Lessons Learned on a Long Walk

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Back in June, my wife and I went on our much-anticipated honeymoon to England to hike Hadrian’s Wall. By hike I mean that it was our intent to walk the full length of the wall, including not only what physically remained, but where historians believed it began and ended. This would take us from Newcastle upon Tyne (colloquially just “Newcastle”) to Bowness on Solway, a total of 80-some miles.

I don’t remember exactly where I got the idea, just that at some point in my kidness my parents had taken me to a portion of the Wall and then sometime during my adulthood I found out that there was a path spanning the whole length of where the Wall had been. Of course that meant that when we were brainstorming honeymoon ideas, hiking the wall came up in the conversation. It quickly won the day since it served the triple purpose of: 1) showing my newly acquired wife England; 2) exploring Roman history (I majored in Classics, after all); & 3) primarily consisting of an activity we enjoyed doing together, namely hiking.

Like with our wedding, we got some strange looks when friends and family found out about our plans. Mostly family, since the friends we have are awesome. Also like our wedding, we worried and did a lot of planning and ended up with none of the disasters we foresaw. Actually, there were a lot of similarities with our wedding planning process, and in the end we learned a lot. Some new things. Some old things just hammered in again for emphasis.

Such as

1) Don’t listen to naysayers.
If they’ve done this kind of thing before and have some advice to share, listen to them. If all they do is warn you about not doing it, ignore them. If they tell you about their friend of a friend who got eaten by bears doing something similar, fuck ’em. People are much more willing to share the negative experiences they have than the positive ones, so you’ll get an unbalanced amount of doom & gloom vs enthusiasm oftentimes, especially from people you don’t know.

You just go do what you think will be fun for you, even if it’s unconventional. Heck, especially if it’s unconventional. We got a lot of weird looks when we told people where we were going and what we were doing, most memorably from the customs officer who didn’t seem to believe us when we told him we were coming all the way from America just to hike. He grilled us for quite a bit longer than I’ve ever been grilled at a customs booth, even asking about our luggage and how it would be transported along the trail. When we gestured at our backpacks and told him that was all we had, he still didn’t seem to believe us.

Which leads me to

2) Dude. You seriously don’t need to bring that extra shirt.
Or really, those extra socks.

We both limited ourselves to what was in our daypacks, stuffing them almost to the limit with what we thought we absolutely needed, then leaving behind a few more things just in case. I thought I wouldn’t have enough shirts, bringing only five including the one on me, nor enough socks. But by the end of the trip it was clear I could’ve gotten by with two shirts, maybe three if I didn’t want to stink in town, and a whole lot less socks. Some of this will depend, of course, on whether you have access to running water and some soap, and how stinky you’re willing to become. We were lucky to have fairly clear and calm weather, so despite wearing the same shirt for multiple days of hiking, I never felt groddy.

We could’ve packed lighter – we could’ve packed a lot lighter – and made more room for more necessary items, such as

3) FOOD. Never, ever underestimate the need for ample supplies of food.
Granted, we started off disadvantaged because I tried to do the entire trip gluten-free, but there were still some distressingly long portions where there was nary a pub in sight. We did the right thing and supplied ourselves at any grocery store we saw, but then we didn’t see any for four days. Which led to a mighty scrounging of snacks and a terrible lunch consisting of whatever one museum had, which ended up being fudge, gf brownies, and potato chips.

If I’d had a better understanding of the area and had known that grocery stores would be very few and far between, I would have shoved more food into our bags. But then, I should have anyway. At least I knew where each town would be, because we had amazing

4) MAPS
This is more of a moot point in today’s everyone-has-a-phone-wot-can-access-google age but we neither bothered getting our phones to work in England nor even had such smart phones. So before we left, I went on Map Pedometer and mapped the whole thing. Then saved the maps and printed them out, clearly labeling our beginning and end points for each day.

It was magical. Not only did I get a bird’s eye view of our route and a basic understanding of what to expect, but we could always pull out the maps whenever we felt remotely lost, as well as learn what the name of that lake over there was and when to start looking for the next town. Took a lot of stress off our shoulders, especially on the day that seemed to stretch on forever, each step a bright bite of pain, because I was an edit and did not wear

5) The Right Shoes
Hiking boots should have been appropriate, right? And I even had some that were broken in – so I thought. I’d worn them hiking for several hours at a time and once I got liners they even stopped giving me blisters. But several hours =/ several days. And while they were maybe good for short hikes, I was spending most of my time in lightweight running shoes, either my wonderful vibrams or my NB Minimus.

Of course, I thought, I can’t wear those hiking. They’re not hiking shoes! The very shoes I was wearing and walking in day in and day out couldn’t possibly be the proper shoes. So I brought my hiking boots and a butt-ton of hiking socks.

And by day three I was in agony with every step.

Thankfully, I was bright enough to bring my vibrams as backup. They worked just fine the rest of the walk (when it wasn’t hours on asphalt, at least) and I was again able to appreciate

6) The Magic of a Day’s Walk
Wow.

Just.

Wow.

It’s hard to encapsulate the feeling of being outside all day, putting one foot right after the other, time growing increasingly meaningless, the breeze brushing against your face (and sometimes tugging at it like a small child), the baa of ever-present sheep, forgetting about the large pack on your back, and then clambering up that large hill (finally), pausing, and looking back at the long, long way you’ve just been.

It’s a freeing feeling. You realize that with just the pack on your back and a good pair of shoes, you could go anywhere. You also realize that

7) Driving is overrated.
We ran into a few people on our trip – at historical sites and B&B’s/bunk barns – who saw our packs and instantly opened up for conversation. It was fun to connect with other people on the trail, some of whom were walking it like us, but quite a few of whom were driving it. We learned from several that it was common to drive the whole Wall in a single day, hitting on the highlights and then moving on.

Even though my feet were aching and my shoulders were sore, I was glad we hadn’t gone that route. To traverse what was a vast and timely undertaking originally in a matter of hours couldn’t allow for a deeper understanding and appreciation. Which was fine for some people, but walking it instead really gave a greater sense of its size and space. We saw so many things we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, met so many people we wouldn’t otherwise have met, experienced so much we otherwise wouldn’t have.

I now have a much greater appreciation for distances, especially the lonely mile. That said,

8) Driving is magical

Early on in our journey we had a particularly long day. It ended up being over seventeen miles of walking, and that was with a guilt-laden taxi ride. We took a detour to see a historical site, but we ended up getting lost on the way there and taking a little longer than we had planned. Although getting lost led us to discovering some beautiful scenery and other historical places, it meant adding a few uncounted miles to our day. And when everything is by foot, a few miles adds up.

Once in town, we realized we’d have to walk another five miles just to get back to the trail. It was already afternoon and we were tired at the mere thought. So we took a taxi. And those five miles – which would have taken us almost two hours – flashed by in five minutes. By the time we clambered out of the taxi back at the trail, I was dizzy with the speed of it. Driving may be overrated, but it’s so wonderfully easy.

It was the kind of trip that changes you, and I was left with a much greater appreciation for fresh air, the outdoors, my own two feet, and miles upon miles of rolling hills peppered with sheep.

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