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Trip 31 -- Isle of Wight Walk

Day 5: Totland to West Cowes
Monday, May 16, 2022

Yesterday around the island: 58559 steps/41.25 km/25.63 mi/9h 5m
Including access to group walk: 63026 steps/44.26 km/27.50 mi/9h 48m
Grand total around the island: 175541 steps/128.40 km/79.78 mi/25h 21m
Including group walks and access: 298752 steps/208.16 km/129.34 mi

I left the Highdown Inn by the back door and threw the keys in through the flap. It was just after seven. I was due to meet the group at eight for "Round the Isle, Part Three": Most would have circumnavigated the Wight in three consecutive days; I had taken six, incorporating a few of the other festival walks along the way.

I'd had a little extra rest on Saturday, and while my shin splints had stung on the way downstairs, they weren't bad for a horizontal procession, and they were barely noticable on a gently uphill gradient.

But what's this sound -- a kind of pitter-patter on the roof?

There had been some brilliant lightning overnight, but everyone -- that is, everyone I cared to believe: the forecaster on the BBC and one participant in the previous day's tour -- had said the rain would be over by dawn. The covering where I had stepped outside was just above my head, augmenting the horror of such a sound on a day when I was about to be outside for the next eleven hours.

I had a poncho in my bag. I had just seen it. Where was it? After a couple of minutes I extracted it and opened its protective envelope. At that moment, the rain stopped abruptly. I kept the poncho handy, in my jacket pocket.

At a gentle pace I walked the three kilometers to Freshwater Bay. Near the end was the Piano, a cafe occupying the former brick home of the postmaster, who also happened to be Queen Victoria's piano tuner. The designated meeting point was by the toilets in Freshwater Bay, but I needed to go briefly beyond that and up the hill to the bus stop in order to continue my own round-the-island walk: That was where I had left the coastal path in my frantic attempt to find Arnold and the Robert Hooke group.

Eleven of us headed up Tennyson Down under the guidance of David, who has led many long-distance walks and was about to complete his 53rd island loop. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, lived on an estate near Freshwater Bay from 1853, and his monument in the form of a Celtic cross pokes out elegantly from the top of the hill.

I walked alongside Paul, a man dressed in bright orange who had taken up walking after a cardiac episode rendered him unable to drive. The cardiac arrest had happened while he was swimming just before the pandemic started, and the lifeguards had given him CPR for 19 minutes. When he woke up, Britain was in lockdown.

Like me, Paul found going downhill strenuous, and it was a steep descent. He had done the walk several times and rattled off the lengths of the different sections of the day's route: to Alum Bay, then through Fort Victoria Country Park to Yarmouth and Bouldnor, around a promontory to Shalfleet, into the Newtown nature reserve, back to the road and then back out through Thorness, and finally to the shore at Gurnard and along the esplanade into West Cowes.

At the extreme west end of the island, Alum Bay is home to the Needles, a string of chalk protrusions like shark's teeth announced by a red-and-white lighthouse. "This site was used for rocket testing in the Cold War," Paul said. "They must have built twenty-five rockets here in the nineteen-sixties. They launched twenty-two of them, but not from here."

Paul and I had taken longer than the others to descend, and we found them for a short toilet break near the Needles' souvenir shop. The best view of the Needles was a couple of kilometers onward, at Headon Warren. That's when the rain resumed, first a drizzle that I chose to ignore, and then steadily enough that I attempted to unravel my poncho.

It's the one from two years ago that I first took out on my Diners of New Jersey walk. It has all the parts it's supposed to -- two arms and a hood -- but the hood always disappears when I try to put the thing on. I got my head through an opening and spread the clear plastic out around my torso and my backpack, and then, as always happens, I saw the hood dangling behind me, like a tailpipe.

We followed the beach for a while. "Do you see the slipway?" David said, studying the shore ahead. "The coastal path goes inland. But if the tide is low enough and there's not a lot of surf, we can continue along the beach. It saves us a mile."

It became clear that we'd be able to take the shortcut, which involved a brief rock scramble and then a walk along seaweed-strewn sand for about 300 meters. At the end, David helped us climb up from the rocks to the slipway, which was adorned with multiple "Path closed -- Danger -- Do not enter" signs from the other direction and featured several barriers to crawl under.

