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Serious Walking

01 December 2015 Written by  By Jackie Irwin
Published in December 2015 Articles

For two decades, I was an elementary school teacher.

I was married part of that time and am now a single mom but both kids have grown and gone. I am running my own from-home quilting business called Sew On And Sew Forth, which has brought me much joy.

I love creating beautiful quilts but am particularly passionate about hiking — the longer the walk the happier I am. From childhood I enjoyed walking to places but got my big boost 30 years ago, when I was still in college, and Uncle Richard (Mom’s brother) talked me into going with him on a backpacking trip. We drove up into the mountains, rode horses for four hours, and then hiked four more. This was the first leg on a ten-day hiking tour on the back-route of Mount Whitney.

I was unprepared for the experience. I had loaded my backpack with useless and heavy items. The pack was too heavy and the hike was grueling beyond anything I had imagined. On the first night, I staggered into the campsite, dirty, disheveled, and dog-tired. A little mountain lake was nearby but it was rimmed in ice and would have been too cold for bathing even if I had not been too exhausted to think about dealing with soap and water. I was faint with hunger but too tired and miserable to consider eating, so I laid out my mat and sleeping bag, crawled in, lay there in my filthy condition, and sobbed with despair at my poor judgment in ever becoming involved in such a terrible project as this was turning out to be.

However, my good judgment finally came to my rescue. I realized that, since there was no way to get out of it, the only sensible thing to do was pull up my big-girl panties and simply walk the course to its end. The fact is, it isn’t too complicated to make up your mind to do something when you actually don’t have a choice.

One of the things I got rid of the next day was a couple big bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Uncle Richard had warned me that I wasn’t going to need them. I was sure that he was wrong but, as it turned out, I went ten days without washing my hair or even my body. At the conclusion of the hike, when we finally arrived at a hotel, I looked and smelled like the wife of Sasquatch.

Three decades have passed since that walk and I don’t remember many details about the days we spent on the trail. I do remember that my body craved sugar. I had packed cookies but ran out on day two. Before the hike had ended, a handful of raisins tasted like heaven.

I also remember how impressed I was with those towering mountains that I never could have seen without making the painful journey. I eventually concluded that the beauty I was seeing made up for the sore muscles, blistered feet, and filthy body. The glory outweighed the pain, but the agony was real. For one thing, each step we took seemed to be either higher than the previous one or lower; we were never following a level path.

On the ninth day, we were nearing the completion of our trek at picturesque Guitar Lake on the back of Mt. Whitney. We hiked over the crest of the mountain and saw the town of Lone Pine, which was our final destination, stretched out below us seemingly close at hand.

“I’m going down there,” I announced to Uncle Richard. The summit of Mt. Whitney was not far above us. I surrendered the opportunity of standing on top of the highest mountain in the United States (not counting Alaska), but I was done climbing. A hot shower, a warm meal, and a comfortable bed were calling out to me, so I started to run towards the town. I figured it would take an hour or so, but it took eight hours. The descent was brutal, but I never quit running.

One of the vivid discoveries I made on that hike is that a steep descent will pound and punish your whole body; it is far easier to climb up a steep slope than to climb down. Whenever I see pictures or videos of people standing on some summit like Everest, it makes me laugh to think that most people imagine that the smiling mountaineers have finished their walk. Only those of us who have done a lot of climbing realize that the pitiful climbers are about to begin the hardest part.

When I arrived at the hotel, I took the most glorious shower of my life. I could see mud running across the tile floor. It’s a good thing I didn’t use a bathtub; I would have stopped up the drain.

Even though that first hike was a savage experience, before long I realized that I couldn’t wait until the next trip. Not until you spend a couple weeks in the wilderness, where you can hear nothing except the wind and bird-songs can you realize how confused and noisy our civilization is. I began to long to walk again “in quiet solitude of the forest and the streams” and to “understand the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake” that John Denver sang about. The stillness beckoned to me. I wanted to go back.

