Sunday, May 20, 2018

A tale of three wells

I made it to Glastonbury. I’d like to say that the overcast broke for just a moment, parallel rays of sunlight illuminating the Tor at an oblique angle, a welcome, something sublime. I can’t. If it had, I probably would have made a different choice. 

Glastonbury Tor
In the event, after entering the precincts of Glastonbury, I turned left off an ascending residential street, up a flight of steps into a pasture, a half dozen shaggy haired longhorns on the ground, heads raised, following my movement up Wearyall Hill. The Tor, evident in the distance a mile or so ahead, is itself positioned on a steep climb across the intervening low spaces that were once arms of the sea and marshlands, making the hills of Avalon appear as islands. I climbed past the decorated remains of the vandalized hawthorn tree, a Mediterranean type that flowers twice a year, not native to England. It is a cutting, legend tells, of the original thorn tree from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, miraculously rooted when touched to the ground, a plaque nearby to mark that spot. Cloth, ribbons, Tibetan prayer flags puff lightly in the mild breeze. Had the sun graced the moment, I likely would have continued to the Tor. That my Airbnb host was going to leave soon for work and I needed to secure my room before she did, was my excuse for not carrying on. 

The Vandalized and Decorated Holy Thorn

In truth, I wanted to ditch my backpack and, hoping for sunshine, planned to climb the Tor the next morning. I turned into town, down Magdalena Street toward the High Street. 

The pilgrim resource center is not like the centers at either Rome or Compostela, tens or hundreds of pilgrims chatting in line about their experiences, waiting to get their certificates of completion. In a room behind the man at the tourist information desk, a tall handsome greyed woman welcomes me, a middle aged man, large sized, sits in a chair thumbing through the literature. The greeting is pleasant, not emphatic, interested that I had walked most of the way from Land’s End, her mind searching back to try to recall the last time that had happened. A prosaic response from an unflappable woman who seems to have seen it all, representing as she does the seventy or so spiritualities in Glastonbury that the center is aware of.    

I introduce myself.  The woman does the same. To the man, seated, I offer my hand, “I’m Gary. “ He looks up, “I am Buddha,” he says. “Buddha, as in Siddhartha Buddha?” I reply. The woman says that he’s been here a few weeks, as if to somehow explain. 

I ask if, among all her literature, she has something that will tell me about pilgrimage to Glastonbury in the Middle Ages. She offers a work of historical fiction about a young tween who joins the abbey, so not much on that, really. Plenty on goddess worship and other belief systems. With a map in hand that marks sites of import to the Glastonbury experience — the Tor, the Chalice Well, the Abbey, the Goddess Temple, King Arthur’s tomb, the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, St. John the Baptist church, St. Margaret’s Chapel and almshouses - and some hand scratched suggestions for vegetarian food, I exit and plan my tomorrow.
Pagan or New Age or Both

My first impression is that Glastonbury wears its spirituality on store fronts and shop signs. It reminds me of a small Haight Street, sans head-shops, though there is a store that specializes in supplies for growing hemp. A few grifters and homeless, pastel chalk mandalas on the sidewalk, shops selling all things magical, essences, candles, crystals, Celtic jewelry, a Viking store, alternative bookshops, and a local newspaper listing events, seminars, and small group practica, every imaginable life balance regimen represented, all reinforced this first sense of a commercial spirituality at work in Glastonbury. But chance encounters do offer opportunities to peel back the layers of what Glastonbury is and hint to a genuine openness.

Which gets me to the wells. My walk was challenging. I was more often in my body than in my mind. But three well-borne experiences did send me to deeper levels of reflection. My conversation with Trevor about Alsia’s Well, discovered by pagan Phoenicians, dedicated to Demeter, and named for a sixteenth century wise woman, opened up a deep history of this walk that I suspected but did not previously appreciate. Here in Glastonbury and nearby, two other wells, the Chalice Well, steeped in early Christian legend, but evocative of pagan goddess worship, and my strong emotional response to Evensong at the Wells Cathedral, similarly were occasions when I was able to go beyond the pure bodily and sensate aspects of my walk.

St. Patrick's Chapel
Sunshine. The next morning, I awake to a chill but sunny day. After a light breakfast of instant Nescafé and two fig bars, I leave to climb the Tor from the far side, a more pleasant, greener, less touristed approach to the top. The path is familiar. I’ve described it before. Not dissimilar from climbing Bren Tor: field, pasture, dirt track, steps, the top, the Tor. I’d say the appeal was pedestrian not spiritual. Yes, an early church and a tower destroyed in an earthquake, rebuilt, rededicated to Michael, views. I don’t mean to dismiss it. It was historical, interesting, pleasant. I just didn’t feel a sense of arrival. 

