Here’s that bottle I found while shuffling past a bunch of plastic body parts on the beach in 2011:
The message was nearly destroyed, and whole sections had been shredded to ribbons. But, with a little time and patience, I was able to reconstruct the message. Here’s a video showing what it looked like:
The sender’s name was unique: Kelvin Euridge. I would one day learn in person that the man behind the name was also unique.
I reconstructed the message, magically found Kelvin on Facebook, and we began writing to each other. He told me about his life working on ships (not “boats.” He would later remind me of the difference: “Ships have boats, boats don’t have ships.”); he wrote about how as a young father he traveled on these massive vessels with his family. That’s where Sam comes in–Kelvin’s daughter, who actually threw the message overboard.
One of the first curious things that happened was that Kelvin figured out that he and Sam sent a second bottle on the same night as they sent mine. This bottle was found in 1987 in Montego Bay, Jamaica by a boy named Dylan who recorded the find in his journal.
However, the bottle I found was adrift for about 28 years before I found it.
I told Kelvin about my various hobbies–finding messages in bottles, gardening, music, and about my work as a teacher; he told me about his travels around the world and helped me understand his daughter, Sam, as a child.
We had been discussing the voyage on which they sent this particular bottle, and Kelvin wrote to me of something that happened after the journey:
“One morning, when she was four, I was waiting outside of Sam’s play school to collect her when the session had finished. Through the window I could see the class were watching Sam, enthralled while she was stood on a chair with her arms outstretched horizontally, dipping and bobbing like a plane coming in to land in a strong wind. When she came out I asked her what she was doing. ‘Oh!’ she said ‘the teacher was talking about albatrosses and I told her I had watched them while I was travelling with my dad – I was showing the rest of the class how they fly.'”
Given Sam’s keen attention to nature even as a child, I was not entirely shocked to learn that she grew up to become a scientist–though, I confess it gave me a jolt that she studied Oceanography. Shouldn’t be surprising, given her aquatic background–but considering my great interest in the ocean, currents, and marine life, it felt like a happy coincidence. Here she is exploring the ocean in 1983–and then in 2013:
The more I corresponded with Kelvin the more intrigued I became–I really wanted to meet this mountain-climbing globetrotter! When I asked about this, Kelvin was game. And that’s how we ended up meeting each other in London’s Victoria station in July 2015 after Kelvin was done with his day at the office. I had gotten the sense over the years that Kelvin felt more at home and alive snorkeling around the broken prop or gouged hull of some hulking ship than in the confines of a London office. As soon as I saw him in his suit, I could tell: This is a man wearing a suit only because he has to. I got the sense he felt a little trapped in that get-up.
As we rode the train toward Kelvin’s corner of the world, he pointed out various towns and villages–each one had a story. Often, these settlements were older than America.
Next thing I knew, I was in Kelvin’s kitchen sitting at the table, while Kelvin sat at the counter reciting poetry–long verses–straight from memory. Very few writers I know can even do this. I wondered if Kelvin missed his calling. He chanted out the entirety of Gunga Din, inflected almost as if he were a performer, and I just listened to those final lines settling in the air–
So I’ll meet ’im later on
At the place where ’e is gone—
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.
’E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
I blinked back to reality.
Kelvin showed me around his house and garden–a cozy cottage in the countryside, surrounded by pasture, cows, and woods. The “garden” (“yard” to Americans) is Kelvin’s domain: there must be a hundred different varieties of flowers and other plants, and he knows each by name, and each has a story.
His dedication to gardening reminded me of Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry (and Hobbits, of course). Then there was the vegetable garden–whoo! This little plot was productive!
That night we stayed up only a little late–we loosely planned the next day: a 13-mile walk from Kelvin’s back door to Canterbury Cathedral along the Pilgrim’s Way–a path made famous by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Most people I know would consider this a “hike”. To Kelvin, it was like a wee dainty stroll…
Dozing off in the guest room, I realized I was surrounded by books about ships, various marine issues, and maps–so many maps!–of various sizes and degrees of detail. I was with “my people”.
Next morning, Kelvin’s wife, Yoshi, who is an amazingly kind, friendly, and thoughtful person, helped us pack food. Kelvin showed me some maps of the area which were perfectly clear to him and perfectly opaque to me, and then we set out.
Now, I have to tell you about this craaazy thing that England does. See, Englanders believe that people should be able to walk through the countryside free and unmolested by land owners. Period.
