This walk is an unavoidable commitment, once I start it. I’ve decided I’m going to travel on foot from Kiev to Llanidloes and there’s no way to change that, without undermining it.
Get on a bus? Skip a section? Don’t bend the rules to make it easier, you might as well go straight home.
In some ways I think I’m not quite as tough as people imagine, I just make sure that I put myself in unavoidable situations which means I’m forced to deal with them.
I had that feeling once I started again, once I closed the big wooden door to my lockdown home, travelled all the way back to my restart point 200km east, hugged Elaine the helpful neighbour goodbye and set up camp in the grounds of a remote chapel, in the shadows of the mountains that marked the Italian/French border.
This is it, I thought, as I ate my cold quiche and wiggled my toes, peering out of the tent flap every so often to check nobody had come to visit the Chapel in the last hour before darkness; I’m living on my wits again. I’m managing my life, carrying my own shelter, sourcing my own water, in charge of my movements.
It’s an intense satisfaction, to sit in a tent that is not much bigger than your own body, the mesh brushing against your head, your possessions lined along the sides and tucked at the foot of your air mattress, to look at your feet and know that they have made the journey today. That you are making a journey from your own power.
Your power. Your power to assess how much food you need to carry, where to buy it and what you need to eat each day to keep healthy and strong. Your power that drives every step. Your power to always keep getting up again from the ground where you sat to rest and keep on going. Your power that endlessly pushes on.
It’s been a tough restart to this journey. Mountains. Insects. Heat. All combining with my lockdown softened body to make a high brick wall for my effort to climb.
I’ve been slow, not forcing it, but still going to the high places, not shying away from the challenging routes. I started at the immediate Alps, a 2200m peak, looking over at the jagged swirl of bigger mountains nearby, the east west line of snowy peaks, with Cuneo on the other side.
The names on the letterboxes and graves sounded Italian, ending in -etti, -ello, and I learnt that this area was passed to France from Italy after WW2.
A week of the heat, where I quickly learn that I cannot walk in the full midday sun, that it’s best to get up as early as possible, 5am if you can but 6 will do. Watch the pink light of dawn come gently, then the strong yellow line come down from the mountain tops, get moving before it hits you, while it only comes choppy through the forest where the shadows are still cool, light but not warmth just yet. The best hours are before 10am, before the sweating becomes overwhelming, before the light heat becomes a pressure against your skin.
It comes infinitesimally, the stress on your system, the sweating drips into your eyes, mopping away at your cheeks and chin with the cloth wrapped at the head of your walking pole, breathing coming harder, the rhythm of it changing, faster, panting, pain in body increasing, looking at your arm to see the sheen of your skin and realise that every part of you is hot and sticky and overwhelmed and you must get into the shade and stop for a moment.
The worst heat is between midday and 4pm, but it feels unproductive to stop for the whole four hours so I suffer a little before lunch and a little afterwards, before the heat of the day starts to lessen towards evening.
It feels like an oven, when the wind is hot, when the supposed relief of the movement of air just puffs another enveloping huff of warmth to drape around you, like basting a chicken.
I sleep, in my long breaks. The heat drains me, so I stop and eat and sleep, in the shade, picking the ground with care to minimise tick invasion, lying back onto stony soil or rocks, shaping my hips around the pebbles to rest without pain, taking off my glasses and dozing, until thoughts become surreal visions and I realise I passed into blessed unconsciousness for a while.
I walk through the sawing screech of cicadas which sometimes trail to an apologetic halt as they sense my approach, like a couple caught kissing in a quiet side street.
I walk along forestry tracks that trail illogically in unexpected directions, splitting and turning to make passage for lorries on steep inclines. There are often no houses in the valleys, maybe the rubble of abandoned summer houses, the ancient shepherding traditions barely clung to here. Instead I stare out at pure unbroken forest, fuzzing the contours of the low mountain sides like body hair. I think about all the deer with freedom to roam there, all the wild boar, all the bears that would have been. People tell me of wolves here still, but they’re lone trekkers rather than packs and there’s very little chance I’ll encounter one; I imagine grizzled old stand outs, locking themselves in their houses, peeking through curtains, burning compulsory purchase orders as golf courses and motorways are built around them.
I walk along a river valley scattered with holiday homes, simple shuttered cabins where people come to escape the urban coast, exchanging crowded sea breezes for secluded forest humidity.