I head down the more frequented path, back in the direction of Glastonbury center. At the base, I turn to find the White well, a small patio type forecourt with placed rocks, strewn flowers, water bubbling from a stone-built, gated building, dark interior, signs warning to refrain from photography out of respect for the spiritual nature of the spot, all combining to make it feel anything but.

Chalice Well
Then there is the Chalice Well. I turn the corner, and enter the gardens. It is difficult to describe this spot. I stop to chat with Timothy, manning the ticket office. I am not good at guessing ages but I'd say a bit younger than I, perhaps ten years, hippily clothed in neat, pristine eastern raiment, a Fu Man Chu (perhaps non-PC, but the approved style name of American Mustache Institute) hanging down to the jaw line. We chat for a bit about what brought him here and what brought him back, my walk and the Chalice Well. In retrospect, I sensed an opening to go further, but I did not realize it at the time. I often look back and only then recognize the open doors I've passed by. We could have spoken more, if I had asked him, perhaps even met up later to talk about Glastonbury as a community. Lost opportunity.

On entry I feel the feminine nature of this place immediately, verdant, almost a botanical garden, paths leading to pools and watercourses, large yew trees in which one might discern aged faces in the bark, trees for hugging. There are several small groups of predominantly but not exclusively women, each with a leader, a spiritual guide speaking softly. Quiet, gurgling fountains drown out the street noise, waters swirl hypnotic. Trevor, on the first day of my walk, had opined that "pagans see all good as coming from the Earth, Christians from the sky." The Chalice Gardens radiates its good from below. 

I approach the Well slowly, quietly, passing a woman, barefoot, skirts hiked up, wading in a pool of water that runs from the it. A healing ritual. It’s the kind of place where quiet is not requested. It just happens. The only people there are those who want to be, approaching the well with respect, some with reverence. Though it is the site at which it is said that Joseph of Arimathea hid the Holy Grail, it is not a Christian religious aura that permeates the space. It is decidedly pagan. It is more Goddess than God, more personal than prescribed.

I stand for long moments, drawn to the deep, dark of the well, framed by a crown of green clover and ivy. My breathing slows and I relax into a thoughtless calm. I climb a grassy path into a small meadow. To my right a priestess addresses a seated ring of souls, placing drops of essential oils in their cupped hands. In her peripheral vision she sees me going by and interrupts her progression to approach me, offering the essential oil to me as well. I thank her and cup my hands but cannot discern the flower or herb from which it is made. Not so strong as Rosemary, perhaps Thyme. "Cup your hands over your heart, " she instructs. I was going to continue on my way, but that gift of inclusion made me stop and take a bench, not part of the group but near to it. I cannot fully join, despite the invitation.I do not want to intrude. I don’t really hear what she says from the bench where I am seated, but I feel the quietude and relax in the spring sunshine. Another lost opportunity?

Wells Cathedral Church
By late afternoon, I return to my room, a simple, well curated vegetarian lunch feeding a quick nap that leads to a solid sleep that threatens my early evening plans, a musical meditation at the Goddess Temple, trying to get a sample of another ilk of Glastonbury’s new age spirit. But I am too late. Seeing a bus and acting on impulse, I hop on for the six mile ride to the city of Wells, named for three wells there, dedicated to St. Andrew. It was granted city status in the Middle Ages and is England’s smallest. Evensong at the Anglican Cathedral Church is what draws me here. Checking my phone for the time, I realize I will be late for the five o’clock service. I arrive at the cathedral fifteen minutes too late. I am allowed to enter the cathedral but the chapter-house where the service is being celebrated is closed off after Evensong begins. I can hear the distant choir but I am separated from the rite by the altar, the space behind it, and the rood screen. Then I see the verger, who catches my eye, whispers to ask if I would like to join the service, my disappointment reversing to a silently mouthed thank you as he leads me quietly to an empty seat on an otherwise full pew. Another opening up, this time accepted.

As I’ve mentioned before, these rites do not reflect my own spirituality, but I take comfort in the music, the voices, the acoustics in this soaring space. I feel the ages of reverence and contemplation there. Slowly, the music and my thoughts merge and I drop my head into my hands. I am still able to sense the aromatics from the oils placed in my cupped palms hours earlier. I inhale deeply, emotion wells up, and I relax into my thoughts. There are still things that need to be worked out.

