On May 25th I walked off the map. But I had to laugh: how many travelers honestly get a chance to say that?
For the past six days I’d been crossing the Sila Mountains, and life had been good. The walking had been easy, at least by Calabrian standards, and the wild camps had been near perfect. I’d found a small but well-stocked food store in the heart of the range, and had eaten heartedly. And the detailed map I’d acquired back in Catanzaro had eased progress significantly. But now, with the Sila crossed, and the map stretching no further, and with my replacement maps lost in the mail somewhere between London and San Giovanni’s anarchic post office, the journey was about to become, once again, more… complicated.
Which, as I tried to tell myself, was one of the reasons I was doing it.
But then again… getting lost in tangled underbrush, in the heat of the day, with mosquitoes whining about my head, and with sweat pouring, and with my pack getting all snagged up, and with angry dogs barking and frequently running up, and with drinking water hard to come by, and with my left leg hurting more than ever… it’s just that… well… all of that wasn’t quite as much fun as it sounds!
There was nothing for it but to retreat to the roads and try to make progress relying on local advice. At least I possessed a road map covering the whole of Italy, although the ridiculously large scale of it – 1:1,250,000 – didn’t show a tremendous amount of useful topographic detail. But it was better than nothing, and using this I trekked from town to town, following directions from everyone I could find. Not all the directions were reliable, and there were many wrong turns. But at least my Italian was improving, and at least I was engaging the locals in conversation instead of stealing past unobserved through the woods. I treasured the expressions of doubt and confusion I caused upon Calabrian faces when I opened each conversation with: “Excuse me. Could you give me directions? You see, I’m trying to walk to Norway…”
On the morning of May 26th, bedraggled after a hot and steamy forest camp, and frustrated after several turns had lead to dead ends, I came upon the first outlying house of a small village, in front of which three people stood. I stopped and spoke to them, partly to ask directions, and partly to put off walking further down the road to the village where a pack of mean-looking dogs were running about, snarling and snapping at passing cars.
At first I had to answer the usual questions about the walk, and deal with the usual incredulity, and listen to the usual advice. “You’ve been walking through these woods? Here in Calabria? On your own? That is very, very dangerous! There are many bandits. And there is The Family too…”
Eventually I managed to get to my question, “Where does this road lead?” But no-one from the group knew, they were visitors like me. One of them went inside to ask the ‘Lady of the House’, and a serious-faced middle-aged woman dressed entirely in black came out. She peered at my map, frowned, shook her head, waved down a passing car, asked the driver, and after a long and impressively passionate argument she turned back to me and told me to get in, the driver would take me down the road as far as I needed to go. (I suspect that he hadn’t been given a choice.)
It was quite an offer, but my explanation of: “Thank you… but I have to walk… no cars allowed…” was for some reason exceptionally difficult to get across.
Eventually, however, I had the directions I needed, and was just about to depart when the Lady of the House called me back. “But have you had your breakfast yet?” she inquired, with motherly concern in her voice, and even though I assured her I had she told me to wait. I waited… and ten minutes later she re-emerged and pushed a heavy, bulging plastic bag into my hands. “For you.” she urged, “Because you have such a long way to go.” And then she looked hard at me and spoke again with real emphasis, as though she still couldn’t quite believe it. “Because you are so… alone!”
I ate my second breakfast a mile further on, contentedly reclining in the shade of an olive grove out of sight of the road. I emptied out the bag, laughing as the spoils spilled across the ground. Revealed were: two cans of fruit juice, two large chunks of cheese, two packets of sliced salami, an assortment of biscuits, a slice of fruit cake, a tin of tuna, some more cheese, in thin slices, a bottle of orange soda, four slices of freshly-baked bread wrapped in tin foil, and… a bottle of beer!
I started with the beer.
Calabrians, I decided, may not always be the best people to ask for directions, but they weren’t so bad when it came down to it…