Have you ever wondered what it would be like to carry a 40 or 50 pound backpack up and down steep hillsides for nine days in the pouring rain? Maybe no. Likely not. I know Karen has never, ever wondered about it. But I actually have wondered that exact thing. I’ve carried a heavy pack over long distance. A pack that weighs about 15kg or something. I thought that was heavy.
Watching Nepalese porters carry seemingly impossible loads to villages in the Himalayas, I often thought about how it might feel on the body. Hour after hour in the rain and wind, putting one foot in front of the other, every second is an act of defiance against the laws of physics. With sturdy boots to stabilize our load and a pack designed to distribute weight evenly across the hips and shoulders and back, we have a lot of help. Porters in Nepal wear flipflops and their load weight is distributed across their body using a hemp rope tied around their forehead. They use their neck muscles to anchor the load between their feet and legs and their upper body. They must do this to earn a living. We’re paying to do this on vacation.
We’re in Ulverston, a small picturesque town in the southwest corner of Cumbria on the edge of the Lake District. This is the official starting place for the Cumbria Way long-distance “walk.” We’re not starting here. Our first walk has ended here. We’re drying out and healing our feet. Every piece of clothing and equipment we have is either soaking wet or damp.
Our walk started in reverse nine days ago up north in Carlisle – Cumbria’s capital and the official end of the Cumbria Way.
After leaving our family in Vancouver and flying across the top of the world, over the Arctic and the North Atlantic, we landed at Heathrow’s Terminal 2. We had a lot of things to get done before we could flop down at our cushy hotel at Terminal 5. Neither of us sleep on planes, so we land tired and a bit weird. But it’s not as hard as it used to be.
We were carrying a lot of extra stuff. This trip is logistically tough. We’re not just on a camping and trekking adventure. We have volunteer service in Ukraine and then we are attending a 45-day silent retreat. We need different clothes and equipment for different things. So we shipped a small suitcase off to the meditation centre in Hereford for our own retreat in November, and we sent a package of clothes and other things to Kiev for our work there in September/October. That left us with our “walking” stuff: backpacks and two small carry bags that will get stuffed inside the backpack when the time comes to start walking. We checked out where we would catch our bus early the next morning and we picked up a SIM card for our iPhone.
We walked through Terminals 2, 3 and 5. A couple of times. Heathrow is big. When we dragged ourselves into the Sofitel a couple of hours later, we were exhausted. We ate, showered and tried to force ourselves to stay awake until 8 pm. We almost made it.
We woke up the next morning at 4:00 am. We packed, ate our breakfast and headed out the door to catch our 6:20 am bus at the Central Bus Station between Terminals 2 and 3. We were heading to Carlisle, an old town that has been there since the Romans called it Luguvalium. It was a large fort guarding part of Hadrian’s Wall. Sensibly enough, Carlisle’s modern name is derived from old Welsh for “fort” or ”fortress.” The city is a measly two thousand years old. I read that and then immediately think of Kamloops or Barrie.
Our bus took us to Victoria Station in the heart of London in order to make our connection to Carlisle. We arrived in perfect time, boarded the right bus and pulled out of the bus stand under an overcast sky and a warm drizzle. Everything had gone smoothly. We even felt better than we usually do after a long, sleepless international flight. We were both happy watching central London roll past our window. It had been a long time since either of us had seen the city. We chatted excitedly about our outdoor adventure that would start in two days. Then we settled into our routine for another journey of several hours. Each of us pulled out our headphones to drown away the screaming child sitting in the seat next to us. We put some gum in our mouth. Then Karen’s tooth fell out.
She reached suddenly for her left cheek. When she pulled it away, she held out her hand and there it was, sitting there like a fire alarm going off. You plan for a lot of things when you go away for a long time. Actually, to be honest Karen does all the planning. I’m the trouble-shooter. Neither of us had thought about dentistry.