All told, a nice walk, a fun time but it seems I still have some distance to travel. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

More moor

[Once again, I am having difficulties getting photos from my phone into my blog. The choice is to spend hours figuring it out, and maybe not resolving it at all, or post. I choose the latter. If I can resolve the problem, I will repost with pics.]

I last left you in Lostwithiel, over an ale, as I remember. Since then, I have made my way to Belstone, just on the north edge of Dartmoor. I dipped my toes in Dartmoor, literally, the day I walked from Haye Down near Milton Abbot to Lydford. It was only about two miles or so of the day’s path. Though I was no more than 100 yards into the moor, tended fields and pastures to my left, I could feel the emptiness near me. The water draining off the moor created slow running streams, most of which were easy enough to step stones across, but I did splash my boots through a few.

Earlier that morning, I left Haye Down where I spent a wonderful afternoon and evening at Oakwood with Jacqui and Tony, hosts that seemed more like old friends, and with a Jack Russel terrier, Will I Am, curled up on the couch next to me, sleeping soundly as I rubbed him behind his ear.  I forgot how calming that could be. 

As I approached Bren Tor, a volcanic mound, the squat 13th century Michael church at it’s summit, the morning mist began to clear, a weak sun struggling through the overcast. Bren Tor lies on the ley line that also runs through Glastonbury Tor, the destination of this year’s walk. Both have edifices dedicated to Michael, as so many high places in the Christian tradition are. There are remnants of Iron Age fortifications at the base of Bren Tor and a number of legends about the church’s origins. The most evocative recalls that the devil, so as to discourage the building of a church at its base, would take the stones laid during the day and throw them to the top of the Tor each night. So the practical people of the little hamlet decided if Satan was going to make it easy for them, they may as well erect the church at the more preferable site atop the Tor. 

I made my way up a farm track, then a pasture, and finally, stone steps. From the top of the steps and walking around the church on a narrow path, partly with guard rails around, the downslope hugging the walkway, the hilly but tame Devon countryside was laid out before me, and Cornwall beyond. On the other side, the moor. 

Perhaps those who live close by and walk Dartmoor frequently don’t see the high moor as a brooding and wild presence, though they do advise caution, especially for those that do not know it well. Aside from the distinct possibility of not seeing another person over tens of miles of walking, there are dangers from peat bogs and quakers, green moss growing over water that has accumulated in hollows in the granite undersurface, that can shift and sink under the weight of a walker. 

I had been looking forward to crossing the high moor, one of the highlights of my planning, though I was cautious of it, and after Bodmin even more so. The guidebook I am using recommends a short hike and a stay in Lydford before the twelve mile crossing and my hosts in Belstone emailed me details of an easier route entering the moor further north near Sourton, a route with fewer and lower ascents. My heavy backpack has not bothered me at all on this trip, on level ground, that is. Scurrying over stiles, wading through muddy pastures, and walking up hill has been another matter entirely. I’ve done a lot of each. So I revised my plan accordingly. 

The following morning I set out on the bicycle route to Sourton, an old railway line now mostly paved over. The temperature was relatively mild, approaching 50 F, and a full sun brightened the day and my spirit. But by the time I reached Sourton, the temperature had dropped to the high thirties, the winds picked up, the sky clouded over and and a band of darker clouds threatened rain. The forecast warned me as much but the change had been forecast for mid afternoon. I had hoped to beat it. It was looking as if I wouldn’t. I had to make the choice at Sourton to cross or to continue on the path to Okehampton and then down a sheltered road to Belstone. I pulled on my watch cap and gloves, zipped up my base layer and my sweater, donned my wind breaker, and chose the latter.

The weather changes rapidly over the moors, another of the challenges for the unwary solitary walker, but in this event the changes I perceived were only cautionary; the rain indeed waited until evening. One could not have guessed that this would be the case from the conditions I experienced while taking the more sheltered route to Belstone. Disappointed, I made my way to my night’s lodging, a nice location in Belstone just on the edge of the moor. When I arrived, there were a half dozen cows - a shorter, shaggy haired breed - rooting around in the garden, turning grass to mud and plants to cud. Two of my hosts’ daughters were trying unsuccessfully to shoo them back out the driveway; someone had forgotten to close the gate. Hiking poles have many uses - including prodding cattle, I discovered. 

