- The Ridgeway
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A friend once told me that someone he knew had decided, on a whim, to walk the Ridgeway. He’d simply packed up a tent, kissed his girlfriend goodbye, and walked off. But he called home from his mobile phone not far from where he’d started. He was a hipster, not a hiker, and hadn’t packed appropriately; what was more, somewhere along [End Page 153] the hillside between Oxfordshire and Avebury, something about the solitude had gotten the better of him.
The Ridgeway, or the 87 miles that remain of it, is the oldest road in England: a trade route traveled for 5,000 years, now marked as a National Trail extending from Overton Hill in Wiltshire to Irvinghoe Beacon in Buck-inghamshire. Though it passed just behind K’s village, loping across the North Wessex Downs, winding its way toward Wantage, we had never walked on it. One Saturday, when it had been two weeks since my latest round of chemo and I was feeling good, or feigning feeling good, I optimistically decided I had the energy for it. School was out for the summer holidays: no more commuting to London on overcrowded trains while worrying about my white cell count, my immunosuppression, the risk of imminent infection, all to stammer stupidly in front of a classroom full of blank-faced teenagers, one day forgetting the words for dactylic hexameter and walking to the Tube in tears.
Looking over my Frommer’s guide to England, I thought we could walk to the White Horse, which was, as K described it, a sort of “crap Stonehenge”: a Bronze Age chalk carving on the side of a hill, inexplicable and mystical. The ghostliness of following in Neolithic footsteps seemed enchanting, romantic. Besides, we had no money and nothing else to do.
Honestly, I’d thought Stonehenge was a crap Stonehenge. We’d gone there on a day trip from Oxford four years before, shortly after we’d first started dating. As we circled the prehistoric stones, holding hands in an intense and unseasonable heat, the unreasonably priced informational headsets supplied us with a staggering lack of information: Nobody knows who . . . nobody knows how . . . nobody knows why. The voice on the headset articulated its anaphora against melancholy mood music. But then, I guess nothing mythic is ever how you imagine it.
I let K Google the path to the White Horse and plan our route accordingly. There is something about the estimation of distances on maps, like the division of decimals or the genitive case in German, that I have resignedly decided I will never understand. It was a couple of miles, K said; it would take a couple of hours.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been misled on an outing of pilgrimage proportions. The previous summer, in Bavaria, I’d unwittingly agreed to climb a mountain. We were visiting K’s brother and his girlfriend, who had inherited her family’s home in Berchtesgaden after her mother died of brain [End Page 154] cancer that winter. The house sat in sprawling decay under the shadow of the Kehlstein, Germany’s second highest mountain. On its summit crouched the Kehlsteinhaus: the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s holiday hideaway. You could see it if you squinted. My paternal grandfather had been there in 1945, raiding the place along with other American GIs. He’d taken some Nazi cutlery as a souvenir. Apparently.
On what had been grossly mislabeled ein Spaziergang—a “walk”—we’d climbed the Kehlstein. The girlfriend’s friend, Rolf, a trained mountain ranger, led us up the rock face, instructing us where to place our hands and feet when it got steep. I was embarrassed by my inappropriate footwear—gold canvas sneakers I’d grabbed off a sale rack for a couple of quid—and by the fact that my limited grasp of German grammar was forcing four people to speak in their second language in their own country. I attempted to make up for my sartorial and linguistic inadequacies with sheer physical stamina, remaining steadily on Rolf’s heels as we climbed...