Five years ago, Uncle Richard and his wife Margie set up an adventure involving travel from one side of France to the other. We actually started in Geneva, Switzerland, which is only an hour from the French border. We spent 33 days walking diagonally across France to Toulouse, 350-miles distance. Each day we would cover between eight miles and 19. This was actually a famous pilgrimage route called the St. James of Compostela Way. Uncle Richard had a book of people who would “sponsor” us “pilgrims” for a flat fee. People opened their homes to us at every point of the trip so we only had to take day packs with clothes and a lunch. At each stop they would give us a nice dinner, bed, shower, and send us off the next morning with a good breakfast in our bellies.

All the residences we stayed in were lovely. Some bordered on palatial with walls made of two feet of solid rock and stone fireplaces so large you could stand erect inside them. We climbed spiral staircases made of rock so ancient that the individual steps had depressions made by the feet of countless generations of climbers. A number of the homes were former sprawling cattle barns brilliantly converted to luxurious residences.

The food was so great that I collected recipes. Every dinner included a number of courses. Just when we would think the meal was over, they would bring out another dish. Each residence seemed to have a private kitchen garden, so the meals included some amazing salads. Even the bread was fantastic!

The scenery was always beautiful with fields of sunflower, wheat, and canola that would stretch to the horizon. Our pathway wound around rolling hills and mountains. Just as in the Sierras, there was hardly a single stretch of level ground. It was a great experience. I wanted to go on another cross-country hike in Europe and wanted my mother to go with me. The two requirements were that the people had to speak English and that we wouldn’t have to carry luggage. We chose Ireland. I found a company on the Internet called Footfalls Walking Tours that set up the course, organized lodging, luggage transportation, and provided maps together with a written description of what we would see along the route.

For some reason, my mother has a pathological fear of being on a trip and not having something she needs. The woman has no ability to pack light. I went through Mom’s suitcase before we left and got rid of a lot of totally useless stuff but she insisted on bringing bandages and other medical supplies, hair gels, makeup, two blow dryers, and a large mass of other baggage that required a huge foot locker that I named Godzilla. Mom is only five feet tall and I think Godzilla was only an inch shorter. Footfalls Tours would load the bags into their trucks, called lorries, but I always had to get Godzilla in and out of the lodging, and usually up and down a narrow set of stairs.

We took a direct flight from SFO to Dublin. We left mid-afternoon and chased the sun on The Great Circle route, landing in Dublin almost 11 hours later but still only in the late afternoon. We took a taxi from the airport. We probably would have died if I had been driving a rental car because those people drive on the wrong side of the road. And even in the backseat of the cab I got freaked out more than once thinking we were all going to be killed because vehicles ahead of us were approaching on the left side of the road.

We were following The Wicklow Way, which begins south of Dublin, at a place called Marlay Park, and then winds for 78 miles through the Wicklow Mountains, ending in County Carlow. After that first breakfast, we went out on the porch and the hostess pointed out the route that led up a hill and through a gate, they call a “stile.”

We set off walking and for a full day walked in the wrong direction. We had the maps but in my defense, the sky was overcast so I couldn’t see the sun. Every marker on the map in the direction we were supposed to go matched an object on the pathway we were actually going down. Five hours into the trip we met some fellow travelers at a pub called the Dead Horse Saloon. When they found out where we were going, they told us that we were going the wrong way. Providentially, they had a car in the saloon’s parking lot and gave us a ride to a place a little beyond our starting point. We walked from there and finally arrived at our destination warn out and footsore, but thankful we had met that couple or we might never have gotten straightened out.

We followed the Wicklow Way for nine days. Ireland turned out to be less spectacular than France but beautiful. The path wound along the ocean and we would take detours to peaks where we would get great views of the Irish Sea. We really lucked out in that we never got rained on one time. Sometimes the wind would be blowing, especially on a peak. On one climb towards a summit, the wind was blowing so hard I was afraid it would sweep me off the path. I turned to Mom. “We’re going back,” I said. The diminutive woman drew herself up, took on the attitude of a German soldier, assumed a defiant pose with her hand pointing up the mountain,  “We’re going on,” she said. My mom is fun to walk with. She’s so cute. She’s like a humming bird. She never stops. We laughed and laughed.

I’m a happy walker. I walk everywhere. If not pressed for time, I’ll walk across town to do something. I’ve learned, however, that I no longer like carrying a 25-pound pack. Furthermore, I prefer a comfortable bed, a warm shower, and a sit-down dinner.

Next summer we’re going to walk across England coast to coast.

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