At some point in the night I wake up, step out of the tent and have one of those wonderful/surreal camping experiences of peeing and gazing at the stars with the sort of lost, disconnected wonder that comes from still being half asleep. I struggle to find my tent again in the dark but eventually cocoon back inside and sleep until my alarm goes off, half an hour before sunrise.
It’s Day 2 of my attempt to thru-hike the South Downs Way – a 100-mile national trail that runs the width of England’s South Downs National Park.
I’m in a kind of stupor as I pack up, mentally and physically worn down by the day before. My head is ringing slightly. I imagine this is how I would feel if I had been hit in the head with a frying pan three or four hours beforehand: there’s no real pain but my thoughts are a collection of abandoned starts, swimming without direction or connection.
It takes about a mile of walking before I realize I’ve not had breakfast yet. Up ahead I can see the small wooded area I had identified on Google Maps as a possible place to wild camp on my first night. I had found that spot before coming out here. Before reality forced me to accept that my plan to hike 25 miles a day was wholly unrealistic – especially since it’s been 16 years since the last time I did any backpacking.
The morning is cool, breezy and misty. The trees will provide some shelter against the weather, so I decide to have my breakfast there. When I get to the woods I feel the Ache Of What Could Have Been. This spot is perfect for camping; it has clearly been used for that purpose. Fallen trees have been pulled close to serve as benches around a campfire area. A few spots have been swept clear of debris to make space for a tent or bedroll. I had been so close! Only two miles away! This would have been so much better than the hillside I slept on last night.
I decide I will make the most of it now, pulling off my boots and slipping into Crocs. I set up my camp stove, brew an enormous mug of tea and gulp it down – its warmth spreading out from my stomach. Soon I’ve settled into the all-too-rare-for-me experience of being unconditionally happy. Humming and chuckling to myself, I brew another mug of tea and boil water for the dehydrated meal I had planned to eat last night: spaghetti carbonara made by Expedition Foods.
Maybe (probably) it’s that thing of everything tasting better when you’re camping but I highly recommend these meals. They’re expensive but so, so, so, so much better than the rice, beef jerky and bouillon cubes I used to relied on when backpacking in the olden days.
I spend roughly two hours here, filling my belly with hot food, drinking tea and treating the blisters on my feet. When I finally get moving my good mood has allowed me to accept the reality of my situation: I will not be thru-hiking the full 100 miles of the trail this time ’round. I made bad decisions in my planning, stupidly stuck by those bad decisions yesterday and now, as my mother would say, “Consequences.”
The only question at this point is when I will give up. There’s a bus stop in 1.4 miles, where I could catch a bus home; I could just carry on and see how far I get by 5 pm, then have my wife come pick me up when she’s finished with work; or I could walk on, wild camp another night and travel home by train once I get to Amberley.
I decide against the first option pretty much right away, but will spend the rest of the day waffling back and forth – my opinion at any given moment largely being affected by how long I’ve been wearing my pack. In the weeks before setting out on this hike I had watched several videos explaining how to properly fit a hiking backpack but clearly I have done it wrong. The bag’s weight is cutting into my shoulders and the pain is excruciating.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that I have purchased the cheapest pack I could find; the other part of of the problem is that you are supposed to adjust things so that roughly 80 percent of the weight rests on your hips. I am a slender fella and don’t really have hips. So, pretty much all of the weight is on my shoulders.
Also: Why do we use the word “waffle” to describe indecision? For all intents and purposes, a waffle looks the same on both sides. So it is, in fact, very consistent.
Trudging through one farm field after another I fall into a pattern: walk an hour, rest for 10 minutes, repeat. By midday, however, I’m checking my watch after just 30 minutes of walking: “Has an hour passed yet? Can I sit down now?”
My mood rises and falls depending on how severe the pain in my shoulders is at that point in time, but for the most part I’m managing to stay positive, managing to remember that I am fortunate to be out here with nothing to do other than put one foot in front of the other.
It’s been a tough year. That’s true for everyone in the world, though, so I don’t want to lean into it too much. I instinctively want to complain, yes. Moaning is my natural state. I want to spend several hundred words digressing into a woe-is-me narrative about mental health and finances and homesickness and middle-aged lamentation of missed opportunities – the usual Chris themes. But the state of the world over the last two years or so gently impels me to try to stop bitching so much.
Because goddamnit, how lucky am I to be out here? I have the privilege of good health, the privilege of financial stability, the privilege of living in a country that isn’t being attacked, the privilege of being in a part of that country which is so safe a guy can pitch a tent on the top of some random hill and get a full night of uninterrupted sleep, the privilege of being a white guy who would be able to talk his way out of things if anyone had taken issue with my sleeping on their hill. I am so incredibly, wildly lucky.
