The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 3, 2010

Ramble On

Hikes, like people, come in three flavours. There are the driven, directed, rigid ones that swerve not from the path, and stick true to their faith. There are the diffuse, ambling, inchoate ones that meld and veer and absorb all influences. And then there are the British.

It's easy to hike in North America. The trails are sign-posted. Eager rangers show you well-marked guides that describe every turn. You have a choice of easy and moderate and hard hikes. Best of all, they usually start from a car-park. The North American, you understand, drives to the start of the trail, hikes for hours, returns to his car, and goes home filled with self-satisfaction. Otherwise, he sets up a tent in a marked camping ground and spends the night in contentment. The next day, he finds ample water for his ablutions. He carefully cleans up any garbage he may have produced, and drives home filled with self-satisfaction.

The North American hike is also rigid. You may not deviate from the trail. There are trails where cyclists have right of way, and there are trails where you yield to animals. There are frequently posted descriptions of the character of the countryside, and well-appointed scenic overlooks from where all the splendour of the land is immediate, if somewhat stereotyped. You may not deviate from the trail.

I have trekked up and down the White Mountains and the Appalachians and the Adirondacks and the Smoky Mountains. These are all excellent destinations for the active hikist. You cannot get lost. You will find water and supplies if only you manage that extra mile. Other trekkers will smile and greet you and encourage you should you falter. And you will not deviate from the trail.

It is also very easy to hike in India. There are no trails. There are no interdicts. You start at the foot of a likely hill and you walk. You don't know if your path will be difficult or not. You don't care. You can always go in any other direction if you get stuck. Unless you are in one of the cis-Himalayan regions where you need the inner-line permit to enter, you can go wherever your fancy takes you. If you are lost, you will not remain so for very long, for eventually you'll encounter a local who will happily show you a way forward. It may not be the way you want to go, but it is a way, and it's all an adventure, and you are not worried. The views are tougher, more natural than the North American ones, and as spectacular. There are no trails.

You are dependent more on your resources, of course. There are no toilets, and very likely there aren't many sources of drinking water. You - unless you are particularly eco-conscious - litter the countryside with wrappers from Parle G and crinkled bottles of water. You sleep out in the open and you cook your own grub. And then you set off again into the sunrise.

I have trekked in the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalayas, the Aravallis, and up beyond Rohtang, and in the Nilgiris, and in the Savandurga. In some of these places, there were other hikers. There was little communication with them, leave alone smiles and encouragement. Everyone was a self-contained universe. In most of the other places, my friends and I were the only people for miles. But there were always friendly villagers with their lovely little kids looking on with curiosity and interest.

And then there is Britain. Not for the Brits the ease of North America, the convenience of camping grounds and parking lots. There are few clearly delineated trails. You need a Ordnance Survey map on a suitable scale; nearly every trail imaginable has been mapped. You need good map-reading skills. You need to orient yourself properly at the beginning of the trail; after that, you propagate rectilinearly until you catch sight of an obscure little marker that causes you to deviate. You are not restricted to the trail - within reason. The British are all about reason.

There is not the anarchy of the Indian hike. You may ramble almost anywhere - there are rights of way even through private lands. But every rambler is conscious of boundaries. You can't camp wherever you like. You do not litter. You are free to greet sputniks. Or not. You may even be treated to the sight of a nudist nipping past you at high speed.

The wife had gone on the Scottish West Highland Way in the dissolute period before I made an honest woman of her. She trekked for several days before a massive blister stopped her in her tracks. When we first met, she enthused about her adventures. Shortly after we moved to England, we decided to hike in Devon. The wife rushed off to her favourite Covent Garden source of all things perambulatory, and returned with a fancy compass and a detailed Ordnance Survey map. We nipped off to Exeter on a sunny morn, and took the Transmoor Link to a little village where our hike was to begin.

It was not too difficult to orient ourselves - we were looking for a village church, and we found it sharpish. Confidently, we headed in the direction indicated on the map. We grinned at each other and we marched. Minutes later, we saw a fence. Behind it was a church. It turned out to be the church we had started from.

Nonchalantly, we struck off again, still smiling. The sun shone. The birds chirped. We found ourselves by the church again. This time we were behind it.

A playful breeze hurried us along our path for a third time. Our smiles faltered. We were not muttering endearments any more. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves before the church again. We had approached it from yet another direction.

"This is nuts," said the wife. "Why can't we even find the beginning of the trail?"

"Look," I said. "Here is a trail marker. Here is the church. And here it is on the map. We are on the right path."

We spent the next hour revisiting the church from various angles. We finished all our water. We took the next bus back to Exeter. And that was our last hike in England.


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