May 20th-22nd: No mail in the Sila

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After all I’d been through it was pretty easy to fall in love with the Sila Mountains. For a few days Calabria was ‘almost’ easy…

La Sila is a friendly range. Almost as high as the Aspromonte (topping out at 6,300 feet), but a little less wild, the Sila is a large upland plateau of rolling peaks, expansive forests and long lakes. There’s a gentleness to the range, a softness; in many ways it seems entirely out of place in Italy’s sun-blasted south. Southern Italy is known as the land of the Mezzogiorno – the land of the midday sun – a name that hints at the region’s fierce climate. The word ‘Mezzogiorno’ conjures images of searing heat and sun-scorched hills, of brittle forests and bone-dry stream beds, and yet the Sila – lush, green, and watery – is the complete opposite of all that. The Sila looks more like a land stolen from the north – from Austria perhaps, or even from Norway – a land kidnapped by southern bandits and secreted away where it shouldn’t by rights exist. In such a harsh land the Sila feels like a gift.

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I enjoyed my ascent into the range from Catanzaro. I enjoyed leaving the anarchy of the sweltering city behind, enjoyed the developing greenness, enjoyed my first camp in a remote and outrageously verdant valley. I enjoyed the silver dawn that followed, with moisture steaming from meadows, and pine trees sparkling with dew, I enjoyed the succession of lakes I later passed, and I especially enjoyed the way a mighty thunderstorm retreated before me when I climbed onwards later that afternoon. It was crazy: the storm was huge, billowing darkly over the highest summits, spitting lightning, roaring powerfully, but as I climbed towards it it kept moving away, revealing a land cooled and freshly washed, with forests cleansed as though new, and dusty trails dampened and softened. It was hard not to feel that things were going my way, that the mountain and weather gods were rewarding me for three hundred miles of perseverance.

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But if the mountains were looking after me, and my new map was significantly easing progress, my body was starting to let me down. My left leg had developed an unpleasant ache, a feeling of general weakness, an increasingly painful throb that ran from hip to heel with every stride. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was centered, or whether it was muscle, bone, or nerve, but worryingly the pain was increasing each day. I wondered if it was a result of too many unplanned miles along too many roads on too many hot days, where every pace is the same, and where every step jars. I was hoping that the Sila, with their softer and more varied trails, would start to clear things up. If it didn’t get better… well, I didn’t want to consider that possibility.

My left arm was also boasting an unusual injury: I’d burnt a two-inch scar into the soft skin beneath my forearm when I’d accidentally leant on my camp stove, and it had deteriorated the next day after catching too much sun and burning further. The wound had swollen into an impressively large blister, an ugly purple puffy thing that felt tender to touch and flopped about when I walked. I was optimistic it would eventually heal itself, but I hoped I hadn’t done any long term sunburn damage.

Less serious, but more notable, was the transformation my morning stools had undergone, changing from well-formed perfectly normal stools to great heaping country-pancakes that your average 1,000-pound cow would be righteously proud of. The cause was something in my diet no doubt, or some slightly dubious water source, but whatever had started them they seemed determined to continue. The movements always occurred shortly after breakfast, and when they came they added an element of extreme urgency to my otherwise sedate morning routine. I was attempting to camp and leave absolutely no trace, but the size of my creations were making this a little problematical. The ‘cat holes’ I was forced to excavate in the forest floor were more like buffalo holes. And it became essential to prepare these latrine-crevasses the night before because when the need arose in the morning there simply wasn’t time. At this rate I was going to leave a fairly unique 7,000-mile long organic Work Of Art right the way across Europe…

If I made it that far.

After two days in the Sila I reached the small mountain town of San Giovanni in Fiore, hoping to find the post office and collect the first parcel I’d addressed to myself care of general delivery, or fermo posta in Italian. The parcel contained a number of ‘essential’ items that I didn’t expect to easily find along the trail. Among them were three novels (I love to sit in camp and read, and it seemed unlikely I’d find books in English deep in the Apennines), four rolls of Velvia slide film, (Fuji had generously donated 200 rolls for the walk), as well as a collection of dried vegetables, food, and powdered milk. Most importantly, the parcel contained a map for the next stage of the journey. Of all the items in the parcel the map was easily the most essential.

The parcel system had worked flawlessly during my previous two big walks, but the moment I stepped into San Giovanni’s post office I sensed things might not work quite so easily here. The post office was busy. No, that’s an understatement. It was crowded, jam-packed, it was swarming; it was filled to the brim with a jostling jabbering mob of young and old and fat and thin and male and female all pushing and shoving and waving and shouting at once. It could have been an enraged soccer crowd. Or some kind of mad auction. Both the din and the lack of order were deeply impressive. Beyond the mob were four windows and four clerks, but there were no lines leading to them, and there seemed no obvious way of making an approach. Faced with the shoulder-to-shoulder mayhem I wondered if I should grab my ice axe and use it to help clear a path…

But I did my best; after dumping my pack in a corner I worked my way into the crowd. Whenever I saw an opening I eased into it, and although it was very much like swimming upstream, and although I often lost several places because of an inbred English politeness that I couldn’t entirely shake, and although I probably said “sorry” more times than an Italian typically would, I eventually landed slightly disheveled before one of the windows. It had taken 20 minutes, but I’d made it: success!

Except… it wasn’t success. “No,” said the clerk impatiently, tutting at me once I’d explained what it was that I needed. “For Fermo Posta you go there, that window, over there.” And the clerk pointed to a window identical to all the others on the far side of the crowd. She stared at me as though I was an idiot, and a time waster, as though I should have known, and then she promptly waved away. “But,” I asked, smiling sweetly, “Couldn’t you just look for my parcel? Please?” The answer was a glare. It said: no, clearly not. I was waved away again.

So I launched back into the throng, and made it to the correct window a little more swiftly second time round, taking just 15 minutes, thinking that my tactical maneuvering was becoming a little more polished. But the result was much the same. I stood in front of the window designated for collecting mail and was told that there was no mail to collect. The clerk, a short bald old man wearing a grey moustache and an inscrutable death mask, wasn’t remotely interested in handing out mail. “What an idea,” his expression read, as he shook his head, “Hand out mail? Now go away and leave me alone.” Not that he actually said that. What he said was: “There is no mail for you.”

“But how do you know?” I asked, trying not to tear my hair out at his farcical reply, “I haven’t even given you my name yet!”

I held up a piece of paper with the words clearly written: Andrew Terrill, c/o Ufficio Postale Centrale, FERMO POSTA, San Giovanni di Fiore, Calabria, Italia, and with a deep grunt of annoyance he stood up, disappeared from view for a time span just long enough to allow him to scratch his nose, and then reappeared. He looked at me blankly, announced again: “No mail,” and then stared right through me as though I didn’t exist. And that was that: we were done.

To cheer myself up I visited several small shops on the way out of town seeking fresh produce, but unfortunately the only food available was processed, pre-packaged crap. You’d expect that the stores of rural Italy would be laden with healthy locally-grown fruits and vegetables? But not in San Giovanni in May 1997. Perhaps most Calabrians simply grew their own?

My visit to San Giovanni hadn’t been the most successful visit to a mountain town I’d ever had, but fortunately, on the way out, I chanced upon compensation.

It was a pub, an ‘Irish’ pub, of all the unlikely things to find in the mountains of Calabria, and the two pints of perfect stout I lapped up, and the friendly and sympathetic conversations within, eased life considerably. A little buzzed afterwards I weaved back into the forests of the Sila. I had no new maps, no books, no film, no fresh food. But for some inexplicable reason I felt like laughing. “I’m drunk,” I slurred aloud at a passing pine tree, “And I’ve got no apples.” And for some reason this, and the madness of town, and of my current situation, of my trying to walk across an entire continent, set me giggling insanely, and it took at least a mile before I managed to get myself back under complete control.

