Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2006.09.21, Pt I : Going Round the Bend
"One always expects something different. But a bad time over is always tinged with regret… it is as if everywhere one loses something one had hoped to keep."
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

Awoke rather dreamy and refreshed – especially after an extra, post-rollover hour of sleep. The new sun and fresh breeze were both blasting in the window – ah, another glorious day, imagine that. Perhaps I am God. How would you know for sure, really?

I indulged in a second shower (hey, there still clean towels, plus hotel soap and shampoo) and then ambled down for breakfast. (*)

So today's logistical conundrum: a piddling 6.5 miles into Treen, the next town along? Or the full, gruelling 17 miles into Penzance? Militating for Penzance: it would buy me an extra day for the Isles of Scilly; I could immediately offload my memory cards onto a CD, a needful process (*). Militating for Treen: everything else. Right, that was settled, then.

We Suck Ass
    The hotel guy at checkout gave me the current forecast: Lovely today; could get ugly tomorrow. I couldn't help but note that this has been the forecast every single day of this entire trip. It's a bit like the plaque above the bar which reads "Free Beer Tomorrow". Always bad weather tomorrow. I took this photo – not because I wanted to remember the inn (though I certainly enjoyed vandalising it in post-production) – but because I liked the Skinners Cornish lager flyer, with trademark Surfing Saint.

Note to Self
"Life is all process, no product." (*)

C'mon Baby, Rescue Me
Starting off, the weather was pleasant – but still kind of rambunctious-seeming. There was a sort of foreboding feeling to things – which was only reinforced when this Coast Guard helicopter went cruising by. Like it was looking for somebody, or getting ready for something. It wasn't the last time I'd see it.

    As both the wind and the surf picked up, I started to get interested – or transfixed is probably a better word – in the way the waves crashed around the bottoms of cliffs, and the outcroppings of jagged rock. In a word, violently. Cornwall's mood seemed to be changing, and not for the better, right before my eyes. It had clearly changed before somebody else's – and too quickly, or too late, to do anything about it. And this was no Victorian-era ship wreck, this was pretty recent, if the steel hull was any basis. Does Cornwall not have some kind of coast equivalent of street sweepers, who come around and clear up the detritus of shipwrecks? Or maybe the Cornwall coast is quite capable of scouring itself clean.

The Irish Lady (from guidebook)
When a vessel from Ireland was wrecked near Sennen Cove, a lady in white, the sole survivor, was seen clinging to a rock; but the storm was so fierce they were unable to go to her rescue. Eventually the poor lady was washed off the rock and presumably drowned, but there have since been many sightings of her in stormy weather – sitting on her rock with a red rose clenched between her teeth.

On a lighter note, I'd stopped for a bit of stretch on a handy grassy knoll, when a couple in their 60s ambled by. The woman approached me – approached to the point of being no more than two inches away. She wanted to know if I had a cramp. I tried to tell her that this was merely a recommended preventative measure for men approaching middle age who insist on walking all the way around very large peninsulas; but she was already off to the verbal races, chattering and twittering with abandon: "Oh, you're walking the Cornwall Coast Path, my husband and I are great walkers, we get started and we just can't stop, it's so nice to see a young fellow like you walking the national trails, how far have you come?, and it's such a lovely day for it" and on and on, two inches away, and touching my arm. It was weird and lovely. It was human.

    Land's End isn't what you think it is. Yes, it's the westerly most bit of Britain. And, yes, it's flanked by rugged coastline and windswept heath. But, on the spot itself, they've built a theme park. A very kitschy theme park. As you could hear in this video if you could hear me, it wasn't as horrible as I'd been led to expect it would be. But it was pretty bad. And I wasted little time in rounding the bend.

But first I had to buy a souvenir. Funnily enough, I'd been needing a new waiter's wine key, and I sort of had the idea in my head that I should get one of those printed souvenir ones someplace interesting. (I'd looked for one in Belgium recently, without success.) Anyway, that kitchy cafe/giftshop behind me in the video had a whole box of Land's End wine keys, and I went in and bought one and it was great. [Right up until, I can now tell you, after the fact, the first time I went to use it when the corkscrew snapped smartly off.]

