Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors who, like me, has spent time in both the UK and USA, although of course, he is a better writer than me and way more famous, but I don’t know if he has his wings – yet!
One of Mr. Bryson’s excellent non-fiction works is A Walk in the Woods; published in 1998, it details his urge to hike the Appalachian trail with his rather problematic friend Stephen Katz (actually a pseudonym). I reread this marvelous story again before I embarked on a personal challenge, to hike Britain’s “Cotswold Way,” a 106-mile jaunt up hill and down dale on the escarpment that marches west from London.
This heart-achingly beautiful walk takes one through picture-postcard villages, across fields of wheat, barley and rapeseed whose movement in the summer breeze recalls ocean ripples, through forests of pastoral perfection and past ancient monuments to deeds noble and bizarre. And every aching joint reminds me why I embarked on this trail.
Back in the day, my vacations were rather different with a young family to lavish attention upon, to entertain and provide cultural stimulation. Now it’s just me, a rather diminished budget and an increasing need to support my health. I had always enjoyed visiting this peaceful and historic part of England and knew of the Cotswold Way, but had previously only sampled a small taste on afternoon hikes. This was a different matter.
Walking is a great form of exercise to strengthen your cardiovascular system, so it is not just heart-achingly beautiful, but beautiful for your heart – never mind 10,000 steps a day, how about 40,000? It also enhances your ability to deliver oxygen around your body and works many muscle groups. Exercise of this nature is really good at improving your immune system, and while we are hopefully seeing the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, there will be other pandemics to follow. Vigorous workouts also change your appetite and take one away from the refrigerator and snacking temptation, so weight control is easier and at the end of each day, the satisfaction of a good meal prefaces a great sleep. Finally, the evidence is very clear; being in a state of bucolic bliss is good for the psyche.
Mark Twain stated:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
On this walk, while traveling solo, I had the chance to meet and chat with other hikers from all over the world and at the small inns and bed-and-breakfast homes where I stayed, encountered some lovely people and made new friends. The value to mental health from chancing upon good people refreshes the soul.
But before leaving, there was the preparation – the pre-flight if you will – to ensure I had the right equipment for the mission:
Proper footwear limits the chance of ankle injuries, protects your lower leg from abrasions and bites; hiking in the USA exposes one to harm from snakes and poison ivy, but in the UK apart from a very rare adder, venomous reptiles are not a problem, but we do have stinging nettles, Lyme disease-carrying mites and chiggers, so I always douse myself in bug spray and carry some steroid cream to immediately salve such irritation. I used to think walking poles were for “old people” but the moment I tried them, it was a huge help as they distribute your weight more evenly and take some load off hips and knees, especially walking downhill. Regardless, aches and pains on long-distance walks are not uncommon so an oral anti-inflammatory and salicylate-containing muscle rub are useful as is a support bandage if your knees or ankles tend to be bothersome.
Remaining properly hydrated is critical at any time, a topic I have addressed before, but when exercising one must drink regularly. The water bladder I have is equipped with a tube so one can sip regularly when walking or biking.
I have harped on about skin cancer many times but keeping this topic alive will help keep you alive. Use a sunscreen at the start of the day that is at least SPF 50 and please purchase one that is coral-reef friendly; chemicals like oxybenzone, PABA and octocrylene are highly damaging, so avoid them. Please also use a hat and sunglasses when out walking and one can also obtain UV light-resistant clothing that is nonetheless cool to wear.
Before the hike, have a proper breakfast of foods that have a low glycemic index, meaning they don’t aggressively boost blood sugar, but gradually release energy. Items like oatmeal, whole-meal bread, yogurt and fruit. Take a packed lunch. I treated myself to a top-notch cookie after my midday meal while gazing at glorious vistas. And my phone, which is usually glued to my hand and face, remained firmly in my backpack; a small compass and old-fashioned map more than sufficed.
At the end of the walk, I felt weary but rejuvenated, trimmer and fitter. My knees and ankles were a tad angry with me, but the smile on my face, and in my heart, reminded me of one other activity I have always loved, flying a small aircraft. And if I cannot be aloft, then I want to be enjoying every mile of beauty that this world provides. Trust me, walking is good for you in so many ways – so fly somewhere, park the plane and get going!
You can email Jonathan at [email protected] with suggested topics for future articles or any questions which he will endeavor to answer. You can also listen to Jonathan’s weekly podcasts on medical matters at the EMG Health Podcast available on iTunes, other podcast platforms and https://www.emg-health.com/omnipresent/podcasts/emg-health-podcast.