We had two days set aside in Carlisle to organize ourselves before we had to shoulder packs and literally walk south out of town. Now we had to find a dentist. Karen was in pain. Her root was exposed and she would not be able to eat anything until we got it fixed. Thankfully we had an iPhone with a SIM and a data plan on this trip. I spent my time on the bus using Google and calling dentists in Carlisle. It wasn’t easy to find one that would fix her tooth on short notice. They referred us to the NHS emergency dental services. The NHS told us traumatic injury and bleeding from the mouth was an emergency. This wasn’t that. But a nurse at the NHS was kind and helpful and they looked for places we could try. I phoned more dentists and after agreeing to register her as a new patient and paying for an exam, one dentist agreed to fix Karen’s molar the next day for £135.
We arrived in Carlisle, walked to our B&B and checked in.
Karen was feeling terrible and she was worried about her tooth and what this meant for our walk. She wasn’t thrilled about having a dentist drill into her mouth and glue her cap back on without damaging it or turning the whole process into an even bigger ordeal.
The dental surgeon fixed her up the next day and then, a bit more gingerly than we otherwise would, we went about getting ready to walk out of town the next morning. We bought a gas canister for our stove, some water and some food. We even went and reconnoitred the route out of town, and immediately took a wrong turn. The path wasn’t marked. So we backtracked and found the right way and followed it for a bit until we were confident it led all the way to Dalston, our modest goal for Day One.
The day for us to start our “walk” finally arrived. We made coffee and ate some toast. Then we packed our bags. Despite having shipped the other two packages off, our bags were still disconcertingly heavy. We remembered trekking the Annapurna in Nepal and how impossibly heavy our packs were at the start. We also remembered how it took a week to get used to carrying the weight, how our hips and legs hurt so badly. After several days though, things got a little easier. Not easy, but manageably easier. This would be the same we decided.
Our host was away in Manchester for a funeral, so when we shut the door behind us, there would be no way to turn back from our decision to leave. Karen’s mouth was swollen and still painful. The dentist had used eight needles of freezing. Then he used a small handsaw, a drill and a burr before he was finished. So obviously she wasn’t going to shrug it off easily. I was worried about her and asked if she wanted to stay another day.
“What’s the point? I took another Advil. We might as well just get on the road,” she said. I feel it must be said here that this is not a story about a man who forced his wife to walk a hundred miles and live outside in a tent. Yes, I like wilderness camping. And yes, Karen doesn’t. But she wants to. The idea for spending time outdoors is Karen’s for reasons she has talked about here her previous post. She may seem fussy and soft on the outside, but actually she is tough and brave. Lots of people aren’t afraid of doing lots of things. That doesn’t make them brave. Bravery is feeling fear and walking into it anyway. That’s fearless. Karen has fearlessness. She also loves the English countryside and when the Pacific Crest Trail plan died on the rocks of reality, walking around the Lake District seemed a more modest goal.
So when Karen says she’s ready to do something, I know she’s not just saying it. Therefore, I placed the key on the bookshelf in the hall, and then we walked out and shut the door behind us. Thunk.
We hoisted our packs on our backs and we walked into town. Pausing for a selfie at the Market Cross, with a bag of crisps tied to Karen’s pack, we walked through the cathedral grounds and out of Carlisle.
The sun was shining. We were on our way.
At first, the walk was pretty uneventful. A modern public park footpath like many in the suburbs of the US or Canada. To be honest, we could have been walking through Coquitlam or Vaughn, but it changed after a while and we then could be nowhere but England.
A couple of hours later, we were walking alongside a railroad track when a woman came up behind us on a bicycle loaded with groceries. We moved over for her to pass, but instead she got off her bike and walked with us. She asked if we were walking the Cumbria Way. When we told her we were going to try, she laughed and said, “Oh! How lovely! I walked it myself with a friend in the early eighties. It’s so beautiful!”
Each day we pass dozens of people in our life, most say nothing. Almost none stop and strike up a conversation. Sometimes you wonder just how it is that you cross paths with certain people, seemingly at random. They appear out of nowhere and in that particular moment when you’re listening their story can be so relevant to you. Catherine is 73 and lives in Dalston. She and her husband had walked all the fells in the Lake District, and camped all over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. She’s been all over the world. A fascinating and gregariously friendly woman, she is to me the perfect English character. Slightly dishevelled, a little eccentric and seemingly fearless. She had her fair share of troubles in life. Her husband is ill, a son was having a serious mental health crisis, and after a fit and active life, she said her own body was now protesting the decay of age. Yet she is contagiously upbeat. She carries a relentless optimism around with her.
