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Earning the views of the Cumbrian Lake District

A bearded gnome-man, friendly and curious, met Johann and I at the Fairfield train depot.  His mustache flared out, his eyes twinkled merrily, and he introduced himself as Ken.  Our host drove us through the farmland to Broughton-in-Furness, a Georgian town full of inns and cottages.  The village lay tucked in a small valley, surrounded by tree-spattered hillsides and lowing cows.  People lounged about the center square at cafés and walked briskly along the stone-walled roadsides.  At the inn, Broom Hill, Ken’s wife Avis greeted us with a smile, showing us the enormous bed and breakfast, practically a castle, with high ceilings and stone slab floors.  Classic novels and pastoral paintings lined the thick walls.  The bedroom looked spacious and well-kept, with lush red chairs, a tea service, elaborate mirrors, and a spiral metal staircase that led down to the lawn.  Johann and I had a spot of tea and shook off the long train ride, settling into paradise.

However, before dinner, I took a long slug of cold medicine.  On the plane my head began to ache and now was in full battle with germs.  This was not good, since I was about to embark on an eighty-mile walking tour of England’s Lake District.  I had enough problems with my poor cardio-vascular system and a bout of flu was the last thing needed.  Why did I put myself through this bodily torture every year?  Was hiking the Lake District any better than driving around it in a car?  I also feared failure, knowing my limits, and wondered if I would have the strength to make the journey.  Many adventures became losing battles with my constitution.  Would this be any different?

Dinner that night took place at the Black Cock Inn, where the waitresses were pretty and polite, the food was heavy and hearty, and the ale was pure and rich.  I considered not partaking due to my illness, but also considered the value of a unique experience.  The next day I seemed to have no occasion to regret it, as Johann and I bustled happily out of town.  Immediately, the idyllic sprawl of British farms greeted us.  We stepped through the bright green fields, avoiding cowpies, then through mossy, ancient woods, past stone farmhouses and barns, sheep of various types, springy grass, sloppy mud, and dozens of swinging gates.  Dozens of paths split off and the correct ones often looked vaguely traveled, making orienteering a time-consuming process.

Finally, the two of us ascended the first real fell on a trail turned squishy stream.  Sheep hid in an ocean of ferns, peeking out and baaing, but we saw few humans.  We struggled up lanes flanked with old walls, hopped fence-stiles, and topped the five hundred foot hill without stopping, despite my running nose and hacking cough.  The path led through an idyllic horse farm and up an abrupt hill to the goblet of Beacon Tarn, where we munched apples and crackers.  Then we rambled along the lake and over a rise, before taking a very stony path down the fell past a huge swamp, a “moss,” in the lowland.  Sheep stepped gingerly into the bog, searching for sustenance.

Then, down a ghyll, and past another few farms, over a large stream and down to Coniston Water, where we ate a second lunch of oranges and jerky.  I felt tired now, my left foot hot and sore.  Nevertheless, we marched along the lakeside, through a pillared birch wood where streams trickled off the hill down to the water.  We passed a huge campground, while the “Old Man of Coniston” loomed ahead on our left, a rocky crag of green and gray.  Finally, after a twelve mile trek, we reached the town, feet aching and nose running freely.  Would I have appreciated this day of pastoral scenes and tranquil beauty more without this snuffling cold?  Honestly, I didn’t even think about it.

The Beech Tree Guest House was not as large as Broom Hill, but had a view of the weathered Old Man.  We ate dinner at the Black Bull Inn, a sixteenth century coaching house, shoveling meat pies and Coniston Bluebird Bitter into greedy mouths.  Day one was successfully completed and hadn’t broken our backs.  On the other hand, my cold had grown stronger and feet ached.  Then, I couldn’t fall asleep and then woke up at five a.m. and could not return to slumber.  “Just perfect,” I muttered at a breakfast of soy products.

