the travelers road

I said goodbye forever to an old friend this weekend.  We’ve been through a lot together.  I once saved him from being eaten by crocodiles and he once saved me from losing and eye during a mountain bike accident.  After all the miles we’ve traveled together and the many adventures, he finally met his end.  And it was a humble little bee that did him in.

When you turn 40, you look for something to do.  My 40th came and went without much fanfare.  I did however commit myself to change a few things or more accurately to re-remember some things I had forgotten, like to stay in top physical fitness, to not play silly games (only intense ones will do), to not neglect the nourishment of my spirit and my soul.  All this was weighing on my mind as I threw my camping gear, hiking gear, and mountain bike into the Frontera and headed to the Dark Peaks for a solo weekend retreat.

More than one person has patted me on the back this past week and told me that life begins at 40.  To my thinking, that means a rebirth.  I fantasized about some ways I could recreate this rebirth symbolically.  The Christians use a baptism of water to symbolized being reborn into Christ.  The U.S. Army uses a baptism of fire to turn young boys into men.  I chose the way of the traveler.  “When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth,” wrote Paulo Coelho in the Pilgrimage, a book about his journey on the Road to Santiago.  “You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys, you don’t even understand the language the people speak.  You are like a child just out of the womb.”  I certainly had had plenty of childlike experience on my recent road journey across Europe.  And now I wanted a bit of time to myself to digest some of the lessons I’d learned on the road.

I took along some classic tunes to keep me company on the drive to the Dark Peaks – Credence Clear Water Revival, George Thorogood and The Destroyers, and SuperTramp.

I drove into Edale and stopped at the first campsite I found, which was really just a field with fifty or so tents packed together like sardines in a can. The guy was only charging £7.50 a night so I couldn’t complain.  I found a spot to squeeze my tent into.  Erected it with no hassle, threw my sleeping bag inside and hurried up and changed into my mountain bike gear.

After a quick survey of the map, I decided to head west out of Edale to circle around through Winnats Pass, go down into Casteton and then through Hope and complet the circuit back to Edale.  It looked easy enough on the map.  But as I am often fond of saying to people, “The map is not the territory.”  And boy those little brown contour lines on the map didn’t do justice to the 2.5 mile incline I had to face.

Now I am a person who used to pride himself in being physically fit, but I must admit over the past several months I have been just ticking along with basic maintenance level fitness.  My legs, lungs, and heart had no qualms about letting me know that they were in no shape to be tackling such an uphill.  I came off the bike after about a mile and a half, my heart about to burst.  I wanted to push myself, but not kill myself in the process.  I took a few snapshots as an excuse for stopping.  The ego can be a real bastard sometimes.

I finally made it to the crest of the hill and the downhill ride into Castleton made the climb worth the effort.  The ride from Castleton to Hope was pleasant.  This part of the Peaks is busy on a normal weekend, but being a Bank Holiday weekend, there were tones of people everywhere.  I was feeling good, renewed, glad to be out on my bike doing my thing.  And then it happened.

I was on the back stretch coming into Edale on the east-side.  A humble little bee flew underneath my sunglasses.  In my attempt to keep from crashing whilst dislodging the little vermin without getting stung, I broke my favorite pair of shades. The shades that had traveled with me through jungles, mountains,and various countries around the world, were finished.  One of the arms snapped off.  Now that is my cool rendition of the accident.

What it probably looked like to somebody passing by was some big bloke on a mountain bike frantically thrashing himself in the face while trying not to crash.  And so sadly the day ended with the demise of my old friend, the sunglasses that have been with me through thick and thin.  I think I’ll add them to my own archive of Clay artifacts for some future generation to find.  Maybe when I become a famous explorer, they will sell for a ton of money on eBay.

Back at the campsite, I shed my bike and put on some dry clothes.  I am amazed at the varied types of people who come out to camp in a field.  Some are young, some are old, others are funny shaped, overweight, skinny, underdressed, overdressed, groupies, families, and forty year old geezers with no mates.

I wander over to the Rambler Inn for a pint.  The barmaid is young and dark haired.  She is foreign and amusing.  We get into a discussion about whether I can have cheese on the hamburger I ordered.  The menu doesn’t include an option for a cheeseburger.  Finally one of the other girls goes to kitchen to ask the chef if I can have a burger with cheese on it.  After several minutes, she comes back and says it’s OK.

