Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2006.09.18 : The Trip [Would Have] Sucked Without You
"It was only one more thing to escape from… Sometimes one wonders what it is they do - with so much hardship - escape."
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

Awoke at, yes, half-seven again – what is it with this St. Ives campsite reveille? – to, yes, another glorious morning. I packed up much of my stuff, tried to shake some of the overnight dew off the tent (in anticipation of packing and carrying it later), showered, and dressed. In addition to the surfeit of disposable razors, I'd restocked a little more shampoo than I cared to carry on my back over long distances. I do hate waste. ("Free to good home" it says there.)

Shortly after waking, I also discovered that Paul – Prince among Men – had texted me the day's weather forecast for my walking area. What a guy. Also, what a good argument for getting a decent wireless device for these trips: weather, e-mail, restaurant reviews…

I was back into town by the crack of nine. None of the cute girls in the cafe this morning, but I was still able to ask for "my usual" and get it. I chatted awhile with the non-cute-girl cafe counter guy. I scribbled all this down.

Just before leaving, I offloaded my Yellow Canary loyalty card – which I'd mostly but would never completely fill – on some sweet people at the next table, who thanked me effusively and wished me happy travels. Then I swang by the Fore St. Deli up the street for trail supplies. Nothing left then but to get out of Dodge.

As I ambled for the last time down Fore Street, I bid farewell to things. Farewell, Seafood Cafe! Farewell, St. Ives Camera Co! Farewell, Off-License! Then I was back on the front. Farewell, surfers! Farewell cafe patio with tea and pizza and beer! Farewell Tate Gallery!

Then I chugged a very last time up the hill, broke down the tent – and, just like that, my home for the last nearly a week had collapsed and condensed into a not terribly large, and not really heavy at all, backpack.

transcribed directly from notes
Now, here I sit in my traditional stall, for the last weight mitigation operation before departure. Introspecting, I find I'm equal parts apprehensive and exhilarated. Walking solo will definitely be a brand-new experience – and the next level of self-testing and self-reliance. Just a man and his pack, walking around the SW coast of Britain. Doing it for no other reason than to do it.

While I'm pausing here (or, I guess, while I was pausing there), I'd like to take this opportunity to give thanks and pay tribute to Tim Corrigan, Charles Hitchings, Meeyoung Son, Paul Edmondson, and Nicole Gyulay. You hear me say this alot: "The trip would have sucked without you." However, I've never before had a control. This time I do. And guess what? The trip really did suck without you. (*)

Coming back that last time from the bathrooms, I found that my erstwhile neighbours had struck camp as well. They were a nice mother/daughter/dog backpacking team (which I thought was a sweet line-up), and they were eating blackberries off of the bushes that ringed the field. "Nice they provide breakfast with the pitch."

You may recall the camp site was up high, west of town. Happily, there was a backdoor to the coast path, reachable without descending back into town. Yip. I found it, slipped out – and then farewell St. Ives! I was walking right out of it, and might never lay eyes on the place again. But I was pretty sure I'd never forget it.

I swung into a brisk pace, including – maybe especially – the uphill sections. I suppose this was the first thing to relish about walking solo: my pace was utterly my own. As I found my rhythm, I began feeling like a machine again. With all the kit on my back, a cyborg, really: half-man, half-camp site.

I realised this was actually the fourth time I was covering this terrain. However, only the second time in this direction – and the first fully loaded.

I passed a nice Swiss girl, from near Lausanne, who was on a photo stop. She said she was staying in St Ives, and walking out from there, and maybe we'd see each other in Zennor. This, I discovered, was the second nice thing about soloing – the greater ease of meeting other walkers (particularly other solo walkers).

Everyone really did seem friendlier/more talkative suddenly: two twenty-something blokes asked my walking time from Zennor to St Ives from two days before, in the hopes of beating it; a couple lunching on a triangulation point told me about their seal-watching expedition to the rocks from the day before; later, an elderly couple inquired of my destination, and told me I was in for amazing scenery – "just close your eyes as you pass through Land's End" they amended. (More on that later.)

Finally, I paused at a small turn-out, just past where Paul and Nicole and I had turned back the day before (and at which I finally felt like I was putting some ground behind me), for a stretch break. Not a single person passed me while I did a whole stretching routine. Suddenly, increasingly, I seemed to have the path to myself.

A bit further along, I took my next break, sitting on a rock while the moving clouds turned the light on and off, a lovely effect that had been the pattern all day. Passing the stretch where I'd gone billygoating around in the heights, this time I took the low road. It offered a nice view of the light on the boulders.

