I will blog again…

My apologies for the silence; for beginning this blog and then for vanishing off the face of the earth. I’m not in the habit of starting something and not finishing it. And finish this story I shall. It just may take longer than I had at first planned…

When I began this blogging ‘journey’ I fully intended to see it through to the end, just as when I took the walk’s first step I had every intention of taking the last. Back in 1997 life was simple: I only had myself to consider, and there were no distractions on hand powerful enough to pull me from the path I’d chosen. But now, in contrast, life is not simple but full; the path I’ve chosen is no longer a solitary one, and there are distractions aplenty all around! There is my wife, for example, and my two small children, with whom I willingly and joyfully share much of each day. And there is my business, a small freelance entity of no great importance, but a business that suddenly began growing over the summer and demanded more of my time and attention than I’d anticipated. For most of my adult life I’ve been a financially challenged wanderer; but a change to that isn’t necessarily an unwelcome thing!

And then, of course, there is the distraction of the mountains that I live beneath – the Colorado Rockies – and I found myself spending more time amongst them this summer than I had planned. I walked, ran, backpacked, and sometimes just looked… alone, and in company, with family, with friends. All of this – the mountains, work, my family – filled each day this summer to the brim, and I didn’t have the time spare for writing that I’d hoped. Something had to give; something had to be given up. What was I to do: write about mountain adventures of old, or live mountain adventures anew? What would you have done?

But I WILL return to this blog and pick up where I left off. There is a great deal I wish to share: so many stories, so many photographs, so many remarkable places, and so many emotions. First, however, there is a project I have to complete, and this may take a while. So bear with me… and please accept my apologies. If I fail to blog again before next June, don’t be too surprised.

But I will tell more…

Advertisements

Mid June: Not all directions are created equal…

So, what had I discovered about the Southern Apennines after 50 days traversing them on foot? Well, for one thing, I’d learnt that the human inhabitants of the range didn’t always know their own landscape quite as well as you might expect…

I was in a village called Volturara. It was a rough, tumbledown place hewn from the bones of the huge limestone giant it sat hidden beneath, Monte Terminio. It was a Sunday, and I was seated in shade beside a small water fountain on the edge of a large piazza, looking across to a crumbling stone church that looked a thousand years old. Or maybe it was only a few hundred; in this earthquake ravaged region even new buildings can quickly take on the characteristics of the ancient. The piazza was bustling with people: women, immaculately dressed in dark Sunday finery, heading to church; men, more roughly turned out, standing in small groups, talking, watching the world breeze by; and children and dogs, tattered and scruffy to the last, running about in the sun, chasing one another exuberantly. For once I wasn’t surrounded by inquisitive locals; I was an observer, not an active participant, and it was heavenly to have a chance to lean back with an empty-mind and simply watch.

My destination lay in the next valley, beyond Monte Terminio, across a wild set of sun-blasted hills. Trouble was, I didn’t know how best to get there. The map, in typical Southern Apennine fashion, was a thing of creative imagination, not a document of factual accuracy. It gave few genuine leads to follow, and experiences from the preceding 50 days meant I was in no rush to follow them.

Eventually, an old man strolled casually by, and paused to talk. He was dressed in the rough clothes of an outdoorsman, and he explained that he had lived in Volturara for 78 years. He looked… calm, and knowledgeable… even wise, and I thought to myself that if anyone could help me with accurate directions surely this man could.

“Which is the best way to reach Santa Stefano di Sole?” I asked. “Which road should I take?”

“Santa Stefano?” He replied right away, “You want to start on that road.” And he pointed to the far corner of the square, and then beyond it to another road that snaked upwards away from the village.

“You are certain?” I checked, and my local guide nodded with cheerful certainty.

The road was narrow and cobbled, and once upon it I discovered it twisted about like a disturbed snake. Another old man, completely toothless, was sitting on stone steps beneath the last house right where the village came to an end. Once again, I asked for directions, just to be sure: “Santa Stefano?” I asked, pointing up the road, and the man answered with an unforgettably enigmatic grin that I later cursed. “Si, si, si,” he nodded vigorously, “Santa Stefano, heh heh heh!”

And so on I went.

It was shaping up to be another blazingly hot day, and walking uphill in the full blast of the sun with a large pack strapped to my back wasn’t an especially comfortable occupation. My face soon felt flushed, and in no time I was pouring sweat, my eyes stinging from the salt of it. The baking road torched the soles of my feet, and my limbs grew heavy and lethargic. Visions of crystal-clear mountain streams and ice-cold lakes drifted through my mind. I let myself enjoy them, and saw myself surrounded by dew-laden meadows steaming with cool morning mist, and sun-dappled pine forests sitting peacefully beneath snow-clad peaks. I imagined myself lying back in a small upland pool, floating gently like a star, feeling a delicious chill enveloping my body, soothing away the heat and effort…

