Day One: Five small Pebbles

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May 1st was a morning pretty much like any other at Melito di Porto Salvo, the southernmost tip of mainland Italy. As usual, gentle waves washed onto Melito’s pebble beach. As usual, snow-capped Mount Etna rose across the Straights of Messina into towering clouds and, as usual, the old men of the village sat outside the tiny Bar Rosa, putting the world to rights. The only deviation from the norm was the skinny English foreigner standing alone on the beach, wobbling visibly under a monster-sized pack. For him the morning was anything but ordinary…

I stood there, awash with excitement, consumed by nerves, ready to turn north. After dreaming about this for so many months now that I was actually here I wondered if I could perhaps delay the start instead, put off the inevitable. Perhaps I could get away with sitting here on this now-familiar beach for a year and half and hope no-one would notice. After all… the whole thing was probably a daft idea.

Part of me wanted to hide. Another part wanted to quit already, and run away, to somewhere, anywhere, back home perhaps. Why had I told anyone I was doing this? If I hadn’t told anyone I could just pretend it had never happened. The ambitious idea had become too… damn… real. But another part of me just wanted to get going, and walk up into the mountains – my mountains – where life was simpler, where there were no timetables, where I could touch the land with every sense and emotion, and reconnect with it intimately, and live the life I was supposed to live…

It was time to go…

Before turning north there was a ritual I had to complete. I bent down and searched the pebbles at my feet for the token rock that I planned to carry all the way to the North Cape. Once there I’d hurl it from the cliff top into the wild arctic seas. I took my time choosing, waiting for a pebble to suggest itself. At last, one did. It was small, smoothly rounded, green, with streaks of quartz running through it, and I plucked it from the water’s edge before the sea could claw it away. But then another pebble caught my eye, pinkish-red this time, with embedded crystals sparkling in the sun, and then another, yellow, flecked with shards of grey and black. In the end I held five small pebbles in my palm, and couldn’t choose between them… so pocketed the lot. The walk, ultimately, would be like that in its entirety. I’d always find more than I looked for, never less.

And so… finally… I took the first steps, and they were a little anti-climatic. There was no fanfare, no cheering crowd, no one to see me off. I walked slowly up the beach, very much alone, crunching across the pebbles, and after a hundred yards beneath the burning sun was already sweating hard. It was… time for a break. I dropped the pack, stripped off, and dived into the sea, carefully dodging a few items of floating trash and scum. The Mediterranean gave me an instant shock: holy crap: surely even the waters off North Cape wouldn’t be as cold as this? I braved it out for a few seconds, hyperventilating, and spectacularly failed to notice the only wave for a hundred placid miles, which came sweeping in from nowhere and bowled me right over. Spluttering, I resurfaced and scrambled back onto dry land, hoping I hadn’t swallowed anything toxic.

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The next thirty minutes were spent drying out beneath the blazing May sun… until finally it really was time to go. With a last look out to sea I turned inland, and walked north.

For the first few miles I passed through a rough, spiky, sunburned landscape. Spring hadn’t yet put leaves on the trees and the land had an abused, tired feel to it. Many buildings were utilitarian concrete blocks, often only half finished. Litter and junk lay everywhere. This clearly wasn’t the beautified Italy displayed in travel brochures and loved by artists. Nor was it the wealthiest corner of the country; people here had to make do with what they had. I pulled level with one ancient old lady dressed from head to toe in black. Bent over, she was pulling a huge handcart filled with a mountain of hay. I tried to start a conversation using my extremely basic beginner’s Italian, but she just looked through me with a perplexed expression on her face, as though she couldn’t quite work out what type of creature I was, and where she’d seen one before. We parted without establishing any kind of connection.

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I pushed on, passing beneath a small village perched on a steep hillside under a castle of thrusting rock. It was a spectacular spot, but these foothills weren’t the friendliest place I’d ever walked. The only realistic route lay by small country road, but I didn’t feel welcome beside it. Several cars gave long loud blasts on their horns as they drove by. The youths filling one car shouted at me as they cruised by, their faces taunting, making strange and obviously insulting hand gestures through the open windows. Another car, coming towards me, deliberately swerved my way, kicking up dust on the verge just a few feet from where I’d jumped. Mangy dogs ran out from several communities, snarling and barking, backing up only when I stooped to pick up stones to throw. I felt threatened… highly conspicuous, and very much out of place. It was a relief to find a small side trail and leave the road behind.

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Dark storm clouds now hung over the mountains ahead and thunder rumbled ominously. A steady rain began to fall as I pushed through long grass into a secluded valley. I was ready for camp, but needed water first, and apart from the rain there was none to be had. I took shelter in an old stone hut and had an idea: I spread an orange groundsheet across the sloping dirt outside, catching rainwater in it, channeling it into my large water bag, until I had more than enough for the night. After a while the rain let up and I sat back for a few minutes, well pleased with my cleverness, a feeling which lasted only until I picked up the water bag and discovered it was now empty… the small faucet at one end had been left open, and all my water had gushed away. What a pro I was.

But I was in luck: a mile further up the valley I found a flat and grassy nook close to a gushing spring, and there I set up camp, hidden from the rest of the world. Cuckoos called repeatedly from all around, taking me at once back to countless spring camps on ocean-side cliff tops in Britain, and wild camps in the Scottish Highlands, where I’d also listened to cuckoos call. With rain again falling  I lay quietly within my tiny tent, feeling very small, trying to imagine I was back in Britain at the start of an easier, shorter walk.

If this first day was anything to go by it was going to be a hell of a journey.

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