Bristol: May 4, 1991...
he Road from Bristol to Wales crosses the Severn River, a mile-and-a-half wide cleavage at this point in its stretch toward the sea. I hitched a ride that took me several miles further, up to Chepstow, and my first opportunity to explore the remains of a real castle. It wasn't all that large, as castles go, but at the $2.25 entry fee it was more affordable than most of those I would later encounter. There wasn't all that much to actually see, but I was so charmed by it that I spent two full hours among the ruins, teasing my imagination with scenes probably gleaned from old movies. The great old banquet hall was nothing but a great old opening to the sky . . . but there were holes in the stonework for great old crossbeams that once girded its great old timbered floor. Anyway, it was my first real castle and I could have spent another hour there; but the road toward further adventure called.
Onward, for a mile-long walk up a tree-bordered, sun-spackled country road, to the highway going north, where I was picked up in hardly any time at all by an elderly couple who had actually doubled back after first passing me by. Age, at times, can be a distinct advantage in hitch-hiking. They were quite fascinated to find someone of their own generation from America, at the humble and unlikely task of thumbing a ride in the countryside.
Just a few miles along our way they stopped at Tintern Abbey for a rest break, allowing me to linger at one of the most beautiful ruins in all of Britain without even losing my ride. Tintern's gaunt, towering facade was a lacework filigree of delicate stonework etched against this day's bluest of blue skies. The spring-green meadow grass carpeting its open interior presented a rare vision of nature within the church - a church that all too often rejects nature. I momentarily regretted not having a camera with me.
By the time my driver let me off at Monmouth, a further few miles up the road, clouds were gathering and the day's high energy was on the wane. No GN hosts were nearby, but one of Britain's few affordable youth hostels was, at nine dollars, and I found it in a classic Tudor style structure that had once been a boy's school. It was nearly empty and I was given an entire dorm room to myself. Having no social responsibilities here, and no good reason for seclusion, I spent the last few hours of daylight exploring the town.
I found an archaeology dig happening right in the heart of Monmouth. A crew at work inside an old shop-front had cut away the ground just a few feet, to expose the old Roman street pattern as it crossed this point. Two-thousand-year old building foundations were clearly visible. From what I could gather, the locale is a hive of such sites, with a strong community commitment to investigate and preserve them whenever a turnover in local property offers the opportunity.
Monday's thirty-five miles was not a large stride for a week that had to see me all the way through Wales, but it had been an easy, straightforward passage with no sense of urgency. Tuesday was something else again - all around. It began with a failure of my VISA card, the ATM machine informing me that I had drawn my limit, which simply didn't make any sense to me. But this, at least, was no immediate problem; the Westminster Bank card came through for me with the week's cash.
My day's objective was to head directly west, avoiding the industrial south coast of Wales so I could more quickly reach its rural and west coastal regions. The atlas indicated a routing by secondary roads that could accomplish this, with a little hitch-hiking luck, by way of a midway town called Merthyr Tydfil - which is only important to this tale in the way it eventually skewed my day's journey. The skies warned me, from the very start, that the day could be troublesome.
My first ride took me an uneventful seven miles. Then I was picked up by a cheerful fellow in a big meat truck hauling whole carcasses and cuts to butcher shops, up one road and down another. He talked a non-stop monologue that went this way and that, like his routing, and I lost track of where we were until we got to Pontypool, which was well south of my intended course. But it was raining by this time, and I had no inclination to be back out at the roadside.
He loved his job, he kept telling me, though I couldn't imagine why, the more he told me about it. He started each day at 3 a.m. and worked ten to twelve hours, six days a week, during which he was responsible for the meat-cutting as well as delivery and accounts, and he received no overtime pay, it was a flat salary . . . but he loved it! Every so often I'd wait in the truck while he hauled carcass, looking more bloody and exhausted at each return - but quick to resume his testimonial eloquence, until I wondered if it was a rare form of compensatory sarcasm to keep his own spirits up.
