Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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C2C Day 6 - The Lovely Slog
Shap -> Kirkby Stephen

"Those who struggled to complete the previous stage will be less than delighted to hear that today's hike is, at 21 miles, even longer. Indeed, for many it will be the longest day on the entire route."
         - Henry Stedman, Coast to Coast Path

Michael: Is Darby up?
Mark: She's got to manage the interdimensional controls. Align the flex capacitor.
     Mark was referring, hugely entertainingly, to the hosts of strange sounds that emerged from Darby's exiguous tent in the mornings – in the substantial intervals between when she started stirring and when she actually appeared, fully dressed and packed. We were pretty convinced she was plotting global domination from the tent (her mobile galactic headquarters).

This also meshed nicely with her "bag of holding": She had sprung for the new model of ultra-sleek and high-tech Osprey pack for this trip. And, as she'd packed it, it weighed nothing. (Even if it weighed anything, with the weight management system it's got, it wouldn't weigh anything.) Nonetheless, it seemed to have everything in it. Out comes a second fleece – this one without sleeves. Need some safety pins? Check. Later on – this very day, in fact – Darby would find a lost lamb who had snuck out of its enclosure through a gap in the wooden slat fence. After herding it back home, she set to repairing the fence. Out came, from the magically bottomless depths of her pack, an entire package of long cable ties. What the hell?

Anyway, back to the start of our regularly scheduled Day 6.

Michael: Darby, please don't think I'm helping you break down your tent because I want to hurry you up. Nor, actually, because I want to be helpful. It's simply because I'm freezing and want to keep moving.
     As we packed up, I reflected that dinner was really good last night. Funny how dinner's good every night. They could feed us suet and we'd be like 'Wow!' I was also really struck by the fact that no matter how wrecked we were at the end of a day, after a couple of pints of ale, a huge meal, and a long-ish sleep, we were completely ready to go again. Go, human body. (Or, maybe go youth and health.)

At any rate, we agreed that the Bull's Head had been a real winner. The matron was awfully nice to us. And talk about a considerate cook: we were going over the veg options on the menu and he pointed out a pasta dish in a cream sauce. I asked him if he could do it in a red sauce. "Sure. I'll have to run over to the grocery store, but no problem." The pasta – with mixed veg and green salad – was hot, plentiful, and (as always, apparently) delicious.

Spectacularly predictably, we hit the trail! So: today was long – but it was supposed to be nearly completely flat. No worries. And it started grandly enough. From notes: "Ah! this is what rambling is supposed to be: meandering along a well-marked sward path in lovely slanting early light through picturesque fields – flat ones."

Michael: I'm having this strange sensation . . . enjoyment.

Click here to read about Darby's prosthesis that allowed her to urinate standing up like a man (Mom, you might also want to give this one a miss)

     We stopped for Second Breakfast on a narrow limestone scar.
Mark: Don't think we'll find a more scenic spot – nor one with more natural tables and chairs.
     Fortified, we walked on. We passed a second, bigger limestone scar. I did a clever trick where I mounted the camera on a signpost, and then ran ahead like I was just walking ahead, and got the only picture of what looks like all three of us walking. Since I had to run back for the camera, M and D got far ahead again. But I didn't mind catching up. It was lovely.
Mark: Now when you said walking across England, this is what I imagined.
Michael: Good, because you're in for a lot more of it.
     Man, what a difference a day makes. I asked the others if they remembered what we'd been doing that same time yesterday: It was all, 'Don't get blown over the cliff edge!!'. Darby happily played with her maps. (Which were pretty unnecessary as, for once, the waymarking was totally clear.)

Click here to read about my sinus issues (and the Phlegm Fuchs!)

Michael: Okay . . . I don't want to frighten anyone or foment panic. But there's a sheep in the path ahead of us. Just keep your wits about you and stay together. They almost never take down a human. We're not part of their food chain.
Mark: They look bigger up close.
Darby: What a majestic animal.
     Mark and Darby fell behind me (perhaps as I was sweeping for sheep) – and began geeking out egregiously, talking board games, and card games, and RoboWars, and other stuff of which I know nothing. It had turned out that they actually have a lot in common – beginning the first night in London on the Thames-side patio of Somerset House, when they spent the better part of an hour singing the praises of some legendary German designer of, ahem, board games.