People are enjoying themselves here, setting up picnic spots beside the river, which rushes in cloudy turquoise, perfectly refreshing.
I walk down into small villages which cluster on protrusions and peaks, like barnacles they are moulded into crevices and sheltered cracks. The cars have to park outside the village, streets too narrow to allow them to the door. A marvel at the beautiful architecture, shutters and archways and perfectly placed plant pots, throw out some hopeful love to a nearby creeping cat which usually freezes and flees, wash my face in the fountain, run my arms underneath the spout and feel the blood cooling under my skin, refill my water bottles and gulp another litre for a free credit in the hydration bank.
There is usually neither bar nor shop, not in these tiny places with a mere hundred potential customers. I am having to carefully plan my resupply points, as if I were in the wilderness further east, not just the rural places, where every remote village in Eastern Europe has a small shop.
When I am lucky enough to find a bar I take an hour or two to charge my phone and sip small cups of coffee. Noisette is the French equivalent of the Italian macchiato, which I learn more quickly than my first desperate fumbling with Italian coffee ordering back in December.
I watch the people of the village, watch them kiss, cluster at tables. I see the waiters wearing masks, or with masks under their chins, or with no masks at all. The village life of rural France feels very far away from the fear and information overload of the online pandemic news whirl. Perhaps there were very few cases here, perhaps it’s an intrinsic French disregard for rules, perhaps this is happening everywhere anyway, people slowly letting pandemic precautions slip, the evolution of a brain’s alert of danger in the mere brush of two hands together takes time to establish and attention spans are shorter.
I am further away still from the pandemic while I’m walking. I’ve been alone on these paths for almost the entire fortnight since setting out to walk again, a scattering of people on the weekends but mostly I see no other walkers.
I made four huge climbs in the first ten days, each one more difficult than the last as my energy reserves diminished and my muscle power didn’t match the demands I made on it. There is no escaping a mountain once you’re on it, unless you call for a helicopter. I looked at the great mass before me as I crossed the river, grumpily, faintly unwilling. 1000m of altitude gain, straight up, and the reason to do it was to access a cheap place to spend a day off, far on the other side of it. 2.5 litres of water on my back, two litres already consumed in the morning. Midday and I set off.
My little trick with altitude gain is to covert the big climbs into percentages and give yourself the cheery knowledge that you’ve achieved a further 10% every time you gain a particular number. The mountain was steep and the path was narrow, just a little width of worn soil winding to and fro, looping back on itself over and over in order to gain a little extra height each time. The backs of my ankles hurt, where once was thick with muscle, now feels like overstretched plastic, flexed to splitting.
I thought I might be able to camp half way up, make an early finish and complete the climb the next day but the contour lines only flattened out to a fainter slope and there was nowhere to relax without rolling. The whole climb it would have to be then, and I started to think about water rations and sunset. It was taking me more than 45 minutes to gain every 100m. The sun was unremitting, blaring at me, becoming a solid force against my skin. I stuck to my targets, reach another 10% and you get a rest and a swallow of water. The 60% glug, the 70% slug. Legs aching, hands pulling against walking poles, feet picking steps carefully with a steep drop always to one side. Pain grows and grows, inflated with the panting of lungs, there is a buzzing in my body, of cells unable to catch their breath. I must stop, wriggle my toes to allow the pressure of fluid to release back up my legs, to allow my body to calm, my breath to settle, for peace to return before I set to agitation again. Each rest break had to be in shade, the meagre dimpling of light diffusion allowed by the young trees that clung to the sparse soil. There were lizards flickering out of sight in the dry grasses, great lumbering beetles, occasional mosquitoes that are never as sly as they think they are. The real sly ones are the sneaky tick and the invisible flea, unseen threats clinging to every grass blade.
I had to finish this mountain, it was impossible to stop there. No water, nowhere flat to sleep. Up and up, sensing the summit and finally seeing the flat saddle between two peaks with mist rolling over into the sunny valley and dimming the sun. Seems it was colder on the other side, perhaps there’d be water too. Already gone 7pm as I approached the peak and I felt I couldn’t stop yet. I had to walk to the stream marked on the map, just another mile, I had to see if it was running. I couldn’t settle to sleep without knowing how much of my remaining half litre to conserve. Because if I didn’t need to save water I wanted to drink it all, slather myself in precious liquid, wet a flannel and wipe off my gritty, clammy skin before contaminating my sleeping bag.