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May 17th-19th: Quest for a map

Deep in the frenetic hill city of Catanzaro I got my hands upon something that made me uncontainably and inexpressively happy: a decent hiking map. The long detour to Catanzaro that I’d taken on a whim had paid off…

Although I’d grown used to the many unplanned ‘detours’ that had characterized my route through wildest Calabria I was still keen to find a way to avoid them. All I needed was a decent map, but that was something I’d so far failed to attain. For most of my route north, for practically every mile beyond Calabria and Basilicata, I already possessed reasonably detailed topographical maps. I’d bought most of them back in London and had placed them within the re-supply parcels that I’d collect every couple of weeks. But, except for large scale road maps, southern Italy had been one big blank. Rumor had it that accurate topographical maps did exist. Supposedly the Italian Military had commissioned them. But no-one knew how to track them down, not even the specialist map stores in central London who are usually so good at that kind of thing. Nowadays, it would be a piece of cake to find them online, but back in 1997 the internet wasn’t the information power-house it is now. Pre-internet, planning a 7,000-mile trek was an entirely different game.

And so I made do, and relished the walk for what it had became… an adventure. But when I’d walked to within striking distance of Catanzaro I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to leave the highest ground for a day or two on the small chance that there might be a map to be found somewhere in the city.

This ‘planned’ detour led me right down to Calabria’s east coast through deeply forested foothills and narrow side valleys. The scenery was wild and stimulating, but it was marred the closer I came to civilization by the amount of roadside junk. Calabrians, it seem, have two options when disposing of trash: pay someone an exorbitant amount to take it away, or just dump it over the side of the road when no one is looking. Trash piles like these were a regular sight near towns…

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Back beside the sea I spent a fine afternoon walking barefoot along the water’s edge with my boots tied to my backpack. I almost felt like a tourist. I sat beneath palm trees, ate an ice cream, spent leisurely evening hours exploring an ancient and thoroughly ruined monastery that I stumbled upon by chance. The place made for an atmospheric camp.

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I reached Catanzaro the following morning, and it was a shock to the system. I’d grown used to peaceful woodland glades filled with birdsong and quiet hillside villages where time seemed to stand still; Catanzaro was a hot, steamy, pulsating center of seething humanity, filled with noise and motion, where almost 400,000 souls were going about their business right on top of one another. Ugly breeze-block apartment buildings towered side by side, traffic roared, scooters buzzed, people rushed, voices shouted, arms gesticulated, dirt clung, laundry fluttered on a thousand clothes lines stretched across the streets, a labyrinth of narrow alleys twisted uphill and down, music howled, dogs barked. To me it was awe-inspiring for its chaos. To the locals it was just another regular day.

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I settled into an inexpensive hotel held together by dust and grime and deposited my pack; then charged forth into the mayhem. As well as a map I was also seeking food for the next week, but my quest seemed doomed. I found plenty of bars. Bar after bar after bar. And then more bars. And then more still. People here clearly lived off nutrients gained from vino and beer, not food. Inexplicably, whenever I asked for help and directions, no-one seemed to know where a food store might be. After two hours I was flagging in the heat, wilting in the pressing humidity, and just about ready to retreat to my hotel, if I could find my way back to it. But then, by blind luck, I finally arrived at a back-alleys piazza where a small general food store and a fruiterers sat side by side. The dark window displays were half empty, and covered in dust, and were hardly appealing, but I didn’t care: I’d succeeded in one of my tasks: I’d found food! Hoorah!

But of course… both shops were closed.

“They won’t be open until tomorrow morning,” explained a man across the square, who was loitering outside a funeral parlor that in contrast to the food stores was open and waiting for business. I was almost ready for its services. The man that had spoken was the ‘Chief’ Director of Funerals, as he told me, and he was dressed for this important if somber role in faded blue jeans and an extravagantly colorful Hawaiian shirt, which was open at the neck, chest hair spilling out. He invited me into his office for a glass of water.

Signor Funerale explained that he had lived for ten years in Ohio, and was excited to practice his neglected English and tell me all about his previous American life. He had a lot to say, and it was all very interesting, but I found it hard to focus: taped upon his office wall was the very thing I’d been dreaming of for weeks, that I’d detoured to Catanzaro specifically for, that I’d been tramping the streets in search of for two sweaty hours: a hiking map covering the next stage of my walk! It was detailed; it displayed contour lines, hiking paths, mountain springs, official campgrounds; it was filled was the kinds of topographical information that made getting lost next to impossible. It was all I could do to hold myself back from running up to it, tearing it swiftly from the wall, and sprinting away with an exultant scream into the teeming city.