The girls got me settled in my room. When Theresa arrived with some supplies for my breakfast, I asked if I might stay an extra night should I find someone willing to walk with me and show me the moor. So stay in Belstone I did after Theresa’s husband Bob, just back from solo hiking in the mountains of Crete, offered to accompany me. The next morning, Bob , a twelve year old chocolate lab named Dillon, and I started out of Belstone on a trail of peaty turf that gave way to a rocky path over which water from the moor drained, then back again onto undifferentiated peat, climbing up to the top of Winter Tor, then Knattaborough Tor and, finally Oke Tor, about three miles into the moor, each top successively higher. To our right was Scarey Tor and the High Willhays, the highest point in Devon. The conversation between Bob and I flowed smoothly. The weather was perfect, the walk not taxing, despite the climb. I had shed my heavy pack in favor of a very light stowable day pack and carried only a windbreaker and some water. The walk was easy and enjoyable, quite benign. All my concerns seemed illusory. But one only need consider that the Royal Marines train here and for good reasons. This would be an entirely different experience alone, with my heavy pack, or in bad weather.

It is lambing season and the newly born were everywhere. Pasturing rights - and the right to cut peat for fuel, no longer practiced - are essentially hereditary, granted, I imagine centuries ago. We saw two new lambs and their ewe, afterbirth still trailing behind her, the lambs only hours old. The afterbirth would likely be a treat for the foxes and there was evidence along the way that some lambs had been already, scraggly and matted wool littering the ground. 

Almost all the lambs we saw were black with a splash of white across each ear, near to its head, and we commented how prolific that ram must be and wondered what he looked like as none of the ewes had similar markings. It was all somewhat pastoral, but, as we descended, Bob pointed out a bog ahead and to our right, the water glistening in the sun. There are dangers here.

That night I ate at the local pub, the Tors Inn, as I had the night before. It was far more crowded: the Beltranes and the Cogs and Wheels, two groups of Morris dancers, were going to perform just outside the pub. Why Morris? I was told it comes from Moorish, so that means Spain, and that probably leads to the pagan roots: Celts occupied parts of the Iberian peninsula, Bretagne, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. 

Two very different styles of dancing, both of pagan origin, the Beltranes, men and women, blackfaced and in goth attire, banging sticks, high stepping and howling, meant to frighten people or spirits. I am not certain which. And the Cogs and Wheels, women in brightly colored clothes of tied cloth and ribbons probably evolving from the celebration of the planting or harvest season, or maybe the goddesses of natural forces, water and wells, wind and rain. Back in the pub after the dancing, the two groups alternated with bawdy songs, songs of hard life and early death, and just good old humor. 

If this post seems somewhat at odds with my usual writing, I agree. Not every experience has a deeper meaning. I will point out, however, that staying in Belstone, the friendliest little village I encountered, meant skipping over yet another section of the route. This is not, however, a pilgrimage like my three arrivals at Compostela, or my walk to Rome, where the rigor of walking every step of the way, despite the few lapses referred to in my posts along the Via Francigena, contributed to the emergence of my walking meditations and the important insights into self that I derived from them. In fact, skipping a few stages on the Via Francigena also led to important realizations about myself, how guilty I felt for doing so. Well, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done culminating in the breakthrough realization I had a year ago that morning I walked to San Gimignano. Still, I felt the obligation to myself, and frankly to all of you who I told I would be walking to Glastonbury. But I was also channeling some friends and good acquaintances, and one of those special people one meets on these types of journeys, who have all told me that at this stage of life, one should only do what is fun, what they enjoy. That’s harder for me to do than you might imagine.

Though I will say of my two days in Belstone, I really did have fun. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pagans, monks and wiccans 

I am in the small hamlet of North Hill, just completed my seventh day of walking. I caught up on my journal three days ago and have been keeping up since. It was then, in Lostwithiel, over a Betty Stog Ale, that I started writing a post. It’s been a work in progress since but it never felt quite right. Perhaps it is because my mood has shifted over that period and the writing hasn’t quite kept up. 

Starting on the wild Cornish coast, wind gusting, whipping from all directions, temperatures in the low 40’s F, my mood was ebullient, a challenge awaiting. That was then. I’ve just come down from Bodmin Moor, one of England’s wild places. After a week of slogging through mud, finding alternative routes, walking through streams that should have been footpaths, and backtracking through fields because of locked gates that should have provided public access, the moor got the better of me. 

So let me wind the clock back. I had several thoroughly enjoyable experiences that first day and I’d like to share three with you now: Carn Les Boel, meeting Trevor, and Boscawen Un. 

