May 15th: Two weeks in… and no end in sight

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Reaching the fifteenth day of the walk was reaching a milestone of sorts. Two weeks is the duration of a typical summer vacation, the typical duration of many people’s longest mountain walks. If this journey had been a trip like that it would be over already. All the sights would have been seen, all the miles completed, all the mountains climbed. If this had been a typical summer trek I would have been back home by now, tent and boots stuffed away in some corner, back at the old routine, living a more structured, more predictable, and infinitely less adventurous life.

But… as it was, fifteen days in, and the journey had barely even started. The notion of seventeen and half months still to go left me feeling positively giddy with excitement.

After two weeks on foot my previous life was starting to fall behind, to slip away, becoming like a dream is upon awakening; slightly unreal, half-forgotten, its details elusive. This isn’t to say I was forgetting friends and family (I wasn’t, I’d already phoned home twice to reassure), it was just that my previous existence no longer seemed as though it was my previous existence. It was as though it had belonged to someone else. It had little relevance to the life I was now engaged in; what did over-crowded commuter trains in London, or frantic high streets of rushed shoppers, or depressing editions of the nightly news have to do with these wild Calabrian woods? This journey, this simple life of day-to-day walking, of constantly being outdoors, of total immersion in a new culture, country, and mountain range, was becoming my life. This most emphatically was not a typical two-week summer trip. This was not a break from the real world. This was my real world.

The routine of towns and cities had fallen away. Days were no longer so rushed. Everything was simpler, easier, problems were more straightforward. The decisions I faced each day were more basic, were based around food, water, progress, sleep. My drinking water came mostly from streams. I rose with the sun, went to sleep at nightfall, sometimes sooner. I knew where the moon was in the sky, what phase it was at, where it would set. I was aware of the plants around me changing on a daily basis, could clearly witness spring rolling towards summer with its subtle, intimate changes. The mountains were no longer a pretty backdrop to stand outside of and observe but were a part of a reality to stand within, a reality to taste and touch with every throbbing sense. All the distractions and clutter that come with society’s more common way of doing things… all the restrictive barriers of everyday life… all the wasted moments and breaths… all of it was burning away like a morning fog. Two weeks in, and I was becoming more aware. Two weeks walking, and I was becoming more present.

Even though the Calabrian mountains weren’t as walkable as I’d expected I’d learnt to appreciate them for what they were. I’d grown to love the mid-altitude beech woods for the sun-dappled softness they offered, for the radiant emerald light that filled them, for the way they soothed the soul, for the respite they gave from the sun. I’d come to love the rural landscapes at lower elevations, for the sweet and evocative-scents of the orchards, for the welcome shade of the silver-leafed olive groves, for the ever-fascinating nature of the medieval hillside villages, with their twisting alleys and ancient homes. I’d come to treasure the brief exchanges I had with farmers, shepherds and shopkeepers. My Italian remained limited, their English non-existent, but the smiles we shared almost always helped us reach a simple human understanding, reminding us we were all brothers, that we were all in this together, that we all preferred to laugh.

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After two weeks I’d learnt to read the landscape a little more effectively. I could now tell on sight which forests could most likely be negotiated off trail, which paths would most likely go somewhere, which forest roads would most likely peter out. My unhelpful map still meant I was frequently misplaced, and still regularly backtracking, but less so than before. And after two weeks I had a little more fitness on my side, a little more strength to deal with the unexpected detours that fate (and my own choices!) regularly placed in my path. After two weeks I was getting into my stride.

So… a milestone had been passed… over two weeks, fifteen days, and two hundred and thirty-one miles had been walked. The Calabrian sun remained burning hot. The mountain forests were still frequently impenetrable. Water was still often hard to find. At night, mosquitoes were now biting. Dogs were still frequently menacing. My shoulders and hips were regularly bruised. The soles under both feet were frequently sore. My lips were sunburnt. The roads were steep and hard. And there was no end to any of it in sight…

And to be honest… I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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