I figured the theme park was worth 10 minutes of my time, and I wasn't wrong. I sort of had to pass through it, in any case, just to get by. First I went and had a go at the talking telescope which, frankly, didn't have much to say for itself. I then entered the complex proper. I do, I thought to myself, at least expect an arcade at a joint like this. (Hell, I half expected to find an ape to bugger.) When I finally located it (the arcade), there was nothing I really wanted to play. Heigh ho.

I finished my circuit and, sure enough, after a total of about 10 full minutes, I was feeling markedly keen to find the way out of there. But as I exited out the rear, I did think to myself: I've now officially gone round the bend. From here on out I will be going back East!

As I ambled out the back of the complex, angling back to the coast, I once again experienced that ignoble frisson of self-satisfaction – to think that all of those people came hundreds of miles to see exactly this; while I was rushing through on my way to see (and coming from just seeing) hundreds and hundreds of much, much nicer things. Though, I suppose, de gustibus non disputandum est.

    But then straight back to feeling superior: as I reached the next point on from Land's End, and looked back, I could see the very intrepid ones amongst the daytrippers daring out a few hundred yards from the park, down the path, and onto a bit of the actual coast. That was their adventure. I turned my head to the wind.

And Cornwall was giving me an awful lot wind to head into – and it didn't seem like backing down, nor that it had nearly spent itself.


2006.09.21, Pt II : Getting on Cornwall's Bad Side
"I remembered the confessor saying to me in Orizaba, 'A very evil land.' One felt one was drawing near to the centre of something – if it was only of darkness and abandonment."
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

Irresistibly Perilous
    Not too far past Land's End, I chanced to come upon one of the more stunning, and insidiously dangerous, spots of the whole trip. This I think was the sort of broken cliff-top boulder field I alluded to earlier (in the context of not making anyone climb out onto one with me). I made the most of my freedom to be reckless. First I spent awhile doing a measured tactical assessment of the rock formations – and how I could get out to the bits on the very edge of the cliff. (The terrain was entirely puzzle-like, and called for tactical thinking.)

The Pack Holds the Fort
I found one route I liked; albeit it involved traversing a fair bit of air. I was pretty sure I could make the leap out – without my pack, of course – but it was, admittedly, not absolutely clear how I was going to get back. I thought I identified a return leap I could make in a pinch; and figured I could probably work out something safer once I got out there.

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.
I've No Idea Myself What I'm Saying Here,
But the Fact That "may recover my body" is
the Only Audible Phrase Can't Be a Good Sign
    I was just about to have a go on that basis, when I decided the whole project was pretty dodgy – especially in this high wind. I'd obviously been watching too many Sylvester Stallone movies, or the opening of MI:2 or something. I resolved to settle for my Second-Choice Promontory, which I was confident I could both get out to and back from – with no significant leaping involved. (As my Triumphal Promontory Conquest Movie here illustrates, the number two choice ought to have been both spectacular, and dodgy, enough for anyone.)

← Here's another of those lying down and hanging my head over a cliff shots, which works slightly better in terms of showing the sheer drop involved. → Here's that whole tableau from the next point over. See what I mean? Let's just say it's not the kind of place you'd take small children or the elderly (or sane travel companions).

Along the trail here I passed what appeared, to my eye, to be the most proper, traditional, old-style English couple of all time. Uncollapsible, non-aluminium, all-wooden walking sticks; old-style cloth backpacks with leather straps and no weight management system whatsoever; white sideburns protruding from under a tweed riding cap (on the man only); and those accents you can just imagine. (*) Just the sight of them was totally smile-making.

A bit further on, I scrambled out onto another boulder formation – they were all irresistible! On this occasion, I took the pack off only when it volunteered to take a photo of me. The background shows, in wider perspective now, the same boulder-topped, stark, deadly, brutal cliffside from earlier – plus the (increasingly) surging waves crashing against its base. On the downside, this is such a good photo that it actually looks fake – as if I've Photoshopped myself in, like I'm floating in front of the scene. But it's totally untouched.

All along this stretch I passed some pretty spectacular panoramas of coastline – but I simply didn't have the camera memory left to document it exhaustively. I had to take a lot of mental pictures. I'll share them with you next time we mind-meld. On the other hand, perhaps because I had to be selective, the few shots I produced from along here seemed to be above average quality.

A propos of all the cliff-top walking (never mind cliff-top bouldering): Kind of hate to say it, but the insanely blasting wind did really, palpably wind up the Jeopardy Meter here. Generally, for most of the walk, the wind was blowing in from the sea. But just every now and again, and seemingly quite a lot on this day, it would get cheeky, reverse direction – and give me a firm little shove toward the cliff edge. Not funny, man! Not funny!

