I live in a dreamworld at the moment. The last few weeks have seemed to pass in a flit. There’s just a smooth blurring of days spent in forests and nights in damp tents. I sit on grass to eat food; it’s springy with the strength of dried plants, occasionally with the smell of cooking herbs nearby although no matter how many small oval leaves I crush between my fingers I can never find its source. The days are unremitting sunny. There was a time of thunderstorms, back in the south of Bosnia, where I would see the darkening clouds gather and the white haze of rain veiling the hills behind or ahead of me and know that I would have to wait for the whim of the wind to divine my watery fate. Now I am usually in sunshine. The weather forecast keeps showing me a day of raindrops, the small grey cloud with blue lines underneath comes three or four days ahead in the row of yellow circles, but somehow, whenever I next update the page, the rain has disappeared and I am in another week of sunshine.
I don’t have constant access to the internet here in Bosnia, there are almost no agreements with international phone networks and so I use WiFi where I can find it, if I come to a village big enough to have a cafe, which is rare. Sometimes I turn on the WiFi in a village and sometimes I’m lucky enough to find an unsecured network, for me to sink down on the side of the road and plunge into social media for a while, feel connected to my other life, the one which only exists far away and in my mind. The world of brexit and extinction rebellion, children’s photographs and family birthdays, of silly dog videos and edgy tweets. The world where we all share with each other how we are, while keeping a constant distance.
Most of my time is spent sweating, stepping. Crunching stones underfoot on tracks man-made for machines to bring felled trees from forests. Stones rolling, checking my rhythm, uncomfortable, they’re flicked by cars into lines at the side of the road, just in the safe place where I want to step. I heave myself slowly up inclines, up the side of valleys where I’ve just descended down to cross a river and now have to climb unwillingly back again. Following paths that wriggle, that bend to take account of trees and hollows and streams. Paths that suddenly disappear and I realise that I was following the traces of animals all along, that humans barely come here and I and duped into difficulty once again, resigned to crashing through grasping undergrowth, ripping myself and my clothing and bending my feet against steep inclines, clinging to branches, kicking my toes into slippery leaf mulch to find footholds of rock or earth.
I am watching as the villages change around me. Extremely poor farmhouses are now a rarity rather than the norm. There is no more wood worn to smoothness by decades of handling, flaking lime wash revealing packed earth around wooden lath walls. It’s concrete blocks now, it’s clean sharp corners, it’s the blank plastered face of modernity. I saw a string of fairy lights along the edge of a porch the other day. I saw a plastic solar light stuck on a spike into the ground. Cheap plastic disposable ornaments are making a comeback. The con trick of accessible luxury that is designed to eventually fail, not to last beyond a decade. I am almost back in the EU.
Two weeks of walking, almost 150 miles, and it feels like nothing has happened.
I look out over interlacing hills, lines blurred by the fuzz of forests. I cross a peak and look over to another view, valley sides cleared to grasses, orchards standing where people grow apples or plums, higher land remains mostly tree covered. Every house has a wood pile worthy of admiration, the kind that British people buy books about, relearning how to chop and stack. The buzz of chainsaws is as familiar as the dischordant croak of the jaybird, who I seem to see everywhere on this journey, the flicker of their striped wings showing under the grey body as my passage disturbs their choice of perch.
I wake up in wet tents, the dampness of my breath condensed on the surface of my sleeping bag, the dampness of the night condensed onto the tent body, covering everything in moisture. I put on my shoes and bend my way out of the doorway, trying not to brush against anything. I put my weight onto my hands at first, see how my feet are feeling as they take my weight, see how much my sleep has reduced my muscle tension, stretch as I come to standing and pace away from the tent a few steps to squat down and wee.
Sleeping is difficult at the moment. I have hip pain at night which prevents me staying too long on either side. I massage my lower back and bum, press into the pain where I find it in my thighs, around the bone. It helps a little but there’s not room to stretch properly, wrapped against the cold as I need to be now. Maybe the tent is not completely flat, maybe the air is cold against my nose, maybe the pillow won’t sit right on the side of my rucksack, maybe there’s too much air in my mattress, maybe there’s not enough. Some nights I am so tired that I sleep immediately at 7pm and wake at 11pm for a few hours of restlessness. Some nights I cannot sleep until midnight and just lie there in the dark, turning from side to side, trying to find the magical position that will allow me to sink down into unconsciousness.
I am bothered by small biting things, I know not what. Small red blotches appear on my stomach and shoulders. Something is obviously trapped around my knees one night and manifests its anger in a series of angry bites on the matching two halves of my legs where they were pressed together. The flies have stopped invading my sleeping space as the temperature has dropped, there are hardly any mosquitoes any more. Instead there are spiders, small hunting ones that make a crescent of their front legs and move in small running bursts. There are grasshoppers that jump into my tent as soon as it’s up, leaving me with the puzzle of how to evict a creature whose movements are multidimensionally erratic. Luckily one jumps onto my hand one night and I move my hand outside the tent, watching as it takes in the view for a while before feeling the pressure of its physics as the mechanics of its folded legs push away into the air. There are slugs, but only small ones and I am thankful for their tinyness as I flick them into oblivion.
The good weather allows me to appreciate the best of autumn, the sun makes the colours of the trees glow in full fire brightness. Morning mists bring dampness but also billowing cloud inversions where bowls of valleys are filled with cloud soup as I climb above them to the brittle brilliance of the sun and blue skies.
I keep remembering Ukraine. I keep thinking of fallen leaves in the forest and searching for places to sleep off quiet tracks where no one ever drove. I keep thinking of pulling water from wells and the wideness of the streets, the way each village was a cluster of houses along a few wide roads with long distances of field and forest in between. I miss the geese being ushered out onto the street in the morning, the sacks of apples waiting for collection. I miss the way everything was old and rich with patina and memory, I miss the way people marvelled at me, I miss the clothing grown worn and mended, the flowery prints, the woollen jumpers. I miss the scars and gold teeth. It was a year ago that I was there, walking across the flatness of the centre of the country, eyes wide in discovery as the season of warm gold changed to frosty silver.
Maybe this walk will become an endless loop of associating emotions with the growing and falling of leaves. Maybe that’s all life is anyway.