What a difference a walk makes.
Long-distance walking veterans, my father and I tackled the renowned 240-mile, coast-to-coast trek across Northern England’s rugged terrain in 1996. Two years later, shortly after dad endured life-saving surgery, we tackled Offa’s Dyke, a 200-mile long wall built in the eighth century to keep the Welsh on their side of that giant fence.
On our third walk across the Commonwealth, my father, then 76, and I rambled the width of England’s Cotswolds region, a country paradise defined by enchanting drystone walls dating back hundreds of years. The region has a woolspun history and is picture-postcard flawless. And, one benefit of undertaking an exhausting itinerary is that it left us no energy to recycle any debates about my tenth-grade car-crashing spree.
The Romans laid out this part of Europe in ten-acre plots. Don’t dare suggest it was the French. Today, these plots have matured into showcases of a fading way of life. These serene river valleys of sheep pens on soft rolling hills with limestone buildings and outcroppings remain out of harm’s way from developers. It endures as a haven of trout-filled streams, quaint stone hamlets, stone walls, and romping horses.
Unfolding our map and our sense of humor ensured that we had a grand time losing our bearings, never a long way from a stone wall or a friendly character. Our route from Burford to Stow-on-the-Wold started on a forgotten, car-free single-lane road that visited woods, farms, cottages with window-sill flower boxes, tiny medieval stone villages, bounteous wildflowers, and rare fellow walkers. Roaming 10 to 20 miles per day, sort of with a plan, we slept in archetypal English inns. Predictably, these accommodations were made of stone with low-overhead medieval-era doorways. We become aware of separate hot and cold water faucets, uber-creaky stairs, and twin beds so short that our feet were left dangling.
On the trail, my ears adjusted from urban car horns to ewe-speak. The footpath broke into farms divided by stiles; turnstile gates allowing ramblers to pass but not livestock. Dad had no trouble covering our daily distances, or hurdling the older five-foot-high wooden stiles.
Minutes before sunset, we encountered a stone wall and the man working to preserve it. Today’s stone-wall builders preserve an ancient tradition that both pays the bills and safeguards the Isles’ uncommon landscape. The hardworking stone mason, a chap with meaty hands, massive forearms, and steady phrasing, assured us his art form couldn’t be mechanized. A dry stone wall uses no mortar, only limestones, gravity, friction, and a talent for made-to-last jigsaw puzzles. A symbol of national pride, this typically inherited craft merits prestige; wall building is to Britain what gourmet cooking is to France.
Dry stonewall architects obsess about their materials, describing shades of limestone as passionately as interior designers might salute skylights. They wax eloquent about subtle hues from specific quarries, renowned builders who left unmistakable signatures, and how an able mason can dismantle and rebuild—stone by stone—an identical wall. Like radiance passing through a prism, stone walls share ancestry and imagination.
As the sun set behind us, the wall builder chuckled, “The last ramblers passing this way asked me ‘What I made building walls’…and I told them I make people heave a sigh.”
Dad then asked about optimum stone sizes and which stone position in the wall was the most vital for longevity. The Englishman rested a hand on the wall, looked at the ground, and then slowly raised his head to trace his eyes along a mile of accomplished stonework behind him. Turning his glance my way—but slyly gesturing at my father—he mused, “Just don’t pull that card, or the whole thing collapses!” After that wily epiphany and another chuckle, my dad and I trekked on.
On our final day, we strolled through a retired nobleman’s digs with miles of hilly lawns and well-spaced chestnut oak trees, some 800-years-old with trunks having 24-foot circumferences. We paused at a 13th-century water mill and agreed that we were in an outdoor museum. In the final mile, we climbed a steep ridge near a two-house settlement that wound past friendly miniature ponies, another hundred sheep, and led to a bench set on the high point.
I sat on the bench and watched as my dad walked slowly with a slight limp up the steep path toward me. He was puffing a bit, scaling a mountain once summited by Alexander Cromwell. I thought again about the cunning dry-stone wall builder who had said—speaking about his wall’s hidden power—but also I think in retrospect, about parents everywhere…
“What you don’t see is the strength of the wall.”