I passed above this here little beach, and fully intended to pass it by; when that tunnel-like rock formation caught my eye, and beckoned me over. Climbing down, I'd hoped it would be wadeable all the way out through the crevice; but the tide was already too far in. The waves were rushing through the rock slit, faster and further every minute. In fact, as I was standing waiting for just the right dramatic wave to get my shot of ( → ), I was driven completely off of my sandbar by a fiercely advancing tongue of waterline. Within seconds, I was driven out of the cavern entirely; running at full speed just to keep my socks dry.

It's Not Nice to Fool with
Mother Nature (And Don't
Fuck With Mr. Zero)
    Shortly after, when a blast of wind physically knocked me back from a cliff-edge where I was trying to get a shot – I gave up, believe me – I thought to myself: This Coast is asserting itself. It had all been sun and surf and fun and games up until now. But Cornwall had a whole other side to it, a whole primitive animal power – as centuries of shipwrecked sailors I'm sure could tell you, if they hadn't drowned.

    Okay, so back up in the heights, and off of the beach, I'd gained some safety from the surf – but not from the wind: I stopped for apples, pulling two out of my pack. I'm going to eat this one now, I said, in the merciless internal monologue, and I'm going to save this one for later. I'm going to put both of the cores in this plastic ba – SHIT!! Of an instant, the wind violently yanked the bag out of my hand – and, seriously, in 3 seconds it was 50 yards away. It was like watching the plastic-bag drag-racer championships. In another 3 seconds, it had disappeared over the horizon completely. Going after it was totally out of the question; no one could run that fast. I felt terrible; but all I could do was pledge to pick up somebody else's wind-swiped bag ahead of me; and trust that someone behind me would get mine.
Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

• wind, I declared to my notebook, starting to take the fun out.

• Big surf!! I added immediately after.

And that was when I fought my way up and into the lee of a lonely Coast Watch Station. They had a weather advisory board posted outside the front door. This is what it said:

Wind Direction: SE
Force: 7-8+
MPH: 35-40+
Outlook: Continuing Rough

However, they also had a sort of public-access room on the ground floor – where the general walking public could wander around, look at Coast Watch artefacts and awards, read flyers, etc. Amusingly enough – at first – they also had their own internal radio chatter and alerts piped through speakers in this room. It was hard to make out or follow, but ultimately I did catch the phrase, "increasingly violent storm force two". You can probably imagine how reassuring that wasn't.

Stepping back out into the tempest, I actually started to worry about my glasses. Those who have been following along will know that my beloved prescription Costa del Mar EL-11 "Eliminators" have never once fallen off in 8 years of, oh, let's call it, mixed use. Running, cycling, outdoor basketball, getting swept down African rivers, dodging pissed-off hippos on other African rivers – nothing has ever dislodged them. They hug my face like an alien face-sucker.

But, frankly, this was a whole new league. I still figured the odds of them blowing off were low – but the stakes were way too high. (I'd be hosed without them.) First I decided to put my hat away entirely. And then I repurposed the hat "lanyard" – which was actually a repurposed sunglasses strap – into its original purpose, and used it to cinch my glasses around my head. Ha.

I couldn't decide which of these two photos I prefer. One is wider and shows the scale and scene; the other tighter and shows the wild surf a bit better. Finally, I realised I didn't have to choose. This is the web.

As I stopped for a sit-down and a nice cuppa in the tiny seaside cafe in, um, Porth-something-or-other, and sat out in their relatively sheltered courtyard, it started to occur to me that I might not be able to camp in this. You might protest that if we could camp on the absurdly-exposed Blakey Ridge, then I should be able to camp anywhere. But, on this one, I wouldn't have Mark to help me set up the tent. (Or, rather, I'd have me to help him, but no him.)

As I tried to get my sugar from packet to mug, without the packets taking flight for the next county, it occurred to me that this was a bit like operating in zero gravity: you need to give a little extra thought to even the most basic operations. (Like, for instance, urinating.)

Right, then – next threat: Being knocked by the wind into trail-side thorns, and stinging nettles – with which this stretch, otherwise unprecarious, was rife. In fact, I was stung on the legs while I stood there scribbling the prior sentence. I was attacked! Powered by the wind, the nettles actually lunged right out from the trail edge and stung me! Bastards!