And then I came to, and refocused on the harsh reality surrounding me: the sun-baked limestone hills of Monte Terminio, blinding with reflected light, and fiercely burning Mezzogiorno sun. Oh how easy it would have been to have simply stopped, and rested, for hours… for days! But instead I told myself that I had to keep going; it was only June and surely it was going to grow hotter in July and August. So I pushed on, but slowly, pausing for short breaks every mile or so, easing off boots to air burning feet, drinking carefully from my water bottle at every opportunity. At least, I told myself, I was heading the right way. The last thing one would want to do on a day like this was to walk in the wrong direction and gain unnecessary height…

After roughly four miles and a thousand feet of ascent I came upon two men, standing beside the road and their car in the shade cast by an umbrella pine. My shirt was drenched with sweat, and the shade looked indescribably inviting. I didn’t hesitate when the men beckoned me over. Goodness it was hot! “Fa caldo!” I gasped, and both men agreed, laughing. One of the men stared down the valley, and blew a shrill whistle, summoning his dog. Apparently it had been gone for most of the morning, and possibly it was lost. The second man had come out to help with the search.

“And where are you going anyway?” The second man asked, once the whistle had been blown again.

“Santa Stefano,” I answered, sleepily.

“Not on this road you’re not,” came the swift reply, and suddenly I felt wide awake. “You want that valley, away over there.” And suddenly, it seemed, all the birds stopped singing at once. It was too hot to have gone wrong. Surely not! After all, I’d asked directions… twice!

“You’re sure?” I asked, praying that they were just playing some joke, that I wouldn’t have to retrace over two hours of hard won progress.

“Si. We are sure. This road… it goes nowhere. Just up to Monte Terminio and then… finito, finish. The woods are too rough. There is no way through.”

The dismay I felt must have registered on my face because the owner of the missing dog took pity on me. “If you wait, we will show you the correct way. Just wait for my dog.” And amazingly, right on cue, up it bounded, dripping mud, wearing a suitably apologetic grin upon its slightly idiotic face. “Right, we go now…”

The correct route to Santa Stefano lay seven miles away, down to Volturara, and then up the next valley. When driven by car this immense distance seemed like nothing at all. The dog owner, Franco, finally pulled his car over. “Allora… well then, I can drop you here, or I can take you another ten kilometers closer to Santa Stefano, if you would like?” He looked at me enquiringly.

“Well, actually,” I said, and to increasingly incredulous expressions I began explaining my walk, and its one simple rule, that I had to cover every single mile by foot, that I needed to leave an unbroken line of steps behind me, with no interruptions to it, with no cars, no trains, no buses…

“Um,” I murmured, “Could just take me back to Volturara, so that I can start again from there?”

Both men looked at me as though they thought me insane. Clearly, the midday sun had fried my brain! But, kindly, they did as I asked… and then, wasting no time, shaking their heads, they drove swiftly away.

Back in the large Piazza in Volturara I flopped down into the shade exactly where I’d previously sat. I hadn’t walked nearly 700 miles to have my continuous line of footsteps broken by a bad set of directions. I was going to walk every step, no matter what happened!

And so, three hours after leaving the square for the first time, and with the day even hotter, I set out again, and this time in the right direction.

Or so I hoped!

June 4th-9th: Basilicata, and beyond

Leaving the airy heights of the Pollino was a wrench, as usual. Discovering and exploring such places was one of the reasons for being on the walk, but leaving them, I could see, was going to be one of its curses. Moving on, always moving on, is what makes a long walk a long walk. But when you‘re in a place as perfect as the Pollino moving on can be hard.

On the other hand, if I didn’t get going I’d never find out what lay over the next hill and pass, or discover what lay in wait in the next valley. Undoubtedly, great riches lay ahead, and if I sat in the Pollino for the next 17 months (as I could!) I’d never unearth them. It occurred to me that there was a life lesson in this, something along the lines of: “Enjoy to the full what you have when you have it, but when the time is right don’t cling to it and hold yourself back, let yourself move on.” And so, a little reluctantly at first, I did.

With the Pollino behind I weaved downhill through sun-dappled beech and oak woods that reminded me of the woods I’d traversed during the walk’s first week. On the northern edge of the Pollino I passed a sign: “NO CAMPING IN THE PARK” it said. Oops. But who’d have thought it? A mountain wilderness that you’re not allowed to enjoy and experience by night? Well, I’d broken the rules, but I’d done no harm, had disturbed no wildlife, and had taken immense care to leave no sign of my passing. Morally, I couldn’t believe I’d done anything wrong…

Wild land belongs to everyone. It’s our birthright, our truest home, by day and by night. Closed wild land is an abomination. In popular areas rules and regulations are often necessary to preserve the integrity of a place, to ensure we don’t love a mountain or a forest to death, or damage flora or fauna we’re not even aware of, and I accept this, but when it comes to the wild a part of me will always rail against rules and regulations. I’ll admit it: I’ve jumped fences to reach wild landscapes, slept where sleeping is banned, walked where walking is disallowed. If a landscape isn’t farmed, and isn’t filled with livestock, and isn’t obviously going to suffer for my being there, then it’s fair game for exploration, ‘private-keep-out-no-admittance’ signs or not. I’m a serial trespasser, and over the years I’d become very good at it. And this ability to trespass and camp discretely served me well on my long walk across Europe, especially in the southern Apennines.

