Shurbutt walks, and walks and walks

(THE PICKET) – For many teachers, helping students achieve growth and understanding-of the subject being taught, of themselves or of the world-is what they strive for. In doing so, teachers give us pieces of their personal experience and knowledge of that subject, themselves, and of the world.

Sylvia Shurbutt, an English and Appalachian Studies professor at Shepherd University is a dedicated teacher and a lover of traveling. Her adventures include exploring places like Australia, England, and Ireland; usually on foot. Shurbutt’s walking trips have heightened her joy in life by giving her faith in herself to persevere and use her senses to connect with nature.

Over the last decade, Shurbutt has walked hundreds of miles over Europe. The English Coast to Coast, the Irish “Wicklow Way,” the Celtic France Tour and the Lake District to Robin Hood’s Bay are of her most cherished walks.

Sherpas are used along European trails to give hikers an easier carriage. This can be the difference between lugging several bags through miles of harsh terrain or not having to worry about the excess weight.
Sherpas are used along European trails to give hikers an easier carriage. This can be the difference between lugging several bags through miles of harsh terrain or not having to worry about the excess weight.

 

Q: When was your first big hike? What was it like?

A: “Ten or 11 years ago, my husband Ray and I walked the Wicklow Way in Ireland. There were parts of the journey where it was too steep to walk, so we had to climb. At one point, Ray’s knee gave out. Parts of the trail were just full of bogs (large areas of muddy quick-sand) and at one point he became stuck. It took almost 30 minutes to pull him out!”

Q: Some of your journeys have been quite long. Do you plan ahead?

A: “Yes. It is very important to make plans to stay somewhere, often at a bed and breakfast, so that at the end of a hike I am able to rest. These trips are civilized and resources like maps, guide books, and knowledge of trails are extremely helpful. I’ve found that preparation has become necessary for my comfort and safety.”

Q: What other measures do you take to keep yourself safe, comfortable, and able to walk such distances? How have these walks challenged you?

A: “There is a lot of chance for adversity so it’s important to prepare yourself. These hikes allow me to keep faith in myself. If I put one foot in front of the other and just continue walking, I am able to believe in my ability to continue walking on to the end. I carry a whistle, and a walking stick which is a key piece of gear especially for coming down mountain sides. I always try to stay alert and because all of my senses are heightened, connecting with nature in that way accentuates the everyday joys of life. “

Q: How important are your hiking boots on these trips?

A: “Good, quality hiking shoes make a difference. I have two pairs; my older of the two are more comfortable to go a long way so I tend to prefer those.”

Q: Do you think being a teacher and your love for walking are connected? How so?

A: “My thirst for travel and adventure heightens and engages my awareness of things. That awareness of your surroundings and yourself is what makes you human. When I’m teaching my classes and my students are engaging in that way, I am living in the moment and it’s exactly like the aliveness and consciousness I have during these walks.”

Q: Do you prefer doing hikes alone or with company? Is hiking alone harder to do? Do you ever get lost by yourself?

A: “I have walked with my husband and daughter and enjoy the company of having a companion to share the journey with. It has been only in the last couple years that I have really enjoyed my hikes alone. I am able to make friends and be more connected when I walk alone. Though it is possible to get lost if I don’t stay alert, but I have always found a way to make it back onto the right trail.”

Q: What are some of the most memorable places you have been?

A: “Well, I have visited my daughter in New Zealand. The geographical features there are unlike anything else you would experience in the United States or even in Europe. Ireland is just sublime…they call it “emerald isle” for how incredibly green the land is around its beautiful waterfalls. When my daughter was in college we walked the Cornish Coast of England together. She was in the middle of writing her dissertation and the trip gave her a reprieve from stress and us a chance to bond. I let her plan most of the trip.”

Q: It sounds like your walks have meant a lot to you. Would you say they are in some way spiritual for you?

A: Absolutely, yes. Being so connected to nature and taking in the peace does make walking a spiritual drive for me. I like to try to and go every year in the summertime.

Q: What’s the most valuable thing about your hiking journeys that you’d like others to know?