Eventually, I managed to get a word in. I asked about the map, wondered where he’d got it, explained all, and the one-time resident of Ohio shrugged his shoulders casually and said that if I wanted the map it was mine. I was so happy I almost jumped up and hugged him, and kissed both cheeks, but British reserve intervened at the very last second and stopped me from succumbing to such a passionate and probably ill-advised Mediterranean display. But I think the man could tell from my smile just how much his gift meant.

It was happy hiker that sat in his claustrophobic hotel room a little later, cooking over his camp stove, excitedly examining the next week of his life on his new map. Now that I could see where I was going there were so many possibilities to choose from. Almost too many choices! I felt a renewed sense of freedom, a lightening as though a great weight had been lifted.

After dinner I took my first shower since April (and what bliss it was!) and discovered that my ‘suntan’ wasn’t quite as dark as I’d supposed. Sleep was difficult – the hotel bed wasn’t anything like as soft as the forest floor, and the jarring sounds of the city weren’t nearly as lulling as a mountain brook – but there were no complaints. And there were no complaints the next morning when the map revealed straight off that it, too, wasn’t quite as accurate as it could have been. But it didn’t matter! The topographical detail meant the problem could easily be fixed, and fixed it soon was, and later that night as I rested in camp in a lush side valley that I’d navigated to without difficulty I positively chuckled with excitement for all that lay ahead.

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The next range to cross were the Sila Mountains, where snow, apparently, still lay. Snow! A decent map! More mountains! Things were looking up…

May 16th – 17th: I wouldn’t go that way…

Sometimes, the direction a long distance walker wants to go, and the direction a long distance walker is allowed to go, aren’t the same. As it proved two day’s running in roughest Calabria…

The first time it happened it was the Carabinieri, the military police, who ‘suggested’ a change of route. They did so while I was making an approach to a forested mountain range which looked as though it would grant several miles of delightfully remote wilderness passage. The Carabinieri were on patrol, driving down from the hills along the exceptionally narrow mud road that I was walking up. When I became aware of their vehicle approaching I waved to be sure I’d been seen, then stepped to the side of the road and leaned back into dense vegetation, hoping they’d have enough room to ease passed. Turned out there was plenty of room, but they didn’t pass. They pulled level; they stopped.

A window hummed slowly open and two dark faces peered out, middle-aged, mustachioed, officious-looking, serious. The face of the policeman nearest me, the passenger, was roundish and bald, and it began talking rapidly, asking quick-fire questions in a concerned voice, but I could only make out the occasional word. Nor, it seemed, could the policeman understand my replies. Neither man had any English; neither man seemed able to remotely comprehend the simple explanation of my walk when I offered it in Italian. Norway? Walking? I might as well have been explaining a hike to the moon. Abruptly, they demanded my passport, and both took turns inspecting it carefully for several long minutes, leafing through it again and again, examining it from different angles as though it might reveal more if looked at upside down. And while this was going on I stood aside waiting peaceably, leisurely crunching an apple, trying to look thoroughly bored and unconcerned.

Eventually my passport was handed back. But they weren’t done. The Carabinieri seemed determined to have me understand something important.

“Questi boschi,” they said, gesturing up at the woods, “Molto pericoloso,” followed by, “Criminali, molti criminali.” They pointed down at their own guns, and up again at the woods. “Criminali.” Pericolosi!” The meaning was becoming clear. I pulled out my pocket-sized English-Italian dictionary to confirm, and handed it to them. For the next two minutes the book was passed back and forth; words were pointed out, and the message, it seemed, was this: “These woods are very dangerous. There are many criminals up there. Men with guns. We must insist you go another way.”

I wasn’t sure I completely believed them but… what choice did I have? I went another way.

The very next day, on the edge of another wild set of hills, a similar event occurred. Only, this time it wasn’t uniformed policemen who turned me back.

