There are three kinds of walking in the Southern Apennines: the rough, the very rough, and the next-to-impossible.
Okay, so that’s not strictly true, but it’s not far off either. There is a fourth kind of walking – if a north-bound hiker wants to make solid north-bound progress – and that’s road walking, but road walking was something I wanted to do as little of as possible. I hadn’t come here to hike roads; I’d come to hike mountains. The mountains, however, weren’t so easily hiked…
A week into the journey I found myself growing increasingly annoyed. Annoyed with the Calabrian map I possessed which remained reliably unreliable. Annoyed with roads that went nowhere. Annoyed with paths that petered out. Annoyed with forests so dense they genuinely were impenetrable. Wasn’t Italy supposed to be a civilized country of poplars, piazzas, and palazzos? How come I faced an aspirant Amazonian jungle?
Most of all I was annoyed with myself. I’d made a huge assumption that because Calabria was filled with mountains it must surely offer good mountain walking. Every other place I’d visited during previous backpacking adventures supported that assumption. Mountains meant trails, and open country, where one could walk for miles and see for a hundred more. Why should Calabria be any different? I’d assumed that the region, being so far south and so searing-hot in summer, would offer a rugged, bare-bones landscape of barren slope and sun-blasted rock, a harsh place… but easy to walk across.
Oh how wrong I was!
And so I let myself become annoyed. And frustrated. As I battled through tangled woods, caught up by spiny branches, sweating hard, swatting flies, I cursed the reality I faced. When trails died, or roads led the wrong way, I cursed. When I couldn’t find water for camp, and had to walk twice as far as expected, I cursed. When I passed remote settlements where savage-looking dogs raced out baring savage-looking teeth snarling savage-sounding snarls, I cursed. When camp at night was a small patch of earth crawling with ants in a shut in forest with absolutely no view, I cursed. This wasn’t what I’d come for. This wasn’t what I wanted or what I’d expected. This simply wasn’t… fun.
Now, you may be shaking your head and thinking: he just doesn’t get it, does he? And you’d be right, I didn’t. I didn’t get that mountains and wild places don’t care about our expectations. They are what they are. It’s our job to bend to them, not expect them to bend to us. And I didn’t get that adventure is about uncertainty, it’s about the unknown; it’s about dealing with adversity with a positive outlook and making the best of what you have, changing what you can, accepting what you can’t. My problem, for too many miles and for too long at the start of the walk, was I focused on what I wanted, not on what I actually had. I might just as well have been walking with my eyes shut.
But eventually I got it. It took a while, but eventually I started seeing these mountains for what they were: beautifully vegetated, magically green, thrillingly wild. Eventually I learnt to expect each day not to work out as expected. I learnt that when a path ended, or a road led me astray, it was okay. Wherever I finished up I was somewhere, and if I opened my eyes to it this somewhere was just as fine a place as anywhere else. If I went thirsty for a while water would merely taste all the better when next I found it. No view for a day meant any view the next day would seem even grander. Slowly I learnt a few of the lessons I needed to learn.
Eventually… on the eighth evening, with 130 miles walked since the start, and almost 17,000 feet climbed, while setting up camp in a downpour in the depths of a steaming gorge, while feeling exhausted, hungry, tired, wet and thirsty, while thinking not of the start, or the future, but only of the present, of the wild, dripping woods wrapped all around, of their pungent scents and many sounds, of the living, pressing organic green-ness of them, eventually… suddenly… unexpectedly… I realized I was actually having… fun.
It was like waking up.
There was still a long way to go, and much still to learn, and there would be many relapses, but it was a start…