Sunday, 9 September 2012

Walking and Hiking

I like walking.
I've just come back from walking some the Ceredigion Coastal Path (visible on the left side of the photo above.)  It was stunningly beautiful: gorse and heather; the sea on our left the colour of jade, dappled with blue-slate cloud shadows; red kites and kestrels over the cliffs, gray seals in rocky bays, an adder sunning itself on the path.  Of course, it rained all day once, and some of the descents were mud ski-runs--but nothing's perfect.  The Welsh coast in sunlight in so near perfection that you're unlikely to see anything better on earth.
We did about fifty miles over five days, which is walking for wimps,  particularly when you consider that we were staying in comfy B&Bs and had our luggage shifted from one of these to the next by a luggage transfer service.  You walk; you arrive and have a cup of tea; you go out to dinner in the local pub; you sleep well and get up in the morning to a large breakfast that sets you up for another day of walking: what could be more pleasant?  The proliferation of long-distance footpaths (and luggage transfer services) in the past twenty years shows that I'm not the only one who thinks so.  Local councils like them because they bring people into the area for days at a time, and these people spend money on B&Bs, pubs and local attractions; walkers like them because there's always a new one to try out.
Walking for wimps is a great British tradition, and one that sets the UK apart from the United States.  In the United States they don't walk for recreation: they hike.  It's much more energetic.  Fit young people carrying enormous back packs yomp across glorious national parks, camping in the wilderness and covering at least a couple dozen miles a day.  It's admirable, but it requires rather more of the hiker than a my 10-mile-a-day walk, let alone the usual gentle loop through the countryside with a pub-stop halfway.
Actually, I think that's a pity: it means far fewer Americans walk.  Of course, in most of the United States streets and cities are laid out in such a way as to actively discourage walking.  Shops are inaccessible except by car; footpaths outside parks nonexistent; private land is fiercely defended and trespassers really will be prosecuted.  It's very different from Britain, where the public right of way (the dotted green lines of that other great British institution, the Ordnance Survey maps) gives everyone free access to the (green-belt protected) countryside.
A few years ago we did in walk in Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, which was one of the most stunning I've ever done.  An easy track through the forest brought one to a magical little beach, where a natural rock arch plunged into the turquoise water of Lake Superior, and a little waterfall provided a natural shower.  From there another easy track led along the top of the Pictured Rocks National Shoreline--a magnificent series of cliffs, arches, and pillars in multi-coloured layers of stone.  Then came another beach, and a level trail back through the forest (where blueberries and raspberries grew wild in abundance) to the carpark.  The whole circuit was officially nine miles; I think this was a crow-flies figure, and the real figure was closer to twelve, but still, it was a walk even wimps could easily do over a day, with breaks for picnics, snacks, and swimming.  We did it in August, in beautiful weather.  The National Park which enclosed this gem was packed with campers, all three enormous campsites full (we know this, because we tried and failed to find a place).  We met only two other people  on the cliffs.
This is undoubtedly the premier walk in the state, probably the best within a five hundred mile radius: in Britain it would've been packed--like Dovedale, say, or Snowdon on a Bank Holiday.  While it was wonderful having it to ourselves, I find it very sad that others weren't enjoying it as well.  Walking, in my opinion, is a much better option than hiking.