After that, we fell into silence, not talking for miles – just listening to the chirping of the birds. It was entirely agreeable. Not least because the path was so clear, allowing us to just walk, instead of navigating for our lives (like yesterday).

The path ran into a road. We decided to take a break by the side of it. As we sat and nibbled and removed clothing, a car drove by, slowed, and pulled to the side ahead of us. We figured it was some nice gentleman who thought we were lost and wanted to help us. We prepared to wave him off. But it turned out it was a guy from the University of Lancaster doing research on the economic impact in Cumbria of Coast to Coast hikers! He told us he came out here most days at around this time, trying to catch C2Cers on the hoof and and make them answer his survey questions. We were delighted to participate – he was a very nice guy, and we had a good laugh. As we went to exchange e-mail addresses, he fished stumblingly for another writing implement.

Survey Guy: You'll find a lot of pencils in this part of Cumbria.
Us: Why is that?
Survey Guy: Because I lose them.
     After he left, and we set off again, we sort of considered the implications of what had just happened:
Michael: We've just been game counted.
Mark: Catch and release.

Where Fuchs the Complete Tosser Injures Darby

    So, we've sort of developed a friendly ritual of inquiring into one another's ailments. "How's that right knee treating you?" Darby would ask me. "How's that huge heel blister getting on?" I'd ask Mark. Etc. Now, I inquired after Darby's condition, and she gave kind of an equivocal answer, eventually admitting to worrying about her ankle. I asked if she had hurt it at any particular point. She answered yes, but wouldn't elaborate. Finally I worked it out for myself. A ways back, she had been standing at the edge of a good steep ravine. Feeling all jaunty – all too jaunty, as it turned out – I raced up and made as if to shove her in. (Running the running joke into the ground.) And, it turns out, as I slammed into her laterally, I turned her ankle.

Oh, bloody hell.

I can tell you I had trouble even knowing what to say for some time after that. The verdict was still out on the result – when she walked on even surfaces she was fine, and she was hoping it would sort itself out if she took it easy on it. But God! the thought that I might have just ended her trip! After all the training, and precautions – and in particular me going on about how careful we needed to be to avoid turned ankles! That I might have just stupidly, willfully, adolescently run up and sprained hers! Aarggh. As well, to think of all the gearing up and training she had done: she had turned herself into this perfect machine – and I had broken it. I was gutted. I expect it was a little grim for her as well. We agreed to believe that this low moment would pass – that tomorrow, after a night's rest, she'd be totally hale, and we'd look back and go, "Whew, close one." As it turned out, to put you out of your suspense, that's exactly what happened. But it was awfully anxious until then. And, in the words of Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men: "Well, don't I feel like the *$*^&' *&$%$%?" And it turned me into an awfully circumspect guy for the duration.

And but so we had no choice but to continue to have our (insanely long) day. We passed through more lovely countryside. We walked right through the middle of some farms, ones that had lots of dry stone walls. We passed right beside a swirling miasma of wool and baa'ing:

Darby: Looks like it's Do Something with the Sheep Day.
     These were some remarkable sounds and smells we were on top of.

So the thing in general about sheep is they're incredibly fearful. They move out of your path. They run away. They keep their distance. They bolt. The young'uns, in particular, run for the cover of mom at the least disturbance. I had tried to approach any number of them – to no avail. But I had maintained that, eventually, if I kept up my overtures, I would one day meet a friendly sheep who was not afraid. And today was the day! I was licked by a baby sheep! Verbatim from notes: "'I told you'd there be one!' One beautiful little white and pink lamb comes running up to me, with all the other sheep baa'ing at her to wave off. She leaps upon the wall and sucks my proffered finger." I was chuffed. I also took this as possible evidence that their fearfulness is learned, and/or socialized, behaviour. This little one had neither been sheared yet, nor inculcated with the doctrine of staying clear of people. She was just friendly and curious.

