This post only makes sense in context of the previous post. You can read it HERE.
My point in writing this two-part series is that most travel writing only relates the interesting, successful aspects of travel and disregards the reality that not every moment of traveling is enjoyable.
To prove my point, I first described a two-week trip I took to England several decades ago, describing only a few of the good parts. (As I wrote it, I was impressed with what a fantastically great trip it was).
That surprised me, because I came home from that trip feeling that it had been a failure. I fooled even myself in the retelling!
Why was it a failure? Because there were large swathes of the time that I wasted. Why? I didn’t plan enough of what I would see, I didn’t know enough about the places I’d pass through, and I failed in a number of preparations.
I’m not arguing for having every step of your travels planned. I made some unforgettable happenstance discoveries on that trip, sometimes through luck, sometimes courtesy of my native curiosity. The intriguing town of Glastonbury is one example of lucky discoveries.
Unfortunately, there were negative aspects of that trip aplenty.
First, some practicalities. I planned to travel by bicycle during a large portion of the trip, beginning with a 300 km (180 mile) stretch from Preston, northwest of Manchester, to Stratford-Upon-Avon.
You’ll notice that it’s raining. It rained for the majority of the 3 days I pedaled from Preston to Stratford and for two subsequent days. I’m not complaining about rain. Rain is a fact of life in England. However, I didn’t have the proper gear for cycling in the rain. I was okay for walking, not cycling. That was foolish.
A worse aspect of those miles and days to Stratford was that I did almost nothing but pedal. I didn’t tour any sights, and, other than what my road map told me, knew very little about the country through which I was passing. 3 days of grinding. Hardly a vacation. I did take a detour to see the site of Bosworth Field, which led to the happy discovery of Sheepy Magna and Sheepy Parva, so luck was with me there.
Another stretch on which my failure to note any notable sights was lonely B3157 from Weymouth through Abbotsbury and beyond.
I attempted to hitchhike this route. Here’s a sample view.
It’s lovely country: Thomas Hardy Country.
I got no rides. I estimate I walked 15 miles that day. Walking long distances is part of the Zen of travel, but I’d planned to make Lyme Regis in a reasonable time. Instead, I was left to cover a long stretch on foot, with no local buses running along that rather rural route as an alternative. In those days before mobile devices and the World Wide Web, there was no opportunity to do some last-minute scouting about interesting things that might be just a few hundred yards off the road.
I hit several tranches of similar long, unguided wandering during the 2 weeks. My lack of local knowledge and failure to research the countryside I’d pass through gave me little flexibility. I had certain goals in mind, and I wasn’t as well prepared to improvise as I should have been.
My best illustration of this point is a place I mentioned in that first post: Exeter, home of a remarkable cathedral and, in its library, one of my primary goals in traveling across Dorsetshire into Devonshire: The Old English Exeter Book.
You may not have noticed it, but I didn’t describe the town, the cathedral or my long-awaited look at that storied text.
That’s because I didn’t see The Exeter Book.
The cathedral library was closed the day I got there. It was a crushing disappointment. I would have had to stay around for another entire day in order to see it, and I had plans to reach my cousin’s house in Wales. True, it was more difficult in those Webless day to research opening hours for facilities, but not impossible. I failed. I traveled on, and was fortunate enough to discover Glastonbury as a partial consolation, but I’ve never seen The Exeter Book. As the Old English poet said (IN the Exeter Book) þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg (That has passed over, so may this).
My point is, I can tell two utterly opposite tales of this long-ago journey.
In Part 1, I related only memorable, remarkable and fascinating experiences I had. Today, I’ve barely scratched the surface of a number of discouraging, dogged days I spent crossing that green and storied land. It’s a question of perspective.
I returned home feeling the trip was a failure. Rather than exhilarated and refreshed by travel, I felt ground down and worn out from too many days of wandering, too many hours spent on roads bound for uncertain destinations.
I take heart, though. It was a once in a lifetime experience. More than anything else, I saw people, family members of my English grandparents, whom I would never see again, and who long ago left this world. I met others, too, who told me their stories, invited me to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in their village, gave me a place to stay or offered me rides. I’ll close with this lovely couple from Wales, photographed on Sugarloaf, one of the Black Mountains of Monmouthshire near Abergavenny.
Aren’t they handsome? They were en route to Sunday tea with her mother, and invited a bedraggled young Yank they picked up on the road to sit at the table with them. What stunning kindness. If they’re still alive, they’re nearly forty years older now, as am I.
No traveler who’s received such hospitality should consider his journey a failure.
Do you have a not-so-great travel story? I’d love to have your comments.
© Brad Nixon 2016