A bit further on, at the edge of a large inlet, I stood on an overlook, watching the implacable assault of the waves on the cliffside below, trying to get a movie that would capture the grandeur and violence. As I struggled to hold the camera remotely steady, I was joined by a nice couple – with a very, very frightened puppy in tow.

Me: "Nice day for it."
Them: "And it's going to get nicer."
Me: " . . . Really?"
Them: "Yes. The forecast is for 80mph winds – and 20-foot waves."
Me: "So perhaps my plan of camping isn't such a good idea."
Them: "No, that wouldn't be terribly sane."
    I couldn't help but note that this very closely echoed Paul's response to the suggestion by me and Mark that we spend a night or two in downtown Nairobi. ("That wouldn't be very clever.") Anyway, as if to punctuate this dramatic exchange, two Coast Guard helicopters now flew by, noses down, in formation. I checked my map for the nearest place of any sort with lodging, which was Porthcurno. I made a beeline for it. And here's that movie I shot. You may judge for yourself whether I made the sane decision.

The Porthcurno Hotel was the only place going, at £55.00. The guy who let me in, leaning on the door to close it again, seemed nice – he smiled when I learned the price and said, "A bit steep, but it beats blowing away in 80mph winds." It turned out to be a lovely, lovely place, and I was put in a sweet little room. Best of all, I had a bathroom I didn't have to leave home for.

I did a few push-ups and sit-ups, in an effort to keep my upper body from completely atrophying (or at any rate being dwarfed by my freakishly burgeoning leg muscles), then showered. As I was toweling off, it occurred to me I could underwrite the cost of the room by dining in (with shop-bought food). I actually have no problem at all eating tinned beans, peas, etc. – that's actually what I end up getting in the pubs half the time (all of the side veggies) – it's just that it's damned unpleasant to eat in the tent. So I usually pay a premium to eat beans in a spacious, warm, well-lit pub. However, having a lovely room to myself, with a sink, changed that equation.

As I emerged from the B&B back into The Day After Tomorrow, the tariff on the room started to seem a pittance. I thought the force of the gale might be ameliorated a bit inland, but it wasn't. (Or, if it was, I sure wouldn't have wanted to be on the coast just then.) I realised I might very easily have not gotten indoors anywhere – in which case I would have been McScrewed with Cheese.

The shop up the road was actually smaller than my room; but it did prove my budgetary hypothesis. For comparison: the night before I spent £11 on dinner, at the Old Failure. The last night in St Ives, I spent £20 at the burger mecca (albeit w/beers and a fat-ish gratuity). Here, I got tins of baked beans, kidney beans, peas, carrots, and chopped tomatoes; a roll of choc-chip and hazelnut cookies; 4 bananas; and a copy of the Times; all for £5.13.

I dropped the food off, then headed back out for that all-important first pint – or, in this case, half-pint. I've been drinking (as well as eating) a bit more than I'd like to be; drinking halves doesn't always result in me drinking less, but it does slow me down, and I've often got time to kill.

The one pub in town was pretty empty and quiet (it was only about 5:30), and they didn't have my beloved Skinner's lager. They did have Doom Bar, which I then decided was my favourite ale of the trip. (Which was nice, because it certainly had the best name, not to mention that Tim and I had personally seen the actual Doom Bar.) As I sat down with my beer to begin scribbling, I found my pen was all but out of ink. A tell-tale sign of literary incontinence.

I got chatting with a guy at the bar, who suggested that if I had a really good tent, it might stay up in 80mph winds. He also informed me that this storm was the tail end of a hurricane coming off of the U.S. East Coast, and should blow itself out in a few hours. The barmaid said they'd closed the entire waterfront in Penzance: in weather this heavy, waves – and sometimes rocks – come right over the barrier and onto the Promenade. Everyone in the pub, which had finally filled up a bit, was talking about the weather.

The wind was down a bit on my walk back, which gave me a small twinge of buyer's remorse for the price of the room. But when I woke in the wee hours, alone in the dark and strange and nice-smelling room, rain was pouring down outside – which made me feel good about being inside again. (But "inside", I would discover before very much longer, had yet to develop its full appeal.)

Route Follower Alongerer :

Tomorrow: Seven Wussy Miles to Mousehole, Then A Nice Bus Ride To Penzance

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close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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