From Pontypool we kept right on south to Newport, on the coast, where he knew the cheapest place in all of Britain, he said, for fish and chips. It was true, they only cost $1.90. We touched into Cardiff, further along the coast, then north again past Castle Coch and up to Pontypridd, the end of his run - and pretty much nowhere, as far as I was concerned, but nothing had encouraged me to get off anywhere along the way. By this time, a full sleet storm was pounding us, and I had to run for cover when he announced the journey's end. He pointed out a footpath through the brush, leading to a raging stream crossed by a foot-bridge to the other side, where I'd find a rail station from which to further my day's rather dubious progress. It was a narrow, cable-hung boardwalk that swayed in the wind over the torrent below, like I was crossing a gorge in the high Andes. The day's very substance had begun to disintegrate into the surreal.
Pontypridd is a rail junction that offers three choices, like a Y. The two northern directions dead-end at about equal distances and the southbound one eventually turns near the coast, to head westward into the Welsh sunset - were there a sunset. I should have waited for that one, but one of the northbound forks went to Merthyr Tydfil, on my once-intended route, and without thinking it all the way through I hopped aboard a train ready to leave. It was a labored half-hour uphill grind. The conductor seemed completely oblivious of me as he paraded several times through the car collecting fares, so I simply didn't pay.
At Merthyr Tydfil it was dry again, but so darkening that I had visions of imminent deluge. In these circumstances it made little sense to hitch-hike without knowing I'd find a host. The only one in the area was twenty miles beyond Merthyr Tydfil, and I placed a phone call . . . only to learn that he was not prepared to receive a guest without prior notice. That settled it. The train - the same one I had just come up on - was ready to head south now, and back on it I went, this time paying my fare, determined to stay on board. Past Pontypridd, past Cardiff, until we came to someplace where GN hosts were more plentiful.
I hung in for a hundred miles of twisting train ride to Carmarthen, so absorbed with weather and host concerns that I hardly gave attention to our passage through the heart of the Welsh coal-mining district. It was sunset time and quite cold now. Remarkably, I was under clearing skies, for the moment, but the day's highly volatile weather guaranteed nothing and I knew I must find quick and easy shelter - hopefully with one of the half dozen potential hosts in the area. Given the nature of this day, though, I was alert to anything in the environment that might offer a place to crawl into and hide from the night sky. Not again would I take my chances with a roofless bivouac.
I had no cause for concern. My second phonecall found the welcome I sought, a woman who said apologetically that she could offer only one night of shelter. It was all I needed, and lovely to hear. Celia, who drove to the station to pick me up, was slim and attractive in jeans and had auburn hair of the deepest hue I have ever seen. It recalled to me, from somewhere long ago, a richly polished Brazilian mahogany with a similar lush, dark luster. I couldn't keep my eyes from it - to the point where I was afraid my attention would become conspicuous.
She and lawyer husband Mike lived in a rambling old streamside house several miles out of town, along with three youngsters - in one of whom, Robyn, I glimpsed myself as a precocious pre-teen, a half century back in time. There were other people around, too, whose status - neighbors, friends, lodgers? - was not quite clear to me. But they all joined in preparing the evening meal, and I helped a bit, myself, with the salad. It was a completely casual affair, with conversation to match, and ordinary local gossip. I remembered little of it, for I still could not keep my eyes from that auburn hair.
Carmarthen was my southwest corner-point in Wales. Celia drove me, the next morning, to a tiny village called Cynwyl Elfed - a picture-postcard bit of rural Wales, on the road to the crescent coastline of Cardigan Bay. And the best spot to hitch from, she said, though virtually no traffic seemed to be coming through. But the day had dawned crystal clear, nature at its best, and it made little difference to me to linger here under brilliant blue skies. Eventually, a couple who looked like they had come straight out of Berkeley in the 1960s came along in a small car and picked me up. They said they'd never been there; but we were clearly cut from the same pattern, and conversation came so easily that they went some distance out of their way to get me right out on the coast, at a place called Aberaeron.
