'We're on the road to nowhere'
Perhaps it was reading and reviewing Cheryl Strayed’s backpacking extravaganza ‘Wild’ which finally persuaded me to get my backside into gear and press on with a multi day long distance walk I have had in mind for a while now. Thursday last and I was dropped off on the English/Welsh border near Oswestry with a route planned which headed into and over the Berwyn mountains, from where I would spend my first night under canvas. Ten o clock and I put my best foot forward and crossed the border back into Wales. The sun was out but it was thankfully tempered by a cooling breeze.
My Springer- Fer(Gus)-was his usual tail wagging energetic self as we entered a dense canopy of woodland which marked the first mile or so. I had a route planned which I had marked out in highlight pen on a 125 OS map, which followed footpaths, bridle ways and the occasional back lane until I reached the Berwyn’s foothills. Despite the heavy rucksack- containing apart from the usual backpackers gear, four days worth of dog food- my main concern was for my feet. I’ve always been prone to hot-spots on the balls of my feet when I walk long distances, but seem to avoid the usual heel and toes blisters.
Another complication was a black bruised ankle which came after I pulled a rock down on my foot ten days or so previously. However, after a few hours spent passing over the rolling border country uplands- which were either beautiful or bleak depending on your frame of mind and perspective- I was feeling confident that it would all come together.
By mid afternoon, the sky began to darken and a hill mizzle swept across the uplands. Perhaps it was because I was on my lonesome and would be away for a few days but I was in a melancholic frame of mind. The darkening skies and empty rolling farmland didn’t help. Nor did the fact that I had to keep Gus on a lead as the hills were alive with the sound of bleating! After five hours or so of walking I descended down to reach the Berwyn foothills. I was still confident that I would be up on the main Berwyn ridge in a couple of hours and on course. That’s when the best laid plans of mice and men began to unravel.
By five o clock the sun had broken through as I descended into a remote cwm beneath the main massif. I was hot, tired and nearly out of water. I had banked on reaching my first camp spot where there was a babbling brook and I could replenish my water. As I toiled up a horrendously steep hillside, alongside which some forestry workers were cutting down trees, I felt self consciously pathetic. I could imagine their pitying comments. ‘Look at that poor old sod...what an idiot!’ I often share those feelings myself. Driving past some lycra clad road biker toiling in the blistering sun/pouring rain up an endless hill. I’m never filled with admiration for their tenacity, rather pity and contempt for their mindless zealotry. For me, any outdoor activity should be fun-not purgatory and right now, what I was going through was purgatory. By six I was on a ridge which led up to the main Berwyn ridge but my feet were sore, I was out of water, feeling dehydrated and wondering where all the clear mountain streams were? After applying some compeeds to the balls of my feet- which were inevitably suffering by now- I slung the heavy sack over my shoulders and pressed into the murk. By seven and it was ominously dark and spitting. Nowhere to pitch a tent here, no water apart from a dirty black peat bog which the dog waded into nevertheless and lapped up, and no chance of reaching my destination before dark. I was parched, rubber legged but couldn’t touch food to save my life.
I did however have a ‘get out of jail free’ card to play. Once I hit the main ridge I can drop down the other side and head for one of the villages in the Upper Dee Valley where I could be picked up. The thought spurred me on. Hot shower, cold beer, soft bed.....ahhhhh! After eight and I was stumbling down heading towards Llandrillo where after finally getting through to my partner, I would be picked up. After missing the footpath to Llandrillo I found myself lifting the dog over endless fences and stumbling through dense woodland. By nine I was still stuck up to my neck in nettles and bracken as the seductive lights of Llandrillo twinkled just below. At nine thirty, after nearly twelve hours of hard mountain walking with hardly a break, I stumbled into the rain soaked car park in the centre of the village, literally feeling on my last legs and so parched I could hardly talk.
Border Country...Beautiful or Bleak?
I felt like Steve Redgrave after he had burned himself out winning an Olympic rowing gold. As he collapsed over the oars he said, ’if I ever go near a boat again, shoot me’!. That was pretty much how I felt about backpacking. However days later and I have begun to think about just how I could make such a trip work? With more careful planning- doubling the trip time, caching food and water, checking the stages over winter for camping sites or derelict dosses, setting off in early summer when the days are longer, and most of all, solving the foot problem- then maybe just maybe I could do it.
To be continued....perhaps?