Day 5 was the day that I skipped part of the Pennine Way.
When people ask about my summer travels or I talk about walks that I’ve done, I always say that I walked the Pennine Way. I don’t say that I skipped part of it or that I didn’t walk the whole thing; I say that I walked it, that I walked it all.
Some may disagree with me and I suppose at one time- during my first Camino on the Frances- I was a bit of a purist. If I was going to do a walk, I wanted to start at the start and end at the end and walk every step of it in between. It wasn’t that I considered it “cheating” if I didn’t walk all of it, but I think my thought was that I would do everything in my power to walk every step.
And, now that I think about it, I maintained that view through my next two Caminos: the Norte and the San Salvador. In fact, on the Camino de San Salvador, I walked when I was very sick and absolutely should have just hopped on a train and skipped the last 30km of the walk. Maybe it was because the route was a shorter distance, maybe it was because I wanted to arrive at my destination on foot, or maybe it was just that sort of purist view that if you’re going to walk a long-distance walk, you should try your best to walk the whole thing.
To that I now say… nonsense!
If I’m able to, if I have the time and my body is in good shape, I still love starting at the start, ending at the end, and walking every step in between. But sickness on the San Salvador taught me my lesson, and now I have (almost) no hesitations about skipping a section of a long walk if it’s in my best interest. I don’t want to skip a section if it’s hard, I don’t want to skip a section if I’m bored, and I even hesitate to skip a section if there’s bad weather (unless it makes the walking dangerous), but if I’m sick or hurting or if I’m falling short on time, I’ll hop on a bus or train or hail a taxi and skip those miles.
I put this into practice during my second sojourn on the Norte and even at the end of last summer’s Le Puy adventure, and you know, nothing bad happened. No one shook their finger at me because I didn’t walk all the stages in my guidebook, and honestly I didn’t feel any differently. A little disappointed, maybe, that I couldn’t quite fit in all that I had set out to do, but at the end of the journey I felt accomplished, and proud, and very, very much like a pilgrim.
So after four days on the Pennine Way, with four blisters on my feet and a 26-mile day looming ahead of me, I thought and I thought and then finally the answer was just so clear and obvious, like a great voice booming overhead: “Nadine,” the voice said. “Take the bloody train.”
I was in Haworth, after all, and there was a train station just down the hill from where I was staying.
So after a truly splendid full English breakfast, I hoisted up my heavy pack and walked down to the station and the whole experience was just the best. A little luxury on a pilgrimage or a long trek is something I could get used to! (Though, to be fair, some people camp and cook their dinners on stoves every night during their walks; with my beds and my glasses of wine/pints of beer, some may consider my walking adventures quite luxurious!).
In any case, I bought a ticket on a steam engine train that took me from Haworth to Keighley- who knew I’d get to ride on a steam engine??
From Keighley I took another train to Gargrave, which was where I picked up the Pennine Way, skipping over about 20-miles of walking that I’d originally planned to do.
Did I miss the walking? A little bit. But honestly, the blisters were such a bother that it was really nice to sit back on the train and watch the countryside whiz past. Gargrave is a quaint town that sits across from the River Aire; I got off the train and headed straight to the wonderful Dalesman Café, where I ordered a packed sandwich and bag of chips to stash in my pack for a little later in the afternoon. Because I only had 6-miles to walk and it was still late in the morning, I sat for awhile on the banks of the river with my feet stretched out in the sun, giving my blisters as much time to heal as I possibly could.
Eventually, I put my shoes back on and started walking and the blisters still hurt, but maybe not quite as much as the day before. Soon enough I was out of Gargrave and into the rolling countryside and fields of Eshton Moor. It was fairly easy walking and I mostly had the open fields all to myself, not another soul around for miles except for the cows and the sheep. Not another soul until I heard a sound behind me, and turned to see a young man walking briskly- nearly running- on the path behind me. He wore a wide-brimmed hat and carried a small day pack and the muscles of his legs reminded me a bit of a racehorse.
“Hi,” he called to me as he approached. “Are you walking the Pennine Way?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Are you?”
“Yeah, sort of,” he laughed. “I’m doing the Spine Race actually, crazy fool that I am.”
I’d heard about the Spine Race sometime in the days before; to quote the website, it’s a “non-stop, 7-day, 168 hour race from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.” Edale to Kirk Yetholm is the entirety of the Pennine Way, and to try to complete the trail in 7 days is, indeed, rather foolish. And a bit insane.
“When did you start?” I asked, as the man moved past me.
“Yesterday morning!” He was ahead of me now, and turning his head back he smiled. “Good luck with your walk, it’s a lot harder with a bigger pack like yours.”
