Two roads diverged in a wood and I –
I split the difference; don’t ask me why.
The truth of it is, I don’t remember why I strayed from the path.
No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was the second day of a five-day walking trip I had mapped out across the Lake District in northern England, hoping to channel the spirit of William Wordsworth and find inspiration in the exquisite British landscape.
But after the deflating experience of my first day’s outing, I should have been far more circumspect before turning down the road of impetuosity.
My little adventure began as I sallied forth from the youth hostel in Kendal for a twelve-mile hike to Windermere. I had plenty of backpacking experience, having twice hiked the Grand Canyon and once crested the Sierra Nevada. So I felt no cause for concern as I set off on this leisurely ramble along well-trodden trails.
The first lesson I might have remembered from my backpacking days was that any hike requires preparation. The middle-aged couples and little children out for a pastoral stroll were enjoying their pleasant outings, to be sure. Then again, they weren’t carrying 40 pounds on their backs.
Once upon a time, I easily carried a third of my body weight long distances over rough terrain. But now, as I struggled under my load and sweated under the sun, the memory of past fitness made me curse myself for thinking I could summon up bygone physical prowess without serious reconditioning.
That was only the first reason why I had no excuse to be cocky. Had I taxed my memory further, I would have recalled that the Sierra Nevada excursion had not come off anything as planned either.
It wasn’t my fault. Dr. Lusk, my friend Wally’s father, was the architect of that grand experiment. Needless to say, cross-country back-packing contains some element of uncertainty. The trail markers are ill-defined; even with a keen eye they can be easily missed. And miss one we did. Before we knew it, we were scrambling up an endless slope of loose shale, sliding back two feet for every three we clawed our way up.
Nursing scrapes and bruises, we conquered that evil incline, only to discover that we had scaled the wrong mountain. Then we had to find our way back down to where we had started.
To be fair, this was not that. The lush hillsides, cobalt lakes, sapphire skies, and variegated clouds provided such a pleasant ambience that even getting lost would be a welcome diversion. Six and a half miles would be a dance surrounded by such pastoral beauty. Amidst such short distances, how wrong could things go?
The question itself should have sent off warning bells.
So if my first day out had failed to live up to expectations, what of it? After all, I arrived at the pristine shore of Lake Windermere in the end. And now, having gotten my legs back under me, Day Two would certainly prove more rewarding.
I vaguely recall the discontent I felt the next morning as I stared down the gentle trail as far as I could. The hike was barely long enough to fill the morning. It seemed a shame not to take more advantage of the exceptional countryside and panoramic vistas.
I suppose that was my problem. Too short a hike, too smooth a path, too unseasoned the company of strangers who would be sharing my road. Where was the challenge in that?
And so, when I caught sight of a narrow foot trail turning off into the wood, I followed it with little hesitation.
It wasn’t long before the path turned steeply up into the hills. That didn’t bother me. However, after I had hiked just far enough that turning back would seem an embarrassing waste of time, the foot trail vanished within the thicket. It seemed reasonable that I would pick it up somewhere further along or, at worst, find another in its place. And so I persisted, climbing higher and higher through the dense foliage. Brush snagged my pack, and my glasses fogged up as I sweated under the unreasonably fierce north Atlantic sun.
Stopping for breath, I turned around to see how far I’d come and beheld the magnificent view of Lake Windermere far below. Two-thirds of the way up the mountainside with no path to follow, I was hardly in a frame of mind to enjoy it.
I can’t say how many hours later I stumbled into the Ambleside youth hostel, determined to take no more shortcuts. My resolve lasted for almost an entire day.
The next morning I left Ambleside and kept to the path on my way to Grasmere. The blue sky had turned gunmetal gray, and classic English drizzle filled the air. I covered the four miles to Grasmere before 11:00 and kept right on walking, assuming that I would have a full day’s hike before arriving at the Borrowdale youth hostel.
I never did find the Borrowdale youth hostel. I still can’t explain how I missed it. Just as I can’t explain what happened next.
