Today’s Blogher/NaBloPoMo prompt:“Tell us about a time when you took the less traveled path.”
Who knew there were actual mountains plunked in the middle of England? [Wikipedia]
When I was fresh out of high school I strapped on a backpack and headed for Europe. First stop was England where a fair few of my relatives lived. Being of an adventurous nature, I thought it would be cool to do a bit of exploring by bicycle.
A couple of problems presented themselves. For one thing, I had no bike and for another, no money. This meant I was crashing on various relatives’ couches, camping, and staying in youth hostels. At one such hostel in the Lake District, a small sign at the entrance stated, “Bicycles for Rent.’ The rate was cheap (or I wouldn’t have proceeded) and I was young (and a tad under-informed, or I wouldn’t have proceeded). My map interpretation skills left something to be desired -when I had a peek at a map of England, I noticed that the Lake District was over on the left and Newcastle (not far from some friendly relatives – with a couch) was over on the right. And it didn’t look like there was a whole lot of distance between the two points.
Which there wasn’t, on the map – but I soon learned that the skinny neck of England is full of some very steep mountains, inclement weather, and vicious beasts.
Having rented a heavy duty, old-fashioned ‘shopping bike,’ I loaded all my belongings (it was early in my trip, I hadn’t learned, yet, about the difference between essentials and excess baggage) into the bike panniers, the handlebar basket, and my backpack. Then I started to pedal, setting off on what I thought would be a pleasant trip across the country. The total distance to the nearest relative’s house was only 97 miles and I figured that being young and fit I could easily make it to the other end before dark.
The hills began immediately and with all my heavy gear strapped to my person and my bicycle and the total lack of gears to choose from on said bicycle, it wasn’t long before I began to sweat. I stopped to peel off a layer or two and the badly loaded bike flipped over into the ditch. I hauled it out and climbed aboard. The hill was soon so steep, I could no longer pedal, but had to resort to pushing my unwieldy load up and up and more up and up.
I ate an apple as I slogged along, not daring to lose more time by stopping. This bit of nourishment soon wore off and, on a downhill section, I ate a scone. This, too, wore off halfway up another massive hill so I ate a hard-boiled egg. I was now out of food until I found some sort of village which, I had been led to believe, were to be found around every corner. Not, apparently, on this route, The road I was on clawed its way through a wild part of England that nobody had ever thought to warn me about. No vehicles passed. Certainly there were no pedestrians to worry about running over. Just miles and miles of hills, leading toward higher mountain-like hills, dotted with sheep and stone walls and, as the road snaked higher, vicious wind and ice pellets.
I put back on my layers, took turns gripping the icy handlebars with one hand and then the other, blew on my frozen digits and then stuffed one hand at a time under my thick sweater.
It was about this point that I spotted a little sign off to the side of the road, a sign placed at the entrance to a picturesque path that led, enticingly, down hill. “This path rejoins the road farther on.” The sign sounded promising as the road was heading up yet another steep incline. I figured some clever engineer had built this gentle path to go around the hill and I would save myself a good deal of time by taking this shortcut.
I veered off the road and down the path less travelled. Almost as soon as I had headed down into a glade of trees just starting to bud (it was early spring when I made this journey) the wind dropped, the evil hail/sleet stopped, and the sun came out. I stopped to peel off my now-soaked layers and for a short few minutes, felt smug.
This feeling ended at about the same time the path disappeared. One moment it was there, the next, I was on some sort of bone-rattling jumble of rocks and gravel scattered willy-nilly over an increasingly steep hillside. And, while I was still headed in a generally downhill direction, it was no longer clear at all where on earth I was supposed to be going.
Run-off from the hills above gurgled and splashed over mossy rocks and when I could no longer thread my way through the chaotic mess, I hopped off and once again pushed the bike. Actually, it was more like I skidded along, trying not to let go of the monstrously heavy beast as it slithered and bucked its way along like a feisty pony determined to be free.
At first I tried to lift the bike over the worst of the rivulets, but soon the trickles of water were more like rivers and I gave up and splashed my way doggedly onward, still convinced that sooner or later I would, indeed, rejoin the road.
