The photo of the gazing hiker had a paragraph with it, though I never got past the first sentence: “Great Britain has over 120,000 miles of hiking trails and footpaths.” I made a solemn vow to walk every one of those miles at least once during my visit. That’s less than 700 miles a day.
Goals are so important.
And there it was. Instead of Room 23 at the Bristol Motor Lodge, the British National Trail System would host whatever personal collapse midlife had in store for me – 120,000 walking miles through every imaginable landscape.
I’d found my how.
After a few calculations, my goal of 700 miles a day began to appear impractical after all. I’d have to maintain a continuous trail speed of 53 miles per hour every day from dawn to dusk, which is just not safe on some of the steeper and rockier bits. So the next challenge was selecting which of the magnificent, legendary Long-Distance Paths (LDPs) to hike.
The decisions began to get easier as I read the day-by-day descriptions of the trails. They weren’t so uniformly desirable after all. One two-day stretch on the epic Southwest Coast Walk was described as “so regrettably ugly and tedious that many hikers bus around it.” Okay then. Thirty missable miles.
I also began to notice that every LDP has its highlight stretches. The whole Coast to Coast in northern England is splendid, but most of the stunning photography in the trail guides was in the Lake District. The last day of the Cotswold Way is said to be more glorious than the other six combined. The Pennine Way is never described without some giddy reference to the thundering power of Cauldron Snout and High Force (two testosterone-charged waterfalls), and the grandeur of High Cup Nick, a canyon eight hundred feet deep in the approximate shape and size of a letter V in twelve million point font – and all three cheek-and-jowl in a single long day, Day 10. And the West Highland Way, surprisingly, is said to only get really good after Loch Lomond.
I decided I would cherry-pick not just the best trails in Britain but the best days from the best trails, toe-dipping my way from one highlight to another.
Once I’d made that decision, two facts immediately surfaced: That the best parts of a given path are generally also the toughest parts, and that these are generally at the midpoint or later.
A less mature book, a book by an author inclined to cheap and tawdry metaphorical twaddle, would find in each of these facts some affirming “message” to the effect that life’s greatest rewards are to be found in its most challenging terrain, and life really begins at 40, or 50, or whatever age is the target demographic for the book in question.
Rest assured that I hold you in too lofty a regard for any such cheese.
I also came up with the bright idea of working my way gradually northward as Fall fell and the temperature dropped, which also put the trails in increasing order of difficulty. I’d start in early August on the mollycoddling foreshore of the Thames – perhaps the world’s most civilization-whipped river – then move to the gentle hills of the Cotswold Way, then north to the more serious Coast to Coast, then to the isolated and humorless Pennine, ending at last in the cold winds of mid-October with a trek through the rugged West Highlands of Scotland to the slopes of the High Clan Chieftain Himself, Lord of the Scottish Munros, Ben Nevis, 420 miles north of London.
And, at some point between Big Ben and the Really Big Ben, I’d have a nice breakdown, sort out the meaning of life, and fully come to grips with my own mortality.
Goals are so important.
 Excepting the 96 percent of all landscape types that don’t occur in Britain.—Ed.
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