It happened at the end of another dirt road where a promising trail looked as though it began. Parked at road’s end were two large SUV’s, and resting against the SUV’s were two impressively bulked up men, dressed in heavy suites, leaning casually with arms crossed, looking thoroughly out of place in so wild a location as this. They looked up as I approached, stepped forward to block the trail, and I came to a halt: I had to… the way was barred. Both men were smiling with apparent warmth as they spoke, as they asked the kind of questions I was now growing well used to: where was I from? What was I doing? Where was I going? They seemed friendly enough, and genuinely interested in the journey, but when I pointed beyond them to the trail that I wished to follow and made as if to move that way they crossed their arms again and stood like rocks, shaking their heads slowly.

One of the men spoke a little English. “Nooo… no-no,” he said, using a deep and wonderfully melodic voice. He smiled easily, but shook his head again firmly. “It is… ah… better you go another way.” He stared at me earnestly, sincerely; there was something half resigned, half pleading in his eyes. “Believe me,” he said finally, with real emphasis.

And so…

…I went another way.

What would you have done?

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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May 9th – May 11th: Paradise Glade

In the best, time-honored tradition of a stuffy nineteenth-century explorer, and for the simple childish pleasure of it, I gave every wild camp a name…

The walk’s first camp was ‘Cuckoo Ridge’, named for the bird calls that echoed from the ridge above my tent. The second was ‘The Snow Patch Camp’, named for the first – but by no means last – snow patch of the journey. The third was the ‘Where The F*** Am I Camp’, a name which clearly indicates my state on mind while lost for 48 hours in the Aspromonte. Other names had so far been: ‘The Terrace’, ‘The-Camp-Of -The-Seeping-Ooze’, ‘Brown Water’, ‘Windy Gorge’, and ‘Gunshot Wood’. And then there was my favorite camp so far: ‘Paradise Glade’…

I reached Paradise Glade at the end of an especially taxing day. It had begun early, with that mysterious shout and burst of gunfire, and it had involved some hard forest bushwacking, followed by even harder walking along roads, being lost (twice), and a full twenty-two mile sweatfest of solid up-and-down effort beneath the enervating Calabrian sun.

The day hadn’t really gone to plan, although, to be honest, the day hadn’t really had a plan. Few of my days did. For the entire journey I had a vague route prepared, and most days began with a possible destination in mind, but in truth each day was mostly just a case of get up, walk in roughly the right direction, figure out the details on the hoof, stop when I feel like it, walk some more, and camp when I find somewhere good to camp. This walk wasn’t like following an official way-marked trail, divided into obvious day stages, with obvious places to camp. Mostly, there was no trail, and no obvious stages. Each day could be exactly what I wanted it to be; each day was a ‘make-it-up-as-I-go’ affair. This, of course, was one of the attractions; this was where the freedom and adventure lay. But still… some days didn’t go quite as smoothly as others, and so when I write ‘it didn’t go to plan’ what I really mean is: ‘if I’d had a plan, it sure as hell wouldn’t have been this!’

As usual, most of the fun came about because of my map’s ‘inconsistencies’, and that’s describing the map’s shortcomings politely. (And it honestly wasn’t my navigation.) On this occasion, I passed through a small settlement, a place clearly marked on the map, but the road from it behaved in a way not even remotely hinted at on paper, weaving southeast instead of northeast, heading downhill instead of up. Of course, I was growing well used to this type of thing by now, so sought help from three road-workers I bumped into a mile further, who were inexplicably digging a deep hole right in the middle of the road.

“Which way back into the mountains?” I asked. “Which way Monte Crocco?”

I stood back while the three workers began an animated discussion among themselves, with lots of extravagant hand gestures, and head-scratching, and raised voices, until they finally agreed on a direction. Two of them pointed one way; the third stubbornly pointed the other. “Grazie.” I said, “Thank you,” and moved on.

The road down which two of the workers had pointed led back into the mountains, for a while, but then it swerved away, and after that slowly dipped towards the ocean. I stuck with it because it ‘kind of’ matched a road on my map (just the way my map ‘kind of’ matched a map), and because I wasn’t in the mood for retracing my steps, and because the forests here were far too tangled for cross-country travel, but eventually – after many hours – it was obvious it wasn’t taking me where I wanted to be taken. And by then it was far too late.