It was then that I vowed to keep discovering the charms of life with my dad—that vital card in my familial deck and a stone wall of love—one step at a time.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
“Wallers do it in all weathers.” —Drystone Waller’s credo on a bumper sticker
Grace over race.
I’m sitting outside on a mini stool in northern Cambodia where my bent knees don’t fit under the table. A three-course meal arrives from the nearby food stall—a hard-boiled egg served as a delicacy with three additional finger bowls presenting spices, limes, and mint. Egg vendor #7, Chantheaea, giggles when she returns with a tiny long-handle spoon. Meanwhile, I watch two guys, Narit and Ponlok, shoot it out on a makeshift outdoor pool table. This jungle-encased village, Cheabb, probably won’t see electricity in the lifetime of these two pool sharks. Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, has just built its first shopping mall with an escalator that has become an instant tourist attraction. I realize later that Chantheaea was chuckling about my inside-out T-shirt. I haven’t passed a mirror in weeks.
I’ve flown 15,000 miles by plane, over-nighted on a bench of a chugging riverboat, spent a day in the dusty cab of a puny Japanese pickup crammed with 10 riders, and then 10 hours on a wobbling motorbike sputtering on rutted, meandering jungle trails. The trail, barely worthy of foot traffic, frequently requires crossing rivers on slimy log bridges. It becomes impassable during the wet season.
My brother Basil and I were repeatedly warned not to venture into this isolated region that’s supposedly rife with landmines and holdups by teams of bandits. However, our reward for forging ahead was a spontaneous night that fused a wedding and a bizarre theater odyssey. The first thing we saw in Cheabb was a mobile PA system announcing what later turned out to be a play. The PA system involved two guys on a motorbike rigged with a large horn on the handlebars connected to an amplifier sitting in the drivers lap. The rear passenger held a mike to a Walkman that made the announcements.
In this off-the-grid destination, the wooden box houses are raised on six-foot stilts. In the shade below, black buffalo, pigs, and chickens reside. The people, mostly rice farmers, steal naps in hammocks slung between stilts under the houses or between the trees. Everyone we pass waves hello. My hunch is that once war-ravaged, perpetually destitute Cambodia had a lighter side, and I wasn’t quitting until we found it. Landmines, civil war, and genocide dominate many associations with Cambodia, but life has returned to a new version of normal, even in Preah Vihear Province, one of the poorest and most isolated.
There’s no way for an outsider to know they’re crossing between the neighboring villages of Cheabb Lech and Cheabb Kart (Cheabb east and west). But that’s where we were invited into the soul of this village with zero tourism. In one magical night, we attended a wedding reception, which later segued into an outdoor theater performance, and then slept on the top cop’s porch.
The wedding highlights included proud toasts ladled from a 35-gallon jug of homemade milky-fermented booze, dancing to insanely loud Cambodian pop, eating bugs, and listening to the best man speech in which he noted that the bride’s premiere hobby was jumping rope. The groom, dressed in a frumpy, oversized suit, couldn’t stop snickering during the should-be solemn slow dances. Our go-to-guy, the only one in town who could speak English, told us about the local pothead, a little girl who wears a red cooking pot as a hat.
After the wedding reception, the group marched across town to join 200 people already seated on the ground before a stage that was amplified by a lone microphone hanging from a wire. The wooden stage set was draped in billowing, silky tarps. The performance, hours and hours of short bits, were punctuated by the manual closing of a dainty pink curtain. A flash photo (Basil’s) started a tizzy that startled the entire audience and made actors modify their act and speak in even higher pitched voices.
Where there are no televisions, traveling troupes are still the stars. Within the crowd, several campfires were maintained to combat the 70-degree winter chill. At one point during the six-hour Khmer epic play, half of the audience suddenly stood up and gasped—a reverse domino effect that didn’t seem like a standing ovation. It wasn’t. A six-foot-long heat-seeking venomous snake had crawled into the audience. Once the snake was hacked in half by someone who happened to have a machete handy, the show resumed. Basil suggested that the snake’s demise might be a metaphor for what happens here when someone threatens married life.