“If I could walk and put one foot in front of another forever, I would do it. Walking increases my joy in life and it is my passion. It allows you to slow down, pay attention to what is going on in the world, and can take you completely outside of yourself.”

 

A photo of Robin Hood’s Bay at the eastern terminus of the walk.
A photo of Robin Hood’s Bay at the eastern terminus of the walk.

Through Facebook, Shurbutt keeps a journal of her trips. These have become important for remembering each experience as unique and for giving her family and friends the chance to imagine and understand what her walks are like. Here is an entry on Facebook from a recent trip of Shurbutt’s honoring her walk along the Wicklow Way on the Irish Coast to Coast.

August 2, 2014 ·

“I am blessed–the goddess (that would be Mom) watcheth over me! I set off this morning from Knockree to walk about 14 miles to Old Bridge where somehow I would find Lough Dan and this warm and exquisite place that I’m sitting in at this moment in time. The midst was not unpleasant, though as I walked through high ferns (as tall as I) utterly drenched with water, I had visions of when Ray and I walked around Loch Loman on the West Highland Way, remembering that sickly feeling when one’s boots are utterly drench, really quite foaming with each step . . . not a pleasant time and possibly why Ray declined to join me. But the morning went well, the rain was light, and the coolness made for pleasant walking. What is best is that with each turn and twist of the map and my walk, the directions were spot on and I was feeling heady–Goliath before the fall! I had walked until about 12:30 when there was some dispute in the directions, but I followed the yellow hiker marking the way and was still confident. Then I met a biker who told me I was surely on the wrong route (and indeed as I headed up the shell-shaped mountain in the midst, I did not want to climb it: I only wanted to make it to Old Bridge and Lough Dan House), so I took the biker at his word and began to trek back down the mountain, loathing to retrace my steps. Almost to the stile that had sent me upward, I met two elderly gentlemen from Dublin, who said indeed I had been right to climb upward but the track would veer along the ridge of the mountain. They said I could join them, which I gratefully did and trekked upward, and upward, and over bogs that only were walkable by going over “sleepers” (as my two old Dubliners told me, which looked like train trestles bolted together to construct a walkway about 18 inches wide to traverse over the bogs). As we slaughed onward, the rain came down in torrents, and I must say these old Dubliners were in fine shape as I had to jog to keep up with them, but I was loathe to let them out of my sight, since they had walked the Way and thus knew the way!

As we came around the last high bog, still walking on the sleepers, an incredible sight appeared: a high lake surrounded by steep cliffs–breath-takingly beautiful. That was Laugh Dan (and this house on the other side of the valley as it turns out). I was so drench by this point and my shoes were indeed foaming and squooshing with each sad step. The wind had blasted my umbrella to pieces, my water-resistant jacket had given up trying to keep me dry, but we slaughed on.

It was now 3:30 in the afternoon when we at long-last came to a road, no sign of the rain diminishing, and I was thinking my adventure was becoming tedious if not down-right uncomfortable. It was about this time that up drove Maleki and Mary- -two lovely Irishfolk (he a lawyer and she a banker), out traversing the baren heath as there was nothing better to do on such a wet, soggy Saturday. Maleki said that two bikers up the road (whom we had passed earlier) said we might need rescuing, and they would be happy to drive me to the nearest town of Roundwood. My two Dubliners declined but since I didn’t have the slightest idea anyhow how to get to Lough Dan House and a town sounded right appealing after 6 hours on the high bogs facing 40 mile an hour wind and rain, I hopped in the car. As it turned out Sean and Teresa who own Lough Dan House were friends with Maleki and Mary, so Maleki was happy to drive me right up (which was about a 45 minute drive around winding mountain lanes to get to this lovely house that loomed in the mist just across the high valley. I am told this is the highest B&B on the Wicklow Way; it is certainly the driest and warmest.

I await not dinner, after having showered and consumed two cups of tea, which have had a wondrous effect upon my mood. I am so happy to be here, dry, alive, and breathing the cool fresh air of this emerald isle. I am hoping that my Wicklow Way guidebook dries overnight. My passport is drying now, as is my billfold and money. However, today brought some of the most spectacular views in this or any country. During the morning hours I passed the Powerscourt Falls, a beautiful sight.”

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