Leaving the cluster of farms, we followed a road. We stopped for elevenses, where we were approached by a beautiful cow. Cows are more fearless than sheep.

On resuming, we had a little ontological debate. We had assured Mark – promised him – that today would be utterly flat. It was really the only way to get him to continue. But then:

Mark: Hey – that's a hill.
Darby: That's not a hill.
Michael: Yes, you should know better.
Mark: If I lived at the end of this, and people were coming to visit me, I'd say 'Come up the hill'.
     After this unbidden trial, Mark laid down in the grass, put his hat over his face, and said, "Wake me when we're in Kirkby Stephen." We promised to do so. But first there was more walking to be done. Plus some walking. Also a long stretch of walking along a road. I found myself incensed that the sheep were returning to form, and refusing to associate with me.
Michael: These sheep are wusses. Buck up! I'm sick of these spineless sheep.
Mark: Yeah, always following each other around.
Darby: [in stage whisper] That's what they do . . .
Mark: They're behaving like . . .
All: Sheep!
     To my delight, we came to our first stretch of windswept moor! Moor, it turns out, is covered in heather – dry brown underbrush. We'd see tons from here on. For now, we stopped for lunch out of the sweeping wind in a depression. I wandered off mysteriously on my own for a bit. Anyone who thinks I'm unwilling to crap on a moor has a tragically inflated sense of my fastidiousness!

After that, it was, Hey!, some walking. Followed up by a bit of walking. And walking. To break things up, Darby played with her map. But then it was back to the serious business of walking. At a brief stop, I caught Mark pissing on a "Permissive Path" sign.

Mark: Think I'll keep a little in reserve in case I come across Wainwright's grave.
     From notes: "amazing valleys/hills, cloud shadow/light". From notes: "last few miles, I feel great. Feet are aching – and/but it feels good".

There's some in-humour we'd encounter from other C2Cers that the whole path through the Yorkshire Dales involves interminably keeping a stone wall on your left. For variety, occasionally you get to keep a stone wall on your right. This one led us to a cool derelict barn. Darby liked the flaking tiles.

Then we described a big snakey loop, down to a neato bridge. On the other side, we had a bit of, alack, a brutal climb. Darby boggled at her map, which made no mention of it:

Darby: What the hell are these people talking about?
Michael: Did we mention Wainwright was an opium addict?
     Actually, that's not true. But he was a very funny fish, more on which later. As we bore up to the climb, we got nice views back across to where we'd come from, and a viaduct. Finally we topped out, coming to a dual stone wall – which, naturally, we kept on our left for a long time.

Although we were getting pretty flailed by now, we enjoyed some pretty skies and some nice vistas to down below and especially some cool clouds. However, by the time we were really descending to Kirkby Stephen, we agreed that none of us could actually feel anything below our knees. It occurred to me that I had never walked 21 miles before.

Which was just as well, because we were really to walk 22: so tired that we missed a turn-off, we ended up taking a longer way around and into town. The last two miles were, frankly, murderous. Too tired to think or talk, we staggered onto the High Street (in this case not the only street, but pretty close – and only about 80ft long); found the YHA – which, pleasingly was in a converted church; and secured our room – which, pleasingly, was the former vestry. Here's about what we looked like: asleep on our feet. (Betcha didn't know her hair was that long. She hides it well. Probably part of her global domination kit, actually.)

We showered in sequence. While the others soaked themselves, I ran across the street for a 22oz bottle of Budvar – purely for medicinal purposes, in this case. Then I went back for another 22oz bottle of Budvar. With little climbing today, my knees were now fine. But, in turn, today (I was forced to admit) had just destroyed my feet.

Mark: I say we eat, we come back, and sleep.
Michael: I don't know, I was thinking maybe a little clubbing.
Mark: We sleep until we wake up. Then we see if we can walk.
Michael: And if we can walk, we walk to Keld. Or, alternately, to the bus stop . . .

Tomorrow: Day 7 - Kirkby Stephen to Keld (13 miles)

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close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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