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#9: The Backwards Guidebook

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#9: The Backwards Guidebook

Gregg Evans

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

They made up their minds and they started packing
They left before the sun came up that day
An exit to eternal summer slacking
But where were they going
Without ever knowing
The way?
Fastball, The Way

Follow the yellow brick road, follow the yellow brick road
Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow-brick road!
The Munchkins

          I mentioned in another post Maria and my walk across Wales several years ago. We spent our days traversing pastures, climbing stiles and fences, following thick hedgerows, ascending windswept hills, descending into valleys, passing by ancient ruins, and strolling through forests of oak and orchards of apples, almost never quite sure where we were.

          As we walked from the headwaters of the Afon Gwy (River Wye) in the hills of Plynlimon to the river's mouth at the town of Chepstow, none of the route, geography or name-places of the Wye Valley were familiar to us, the trail was often indistinct and open to interpretation, and we didn't have GPS, so we were always on the lookout for way-markers – plaques, usually affixed to a post, assuring us we were still on the right path.

          In the picture above, Maria is pointing out a way-marker on a fence post. That particular one was easy to spot, but that wasn't always the case. As you can tell from the picture below, the way-markers were sometimes obscured by foliage and not so easy to see.

           Because the Wye Valley Walk is a National Trail, it has an Official Route Guide. We picked up one of those and found it to be full of charming and detailed directions such as the following:

Carry along the same track through a gate, after which the river bends to the left on the way to its source. There is a good view of the watershed on Plynlimon from here. Go straight on to a gate by a small plantation and climb uphill on the track to a double bend. The valley to the left is black with mining spoil and you can see the remains of an old level running into the hillside. Follow the road bending to the left and then to the right. A track to the left on the second bend leads to a viewing point that offers superb views towards the actual source of the Wye.

          Such great detail! Clearly, the guidance was written by someone who had walked the Wye Valley herself, recording every turn, bend, and feature of the trail for the benefit of other walkers. She wrote the instructions as if she were just ahead of her readers, guiding them along the trail she had just walked herself with all its twists and turns, ups and downs, fences, stiles and gates.
          I want you to get a feel for the instructions contained in the Guide, so give this little exercise a try: Imagine you're walking through a bucolic landscape of green pastures and wooded hillsides, with some of the pastures dotted with sheep and each pasture clearly defined by hedges, tree-rows, rock walls, or fences.  This picture will help you get started:

          You traversed a forested hillside for most of the last hour or so, but now you've left the forest trail for a gravel road.

          Up ahead is a well-kept two-story stone house - the Ty-mawr Farm - surrounded by an expansive, gently-sloping yard of green grass with wonderful views of the Wye Valley and its river. In your mind's eye, try to picture the trail as the guidebook describes it:

     The walk follows a track [that gravel road] around the edge of Ty-mawr farm, passing a large bridge on the right. The track bears left leaving the River Wye and following the Nant [creek] Ty-mawr. Take the right hand fork and cross the stream following the path uphill to a gate. Turn right and follow the track leading downhill, passing an old barn on the way.
     At the bottom of this track turn left and almost immediately bear right towards the river bank and a stile. The path loops around in front of Hendre [a Victorian farmhouse], before crossing the drive and going uphill and crossing a footbridge and stile leading into a field.  Proceed through four fields before reaching a gate. There is a choice of routes at this point, a riverside or woodland option.
     To follow the riverside path bear right down the hillside towards a gate. Turn left and follow the path that soon leads onto a farm track running near the river. When the track bends sharp left take the stile on the right and follow the river bank to the next stile that leads back into a field with a bridge crossing the Nant-y-Cwm. Continue through further fields to reach a large footbridge over the River Wye. Don't cross this, but follow the top of the flood bank around to reach the forest road.

          Crazy how detailed it is, right? All the particulars are noted; nothing is left to chance. If you were walking upriver from Chepstow to Plynlimon, the guidebook would be tremendously helpful, but if you were walking in the opposite direction - downriver from Plynlimon to Chepstow, as Maria and I were - instead of being helpful, the Official Route Guide would be 126 pages of bass-ackward confusion. Because we were walking in the “wrong” direction, every right turn in the Guide was a left for us, and every left turn was a right; every downhill in the guidebook was an uphill for us, and every uphill a down; every fork noted in the guidebook was for us a place where two paths joined into one rather than where one split into two; and the Guide's painstakingly detailed directions were always leading to where we were coming from and coming from where we wanted to go! It was like a sustained head-on collision. If you think that you could easily translate such backward guidance into useful information, I urge you to go back to the quoted instructions above and figure out how you'd use them conversely to travel in the opposite direction.
          I tried reading the Guide paragraph-by-paragraph in reverse order, but that didn't help because each paragraph consisted of sentences that were themselves sequentially backwards from the way we were traveling.  So I tried reading the sentences in reverse order, from last sentence to first, but each multi-clause sentence was backwards within itself and needed to be read in reverse order clause-by-clause.
          Of course I tried substituting right for left and left for right and swapping all other directionals and spatial orientations for their opposites or inverses and again read each sentence, and each clause of each sentence, in reverse. I've dubbed this backwardization and I dare you to try it for a few minutes. Your head will explode. Seriously, it will. You've been warned.
          I even turned around and read the instructions as written while facing in the “right” direction, hoping that doing so would calibrate my internal compass in some useful way. It didn't.
          I also attempted a visualization technique. As I read the directions, I envisioned the landscape that was being described and imagined myself hovering over and looking down on the scene below. I figured a bird's eye view, if I could gain one, would eliminate all the confusion. The theory might be sound, but I literally got nowhere with it.
          Even with help from a local, I couldn't make sense of the guidebook's directions. The consultation shown below did not involve the actual guidebook but a pamphlet whose content was lifted directly from the Guide. Same difference.

          By the end of our first day on the Wye Valley Walk, Maria and I realized that the Official Wye Valley Walk Guidebook was going to be far more frustrating than helpful, so we abandoned the Guide and resolved to find our way by keeping our eyes peeled for those elusive way-markers. We missed a few of them and had to backtrack as many times, but we eventually made it to Chepstow no worse for the wear and no thanks to the splendid but useless Official Guide Book.
          I'm thinking of doing the Wye Valley Walk again, following the same north to south route as before, but this time taking careful notes along the way in preparation for writing a Plynlimon to Chepstow guidebook. I know such a guidebook is needed.