After the marathon performance, we feasted with the wedding gang, but passed on the cow stomach and dried blood patties that resembled black tofu cakes. After waking up on the hospitable police chief’s front porch, we visited several schools, all raised 12×12-foot platforms either under a home or outside covered by tarps. The blackboards were black paint on flat boards and the instructional guides were laminated posters, one for math and one for language. After Basil donated hordes of pens and notebooks to these makeshift schools, he also stepped in as interim teacher, which routinely inspired more laughter than learning.
Despite the forewarnings about landmines and holdups, we ventured to Cheabb where the people, like most Cambodians, exemplify warmth, grace, and pride, which is incredible when considering the unspeakable horrors many of them have endured in their lifetime. In these more prosperous times, some still manage to survive on one dollar and 1,000 calories per day. The Khmer capacity to overcome extreme adversity and still welcome unannounced travelers with smiles and respect is humanity. Being the first foreigners to visit a place where they’ve never seen any is a traveler’s cliché—but when you unearth the last remnants of virgin turf in Southeast Asia, dignity and joy is what you’ll find.
As my brother and I prepared to roll out of Cheabb, we enjoyed a final hard-boiled egg at the food stall. The newly married couple rode past and waved to us and all of the food stall workers. They were honeymoon bound—a visit to the other side of the village—which made the staff cheer wildly. That’s when it dawned on us that the bride was #7, our previous egg vendor, Chantheaea.
There is no burnt rice to a hungry person. —Philippine proverb (Ifugao Province)
Our first urge to travel was motivated by finding food. This transient lifestyle requires a mobile crash pad. Tracking migratory herds, primeval wanderers fashioned portable shelters out of stones, branches, and animal hides. Today, our movable shelters—tents and the like—have roots in archetypal havens like Native American tepees, Inuit tupiks, and Mongolian gers. Even well-fed never-get-their-knees-muddy city kids want to build forts inside of their apartments.
While many are now concerned with our food’s farm-to-table odyssey, we rarely have to worry about defending it while it grows. Grown in water, rice is the staple food of three billion people. In traditional rice paddies, a hidden few take shelter and wait to defend their crops. While trekking in the mountainous northern Philippine highlands, I came across a recurring curiosity, farmhands who seemed to be watching the rice grow. I discovered that the rice business requires 24-hour surveillance where live scarecrows protect mountainside rice terraces from persistent rice-loving birds. These farmers spend their days in temporary thatch-and-bamboo huts called ab-hungs, makeshift sheds built for two. They are built into manmade mountainside terraces and provide relief from the sun and rain for the people whose job it is to spy and scare off the thieving birds.
These human scarecrows rely on tactics that evolve with the growing seasons. Early on, pounding on a barrel or a basin would suffice in frightening the birds away. When the birds tired of that ploy and returned to the crime scene, the farmers created noise by pulling on strings attached to rows of jingling cans. When that jig was up—the birds don’t fall for the same tricks for long—ab-hung security ultimately had to shoo the birds away by running after them.
Fortunately, this mode of occupational scaremongering does pay off.Highland rice is tastier, more aromatic, and more nutritious than the lowland’s industrial version. Then again, more work goes into it, as it takes six to seven months to grow, three times longer than chemically fertilized rice. Locals perform planting and harvesting rituals to invoke ancestral spirits who watch over the crops—and it seems to work. The International Rice Research Institute wasn’t so lucky. When it tried introducing new strains here, they didn’t yield. Farmers then resurrected their ancient methods after rejecting a non-governmental organization’s pesticide invasion, which killed tiny fish and snails—additional food sources—that also grow in the rice-paddy ponds.
Savoring moments in an ab-hung, I’m reminded of the ancient nomad musings today’s weekend warriors enjoy inside their camping tents. Entering one makes the hut smaller but the world bigger. While avoiding some midday rain in this bird-spy shack, I chatted with a local elder about rice watchmen until the sun came out. Inside the primitive lean-to, I offered the farsighted, squinting man a pen, and he doled out a pinch of tobacco for me to chew, redefining the notion of insider trading. He then trotted out a thought that was loosely rendered by an eager kid who had been tailing me. I later employed the eager one as my guide, and the old man’s quote as fact…
“A peace on birds would probably work better than this war on birds.” —Rice wisdom, and an ageless take on disputes