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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