If the day itself was perfect, this was the place where perfection was complete. The sight of those cobalt-blue waters, sparkles of sunlight rippling across their surface to the crystal-sharp line where a cloudless cerulean sky took over, was a vision of timeless paradise. I looked for an excuse to linger in this Elysium, and found it in a shop with homemade blackberry pie. The slice I was served towered like a small mountain, but it vanished much too quickly while I wrote a few postcards.
Once in awhile, it is actually too lovely to be hitch-hiking. I wanted the feel of the road under my feet for awhile and walked out of Aberaeron, on up the highway along the coast. It had become the sort of day, with its morning vitality at full tide, the scene and weather incomparable, that can, in one brilliant sweep, wipe out an entire dreary winter - or perhaps a lifetime of them. The very contrast between these two days - yesterday's insanity and today's grace - and the realization of how readily one can follow the other, seemed to put all anxieties and doubts into a proper relationship with life's essential goodness. Walking up this road, centered between earth and sky, past and future, I needed nothing in the world that wasn't just around the next turn.
A ride was around one of those turns, and then another, and then I was in the market town of Machynlleth, tucked back ten miles along the river Dovey, from the waters of Cardigan Bay. The town's name looks relatively simple but it is a real tongue-twister in Welsh. I found a GN host here named Martin, a partner in a bicycle repair business, also affiliated with an alternative energy demonstration project in the nearby hills that is known all over Britain. Tall, with the agile moves of an athlete, Martin wasn't quite sure at first that he could host me, as he was going to spend the night elsewhere himself. But then he decided there was no reason I couldn't stay in his quarters alone, if I didn't mind.
Mind? It might not have occurred to many hosts, but a night free of socializing responsibility - a night just to lay back and fall apart - is the finest sort of hospitality a host can provide. Not often, perhaps, for getting to know each other is a critical part of what Good Neighbors is all about. But the occasional offer of a place to myself was one of the rare treats I encountered on the hospitality trail.
Martin took me to where he lived, a quaint little house that had been converted from a tiny onetime chapel that stood at a crossroads some distance from town. He showed me everything I needed to know, about lights and stove and whatever, and then left me there to spend the evening as I pleased. It actually had the feel of an old chapel - a certain quality of quiet reverence - but had been marvelously refitted for split-level living.
Outside, a few thatch-topped stone cottages, and some ancient barns in tumbled condition beneath tangles of ivy, presented a rural Welsh scene straight out of the last century. There was hardly a soul to be seen anywhere. The quiet was so pure, it felt . . . it felt like cut crystal. Inside, a fireplace to be stoked and lit, a hot shower to be indulged, and stereo equipment with classical records on the rack. I caught up on my journal that evening, with lights low and the soft strains of Debussy, interpolated by an occasional muffled bleat of a lamb somewhere, to match my mood. I was in no hurry to end this perfect day.
It was short-sighted of me to turn down Martin's next-day offer of a second night at his place, but it was already Thursday and I was hardly halfway through Wales. But I was moving much too fast for my own good, though not yet aware of it. After a brief visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology, Martin's particular pride, I hastened on up the coast. The day was a mix of hitching and rails, keeping to the coast for the best scenery. But I went a rail station too far, at the upper end of Cardigan Bay, and was faced with a four-mile hike up grade, to intercept the highway that had gotten away from me. At the top, a young fellow and his girl took me the remaining twelve miles to Caernarfon, the day's destination, situated on the strait that separates the great isle of Anglesey from the Welsh mainland.
I had written to a communal group near Caernarfon that seemed interesting enough to visit - not leastwise because they were supposed to have a hot-tub, surely the most therapeutic invention ever devised, and one sorely missed ever since I had left California (and after my four-mile, laboring climb, "sorely missed" was exactly the term for it). They had never replied to my inquiry. But that wasn't the same as a rejection, so I phoned them now. Whoever answered recalled my letter immediately and gave me directions to find their place, which was some distance out of town via local bus and a good deal of walking. I wrote it down as best I could, a complexity of obscure landmarks with unspecified distances along country roads - instructions that looked rather formidable at this near-sunset hour.
In fact, daylight was waning when I reached the road on which they lived. Here, houses were named and not numbered, and I couldn't tell how far along it I'd have to walk. I was sure I had found the place, at one point, and pressed through a scourge of barking dogs to knock on the back door. I greeted the woman who opened it with a weary, self-satisfied grin - only to learn I was at the wrong place. English is not very well spoken, this deep in Wales, which didn't help matters. Just as darkness was making it impossible to follow the trail any further, I made out the name of the house I was looking for on an open driveway gate.
It turned out they were no longer a communal group. Francesca and Abraham were all who remained from that collective effort of a dozen people, along with an assortment of children who could not all have been theirs. But it appeared they were all, for the moment, in residence. I was welcomed and fed with what remained of a good dinner that was served before my late arrival. The loaf of fresh bread I brought with me went into the breadbox. I often brought an offering, and it felt really necessary here since this was not a GN host and I was there by the pure grace of their hospitality for a complete stranger - in the mistaken notion, yet, that I was visiting a communal group.
I felt, in fact, a bit awkward in the circumstances. Yet, it's only the inhibiting effect of a culture entirely contexted in enterprise and profit that walls us off from such rewarding human contact. I was made to feel entirely welcome, and was soon taking my own `seconds' from the pot on the stove. Happily, the children managed their post-dinner wildness without once crashing into me, and then I was shown to a small trailer outside that was to be all mine for two nights. The only thing that could have improved the situation would be the hot-tub . . . of which nobody ever said a word.
Beyond the ordinary weariness from a day's travel, I seemed to be in greater need of rest and should have taken it as a warning signal - though what I might have done in consequence, I'm not sure. But I latched on to that little trailer like it was a haven in a storm, and slept well into the morning. Then I went into town, intending to explore Caernarfon Castle, an impressively large old fortress. But I balked at the $3.75 admission charge. Instead, I climbed a hill in town to look at the excavated remains of an old Roman fort and its museum, for free. And in a bookshop, I put out $5.50 for a study of sun worship down through the ages, by archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes - the very heart of calendar origins, and a work I had never run across in the States. Such is the way of habit and priority. In the evening, back at the non-commune, I played a card game with the kids and again turned in early.
Saturday brought clear and sparkling air once again, springtime cool and filled with puffball white clouds. A lovely start for this, my last day in Wales, as I headed for Conwy on the north coast, about twenty-five miles distant. I wanted to explore one more castle, and I lucked out on this one: it cost no more than the Chepstow castle, where my week in Wales began. This one was larger and better preserved, as well. But the real treat was the town of Conwy itself, a medieval walled city with most of its ancient battlement, gates and all, intact - yet, a town fully alive in today's world. From the castle parapet, I could see the whole enclosure, perhaps a half-mile square or greater, with post towers rising in minor majesty every few hundred yards along its rampart - twenty-one of them in all. I could squint, and for an instant see a full-scale medieval setting.
I walked out of Conwy across one of the twin bridges that span the Afon River, and a half mile onward to a vehicle roundabout - a traffic circle hub for several intersecting roads. It held such a tight weave of Saturday traffic that the inner ring wasn't moving at all, the outer ring not much better. I found the spinoff that went east toward England and stood there - more conspicuous than I wanted to be in the circumstances. A hitch-hiker can't very well be retreative about his activity, but being the only new thing for several hundred stalled drivers to put their eyeballs on was not what I needed.
But my rescue was not long in coming: two of the most attractive young women, I daresay, that I have ever received a ride with, and we were into almost instant conversation - about my journey, my way of life, and some of their perspectives on life that reflected a good deal of depth. It was a half hour of thorough enjoyment, until they stopped at a roadside restaurant for a bit of lunch. I was invited to join, but I could see at once that it was beyond my means so I simply said I'd rather not delay my travels, and would hitch on from there. They said they'd pick me up again if I should still be there after lunch.