Often, these “public footpaths” take the form of narrow passageways between homes in residential areas. But there are also vast networks of public footpaths through the countryside. I mean, if you own a field where you grow wheat, for example, there can be a public footpath right through your wheat field where people are allowed to “pass and re-pass” and even stop to picnic.
If you’re a fellow American finding this hard to imagine–trust me, I get it. It blew me away. You might be thinking what an inconvenience it would be to have random people “trespassing” across “your” land. But step back for a minute: imagine you could go walking through the countryside around your home–countryside you’ve never gotten to traipse through since it is privately owned–on a path where you are not a fugitive. You are simply a welcome member of the public, exercising your rights to traverse the land. For a land such as America that is ostensibly predicated on “freedom” and “liberty,” this is strangely hard to imagine. Why is it hard for us to imagine living in such a system–where a network of neighbors all agree to let each other pass through one another’s land?
I became fixated on these public footpaths. I live in Utah, where trespassing across someone’s patch of desert might actually get you shot. I must say, I felt a greater sense of freedom roaming England’s public footpaths with Kelvin than I can remember feeling anywhere else for a long time.
This video from the Wall Street Journal captures just a whiff of the true glory of public footpaths throughout Kent (and all England and Wales):
One of these public footpaths is accessible from Kelvin’s cottage. In fact, his back fence has a little gate through which we passed into a cow pasture, where white and black cows grazed, totally unconcerned by us walking by. Kelvin was friendly with these cows:
I say “was” because, as a vegetarian, Kelvin was quick to point out to me that this would be the cows’ “only summer” since they would soon be sent to slaughter.
And then, off we went, walking a public footpath through a stranger’s wheat field. Here’s what this looks like:
I confess I felt like a Hobbit walking through the shire. Rolling hills, fields of wheat, friendly animals–all that was missing was the ring!
Before long we were walking through a village, parts of which (including the church) were built entirely of flint. The land in Kent sits atop what I kept hearing people call “chalk deposits”. I guess that, within these deposit, chert or flint forms. Here, flint nodules were so abundant that they were a nuisance to farmers–the ground is littered with this stuff!
Because these nodules are made of flint, a tough stone, folks in Kent used them like bricks. Check out this church, built with flint nodules:
And here’s a garden wall:
As we passed through another field, we talked about the nature of the United Kingdom. Kelvin said he always thinks of himself as British rather than “English”. The distinction may be lost on Americans, and it took me a minute to catch up, but I realized it means something like this: If you say, “I am British,” that means you consider yourself a part of Great Britain–i.e., you look upon the peoples of Scotland and Wales as your brothers and sisters, your countrymen. (On a related note, “United Kingdom” refers to the above countries plus Northern Ireland). On the other hand, if you say, “I am English,” it could be interpreted by some a way of distancing yourself from the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish–essentially, “I am not with those guys…”
From the field, we delved into woods that felt straight out of a Tolkien story.
We’re talking beautifully groomed public footpaths winding through wilderness. Where are the elves that keep the path open?
As we wandered through these woods, our path joined another path which Kelvin explained was the true Pilgrim’s Way–as in, THE Pilgrim’s Way of Chaucer. I was walking in the footsteps of characters from the Canterbury Tales! I almost expected the Wife of Bath to show up!
I looked over at one point and saw a sign marking one section of forest as “The King’s Wood”. Wait–did I just stumble into a Robin Hood story?!
Then there’s the view over the Stour valley, where the Stour river runs:
And back to the path…
Here’s a little video I made from clips of this walk. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to walk the path of Chaucer’s characters, this is more or less what it’s like today:
We passed through more villages as we walked.
What stroll through the English countryside would be complete without stumbling upon a Downton Abbey-esque estate?
And of course, I had to pose with the Pilgrim Milestone in Chilham:
In the village of Chilham on the Pilgrim’s Way, there’s a church called St. Mary’s, which is a hybrid: it’s built with both flint nodules and brick:
Surrounding the church is a pastoral churchyard that brought to mind for me the Thomas Gray poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
From here we wound our way through more woods and fields.
Kelvin would tell me of his adventures with Sam in the years since they sent the bottle I found. It seems that they just keep going, tapping into the same fire from all those years ago, climbing anything big enough to be a challenge.
We stopped to picnic on a bench overlooking apple orchards rolling away in all directions.
A good portion of our 13-mile hike was behind us, and the beer tasted quite good. Kelvin explained that this whole area is known as the “Garden of England” due to the abundance of such orchards as well as hop gardens. There are these crazy little buildings called “Oasts” dotting the countryside which are where the hops are dried. We saw a few of these distinctive pointy structures on our walk:
After lunch it was back to the path. We walked at a relatively brisk pace, and Kelvin remarked that this was in part because he has “dromedary legs”. Good thing I’d been walking all over Europe for a couple weeks already!
