May 24th: In no particular hurry

Often, on big multi-month walks, I fail to make the daily progress I intend. Sometimes it’s because unexpectedly harsh weather or terrain slows me down or forces a change of plan. Sometimes it’s because cartographical inconsistencies lead me astray, a common occurrence in Calabria. And sometimes it’s because I’m essentially a lazy bugger and the reason I like to walk far is because walking far creates the perfect excuse to sit around and not walk at all.

But the most common reason I have for falling short of daily goals is that I have a genetically programmed inability to walk past a perfect camp spot. Stumble upon one, even if I’ve only been walking for an hour or two, and there’s usually no way I can walk past. This is exactly what happened in the Sila…

The plan when I set out early on the walk’s twenty-fourth morning was to climb off trail through beech woods for a couple of hours to the 6325-foot summit of Monte Botte Donato, the highest point in the Sila Range, and then spend the rest of the day pushing north, finishing late afternoon many miles further on. To begin with all went to plan. The climb was swift and straight-forward; the beech woods were unusually open and accessible, and I was spared the kind of epic struggle through a web of tangled branches that I’d grown used to. The only tense moment came when I stumbled upon three wild boar. They were huge, dark, hairy, muscular beasts, fairly intimidating at first glance, but so must I have been: one whiff of my trail scent and they were off, crashing away through the undergrowth like runaway bulldozers.

When I reached the wooded summit ridge I was delighted to find deep snow lying on the forest floor. All the beech trees were now in full leaf, and it was an unusual but not unappealing sight: a gleaming snow-pack on the ground, backlit leaves shimmering in emerald light above. Less delightful was the unexpected sight of a ski area cutting through the far side of the forest. The map had given no hint that it existed, and all the ugly clutter and junk of ski tows and rusty cables and half-broken fences seriously detracted from the naturalness of the forest. Fortunately, it was only a small ski area, and happily, it was easily left behind.

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It was on the far side of the mountain that I found the spot. Just beneath the six-thousand foot contour the slope leveled off to form a sheltered bowl, a secret woodland sanctuary, and something about the place stopped me dead. It had an atmosphere all of its own, a strong sense of place, a feeling that it wasn’t just another part of a forested mountain but a unique location standing apart. Snow was piled around its sides but the woodland floor right in the middle was snow free. The ground there was a soft mattress of fallen leaves, through which beautiful blue flowers were growing. It was… deeply inviting.

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I dropped my pack, and lingered in stillness for a moment. I breathed in the rich woodland scents, heady with damp earth and clean air and growing plants. Silver sunbeams chased through the leafy canopy overhead, countless birds were singing, and there was no sign that anyone had ever stood there before. I’d only walked two hours, and should be pushing on for another seven or eight, but… how could I? This what I’d come for. Places just like this.

I wasn’t on this walk to cover 7,000 miles as swiftly as possible, or to walk to a rigid schedule, or to cover a set number of miles every day. I wasn’t undertaking this walk to set any records, or to push the limits of human endurance, or to do something never before done. This wasn’t about bragging rights afterwards; it was about experience at the time. This journey wasn’t about rushing through the landscape, but about not rushing; it wasn’t about collecting places: it was about truly seeing them, honestly feeling them. This journey was all about moving with a natural rhythm and stopping when and where it seemed natural to stop. This walk was about moments of wonder; about being available and open to make the most of such rare and priceless moments whenever they occurred. This woodland bowl was definitely a place of wonder, and there was no way I could walk on. I began emptying my pack…

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I spent the rest of the afternoon wallowing in the place, loosing myself to the sights, sounds and scents of it. I sat, I explored, I touched, I rummaged. I examined the details: the insect life on the woodland floor at my feet; the texture of beech bark; the patterns of light made by individual leaves dancing in the breeze. And the more I looked the more I found. The more I opened myself the more I experienced. Soon I found myself filled with a growing calmness and an incredible sense of joy. I felt a thrilling elation, a sense of immense fulfillment. It was like I was home… more at home than I ever was back in London. Odd as it sounds, it was exactly like being in love, and being loved back.

Perhaps I could have walked 25 miles a day, and completed my journey in 9 or 10 months. But it wouldn’t have been the same journey. It wouldn’t have been the same at all…

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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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