My alarm went off at 4:30am the morning of my 15th and final day on the Pennine Way. Already the sun was starting its slow rise over the horizon and soft light was pouring through my window.
I was in the bunkhouse in Byrness and despite the early hour, despite the intimidation I felt over the challenge ahead, I couldn’t wait to get out of that place.
I woke up remembering the very poor reception I’d received the night before, but already the sting wasn’t as sharp. At this early hour I knew that I could pack my bag, drink a fast cup of coffee in the kitchen downstairs, and slip through the door and out of the village without anyone noticing. I could leave, and I would never have to return.
I remember learning this on the Camino Frances, and it’s one thing I really like about long-distance walking. Every day is a new day, and every day you move on to some place different. In regular life, a bad interaction or experience can linger: often, you need to drive down the same roads, go to the same building for work, encounter the same people, the same neighbors, sleep in the same bed. It can feel hard to get away from a bad day.
But on the Camino, or the Pennine Way, or any long-distance trail, you get to walk away and never look back! For better or worse, every day is different. From the terrain to the villages and towns, to the people and the locals. If you have a bad experience one day, at the very least you can be assured that it probably won’t be repeated the next day (unless you’re walking with blisters. Blisters follow you for far longer than you’d like).
So after washing my face and gulping down some coffee, I hoisted up my pack and started walking out of the village. It was just past 5am. I had never had an earlier start, nor had I ever carried a pack so heavy.
Both of these facts were due to the day I had ahead of me: 26-miles through a mostly wild and remote landscape in the border country of England and Scotland. There would be no water sources that day, no services or pubs or food trucks or towns or villages for just about the entire stretch. I’d be walking up and down, up and down for a total of 4800ft of elevation gain over the 26-miles. It was also due to be another hot and sunny day, and while I vastly preferred this kind of weather to rain, I knew that the heat would take its toll. And so because of this, I’d packed more water than I’d ever carried before, and I can’t even remember how much. 4 liters? Maybe? (Which is a little under 9 pounds).
It was July 4th- America’s Independence Day- but the date barely registered. Instead, I was grateful for the long hours of daylight that the summer days had been giving me, beginning with a sunrise around 4:30am. With a very long day of walking in store, I decided that I might as well start as soon as the sun came up.
I’d felt defeated the night before, but as soon as I started walking, I felt so much better. This was what it was all about: walking into the hills in the soft morning air, alone and free.
The climb out of Byrness was a doozy, and as soon as I started going up I could feel the weight of my pack pulling me back. But I just leaned forward and propelled myself up, stopping every once in awhile to look behind me. I was climbing above the tree-line, and soon I was above even a thin layer of clouds.
The morning light was golden, it lit against the blades of grass and shone through the white puffy flowers and etched out the trail so that I could see its snaking line, winding over the hills.
I was walking down one of these hills when I fell. It was the first time I’ve ever fallen on a walk, and luckily the fall was more funny than anything else. There was a subtle mound in the grass and as I was descending a small hill my foot hit the mound and threw off my center of gravity. Now, if I hadn’t been wearing a pack (or if I had a much lighter pack), I’m pretty sure I could have caught myself and straightened out. But my pack was just too heavy, and as soon as I was thrown off balance my pack did the rest of the work, and pulled me toward the ground. I felt like it was all happening in slow motion: I realized that I stood no chance against the pack and so I just sort of tipped over. I landed with my pack mostly underneath me and for a minute I just laid there, sprawled out in the grass, unable to get up easily because my pack was keeping me down. When I finally pulled myself up, I noticed two things. One: the end of my walking pole was now bent (I had tried to catch myself with it to no avail), and two: a group of sheep was staring at me in alarm.
“It’s okay, sheep!” I said, as I brushed the grass from my pants. “Nothing to see here! All good. Just a little tumble, no one’s hurt!”
My strategy for the walk was to break it up into chunks. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to think about the day as a whole, otherwise I worried that I might get too overwhelmed. Instead, I’d marked up the maps in my guidebook with notes and circles and arrows and I’d determined the spots where I could stop for a break.
My first destination of the day was the Lamb Hill Refuge Hut, about 8-miles into the walk. I didn’t note how long I had been walking but my guidebook estimates that those 8-miles take about 4 hours, and this is due to the constant up and down of the terrain. On and on I pushed, and those first 8-miles were difficult and glorious. I’m convinced that the quality of the light was different that morning: it was golden and glowing and it illuminated every blade of grass, every sheep, every rock, every wooden slab.
On and on and there, in the distance, the only thing for miles and miles was a little wooden hut. I waved my broken walking stick in the air and shouted, “The hut!!!!!”
No one could hear me, except maybe a sheep, because after those 8-miles I still hadn’t seen a soul. The hut was much further away than it appeared and there was a moment when I wondered if maybe it was some sort of mirage, because I kept walking and walking and it didn’t appear to get any closer but finally it did, and then I was there.
I threw off my pack and sniffed around. There wasn’t much inside: a flag and a some notes on the trail encased in plastic, a granola bar and a broom in the corner. The simple wooden shelter would be a relief in bad weather, and is used by some hikers as a camping spot. As for me, I kicked off my shoes, settled in on the wooden porch, and dug into some snacks.