I stopped for a while at the pass, 1267m, up from the river at 250, sitting in full swirling mist on pitted limestone rocks jutting out at the edge of the track running across my route, taking an extra mouthful of water as a reward and feeling proud at the end of the battle.
It was another painful mile, my legs were stumpy now, feet heavy and solid, I was at the end of my energy, body gone to the numbness of repetition, automatic movement. The stream was dry, I’d had a feeling, which is why I’d needed to go and check it. Village another few miles ahead, I’d conserve water tonight and rehydrate more deeply tomorrow. In the tent then, put up on the flatness of the gravel path, undergrowth too busy and slanted either side, too tired to eat anything and no water to wash it down with anyway, I lay there in the twilight, body stiff, too tense to pass out. Happy that I’d made it up the mountain, happy that I had a day off the next day, happy in my self-decided freedom to roam and sleep wherever I needed to. Fireflies were the final piece of beauty to complete my satisfaction, the first green-yellow flash coming close to my tent and I twisted round to look behind me and see the display, near and far, irregular points of light flashing. Even if perhaps it’s not so calm to have a beacon growing on your actual bottom, there’s a serenity to being surrounded by fireflies at night, a calmness of tiny lives softly careening to and fro.
The day off was a wonderful gift in many ways except one. A tiny village curled around the peak of a promentory, single narrow street leading from car park to village square and around to the church at the highest point. No tourism here, just contented quietness high up at the very edge of the Nice commuter belt. An ancient, messy house, inherited from grandparents, with tile floors, a medicinal enamel bath and a glorious roof terrace covered in tatty sofas and mattresses that looked out to the mountain ridge opposite and caught the disappated whiffs of the mistral every afternoon. The problem was that there was no shop and I’d carried onion, garlic, pasta and smoked sausage all the way up the mountain from the last town yesterday. The problem was that I decided to cook it all the first night and stir half into fresh pasta again the next evening. The problem was that the fridge was mouldy, overloaded and very bad smelling.
The result was that I woke up on the morning I was due to leave, clean, refreshed, stretched, rested and with a bad stomach.
Not so bad I thought to myself, just rest here until the afternoon, drink plenty of water, and then walk gently on, give yourself a soft day today.
But somehow I couldn’t mix the need to give my digestion a complete break and the requirement for enough energy to keep walking. A compromise of half meals didn’t work. My appetite wasn’t there, I never got hungry, but I was also hardly eating anything. A couple of days of half meals and I thought I was through it but then, on the fourth day of walking, I got a bad stomach again, mid morning.
And then you’re really stranded.
I’d taken to the road for a stretch, feeling the need to make progress, but the sun was hot and awful. I ate a handful of nuts, sitting for a few minutes on the concrete blocks of a low bridge, and then felt terrible, all the blood seemed to drain towards my stomach and I felt sick. I managed to walk into a village, searching for shade, which manifested in a wooden bus shelter. The plank bench was too narrow and the heaviness of my body slid me down off it, pulling out a piece of my sleeping mat to lie down on the floor and pass out.
An hour on the floor of the bus shelter, then a short walk five minutes down the road to find a field. I came to the village lavoir, a covered stone shed with an open front, running water passing through a series of troughs which would have been the communal water source and washing place, and punctuated the next 2 hours with a series of foul bathroom visits behind the building and intermittent cramps and unconsciousness on the cool concrete floor next to the running water.
So, what to do when you’re alone and ill, with options limited to the power of your own two feet?
After resting for a while, I set out to walk again, which wasn’t actually difficult, the only problem was that I ran out of energy after half an hour. Drained and sleepy, I reached another village and thought again. Maybe I could skip ahead to Artignosc, the village where I spent my lockdown and where there’s an empty house waiting for me to walk back to.
Maybe I get public transport over there and come back here to continue after a few days. Maybe I could call the neighbours, see if they’ll pick me up from nearby, I know there’s only one bus a day to the village.
I messaged Elaine, asked for help. “I’ll come and get you” came the reply. “Stay where you are, it’s a two hour drive”. And so I got rescued, in a way that hasn’t been possible throughout most of the rest of the trip. I remember spending 24 hours on the side of a mountain in Bosnia, recovering strength to continue. That’s what I would have done here in France, if I couldn’t call for assistance, I would have walked another nine miles, very slowly, taking as long as I needed to, down to the nearest town and paid for accommodation so I could rest and recover.
It’s nice to have options. Occasionally.