The size of the rocks grew as I made my way along until I was in the midst of some wild boulder strewn landscape, moss everywhere, water gushing all around me. I thought of shouting for help, but the water was now so loud and the wind had picked up again and even had there been anybody anywhere nearby I doubt they would have heard me.
I considered turning around and dragging myself and the bike back up the hill, but that seemed too much like giving up and, besides, I was ravenous by this point and I knew there was no food back there anywhere.
So I kept going and would have kept going except I slipped on a particularly slick boulder perched on the side of the hill. My feet flew out from under me and though I tried to stay upright, the weight of the bike, all my unbalanced gear, and the total lack of traction sent me sailing off the top edge of the boulder and onto a thick tangle of brambles below. The bicycle landed on top of and behind me, wedging my backpack between the bike frame and the base of the boulder.
With my arms pinned behind me and entangled in the backpack straps I could not move. I imagined somebody eventually finding my bleached bones in a heap framed by the remains of the rusty bicycle, the tattered orange ribbons formerly known as my backpack caught in my rib cage. They would speculate what on earth this girl with a backpack full of poetry books had been doing in such a desolate place, perhaps the last desolate place in all of England.
This, of course, was long before the days of cell phones. Nobody had any idea where I was or what I was doing. My dropping in on the relatives was supposed to be a jolly nice surprise. Hah!
It took some time and some contortionistic moves but eventually I was able to free myself. I, fortunately, was relatively unharmed – superficial cuts, scrapes, bruises and a raging hunger that had me eyeing the moss for its possible nutritional content. The bike, sadly, was not in such good shape.
The crash had dislodged the chain and the chain was hidden behind a steel plate. I supposed this was to prevent pants cuffs from becoming entangled, but it meant there was no way for me to pop the chain back into position. The bike had no tool kit and though I was travelling with very important items like brass rubbing equipment, a good luck jade elephant, and my John Denver songbook, I did not have a screwdriver.
There was nothing to be done except drag the broken bike downhill. I certainly wasn’t going back up at this point and I figured that this being England and all, surely sooner or later I would have to come across some sign of human habitation.
And, indeed, after half an hour or so of slogging through more streams and around more boulders and over more fallen logs, I came to a fence. Never have I been so thrilled to see a sign of development in a rural area!
I threw the bike, then the backpack, and finally myself over the fence and surveyed the scene before me.
I had emerged into an open meadow. The rich green spring grasses were soaked after the earlier rain. White dots moved about in the field and I realized with glee that I had wound up in a sheep field! This was a great sign, for surely where there were sheep there would be a shepherd. And, where there was a shepherd, surely there would be a screwdriver!
I started dragging the bike across the field and soon spotted a gate way over on the far side. I was making my way toward this promising destination when the sheep spotted me.
I had always been under the impression that sheep are sweet, docile creatures that travel in groups and generally try to stay out of trouble. This might be true of ewes and lambs, but it is most certainly not true of a ram who believes his ladies are in peril.
The ram, who sported a pair of impressive horns, took one look at me dragging my broken bike across his field and decided I was clearly up to no good. He lowered his head, took aim, and charged. I managed to get the bike between me and the charging beast, The impact as he battered the bike was impressive. I staggered backwards, still holding the bike in front of me. I yelled and tried to make myself look fierce while stumbling toward the gate, fending off the crazed ram with kicks and arm waves and strings of expletives not at all appropriate for a young woman.
Somehow I managed to get myself and the bike through the gate where I collapsed in the grass, gasping for breath.
Which is where the farmer found me. He looked completely baffled to see me there, by now leaning up against his gate post.
“Where did you come from, lass?”
“Through your sheep field.”
“But… there’s nothing up that way. And you had to come past Jock?”
“Best you come inside and have a cup of tea with my wife.”
Given I was about to expire with starvation, I agreed. And, while I enjoyed a lovely cup of tea and a warm scone with cream and preserves in the farmhouse, the kind farmer fixed my bike.
Before long, I was back on my way with instructions as to how to get back to the main road. Several hours after I had taken my detour, I spotted a little sign off to the side of the road, “This path rejoins the road farther on.” Doggedly, I pedaled right on past.
Sometimes the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason!