Walk completed August 16, 2014

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

June 16, 2014 Day 1 -- Adventures in Wonderland -- 10 Miles

Leaving behind the red rock canyons and endless blue skies of the American southwest, I settled in for a long flight to England. I soon fell asleep, dreaming of rolling green hills dotted with sheep, tranquil waterways paddled by swans, and picturesque cottages nestled under thatched roofs. As the plane descended through the ever present English clouds and the shadow-less landscape below grew increasingly larger, I felt like Alice dropping into the rabbit hole. “I’m back in Wonderland,” I thought, for a long-distance walker inevitably detaches from everyday realities and drifts into a fantasy world that exists only in his mind.

But first I had to navigate a long walk through the institutional architecture of Heathrow Airport. Reaching the passport control counter, I presented my passport and a friendly “Good afternoon” greeting to the uniformed officer. “Chairs,” he replied robotically, meaning that I should take a seat among a row of a dozen chairs lining a wall between his counter and baggage claim, to await further inquiry as to the purpose of my visit.

Attempting to dissuade him from his bureaucratic arrogance, I volunteered “I’m a personal friend of King Arthur.” With a quizzical look suggesting that I may have had spinach stuck in my teeth, he stamped and returned my passport, repeating his instructions so there would be no mistake. “Chairs.” I tried to hide my disappointment with an insincere smile and a nod of my head.

By now there were three others, whose clothing labeled them as foreigners, occupying several of the chairs.  But why did he select me for further interrogation?   I’m an American, not a foreigner.  After all, we used to be a colony.

I was tempted to ask him “Don’t you know that my ancestors saved your arses in two World Wars?” Now, that’s not exactly correct, because my father served in Africa and Italy and didn’t actually defend Britain; and my grandfather’s ancestors came from Germany, so there’s a reasonable chance that collateral relatives of mine actually fought against Britain. But they surrendered—twice, and that’s almost the same thing, although I doubt it was Allied arses they were concerned about saving. So I kept my mouth shut.

Glancing back at the passport control officer, I noticed that he was busy with other passengers. Holding my head high and proud, I ignored his directive, bypassed the chairs, and went straight to baggage claim.

Recognizing an Englishman from my flight waiting at the luggage carousel, I walked up and greeted him. “Chairs,” he responded, snidely mocking the passport control officer, clearly chagrined by my treatment.

“Chairs. How absolutely stupid,” I replied in empathy.

He looked at the floor, then slowly walked away, silently fixing his eyes on the carousel, apparently much more embarrassed by his country’s treatment of visitors than I had imagined.  Eventually, my duffel came around on the carousel; I scooped it up, and walked through customs and into the terminal.

Things have changed in England since I was last here, and I was astonished at how many of the civilians in the terminal were armed. Their weapons were unlike anything seen in the American southwest. Sort of a hybrid between a dagger and a foil, one end – the “business” end – tapered to a point, while the other hooked back upon itself, much like the hook on a cane. The weapon’s shaft was covered with dark fabric. Had the cloth been brightly colored, the weapon may have passed for a banderilla, that decorative stick a bullfighter stabs into a bull’s shoulder; like the banderilla, there can be no doubt as to the weapon’s intended use.

Outside the terminal I encountered evidence of political unrest, perhaps the reason for armed civilians: fascist graffiti painted on the street encouraging the public to “look right”—as if doing so would solve all social ills. If the Labour Party were still in control of the government, it would paint over such propaganda.

Wealthy Residents on Thames
A few miles south of Heathrow Airport lies the town of Staines, through which the River Thames passes. I took a bus to Staines and made my way to the Thames Path. In a symbolic gesture confirming my plan to walk a complete loop, I secretly affixed a zip-tie to a fence, vowing to cut it off upon my return to that very spot two months hence. Like a lion having marked his territory, I boldly strode off along the Thames, excitedly anticipating whatever adventures await. I was back in the pastoral wonderland I had been dreaming about. 

JFK Memorial
I was also in an historical wonderland. Like many Americans, I have difficulty relating to English history, except when it coincides with American history. Runnymede, just beyond Staines, is the site of two memorials demonstrating the close ties between England and the United States. Shortly after JFK’s assassination, Parliament erected a memorial to him; In 1957, the American Bar Association erected the Magna Carta Memorial.
Magna Carta Memorial
Exactly 799 years ago yesterday – June 15, 1215 – King John agreed to the Magna Carta, the written document that formed the basis for English – and ultimately American – common law. Among other things, the Magna Carta acknowledged that the sovereign was subject to law (the concept underlying the American Declaration of Independence), and imposed restrictions on government’s powers (the precursor to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights). The Thames Path passes by the very spot where some forward-thinking barons forced King John’s hand in what may have been the most important event in western democracy, and especially so because the barons recorded it for history.

Eight hundred years of recorded history simply does not exist in the Americas. Sure, the Americas had great civilizations millennia ago – the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs come to mind – but they didn’t have the foresight to record their history, like King John’s barons did; or, if they did, they didn’t record it in English so it could be understood.

Recorded history has taught me a lot, which is why I’m recording this walk for history.  Just imagine, 800 years from now, a 29th century geek, sporting retro Google Glass and poring over gigabytes of electronic data, may re-discover this blog, and celebrate how in 2014 a commoner from America enlightened the world while walking along a river where in 1215, an English king had used a pen to sign his name on actual paper.

Windsor Castle
That vision occupied my mind as I passed by Windsor Castle. I was quite sure that the current residents would have liked for me to stop and discuss the Magna Carta with them over tea, but as Robert Frost once said, “I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.” So I didn’t stop.

Four miles later I arrived at Monkey Island, signifying that I had crossed out of Wonderland and into Oz. There’s a hotel on Monkey Island, and I decided to stop there before jet lag dulled my senses. Besides, my ruby slippers were starting to chafe. 

© 2014 Ken Klug


  1. Wow, so nicely written. And all historically true. I would be interested in knowing what Heathrow terminal you arrived at, and how you exited the airport and got to the river without tripping over freeways.

    1. I arrived at Terminal 3, but with the long walks through the corridors to immigration followed by long walks through tunnels to the central transit station, I was totally disoriented. I took the bus to the river, so I didn't have to navigate freeways, but I almost tripped over fascist graffiti.

    2. Wow, as before I am enjoying it all. Terry

    3. I guess a bus or train is the sensible way to get out of the airport. But I was hoping to read about a walk through a vehicles-only tunnel, followed by arrest and confinement in the Tower of London. That said, I am enjoying your blog just as it is. Please keep hoofing and writing.

  2. ....And so it begins! So glad you made it in one piece to Heathrow and even happier I was not with you at customs I would have wrapped that chair around that ....officer's neck.
    At least poor Nigel stayed out of the way, for now! Have fun Lost- a -lot and try to stay out of trouble, right!

  3. Hi Ken. I got home late Wednesday night and then headed up to Prescott for the Fourth of July. My body still hasn't adjusted to the time change (not to mention the heat). I still go to bed too early and wake up at 4:00 am. I enjoyed the picture of the barge "Jack Frost." Obviously a skipper with good taste in boats.