Eleven miles into our hike, I slipped in a field.
I had been careful navigating my way in the English countryside. My sturdy hiking boots helped me on the rocky paths; a walking pole was handy as I scrambled up and down embankments and dodged prickly hedges of hawthorn.
But this stumble, in the middle of a flat grassy pasture, caught me unawares. I looked down and saw the culprit.
Lovely. Somewhere in the back of my head a snide little voice chirped, “Happy birthday to me.”
Michael and I were hiking the Hadrian’s Wall Path, an 84-mile British national trail, just south of the Scottish border, that traverses coast to coast, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian selected this spot as the northernmost boundary of the Empire in AD 122 and ordered the building of his wall. Considering that it’s almost 1,900 years old, a remarkable amount survives, along with the remains of a Roman town and several forts scattered along its length.
I was celebrating my 60th birthday, a milestone that made me long to achieve a goal outside of my comfort zone. During a moment he would come to regret, my adoring husband said, “You’ve been looking for a challenge for your 60th birthday. You should walk Hadrian’s Wall.”
Bang! Like a crossword where you finally figure out the theme, all the pieces clicked into place. This had everything I was seeking: It was challenging (but seemed attainable), it was jam-packed with interesting history and quaint English villages, and (perhaps most important) our luggage could be portered to each bed and breakfast along the way, so we wouldn’t have to backpack.
We planned 10 days to complete the trail, eight days of walking with two rest days mixed in. We scheduled the rest days near some of the major Roman sights, so we could explore them at leisure.
Yet, here we were, on Day 1, with my keister in sheep poop. This was shaping up to be some adventure.
I’d had fantasies of my scaling hills (with the Rocky theme playing in the background, naturally), triumphantly hoisting my hiking pole in the air. Instead, I had a cluster of ewes about 10 feet away, placidly chewing on grass and giving me a look that said, “Hey, lady, what’d you expect?” And I stank.
But I had said I wanted a challenge, so this being England, it was time to keep calm and carry on. Tidying up as best as possible, we marched onward.
(Any second thoughts I had were squelched that night, when we met Bill at our B&B. The Californian had just finished the walk solo in the opposite direction — to mark his 71st birthday. There went any chance I had of playing the age card. We also met four American women in their 50s traveling together who were early in their walk. Because everyone’s pace is different, we didn’t expect to see them again; yet every few days we would cross paths. The walk is like that, kindred spirits on a similar mission; not exactly ships passing in the night, but rather sailing in the same sea lanes toward their destination.)
Hadrian’s Wall lives up to its billing as an awe-inspiring sight. The majority of the Roman ruins are in the central section of the 84 miles, largely because this section is the steepest. The slopes on the far west and east, near the cities of Carlisle and Newcastle, respectively, are fairly flat as the path approaches each coast. Over the centuries, the wall there had become a de facto Home Depot, with the stones taken to build farmhouses and churches and even Carlisle Castle (circa 1200).
But the rugged terrain in the center thwarted plundering, so the wall there is the most intact section. For about 30 miles we climbed up and down alongside the 1,900-year-old wall, where it’s perched atop the rolling crags. (Is this what it felt like for a Roman soldier to have been stationed in what must have seemed a bleak, desolate place?)
The wind here is intense, making our decision to walk from west to east a sound one. It was constantly at our back, a hand pushing us along rather than impeding every step.
Halfway into the hike, at the appropriately named Winshields Crag, we reached the stone marker indicating the high point of the wall. The elevation is only 1,132 feet, but that’s a bit misleading; it doesn’t take into account all the up-and-down roller-coaster hiking to get there.
From here, as if in recompense for our labors, the countryside offered up a spectacular 360-degree view of the northernmost point of the Roman Empire. Looking back to the west we saw the wall hugging the undulating ground like a massive gray Slinky for miles; it looks very much like images of the Great Wall of China.
I couldn’t help thinking, “Wow, we hiked and climbed over all of that!”
Naturephobe Michael looked east to where the wall stretched beyond the horizon and thought, “Wow! We still have to climb all that?”
In addition to the challenge of completing an 84-mile hike — that’s 200,000 steps, for those of you counting with your Fitbits — we needed to prepare for the notoriously changeable British weather. Which meant waterproof rain pants, hats, jackets, and ponchos. For eight days we dutifully packed these items into our daypacks for the inevitable sudden downpour. So, of course, for eight days there was not a drop of rain.
When the ninth day dawned blustery and wet, we were perversely glad. Finally, we’d get to use this foul-weather attire and earn our British walking stripes!
With just under 60 miles covered, our creaky bones had gotten used to the pace, but wet weather can turn even a walk in the park into a slog. We had little choice but to set out fully suited up, looking a bit like camouflaged turtles, and we maintained a decent pace for this 10-mile stretch, reaching our lodging for the night in time to dry out our soggy gear.
Just one more day and 15 miles.
On our final morning, we woke at dawn, energy and excitement thrumming through our veins. On previous days, we had risen late and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before striking out for five or six hours of walking. But sometime in the last few days, the reality grew that we were close to completing our goal. I had become adept at dodging the sheep droppings, and Michael got (sort of) more cheerful as we neared the walk’s completion.
The weather was misty, with thunderstorms expected as the day progressed, so we went full-on with the rain gear. It appeared we’d finish in true British fashion after all. By now we’d left most of the Roman ruins behind; the remainder of the walk followed the Tyne River through Newcastle, similar to walking along the Schuylkill through Fairmount Park. Mostly flat, and not particularly difficult, but it was still 15 miles in a driving rain at the end of our journey.
We strode (well, trudged) right through the city’s Quayside, where intrepid Brits were determined to enjoy a holiday weekend at bars and sidewalk cafes. They looked sophisticated and carefree. We looked like drowned rats.
The final few miles, along a path through a park, seemed to go on forever. We walked on beneath a dense canopy of trees, heavy with rainwater. Unlike the days where we had unlimited vistas, this day’s view was restricted by vegetation, which meant the end was nowhere in sight.
And then, suddenly, there it was. An inconspicuous clearing with a signpost marking the end, so inconspicuous that we almost missed it. Eighty-four miles from Bowness-on-Solway, where 10 days earlier we had begun our journey. As if on cue, at that moment the clouds parted — seriously, they did — and we were basking in … well, not exactly sunlight, but at least not rain.
Not only had I completed this challenge, I also had managed to get my nature-averse husband to do it, as well! Once again, the little voice inside my head chirped, “Happy birthday to me.”
This time I replied, “Thanks.” Maybe 60 really is the new 40.
Philadelphia natives Larissa and Michael Milne have been global nomads since 2011. Follow their journey at ChangesInLongitude.com.