And Then Came The First Parlous Decision

Actually, first came me getting slightly lost. How can you lose a coastal path? Part of it was probably that I thought I should know where Zennor was, but of course I didn't. I veered inland early or something, or rather I started to be afraid that I'd veered in early, when I probably really hadn't. Another nice couple, with another nice dog, passing me on their way out, advised that Zennor was only just up ahead.

They also advised me about the path further along the coast. And about the weather.

The man told me that rain was indicated for that evening. Paul's morning forecast had actually called for rain by 3pm, but it didn't look like happening yet. In fact, the forecast had been for rain pretty much every night, and it had hardly ever happened.

As I was pretty visibly ruminating upon whether to carry on past Zennor, to stretch to the next town (seven miles further along), the guy brought up the matter of the terrain on that next stretch. A bit desolate, was the take-home message. "Yeah," he said genially, but distinctly ominously, "there's just nothing between here and Pendeen Watch. I mean, if you have a map, you can get yourself off the coast. But then you're just on a deserted road." Gack.

I checked the time. It was only 1:21pm – not quite 3 hours since I'd left St. Ives. (You really do make better time solo.) But, then again, I was walking solo for the first time. Should I happen to get hurt, there was no one – barring passing Samaritans – to come to my rescue. It was really awfully early to check in for the night; but I also figured it would be a shame to die on my first day solo. And, if that guy's comments weren't foreboding enough, I'm not sure what would be. Oh, maybe this bit from the book, actually:

"From here the path becomes more difficult to follow and is unmarked across the boulder strewn fields. Take care if the sea fog rolls over as it is very easy to get led onto the cliff edge by climbers' paths."

O-kay. It looked like I'd be amusing myself in Zennor for the day.

And, who knows, I might meet the Swiss girl.

So unapparent to us on our brief swing-through the other day, Zennor is also home to the Old Chapel Backpackers – a totally lovely and funky lodge, camp site, cafe – and movie lounge. And, as the name suggests, previously a chapel. I quickly concluded I could have found a much worse place to kill an afternoon and evening. Inside, I checked in, which involved a young woman taking my, I don't know, £4 or something, and showing me the showers and laundry – and taking my breakfast order for the following morning!

I then effectuated my first solo tent set-up of the trip. It was a bit tense; but I relied upon the tent-spot-picking skills I developed during my apprenticeship to Mark – and, despite a few snafus with mildly rocky soil and my dodgy geometry sense, the results I think speak for themselves. Just as I was finishing, the clouds rolled in – as did (visible in photo) the mother/daughter/dog hiking team! "We're following you!" "I thought as much. Though, I don't know if you can get breakfast in this field." I directed them to the spot I had nearly taken myself (before finding one slightly better). And then I made for indoors.

On my way in, I also re-met the older, dog-walking couple – and thanked them for the good, forboding advice: "I think now I made the right decision – which I would not have but for you. So – thanks!" "No problem," they said, "The pub here's not bad, too." I said I'd see them there. Also, they, or someone, my notes here are inconclusive, let slip here, or somewhere along here, that they had done the next section of walk a day or two before and it had taken him from 9:45am to 4:45pm. In other words, if I'd carried on today, I would have gotten in well after dark – assuming I wasn't led over a cliff in the mist and rain. Good call. Really good call.

The cafe was totally winning. And, as I sat waiting for my pot of tea, I grimaced trying to identify the end of a hauntingly familiar heavy metal standard playing throughout. I initially misidentified it as Iron Maiden. When I picked up my tea, the counter guy set me straight – it was early Metallica.

Overhead, the specials board offered home-made veggie chili in a jacket potato, home-made potato and onion soup – and orange juice you could machine-squeeze onsite yourself. The skies were still holding, so I ambled outside and finished my tea at one of the picnic tables. Nice. My mood was coming along nicely, as well.. I thought to myself: After tea, I'm going to take a big dump! Then maybe read on the comfy couch! And perhaps nap! Watch a movie if I want! Nice. And, really, should the rains come down, having this whole welcoming, homely place to hang out in – as opposed to the cold, exiguous tent – was a major boon. Only one wrinkle: like all "youth" hostels these days, the place was overflowing with old people. But not to be age-ist. And of course the Swiss girl might yet turn up!

And then – with apologies to Iron Maiden – down in falls came the rain. I ducked back inside, where Guns and Roses were now playing. I checked the combo video and book shelf in the lounge – and immediately found they had the one Steven Johnson book I hadn't read! I settled on the couch, read the introduction, and fell asleep with the book steepled on my tummy.

I awoke how much later I knew not, nor much cared, and ambled outside. The rain was coming down lazily, the cows were on the move, and I found the church (the one with the mermaid) locked tight. Hmm, the backpackers . . . the church . . . as far as Zennor went, that pretty much left: the pub. I had been planning to try and wait until 5pm but, hey, my hand was forced. What could I do?

