A Fair Swap: The Excursionist I

On Friday, February 1, Mariam and I will be exchanging this:

[The Hudson River on January 26, 2018]

for this:

[The Yorkshire Dales, England]

It’s a pretty fine change of scenery if I do say so myself.

Once upon a time, back in the day, I loved winter.  How could one not love winter…when you’re twelve years old and you’re skating on the Brick Pond in Owego, NY?  I had a toboggan, a sled and the ability to make a superb snow person.  I owned a pair of old snowshoes with leather hide webbing.  An Eddie Bauer Arctic Parka hung in my closet…and still does.  I camped out in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks when it was -28℉.  My ice skates, black and weathered, hung on the wall leading to our attic.  Every time I would pass them, on a stifling day in August, I would think of the coming winter and the frozen pond only a few hundred feet from my front door.

I couldn’t wait.

Then in 1974, a personal tragedy visited me while hiking in the Adirondacks and winter became a little darker in my heart.  I no longer saw the snow as pristine and pure and calming as I had for almost two decades of my life.

The years went by.  I woke up one morning and looking into the mirror, I saw a middle-aged man looking back at me.  The salt & pepper hair had gone mostly gray.  My back hurts after shoveling.  My skates no longer fit.  my bones ache and my muscles get sore when I am forced out of our house to deal with a two-foot snowfall.  Winter no longer holds a spell over me.  I layer up with wool and fleece because I always feel chilled.  I love to watch the snow fall slowly onto the lake near our house.  I love to walk in the moonlight, feeling the peculiar crunch of the ground on cold nights.  But where I’d really rather be is sitting near our wood stove and reading a Nordic Noir novel.

In the mid-1980’s, I spent a year in Dorset, England.  It changed my life.  Footpaths and pubs abound in the chalky hills of Thomas Hardy country.  The mossy gravestones surround the mossy churches.  And, the green is breathtaking.  England may not have the twenty-eight shades of green that cover my beloved Ireland, but it’s a close second.  Sometimes, at our home in the Adirondacks, I will gaze out of the large window that faces Rainbow Lake and see a monochromatic world.  My eyes strain for some color.  A last brown leaf on a dormant maple or even a patch of blue sky beyond the leaden skies.  But no, it’s a world of white and gray.  I yearn for a dandelion or a trillium…anything with color.

So, we’re off to spend the remainder of the winter in Dorset, hosted by friends I met in the 1980’s.  We plan on doing a lot of walking, and I will carry an L.L Bean pole to lean on if my back begins to trouble me.

I guarantee that there will be a stone wall to sit on and rest.  There will be a quiet pew in a forgotten little church in a out-of-the-way village where I can write in my journal.

Yes, I will sit in that quiet pew and think about trading white for green, mild days for thumb-numbing cold mornings and ice for muddy footpaths.

And, I shall have some peace there…without fleece, without down and without cares.


At The Hound Tor


This is the place of legends.  Arthur Conan Doyle saw these rocks and promptly went home to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Our walk was five miles, beginning in the car park on the north side of Hound Tor.  We were to end our day climbing up and over and between the rock outcrops, then down to the waiting Fiat.  We walked past Bowerman’s Nose.  The legend: A hunter, Bowerman, accidentally came upon a coven of witches performing their incantations.  To silence him they turned him into a column of rock.  He had seen the forbidden, like Lot’s Wife.  He still stands on the Tor.  If you listen, you may hear his cries for mercy…or is it the wind and the spell that the moors can bring upon the mind?  We stopped and placed a flower on the lonely grave of Kitty Gray.  It is a haunted place.  Deemed a “whore”, she hanged herself and was buried in unconsecrated ground…at a cross roads.  It is a haunted place…or is it the wind and the spell that the moors can bring upon the mind?  We walked over pastures and wooded paths.  I held the gate for two teenage girls who were out riding their horses.  “Thank yew”, one said.  We sat for a sip of water and an apple.  There was a church steeple in a small village in a small valley.  The bell was tolling.  A wedding? A funeral? An Angelus?  We passed by the ruins of a medieval village.  Why did they chose this particular valley?  Why did they abandon the site?  Our legs became tired.  There was a steep uphill path, a lane with a tall hedge row.  I stopped to examine a flower.  I brushed against a thorn of some kind. My thumb turned red and began throbbing.  We came to the pass between the tors.  “At the top we’ll see our car,” I said.  My wife looked tired.  We reached the height of ground…our car sat in the lot below.  A small white Fiat.  A place to change our shoes, sip our water and drive to the nearest pub.

Legends and ghosts often have a tiny grain of truth buried within the story.

Humans have walked these hills for well over a thousand years.  No one can convince me that a seed from the distant past isn’t laying dormant under a lichen-covered stone…beneath the moss, the heather, the gorse and the years.