Now that I thought about it, it seemed like there were orchards everywhere–even surprise old orchards alongside the path, like this one that’s guarded by a giant snake Kelvin investigated:
Walking together is a good way for folks to get to know each other. After we escaped the orchard snake, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in Canterbury. I thought about everything I’d learned on this hike–about “English” vs. “British,” about the flint nodules everywhere, old churches, Oasts, public footpaths, the Garden of England, and many other things Kelvin and I discussed like the various religions of England and America, the ethical questions surrounding the eating of meat, the many mountains Kelvin has climbed, and more.
And after all that, our whole epic stroll through the Kentish countryside unspooling behind us–suddenly, there we were in Canterbury, where there are many strange and lovely sights to behold.
This is a massive Plane tree, said to be about 200 years old, and also rumored to have swallowed a metal bench that encircled it in the early 1900s (now completely covered in growth). The tree’s bizarre growth appears to be caused by a virus.
Here’s Canterbury’s Westgate, the largest surviving city gate in England, begun around 1379 (in Chaucer’s own time).
After learning that Canterbury Cathedral charged visitors an obscene amount of money to enter the grounds, I couldn’t help posing for this photo beside the rubbish sign. No rubbish? Well, the entry fee is rubbish. So, too late.
Besides, for me, the important experience of the day was the pilgrimage, the journey itself–a journey now coming to a close. It’s a journey that will remain free to all so long as there are people in England willing to stand up for the right to walk across the land unhindered. There’s no charge to walk the Pilgrim’s Way, but there is a great reward in the walk.
We wandered around the city for a while, and I marveled at the city streets dominated by pedestrians:
We walked along the old city wall–that structure in the middle is where you would have liked to be in a skirmish, as you’d have at least a little protection while you shot arrows or muskets out those little slits:
Then we climbed a little hill and looked back at the Cathedral:
Then, we walked up to Kelvin’s son’s college (just a few more miles–no biggie), and caught a ride home. Strange to be in a car, traveling in that very modern fashion, after what felt like a journey through hundreds of years of British history. The Canterbury Tales would have been much shorter indeed if pilgrims had been able to travel at, say , 70 miles per hour.
As my time with Kelvin drew to a close, I kept thinking of this old English pastime called “Letterboxing”. On our walk, Kelvin explained:
“Dartmoor is a national park of rugged high moorland that was close to where we used to live in Devon. In the middle of the moor is an inaccessible spot called Cranmere Pools which is an area of extensive peat bogs. Back in Victorian times perambulators would take the train from Exeter or Plymouth to get within walking distance of the moors. The more adventurous hikers would head out for Cranmere pools. Believe me it is a bleak place… Obviously the Victorians thought the same so in order to give the hard slog to this remote spot an objective someone placed a bottle there leaving a calling card inside, requesting that the next person to arrive post the card back to the owner. This went on for a hundred years or so during which time other so called letterboxes popped up all over the moor. In the 1970’s letterboxing really took hold and a club sprung up for anyone who could prove that they had collected over 100 letterboxes. The letterboxes evolved over the decades and were by this time carefully hidden and had to be hunted given a series of cryptic clues. Align the steeple of Widecombe church with the rowan tree next to the triangular bolder and walk 120 paces to a hollow in the rocks…and so on. Once the “box” was found, inside would be a stamp and a visitors book.”
Sound like geo-caching? Well, this was one precursor. I believe it speaks to the adventurous spirit of humans as well as our roughly 5,000 year long love affair with writing. My own obsession with messages in bottles is rooted in the same “soil” as the Dartmoor Letterboxing phenomenon.
And it is the combination of both these things–adventure and writing–that ultimately connected me with Kelvin and Sam, for their nighttime tradition of sending letters overboard was just as necessary as their high-seas escapades for this connection to have happened. And now, here we are.
The morning after our Canterbury adventure, Yoshi packed me some sandwiches, and Kelvin drove me to the train station. I was off to meet another message in a bottle sender.
And yet, I couldn’t help feeling like I had unfinished business. I’d met Kelvin, the writer of the message I’d found. But…it was Sam who actually sent it. I’d met one half of the team, and now I wondered: would I get to meet the other half?
The last words of Kelvin’s 1983 message came back to me. At the end of his message, he wrote: “Keep Searching!”
And keep searching I would…