The Likes of You Walking

Singing Donkeys Hostel Kirk Yetholm

As I leave the village of Kirk Yetholm, striding up toward the bare yellow hills of the Scottish Borders, I walk past a sign announcing The Singing Donkeys Hostel and Soup Kitchen for the Soul. It is hand-drawn. I stop despite myself, and think about singing donkeys, trying to remember if I’ve heard anything overnight that might be a braying animal. All I can visualize are the Bremen Town musicians, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean that. The sign, and the motley collection of boots underneath, conjure other images between memory and imagination, that I realize are probably not accurate even as they keep floating to mind: a young man in Rasta hat and beard, stirring soup in a communal kitchen, long and lazy afternoons in the sunlight with indistinct plans, someone playing guitar in another room and the sweet-sour tang of pot drifting in an open window, the feel of sex in the air, dream-catchers and crystals and Buddha prayer corners. A part of me wants to knock on the door, tempted by whatever “soup kitchen for the soul” might mean. But it’s too early in the day to begin detours, real or metaphysical. I wasn’t a hippy even when there were hippies. Although my bed at the Borders Hotel was too soft and the beer too tempting, it felt more like home. I take a photo and move on.

Months later, back in Canada, I read in a book about the St. Cuthbert trail that the hostel in Kirk Yetholm was, centuries ago, built as a schoolhouse for gypsy children.

As I’ve discovered on pilgrimage, morning inevitably means climbing. It’s 8 am and the sun is already feeling just a touch too warm for what I had only ten minutes before decided would be perfect wear. Upset with myself, I strip off a layer of merino wool and add it to the weight in my sack. This portion of the trail coincides with the Pennine Way. Probably because I’ve read accounts from those who’ve walked the Pennines, and every story stresses how difficult the path is, I keep expecting to be overtaken by long-legged, weathered, grim-eyed hikers, a different, hardier species, even though I’ve been averaging 25 km a day myself. There is a Pennine Hikers’ Inn, to my surprise looking much more luxurious than my Borders Hotel, and then a corner marked, mysteriously, Halfwayhouse. Half-way to where, I wonder? And where is the house? There are sheep everywhere, unfenced and curious, but no sign of human life. And oddly enough, no walkers, even though this is supposed to be one of the busier parts of the route.

Something happens in the mornings when you’ve been walking day after day: you begin to get eager – almost impatient – for the rhythm that sets itself up in your body after a kilometer or so on the trail. It’s something that stays on, most evenings, even when you’ve dropped your pack for the night and had your solitary meal, when you’re lying in bed trying to remember what day it is and why you were so stressed back home. Maybe it’s a rhythm of breath, or of the feet, or of both. There’s something in it of feeling your lungs tighten under the pressure of taking ever-larger breaths to handle the climb, or noticing the increase in heart-rate, knowing without any doubt that it will drop again as soon as you’ve taken a moment to rest. I’ve read that happiness is doing what you’re designed to do. Humans are designed to walk.

It’s probably that happiness that leads me up the first big hill of the morning, an imposing bare challenge of a knoll planted right in front of the road. The hill is called Green Humbleton on the map, had I been smart enough to look at my map. It’s only 268 meters, but when what I’d thought was the trail becomes indecisive and finally peters out about three-quarters of the way up, I assume that the cairn of stones I can sort-of see is my next marker. The way goes neither left nor right, and so neither do I. The top quarter of the hill is steep, so steep that at times I’m forced to scramble on all fours, burrs and seed spears digging into my soft palms. Bottle flies sit in black swirling columns of air that I pass through, forcing myself to breathe in through my nose so as not to inhale too many insects at one go. Horseflies discover the exposed flesh of my arms and legs, wet with sweat and red with exertion; I swat as best I can, but each swivel, because of the weight on my back, threatens to tip me over. When finally I stand at the summit of the hill, the warm gusts of wind are a blessing.