Still, they hadn't completely impeded access; if they had wanted to be sure no one went that way, they could have done more to make it impassable. "They didn't close it off entirely," I remarked.

"They didn't David-proof it," someone said. Our leader had a reputation for seeing how close to the coast he could stay, even where it was prohibited; he had been escorted out of the grounds of Osborne House and military areas.

We walked through Fort Victoria Country Park, and David pointed out the military training grounds: the last British land many soldiers saw before heading off to Normandy. We soon rounded a corner and I immediately recognized Yarmouth ahead of us. This was our lunch stop, and I was eager to take a break: We'd been going for three hours, and I for almost four.

I'd envisioned us all sitting down indoors and getting dry and chatting over crab sandwiches and sodas and the gallybagger cheese that I'd share. So I was immensely disappointed to discover that this half-hour break featured none of the qualities I'd imagined. It was too early, it was not nearly long enough, it had no indoor seating, and there weren't enough appealing items for the paltry time allotted. The base was the Yarmouth Deli, and the closest restrooms were down the road, next to a cafe with abundant seafood options that would all take too long to prepare.

The Yarmouth Deli's seafood section wasn't operating, so I chose one of their Scotch eggs -- a chili-lime variety -- and a salmon-and-crab parcel. Both would have been better heated up, and crab did not seem to be part of the parcel. I saved a honeycomb tiffin for dessert later.

There was only one bench to sit on. Paul was changing into dry socks, and a backpack occupied the rest, though its owner moved it so I could sit. But I was astonished that everyone else was standing around in the drizzle. Why didn't they want to sit down?

We took off again. I'd removed my poncho, although it was still raining lightly. We traversed a long muddy section that I found treacherous. The others seemed to have no problem, but the path was narrow and full of rocks and roots and the occasional stinging nettle, and I needed to pick my way along slowly.

"Stop!" I yelled at the sky! "Yuck!" I shouted at the mud. And another word that rhymed with "yuck," whenever my foot slipped. It seemed that every step I took, I gave up half of it as I slid back. I'd never used the word so many times per kilometer.

"It's a good thing there's no swear jar," Paul said.

I was barely keeping up. Sometimes I'd run to catch the group. Then I'd look down to concentrate on the muddy path and look up to find everyone was already out of sight.

"How?" I'd cry into the void. "How am I already so far behind? It's unbelievable!"

One section had a particular kind of mud that was adept at attaching itself to my shoes. Suddenly I felt like I had elephant feet, with giant dirt discs under my soles. This slowed me down even further.

David waited for me and asked, "What's your plan for tonight?"

"I'm taking the ferry to Southampton tonight. I'll spend the night there, then take the bus to Heathrow and fly back to New York tomorrow."

"OK. I'll get you to the track. But then I might have to go ahead. Some people are booked on specific ferries tonight."

I didn't think one could book a specific ferry; my ticket was open-ended. Then I realized they had bookings for their cars.

"That's fine. I never want to slow anyone down. I have a map and know how to get there."

We reached the New Inn. I used the restroom and chugged down a bottle of black-currant juice. Someone else found time for a shandy. This should have been our lunch break: a couple of hours later, with hot food and indoor seating.

"But you never know whether the New Inn is going to be open," someone said when I made the suggestion.

The next section was not muddy, and the rain had stopped. I was able to keep up, and I could clear my head and try to analyze why I was lagging behind. For one thing, the shin splints must have been curtailing my stride. I was taking five steps for everyone else's three or four, to cover the same distance. So I was working much harder; no wonder it felt like I was running.

Then there were my shoes. My Clarks Cloudsteppers had treated me well, but they didn't have the traction for the mud. As we continued, I discussed shoes with one of the others. She was a serious walker who covered 50 miles on foot each weekend, often in the Welsh hills.

She had on Columbia shoes. "Montrail," she said. "That's the best shoe from Columbia for long distances. Another brand to look into is Hoka. They're kind of a cult shoe that walkers know about. The problem is that they're the ugliest shoes you'll ever see."

"Ah, that is an issue. I like to take only one pair of shoes that are good for walking but also for going out to dinner."


"Yes. This is all I have," I said, gesturing at my backpack.