"All I need from a pub is good beer and a seat where I can sip it and think, 'My, what a lovely pub.'"
    - Nicholas Lezard, in the Guardian (G2)

And a very lovely pub it was: a dim, wood-beamed, low-ceilinged, cosy room; a vegetarian section of the menu; and, perhaps best of all, Skinners Cornish lager on tap. You might, or might not recall, some hand damage I mentioned taking in scrabbling around on the cliffs the other day, which were heavily – and sharply – vegitated. I'd picked up a few thorn splinters, one of them kind of unbelievably deep, and I carried that one with me all the way here. Sitting in the pub, with lots of analgesic on tap, and all the time in the world, I got serious about getting it out. Kind of horribly, but also kind of deeply gratifyingly, it finally squeezed smartly and decisively out of the tip of my finger – long, sharp, and straight, and rising straight out of the flesh like Boticelli's Birth of Venus. Man was that good to get rid of. I felt as happy as Androcles' lion.

That accomplished, I sat and sipped (drinking halves, as I still had so very much evening to get through), and scribbled. It was rather lazy and sweet and slow being marooned this way in Zennor. Finishing my half, I rose to amble back to the Backpackers. I retrieved the Johnson book, read some more (good stuff), got listless, and went back to the pub again. There I had another half over the book, by which time the joint had cleared out. I went back to the backpackers again to see about a shower – and thence was confronted with: the Towel Catastrophe.

I suddenly, and horror-strickenly, recalled how I'd been all cool that morning, confidently breaking camp, and smartly showering, and bantering with my tent-pitch neighbours, and hanging my travel towel out on the fence so it would be totally dry for my day's walk . . . and how it was in fact surely totally dry now, in large part because it was still hanging there on that fence at the St Ives camp site. Son of a BITCH. It took about 12 seconds of thinking really hard about it to realise there was no really realistic way I was going to retrieve that towel at this point.

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Instead, I button-holed the (hate to say it, but rather frightening) backpackers manager woman, who was caught up in the rush to prepare dinner, and I asked her if I could borrow a towel and she gave me one, and then I showered, and then afterwards I found her again and launched into this long rambling tale of woe about my lost travel towel and about how maybe there'd be some chance of her selling me this towel, or perhaps allowing me to post it back to her from Penzance (the next town with an outdoors store where I could buy a replacement travel towel), all so I wouldn't have to be starkly towelless for several days, and I was so rambling and annoying, and she was so busy with cooking dinners, that she finally just barked, "Keep the towel!" which I did.

And so then a whole school trip full of students, most of them seemingly hot 18-year-old females, spilled into the backpackers, and so I escaped back to the pub (not so much to escape them, as not to seem like I was hanging around scoping them), where I tried a half of the Zennor Mermaid Ale (how not?). This going back and forth from the backpackers to the pub was going on an awful lot, but as you can see there was nowhere else to go. You can see in this photo, behind the stone pub, the stone church, which as I mentioned was the only other thing of any sort in Zennor and was shut. After my half of Zennor Mermaid I couldn't any longer resist going back to the backpackers, to scope the prenominate 18-year-old females.

And then, a bit later, from their chattering chatter, it became apparent that all the 18-yo girls had plans to hit the pub, so I raced back to the pub to beat them so I could get a seat and a pint (or, rather, two more halves) and my dinner order in, which I did. And then who should walk in but my once and future neighbours, aka the mother/daughter/dog hiking team, henceforth to be known as Debi, Alex, and Dylan. (They'd henceforth be known that way for awhile, because I kept seeing them.) We all sat together and had nice conversation and a huge dinner. After that, I stumbled back to the backpackers, where they incidentally had this map on the wall, and where I liberated a couple of biscuits from the kitchen cupboard for dessert, then fell into the tent and slept the sleep of those who've been drinking halves all of a very long afternoon and evening.

Later, in the dark but twinkling, and still but still sort of throbbing, night, I awoke and emerged from the tent into the very centre of the glorious overhead dome of dazzling stars. It's cliche, of course, but living in the city you really do forget that there are so many of the darned things. It might further be said that you forget your place in the cosmos. London is, in a sense, pre-Copernican – it seems very much to be the centre of the universe. (If not the whole universe itself.) It's a funny, cute kind of self-importance.

Route Follower Alongerer :

Tomorrow: 7 Miles, Plus Futzing Around, to Pendeen Watch - the Actual Nicest Stretch of the Whole Entire Walk, and Along Which I Shot No Fewer Than 10 Movies, Most of Them Pretty Much Totally Indistinguishable One From the Next

  camping     cornwall coast path     danger     drinking     food     mates     people     walking     women     graham greene  
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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