My luck ran out. Weeks of autumnal sunshine turned to rain.
I’m stuck in a small apartment on the ground floor of a house in a tiny village in rural Croatia. When I look out of the window I see that the rain has flooded the vegetable patch that lies between the house and the road, leaving the occasional green shoots poking out from a square of brown water that has nowhere to go. There is absolutely nothing to do here but stare aimlessly at the internet.
I am in courier limbo, tried to book this time here for the minimum of delays but logistic problems have left me nothing to do but wait. The package has disappeared, passed on by DHL to Croatia Post and the tracking last updated three days ago. I cannot leave without it and there is little I can do to find it.
This is the frustrating part of this journey, working out when I need to change what I carry and trying to arrange for it to reach me with the minimum of disruption to my walking schedule. Summer to autumn to winter – sandals to trainers to boots, vests to tshirts to jumpers. Insulated trousers. Down jackets. Thicker sleeping bag. I juggled my kit and timings, gambling on the weather and I lost.
Suddenly late summer turned to early winter, and practically overnight much of what I was carrying was unsuitable. Trainers that let in water. Long sleeved tops that allowed heat to escape. A jacket that was permeable, an air mattress that was too. Water in, air out. It was all wrong and I suffered for it.
Walking all day in slowly dampening clothes was manageable, I didn’t feel cold while I was moving. Problem came when I came to sleep, stopped walking, sat down and immediately began freezing. Ease sodden shoes from your feet and place them outside the tent in the knowledge that you’ll put them back on wet the next morning. Arrange tent, trying not to let the wet things touch the dry bedding. Worse then, to try and sleep again the next night, to put up a wet tent and crawl into it in wet clothing.
The rain didn’t stop for days, from drizzle to downpour, it just kept coming. I climbed a mountain during that time, up a thin grassy path, wet leaves on clear trodden earth meant treachery underfoot, my feet sliding out from underneath me, uncontrollable. It started hailing near the top, thin pellets stinging as I navigated a rocky descent that was an unpleasant surprise in the mist. Levering myself downwards using hands and trees branches, swinging my unwieldy bag out behind me so it wouldn’t knock me off balance. Once my gloves were wet it soaked into my sleeves, another bad purchase in a cheap shop in Bosnia. Nothing was holding heat, I was wearing the wrong fabrics. I couldn’t stop walking for too long, a break to eat had to be short before I got too cold, not leaving my legs much time to release muscle tension.
I can handle being cold. I can handle being wet. I can handle being achy. I can handle being tired. I can handle the concurrence of all those things at once. I’ve learnt how to do this. It’s normal for me. Turns out that what I cannot handle is experiencing all of those things at once while trying to spend the night on a slowly deflating air mattress. That is the thing that will make the situation unbearable.
The mattress started leaking as I crossed into Croatia, a very small slow leak that meant I could doze into sleep on a comfortable bed and be woken several hours later by cold hip pain where my bones were pressing against the ground, groggily shifting myself upright to take my weight on a complaining body and blow the mattress up again. The frustrating part is knowing that you are days from a hotel bed where you can attempt to fix the mattress. The second most frustrating part was getting to that hotel room, the clumsy process of finding and fixing the leak by covering the mattress in shower gel and hosing it down with water, watching for the tiny bubbles that would prove the escaping air. I did all that, fixed the hole, blew the mattress up, placed some books on it and left it there while I went out for lunch. Stayed inflated, leak fixed. Except it deflated again on the first night back out in the tent. I had to walk another two days to a town where I could get a bed. In the shower, fix the mattress. Got out into the tent again. Deflation. I spent seven nights trying to sleep on a leaky air mattress, stressing about spending money on a hotel each time I tried to fix it.
My spirits deflated. I couldn’t keep walking if I was going to sleep on the cold ground every night. The forecast showed nothing but rain ahead. I knew that would make me unavoidably cold and damp. This wasn’t right, it was barely frosty, how could I be struggling so much?
With wrong kit and now broken kit it was time to stop. I was planning to walk another two or three weeks before taking a break but it had to come now.
I checked out the cheapest bed in the area, I arranged for my friend to send the package from my supply dump that sits in boxes in the corner of her art room.
Now I wait, alone in a quiet village and honestly it makes me feel sad being here. I am used to being alone, this is a very solitary journey. But somehow the aloneness of a mountain is different to a kitchen. Sleeping solitary in a tent is different to a bed. I need to choose hostels where there are other travellers, I remind myself, but the logistics don’t always work out like that and instead of a big city with plenty of choice, here I am in a village of twenty houses and nobody there whenever I look outside. I question what I’m doing, small voices of doubt start sneering – is this really a good life?
It’s something to do with tiredness, it’s something do to with being in pain. It’s something to do with four walls and very little to do.
I ride the waves of this time here, allowing the sadness but not giving in to it. I eat good food, with the aim of recharging my carb stores and giving myself nutrients. I drink a little alcohol but not too much. I stretch multiple times a day. My body hurts a lot, I am very stiff, but the pain is lessening.
I can’t opt out when it gets tough, I can’t shy away and hide from how hard this is because doing that means I won’t finish it. I have to keep walking and I have to keep coping, keep being responsive to the problems. Honestly people, that’s not a natural part of my skill set. I’ve been an avoider, a procrastinator and learning to be different is difficult.
This is the challenge too, it’s not just navigating across mountains or doing the right things when you see a bear. It’s continuing to do the right things to look after yourself even when you’re tired and sad because doing the right things mean you can stay strong enough to complete the challenge you’ve set yourself.
I ride the waves and I don’t sink in. As I wrote this the package arrived. I set out again tomorrow and I keep on walking.