Ask That Question Now
“We make the road by walking it.” —Rosa Parks
What if you only had one more opportunity to take a long walk with your dad and ask him those ultimate questions, the ones you wish you had asked before it was no longer possible?
Where a son takes his father for a precious ramble depends on his dad’s favored backdrop. Mine treasures sweeping fields and birdsong, and no haven for wide-open strolls matches England’s countryside. But I knew that our trekking savvy would be put to the test this time around, our fourth in Britain, because dad was more fragile than during our earlier rambles. After initially declining my suggestion for one more trek—at 79, dad didn’t want to slow me down—he thought better of it. We used this trek to discover England’s Midlands, and our shared history.
Our 10-day walk navigated the 147-mile Viking Way, a trail across Lincolnshire, which borders England’s central east coast and the North Sea. Named at the suggestion of the Ramblers Association to reflect the influence of Danish law in Britain’s eastern counties, The Viking Way met dad’s demands for mild hills, woodlands, livestock encounters, and villages of stone houses with gracious inhabitants.
Our previous experiences in the U.K. had impressed upon us the respect Britain pays to its walkers. Foot travelers rule in Britain, on ancient rights of way. Once, Madonna (locally known as “Madge”) purchased a mansion adjacent to a public footpath and then spent millions trying to block its public access to no avail. A testament to ramblers’ solidarity, the right to roam endures.
Our wanderings led us to villages forgotten by modern highways and high-speed trains. In Lincolnshire’s rolling forested wolds, the most timeless scenery on our itinerary, each village offered a weathered stone church from the 13th century, usually positioned on the settlement’s highest point and left unlocked. We stayed in homey bed and breakfasts (you must adore dogs and horses) and archetypal English inns that make New England’s historic buildings seem like new. Viking helmet signage marked the trail, and when it escaped us, the British national habit of tending gardens made getting directions easy. Birds and sheep galore provided the soundtrack.
Most English homeowners post the nicknames of their houses on a placard out front or along the driveway. Handles like Willow Croft and Lilac Cottage prompted me to ask my father, “What should we have named our house?” Dad first suggested a memoriam to our dog and cat, “Ben and Chelsea’s Pee Palace?” Then he corrected himself with a moniker honoring his three sons’ reign of mild suburban delinquency: “Wild Antelope Range.”
My father imparted my middle name, Thoreau, hoping that I’d sympathize with the philosophical naturalist. Today my standing as a professional wanderer pleases him. In high school, I had difficulty distinguishing the family station wagon from a daring off-road all-terrain vehicle. Dad frequently discovered muddy grass clumped in the wagon’s wheel wells and forbade me from borrowing it. No measure of lawn mowing, firewood chopping and stacking, or kitchen Nerf-basketball tournament victories could reverse his decrees. We were the lone residents in suburban Garden City who burned storm-toppled trees for heat and used our backyard as a hedge-to-hedge vegetable garden.
During our trek, Dad enjoyed interviewing unguarded Lincolnshire locals about birds, flowers, and heritage. These included the truck driver who rescued us when we had to hitchhike our way back onto the vanished route. Our feet held out without incident. I’m told that when my English-born great-grandfather and his son walked the south coast of England together, my great-grandfather had some trouble with his feet and poured a bit of whiskey into his boot “to make the leather more supple.”
Dad’s sporty, self-styled, extreme suburbanite hiking outfit for the ramble was an evolving mélange of trusted sweaters over button-down shirts; khaki or corduroy pants; his hiking boots plodding a confident, sturdy gait; and a game face shadowed by a traditional British flat cap or farmer’s cap, as it’s called locally. Plus, a nose devoted to smelling blossoms.
Swinging through charming Normanby le Wold, in need of directions, we encountered a woman hosing down her mastiff who demonstrated the Anglo-specific custom of agreeably ending nonquestioning sentences with either “isn’t it?” “doesn’t it?” or “wouldn’t it?”
“Well, it would be that way then, wouldn’t it?” she said.
I looked hard at Dad. He looked hard at a bird.
We used the ubiquitous medieval churches—cool and still inside, stained-glass light bleeding in, bird chorus outside—as pit stops. The All Saints Church, its 1226 character intact, sits on a hilltop overlooking Walesby and beyond. Dad decided “The Ramblers Church,” nicknamed that because it holds Sunday services and weddings for rambling enthusiasts, was an apt place to pray for the continued absence of fast-food franchises on Long Island’s North Fork, where my parents live.
Lectures on art and Long Island history aside, Dad declared another signpost of his retirement from teaching: The self-appointed status of back yard-reclining, binoculars-raking-the-sky air traffic observer. An elderly couple dining at an adjacent table pretended to not hear the conversation, but then I suggested an attempt to short circuit the often obligatory jests about anyone’s Long Island heritage by renaming it Isle de Long. The couple broke down and peered red at us. When Dad steered the chat toward our family’s established legacy of “booming,” a familial term for inspired but aimless wandering, they left.
After getting our urban fix from an Indian meal, we returned to 360-degree views of the horizon. Trotting past another screaming-yellow crop of rapeseed (harvested as cooking oil and a base for butter alternatives), Dad reminded me that “prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession … farming is.” Dad’s flora identification computer was heating up again as we crossed into a young green field of wheat. He petitioned the next three people on genus and species. Isaac Newton, a Lincolnshire native, would have been proud.
Whenever I stopped to take pictures, Dad obliged by allowing me to tilt up his farmer’s cap stylishly to allow sunshine on his face. After a fence-leaning shoot, I tried talking him into taking up modeling back in Manhattan, such as Mom did in the 1950s. He immediately focused on the dung stuck to his soles.
Walk talk stimulates recollection, anywhere. While ensuring the survival of bottomless memories, my two-week trip abroad with Dad transcended the proverbial pat on the back after watching a game together. We retuned to that global circuit of father and son connections. It was the perfect time to thank him for helping me earn my Walker Laureate.
On the path, I enjoyed the role reversal of being in charge. When we inevitably found ourselves lost in a muddy field of cows—and all of us wondering what we were doing there—I drove the boat, er, station wagon. I intentionally delayed answering his question about what sort of meat was hiding in that Indian food.
The 30 meals we shared along the route afforded me ample time to encourage Dad to recount his life story, the entire odyssey. These discussions made us realize that our greatest fortune was also our supreme bond: my mother. Rural England is a rare zone where humans have improved upon nature. Somewhere in the dream of hunting for Viking Way signposts, I discovered my best friend, the bird and jet watcher.
In the end, after hiking at least 10 miles a day, wiry Dad slept less and ate more than I did and seemed to have more energy. He also noticed every birdsong, flower, shrub, tree, gardener, and cloud. Once again, we’d simplified parent-child recreation, without props. At the Viking Way’s lakeside end, Dad unlocked from an expression recalling a medieval frieze we’d seen and raised an eyebrow to declare, “When my mother turned 100 on Long Island, she received a congratulatory telegram from the Queen.”
Pause. “But it was routed through Philadelphia?” he added.
At London’s Heathrow Airport, my dad, who loves Big Band jazz and once suggested his epitaph read simply “Clown,” let his inner actor shine by faking a docile, demented stare to secure me a standby seat to New York.
The eternal revelation surfaced mid-trek, en route to Tealby, while strolling along a green hillside as magpies chattered to each other. I finally asked, “Dad, what gives you hope?”
He paused to reflect, there in the midst of England’s secret rambling magic, changed his expression to glad, and declared, “You.”
Looks like I’ve got another shot at borrowing the station wagon.
(This story is a chapter in The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)