I abandoned the political scientists for a few hours on Saturday to visit the National Book Festival, which is sponsored by the Library of Congress. Like so many public institutions in the capital, this is free and open (and welcoming) to the public. It used to be held on the Mall in tents, but this year it moved to the Washington Convention Center.
I had late afternoon commitments but my morning and early afternoon were free, and the panel that interested me the most was at 11am. This was a discussion with Aminatta Forna, R.O. Kwon, and Valeria Luiselli. It was in the Poetry and Prose stream and titled “Fiction Through A Different Lens.” Forna turned out to be the chair so she posed the questions and didn’t read from her own work. The panel was very well attended and the discussion and readings were engaging. I got a better sense of Luiselli’s approach and it made me want to read Kwon’s novel, The Incendiaries.
Of course the big draw that day was on the main stage, where Ruth Bader Ginsburg was doing a Q&A with Nina Totenberg. One of my friends who is a judicial politics scholar wondered if she’d make it given her recent treatment for cancer but she was there and good as ever. Or so I heard. The audience to get in was huge and the seats filled up in the session which preceded hers with RBG fans.
I had thought about going because it was an interview with Richard Ford and he was receiving an award, but 15 minutes after it started it was maxed out. Poor Richard Ford. I’m sure the audience was polite but he was reduced to being the warm-up act.
We did something slightly unusual on our Wales holiday: we each packed everything into one not-huge backpack and carried those packs ourselves for the entire trip. I say this is unusual because we didn’t meet anyone else doing this who wasn’t either camping or staying in hostels. The people we met in the inns and B&Bs we stayed in were having their luggage transported daily from one night’s destination to the next and using day packs on the walk itself. It’s not expensive to use a porter service (about £5/day), and our relatives who walked Hadrian’s Wall did it this way. So why didn’t we?
One answer is that we’re independent and like control: we didn’t want to have to think about where our stuff was and we had intended to make decisions on the fly. As it turned out we had every night’s lodging booked in advance, which meant we did have to get from one place to a designated next place and that didn’t factor in. A second answer was that we wanted to see if we could do a nearly two-week trip across a variety of conditions carrying everything ourselves, kind of like when we were young. We’ve downsized on a lot of our ten-day to two-week trips to a carry-on rollerboard, but those are still a bit awkward, especially on uneven pavements and cobblestones (not to mention having them drag behind in a crowded city).
I went down the #onebag hole on the internet and found subreddits devoted to the practice (r/onebag and r/heronebag). I watched YouTube videos and read blog posts. You will not be surprised to know that there is an entire community of people who are dedicated to traveling light, and thanks to the magic of the internet they’ve found each other.
Basically, if you’re willing to wash out your clothes and wear the same things repeatedly, you can #onebag it pretty easily, even in cooler weather. The main trick is to take clothes in materials that dry quickly and don’t wrinkle (or I guess you can take linen, which is wrinkly as a feature). In our case we also needed water-resistant and waterproof stuff, since we’d be outdoors every day.
Our last day! I should explain that we knew we didn’t have time to walk the entire trail, which is 177 miles. The part we chose, Sedbury Cliffs to Knighton, is the south part and slightly less than half the total at 80 miles on the official path. Knighton is the acknowledged (not-quite) midpoint stop, probably because it has train and bus connections as well as the Offa’s Dyke Centre.
When we planned the trip we talked about doing parts of the south section but not necessarily all of it. We’d make sure we had shorter sections at the beginning and then get from one stop to another by walking or some other route depending on how we felt. But I guess once we started we got hooked, never mind the rain and the mud, because it’s the only way we wanted to proceed. If you had told me that I would stop in Hay-on-Wye and fail to visit a single bookshop I would have never believed you. But walking 9-15 miles a day, carrying a 20-lb. backpack over hilly terrain, is time-consuming and taxing, and we were pretty beat by the time we got in. Plus, most bookshops we encountered didn’t stay open very late. Even the one in Tintern was closed when we reached there at 3:30pm, which was about the earliest we stopped on any day.
Today’s stage, Kington to Knighton, is described as one of the best sections of the path, in part because it contains so many examples of what the full walk offers. And not least because after 50 miles we finally rejoin the Dyke itself. We set off from Kington and were immediately walking uphill to a golf course. That was unexpected. We managed not to get hit by any golf balls and made our way to fields above the town, where we had lovely views:
And soon we were reunited with Offa’s Dyke.
We hadn’t met many other walkers over the week we’d been on the path. There was a German couple whom we met occasionally, starting at Llangattock and continuing through the rest of our stages (they were doing the whole path), but mostly we’d pass each other or say hello in the evening in town. In Kington we shared the inn with two British men, one of whom whom now lives in Canada, and we saw them off and on this last day. And we met a solitary walker, a man in his 70s, who was coming from the north. But it’s a bit early for peak season, but I get the feeling that even when the path is at its busiest it’s nothing like the Coast-to-Coast, let alone the Hadrian’s Wall walk. Still, there were enough people to make us feel both part of a group while also giving us the solitude that had made the path so attractive.
Walking on the Dyke turned out to be surprisingly tricky. In the first couple of days, when we walked alongside it for much of the time, we were always aware of its mass height, but now we were actually balancing on the top. The badgers (and possibly other animals) have been making homes within it, and it can be narrow and uneven. But there’s something about walking on a hundreds-year-old form that is unlike anything else. Yes, it’s man-made, but it has become so much a part of the landscape that it feels like part of the natural earth. Unlike the Iron Age stone circle, which we admired but weren’t part of, this felt like something that integrated us into its existence. Humans, sheep, birds, plants, and all kinds of natural life had shared space on the Dyke since the 8thC.
The path was indeed a lovely way to end our journey. We walked uphill, downhill, across different types of fields and pasture, and saw the requisite number of sheep and cows.
And we came into Knighton via, of all things, a second golf course! This one had sheep mingling with the golfers, so it was clearly a multi-use facility; a links course in every way.
Although we thought we would have a chance to visit the Offa’s Dyke Centre, they had changed their hours and now closed at 5:30, so we missed them. We checked into our lodging, which had been operating as a coaching inn since the 14thC, according to its website. I’m pleased to say the mattress and bathroom were of much more recent vintage. The dining room served excellent food, and after baked sardines for a starter it was TheH’s turn to have a Hereford steak while I went for the Cauliflower Cheese.
We felt an immense sense of accomplishment. TheH has done a lot of backcountry trips and mountain climbing, but I’ve never done anything like this, and neither of us had backpacked in forever, so leaving the next morning from Knighton’s little railway station was bittersweet.
We were ready for a break, but now we want to find more of these kinds of activities. Britain is full of marvelous walks, of course, and we still have the second half of Offa’s Dyke before us, but we’re also exploring possibilities in the USA, and one of the best-known is even in Missouri.