I've always liked walking. It's easy. You can get pretty good at it even if, like me, you're desperately uncoordinated. You don't have to study for years to achieve mastery; basically, by grade school most of us have it nailed.
At least, that's true about the kind of walking you do when you're working on a book like Walking Portland. But not all walks are created equal. My first serious walk, also for a guidebook, was back in 2006. An indulgent editor at Lonely Planet let me cover a few of the long-distance trails in LP's guide to Walking Britain. One of these was the 135-mile Glyndŵr's Way, which makes a loop through the middle of Wales.
(Years later when I was telling someone about this trip, she thought I said I'd walked across whales — a much more exciting idea.)
Glyndŵr's Way is named after Owain Glyndŵr (1359–1416ish), a Welsh rebel who fought the English at various points along the trail. His revolt was ultimately squashed, but he was never captured and is probably still lost somewhere between waymark posts. I'm pretty sure he's not the only one, either. Most of the U.K.'s national trails are well-marked and well-maintained, but not this one. I did the trip with two of my best friends, and we were constantly lost. Once we were standing at a bend in the road trying to figure out where our B&B might be without actually walking any further than required to find it, when this little old lady drove up in a car and offered us a ride. Her name was Mercy. Another time we wound up in a farmer's backyard. "You're not lost," he shouted cheerily at us. "You're still in Wales!" He filled up our water bottles and set us back on track. ("We should've asked his name," said one of my friends. "I bet it was Hope, or Charity.")
The first morning, after a light breakfast of eggs, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, coffee, toast, sausage, bacon, sausage, bacon, sausage, and bacon, we set out for the first of nine days on the trail. By lunchtime, facing what the guidebook mildly described as a "gentle climb," it was clear we were underprepared. Our feet hurt already.Glyndŵr's Way is not a "walk." It's a hike, a trek, an epic slog.
The high/low point of the walk was The Hill. The Hill was essentially a wall covered in grass. A few sheep leaned awkwardly into it, grazing sideways. The guidebook said, "Now walk half-left up the field to a stile before woods. The approach is very steep, so stop now and again to catch your breath and enjoy the view." We looked toward the sky. There, in the far left-hand corner above our heads, was the waymark. Photos of us on the summit afterward completely fail to show how it felt to stand there and look across the valley we'd crossed. The sheep we had just passed were so far away they looked like salt.
Writing about walking in Portland is about as far as it's possible to get from walking across whales. My feet are fine and I hardly ever got lost. There were a few hills (no sheep), and I learned some odd and surprising things — more about that in a later post.
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Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer and critic living in Portland, Oregon. She has written guidebooks to Sweden and the Pacific Northwest as well as reviewed books, film, food, and drink for various publications. Walking Portland is her latest book.
Books mentioned in this post
Becky Ohlsen is the author of Walking Portland: 30 Tours of Stumptown's Funky Neighborhoods, Historic Landmarks, Park Trails, Farmers Markets, and Brewpubs (Walking)