I must have stood there with my thumb out, ineffectually, for nearly an hour. Just as they emerged and got into their car, with a look and a wave in my direction, some damn fool driver coming out of the parking lot ahead of them stopped for me! It was one of those awful slow-motion, fast-action moments: he opening his side-door, me standing there in momentary indecision about how to handle it, and the young women cheerfully waving as they went around the whole tableau and out onto the highway. I think it was the only time in my hitch-hiking life that I ever experienced deep disappointment on getting a ride after an hour's wait.
I wasn't much for conversation with the poor fellow, and he didn't take me very far, perhaps fifteen miles. I didn't even give him a very cheery farewell. He surely thought me the most ungrateful wretch he'd ever picked up - never knowing why.
I got over it by the time my next ride came along, a middle-aged couple who said they stopped because of the American flag pinned to my pack. I often wondered at the ratio of people who picked me up because of it, to those who let me stand because of it. This driver went out of his way to take me into Chester, the region's largest town and my day's target. Chester would be my springboard toward Scotland. But the place was a surprise I hadn't expected: a remarkably picturesque town center with a wonderful array of half-timbered old structures, their upper stories over-hanging the sidewalks in a cozy, sheltering way, projecting a perfect traditional image of Elizabethan England.
But here, alas, I hit a roadblock on the Good Neighbors list. With a dozen numbers to call, I couldn't make a good connection with anyone. I waited a half-hour and made a second round of calls to those who simply hadn't answered, and - bingo! I turned up a host in the neighboring town of Mickle Trafford. It took nearly another hour, in the deepening twilight, to get out there, and once more I found myself provided with an unusually restful situation, my third such in a row. The gods were taking better care of me than I was of myself.
David and Vanessa were a compelling mid-50s couple in many respects. He was, by persuasion, a former Tory councilman for the region. And by profession, a dairy farmer herding 125 head of cattle - though one would never suspect it from the secluded appearance of his country property, nestled behind rows of screening hedge in an area that seemed more suburban than rural. He was also one of the most challenging and wily - I am tempted to say deadly - conversationalists I have ever encountered. David loved the verbal duel and he was a master at it. I had to be really on my toes to stay abreast of him in a joust, let alone to best him at it, which I never succeeded in doing. I could hardly help but gain some respect for his conservative positions.
Vanessa, for her part, was a more companionable sort of conversationalist, with empathy the keynote of her style, able to convey instant while yet sincere friendship - a difficult combination. She also baked a thief-tempting nut bread. Their home was expansive, though not ostentatious, but the upstairs room they put me in seemed the combined size of every bedroom I'd had, all week long. The great double bed hardly made a dent in its generous space. Sunday morning in that room was like a moment of eternity, and I spent an hour in bed browsing a century-old copy of Mrs. Beeton's Household Hints, a staple of Victorian Britain, with everything from recipes to advice for the lovelorn. One memorable passage described the best, or maybe the oldest, method for tenderizing a flank of beef: place it under the saddle of your trotter before his morning run.
I had every good reason to idle all of Sunday away, there, but my travels had acquired a momentum of their own. I was obsessed with making the most of every day, and Liverpool was close enough for a sidetrip from Mickle Trafford. I did it on Sunday - to find nothing there worth the effort - in disregard of the exhaustion slowly piling up in me. But I wasn't really aware of that yet. I had now come through two weeks on the road, with no evident problem except the on-again/off-again VISA card - and it had just worked for me in Chester. My expenses were slightly over budget, but not enough to worry about. Everything seemed to indicate that I was doing fine.
Vanessa packed some nutbread and a banana for me on Monday, and then I went north like a shot: took a bus out beyond the Liverpool-Manchester axis, to a motorway entrance, and very quickly got a ride with a Scottish businessman who drove me clear through to Carlisle, 200 miles and just shy of the border. He offered to take me all the way to Glasgow, but I was intent on a certain mission now, a quest that would take me instead on a slant toward Edinburgh.