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By late afternoon I was practically down at sea level and not – as ‘planned’ – up a mountain at 4,000 feet. Down here conditions were significantly hotter and strikingly more Mediterranean. There were palm trees and cacti, and strange green lizards with blue heads. There was a long and evil-looking black snake, which slithered away into the roadside jungle. Still, I was here, and I decided to make the best of it. A large town lay ahead, and I needed to re-supply anyway…

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The town was the most interesting and attractive I’d so far visited, filled with twisting side streets and ancient buildings. It seemed a place of two halves: there were signs of great wealth and affluence, and many signs of real poverty. I found myself wondering how the wealthy side made their money. The main street was bustling, with folks young and old going about their business: old women dressed in black carrying bags of food, a group of high-spirited boys playing soccer, old men sitting on crumbling steps and street-corner chairs, gossiping, watching the world go by. The only people who seemed out-of-place (apart from me) were three men walking down the street in my direction. All three were dressed in severe-looking business suites that must have felt exceedingly uncomfortable on so hot a day as this; all three were wearing hard and serious ‘don’t-mess-with-us-we-are-in-charge’ expressions; all three might have been plucked straight from a Godfather movie. Some idiot inside of me decided it would be a hoot to try and get a conversation going with them, and as they drew level this idiot piped up before I could stop him. “Buongiorno” he offered, in a light, friendly voice… before promptly wishing he hadn’t. Only one of the men turned to answer – Scar Face we’ll call him – and the eyes he used that bore into mine were cold, hard and utterly without welcome. Everything necessary was communicated with a single look. And the look said: “Don’t… ever… speak… to… us… again.”

Lesson learned. Don’t try to engage the mafia in conversation. Right.

By contrast, all the store keepers I spoke with while gathering supplies were exceptionally friendly, with questions-questions-questions: where was I from, what I was doing, why was I doing it? Foreigners, it seemed, where fairly uncommon here. Foreign hikers, traveling to Norway just by foot, even more so. For a short while it was fun being the center of attention.

It was less fun after I’d finished shopping. Because I was hungry I visited four different ‘supermarkets’, and because I was hungry I ended up purchasing four times the amount of food I needed. As I sat outside afterwards, amid many bags of food, sorting through it all, I came to realize a group of men had surrounded me. They seemed friendly enough, and easy-going, and were full of questions, but several of the questions seemed a little… loaded. “Are you traveling alone?” One asked, smiling. “Where are you going next” Asked another, also smiling. “Camping? Where are you camping?” Asked a third. “What do you do for money?” Enquired a fourth. “Do you carry it all?”

Now, perhaps these were all perfectly reasonable questions, but still…

Breathing carefully, I explained: “No, I’m not alone. There are seven of us. The others are waiting for me in the woods just outside town. It was my turn to come and get food. Just look at it all!” (And here I was glad I’d bought so much; who’d think all this was just for one person?) “Isn’t it shocking how much food costs now! I just spent everything I had…” And happily, my explanation did the trick.

The road from town was uneventful, just long, steep and exceptionally tiring. No-one followed me of course. Had I really thought anyone would? Who’d rob a scruffy, trail-scented vagabond?

Progress was slow with the extra supplies I carried. I couldn’t fit all the food into my pack, so it remained in plastic bags and I carried them in my hands the way one does on a city street when one only has a few short blocks to walk, not five more miles. My arms stretched out by several inches over the next two hours. I would have stopped sooner, but there really was nowhere realistic, or discretely hidden, to camp. Eventually I was back above 3,000 feet, and as soon as the jungles gave way to open beech woods I left the road and sought a spot for camp. It still took a while, water was scarce, but eventually I found a place… and what a place it was…

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It was forest glade, a gently sloping valley amid a sheltering stand of beech. A small spring at one end gushed forth a narrow stream of crystal water, and this little stream curved seductively through the glade, a twisting ribbon of silver light and murmuring song. The woodland floor was a soft mattress of leaves, of moss, of delicate flowers, onto which sunlight spilled from the canopy above, sending bright spotlights dancing. Birds sang, the way woodland birds do, their calls echoing through the trees, amplified by the quietness. The whole place had to it an atmosphere of calm, of secretiveness, of seductiveness, of great sacredness. It was a glade of emerald light; by far the most bewitching and hauntingly beautiful spot of the journey so far. I didn’t need to walk any further. A paradise it truly was. Naming it was easy.

