I Know Where I'm Going
Out of the plane, shrug the knapsack on, stride along, walking stick clicking on the exit ramp linoleum. Turn left for Passport Control. Onto the rolling walkway. Striding striding, clicking clicking.
Stepping out feels so good after more than seven hours overnight in an economy class seat.
Avoid the escalator. Down the stairs to shake up those weary muscles a little. Through the doors to Passport Control. Signs say: Brits, EU, All Others. How dare they consign my USA passport to an afterthought category?
Squeeze left and walk slowly now, emphasizing my walking stick, tap tap, my third leg. I catch the eye of one of the Pakistani ladies in charge of opening the special gate for families with babies, old people in wheelchairs, people hobbling and handicapped. I don't limp, I don't ask, I don't do anything except walk along with white hair and a 64 year old face--and I catch their eye.
They say not a word, but open the gate for me, and instead of a 45 minute wait before my passport is stamped, I wait 45 seconds.
Turn right. Into the terminal. Skip the bureau d'exchange with their crappy exchange rates and fees. Bear right to the ATMs and pay their fees instead....
If I ask for 200 pounds, around 300 dollars, my request will be turned down because my dollar limit is $250 a day. I ask for 150 pounds. If I have not called my credit card company in advance of my trip, my next charge will be refused, and I will have to call home and tell them my mother's maiden name, my date of birth, my address, my social security number, my wife's name, and so on.
I have called in advance.
Down the stairs, more walking, more moving stairways, more signs I ignore. I know where I'm going. Heathrow Central Bus Terminal. Dead end corridor. Some people standing there crane their heads looking for stairs or escalators. Eventually the freight-size elevator doors open and we crowd in.
Ticket kiosk--single (that's 'one way') to Gatwick or return (what we call 'round trip')? Oh, single, definitely, because I'm returning to Heathrow an altogether different way. Credit card, collect ticket, out to bus docks. Onto bus, watch for a minute as the bus rams through the Heathrow traffic, and then I find the sleep I couldn't find in seven hours of flying.
An hour to Gatwick. Out of the bus, up the stairs, ticket counter--Eastbourne? Single or return? Single again. First class or standard? Ha, look at me, you have to ask?
Doze again on the train, but as the train winds along the River Ouse where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, I wake up, just in time to see the turrets of the castle in the town of Lewes, where I'll be sleeping in a couple of nights.
At Eastbourne Station I head for the Cafe Nero outlet. One double espresso for a jolt, one cafe americano for some stamina, and, yes, some pastry for mischief. I do have a 12 mile walk ahead.
The barista asks what I want for pastry. I point to the chocolate toffee shortbread. "Two pieces of that millionaire." (I asked once in a village bakery in the Lake Country why it was called 'millionaire.' The lady behind the counter said, "'Cos it's so rich, love!")
As I sit in the station with my breakfast, I take my map out of my knapsack, slide it into a waterproof case, and strap my gaiters over my hiking boots.
If I look a little out of place in a seaside resort town with my knapsack, gaiters, military surplus camo rain gear, flapping map case, and Red Sox cap--screw 'em! This is, after all, the starting point for the 100-mile trail, the South Downs Way, my way for the next week. Eastbourners have seen hikers before.
Into the street. Follow the downhill slope, bear right, right. More and more pastel paint jobs on buildings to catch the increasing light and bigger sky and suddenly...the South Cliff Parade and in front: the beach, the English Channel, and a vague wisp on the horizon, France, not on my walking tour itinerary today.
Past the ice cream stands and tea shops, up the hill, up up up and up, heading for Beachy Head, a cliff with a 500 foot drop onto a stone beach with a tiny lighthouse at sea level, the third most popular spot for suicides in the world, a cliff whose edge I will only approach on my hands and knees, a cliff whose edge many signs remind one is forever crumbling into the Channel.
Across the turf, short, springy, onto the first of the Seven Sisters, steeply folded chalk cliffs. Each fold takes one down nearly to sea level and then up, hundreds of feet to the next cliff top, hard work.... I rip open the bottoms of my gaiters and re-tie, tighter, my boot laces. If my feet are at all loose in my boots on the steep downhill fold, my foot will slide forward and jam my toes-- a few miles of that is enough to completely blacken the second toenail on my right foot and make walking the remaining 90 miles of my trip a bit dodgy, as the understated Brits might say.
I don't need my map yet. On my right is England, Scotland, and Wales; on my left a 500 foot drop to the ocean. But I take it out anyway to see what's inland a bit, to winkle out the building in the little combe, to simply enjoy this superb piece of colored paper that shows every building bigger than an outhouse, every stone wall, hedge, field, woodlot, driveway, ancient ruin, medieval plowing strip, stream, footbridge, pub, and postoffice--and a lot more too.
I skim along the chalk turf, no roots or rocks or rabbit holes to slow me down, but keeping my eyes down nevertheless, lest I slip on the wet downhills and sprain an ankle. My walking stick taps out a rhythm. I step behind a gorse bush, startlingly yellow (somewhere in Great Britain, every month of the year, gorse is in flower) and unload a bit of that earlier coffee.
My walking stick again taps out a rhythm.Tonight I will find a place to sleep in Alfriston, a town settled by Anglo-Saxons a few hundred years after the Romans left. Tomorrow morning I will order a full English breakfast of toast, jam, Weetabix, canned grapefruit sections, fried eggs, sausage, bacon, fried mushrooms, fried tomato, fried bread, baked beans, and lots and lots of weak English coffee. I'll need those calories for a long day of walking! Or, at least some of them ....
I know where I'm going, and I'm on my way.