I had, in fact, intended Carlisle as the day's destination, never imagining I would make it by noon. It was perfect, though; we had come through a violent storm that was behind me now, and the day invited a continuance right on toward Hawick, the village I wanted next to reach. But it was on a secondary road, and instead of resuming the hitch-hike it seemed wise to consider regional transit from Carlisle.
Walking the mile from the motorway into town with that in mind, I encountered a wonderful old Scot with a r-r-r-rich Harry Lauder voice (does anyone still remember Harry Lauder's Scotch burr?), who seemed absolutely delighted at the sight of me, near to bursting with uncontainable joy. He caught me poring over my map at a street corner and made a one-man welcoming committee of himself. I thought, later, I might easily have cajoled a night's shelter of him had I been inclined to stay in Carlisle, but the mid-day urge to move on was too strong.
I had known I was headed for Hawick - which is pronounced `Hoyick' - long before I knew I'd even make the journey. It was the first of three unique quests that would provide a periodic bit of investigative focus to my otherwise haphazard travels. Detective adventures of the `needle in a haystack' sort - although I didn't yet realize that the one in Hawick was anything more than the simple fulfillment of a promise to a friend, with no anticipated complications.
Jim Hall is an elderly fellow I came to know during my first year of settlement in Seattle. He's something of a recluse, gifted with a sharp and perceptive mind that nourishes a critical irascibility toward the foibles of society, which probably accounts for the ageless inner vitality that belies his now ninety years. He grew up in Liverpool and came to America in his youth, leaving behind a sister who for many years had been living in Hawick. I had given Jim my assurance that if I went anywhere near there I would pay her a visit for him. That was the mere extent of it . . . until I got to Hawick.
The bus from Carlisle went through some of the most idyllic meadow country I had yet encountered: rich green rolling hills with just the right measure of scattered oak, an occasional stream, yet hardly any sign of habitation, and all of it gleaming in the freshness of recent rainfall. The countryside was so entrancing. so pristine, that it was almost a shock to burst suddenly into the rather substantial town of Hawick. The address that Jim had given me for Jean Hyslop had led me to expect a small village, for it was only the name of a road, Buccleuch, with no house number. I was surprised and dismayed, then, to learn that Buccleuch was a long and prominent street in town with numbered housing to its outer extremity.
So it became a quest. But not before I had first checked the telephone directory to discover more than a dozen Hyslops listed, none of them Jean or J, and none of them on Buccleuch. The clock said 4:30 and I figured a quick check with some county office would be the most productive course of action. But when I reached the Town Hall it had already shut down for the day. With no other bright idea, I asked an available cleaning woman if she had any thoughts of how to pursue this search. She suggested I check with the post office up the street.
On my way to it, rushing lest I get there also too late, I went past a window that said Town Council, and someone was just emerging and locking the door. I put my problem immediately to him, and he said I should not go to the main post office but to the branch of it that was right at the head of Buccleuch, back in the other direction. I turned back immediately and headed for it, almost at a trot, pack and all. It was still open when I got there . . . but the clerk was not at all familiar with Jean's name. She suggested I try the music store about halfway down the first block of Buccleuch, saying the proprietor had been on the street a long time and probably knew everybody on it.
The music shop man, after thinking a bit, couldn't recall any Jean Hyslop, either. I prodded him with the possibility that she might be in the care of younger folk, and he recalled an elderly woman with a young couple at "that house over there with the stairs jutting out," a bit further down the road. But when I asked the young couple there, they just shook their heads and suggested I try at the antique shop, a few doors back. This was becoming absurd, by now, but having no other trail I continued with it.
The folks in the antique shop thought they'd seen several elderly people living in an adjoining courtyard. I went in there and at once ran into a fellow in overalls who wanted to know what I was looking for. I put the story to him, in its accumulating detail, and he pondered awhile and wondered if it might be an elderly woman he knew as Mrs. Jean Lennox, who used to live there and whose name had been changed by a recent marriage. She now lived up the hill, he told me, off to the side of Buccleuch Road, at a place called St. Margaret's Retirement Home. It all seemed unlikely but I went off up the hill to check it out.
