Sitting in a Dubrovnik watering hole watching the world go by may be a million miles away from the Appalachian Trail (well seven and a half thousand miles to be exact), but the expert word-smithing of Bill Bryson can transport anyone from anywhere directly to the trail itself.
I’ve always been a slow reader, but at every opportunity last weekend (between the sightseeing tours, Game of Thrones scene recalls and wonderful food), I picked up A Walk in the Woods and found it difficult to put down.
I’ve not read Bryson before, but the neo-Anglo-American sure has a way to keep the reader hooked, arguably it’s the time he spent in the UK that turned him into the cynical, dry, sarcastic and humour-filled grumpy old man that he is today, all core traits that us Brits are famed for the world over.
It catalogues a two-thousand mile journey traversing the Appalachian Trail (AT) on the east coast of America, a hike that he himself attempts to take (and fails) with a rather out of shape and reformed alcoholic friend, equally as dry, and well, British.
The book not only navigates the reader through the physical highs and lows of the trail, but the metaphysical highs and lows of the human spirit and condition, and I think that is why it is so relatable and so unputdownable.
So after just three days spent in the jewel of Croatia, the book was done and I was looking forward to this weekend with even more rigour.
It’s not often one gets to spend time alone, truly alone, and this weekend reminded me that self-isolation and solitude is good for the soul.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, friends, colleagues and dog, but for the first time I can remember (and I don’t think I have ever done it before), I went on a “holiday for one”.
As my wife was throwing a boozy doo for all of her friends at our house, I devised up a plan to abscond for a couple of days to North Wales, on the basis that I would stand a significant chance of getting a weekend pass out, and it worked.
So Friday came, I gathered my things and headed off to pick up the van and take the short drive to Llandegla, a small camping ground situated in the heart of the Clywdian mountain range (although in truth they are more hills).
Through the wind and the rain, I got to my destination safely, happy that I experienced more difficult transit conditions whist pulling a small home behind.
The site was beautiful, Llandegla Forest on one side, Clywdian hills on the other, and all around me, trout fishing lakes.
I settled down quickly and went for a tour of the site which was in super condition, with optional shepherds huts and bell tents for hire, it really was a gem.
My intent for the weekend was to click back and whittle some, and begin work on my second Lovecraftian horror novella, merging local folklore with cosmic horror.
To get myself somewhat in the mood, I put on a horror movie, turned out all of the lights and abruptly fell asleep.
The working week was certainly one to forget, and my frustrations with the ineptitudes of senior management nearly ended up in a career limiting/ending conversation, so my parasympathetic nervous system decided to take over and put me in a coma for twelve hours rather than carry on the chaos (albeit in a creative way).
So I woke up to the sound of bird song from the tree I had parked under, as well as the spooling of fly fishing reels as the anglers outside attempted (and succeeded) in catching their supper.
I was not expecting the weather to be good at this time of year, but the big man upstairs must have looked down upon me with pity and sympathy after the week I had had and parted the gloom to reveal a cloudless day ahead.
It was my original intent to just go for a short walk in the woods and focus on my writing upon my return, but after reading Bryson’s book of the same name and not having to be anywhere or do anything, I scanned my Ordinance Survey map to see what was a little further afield, and saw an unequalateral triangle present itself.
From the camping grounds, there was a line which went from the far end of the forest to a place called Worlds End, and from there a wobbly line that went to the Ponderosa Cafe, a place we had been to a few weeks earlier by car, a place that sold the best steak pie and gravy on Planet Earth, and possibly the entire cosmos.
I had no idea how many miles it was, what the elevation was like or the type of terrain I would be traversing, but with all the time in the world and no commitments to anybody other than myself, I hydrated, took an Aeropress coffee, packed my bag and headed for the woods.
Llandegla Forest is beautiful, deep within its core are hiking trails, running trails and mountain bike trails (all at various skill levels), so with the sun shining early morning beams through the tall pines, I took to the Moorland Trail, as I believed it would take me out of the woods and over to Worlds End, my first destination.
Much in the same way as the AT, the forest was awash with blazes (markers as they are called here), signposting bikers, runners and bimblers to well designated paths through the woodland.
I was the only one to be bimbling, and found the isolation wonderful. Here I was, completely disconnected from the chaos, no news, no war, no corporations, no commitments, no accountabilities, just me, nature and nothing else.
Negative feelings purge so quickly when surrounded by such a rich tableau of flora and fauna, the stresses and strains of everyday life had evaporated within the first mile and I was peace, real peace for the first time in a long while.
Although I had skipped breakfast, nature provided some in the form of blackberries, and at this time of the year they just fell from the bush into my hand and equally as easy into my mouth, bursting with flavour and moisture.
