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.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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…