The attendant who answered the door didn't know a Jean by either name, but thought I should try across the way, at the Buccleuch Retirement House. This seemed immediately promising, for it could account for Jim's failure to provide a number - even if it wasn't actually on Buccleuch Road. But the names brought no flash of recognition here, either. Then the woman at the door had a sudden thought and asked me to wait a minute. She returned a few moments later with a gleam in her eye, saying she'd found what I was looking for. One of her chair-bound tenants, it seemed, had a visitor that very afternoon, who turned out to be . . . Jean Hyslop! I was given an address for the Balgownie Retirement House, some distance out on Buccleuch Road.
I went out there immediately - and sure enough, it was Jim's sister. A frail wisp of a woman for whom I had to keep the conversation narrowly focused, she was quite amazed and charmed, that a friend of brother Jim from faraway Seattle should seek her out, here. And I, of course, was still dizzy from the trail of serendipity that had made absolutely no rational sense, yet had put me on Jean's doorstep within 90 minutes of when the search was started. We had an hour-long visit over tea and cookies, before I took my leave for fear of exhausting her.
I don't know how many angels were involved in that run of referrals. Any one of them could have stopped the trail cold by not sending me on to the next. But one, at least, was certainly an angel: the man in the overalls, for he was not anyone I was specifically referred to, and he was the one who intervened to direct me off Buccleuch Road, and toward - for all I could know - perhaps Jean's only friend in town.
But it was time for the journey's reckoning to begin.
I had harbored the hope that in locating Jean I might also find a place of lodging for the night, for there was neither a host nor hostel anywhere near Hawick. It was clear, though, that I'd receive no invitation to pass the night in a retirement home. The sensible choice at this point would have been a B & B, and I could have stretched for the $20 that one would have cost me here . Even though the skies were clear, it was cold, cold, cold . . . and I was weary, weary, weary. But I was fixated on budged concerns, and I had already overspent, this day, with bus rides at both ends of my run. Weary and cold, or not, it was going to be a night spent out in the rough.
In the lingering daylight of this northern latitude, I had time enough to survey the town, to find the most likely spot that would keep me dry, warm, and unseen. So I put away my victorious quest and got down to the nitty-gritty of trudging from one end of town to the other. Staggering would be more like it, for I took another one of those stumbling falls on a raised bit of sidewalk, just as I had - in another lifetime, it seemed - in Portland. I was up before a count of ten, but I was clearly on my last legs. Clear to me now, not then.
I found my spot in the shelter of a grandstand on an open, accessible athletic field - so open that I had to wait until full darkness to be sure no one would spot me. One can never be too careful about bedding down in the midst of a town. Even at 10:30, I felt the need to take an evasive route to avoid people in parked cars - perhaps only young lovers who wouldn't have noticed, but a lurking stranger is the target of every suspicion. It must have been near midnight before I was securely settled, and warm enough in my down bag to drift off to that sweet harbor of rejuvenation.
And then some internal devil snapped me out of my sleep shortly after four in the morning, and I couldn't reclaim it. I lay there until daybreak watching the bright morning stars, and then worked as fast as possible to get my gear together in order to stay warm. But it was at least another shivering hour before any place in town serving hot coffee was open.
By the time I was underway again, beneath a mercifully warm sun in a cloudless sky, I knew I wasn't feeling my usual morning charge of energy. I primed the pump again with a full breakfast at a roadside cafe, but that didn't help either. It was nothing I could put my finger on, just `the blahs.' Two rides took me the forty miles to Edinburgh, a city that would have cheered and fascinated me on any other day, but not this one. I moped around a park in the heart of town, not even feeling like calling a host, but I knew I must. It would mean I'd have to be sociable, and certainly no burden, and the prospect had all the appeal of a ride on a roller coaster.
But sitting in the park offered no relief, either. The city seemed intolerably noisy. By mid-afternoon the sunlight, challenged by a growing swarm of clouds, had decided to quit its job and the air was turning chill again. I hadn't even any interest in a giant booksale underway near the park - which verified that I was in pretty bad shape.
