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Competition on a Hike Through the Cotswold Hills

September 06, 1987|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a Canoga Park free-lance writer .

The adventure had begun when an old friend in Toronto turned us on to the Wayfarers.

"It's for you," George said. "These people conduct walks all over England. You and Joyce ought to see the country from the ground for a change. Easy walking, only 10 miles a day."

"Now, George," I said, "10 is a lot of miles."

"Well," he said, "if you don't think you can do it. . . ."

"Of course I can do it."

"Naw, I shouldn't have brought it up."

"George, it's just that Joyce. . . . "

"Oh, I never had any doubts about Joyce," he said.

"Give me the dumb telephone number," I said.

After all, it did make a certain amount of sense. Travelers should take a look at the world from the ground once in a while. I called the Wayfarers.

The small company had established off-road walks through scenic areas of the British Isles.

Joyce (my wife) and I chose a five-day walk through the storied Cotswold Hills, a rural area northwest of London that has stayed the same for 400 years. We were told there would be 12 in the group, starting at Cheltenham and hiking about 10 miles a day, staying at various carefully selected inns and homes along the way.

Met New People

We met Bert and Beverley, of Lexington, Ky., on the train from London. Bert was 6 feet, 4 inches tall, with a boyish smile and a shake that made you wonder if your hand hadn't been eaten by a bear.

Beverley had a soft smile, soft Southern voice and a delicate way about her that suggested hoop skirts, maybe, but never walking shorts.

There was no way this lady was going to walk 10 miles a day. Bert popped something into his mouth every time his watch-alarm rang. It had to be medication. I nudged Joyce.

"Well," I whispered, "we'll beat out those two, huh?"

"It's not a contest," my wife answered. "It's a vacation."

"Oh yeah. Right," I said, but since that first talk with George--about whether I could make it or not--I couldn't help thinking of the walk as anything but a contest.

The rest of the group didn't seem like a whole lot of competition, either, except for an athletic-looking couple from Poughkeepsie.

"I'm not as active as I used to be," the husband said. "But, of course, I still run my two miles every morning."

"Of course."

An attractive mother and daughter combination were the third couple, and two women from St. Louis made up the fourth. One, Nancy, was an IBM executive, while her friend, Susy, said she just didn't walk much because it interfered with her smoking. Susy also said she never exercised.

Of the six couples, the last was Arnold and Louise, from Washington. Arnold mentioned that he had worked with Eliot Ness. I figured that had to make him 75. Louise looked as if she hadn't been out of high heels since her 13th birthday.

Follow-up Vehicle

Our leader--a jovial, bearded Englishman named Basil Jaques--introduced a pretty girl named Victoria Bass. Victoria was the tour manager and would be moving our luggage and driving the follow-up vehicle, in case anybody needed a ride.

At 9 the next morning Jaques introduced Taj Mahal J. Muttly, his dog, who had a smile and a wag for everybody, and we were off. By 10:30 a.m. we had walked through Cheltenham, three miles up into the hills.

Taj, checking on everybody and trying to keep us all together, had run twice as far.

I knew it was 11 when Bert's alarm sounded. Again he tossed something into his mouth and started chewing.

"Quitting smoking," he said. "Doctor fixed me up with nicotine gum. Chew a little less every day."

"He was a three pack a day man," Beverley said. "Now he doesn't smoke at all."

Bert laughed. "I used to like cigarettes. I love the gum."

Louise was not walking in high heels, either. She had a weathered pair of hiking shoes. She told me that, besides being an attorney, she was the editor of "Walkways," a Washington-based newsletter for people who love walking. Her husband Arnold, she said, had been a student when he'd worked with Eliot Ness.

Victoria met us with the station wagon on a hilltop and served a picnic lunch.

Joyce sat down in the tall grass next to me. "These people," she said in a low voice, "are in pretty good shape."

"Tired?" I asked.

"Well, coming up that ridge I was thinking about praying for a broken ankle, but now I feel pretty good."

We slept that night in a Cotswolds Manor House that had been built in the 17th Century. I got up once in the night to absolute silence, a sky filled with stars and the realization that in spite of physical fatigue, I, too, felt pretty good. For the first time in weeks, I was completely relaxed.

Second Day: Pain

The pain started just after lunch on the second day. Every time we would start downhill, my one flat foot would try to crawl into the toe of my boot. I started to limp, and Taj kept having to run farther and farther back to check up on me.

Basil walked with me for a while. We whistled "Stars and Stripes Forever." Then we switched to "Colonel Bogey" because it was better suited for marching with a limp.

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