I began early Monday morning at Land’s End Hostel, a mile or so march from Carn Les Boel where the way begins. Along the Southwest Coast trail, the near gale gusts make the temperature feel even colder. I bundle up in everything I have available to me. My watch cap set on my head, one glove on, the other at the ready, I am glad I opted not to save pack weight by cutting back on warming layers. 

Starting on April 30 is propitious. The pagan holiday Beltane is celebrated the first three mornings of May. Along the way to Glastonbury, I’ll be passing stone circles, standing stones, holy wells, and early churches. I will be hearing about a "wise woman" and walking the Mary Michael earth energy lines dowsed in the late 1980’s. Pagans, monks and wiccans. 

On my treks, I leave myself open to all cultures and spiritualities. My walking meditations have been beneficial. Who knows where they come from or what might instigate their onset. 

My first sighting of Carn Les Boel is from across a steep valley at the bottom of which a small but powerful stream tumbles to the ocean. With my fear of heights and carrying a heavier than usual pack, I ask myself whether it is worth the effort of picking my way down the rocks and up the steep rise on the other side then back again to this spot which is already on the way. Well, I might decide to pass on other sites, but how could I not start at the point where the trail begins. 

I slowly work my way down eroding paths, deep rills created by this winter’s heavier than usual rain. I cross a short wooden slat bridge and climb failing wooden stops that create now disappearing steps out of the hillside. The approaching view shows immense blocks of stone that appear as a fortification.

Carn Les Boel marks the the point where the Mary Michael energy lines first touch England. For some, this spot has spiritual significance. For others, it’s mark is historical. In 700 BC, the Phoenicians landed at Nanjizal Bay, just below the carn, having spied thin black seams of tin in the weather beaten bluffs. They pounded the black seams with stones to loosen the metal critical to Bronze Age culture. They also searched the beach below for metal fallen from the heights above as the rock eroded, using sheep skins to separate the tin from sand as one would pan for gold. 

Trevor Rogers, who’s book proclaims I Have Pagans in my Garden says "It’s nothing to do with magic or religion." The carn is a remnant of an Iron Age furnace that employed the high winds sweeping onshore to raise the temperatures enough to smelt iron ore, the resulting small lumps of metal critical to civilization’s next advance. 

Spiritual or not? Who’s belief is correct? Both of course. Some see the rational and practical; others are more tuned to the sensual. Is there a deeper meaning? No judgement here. But situated as it is on this dramatically sculpted land, clouds moving swiftly in the wind, a palette of greens and blues on earth, sea and sky, one cannot deny that there is a feeling of the sublime here, the raw power of nature. And it is not too much to imagine that the early occupants of Cornwall sensed it as well and marked this place special. 

Standing next to the carn, I am buffeted by the winds, my large pack a sail pushing me back and sideways away from the rock that stands strangely solo on the flat of the bluff top. I catch my breath, reach out to touch the boulder and retreat. I am ready to begin. 

Four miles into my walk, I search out Trevor, eighty eight years young. He asks me into the home he restored from a ruin and puts a kettle up for coffee. We spend an hour in conversation. 

The Phoenicians found tin in the waters cascading to the beach, the same stream I crossed to get to the carn. They followed it inland to what is now Trevor’s land. There they discovered waters bubbling up from the ground, through a small rock enclosure. As worshippers of the Earth goddess Demeter, they held the well as a place of special significance. Fast forward some 2,300 years, in the mid-16th century, a wise woman, Alsia, occupied the property. The well is named for her. 

Alsia was an herbalist. She was the family doctor when healing was a mysterious art. Trevor tells me she aided in midwifery and unwanted pregnancies. She wasn’t paid with money, but with a bag of corn, other food or supplies, whatever was of value in the barter economy. As we finish our coffees and I put on my pack, Trevor reminds me to use the tenth century stairs nearby that King Athelstan built along the path to the church at St. Buryan. To celebrate his victory over the Scilly Isles off the coast of Lands End, the king established a monastery there, one of the first in Cornwall. 

Trevor and I wish each other well and I carry on towards St. Buryan. 

Ten miles into the day’s walk, I am growing frustrated at the number of overgrown stiles I must climb and muddy fields I have to navigate. At one gate, there is no choice but to stand in boot sucking muck as I undo the latch, ooze almost topping my boots. I continue down a muddy path, brush, fence and walls separating me from the fields on either side.

At  the next gate I see a flash of red plaid flannel shirt that resolves into a figure with longish flying grey hair. "I hope it’s worth it," I say as I push the gate open. "It is," Martin replies. 

It is! Boscawen Un is a place of mystery and, yes, energy. It is one of the very few original and complete stone circles in Cornwall. Eighteen short pillars of granite and one of quartz set in a slight ellipse. At the center is a taller granite pillar, set to an angle, unlike any other in Cornwall, perhaps anywhere, to my knowledge. 

Researchers have determined the cant is original and intentional, for what purpose remains unknown. It is hard to describe the sense of awe at viewing something created by the human hand 5,000 years ago, around the time the Hebrew Bible records the epic flood. I circumambulate, speechless. I am not good at judging and I don’t know how far the stones extend below ground level but they must weigh many hundreds perhaps thousands of pounds. How did they do it? Why did they do it? The short answer is, we don’t really know. 

After a convivial conversation with Martin, I turn to head back out the way I came. Then, thinking of all the mud I had come through, I decide that I have had enough of that for the day, and plot a course to the nearest road. Only hard surfaces from there to Penzance. 

This blog was never meant to tell you about all the picturesque things I see, nor what I eat, nor every travail. So in abbreviated fashion: The next several days take me along sections of the Southwest Coast trail, past St. Michael’s Mont (a fraternal, not identical, twin to Mont St. Michel in Bretagne), a wonderful stay in Penryn, a lovely morning’s walk along the Fal estuary. But almost every public footpath I take, every field I cross, is dense with new growth, heavily thorned with what must be at least several years of neglect, or muddy. So much mud that I decide to modify my route to travel more hard surfaces. I miss some pearls, the term used by Richard, the author of the guidebook I am using that contains so much excellent research and insight, to refer to the many sites along the way. 

Because of the time I have available for this walk, I planned to take public transport for parts of the route. So this is a disappointment but not a devastating one. And it is not that I don’t attempt field crossings or use footpaths or bridleways, but for the most part, the times I use them, I suffer for it. 

All this has taken a toll. The path as laid out is not an easy one, so many hills and boggy paths in the best of times, but the heavier than usual winter rains and the paths not yet cleared of new growth either by maintenance or usage, have increased the difficulty. So by the time I reach Bodmin Moor, I find myself less able to handle the challenges I encounter. 

Today, I enter the moor at Minions, past The Hurlers, a stone circle with similarities to and better known than Boscawen Un, but in far less pristine condition. The moor sits close above a granite layer, evident everywhere. I climb to the top of The Cheesewring using the granite strewn along the slope as footfalls 

At the top, I am in awe. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I recently hiked in the desert for the first time. In a way Bodmin Moor reminds me of it. Not dry. Not brown. Green. Wet. But you can feel it's power. Across its expanse, the moor is undifferentiated. Yes, of course there are noticeable features. But in the same way cosmologists claim the universe is flat despite the concentrations of normal matter that make up galaxies, I sense the moor is flat despite its hills and tors. Plopped down in the middle, without map or GPS, turned round a few times, one would not sense any difference no matter what direction they looked. 

I try to pick out my path from the top of The Cheesewring. I have an idea of where it is but a wall of strewn granite and the heavy pack makes it difficult to achieve it. I climb back down the way I came up and attempt to find the path from there. I probe several different alternatives, even a bit of overland walking. But here, too, I am met with formidable challenges, impenetrable brambles in one direction, a rocky ledge I cannot overcome in another. And boggy turf. The granite, where it doesn’t poke through the surface, lies near underneath. The water accumulates just below the surface growth, depressions full of browning water everywhere. Even here I find myself continually walking over boggy patches. Below ground, the moor is riddled with mining tunnels. Most are known. Others are not. Traversing areas at random carries some risk. 

Finally I find a path north of The Cheesewring. It leads me to a hard surface, then a road. I exit the moor and stroll lovely country lanes to North Hill, my night’s rest. The moor got the better of me. So it goes. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

I am four days into my walk and, for a variety of reasons I’ll probably explain in my first genuine post, am running behind in keeping my personal journal. Sorry folks. That takes priority over posting. But I am almost caught up, so hold on. In the mean time, here is a bit of eye candy to keep you interested. 

Near Land’s End


Southwest Coast Trail

St. Michael’s Mont

On the Fal estuary 

Sit tight. I’ll be back soon. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

In the Desert

I have never been to the desert before. So I went. Not alone. Too risky. I joined a group of six plus three guides, hiking and camping in the Mojave Desert. Death Valley. Austere sublime nature, a landscape where everything works against you. It can kill. Even in late March, the temperature reached over 100 F. Dry. Dusty. Hardscrabble earth beneath every step. How can anything possibly live? Yet, there is life: fragile flowers bloom, orchids hide among tall stands of grass, lizards scurry from the shade of one rock to another, several female bighorn sheep graze not too far from the road. Raptors soar overhead and near to camp a peregrine calls. 

There is water, hard to find, but it is there nonetheless. Cool canyons beckon. Weaving through a series of dry falls, scrambling and chimney-ing up to the next level, back pushed against the canyon wall, legs stretched out at a ninety degree angle, hiking boots pressed against the opposing wall, each of us shimmies up fifteen or so feet to the next level, the shade of the tight canyon adequate compensation for the challenge in arriving. Three such scrambles and we arrive at a final challenge that cannot be overcome. Blocking our way was the dead-end of the canyon, a rock chimney stretching up at least fifty feet, more a sky fall than a dry fall, ending in a hole to the sky, backtracking and a rock scramble to the ridge line providing the only way out.

Millions of years, epochs in the making, the desert's age is evident in the geologic and fossil record. One of the guides uncovers a piece of coral, petrified, dating to when the future-desert sediment was laid down at the bottom of the ocean, which then became a salt sea, then a salt lake and then the Mojave.

Returning to camp that night, after dark, I had to see a man about a horse. If you don't know the expression, it is a euphemism for something one does not wish to state explicitly. I grabbed a trowel and the other gear necessary for the mission and trudged off up canyon. I had been using the same general area each morning and evening. With a near full moon overhead, I finished my business and started back to camp. Mostly I was gazing straight ahead. Normally, I would have my hiking headlamp set to red so as not to impair my night vision, but over the rocky terrain that alternated with the dry sand of the arroyo bottom, I needed the bright white light to assure I would not lose my footing. Glancing down to check my next several footfalls, a rattlesnake stared back at me, frozen in the headlamp beam that fell directly on it. It knew I was there before the light hit it. It's head was off the ground, tongue flicking the air, trying to get a taste of what it was that barred its way. It probably sensed the vibrations from my footfall before it ever saw the light.

Scary. I would have walked right into it had my light not revealed it. This was the closest I've ever come to a full size rattlesnake. I've seen young rattlers before, crossing my path at two of the trails I frequently hike close to home near San Francisco, and I was warned off by the audible rattle of what must have been an adult snake when I was walking in the Nebraska prairie outside of Scottsbluff last year on our eclipse watching trip. But this was the first time I'd ever been seriously concerned that a snake was intent on occupying the same piece of ground I was then standing on. One of us had to cede the territory.

I was about five meters away. How far can a rattlesnake strike from a full stop? In that position, I wanted to be conservative. Two body lengths? Maybe. How big was the snake? It was big, about the diameter of a Kielbasa and all S-ed up. So I had to guess. Certainly a meter. I calculated I was barely outside of its range, so I slowly arced around it, walking the upswing of a parabolic curve, increasing my distance as I moved past. Yes, the desert is  certainly full of life.

That was the final night camping and I promised myself that whatever the need I was not going up canyon again. 

We broke camp after breakfast, headed down to valley bottom, 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level. The guides had saved the tourist spots for a quick drive-by on our way back to Las Vegas for our flights home. But even those more trafficked sites are awe inspiring. It only takes a a moment and a big exhale to forget about the car and caravan tourists and perceive the desert sublime.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Convergenza . . .

Convergence. I might have thought to title this post Roma, but it's never been about Rome. It's always been about the getting there, the period from the first step to the last step. And the journey didn't really start in Winchester either. It started six years before, a total of nine years walking, something a bit short of three thousand miles, when I stepped on the boat at Lindau Hafen, Germany, on the Bodensee, Lake Konstanz, and then off at Rorschach, Switzerland, nine years from that first step on the Jakobsweg, and continued on the Chemin St Jacques, the Camino Frances, the Camino del Norte, the Camino Portugese, in total the constituents of three arrivals at Santiago de Compostela and one to Finistere, and then the Pilgrim's Way, the North Downs Way, and finally the Via Francigena. I claim no bragging rights. I've met many who have done far more on routes far, far more difficult. If I've learned one thing, and I believe I've learned many things, whatever you accomplish, there is someone who's done more. Someone whose accomplishments amaze you. What drives them? What drives me?

That first step was taken when I had no intention of going further than Geneva. I just wanted to go for a long walk. I had been living in Zurich, walking in the  Alps every chance I could. I'd do day walks and then catch the train back home, or take a hotel for a few days and do hikes out and back. I'd sit outside an alpine hut at the extremis of that day's walk, eating some rösti and watching hikers continue over the saddle between two mountains and disappear below the ridge crest. I felt the tug. So one day I decided to do it, to take a long walk. Switzerland has many but as I investigated the alternatives, I became intrigued by the antiquity of the Jakobsweg, that complex of trails through Germany and Switzerland that ultimately tie into the myriad of paths that go to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain. So I decided to take that trail to Geneva. 

But that first year I discovered three things almost immediately: one meets interesting, wonderfully kind, generous people; you are constantly in the moment, no thoughts further than your next footstep, a meal, a shower and a bed; and, if you are lucky, you will learn a lot about yourself. 

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." J. R. R Tolkien, the Fellowship of the Ring. 

I had an inkling, though, that there might be something more to it than the summation of a large number of strides. The first entry in my first journal reads, "What will I discover?" Well, I will tell you. Not everything, and not in every detail. A lot of it is way too personal. But I will open myself up a bit. Sit back. This may take a while. 

My first inkling that this was going to be something very special was the first time I fell into a walking meditation. My feet were moving but on their own accord. I was someplace else entirely. A memory had come to me about an event in my past, an event I was always certain I had remembered correctly, an event where I felt I had been wronged in some way. But the recall was somewhat different than what I had usually remembered about the event. I saw instead how something I had said and done was contributory to the outcome. And then the meditation broke, I looked around and did not recall seeing a trail marker for some time. I gave myself another hundred paces in which if I could not confirm I was still on the right track, I would turn around and backtrack until I could. The loss of trail awareness is not the point, but the self discovery is. 

Over time and over the years, the meditations and the discoveries have been deeper, more meaningful, one building on the other, realization feeding reconsideration. While the memories and meditations have touched on many areas, the important discoveries have clustered around a few important threads: my personal spirituality, in other words, what do I believe; my personal history, my relationship with others, particularly my family, how I got to be the person I am, where certain recurring patterns in my behavior come from, and how I can break free from those behaviors I do not like; finding a deeper comprehension of the love I have for my wife; and where to find more meaningfulness in my life. 

I'm not going to discuss all of these, but one thread seems to have run out on this trip. I had a difficult relationship with my parents. Both of them. I didn't understand how difficult it really was. I was a pretty well behaved kid. There were a few notable outbursts but in general, I was not any sort of a problem child. I had not realized how that good conduct had been constructed from a web of expectations, unintended rejections, and very intentioned coercions. After a seminal event on the day of Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination – I was thirteen – my relationship with my father began to rupture, cracks slowly spreading over time, continuing into my adulthood until there was only a falsely cordial and almost wordless relationship. His death was a totally emotionless event for me. I have been trying to rehabilitate that relationship for a long time.

On the day I walked to San Gimignano, I was marking the distance on my GPS and in my mind. I could see the city's towers through the dust misted Tuscan morning air almost from the beginning of the walk. The first of nine miles fell behind me, 11% of the walk completed. The second mile passed, 22% completed. "At this rate, I will never get there," I joked to myself. Indeed, I was on a convergent but never ending journey, each mile another 11.11111111 (etc.) % to go, nine miles totaling 99.999999 (etc.) %. Each step got me closer but I would never reach 100%. I would never get to San Gimignano. Yet, of course I would. How would I cross that last infinitesimally small fraction of distance?

Over the years I've been walking, I'd considered my relationship with my father. I reconsidered many events, found fault in both of us, many errors, many misinterpretations, many intentioned slights. I came to understand the measure of his love and its limits. I began to see the currency in which he measured it. I had thought I would find that unconditional parental love I believed was there hidden below all these surface distractions. I think it was there for a while. I think it was gone for a long time.

My walk to San Gimignano morphed into a consideration of how far I had come and how far I could go. Given the breadth and depth of my considerations, I don't really think there is more to discover. It is what it is. I can still get choked up about lost opportunities but I cannot change what was, anymore than I could have walked over to that ghost I saw on a flight from somewhere to San Francisco more than thirty years ago without it disappearing in a mist of regret. To get to San Gimignano, to get to resolution, I simply must accept that I have arrived. 

The thread on this one has run out. Game over. I've mourned all I can. 

I am in Rome. Nine years walking completed. I will walk some more. I've more things to think about. 

Thanks for joining me. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


I am in Rome. But it is going to take a little while to write this next post. Have patience. Give me a few days.