“Things will always go wrong in life,” she said. “But I’m happy knowing there’s nothing I didn’t do when I had the chance. My husband and I have had a very good time. You won’t regret what you’re doing.”
We got so carried away talking with her, that we had unknowingly walked a couple of kilometers past where we should have turned for our first campsite, just before Dalston. She gave us detailed directions on how to get back, then we reluctantly said goodbye. She hopped onto her bicycle and rode off. I was sorry I had forgotten to take her photo.
We had to walk a coupe of kilometers to Dalston Hall, our campsite for the night. Making our total for the day about eleven kilometers. We deliberately planned the first day to be short, to give us a chance to warm up. We were sore, though, I’m not going to lie. In addition to the normal aches and pains, Karen had also weathered the storm in her mouth. We could tell this wasn’t going to be easy and we had yet to walk uphill. Carlisle to Dalston is basically flat. It was a beautiful, clear day and we had a dry patch of grass to pitch on. We set up our tent, and took off our boots. We knew our packs were heavier than they should be. And our feet were loudly telling us the same.
Main office for the Dalston Hall Campsite
For several months, we’ve worked to break in our hiking boots. We have many kilometers on them, including training with backpacks. But nothing can really prepare you or the boots for the relentless daily pounding that comes with the actual walk. When I took off my socks, I noticed one of my toenails was black. It had been a very easy day compared to what lay ahead. I was a bit concerned. In the year since I’ve owned the boots, this hadn’t happened. I put polysporin and a Band-Aid on it, then we walked into Dalston. We had a nice fish and chip dinner and some tea (it was actually still just late afternoon), then headed back to our camp to organize and go to sleep.
Our goal for the second day was a place called Throstle Hall, a campsite a mile or so out of Caldbeck. It would be a longer day, about 18km. We had coffee and breakfast, packed up, and started off. Our feet felt better than the night before. Our bodies were sore, but we felt rested. We were ready.
We walked through Dalston, following the footpath and using the map we had with us. We hadn’t seen a Cumbria Way marker disk for a long while. We followed the path to a farmer’s field and saw a footpath sign pointing across the field. No disk, but the path clearly pointed this way, so we climbed up over the stile and started walking. We heard someone calling behind us and turned to see a man waving at us. I walked back to him. He told us were headed the wrong way. He said it happens to a lot of Cumbria Way walkers because the path wasn’t well marked here and it was confusing. This was a footpath, but it led off somewhere else. The one we wanted was a way up the road a bit and turned to the left, then to the right.
Okay. Back up and over the stile again. We still didn’t see a way marker for the Cumbria Way, but we found a footpath marker where he said it would be, and that one matched our map. So we trusted it and kept going. The path was pretty obvious; it just lacked the famous way marker disks that the Cumbria Way is known for.
We settled in and walked over idyllic English countryside, through fields of sheep, past bridges hundreds of years old, followed a river for several miles, walked past an old castle, and through fields of wheat.
Through the hours we spent walking the weather had shifted from a spectacular sunrise and a few clouds, to mostly clouds, to now darkly menacing skies and drizzle. The further we walked, the windier and wetter it got. We got lost a few more times for lack of way markers. Once we had to find a new route entirely because the bridge we were supposed to cross had been wiped out in a flood two years ago. The detour took us along a road for a few extra kilometers until we found a finger post pointing to the public footpath to Caldbeck.
The footpath actually led through a managed forest. We also noticed we had started climbing. Walking was getting harder. Then the sky opened up and let us have it. A strong wind was blowing the rain sideways into our faces as we made our way past piles of recently cut logs and a track that was a muddy bog. We had a long way to go yet and we were soaked and filthy.
Actually I was soaked. Karen wasn’t. All day she had been wearing her new favourite thing. A pair of rain pants. She loves these pants more than I think she loves me. If there’s one thing that has kept Karen going through all the rain and suffering it’s these pants. Karen’s magic pants. They’re somehow waterproof (not just water resistant), but they’re not too hot to wear when it’s muggy. They fit over your hiking pants, boots and all. Not a day goes by that Karen doesn’t mention her magic pants. I’m not kidding. If she had to choose whether to leave behind her pants or almost anything else, I believe she’d walk away with the pants safely tucked under her arm or, better still, she’d walk away with them on. She even wore them backwards one day and was still happy.