It struck me half way round the forest that the sign at the visitor centre which declared “nukeproof” trails and my first destination of Worlds End could be an ominous portent given the current geopolitical climate and goading from the West, so I was half expecting to see a mushroom cloud appear on the horizon towards the direction of Liverpool or Manchester.
Thankfully that didn’t happen, but my door of perception to making such a connection was clearly open. So it was no surprise that I walked a little further to see a collection of magic mushrooms in the undergrowth; Psilocybe Cubensis (Golden Caps), Psilocybe Semilanceata (Liberty Caps) and the unmistakable and Disney-esque Amanita Muscaria (Fly Agaric).
I’ll neither confirm nor deny that said hallucinogens were harvested for future use, only through the power of observation could one be certain, and you were not there, Schroedinger’s Mushrooms if you will.
A little further on down this magical path, I saw the carving of a wide eyed owl, clearly dining from natures larder and talking a trip of its own!
A short while (after observing a rather curios cloud formation and not Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds), I came across a marker and the turn off for Offa’s Dyke which would take me over the moorland to Worlds End.
I have it in mind to hike the one hundred and seventy seven mile stretch of Offa’s Dyke one day, estimating that it should take around two weeks.
At one tenth of the length and height of the AT and with the possibility of not being mauled to death by big-bollocked bears, I think my chance of success is quite high.
Offa’s Dyke is a large linear earthwork that roughly follows the border between England and Wales. The structure is named after Offa, the Anglo-Saxon king of Mercia from AD 757 until 796, who is believed to have ordered its construction.
Although its precise original purpose is debated, it delineated the border between Anglian Mercia and the Welsh kingdom of Powys.
The path was very well kept, so with ease I made it over to Worlds End, which itself is a small vale, but overlooked by some impressive cliffs.
One could imagine the cliffs being a worlds end for those who take their own life, a precarious precipice, and perhaps that is how it obtained its monicker.
After taking a wrong turn, I came across two things that made me serendipitously smile. The first was my favourite cow (yes I do have one). A field of Scottish Highland cows were clearly more lost than I was, and a tree with the largest Chicken of the Woods mushroom I had ever seen. Sadly there was too much fungus on the fungus for me to harvest it, so there it stayed in all of its diminishing glory.
After realising the error of my ways, I turned back down the trail and found the correct path to take to make it over to the Ponderosa Cafe, situated above the wonderful Horseshoe Pass, a bikers dream road and one my eldest son rides through often on his motorcycle.
After a short while on the right path, I could see the cafe in the far distance. No matter how many times I put one foot in front of the other, the cafe seemed to stay exactly the same distance away, very reminiscent of the scene from Month Python’s Holy Grail were Sir Lancelot runs across the field ten times in the same position. Classic.
I was getting tired and low on energy, and I had no idea how many miles I had gone, but this last slog running on empty was tough. As with all things, a dogged determination and British “Keep Calm And Cary On” mantra always wins in the end, so the final and rather pathetic baby steps took me inside the cafe.
Not to worry I thought, steak pie dinner was on the way. Imagine the Lovecraftian look of horror on my face when the hot food line had closed just three minutes before I got to the cafe!
I pleaded with the nice lady to pull together whatever scraps she had left from the kitchen by taking pity on the broken bimbler that stood before her. The cuisine goddess kindly placed three sausage rolls on the last clean plate and doused it with the worlds best gravy. Lady of the Plate, whoever you are, I am forever In your debt!
Piling other consumables onto the tray, I ate the plate (porcelain included) at biker speed, and washed them down with several cans of pop.
I know now how Bryson and Katz felt upon reaching diners and eateries after a hard slog on the trail.
Curious to see how many miles I had done and calories I had burned, I was surprised to see thirteen miles and seventeen hundred calories. No wonder I was fucked on an empty stomach.
With only water and a handful of berries inside me, I had forgotten the fundamentals of preserving energy and life.
After thirty minutes of rest and a belly full of meat products and sugary drinks, I took up my heavy pack (and heavy it was, with drone, gimbal, gas canister, Aeropress and stove inside, none of which were used!) and headed back to base camp which stood five miles away, thankfully this time down and not up.
By the time I got back to base, I had managed eighteen miles, eighteen hundred feet of elevation and one hundred and eighty eight flights of stairs climbed.
Finishing off my tuck from the cafe, I watched the full moon rise majestically over the forest, and woke exactly twelve hours later as the white-faced ball in the sky was replaced by the burning ball of life giving sun in the exact same location.
So thanks to Messes Bryson and Katz for inspiring me to get out on my feet this weekend, I just need to suggest to my wife that she has a lot more boozy doo’s with her friends in the near and continued future…