"I would have worn the Hokas, but these have better traction. Then I have a pair for driving, a pair for going around town, and sandals for taking it easy."

"Thanks for the advice. I'm usually much faster than this. But" -- and this is reason number three -- "I haven't kept up practicing."

"Oh, that's essential," she said. "I don't like walking alone. So when Covid happened, I wasn't walking. It was hard to start up again. There's a group, the Long Distance Walkers Association."

"Oh, yes. I read about them." It was just about the most British thing I'd ever heard of.

"I've been walking with them. Usually on Saturdays I'll walk in the hills of south Wales. Then on Sunday I'll do a walk that's a little easier, a little flatter."

I could tell she wanted to go a little faster. "I'm going to slow down for a bit."

I took it slightly easier but still kept to the middle of the pack. When they took their next two toilet breaks, I went on slowly by myself and then let them catch up. I did regroup with them at Thorness, an odd holiday park that seemed to be the domain of Russian visitors. There was an arcade and an ice-cream shop.

We sat on the benches. David took ibuprofen. Maybe I should have asked for some.

"The next section is a bit muddy," Paul said. "But it shouldn't be too bad. We've had a long dry stretch until today."

"The mud slows me down so much," I said. "And then the stinging nettles."

"I like the stinging nettles," he said. "After five minutes, there's this tingle. Keeps you awake. Builds character."

"I'm not sure I agree with that assessment."

We resumed walking along the beach and then headed up again. More mud through fields and along farms. A barbed-wire fence appeared on my right.

"Why barbed wire?" I shouted. I guess it wasn't there for my support. But then another wire appeared, non-barbed. I ran my fingers along it, using it as a kind of stabilizer as I tramped along.

I knew that the track I was on would eventually lead me down to the esplanade, and I knew that David knew I knew that. So I didn't worry about keeping up, since they wouldn't be worrying about me. I plodded along, with the fence on my right, for at least half an hour.

Finally I reached the esplanade. I could see David and one of the couples ahead of me by about five minutes. One of the Red Funnel car ferries pulled out. I kept on, ever slightly slower and slower; the gap between me and the others widened.

The official end of the group walk was the chain ferry. I didn't need to go that far, but I figured I'd see if anyone was still there. I saw one of the others headed back toward me.

"Congratulations! You made it!"

"Thanks! Has everyone dispersed?"

"They've dispersed. The chain ferry's just about to pull out. Maybe you can wave to them on the other side."

So I was probably only about eight minutes behind. Over the course of a nine-hour walk, that didn't seem bad, even if I felt I'd represented the USA as an inferior walker.

The chain ferry started to pull away just as I arrived. It chugged over to the other side, I saw them get off, but I don't think they saw me wave.

A woman was waiting on my side. She had seen me limp. "You look exhausted."

"It's been a very strange day."

The Red Duster, like most places in West Cowes, was closed on a Sunday evening, so I went to the Anchor Inn. It surprised me that everyone had left so unceremoniously, without even a plan to get a pint to celebrate our accomplishment. I ordered a Wight ale called a Goddards Fuggle-Dee-Dum and then immediately ordered food and another beer. Once I sat, I was not going to want to stand up again for an hour.

Revived by shrimp cocktail, fried whitebait, and two pints, I took the Red Jet back to the mainland and inched my way to the Ibis Budget Southampton Centre, where I peeled off my mud-caked shoes and damp socks. I showered and pulled the covers over myself.

I slept the night, I slept on the bus, and I slept on the plane back to Newark, where a nonfunctioning gate escalator and nonfunctioning mechanical walkways greeted me. It was the time of day when the P6-107 combination was ideal. As usual, I didn't find any signs for the P6 shuttle, so I guessed its whereabouts and saw it pull up just in front of me. The only thing separating us was one of those pointless barriers that exist to make finding your place next to the terminal building as exasperating as possible.

I waved frantically at the driver and tried to find a way around the barrier.

"How do I get there?" I yelled, stumbling ahead with my lopsided limp.

"It's right over here," someone said.

I was sure the driver had seen me. But he closed the doors and started to pull away as I arrived. I banged on the side of the bus and he let me on.

It's a good thing there was no swear jar.