I wake up in the clean sheets of a hotel bed. There is the noise of clanging cow bells outside, as there has been all night. My back hurts. It hurts deep in the base of my spine, where my rucksack sits and where I can’t flex while walking. The tension goes down through my bum and into my thighs.
I stretch a little bit but it doesn’t ease. There is pain in my heels too, fire between there and the base of my calves.
I drink some water, about half a litre, and eat a packet of porridge, swallow my supplements – multi vitamin for the vegetables I miss, fish oil and glucosamine for my joints, magnesium for energy production.
I’m going to leave my bag in the room. A strange thing happened last night.
I was walking down from a high mountain pass, where hotels were the only buildings, clustered in a tiny village near a ski resort. The snow was thick, everywhere. The road was cleared to asphalt but there was a bank of snow chest-high for me to access the woods either side of the road and the snow didn’t look much lighter there. Very little of the land was flat, the road was a strip, winding around the contours of the mountainside, one side rise sharply, the other fell.
It was coming to 5pm, the beginning of twilight, and I was thinking about where I could sleep. There were only trees here, no scattered houses. I looked for occasional flat places at the roadside, ready to walk another half an hour and then pick one, set about clambering into the deep snow, treading it down to compress a base for my tent. It would be messy, uncertain and uncomfortable and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
A jeep passed me, and then five minutes later it came back again. The man inside offered me a lift, he was a little bit worried about me, having seen me up at the ski resort 5 hours ago and now here I was, 14 miles later, still walking on the same road.
I looked at him, young ish, big round eyes, and said OK. I needed something to happen in order for me to find a bed and this had happened, I would take it, move forward in the random sequence of events that this journey becomes sometimes. I thought that at the very least he could take me down to the town I knew was 10 miles away, maybe the snow would be thinner there, more flat spaces for me to put up a tent. We chatted, him and his daughter in the car, they’d gone up to see the mountains for the day.
He was a person who cares, who wants to do good things for people. There was plenty for us to disagree on, he told me that 90% of Romanian people are bad and untrustworthy. That’s often why people pick me up when I hitchhike, they do a really kind thing for me while telling me that I must be careful of everyone else. He also tells me that he thought the purpose of a woman’s life was to find a man, forcing a wry smile from me as I eat the pastries he’s offered me. The force of feminist wisdom did not feel necessary to let loose here and I just joked back, saying that not all women are the same.
I could tell he didn’t quite understand the reasons I was doing this, when I talked about going back up to where he’d picked me up, he thought I was going to ski. The idea that I must walk every part of my route, not skip anything, is a strange one. It turns it from pleasure to obligation, which is less understandable.
He’s carrying on to his home 70km away and asks what I will do in the next town. I say I’ll look for somewhere to camp and he says he will pay for a bed for me.
I’m conflicted about saying yes. It’s true that I have a tiny income right now, that I live on my savings. But I have enough money to last me for two years, it’s just that it will only do that if I don’t stay in hotels every night. I’m trying to live on £90 a week and hotels are between £18 and £30 a night. But I’m not poor and I’m not in need and it troubles me that people would treat me this way, I feel as if I’m misrepresenting myself.
I tell him he’s seeing me as a poor homeless person and that isn’t the case but he says he understands and still does it, in a white knight kind of a way. I’m obviously not so bothered that I fight to pay my own way (I don’t actually have any money on me to pay for a hotel and most of them don’t take cards). I’m not desperate to camp in the snow, I never am, it’s a function of what I’m doing, rather than the main event. It is nice to receive a random gift like this, even if I feel like I shouldn’t take it.
But the next morning there’s a problem of my missing mileage. I must hitch back up to where the man picked me up.
I stand by the side of the road, in fog at first, watching as the tree tops high above me become faintly visible in the mist. A thin blue sky permeates and becomes stronger as the morning mist clears and I see the hills that surround the town. There is still thick snow but patchier here, about 40cm. Turkeys gobble to each other and a calf paces their cleared patch across a garden. Thin plumes of snow rise from chimneys and people make appearances, getting into cars and driving away or pushing wheelbarrows full of snow across the road to tumble into the stream. All is quiet and peaceful. A cockerel crows in the distance and I wait, thumbing at passing cars to try and get back up the mountain.
I wait for over an hour for a car to stop. Many pass me, the cars of rich people here, BMWs and Audis. They’re well off, they’re heading up to a ski slope, of course they’re not going to pick up a hitchhiker.
I think about walking five miles up the road and five miles back again, to complete my missing distance but that seems foolish, even to me. There are meaningful steps and there are pointless steps and those ones would be pointless.
Eventually someone stops, an older man going up to ski alone.
He doesn’t understand what I’m doing, asking to be dropped on the road in a seemingly random remote spot, Teo didn’t understand what I was doing. Sometimes I don’t understand what I’m doing. Is it really that important to walk every step? Yes, comes the immediate answer, because otherwise there’s no point in doing this at all. Just deciding that I want to do this is enough. Then, when the only reason to give it up is because it’s hard. Well that’s not good enough to stop me is it.
I walk slowly down the road again. It’s good to walk without a rucksack, to loosen my back a little. I swing my hips, do a model strut, sway my body around and feel the ache of muscles releasing tension.
I realise that I dropped myself off too early. I was looking at the map to try and find the spot but my GPS was blank and wouldn’t load. So when I looked up from that and saw a corner I thought I recognised, I asked the driver to drop me here. I’ve missed about 3 miles off the route. Sigh. What can I do? Nothing. It matters but not that much. I’ll make it up somewhere else. Three miles is easier to make up than 10 and at least I tried.
I walk all the way down to the town again, enjoying the views as the trees turn from pure coated snow white, to green with white hints, to green. Water runs across the road in the thawing sunshine. It’s a mild day and I think about spring, only a month away. I come back to the bedroom where I left my bag and I lie on my bed to write this. I’m tired.