After this vegetarian fare, I poked through Coniston to buy a walking stick with cork handle and carbon tip.  Then, Johann led onto the famous Cumbria Way after crossing burbling Yewdale Beck.  Immediately the omnipresent sheep greeted us in a small field lorded over by a church-shaped barn.  Up a long hill we came upon another field filled with millions of spider webs.  Solitary trees dotted the green meadows, proud and wise.  Misty rain drifted all morning and continued to fall the entire day.  We ignored it, hoofing up hills, down lanes, over streams, and across cow fields.  Each corner brought a new and perfect scene, each step a new and perfect moment.

Finally, we reached Tarn Hows, a lovely lake ringed by woods and populated by ducks.  We continued past the lake, through forests, and down farm roads.  Finally, in a one-farm dale, we found an unexpected “force,” a rushing waterfall.  Then, we quick-step to Skelwith Bridge as the rain falls harder.  The boot pushed two toenails into the flesh, and I started to suspect a defect in the boot.  Or maybe they were just falling apart, like me.

At the Skelwith Bridge Hotel we ate an unplanned lunch of hearty sandwiches, since the veggie breakfast didn’t suit us properly.  I tried unsuccessfully to wrap my left foot.  Nevertheless, I stumbled down along the sapphire Elterwater and was rewarded with views of the high fells peeking through the mist.  At Elterwater town we climbed over the ridge, passing a beautiful Youth Hostel, clearly a former country house with a world-class garden of trees from across the world, including a huge cedar tree many centuries old.

Through another forest and across the side of a fell, we suddenly got our view of the fabled vale of Grasmere.  A sublime moment, tempered somewhat as I taught Johann the goofy “Philosopher’s Song” on the way down to the lake, trying to keep my mind off my toes.  “Heidegger, Heidegger, was a boozy beggar…”  Following the edge of the mere, we finally reached the bed and breakfast, Banerigg, nestled on the shore of the dreamlike lake with a view across to glittering Silver How.  It was a delightful picture that I knew would remain in my heart forever.  Would it be as charming or meaningful if we had driven here?

After a shower and tea, we pressed on to Dove Cottage and the William Wordsworth Museum, thankful to be moving without backpacks.  I mooned over manuscripts and the tour guide.  She was not particularly attractive, but her voice!  My gods, it is the most wonderful Borders accent, perfectly intoned.  “I could listen to her voice all day…all my life!” I told Johann.  He looked at me skeptically, as if I was trying to keep my mind off my decaying body.

Wandering around town, we found ancient Saint Oswald’s church and William Wordsworth’s quiet little grave between his wife and sister…how appropriate.  We bought gingerbread from the four-hundred-year-old shop, though for two-hundred-and-twenty of those years it was a schoolhouse where Wordsworth once taught.  Dinner occurred at The Lamb Inn where I tried a Yorkshire pudding for the first time, but was disappointed.  My beer quotient dropped to half a pint.

At bedtime I noticed a blister on my left big toe and hoped it would not become a serious impediment.  More worrisome were the toes wrapped earlier, now bruised and crushed.  What if I slowed Johann down, or worse, had to bail?  The trek had definitely become a battle with my fragile constitution, and I wasn’t sure if I would win.

This fear manifested when I woke up with a raging sore throat that hurt sharply every time I coughed, which was often due to a draining nose.  No doubt the combination of flu and mist all day yesterday caused it.  My head felt like a gunshot victim.  I worried that I had given myself pneumonia.  Why was I bothering?  I could take the car to the next B&B.  Why not promenade in luxury instead of fight?

I decided to soldier on.  After breakfast with our lovely hostess at Banerigg, we picked up supplies in Grasmere.  A bright-eyed and bushy-bearded pharmacist gave me powerful ibuprofen and a variety of cold and sore throat cures, which I gobbled all day.  One was a British medicine called Lemsip, which I mixed with water.  Johann accidentally took a sip, thinking it was Gatorade, and made a horrible face.  We headed up Easedale Road, which transformed into a trail, winding up into the rocky hills.  I was at my most miserable, feeling pain in every step.  The constant barrage of noise from the sheep, once quaint, became the voice of the devil.