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Paradise Glade proved almost impossible to leave. I slept late the next morning upon my soft woodland mattress, and once awake decided to stay put for the entire day, to soak it all in. I had a mountain of food to get through anyway; better eat it than carry it. So I spent hours sitting in near-silence in the cool green shade, feasting on fresh bread and fruit, reading, practicing my Italian, relaxing, just sitting, looking, listening, and above all feeling, letting the balm of the place sink in deep. I did some chores, washed some clothes, hung them up to dry, lit a small and carefully controlled fire, lay on my back for hours, staring upwards through the shimmering canopy to blue sky beyond. This was why I was here. I wasn’t doing this walk for the walking… I was doing it for the moments of being still.

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Tearing myself away the following morning was, if anything, even harder, but eventually I pushed myself on. This place was exceptional, magical… but there was one guarantee that would keep me moving: there’d be many more places like it to find and enjoy…

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May 9th: A ‘cracking’ start to the day

Friday May 9th 1997 began in a memorable way…

You might say, with a bang…

Shortly before six that morning I was curled in my sleeping bag, the tent pitched many miles from anyone and anywhere, all alone, deep in the woods. Birds were probably singing. The first silver light of day was probably spilling through the trees. No that I was aware of the new day… I was still unconscious, lost within the kind of deep sleep that’s almost like death itself. But not for much longer…

One second I was asleep; the very next I was shockingly awake, adrenaline coursing through my veins. The reason: a loud shout had just occurred, followed by several gunshots, from somewhere horribly, horribly close: CRACK… CRACK… CRACKCRACKCRACK… followed by… nothing… just absolute… throbbing… silence.

I must have jerked awake into a sitting position because that’s how I found myself, without memory of sitting up. Hidden within my tent I couldn’t see anything outside, but I could listen, and I could wonder. And so I listened, and wondered, without moving, without barely even breathing, for long minutes, ears straining, finding nothing to hear. Even the birds had shut up. But the sound of the gunshots still seemed to echo through the trees. Questions raced through my mind: hunters? Should I call out in case they were still hunting? In case they hadn’t seen my tent, green as the surrounding forest? I didn’t want to catch a stray bullet, shot by accident. But why the shout? Hunters don’t normally shout right before shooting, do they? What if it wasn’t hunters? Someone out for target practice, surely? But why would anyone have ventured deep into the woods at dawn, to shoot for fun? And the shout? Something about the shout was unsettling. There had been no meaningful words that I could recall. It had just been… loud… piercing… more of a shriek. There was something… un-nerving… and not quite right, about the whole thing.

Now, I don’t know how you would have felt, but I can tell you that being entirely alone in a forest in wildest Calabria at dawn near persons unknown who had guns and had just used them didn’t make me feel especially… comfortable. It was a bloody effective alarm clock, though.

I waited ten more minutes, by which time the birds had resumed singing, and then – ever so quietly, and ever so swiftly – I packed up camp, and stole almost on tiptoes through the trees, with every sense alert. After less than a minute I came upon a narrow dirt road that I hadn’t been aware of, and perhaps a hundred and fifty feet down it where the road apparently ended, to my left, were three brand-spanking new SUV’s, parked. The vehicles looked thoroughly out of place in the woods; I hadn’t seen anything like them since beginning the walk. Every other car and truck had been old, beat up. But these were spotless, gleaming, jet black all over, with black tinted windows, too. There was no-one about, so I darted promptly across the road, merged into the trees beyond, and disappeared like a shadow back into the embrace of the sheltering woods.

It took a while before my heart-rate slowed to an acceptable level. And I didn’t stop for breakfast until a good few miles had passed.

May 5th-May 8th: You can’t always get what you want…

Aside

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…

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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!

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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.

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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…

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