“When you are moving toward and objective,” writes Coelho, “it is very important to pay attention to the road.  It is the road that teaches us the best way to get there, and the road enriches us as we walk its length.”

As I nurse my pint of Foster’s, I wonder about the metaphorical road that lies before me as my life begins anew.  The words of Joseph Campbell and Henry David Thoreau echo in my mind.  “Follow your bliss.”  “Follow your genius.”

My thoughts are interrupted by the barmaid.  She wants to know if I want another pint.  I decline.  I want to get up early the next day to go for a hike in the hills.  Just as I leave the pub for my tent, it starts to rain.  Typical.  I read a statistic that claims that it rains one day in three in England.  This week, the statistic is right.  I go to ground in my tent, read some more of The Pilgrimage and fall asleep to the loud cackling of laughs from my neighbors.  There are about 10 of them, a mix of family and friends it appears.

It rains through the night.  Periodically I wake up to the sounds of the rain pelting the flysheet.  I feel around in the dark for any signs of leaks.  It’s  a new tent that hasn’t been field tested yet.  Thankfully there are no leaks.  I drift back to sleep.  It’s after midnight and my neighbors are still laughing away.

The morning comes.  The rain has stopped.  I pack my tent and my gear.  I eat some dry Frosted Flakes and chase them with a can of Redbull.  Mary Lou Retton didn”t know what she was talking about, this is a breakfast of champions.

My plan is to follow Grinds Brook which takes me in a northwest direction, climb up the waterfall and then turn north for a bit before turning and walking north east for a few clicks, turn south toward The Nab and then cut across Heardman’s Plantation to get back to the Frontera.

The beauty of an early start is that there is no one else around.  I have the hills to myself, which is a perfect time for a Chautauqua.

“Follow your genius closely enough,” writes Thoreau, “and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.”

As I meander up the trail, I think about my future prospects.  I have focused the first half of my life on career and family, living up to other people’s expectations.  And that was fine.  Life is a learning process and some times you have to experience what you don’t want in order to gain clarity of what you do want.  I’ve plunged and plodded along many different paths searching for the usual culprits: acceptance, esteem, security, fortune.  I looked for these things external to myself, which of course is a fool’s errand. The only path worthy of pursuit is the path that leads to self-actualization.  The only way to that path is through the exploration of one’s inner landscape. At this point, I have to speak out against all the new age pyschobable, flowers in your hair tripe that’s batted around these days in the name of a panacea for life.  I am not afraid to admit that I have at one time or another been seduced by these new age follies. I can even be accused of leading others down that path.

That being said, I’ve come to realize that the true path to wisdom has to have three things:  First, it must involve love (love of self and love of others).  Second, it must have practical application in your life.  And lastly, it must be a path that is unique to you, in other words, have the courage and conviction to be an individual and not follow the herd mentality.  Others can guide you, offer advice, teach you, but in the end, you must find your own path.

I reach the point in the trail where I must turn easterly.  I pause to look back over the climb I’ve just done.  The beautiful thing about the Peak District is that on a good day you can see for miles.  Today is a good day.  To my left, I have great views of the open moors.  To my right, I have a spirit boosting view of the lush green and purple valley.

I crack on for a few more miles taking in some of the interesting rock formations along the Hartshorn Ridge.  And then I witness a good omen.  A raven, flying below me, calls out.  I follow its flight until it disappears behind a hill.  It’s almost as if it called out to me and said, “follow me.”  I follow. When I crest the hill, I see three ravens flying together.  Two split off from the one and play with each other in flight and then they fly back to rejoin the third raven, and together the three of them fly into the distance.  As I start to descend, a strong wind blows up from the valley.  The wind is so strong, it feels like I am skydiving.  I let the wind cleanse me.  I now feel light enough to fly like the ravens.

I am tempted to run down the mountain, but restrain myself and instead break into a light gait.

Speaking of being practically.  I near the bottom when I suddenly realized I forgot to pay the £5 car-park fee.  I am feeling too light in spirit to worry or care if I get a parking fine at this point.  But luckily when I reach the car-park, I see that The Man has been kind to me and I have no parking fine on my window.  I thank my luck stars, change into my city gear and head for home.

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