All good things must come to an end. And that would include the summary of my walk across England for charity.
The last two days of the walk were something of a letdown, at least with the scenery. The landscape had flattened out and the ancient wall was far behind us.
Day 5 began in the usual farm pastures, dodging cow patties and friendly ponies. The map showed 16 miles of Hadrian’s Wall Path ahead of us, but the trail looked reasonably flat most of the way into the city of Carlisle – our stop for the night.
16 miles earlier in the week had me worried, but not now. After five days, and nearly 60 miles, of walking, I was starting to feel mentally confident and physically strong.
Also, my legs were swelling up, so I couldn’t feel them.
Everyone was looking strong that morning, and I quickly fell in with the usual crowd of slow walkers. Only, we were now the not-so-slow walkers. Our pace felt a little faster.
My group was Arjan, Sherry, Steve, Ellie, and Jo, with occasional glimpses of Richard and Catherine. It was nice to have them to walk with, as the scenery wasn’t holding my attention. At the end of the day, I was shocked to see that I had snapped only 32 photos along the trail. Most other days I had taken over a hundred.
I’d love to write about the first ten miles of Day 5, but nothing about it really stood out. Cows, horses, and farms are pretty much all that come to mind.
I visited with Arjan much of the way, and learned more about Warhammer than I ever knew before.
Soon the path was taking us through the suburbs of Carlisle, and we found ourselves literally walking through people’s yards. I imagine some of those folks weren’t too happy to learn there would be a national trail running through their backyard when the path was made official in 2003.
A few land owners have taken advantage of the situation by setting up snack shacks that work under the honor system. One of them was quite luxurious, with a toilet, picnic table, refrigerated drinks, and even a few souvenirs.
With about five miles to go, Arjan and I were walking through the village of Crosby-on-Eden when we spotted an oddly familiar group of people sitting on the outdoor patio of a pub, eating and drinking and generally having a good time.
My first thought was, “Who are these people?” But then I remembered them.
Oh, there were some medium-walkers there too. But they were all faster than me. Had been every day of the trip.
It looked like a nice place for a break, and that’s exactly what Arjan thought as he slipped off his backpack and went straight for a chair and an ale.
My thoughts were decidedly different. I could say that I had found a good pace for myself and didn’t want to break it. I could also say that my leg and back muscles were feeling great and I didn’t want to risk them tightening up with a prolonged rest stop.
Oh, those things were true, alright.
But what I was really thinking was, “This is my Tortoise and Hare moment.”
All week long, I’d been at the back of the pack, finishing hours behind most of the fast-walkers. Mentally, it starts to get to you. I don’t mind walking slow, but I don’t like finishing last.
So, I waved goodbye to Arjan, snapped a photo to preserve the moment, spun on my heels, and set my boots on cruise control.
The path veered toward the River Eden, where it was grassy and level, with not even a hint of animal droppings. I put my earbuds in place, cranked up the special walking mix on my iPod, and settled into a groove. With the river at my side, and music boosting my energy, I was in my element. It was almost like I was back home on the Centennial Trail of North Idaho, walking along the Spokane River, heading into downtown Coeur d’Alene.
I was moving. Faster, in fact, than I had moved all week. It felt good to be out in front of the pack.
Walking those five miles into Carlisle, I never felt better than at any other time during the 89 miles from coast to coast. Ironic that I was alone that whole stretch, considering how much I hated walking by myself. Besides, I had John, Paul, George, and Ringo to keep me company.
The path turned to pavement, even better, and I moved at a blistering pace. With not a soul in sight behind me, I crossed the M6, then the river, and found myself strolling the city streets without consulting a map. I just kind of knew where to go, as I followed Victoria Place to Tower Street to Castle Way, and then spotted fellow walker Ed outside our accommodations for the night, the Old Brewery Residences.
I still had energy to burn, so I dumped my backpack off in my room and joined Les and Bill, the 60-something walking machines, for a tour of the 900-year-old Carlisle Cathedral. Les had grown up in Carlisle, and it was fascinating to hear a bit of his personal experience mixed in with the history.
That tour ranks as one of my favorite moments of the week. It was something I would’ve missed out on if I hadn’t high-tailed it those last five miles.
Later that night, we found our way to a nearby pub for another one of my favorite moments.
A very special person was waiting there for us. Neil Salmon, the man who turned tragedy into charity by setting up The Joseph Salmon Trust to honor his son’s memory, had traveled to Carlisle to meet with each walker. He wanted to say thank you for the time we put in, for the money we had raised, and for the attention we had brought to his charity’s work.
But it was the walkers who wanted to say thanks to him for letting us remember his son in that way. It was truly a privilege to share a few words with Neil. He also had a few words to share, via video, with readers of my blog. I’ll post that in a few days.
Then came yet another one of my favorite moments (three in one night!) when a large group of us ventured across the street to The Golden Pheasant restaurant, where I enjoyed some of the best Chinese food of my life. Part of it might have been the company, or the fact that I was starving, or the highly entertaining hostess who dished out shoulder massages along with scoops of fried rice “for more power.” But I think most of it was just good cooking. That delicious dinner has now ruined me for Chinese food in my small Idaho town.
That night I slept soundly for a solid eight hours. There’s nothing like having your own room again, where you don’t have to worry about waking anyone up with your snores.
I woke up the next morning feeling like we were done. The visit from Neil Salmon, combined with being back in an urban environment, and the almost celebratory Chinese dinner, sort of felt like we’d reached the end of the journey.
Only, there were still 15 miles to go!
So, I joined with the kissing couple, Clair and Neil, for that last day on the Hadrian’s Wall Path.
We walked together in a steady drizzle through tangled trees and across muddy marshlands to the village of Bowness-on-Solway, where the end of the path is marked by a gazebo above the beach.
I enjoyed the company, but little else, about that long miserable march in the rain. I was wet and tired, and most definitely ready to be done with the walk.
However, upon reaching the gazebo, an amazing feeling stirred up inside me. Every muscle in my body stopped aching, and my backpack suddenly felt like it was filled with feathers.
I had accomplished my goal. I had just walked across England. More than that, I kept a promise that I had made to a great many people.
To my wife and kids, who gave me permission to go off on a crazy adventure.
To Neil and Rachel Salmon, who allowed me to raise money in memory of their son.
To Dan Hughes, who organized the walk and is still trying to figure out how it all went off without a hitch.
And to every single friend, relative, blog reader, and even a few strangers, who supported my effort with a donation to the Trust (that’s 75 of you, to the tune of over $1800).
It’s cool to keep your promises. I tell my kids this all the time. There were a few times during the walk when the thought of quitting crossed my mind. But I remembered all the people I’d made promises to, and it was actually quite easy to carry on.
When I came home, I made another promise. Just to my family.
I told them I would go back to Hadrian’s Wall. And I would take them with me.
It’ll take a few years to save up the money, but I’d like my wife and kids to see the sights of England, to walk those spectacular stretches of the wall, and to enjoy the history and romance of the British countryside.
Trust me, though, this time we’ll be taking the bus.
Thanks for reading this long account of my walk across England. The previous posts can be found here:
And here are a few more photos from Days 5 and 6: