Saturday, March 9, 2013

Slip and Slide

Mud is slippery,
Rain boots have zero traction. 

Living out of a suitcase makes dressing appropriately a difficult task as I chose to pack rain boots instead of hiking boots, and because England is both cold and wet with an impressively hilly landscape it is nearly impossible to win. Today, I lost bad. With numb feet and traction like ballet slippers, at least I had dry feetor so I did for their first mile.  

Hadrian's Wall Hikea wall nearly 2,000 years old, built in the time of Jesusis a 73 mile hike from the east to west coast of England, traveling through the bottom of Northumbria National Park. Though compared to 73 miles, our 3 mile hike was plenty hardcore.

Our day began in a warm bus, riding through the hilly back country of Northern England, enjoying the roller-coaster rhythm of riding up and down, and up and down on a road so small our bus filled both lanes. Outside, the hills rolled on endlessly, stacking up on each other like janga piecesold, stone farm houses and herds of sheep dotted the green, heather covered range.

Upon arriving, all 25 of us filed out into the killer winds and hiked up to the fort along the wall where 800 soldiers once livedthe walk took 5 minutes and already a few were moaning about the miserable winds and tiny slivers of ice slicing our cheeks. 3 miles lay ahead. But I couldn't get over my fascination with the fort: the old latrines, stables, staircases, and heated floor system. I could only imagine the place in its glory days, but the battered and torn walls were still beautiful in their own ancient way.

Then things got interesting. We followed the wall through a forest, emptying out into a hilly opening where the wall wound up and around, down and up again like a spinethat's what our path followed. I looked down at my rain boots and prayed to God I would not fall. Having already slipped in the wet grass back at the fort, my chances were slim. But, I wasn't aloneI really shouldn't have been happy about this, but falling on your butt damages your pride much less when everyone else is doing it with you. 

1.5 miles in, nearly half the group had wet pants, muddy butts, and fingers so cold they were nearly chipping off, but the sight was rather comical as people slipped like rag dolls, their feet kicking out to their sides. Everyone was slipping and slidingsomeone would scream, flail their arms around in a chaotic windmill motion, then stand panting with knees bent and arms out, trying not to move a muscle  My throat is raw from laughter. 

I striked out with 3 falls, one bruising my knee to a deep purple. I had never been more afraid to take another step in my life, especially down the steep hillsides covered with wet rock and slumping soil. With a sore knee and shoes like glass, I was genuinely afraid. 

However, the view made up for all the sore hips and numb toes: cliff sides and lakes, rock pillars and taluses  like aprons, miles of the winding rock wall, and soft green moss covering every tree, stump, rock, and leaf. I had to remind myself to look up from my feet every now and then to admire the beauty, but not too long otherwise I'd start windmilling. 

Contrary to what you may think, Hadrian's Wall Hike was up there on my top favorite adventures. Yes, the weather could have been better, but this is England! There's going to be rain. There's going to be mud. It's all part of the British experience as 80% of the year is wet and cold. So, what better way to experience the back country of England than in its natural environment. Next time, however, I would invest in waterproof hiking boots with a thermal wool lining.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Plaid Kilts and Bagpipes

In this age, it's not often one can say they crossed the border without flashing their passport or getting drilled with questions, but the border to Scotland is a bit confused. Scotland is it's own country with it's own parliament and capital, and most obviously, it has it's own culture with plaid kilts and bagpipes, and yet Scotland sits under the rule of Her Majesty the Queen of England.

"Scotland is to the UK as Ohio is to America," Andy, one of our many tour guides said. 

This made the transition into Scotland quite easy as we crossed the border last FridayI hadn't realized we even crossed over until we came upon the steep, rocky coast. With rolling hills and grazing sheepthe white fluffy kind with black headson one side of the road and a jagged cliff with crashing waves on the other, we drove through the countryside of Scotland with the setting sun, arriving in Edinburgh in the black blanket of night.

We kicked off our first night with a ghost tour, exploring deep within the city's underground vaults. As the final tour of the night, we had to blow out each candle, leaving behind dark, empty rooms with only one way out through the shadowing corridor ahead. Our tour guide's deep Scottish voice, thick and throaty with a heavy roll of his R's, filled the chamber like a haunting presence and his occasional SCREAM made us jump and shiver in our skin. 
But this was only the first of our 5 tours. We toured the city for 3 hours Saturday morning, meandering through cemeteries and side streets, stopping at historical landmarks like the Writer's Square where Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns found inspiration and the Grass Market where the public gallows once stood. Almost all of Saturday was sunny with a bright blue, cloudless skya rare spectacle for Scotland and most of the UK.

We toured St. Giles Cathedral where the Thistle Chapel seats the Knights of the Thistle, Scotland's order of chivalryPrince William was the last to be knighted. Also, the Cathedral is the only church in the world to have a carving of an angel playing a bagpipe. Classic Scotland. 

After visiting the gravestone of the great Adam Smith and gawking at the marvelous geography surrounding Edinburgh, we toured Holyrood Palace where centuries of kings and queens have resided, including Queen Mary of Scotsthe jealous queen of Scotland that fought for the throne of England until she was beheaded, her head rolling off of her wig as she was pronounced dead (lovely lady)and Her Majesty the Queen who resides in the palace during the Summer. It felt slightly odd to wander through the processional rooms and bedrooms of these great rulers as if I would walk in on them changing in their closet room. I shiver just thinking of the vast historyhistory that's older than my entire country. 

Lastly, we toured the Edinburgh Castle that is built on the edge of a cliff, straight out of the volcanic rock on the hill side. The fortress has an endless display of Scottish history, including the Scottish Crown jewels, military museums, war prisons, and underground caverns. Again, the history blew me away.

But the highlight of my trip was beyond the city streets, past the big cathedrals and palaces, and way up high where the wind blows colder and the clouds feel thicker: Arthur's Seat, a towering hill covered in the greenest grass and the sharpest volcanic rocks. The hike became progressively more stunning with each step up the steep hillside as the horizon grew longer and reached to further distances. At the top, we could see for miles way out into the Scottish highlands and far across the Firth of Fortha body of water called a fjord carved out by a receding glacial. 

After 5 tours, a 3 mile hike, and endless exploring, I experienced some of the grandeur of Scotland. But the little things count too. I ordered my first scotch, choking it down with my beef pie and trying not to make a face; I tried the local dish, haggis, ground meat cooked in a sheep's intestines; I ordered a bright orange soda called IRN BRU that tasted like bubblegum cream soda; and I tried a pulled-pork sandwich with apple sauce from a restaurant called Oink. But the one thing I didn't experience was driving down a tiny cobblestone road overrun by sheep in the back countrythat's still how I picture Scotland. Next time