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.
… I was freezing my ass off in Iceland.
Happy Fourth of July!
Where: In the shadow of Mount Hekla, Iceland
When: July 2006
What: When I wrote about this weeklong hiking trip in an August 2006 feature for USA Today and SmarterTravel.com, I likened the Icelandic interior to Tolkien’s Middle-earth: “With its obsidian lava fields and steaming hot springs, its moss-covered foothills and treeless valleys, Iceland is Mordor one minute and the Shire the next. It has a magical quality to it, this Land of Fire and Ice—as if it has been plucked from the imagination and placed here, somewhere between Europe and North America, to be a playground for the adventurous traveler.”
To me, nothing demonstrates that spirit better than this photo. I love the way it captures the wild and wide-open essence of the highlands: the snow-capped peaks, the spidering streams, the mossy greens and reds and browns of a land virtually untouched by human hands. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more epic. I also like seeing the seven hikers there in the foreground, a tiny fellowship of adventurers in true Tolkien-esque fashion.
The backcountry is dominated by Mount Hekla, a volcano that was once thought to be the literal mouth of Hell. A thousand years ago, Iceland’s Viking settlers sent criminals to this same inhospitable interior, where they were forced to survive for 20 years in order to earn a pardon. Most never made it. My wife and I lasted a week, but we needed the help of a guide from the Fjallabak Trekking Company to do it.
The trek meets up with the way-marked Laugavegur Trail on the fifth day of hiking, but before that most of the areas we explored felt as if they’d never been visited by other hikers. These highlands are different than, say, the European Alps, which are so well-traveled that it’s easy for experienced hikers to go it alone. Here, a good guide is essential.
I booked my trip through Adventure Center, the U.S. retailer for Fjallabak and other local operators. If you’re considering a backcountry trip, theirs definitely come with my recommendation. Icelandair, incidentally, offers inexpensive flights to Reykjavik from several East Coast cities, making it a cheaper destination to get to than mainland Europe.