So, I’ve walked a thousand miles, for the second time in my life. Strange how normal it feels this time around, I’ve just taken steps until I got here, it doesn’t feel so monumental.
I set out from Kiev on the 22nd September and I’ve travelled over the sunny autumn steppe, or what once was steppe, now ploughed and farmed flatlands. Crossed the Carpathians once, almost at the border of Romania, climbing the highest mountain in Ukraine, fortunately before the snow hit.
Then it was a very cold December in northern Romania, being delayed by a wait for a resupply package before setting out over frozen farmland. Just as I reached the Apuseni mountains I broke for Christmas and when I came back to it, I came back to snow. January has been tough, there’s no getting around it. Or there’s no getting around mountains, more specifically. I’ve done my best, dodging and weaving around the peaks, trying to find the quietest roads I could walk without resorting to the direct, lowland, busy main roads.
Sometimes there were diversions into deep snow and it showed me how completely unequipped I was to deal with it, unwilling to add on another 1500g of snowshoes onto the back of my rucksack, for just the occasional forays over height. Unwilling to go deeper into mountain snow territory against the advice of every single person I spoke to. Snow is slow. It’s thick and dragging and difficult. Each step loses power in the slipping movement as each foot finds solidity to push from.
I’m amazed at how well my body is coping this time. Of course I’m tired and in pain, but that kind of goes with the nature of this physical challenge. But I’m not exhausted and I’m not injured and I’m pretty pleased about my resilience in that sense. My biggest issue at the moment is my back. I really feel the effect of being so solidly strapped into a rucksack, the inability of my pelvis to flex as it should. I’m carrying my heaviest kit right now, thicker sleeping mat and sleeping bags, spikes to add traction to my boots in deep snow, extra clothes, insulated trousers. As spring comes and the temperature rises I’ll be able to exchange kit again and drop a couple of kilos. In summer, when I exchange long sleeves for vests I’ll be at my lightest, I’ll feel like I’m flying.
My feet have so far resisted the plantar tendon pain that plagued me so last time. I take better care of them, understand my body better. But I feel it coming sometimes, when I’ve walked on road for too far and too often, as I have done for almost all of January.
This journey has been more challenging than my Welsh walk in some unexpected ways.
The most frustrating thing I’m facing at the moment is navigation. It’s difficult and expensive to source paper maps and I haven’t found a GPS programme I get on with. In the main I’m not crossing through tourist areas, there are no marked trails for me to follow, it’s just villages and private farmland which means I’m less able to just follow my compass as I could in Ukraine. Lack of ability to strike out overland means I follow roads and the repeated striking of sole upon tarmac threatens to inflame my precious plantar tendons.
I am spending a lot more time alone this time; the amount of hospitality I received last time meant I was invited into someone’s house every third or fourth day most of the time. Here I can spend weeks existing in public, impersonal space, invited into a house once a fortnight or so, if I’m lucky. It means many more nights camping, which is physically tiring, or spending more money than I expected on hotel rooms. It also means that I’ve been lonely at times, something I’ve rarely experienced before.
There’s also the lack of a reason for doing this walk. I know that it’s what I want to be doing, but there’s no cancer this time, not as much focus on fundraising. Ovarian cancer gave me a quest, a reason to be enduring this difficulty. Without that I’m facing a stark question, what am I doing this for? Not that it’s a question that I ever seriously ask myself, this is fun and I enjoy it, even if it seems awful from the outside; but it’s more difficult to explain to people what I’m doing there, in their village, looking sweaty and tired. It’s not an accessible reason to tell people I’m walking across Europe, they just don’t get it. Because, in the face of it, walking 4000 miles merely because I want to just doesn’t seem enough to most people.
It’s interesting to see how I react to the landscape. Wales had meaning for me, it’s my birth country and it’s my chosen place to live, I was so happy to experience the land, to see each new mountain, to know their names and how they oriented into the country as a whole, small enough to orbit around single mountains or rivers. It filled me with wonder and I’m feeling that lack of that as I travel abroad. A hill is just a hill, a lump of land, I don’t love this land, I’m not excited to see each new view. Romania can be a little stark, there’s a problem with litter here, scattered on roadsides, in ditches, being thrown into water as if the current will make it cease to exist. It’s a little hard to connect with a place when even the residents don’t seem to care about it.
Next I’m heading towards Bulgaria. First another couple of weeks walking across the Danube flood plains towards the huge river that I love so much. I kayaked here in 2011 and now I’m going to walk alongside the river for a while. I’ll cross into Bulgaria, a country I became fond of when I lived here for 3 months in late 2011, immediately before my diagnosis, and then I’ll walk west towards Serbia. I’ll be turning a corner here, no longer meandering south but heading west, with a purpose. I’m walking home.
During this journey I’m raising funds for Target Ovarian Cancer – my own cancer 7 years ago led to the realisation that ovarian cancer is not diagnosed in many women until an advanced stage and Target Ovarian Cancer do their best to improve early diagnosis, fund life-saving research and provide much-needed support to women with ovarian cancer. If you’d like to donate, click here. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/onewomanwalkseurope