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March Madness

A five-and-a-half-week solo hike can be quite rewarding, as long as you can keep your sanity

Author Hannah Stuart-Leach Illustration Sam Island

travelessay

No one told me to pack light. You might say that’s an obvious point when you’re embarking on a 400-mile hike through Great Britain by yourself, lugging everything on your back. And yet, shortly after setting out on just such an adventure recently, I found myself engaged in a fraught, rucksack-related conversation with my boyfriend.

“Moroccan hair oil?” Tom inquired while rummaging through my overspill. “A bag of rice?” I didn’t have much in the way of a retort, given that I’d made him drive to the hotel in which I’d spent the first night to take these and a bunch of other nonessentials home.

I realized my error on day one, on the Offa’s Dyke Path, a challenging trail roughly straddling the border between England and Wales. My knees were buckling under the weight of my gear—and so, as lovely as the Thai meditation balm smelled, it had to go. 

I do have something of an excuse. I’m not generally given to rugged activities. On the few occasions I’ve attempted anything even approaching a country walk, I’ve insisted on wearing my “hiking dress,” usually teamed with a jazzy pair of burgundy tights (in other words, my normal clothes) plus a handbag full of chocolate and potato chips. To my mind, there are more interesting things to spend your money on than a pair of pro-stretch zip-off pants.

So why did I decide to do this hike? That’s a good question, one that people keep asking me, and the best I can come up with is, “I felt like it.”

The idea was that I’d start from a pretty trail near my home in South Wales, walk north, and see what happened. I guess I enjoyed the idea of exploring unknown parts of my own country, having spent so much time traveling abroad. Maybe I’d learn something about myself on those long and lonely trails.

The first couple of weeks didn’t involve much self-discovery. It was more a case of dragging myself out of bed, consuming a heart-stopping fried breakfast, loading up on ibuprofen, and trying not to think about my feet. I must admit there were times when I considered streamlining the experience—that is, skipping everything but the breakfast and the bed.

But I endured. I wandered trails and roadsides, fields and dales—even though I wasn’t quite sure what a dale was. And, gradually, it got easier. I found I could hike—weather and terrain permitting—a good 15 miles by mid-afternoon, meaning I’d get to spend a few hours getting to know the place I’d decided to spend the night. As nothing was planned, I had no particular reason to visit these places. But I also had no expectations. Under these circumstances, a well-made brick wall can become the subject of almost tearful appreciation.

On day 17, I arrived in the northern English town of Southport. This is no Monte Carlo, but I felt intoxicated by the entertainment options on offer: the Lawnmower Museum and the country’s second longest pier. I ended up at the pier (the museum was closed), and with the tide out and mist obscuring the horizon, even this humble place had an eerie beauty to it.

During the five and a half weeks of my self-guided tour, in fact, there were many genuinely wonderful moments. I watched red squirrels scampering in woodlands. I saw wild ponies wandering snowcapped mountains. I walked along deserted beaches and through great cities. When I arrived at the Lake District, gazing at glittering Windermere at dusk, surrounded by those massive rolling hills, I felt a sense of wonder that bordered on the spiritual.

Not long afterward, I got to see the flipside of hiking without a plan.

As I tried to find the Scottish border, I ended up trudging along a major road, mile after mile, flinching at the passing trucks, choked by fumes, pummeled by hailstones. Nonstop. And then, just as I started to weep, I saw a small miracle, a sign: “Scotland Welcomes You.” If my feet hadn’t been like two lumps of lox, I’d have done a little Scottish jig, right there on the side of Route 666.

A day later, back on a nice, quiet trail, I spotted another sign, this one warning of cows ahead. What did it mean? Were they dangerous? I pushed on as quickly as I dared (cows enjoy a chase), keeping my gaze focused on the trail, avoiding potentially dangerous eye contact. I called Tom for reassurance.

“Are you calling me at work about cows?” he said.

In the final week I grew weary, a little disoriented, and my fears broadened from being trampled by a dairy herd to include brambles (jabbed by: infection), hedgehogs (stepping on: guilt), and tree branches (falling on head: death). And then, with my wind-burnt face framed by a mane of madwoman hair, I finally arrived at the outskirts of Glasgow, the end of my road.

I got some funny looks as I entered the city. One lady pulled her child closer, the way you might if a bear were passing by. But I didn’t care. I’d done it. I’d walked all the way to Scotland, 400 miles through rain, snow, and cow-infested fields. Tom arrived to take me home. I’d half expected streamers and camera flashes. What I got was: “Fancy a pint?”

In the weeks that followed, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could top this feat of daring and endurance. Maybe I could dog-paddle the perimeter of Madagascar. Or hop to China. But then, of course, routine started to take hold, and I soon found myself lying on the sofa, trying to hook the remote control with the heel of my shoe, for the simple reason that I was too lazy to get up and fetch it.

U.K.-based writer Hannah Stuart-Leach is currently planning a sandwich-making trip to the kitchen.

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