When I left the shelter behind, I felt a bit like I was heading back out into the great unknown. I didn’t feel frightened or uncertain; the weather was fine and the path was marked clearly and I had good maps and despite the distance I felt like I would be able to make it to the end. But there was a wildness to that last day on the Pennine Way. To have that great, rolling, open landscape all to myself make me feel like I was alone in some far corner of the world. I loved it.
I walked and I walked: up Lamb Hill, down a sharp descent. Over stone slabs and wooden planks, down the narrow path worn into the soft grass. All around were the soft, rounded hills of the Cheviots, the highland range that marks the boundary between England and Scotland. Up Beefstand Hill, up Mozie Law, up to the trig point at Windy Gyle which was the halfway point of the day. I paused here for a photo, dropped my pack and stretched my back and stood sipping water for a few minutes, but then continued on.
Up to King’s Seat and then up, and up, and up, a long, drawn out ascent. It was somewhere around this point where I caught up to the four Australian women who had stayed in Byrness the night before. They had split this last stage into two days and were on their second and final day, having been dropped off somewhere a bit further back. When they saw me they stared in surprise. “What time did you start walking?” they asked. “How do you feel?”
I was tired, I could feel it all over my body, but I also felt like I had found a good rhythm. I chatted for a minute but continued on: on and on and when I got to the Auchope Cairn- a huge pile of rocks that sits just before the descent to the second refuge hut- I took a break. I’d been intending to stop at the hut but suddenly it felt so far away, down at the bottom of a very steep descent and I decided that some lunch and some time to prop up my feet was the best idea.
After the break, and after the second refuge hut, I still had 7-miles to go. I don’t remember as much about these last 7-miles, and I only have a few photos. Clouds had rolled in and I hunkered down and set my mind firmly to the task ahead. I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other, over and over, and in this way, somehow, I would make it to Kirk Yetholm.
The Schil was the last ascent of the day, a slow and steady mile and a half climb from the second refuge hut, and I remember my determination as I walked. “The Schil!” I said as I walked, “The Schil!”. The name felt dramatic, direct. I paused for just a moment at the base of the steepest part of the climb, and looked at what stood before me. “This is it,” I whispered, “this is the final push.”
I made it to the top, slow but steady, and then on legs that were beginning to feel wobbly I continued walking: cheering when I saw a sign for Kirk Yetholm, 4 1/2 miles. It was here that the route divides, giving walkers the option of either a higher or lower route. The higher route is more scenic but also more challenging, the lower route offers a much more straightforward and easy path to the finish.
For me it was an easy decision: I was taking the lower route all the way. The day had been full of beauty and adventure, and I was done. I plowed ahead, willing myself to continue putting one foot in front of the other, savoring the last of the hills and simultaneously hoping that civilization would soon come into view.
And before too long, it did: I passed through farms and saw trees and the dirt path spit me out onto a paved road and after one final, sharp climb, I arrived in Kirk Yetholm (also, at some point, I’d officially crossed into Scotland!).
I was exhausted. Exhausted, but also quietly triumphant. I walked around the tiny village twice before asking someone to help me find my lodgings: the Kirk Yetholm Friends of Nature House (a hostel with a lovely name).
I think the poor reception I’d received the evening before in Byrness still had me a bit shaken because I felt somewhat on guard when I entered Kirk Yetholm, but very quickly the village righted the score and helped me end the Pennine Way on such a high note. The man working at the hostel was so kind and thoughtful: he congratulated me on my walk, showed me to my room, and promised that he would help me navigate my travel options for the following day. While I didn’t meet anyone else who finished the Pennine Way that day (aside from the Australian women, I was the only other one), I did encounter groups of other walkers who were curious about my adventure (Kirk Yetholm, in addition to being the start/end point of the Pennine Way, also sits along St Cuthbert’s Way).
And then, after my shower, I walked over to the Border Hotel, which has become something of an unofficial end point of the walk. Inside, if you ask, you can sign a Pennine Way guestbook, receive a free half-pint of beer, and a certificate, too. All it took was for me to mention that I’d just finished the walk and the guy behind the bar smiled, brought out the guestbook, wrote the date on my certificate, and quickly poured me a beer (the free beer tradition was started by Alfred Wainwright, who wrote a famed guidebook for the walk after his 1966-67 experience. He promised to buy a pint for anyone who completed the entire trail, and this tradition has lived on today, though it was downgraded to a half-pint sometime in the last few years).
After my half-pint I ordered a full pint along with a good, hearty meal, then walked back to my hostel. The sun was setting, the sky blazing pink and orange and yellow and I stood outside for a minute, watching the colors, watching the clouds shift and expand. I breathed deeply, and thought about how I felt. I felt tired, but I also felt strong. I felt sad that my journey had ended but I felt so proud, too. And more than anything I felt a deep contentment: content that I’d spent the last 15 days walking for 268-miles through the moorland and dales and countryside of Northern England. I’d done it, and even though this wasn’t my first long-distance walk, there is always a profound sense of satisfaction and contentment that follows each one, and the Pennine Way was no different. The walk was done, and for now, I needed a rest. But long-distance walking has me hooked, and I knew it would only be a matter of time until I started planning the next journey.