It can be tricky to remember this when the backpack’s weight is making it feel as if there are hooks sunk into my shoulders, but I’m doing my best.
I stop in Pyecombe (mile 33.3) for lunch at a pub. The place is busy, a large family in their finest pastels having gathered to celebrate the patriarch’s 60th birthday (That this is happening on a Thursday afternoon makes me think the patriarch is the one footing the bill). The bartender looks harried and is drenched in sweat from having to wear a mask and a plexiglass face shield on a summer day. He tells me that it will be at least 45 minutes before I can get food. That’s fine with me; I’m happy to take a long break.
I go outside and find a table in the gleaming sunlight, pulling off my boots and socks to let them air out. Eventually the bartender arrives to take my order and is so impressed/appreciative of my relaxed attitude that he gives me a pint of lager for free. I order an enormous burger, heaped with bacon and cheese, and fries. Once again, because I’m eating outside amid a backpacking trip, the food seems delicious – even though my rational brain is able to identify that it tastes no different than any other standard pub burger from any other standard British pub.
I drag things out as much as I can, chatting with a couple who are amusingly excited about hiking nearby Devil’s Dyke – through which the South Downs Way passes. Eventually, though, I pack up, ask the bartender to refill my water bottles, and press on. Straight out of Pyecombe I find myself climbing roughly 350 feet in elevation in less than a mile – not the most enjoyable activity to take on with a belly full of burger and beer – then down 200 feet and immediately back up 400 feet to the aforementioned Devil’s Dyke (mile 35.9). To the credit of the couple I met at the pub, the views are pretty impressive.
Legend has it the valley – which was actually created by snowmelt during the last Ice Age – is the work of the devil, who somehow got duped into building it instead of killing everyone in Sussex who had converted to Christianity. I am always amused by folk tales like this, in which Satan is confoundingly stupid and easily tricked by some wily local.
Did you ever have to read The Devil and Daniel Webster in school? It’s about a guy who sells his soul to the devil for the sake of good crops, then hires former US Secretary of State Daniel Webster – not to be confused with Noah Webster, of Webster’s Dictionary fame – to help him weasel out of the deal.
The devil, who is always strangely honorable in these sorts of stories, agrees to argue his case in a US court and attempts to stack the jury with a collection of undesirables from American history, including the pirate Blackbeard. But somehow Webster is able to sway this jury of ne’er do wells by talking about how awesome America is, and the devil loses.
“Yeah, sure, my client sold his soul to the devil but you know what’s great? America.”
“Wow, he’s got ya there, Satan. This dude is acquitted.”
Then Daniel Webster puts Satan into an armbar, makes him promise to leave everyone in New Hampshire alone “until doomsday” and kicks him in the literal ass. Folklore is great.
I’ve touched on this a little already, but thru-hiking in the modern era is markedly easier than it used to be – easier than even 10 years ago. Logistically, I mean. Physically, of course, nothing’s changed; walking big distances with a bunch of stuff strapped to your back is still more or less as hard as it’s been since people were first wandering around the SDW in the Chalcolithic age.
But when it comes to planning and implementing a hike, life now is so much better than it used to be thanks to the rise of smartphones and social media. Whereas previously you had to rely on maps, poorly written books (it is a key facet of the genre that hiking guide books lack clear and concise writing) and your own questionable ability to use a compass, you can now get pretty much everything you need from an app.
I’m using the Guthook app (which will in a few months be renamed FarOut). It’s the app that gets mentioned by all the AT and PCT hikers I follow on YouTube and it’s turning out to be pretty useful on the South Downs Way, as well. I’m able to keep track of exactly where I am, get turn-by-turn directions and get a sense of what’s ahead of me.
At present, I’m looking ahead 4 miles to the next water stop and telling myself that after I fill up I will look for a place to sleep for the night. It is still early afternoon but I am worn out and in pain. I promise myself I won’t be as picky about finding a wild camping spot as I had been the night before – good enough is good enough.
The water tap turns out to be located at Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel. On a whim, I go in to ask if they have any open rooms for the night; they don’t but for £8 they’ll let me camp in a meadow in front of the hostel. Sold. I’m happy to pay that to have access to a toilet and the peace of mind of knowing that no one’s going to show up in the middle of the night and tell me to get off their land.
With my two biggest hiking concerns (Where will I sleep? Where will I poop?) resolved I feel instantly relaxed. After pitching my tent I ‘cook’ up another dehydrated meal – chicken tikka masala – and delight in being able to properly wash my dishes afterward, rather than relying on the “rinse ’em out and don’t think about it” method. I go for a relaxed, pack-free stroll through surrounding farm fields, then watch the sunset with a steaming mug of peppermint tea in hand. It is not yet dark before I fall into a deep sleep.