So I went to the phone, only to encounter the ultimate disaster: a solid wall of rejection. Even calling the unanswered numbers an hour later, as in Chester, brought no result. It was after 6:30 now, and I considered my options. I could take a train for Glasgow and another cluster of possible hosts, an hour away - but that was a gamble, and the time and energy drain of it didn't appeal to me. Or I could try the Edinburgh youth hostel - and pay eleven dollars for a dorm bed. Or try the two suburban hosts on the list, which I had avoided up to now. I called one in the town of Dunfermline, fifteen miles north, and she answered! I had a bit of difficulty with her thick Scotch burr, but I was fairly sure I heard her say that she was no longer a Good Neighbors host. And then, perhaps sensing my agony, she said I could come over anyway.
It was quite exactly the place I needed in that moment. Kathleen, a soft-spoken redhead with an easy smile that resided more in her eyes than anywhere else on her features, was an independent computer analyst, and as easy-going on social protocol as any host I'd had. She understood my situation immediately and prepared an instantly therapeutic bowl of hot soup, and then told me that I could remain there the entire next day by myself while she took care of business elsewhere. I curled up shortly afterward and slept about ten hours that night.
In the morning I was completely useless. Not a grain of energy, and my whole body ached. The prospect of only a day here was frightening when I let myself dwell on it. I knew better, of course - Kathleen would let me stay on if I had to. But I was faced with a real concern that I could not dodge. If this is what happens to me after two weeks on the road, what is it telling me about the rest of my journey? Never mind Europe, what about the remaining three weeks in Britain?
In the purest turn of fate, or let us say by the gift of the gods, Kathleen happened to have a copy of the I Ching among the books on her shelves. I'm not entirely sure, but it could well have been the first copy I had seen since I arrived in Britain. For those not familiar with the book, it's an ancient Chinese oracle system. It's much more than that, but this is not the place for a detailing. The I Ching had been my chief source of guidance for many years in California, and while I don't fully understand the working of it (no one really does), I have seen enough of its potency and reliability to have the highest respect for it.
The question that confronted me now, about the wisdom of continuing this journey, was precisely the sort of question for which the I Ching is best used. Which is to say, merely, that I was on the fence with it. I was teetering between yes and no, and could accept either determination - but needed some sureness of making the best choice. By some strange and marvelous alchemy in-credible to our rational ways, the I Ching is somehow able to reflect back to us what we already know at some level, but don't know that we know, because of all the static thrown up by the reasoning mind. It's as simple, and as complex, as that.
I covered both sides of the matter, asking the question in a format that is only for those with a well-honed feeling for the I Ching: Should I persevere, or call it off? Its response, in the form of a text reading, affirmed my journey and provided some perspective on why I had been tripped-up by this sudden physical agony. For the first time, I saw how insistently and insensitively I had been pushing myself to the limit of physical endurance. It was a healthy corrective, and I resolved to listen more closely thereafter to the cues I had been virtually ignoring.
It was a critical moment for the summer that was taking shape for me. On the turn of a coin - the method employed in consulting the I Ching - I would have called off the whole adventure. But the moment was magical, along with my 'chance fortune' of having reached Kathleen's, where the trusty oracle was available. And Kathleen, of course, ranks as a full-fledged angel, for me. The crisis was successfully navigated.
"...a text reading..." For the interest of those conversant with the I Ching, my reading was hexagram 32 (Duration), with the third line in a condition of change, bringing hexagram 40 (Deliverance). The text commentary on line three: "If a man remains at the mercy of moods of hope or fear aroused by the outer world, he loses his inner consistency...invariably lead[ing] to distressing experience."
YOU ARE IN CHAPTER 6b OF INNOCENCE ABROAD.
YOUR OPTIONS FROM HERE ARE:
1. Continue on to Chapter 7a
2. Return to chapter selection area.
3. Return to the main Staging area (to go elsewhere within the site)
4. Send response