“Oh hi Ursula, I haven’t seen you for ages. Any chance you can housesit for me in November?”
“Sorry, I’m going away, doing the next big walk”
“Oh yeah, I heard something. How long are you going to be away for? You’ll be back by Christmas though won’t you?”
“No, it’s going to be two years”
“Yeah, I’m going to hitchhike to Kiev and walk back to Britain”
“It’s about 4000 miles”
Cue a stunned silence with a strong and irritating possibility that I’ll be called mad or crazy (an irritation I keep meaning to write a longer blog post about).
It’s conversations like this that make me realise I may not have been all that clear about what I’m doing. It all exists in my head – the route, the things I know about where I’m going, the list of kit I need to take, my online research. I’ve had this idea for three years now, since before the end of the last one. I’m going to walk across Europe.
Well, the answer varies according to my mood. Right now, today, three weeks before I’m due to leave, the only reason I’m doing this is because I said I would. Because I’ve told everyone. Because I’m too prideful not to. But it’s more than that, it always is. I can’t bear to stay, to be alone turning 40 while people grow their families around me. I’ve created a life with leaving in mind, no permanent home, no career, no permanent committed partnership. If I was to change my mind and stay I’d be trying to mould a different life out of what I’ve got and I’m not sure it would satisfy me. Then there’s the fact that I can’t bear not to go, not to get out there and challenge myself, for the excitement, the uncertainty, the brutality, the wildness, all the things that put a catch at my throat and a sparkle in my eye.
But the biographical reason, the one that started my decision making three years ago is that when I finished kayaking the Danube, back in 2011, I looked out over the Black Sea from a beach on the Romanian river mouth and knew that the Crimea was out there, a precarious peninsula jutting out into the water to the north east. I thought about kayaking there, realised that was probably impossible but the target was set. I decided to wait the winter out in my Bulgarian housesit, then cross to Sevastopol and walk through Ukraine. Sod it, why not walk home.
But I never did do that did I. Other stuff happened instead, a sudden lurch and change of pace, illness, surgery, a change of country. Life stopped being about planning ahead and became about responding to my immediate circumstances. I was ill, I worked, I walked, I wrote – you probably already know the story so far. But as that time has come to an end I have been able to look around me. Where was I? Back at the end of 2011? Before cancer hit? Oh yeah, I was about to explore Ukraine. Kayak East, walk West. That’s what my plan was.
So I’m going back there. Might as well. There’s something that excites me about Eastern Europe. I want to explore further, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia. Many people have ideas like this that get lost along the way, career or children divert them into new plans. But somehow this has stuck. There’s nothing I’d rather do.
On the 10th of September I’m going to take my freshly packed rucksack, stand by the bypass roundabout at Llanidloes, stick my thumb out and hitchhike to Kiev. Arrival date, unknown.
From Kiev I’ll walk south west to the border with Romania, follow the Carpathians down and crossing the Danube River at Ruse into Bulgaria, then I’ll turn and head west, onwards to Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, across the top of Italy and into France. Then I’ll pick up the camino somewhere and follow the French route to Santiago then Finisterre. Once I’m there I’ll turn around and follow the beach route back to France, then up to Britain and home.
From the outset I’m adopting a deliberately unplanned and unscheduled approach. I’ve done this before and I know how difficult it became to stick to any kind of timescale. I also don’t feel any need to plan an exact route. I’ve got maps for some of Ukraine but not all (which I hope to rectify on arrival in Kiev) and that’s enough for now; as I enter each new country I’ll buy maps and see what lies ahead. I also can’t plan for how fast I’ll walk, whether my body will start to feel the strain after 200 or 1000 miles. I will walk as slowly as I need to – and not be scared to take time off. I’ve been telling everyone I’ll be away for two years, a number that is long enough to denote that this is a serious undertaking. The distance is somewhere between 3500 and 4000 miles, a fast and fit walker could do it in 10 months. I won’t. I’ll bumble along, not following a single marked trail, making it up as I go and not putting any pressure on myself.
This is how I’m going to do it.