A farmer and his dog herded sheep alongside a rill as the valley closed in.  We made our first orienteering mistake and took the wrong path, but caught ourselves.  “Further up and further in!” I coughed.  Near Easedale Head numerous waterfalls carved miniature ravines in the soft earth.  Finally, we reached what I thought was the pass, but a plateau spread out and another edge loomed five hundred feet above.  The ground became a sloppy bog.  We picked our way around the bad areas, adding time and distance to our walk.  But every second the views sustained me.  And as we crested Greenup Edge, an amazing vision of the Western Fells spread out like the landscape of heaven.  An old British lady chatted with us and then proceeded to easily clamber up the adjacent mountain.  We climbed a jumble of rocks for lunch and get a view of Skiddaw and Bassenwaite Lake.  My pain melted away, for a moment anyway.  This was a place of fantastic splendor, a place no car could take me to.

We descended Stonewaite Valley, a winding dale full of weird rock formations, crags, and hillocks.  Stone walls climbed the steep sides of the valley to nearly impossibly heights.  We took breaks frequently for pictures, food, and my steady supply of drugs.  Finally, we glimpsed Borrowdale, a green and brown patchwork of fields nestled in the mountains.  I sighed in relief.  Johann never seemed to falter, though whether from a stronger constitution, I’m not sure.  Perhaps my friend also battled demons of weakness.  How did he defeat his?

My feet began to burn as we passed Langstrath and Stonewaite, where the path became a labyrinth between high stone walls.  In Rosthwaite we grabbed groceries and then stumbled to the sixteenth century Castle Lodge.  A neighbor let us in and I collapsed in the hobbit-sized room.  After a shower, I gingerly hobbled down the road to the Riverside Bar, but it was packed solid.  “The only place to eat in town!” I cursed.  I continued to complain bitterly as Johann led me all the way back to Stonethwaite and the Langstrath Inn, which was strangely, mercifully empty.  I devoured trout pate, minted lamb, and a sticky toffee pudding with ice cream, one of the best meals of my entire life.  “Hunger is the best spice,” Johann assured me.  We limped back through the gloaming, as dogs herded sheep inside for the night.  Johann helped by shooing two sheep back down a lane near our B&B, preventing them from getting hit by a car on the main road.  In the hobbit-room I fell asleep immediately, terrified that my sore throat, blisters, blood blisters, burnt soles, raw hands, cramped ankles, and runny nose would be the death of me, or at least of our journey.

We ate breakfast in a room that looked like it belonged in a murder mystery, then tramped through Rosthwaite, across a few farms, and ascended a steep valley of many sheep, which moved out of our way like the Red Sea.  Further up and further in the trail wound through a huge slate quarry.  I breathed heavily, struggling up the steep slate path, while old British hillwalkers passed us without effort.  But suddenly I realized my sore throat was gone!  Something killed the horrifying red death that was chewing my throat lining.  Whether it was the Lemsip or strong English bitter I’ll never know.  The burning of my feet had turned into callus and my sore muscles had gone numb.  Okay, so the blisters were still bad, but somehow that didn’t seem important.

An elderly couple that tramped these mountains every week showed us a shortcut to avoid a bog.  Would I ever be that competent?  My constitution growls and snarls against that possibility.  On that day, though, we marched up High Spy to the cairn, where we ate apples and biscuits filled with currants.  The view from the top included the pastoral Newlands Valley, sapphire Derwent Water, the white-light town of Keswick, and mighty Skiddaw in the distance.  Halfway!  I knew I could finish now.

Something else came to me as I sat on that windy spot, drinking in the ethereal landscape.  I could use my poor constitution as an excuse to stay home or to eat candy all day or to “sight-see.”  To laze in the unfathomable easiness of modern existence.  I didn’t have to suffer my way over mountain passes and tread those stony paths.  But would the experience be the same?  Is beauty unearned as beautiful?  Of course not.  We must struggle to fulfill our dreams and turn them into reality, or they mean nothing.  And the greatest enemies are often our own craven natures.

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