Where: Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England
When: July 2003
What: Two thousand years ago, a 10-foot-tall and 70-mile-long stone wall loomed over the undulating hills of northern England, built at the order of the Roman Emperor Hadrian to keep the savage Scots from raiding and pillaging Roman territory to the south. Today, the remains of Hadrian’s Wall form the largest ancient structure in all of Northern Europe. This photo shows the path alongside the wall as it winds toward a series of crags called the Nine Nicks of Thirlwall, seen here in the distance towering above the pond.
Here’s how I described the experience of walking here in one of my American Adventurer columns from last year: “A ragged mist swallows the rolling hills and checkerboard farmland ahead of me. An icy wind whips at the hood of my jacket. I’m alone today, a solitary hiker following in the footsteps of history, and this is just what I came for: a bleak and breezy walk along the ruined skeleton of England’s most impressive ancient monument.”
I’ve never been wholly satisfied with that description, though. I think it’s because I wasn’t able to use my column to talk about why I really chose this walk. I mean, who among SmarterTravel’s bargain hunting readers would actually care about the personal crisis I was going through in 2003?
But here I can talk about it all I want, and this is what I wanted to say: I was at a crossroads in my life in the summer of ’03, and Hadrian’s Wall is one of the places I went in search of the proper road to take next. Penny and I were separated and I was living on my own for the first time since college. I took six weeks off from work and went to Europe that summer to find myself, and I was drawn to Hadrian’s Wall because it gave me the opportunity to take long, solitary walks in the moody countryside near the Scottish border.
There was something wonderfully anonymous about “following in the footsteps of history.” I took comfort in the idea that 2,000 years ago there might have been someone else standing near that wall, feeling homesick and confused, and wondering what to do with his life. It helped me keep my own problems in perspective. Melodramatic, probably, but it is what it is.
Anyone who knows me today knows that Penny and I eventually got back together, moved to Cambridge for two years and then to Beverly, where we now own a house and have started a family. But back in 2003 that outcome seemed improbable at best.
This is the trek that began the long process of helping me work through what was going on in my heart, and I think I’ll always look back on it with a kind of bittersweet nostalgia. It wasn’t a straight line from there to reconcilation, after all, and things would only get worse between us before they’d eventually get better.
So yeah, bittersweet, for sure. But it was still a hell of a walk.
The end is here. Or maybe it’s just a new beginning. Either way, my very last syndicated American Adventurer column has gone live over at USATODAY.com. Hard to believe it’s been nearly four years since I started writing this series! Here’s a snippet from my final story:
Say this for the Vikings: If nothing else, they were good with names. That’s what occurs to me as the fog rolls in on my first full day of hiking Scotland’s northern isles. Knee-deep in heather and eye-level with a thick gray mist that seems to have swallowed the island whole, I can only marvel at the precision with which the Norse once named this place. They called it ski, meaning “cloud,” and on this late September day the Isle of Skye is enthusiastically earning its name.
Of course, not everyone enjoys wet socks and muddy boots, so Skye must have something else to recommend it, right? Boy does it ever. That something is the raw beauty of sheer cliffs and wind-whipped fjords, of heaving hills, sheep-dotted farms, and jagged black mountains that hug the sea. And in the midst of it all, a strange kind of serenity—a peacefulness that comes from the sense that at any given moment you might just have this weather-tossed wilderness all to yourself… (more)
I’ve traveled to some pretty amazing places and done some awesome stuff over the course of those four years—cycling on Malta, kayaking in the Panama Canal, trekking across Iceland, caving in Trinidad, hang-gliding above the Smokey Mountains, and mule riding down into the Grand Canyon, to name just a few of my favorites—yet now I’m moving on to the more lucrative but less certain world of freelance travel writing.
I’m trading a cushy expense account for the freedom to sell my stories and photos to the highest bidder. I’ll also have free rein to write the stories the way I want to write them, rather than trying to shoe-horn in a “saving money” angle like this series required.
Still, I’ll miss the life of a syndicated columnist… at least till I get that first freelance paycheck!
Where: Isle of Skye, Scotland
When: September 2000
What: I snapped this photo while climbing a muddy footpath to the top of the Quiraing on Skye. This easy day hike is one of my favorites on the island because it offers so much of what I love about the Scottish landscape: dramatic cliffs, heaving hills, and blue-green lochs. From the top of the Quiraing I could see as far as the Black Cuillins in one direction and the wide open Atlantic in the other.
I’ll also never forget the day I took this picture. It was September 18, 2000, my first wedding anniversary. Probably the best vacation Penny and I have ever taken, and definitely the one of which I have the best and most vivid memories.
Quiraing, incidentally, means “pillared stronghold,” which as you can see takes its name from a series of natural rock formations that spiral up to the sky with breathtaking abandon.