I followed the trail straight on, assuming that I was dead on course… although perhaps a different metaphor would have served me better. Presently, I was standing before a four-lane highway. It wasn’t on my map then, and I can’t find it on a map today. Maybe the trail split unnoticed and I took the wrong fork. Maybe I crossed over into an alternate universe.
With no point of reference and no option other than turning around to retrace my steps, I waited for a break in the traffic and pushed on straight ahead.
That decision gave me plenty of opportunity to reflect on Robert A. Heinlein’s observation that the longest distance between two points is a shortcut.
A large hillock rose up before me. But it was nothing compared to the incline I had conquered climbing away from Lake Windermere. Nor was it overgrown with shrubs and brambles.
It did, however, conceal what lay ahead. And what lay beyond that. And what lay beyond that.
I traversed the countryside without incident until I came to a dirt road. It ran perpendicular to my course, but the barbed-wire fence running alongside it obliged me to follow it anyway. Eventually I found an opening to the other side and tried to recover my bearings, hoping that I might pick up a path over the next hilltop or around the next bend.
Here’s to hoping.
To make matters worse, I had set out that morning without either food or water. This was not quite as irresponsible as it sounds, considering I had planned on a short jaunt of less than four miles – barely an hour’s hike. Much later, it occurred to me that I might have remembered the motto of the U.S. Coast Guard: semper paratus – always ready. I had applied to the Coast Guard academy out of high school; but I went to the University of California to study English instead.
At least the clouds overhead blocked out the sun, so I didn’t get too dehydrated. But I could feel my system straining against the depletion of liquid and calories as I trudged along. If that weren’t enough, I felt the earth under my feet turning to bog. With each step I sank into the marshy ground, once or twice leaving my shoe behind in the peat and moss.
Time stretched out immeasurably. After a while, I no longer had to carry on in total isolation; sheep began to appear, scattered across the countryside. They stared at me without fear or even curiosity, but rather with contempt, as if I had no right to molest their grazing. Indeed, they looked neither cute nor docile as I skirted around them. Flirting with delirium, I occasionally attempted to engage them in conversation.
They declined to answer.
By the map, I estimate that I trudged about 15 miles that day before I stumbled into the Derwentwater youth hostel.
But that blessed moment had yet to arrive. At long last, I rounded a hill and caught sight of Lake Derwentwater in the distance, far off but most definitely more than a mirage. Steeled by the advent of my destination, I carried on with renewed vigor. I rejoiced when I felt my way turn downward toward the water’s edge.
But I would have to run a most unexpected gauntlet, an obstacle course unimagined and even now unimaginable. I delighted to discover a dirt road to guide my paces; but my delight vaporized into dismay as I found myself switching back and forth through an unholy trailer park, a blight upon the natural beauty of Cumbria, a scar upon the eternal landscape.
I came out the end – or, in this case, the entrance – crossed the street, and passed over the threshold of diminutive tea shop, where I sat down to order a cup of tea and a plate of strawberry tarts as if I were just another American tourist who had pulled his rental car off onto the side of the road.
It wasn’t far from there to the youth hostel, where a hot shower and a change of clothes restored me to some semblance of composure. Out in the common room, I found a couple of acquaintances from the Ambleside youth hostel. They asked me about my day.
Dawn broke the next morning clear and bright, a postcard-perfect English summer’s day. I left my pack in the youth hostel and set out for an easy constitutional around Lake Derwentwater, with no destination in mind except returning full circle to my point of origin.
Wispy clouds, kaleidoscopic reflections on the water, warm air in the sun, and comfortable breezes in shade combined to create a storybook promenade, minus ogres, dragons, and wicked witches from any point on the compass.
Freed from the weight of my pack and sure of my path, I finally found the Wordsworthian tranquility I had come in search of. For some strange reason, no one else seemed to have had my idea, and I wallowed in peaceful introspection as I slowly negotiated the ten-mile circuit in Arcadian beauty and splendid isolation.
That one day made my whole trip to the Lake District worthwhile. I wonder if it would have been as blissful if the days leading up to it hadn’t gone so awry.
Published in this month’s issue of The Wagon Magazine