I remember Patrick from graduate school, with his huge mess of an orange beard, waxed mustache, braided hair. He spoke in a deep voice lilting in all the wrong places. He printed his essays in blue calligraphy. He wrote exclusively and explicitly about sex, so that every author, no matter how staid, became Henry Miller. I imagine that he has a government job somewhere now, where he sits in a windowless office producing obscure and unread technical documents in blue calligraphy, hoping that one day, long after death, he will create a beautiful scandal.
Fifteen miles of sheep dung cover the northern end of Cotswold Way, a series of footpaths that meander through English farmland from the city of Bath to the town of Chipping Campden. This is the heart of England’s Cotswold region, with its yellowish stone villages, rolling hedgerows, and loosely piled rock walls. On the beautiful October day I spent along these paths, it was easy to understand why walking is such a beloved English pastime, second only to standing in orderly queues.
The official Cotswold Way is marked with a National Trails acorn, which is variously displayed on metal waymarks or carved in posts and signs along the trail. But the main path is crossed and re-crossed by countless other public trails, bridalways, and something the English tantalizing call “permissive paths.” With all the connecting trails, it is easy to put together a loop through the countryside rather than needing to backtrack. This means that you might pass the same walkers going in various directions two or three times on your way to a destination. It also makes it easy to get lost.
Much of the Cotswold Way is not a path at all, but just a general direction to be followed across a field of grass or mud or crops. Arrows point vaguely toward an unseen stile or kissing gate somewhere beyond the horizon, and you are on your own to find a way there.
The most distinctive structure along the northern leg of the Cotswold Way is an architectural folly called the Broadway Tower. I spent much of my time at the tower trying to capture a photograph of it without any people. I told myself that others would like to see the structure itself, but there were so many walkers, and they kept getting in the picture. In retrospect, I should have focused on the people. Broadway Tower, like Chartres Cathedral, remains essentially the same through the centuries. But the tourists, after a time, become increasingly strange and interesting.
Leaving Broadway Tower with a walk across Clump Farm, I came upon something that was already strange and interesting. Potato Road. Now here is something you will never find at Chartres Cathedral.
Last night I dreamt I was using an ATM in the London Underground to get cash, but inadvertently ordered a £17 bowl of gespacho. Then the machine ate my debit card, and I came away with nothing but a voucher for cold soup. I’ve heard that heart attacks are most common in the early morning hours. Maybe this has to do with circadian rhythms and heart rate, but I think it is more likely related to the stress of having to endure a good night’s sleep.
A rival pub owner described Windsor Castle to me as the cluttered basement of an eBay addict. He was talking about the little Windsor Castle pub near Edgware Station in London, which I should point out is not the actual castle where the British royal family lives. That is a different Windsor Castle.
But this Windsor Castle is definitely worth a visit. The walls are covered with curiosities that seem at first glance to be dedicated to the House of Windsor, but also include collections of obsolete tools, celebrity photos, countless plaques, and—my favorite—a bas-relief of the exploits of Sir Francis Drake.
At Heathrow Airport a week later, my colleague found a plate celebrating the birth of Prince George of Cambridge and was kind enough to share the photo with me. Possibly it is too unbecoming for the hoarder’s museum. Also it is £30 new, and might still be too expensive on eBay.
I’m don’t know if Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley were climbers, but I think they must have been inspired by mountain goats. Beautiful, powerful, and mysterious, the mountain goat stalks you through the fog, defies gravity astride the icy cliffs, and will buck you to oblivion on a whim. Also he longs for your salty fluids, so don’t pee near camp.
Last weekend, the first of many goats first joined us as we made base camp at 4,400 feet on our way up The Brothers. The welcoming committee consisted of a big billy, a shedding nanny, two wary juveniles, and a very cute kid that scampered around just like a puppy. They milled about us for about an hour while we sat patiently, holding our pee.
Then just after midnight, I was awakened by a sound in the rocks. Two adults and one juvenile appeared in the moonlight and came within a few feet of our party, sacked out as we were in four bivy bags. I clanked my ice axe on a rock nearby to scare the them off. Which had absolutely no effect. Another hour passed before they left us to investigate the climbers in the main base camp 1000 feet below.
And then it was morning and the push to the summit. The goats allowed us to ascend all the way to their ambush in a narrow chute known as the hourglass. At this point, rocks began to hurtle toward us–I assumed from a clumsy mountaineer above. The proper climbing etiquette is to yell “rock” whenever you kick something loose to warn anyone below. But no one called down to us, so we bellowed something about our presence up through the chute. More rocks came, bigger rocks, one of which struck me so hard in the middle of the thigh my whole leg stiffened up. Then the Goat of the Baskervilles slowly stuck his head into view. He had nearly killed us. He looked amused.
In fourteen years of climbing The Brothers, I have only encountered a single mountain goat there before. We must have seen twenty this weekend. Even with the rock kicking and the pee sniffing, they are fantastic to encounter. But I also know what can happen because I have read Three Billy Goats Gruff and it does not turn out very well for the troll.
Two blind contour drawings from my son’s junior high art class: Good Girl and Ghoulish Girl. The exercise required sketching a classmate without looking at the paper. It did not, however, require creating a gruesome version of the model. That was Nick’s idea. Good Girl fulfilled the assignment. Ghoulish Girl took the inevitable distortion of blind sketching to a perfectly (un)natural conclusion.
Good Girl, I tell myself, is real and outgoing and full of confidence. But I see Ghoulish Girl and I remember Annette from my own childhood, who lived in the last remaining farmhouse on Pacific Avenue with its peeling apricot paint and grandiose porch columns; Annette who was never ready when the school bus stopped in her long gravel driveway each morning so that the driver had to sound the horn while thirty kids watched for movement in the pulled draperies and closed front door, waiting for the shy girl who never wanted any special attention but found it day after day; who one afternoon in fourth grade broke a full bottle of perfume and brought a classroom of her enemies to its knees.
The dog trainer eyed our puppy suspiciously for a moment before quizzing me. “What kind of Labrador is this?” I sensed a trap, but was prepared. I knew that the AKC only recognizes three variations: black, chocolate, and yellow. Red Labs like ours are officially yellow, whereas yellow retrievers are officially gold, and golden poodles are officially apricot. Makes perfect sense. Talking about breeders made the trainer animated and grumpy. He was looking at a yellow Lab, but he was seeing red.
A week later, our puppy outraged a woman by prancing about happily in a park without a leash. The woman pulled out her cell phone and began photographing the license plates of every car she could find near the park, presumably so that she could turn us all in to the authorities. This may have been unfortunate for the owner of the car behind us, whose dog was also off leash. But our puppy is not yet registered with the city, so in addition to not being officially red, she does not officially exist.
Regardless, the red puppy cannot be bothered with philosophical problems when the physical world is so engaging. Yesterday she found a taxidermic piranha and chewed it to smithereens. All puppies are existentialists.