No camping in the Pollino? The three nights in the Pollino were the highlight of the south.

Anyway…

I was now in Basilcata, passing through its western regions, with Campania lying just a few days ahead. Wildest Calabria instantly seemed like ancient history. Basilicata looked different, felt different. Instead of endless rolling forests here we had a greater variety of landscapes: deep gorges, open farmland, grassy uplands, steep-sided mountains, craggy limestone ridges, deep valleys, attractive hill-top villages. Here, the rural areas were tidier, more prosperous. The olive groves and orchards were clearly better cared for; they were less tangled, they were cleared of thorns and scrub. In towns, buildings were cleaner, sporting bright white walls and well-maintained red-tiled roofs. And there were many more woodland paths to walk, and more tracks to follow up to the high mountains, and once up there more wide-open spaces to cross. For a long-distance wanderer, it was a far easier place to walk.

Some things hadn’t changed, of course. The midday sun still shone with fierce determination, my pack still hung heavy on tired shoulders, uphill still felt like uphill! Discrete camps still took some effort to make, mosquitoes and ants still whined and crawled through the nights, dogs remained a frequent snarling hassle, and maps remained challengingly inaccurate. I was still asked: “Dove vai, dove vai?” over and over and over, a thousand times a day. “Where are you going, where are you going?” And everywhere I went the locals still stared, stared, and stared some more. A full ten-hour day, with the many adventures great and small that filled it, still left me physically exhausted by the end, and my left foot still hurt; it still gave intense stabbing pain when I caught it badly, as though a bone was broken somewhere inside. So… some things hadn’t changed, but that’s just the way they were. These hardships, discomforts and difficulties didn’t seem so important any more. The further I walked the less I noticed them. Being hot, tired, thirsty, and all the rest… I wasn’t going to let such trivial matters spoil everything else I had. They were are small price to pay for my freedom, an inconsequential fee for the amazing natural beauty that filled every moment of every day.

It seemed like there was a life lesson there, too. “Don’t focus on the bad, focus only on the good. And if you do, you might sometimes forget the bad exists.”

One small incident illustrates this. Towards the end of a draining twenty-six mile day I came to a small village, famished and desperately trail-worn. I could have stopped a couple of hours earlier that afternoon at the first official campground I’d come upon in weeks, but I was out of food, and the campground store was woefully empty. So, pulling on reserves I didn’t know I had, I pushed on to the next village, and grinned and grinned and GRINNED once there as I walked around the small supermarket, plucking items from shelves as though I hadn’t eaten in weeks. Afterwards, I collapsed outside, foot-sore, sweat-soaked, weary indeed. But I didn’t focus on that. Instead, I focused on nothing but the simple goods I’d just acquired.

This is exactly how I scribbled it in my diary that night:

Late afternoon I reached a supermarket. Oh joy! JOY! Food! FOOD! Fully stocked up, with fresh milk, fruit, cereal (after a breakfast-less morning), bread, chocolate, and more, I sat outside, looking up at dark storm clouds building over the mountains. But let it rain! Hah! Let the storms do their worst! Thunder, lightning, torrents: I don’t care, I’ve got food, and that’s all and everything I need!

After 550 miles I was living in the moment, focusing on what I had; my needs and pleasures were now very basic!

……………………………………………………………..

Some photos from Basilicata & Campania:

Image

A bank of poppies and daisies above Piani Montessano, Sulla Marcellana, Basilicata

Image

A typical hillside village, Basilicata

Image

And a typical village alley

Image

Looking ahead to Monte Sirino, Basilicata

Image

Apeninne perfection!

Image

Monte Pollino, seen from Monte Sirino, above morning valley fog

Image

Monte Alpi seen from Monte Sirino

Image

Not the best photo by any shot (!) but a blurred picture of a wild boar, dashing away…

Image

Monte Sirino, Basilicata. Spot the sheep and shepherd if you can!

Image

Looking to the summit of Monte Sirino, from another limestone top.

Image

Farm land, Basilicata

Image

Monte Motola, Basilicata

Image

The deep limestone valley of the Sammaro Gorge

Image

Looking down the Sammaro Gorge

Image

Poppies on the floor of an apple orchard, location of one of my discrete camps

Image

Village of Campagna, Campania, beneath steep forested hills.

Image

My weaving route north evolved of it’s own accord and carried me all the way to Campania’s west coast. It was worth it, for two quiet nights listening to waves, and for this sunset.

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…

Image

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.

Image

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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…

Image

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…

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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…

Image