If the pants were winning that day, our packs were the evil that plagued us.
We stopped in the mud and ate a lunch of cheese and bread and a flapjack, the English equivalent to the oat bars you can get at Starbucks. Karen didn’t look as optimistic as she had before. When she gets quiet, there’s trouble brewing. I knew she was miserable. The tooth didn’t help things. But the pants did. She could sit on the ground. I was standing. Another win for the magic pants.
I studied the map. It looked like we had reached a part of steady elevation gain, made more difficult by the rain and mud. We were trudging uphill through a forest on a path that seemed never to reach a summit. We came to a gate that actually had a Cumbria Way marker posted on it. That was comforting. I located our position on the map. We had a ways to go yet. Through the gate there was a large open field that led still more uphill. What had been a heavy drizzle now suddenly became a legitimate downpour. The wind blasted across the open slopes of the small mountainside we were crossing.
We were so miserable. Pelted by rain and pain.
I could hear Karen talking behind me. Through the wind and my own hood I couldn’t understand what she said.
“My feet feel like a dog has been using them as chew bones,” Karen said.
We both burst out laughing.
It was perfect imagery to describe the sensations throbbing through our feet. Bloody, pulpy stumps, wet through with dog slobber and pus.
We passed a couple out walking their actual dog in shorts. They didn’t look miserable. They just smiled and said, “Yer a’right?” It wasn’t a question about our wellbeing. It’s a common Cumbrian greeting. I asked them if we were on the right way to Caldbeck. Indeed we were.
We struggled through the last few miles and arrived at Throstle Hall, outside of Caldbeck. We were spent. Karen was feeling doubtful. My legs and back were killing me. I was reluctant to remove my socks and check on my toes.
The feet looked much better than they felt. A small blister on my Achilles. Another one on my heel. The toe was blacker, but it wasn’t hurting as much. But I was sore. Karen’s feet hadn’t been chewed on by a dog. They too looked okay. A few hotspots and a couple of big blisters that needed to be drained and bandaged. Still we were doubting ourselves.
Like day one, this day was a lighter day, too. The real walking started on day three, when we had to ascend the steepest section of the Cumbria Way. We had done over 20km today on what would seem flat compared to High Pike. Tomorrow needed to be 24km if we went the Western or high route to Skiddaw House and didn’t get lost a million times. Or it would be 29kms if we took the lower route that would still end up over the fells to get to Skiddaw House. Some go all the way to Keswick. We knew that was out of the question for us.
We were worried. We had showers, got into clean clothes and headed back in the rain to Caldbeck for a hot meal at the local pub, the Oddfellows Arms. The food was amazing and it lifted our spirits. We looked at our map and decided the high route was a no go.
We had wanted to test our pack weights in Vancouver by going one night camping. But we couldn’t make it happen, so we had guessed a bit on what to bring. In the fog of jetlag, we had shipped our packages off at Heathrow and kept a few things with us that should have gone in the mail, either to Ukraine or Hereford. Now we were stuck with them. And they added just too much weight. We also hadn’t accounted for the lack of way markers that meant we went off the path and had to backtrack. This added a few miles to each day. Miles we couldn’t really afford given our weight. What to do?
After very large portions of sticky toffee pudding, we decided we would attempt the longer but lower route for Day 3. It was still raining when we walked back to our tent. At least we were clean and our stomachs were full. Karen was still wearing her pants.
We woke up to the sound of rain pounding on our tent. I made coffee on our stove trying to hide under the shelter of a nearby tree. But it was useless. I was soaking. Karen looked up at me as I handed her a cup of coffee. Her look said, “what now?”
I sat in the vestibule and sipped from my cup. We were both very damp and a little cold. We were procrastinating. I knew how miserable it would be to pack up in the pouring rain. The thought of rolling up a soaking wet tent and strapping it to my pack was depressing. We’d be wet all day and all night. That would be 48 hours soaking wet. Followed by another few hours to walk to Keswick before we could begin to shower and try to dry things out if the rain stopped. Not fun.
As it turns out, the next few hours would turn out differently than we had imagined… to be continued.