Do you remember where you were July 15, 2006?
I was on an idyllic hill in the Worth Valley (Haworth, West Yorkshire, England), looking across to the home where my mother-in-law grew up, and the home where her parents lived at the time—once a crumbling pig barn (an “ostlerhouse”) that my wife’s grandfather built into a beautiful home, stone by stone. I found myself on the hill with a singular purpose, one which I carried out on one knee.
I proposed to Anna that morning, on that hill, where she came as a child and picked berries and ran around. Sixteen years (and two days) later, I found myself on the lawn of that ostlerhouse, with the field over my youngest sister-in-law’s shoulder, as her future husband proposed to her. I looked up to the garret that Anna’s grandfather was building before he died and saw the champagne bottle we used to toast the engagement set in mortar at the cornice. I pointed it out to my future brother-in-law, and he understood perfectly the meaningfulness of this place and the circularity of time.
On July 23, 2006, I found myself at the base of Hallin Fell, the highest point on Lake Ullswater in the Lake District (Cumbria, England). I was younger then, not even aware that I should have been daunted by the steep hike to the top.
Having reached the top, standing next to the cairn and looking at the panoramic views of Ullswater towards Pooley Bridge, I was breathless—both from the scramble to the top (an elevation change of nigh 1,000 feet) and by the sheer beauty of the landscape. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Truly breathtaking.
At that moment, I swore two things to myself. First, I would never forget that view. Second, I would never climb Hallin Fell again.
Two days shy of sixteen years later (July 21, 2022), I woke up at 5:30, put on my hiking boots, grabbed my camera and tripod, and set out to break my second promise. I left the hotel, walked about a mile to a churchyard, and stared up the path through the bracken ferns at my Everest.
A part of me could not believe that I was going to climb that damn fell again, and a part of me knew it was inevitable. I was here, the cairn was at the top, and not even weak and wobbly knees (and a shoddy left ankle from an unfortunate fly fishing accident a decade earlier) would keep me from revisiting that view.
There were cows in the field at the base of the hill the last time I made the trek up. The paddock was empty that morning, sixteen years hence. I hiked alone, which provided me with the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts (and, admittedly, to catch my breath ever 100 yards or so).
So much had changed since the last time that rocky ground was beneath my feet. Marriage, law school, my first job, a son, graduate school, a daughter, my current career as a tax attorney—and countless other minor and major events, lives, and circumstances that had shaped who I was at that moment—those very events and circumstances that had made me break my solemn oath to never climb that damn fell again.
As I knew I would be, I was rewarded by my disavowal of that promise when I reached the top. Breathless once more, I looked around, and it all came back to me.
I was standing in awe at the base of the cairn with Anna and her parents sixteen years ago.
I saw the rock I sat on with Anna to catch my breath and take it all in. I sat on it again.
In the distance, I saw the seventeenth century church (built on the foundation of a twelfth century church) with the ancient yew tree, the gnarled branches of which we had walked betwixt and between, casually laughing about how nothing in America had any real history. Not like this.
I looked in the opposite direction, and I saw the faint outline of the Roman road running across the top of the fells. Mirabile dictu, indeed.
I took in the panorama once more, and remarked to myself that my self-betrayal had, indeed, been worth it.
As I was standing with a hand on the cairn, looking across the length of Ullswater, I had the fleeting thought that I would be 53 in sixteen years. I am old enough now to understand that even if I had, at that moment, sworn never to never climb Hallin Fell again, it would have been insincere and pointless. While my legs will carry me, when I am in the Lake District, I will climb to the cairn every time. Next time, I might even let Anna and the kids come, too.
I took pictures when I first climbed to the cairn with an old point-and-shoot camera. They remain some of my favorite photographs, and they are what inspired me to become a photographer. With my wonderful Fujifilm X-T30 and multiple lenses, I took hundreds of photos in the hour or so that I watched the sun alight different parts of the valleys and the lake below.
I looked at the photo of the cairn on my phone, and I found the exact spot where I had taken it. I framed the picture, and I pressed the shutter button with great nostalgia—an unspeakable ache for home. I felt this ache, because I knew I would once more have to leave the cairn, the Lake District, and England.
Yet, as I looked around me, I felt that nothing had changed in sixteen years. The top of Hallin Fell was as it ever was and ever would be. The knowledge that it would be there for me the next time I sought it out gave me unspeakable comfort.
When I returned to reality (America), the first photographs I edited were from that hike up Hallin Fell. I pulled up the sixteen-year-old photo of the cairn, the first photograph in this post, and I found the photo I had taken just days earlier. I cropped it, touched it up, and made it monochrome like the prior one. I exported it and compared the two side-to-side.
Sixteen years passed between the two photos, and yet the circularity of time and the top of the fell remained constant. I looked more closely at the cairn, though, and I realized that in my absence a few more layers of stones had been carefully added to the top of the cairn. I realized at that moment that nothing—even that fell top that I previously thought was immutable—is untouched by time.
I hope that it does not take me sixteen years to learn if more stones have been added in my time away from the cairn. I hope that Kemper and Nora will not protest the hike when I tell them that we’re going to see something remarkable. I hope that as they climb it, they swear to themselves that they will never do it again. And I hope that once they reach the top, they understand that this is an oath that they are bound to break.
Over and over again.