I marveled at what he was attempting to do, and watched as he began to jog lightly through the grass. I thought about how he must have walked through the night, pausing only to sleep for an hour, maybe two. And then I thought about my own night and morning: a room of my own in a cozy B&B, a breakfast of eggs and toast and bacon and tomatoes and beans, and then a pleasant train ride on a steam engine. A sandwich in my pack, waiting to be eaten under the shade of a tree, perhaps along a babbling creek with my bare feet in the grass.
We all walk our own walk, I thought, smiling to myself.
But about 10 minutes later I’d caught up to him. I’d just approached a closed wooden gate when I saw the man on the other side of the field, backing slowly away from a large group of young cows who were advancing on him.
I carefully reached up and unlocked the gate, the swung it back towards me so the man could come back into my field. We shut the gate, the cows (or, possibly, bulls, according to the Spine Race Man) crowding against the wooden fence.
“I got worried when they start to advance on me,” he said.
We stared at the bulls, they stared back at us, pushing and shoving against each other so they could all get closer. They seemed friendly enough, but now that they were blocking the gate I couldn’t see how we would even be able to enter the field at all.
“Let’s hop over the wall here,” the Spine Race Man said, “it looks like this other field runs parallel to the path, and we can cross over again once we get away from the bulls.”
The man hopped the wall easily enough, but it was another story for me. I had to take off my pack and shove it over the wall to Spine Race Man, who was waiting to catch it. I attempted to effortlessly climb over the wall but who are we kidding? Once on top of the wall I needed the man’s help to get down onto the other side, and he was gracious enough to wait and help me, and even picked up my pack and helped me get it back on.
I figured he would take off- him being in a race and all- but he walked with me down through the field until we found a safe spot to climb back over the wall and get back onto the Pennine Way, well away from the bulls.
“Good luck with the rest of your way,” he said, and then he was off, running this time, off through the fields and away into the hills and after awhile I wondered if he was just a figment of my imagination, a man in a race over the mountains who helped me scale a wall and escape a herd of bulls.
The rest of my walk was beautiful and fairly easy. But then another funny thing happened, when I was about a mile away from Malham, my destination for the night. Walking towards me and coming from the opposite direction were three people, as they drew closer I saw a younger couple and a older woman. We all smiled at each other and I was about to move past them when the younger girl said, “Excuse me, but you aren’t Nadine, are you?”
I blinked. I was about 75-miles into a long walk through England and currently in the middle of a nondescript grassy field, and here was a group of people who were all looking at me and smiling and knowing exactly who I was.
I nodded, a bit hesitantly, and the girl beamed at me. “I’m Charlie’s sister!” she exclaimed. “This is our mother,” she pointed to the woman at her side. “We were just with Charlie last night and she and Dad went ahead to do the next stage, we’re going to take a car and meet up with them later.”
I laughed then, so happy to have run into these strangers who could give me news of Charlie, my friend from the day I walked into Hebden Bridge. I had last seen Charlie just two days before but already it felt like an entirety, as though I had been walking alone for a really long time.
Her family encouraged me, saying that Malham wasn’t much further and that the walking would be easy, and with big smiles and waves we said goodbye and I continued on. I thought about Charlie as I walked, how she was just a day ahead of me. The thought warmed me, as though I had some invisible guide on my journey, someone who was walking just miles ahead: checking the path, making sure the route was okay, leaving her trace by her footprints in the mud.
I arrived in Malham by mid-afternoon, and first walked in a circle through the tiny, charming village. There were several pubs and restaurants, a couple B&Bs, a small general store and an ice cream stand, all surrounding the River Aire. Families and hikers were seated at the outdoor tables and spread across the grass and with the bright sunlight filtering through the trees, I couldn’t think of a much more idyllic spot.
My hostel (Malham YHA Hostel) was just at the corner of town, and I stopped inside to deposit my bag and change my shoes and then went back into town to kill time until I could check into my dorm room. I added myself to the beautiful tableau before me: armed with an ice cream cone and Jane Eyre, I found a bench in the sun and whiled away a peaceful hour, reading and writing and people watching.
Later, over a hearty dinner in the pub, I thought about how I had given myself all the things I’d needed that day; how I had moved slowly and skipped those miles and met the Spine Race Man and Charlie’s family, how my feet were finally starting to feel better and how, after 5 days of walking, I was starting to feel like I was on the Pennine Way, really on it. I was settled and more sure of myself, I’d picked up a set of maps and an extra stake for my tent and several more blister patches (just in case!) and I had a belly full of food and a heavy copy of Jane Eyre and a forecast that showed nothing but sunshine.
I was ready for the rest of the way. Ready, and excited.