But there is no trail down. I sit for a second to catch my breath and scan the hills for the trail from which so clearly I’ve strayed, but sitting is just an invitation for more horseflies, and I’m bitten twice. So I stand again, and begin the descent. I’m a bit jittery, the way the weight of the pack jolts with each footfall, and with a mild curse at myself for almost making a mistake even worse, I slow down. This would be the way to lock a knee, or step in a hole. Eventually, I spot a sign to my right. The path has wisely sidestepped the hill. I’m happy to be on it again, even though it rewards my happiness by leading, honestly this time, straight up yet another rise.

In the morning, setting out, I’d asked an older woman where the path out of the village began. She’d looked at me in silence for a second, as if debating whether to answer, and then stretched out one arm, almost like a curse, to point at the hills. “That’ll be for the likes of you, walking,” she’d said. Then she smiled.

I remembered that when I reached a gate in a stone fence. There’s a sign. It reads, on one side “Welcome to Scotland” and on the other “Welcome to England”. I open the latch, and step through to another country.
heather and wall
the border

The Phantom Bomber

starting out

Where the long, hot, dusty path finally drops out of the Cheviot Hills into the town of Wooler, Northumberland , every B&B and hotel room is booked. Eventually I manage to get hold of someone at the Youth Hostel. A voice on the other end of the phone answers my by-then desperate plea: “Sure, we have a place.” As if it were a silly question to ask. My room is spartan but fine, and there’s a shower at the end of the hall.

Being a youth hostel, I expected youth. But in the morning I find myself at table with an English man and a Scottish woman of at least my age. Although separated by the length of the table, they are already deep in conversation when I sit, perhaps not wisely, in the middle.

There is a small map on the table between them. The Pennine Way starts here, declares the man, pointing to it. I know; I’ve walked it. You’ve walked some path, corrects the woman. But it wasn’t the Pennine Way. That starts here. She jabs her finger on another spot. I try to find a place for my tea that is not on the disputed piece of paper. Well, I know what I walked says the Englishman. You’re wrong, answers the Scot, and they both lapse into what to me would be charged, but seems to them to be a comfortable, silence. I wonder if they’re a couple.

Edinburgh is a lovely city I volunteer. I was there in 2006. Loved the old town. The Scot answers back crisply. It’s nice to look at. But I grew up there and I’d never move back. They all ask what schools you’ve been to. As if that’s what’s important. First thing they want to know. It’s not a pretty place. She shakes her head as if to rid her mind of some memory. Dark local sandstone, pipes up the English man from his end of the table. That’s what makes Scottish buildings ugly. Northumberland too, he adds after a pause, with a nod to her.

When the Englishman finds out I’m walking the St. Cuthbert Way to study walking pilgrimages, a discussion ensues on the decline of long-distance trail-walking in England. Foot and mouth disease, he pronounces. That’s what killed it. Ever since then the trails are less busy. And the hostel movement has suffered too. The Scot nods. Yes, foot and mouth. It’s a pity. We need the social movement of hostels more than ever in this world.

This world, the Englishman repeats, with feeling. As if that says it all.

I tell them about the World War II vintage bomber that surprised me in the hills, coming up out of nowhere and then gone again as I struggled to pull out my camera. Was that the ghost bomber, asks the Scot? There’s silence for about 30 seconds while I try to digest the question. Umm. It was real enough, I say finally. Loud and low. Just not what I was expecting, you know, in a long day of walking by myself. Oh yes, those low flying fighters, says the Englishman, looking up from his book. They’re over you before you even hear the sound. Scares the hell out of the wildlife. No, I heard this one, I insist. The fighters – I’ve seen those too, the last couple days. RAF. This was different. Some hobby pilot I guess. It was an old prop plane. It came around the hill and banked right above me. By the time I got my camera it had flown over the next hill. It was beautiful.

The ghost bomber repeats the Scot. I was in the Cheviots, the summer before last, and I saw it then. Passed right over me, low. I never heard a thing. Just saw it. That’s when I knew it was a ghost.

The Englishman looks down at his tea and says nothing. I start thinking about the trail ahead. Can you pass the marmalade, I ask?

east hill