Coast to Coast Day 0: Travelling to St Bee’s Head

Early morning view from my Workington Hotel

I’ve wanted to do the Coast to Coast ever since I read Curtis and Emily’s accounts of the trail. Emily’s description of the walk and the community it generated was one of my biggest inspirations for getting into hiking. Based on the first four days, the Coast to Coast is the more fun than the four national trails I’ve walked on previously (Ridgeway, North and South Downs Ways and Pennine Way).

The biggest surprise was how hard I found the route. There were days that beat me up badly, where I struggled with getting up and down hills. I’m not sure if this was because the trail is harder, or if I am substantially weaker after lockdown. My balance and flexibility both seemed off too. I don’t remember even the Pennine Way being so hard.

The first challenge was getting to the start. We set off a five on a Friday, perfectly timed to hit the end of the week traffic jams. It took over six hours for us to drop a car off at our end point and reach our hotel in Workington. The weather was appalling too, with thick fog as we drove through some lakeland passes.

On the way up, we were so delayed that stopping for a proper meal was impossible, so we grabbed some fast food. I ordered a large chips, since in Brighton that’s just enough to be filling. Further north, for the same price, I was given a ball of carbs almost as big as my head.

Given the possibility of arriving late, I booked us into a chain hotel in Workington. The town was subject of a BBC news article the day we were there, about towns that needed levelling up. The main thing I noticed about the place was that it was spotless, with very little litter.

Four beers, and a liter of Greek yoghurt. Someone was partying hard at the Travel Inn

We ate breakfast in a Wetherspoons. As much as I loathe Tim Wetherspoon’s politics, he is a good publican. I can go into any Wetherspoons and be guaranteed a vegan meal with no fuss. This was also by far the best vegan meal of the trip. Once we’d finished our food we took a short drive to St Bee’s Head to start the walk.

Stories that change reality

One of the best newsletters I’m reading right now is 50 years of text adventures. Rather than focussing exclusively on computer games, the series has given glimpses of a revolution in literature that never quite happened (see for example Galatea, Screen or Patchwork Girl). There have also been some great stories, such as how young programmers in communist Czechoslovakia used videogames as subversive art. And then there is 1992’s Silverwolf, whose background is so weird that it defies summary.

I had wondered what the series would write about as it approached the present era, when text adventures have become a less important genre. The recent posts have presented some innovative and fascinating ideas. One I’ve particularly loved is the piece about 2001 Alternate Reality Game (ARG) The Beast.

The Beast was a puzzle game marketing the movie AI, with clues in movie trailers, websites and on answer phones. Players from around the world collaborated to solve the puzzles. While I never played it myself, I remember being amazed by the possibility this had for story-telling. It had around 3 million players and led to a whole series of other ARGs.

Reading around this led to listening to a series of interviews with Joseph Matheny who produced what is likely the first ARG, Ong’s Hat. This was a story about a strange cult, told across a series of different media. There was a good summary of this in Gizmodo’s article Ong’s Hat: The Early Internet Conspiracy Game That Got Too Real. The idea was that a community of physicists had collaborated with a group of mystics to produce a portal between dimensions. The story was seeded over years, including a zine article by Hakim Bey in the early 90s. Interestingly, one of the people involved was Nick Herbert, whose book Quantum Reality was one of the main inspirations for me studying physics.

In a long podcast interview with Project Archivist, Matheney spoke about Ong’s Hat and how it emerged through his thinking about how to use the Internet as a story-telling medium. Refences to Ong’s Hat were placed in zines and on bulletin boards, and fake publications were listed in a rare books catalogue called The Incunabula. They even went as far as photocopying articles and leaving them in coffee shops and concert venues. In 1999, Matheney was able to produce an ebook that collected together all these sources. Within a few years, Matheney shut down the project, as a number of people were becoming convinced it was real, and behaving dangerously.

Matheney has also admitted to being a consultant to the people behind time-traveller John Titor. He also worked on Majestic, a 2001 ARG from Electronic Arts (there’s a good summary from Wired in May 2001 – the game was shutdown to security concerns after September 11th)

One of the things I love about these ARGs is the way that they merge fiction with reality. There’s something Borgesian about them – not just in the combinations of reality and fiction, but also in the way that some of Borges’ fake citations turned up in real contexts. This has a negative side too – some of the conspiracists who are into Ong’s Hat have refused to acknowledge that it was a work of art. There was also a claim by Adrian Hon that QAnon is structured like an ARG. It’s interesting to see how the iteration/repetition of fictions can have an affect on their reality.

A Mystery in the Hedgerow

Out for a walk the other day, I spotted a tired helium balloon at the edge of a field:

The balloon was deflating and could no longer carry its cargo. It was attached to a photo, but there was nothing on the back to identify where it came from.

I’m not sure who is in the picture or why the photo was attached to a balloon.. The white balloon and ribbon makes me think it might be an escaped wedding decoration. It feels like there ought to be something to do in response, but I can’t think what.