me a lift. A beer, maybe, but not a lift…