Preparations

So how does one prepare for a 7,000 mile walk?

Well… honestly, there’s not that much too prepare. After all, walking isn’t exactly rocket science. It’s not… difficult. Practically all of us do it, every day, without even thinking about it. But then again, a 7,000 mile walk is a few steps longer than the average trek to the car…

Fitness was important, but I didn’t train specifically for the journey: there’s only one effective way to train for a long distance walk, and that’s to go for a long distance walk. If you’re not fit at the start… you will be by the end! On a journey like this all one has to do is start slowly, and keep the days short, and build from there, until eventually – all being well, baring any one of the million-and-one things that can go wrong on a wilderness adventure – you’ll be cranking out fifteen… twenty… twenty-five mile days without thinking a thing of it. Pacing is the key. A walk lasting a year and a half definitely isn’t a sprint. It isn’t even a marathon. (It’s over 267 marathons…)

As a youth of twenty seven, and as a runner, and as someone who regularly spent his weekends bimbling around the mountains with a pack on his back, I was already fit enough.

Equipment demanded a little more attention. With experience on my side I already knew what was needed, and what was not, but I still had to get it all together. Most of the mountain clothing and gear I owned was already well worn, and starting a journey this long with equipment ready to fail didn’t seem smart. As the winter rolled by I made countless phone calls and wrote several hundred begging letters to specialized equipment and clothing manufacturers, and by early spring had before me a great heaping pile of discounted and generously donated gear. Ruthlessly, I weeded out all the items that were inessential, and packed away bits and pieces not needed for the start that could be mailed to me along the trail (like snow shoes, for example…  not an item normally required in Southern Italy!) In spite of my best efforts, my backpack was still huge.

The route took many months to prepare, but it was time well spent. I love looking at maps, always have. I can (and do) spend weeks just staring at them, unlocking their secrets, reading their stories, reliving long walks, planning future adventures. A map can reveal so much more than even the finest guidebook but, unlike a guidebook, a map somehow doesn’t spoil the adventure by giving away too much in advance. A map store in London supplied many of the maps I needed at a cut-price rate, and the only real difficulty thereafter lay in choosing my path from the multitude of possibilities on offer. Eventually, I sketched out a rough route through the highest and wildest country, aiming to avoid civilization as much as possible. I penciled in a string of ‘stepping-stone’ towns spaced roughly two weeks apart, put together 30 packages filled with essential items not likely to be available out in the sticks, and addressed them to myself care of ‘poste restante’. My parents would mail them out, and my mother, bless her, often slipped in extra treats before posting them, moral boosters that really worked when times were hard…

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The key to the walk would lie in timing:crossing southern Italy once the mountain snows had thawed but before the south grew too hot, crossing the Alps before winter’s snows grew too deep, reaching southern Norway in the spring once the deep Norwegian snowpack was retreating, and finishing in the far north before the worst of the following winter returned. In theory, it all made sense…

The most challenging part of the preparation was the funding. Originally, I’d planned to begin the walk the year before, but had been forced to give up before even starting because I hadn’t been able to raise the necessary funds. Not that the journey was going to cost an arm and a leg… but 18-months of travel still had a reasonable price tag. Previous walks had taught me that this one would likely coast one English pound per mile (roughly), and this was a significant amount for me back then on the salary I then earned. I tried to find a corporate sponsor to pay for my long walking vacation… er, I mean epic wilderness adventure… but, unsurprisingly, that didn’t work out! When spring 1997 arrived and I still only had two thousand pounds saved I had to make a difficult decision… go or no go… and after some effort finally chose ‘go’. I had a gut feeling that if I didn’t start in May 1997 I never would. I had to trust that once I’d started things would work out, somehow, of their own accord, that the mountain gods, or the winds of fate, or whatever, would reward me for starting. It was a considerable leap of faith.

It’s said that a tight budget is the mother of adventure. It seemed I’d be testing that theory…

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And so, eventually, all was set. At 3am on Monday April 28th 1997 I hoisted on my pack, left my parent’s home, and twenty-one grueling hours later found myself wandering the hot, dark, and frankly frightening midnight streets of Reggio di Calabria, trying to escape the town so I could camp cheaply for the night beyond it. It wasn’t the most promising start: two long hours with a racing pulse, rushing around a maze of dirty black alleys and narrow deserted streets, with unseen dogs growling and barking, and car tires screaming, and once… with gunshots ringing out. The town had no end, and I retreated, made it back to the center, found an expensive hotel, and holed up for a few sleepless hours, heart in my mouth, almost panic stricken, feeling fearfully lonely, wondering what on earth I was doing; wondering what on earth had I done!

The next day I caught a train to the location on the southern-most tip of mainland Italy where I’d chosen to begin – the small, rundown village of Melito di Porto Salvo – and there I sat, alone, in turmoil for two days, questioning over and over the plan that had seemed so sound back home but now seemed so fantastically, so ridiculously, ill-conceived…

I’d prepared well for my journey, or so I’d thought… but, honestly, how can one prepare for an 18-month walk?

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2 thoughts on “Preparations

  1. Superb stuff, Andrew. I can sense my own long-thwarted wanderlust stirring again as I read, and you haven’t even taken a step yet!
    Keep it coming….

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