“Reading” on the Challenge

I read on one of her terrific posts or journals that on a long boring TGOC slog, Shirley Worral, “Peewiglet,” listened to a recorded version of one of Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful Aubrey-Maturin books. These are my favorites, too, and Patrick Tull’s spectacular acting sells them completely to me as a listener.

I went out for a longish walk the other day, tucked my iPod in my pocket, plugged in the earbud, and sailed away with Jack and Stephen for a couple of hours. Readers of the series will know that there are moments, and sometimes long sections, that are irresistibly comic, usually based on sometimes not-so-lovable character flaws and weaknesses displayed again and again by the main characters. Headed home, I found myself walking along laughing out loud. Not smiling or chuckling, mind you. Laughing out loud. The writing is so perceptive, so sharp, yet so genuinely and generously humane, it’s irresistible. Marvelous stuff.

I think I’ll follow in Shirl’s footsteps (literally in some cases), and bring an iPod on the Challenge. I’d use it mostly in the evenings, I think, but I’ve got a few slogs to get past, too, and I’d probably plug in then, as well. I’ve got what’s now called a Classic, with O’Brian, lots of Alan Furst, some Donna Leon and, optimistically, a bunch of language courses, among other things. And music, of course…mostly, but not entirely jazz. I wonder if I dare bring this mechanical device on the Scottish hills with me. I do also have a tiny Shuffle, which I sometimes shuffle with, but as far as I know, it can’t be recharged except by plugging it into a computer, and besides, it has no way to let you see and choose. I’ve never carried music or spoken books in the mountains, so I don’t have much of a feel for this.

(The Shuffle is my second. I returned the first, having apparently sweated it to death—right in the middle of Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti—on a steamy day last summer by clipping it to the top of my running shorts with the control wheel and its little interstices directly against my glowing back. A wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom. “Should have known better” has been my motto for years.)

Weather layers

When we went out to walk at 7:30 am today it was about 19° F. (-7° C.). This is about the point at which I’ve always begun to think it’s pretty cold, rather than just pretty chilly. I add a midlayer between baselayer and jacket, I trade the Buff for a Turtle Fur neck gaiter (made in Vermont, our likely future home, to protect you from the Wicked Itch of the North), and I swap my earmuffs for a watch cap. I also change from light gloves to mitts. The usual shorts covered by SportHills (similar to Tracksters). I won’t switch to warmer trousers until it gets a bit colder or is really windy. I use really horrible weather to try out different combinations.

My baselayer is new, a GoLite DriMove Cocona long sleeve T. I haven’t been a big GoLite fan, but I bought this top because it has an Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) logo on it, and I must say I’m very pleased. Most of my outdoor clothing and gear is solid and tested, but not exactly cutting edge. This top has a very smooth finish, which makes it easy to wear under things, and it doesn’t stink after a day in the hills…or a week walking Loops.

My midlayer was a gift from my daughter some years ago, and it’s been my favorite. It’s an Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) Bergelene Zip-T with thumb loops. It’s been many miles on my back, both walking and running, and it will be many more.

My mix of layers also includes an old black Patagonia Zephur windshirt, similar to but lighter and a little less bulky and more packable than a Marmot DriClime. It has no handwarmer pockets, but it does have a bigger and more useful breast pocket, which is important to me in this sort of top. The Zephur enters the morning walk wardrobe when the wind is biting or the thermometer really takes a plunge. I also wear it in the hills when it’s raining but not pouring. It’s a really versatile piece. But ugly. Ugly.

Some of this stuff I’ll bring to Scotland, but I haven’t yet decided on the right selection. And I’m pondering the best waterproofs, which riveting topic I’ll cover soon.

Scotland’s dark waters…and dark times elsewhere

Yesterday morning I had the NPR news on in the background, and I jerked my head up when I heard the reporter say, “The once light amber lochs found in the Scottish Highlands now look more like dark Guinness Stout.”

It turns out that this is part of a phenomenon noticed all over northern Europe and North America…and it’s not a bad thing. Here’s the link, if you’d like to listen (a little over three minutes).

It doesn’t taste like Guinness Stout, does it?

Yesterday was Thanksgiving here in the States. It’s a holiday that for many Americans is inextricably intertwined with football. Along with the televised games that begin in the early afternoon and go on well into the evening, for high schools it’s frequently the morning when the last game of the year is played, often against a traditional rival. (My father still has the ball—adorned by the now disappearing autographs of his teammates—that he was awarded as captain of the winning team in the 1940 Wilby-Crosby Thanksgiving Day game.)

Despite dad’s youthful skill in the sport, we tend not to be one of those football families. We gather, drink decent wine, eat vast quantities of turkey, stuffing, and fixin’s, catch up with each others’ lives, meet the new boyfriends and girlfriends, and welcome guests who couldn’t get home to their own families.

An evening or two before Thanksgiving every year, our town has an ecumenical service in one of the five white clapboard churches lining our New England main street. I’ve been asked a few times to read the Governor’s proclamation formally appointing the date of the holiday. It’s almost always a version of the words written in 1936 by one of our state’s great governors, Wilbur Cross, in which he noted our need to be thankful, among other things, “…for the brotherly word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each to his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land….”

It’s sobering to read those words these days, and impossible to be thankful for that which does not exist. So this year I could only express joy and gratitude that we could be together, faith that things will change, and hope that enough of us will have the determination to make it so.

Walk, don’t run

The elegant gent standing next to the phallic cairn is Paul. He was my high school social studies and earth science teacher. (I am now his landlord. The worm turns.) We’ve been friends for over 40 years, and these days we walk three miles or so together every morning, solving along the way many major national and international problems. We have a couple of regular routes, known to us as “River” and “Loops.” Our fondest hope every day is to meet an early dog or two to pat and scratch. Then Paul starts looking forward to his Quaker Oats, and I to my Wheaties. How the mateys have fallen.

This photo was taken on neither “River” nor “Loops” here in Woodbury, Connecticut, USA, but on the Welch-Dickey Loop, a classic, beautiful, half-day stretch of the legs in New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley area. Distance is about 4.5 mi. (7.2 km.), total elevation gain is about 1,800 ft. (550 m.), and much of the walk is on open slab. Terrific walking, fine views, and at least on this September mid-week day, no crowds.

The smiling paunch in the red shorts is me, overlooking the unfortunately obscured Nancy Cascades, on a different walk during the same week, this one west of Crawford Notch and on the way to what I suppose is my favorite single spot in the Whites.

After our morning walk, I sometimes run (or, more accurately, shuffle) a few miles, and when Paul the cosmopolite is away in exotic locales, I often dump the walk altogether and just shuffle a little farther. In fact, this is how the “Loops” route was born. I used to be a runner who could actually run. Then I became a runner who thought he could run. I persisted in this delusion despite regular and unmistakable signals given out over time by all parts of both legs. The result was that I kept finding myself grumpily limping home from miles away. This happened over and over again. I’d strain an achilles, say, offer the excruciating penance of rest, gradually build back up to running, stretch the mileage, raise the pace and…boom…grumpily limping home again from miles away. It took only a dozen or so of these cycles before the brilliant idea of local loops flashed into my quick and supple mind. So, making use of the Main Street sidewalk (pretty much the only one in town), part of my old high school cross-country course, and the cemetery where I ease quietly past a number of gently resting relatives and friends, I put together a set of loops that could be modified, linked, reversed, repeated, and short-circuited to give me essentially any distance I could sanely hope to manage, without ever being more than a mile or so from home. The “Loops” Paul and I walk many mornings is a basic version. Of course, when I do whatever that is that I repeatedly do to the outside of my right knee, it’s always at that mile-away-from-the–house point.

Now that all I want to do is to be ready for the TGO Challenge in May, I’m going to be walking more and running, even shuffling, less. I do NOT want have to limp grumpily back home from deepest Knoydart.


I’ve often told people that the coldest I’ve ever been was in Scotland in August. Obviously, for someone who lives in southern New England and spends as much time as possible in northern New England, this is technically untrue. But it’s accurate all the same.

Nonetheless, I’m excited about the thick envelope that arrived in my mailbox late last week confirming that I’ve been accepted to participate next May in the 2008 TGO Challenge, “the World’s premier backpacking event.” For American readers others not tuned in to outdoor recreation in the UK, the TGOC is “an annual self-supported walking event across the Highlands of Scotland, west coast to east coast.” Starting from any one of 12 points in the west, you can finish anywhere between two well-spaced spots in the east. You plan your own route and decide yourself if you want to camp or stay in hostels, hotels, or B&Bs. It’s very much NOT a race, and I’m very much looking forward to partaking of its fabled sociability. Its name comes from The Great Outdoors, roughly the British equivalent of Backpacker magazine here in the US. (Outdoor gear manufacturer Rab and tour company Himalayan Kingdoms are the event’s other sponsors.) Over 400 walkers applied for the 300 available spots. And for British walkers and those in the know, yes, I’m aware my acceptance was pro forma because the Challenge very kindly (and sociably) encourages foreign participants. Pro forma or not, getting the confirmation was a thrill.

But why do I want to walk across a country who’s very name can make me shiver on a hot beach? Well, there’s the Challenge part, of course. But mostly it’s that I’ve always been drawn to the British, and especially the Scottish, culture of hill walking and mountaineering. I loved what I knew about the late Tom Patey, and his doggerel and songs. One of my all-time favorite books, primarily for its generous spirit and joyful embrace of the out-of-doors, is Alastair Borthwick’s 1939 classic, Always a Little Further, which I bought while we were living in England in the early ’70s. I’ve walked a bit in the Lakes and elsewhere (including Scotland), and I’ve run into this attractive attitude a lot. I know there are jerks in the British hills. I’ve run into some of them (and let me say that in my opinion as a connoisseur of the breeds, there is no jerk like an English jerk, though Americans do bastards better). But mostly I’ve experienced good-natured acceptance and—amazingly, given the inbred reticence on both sides—even friendliness. (There’s probably a certain self-fulfilling prophesy aspect to this: I expect to like the people I meet, so I do.) The same is true here in the States, of course, though the mountain culture is a bit different—outdoor people everywhere, I think, tend to be decent types.

So, while I’ll be prepared for the chill of Scotland, I’m looking forward to its warmth, too.