A: “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
That’s Herman Melville.
Q: If this was a walk, how did you cross the English Channel?
A: It’s extremely illegal to attempt to walk through the Channel Tunnel, so I did the best I could to maintain my integrity by stubbornly pacing around the observation deck of the ferry from Calais to Dover. I kept my pack on. People took pictures of the White Cliffs, and then they took pictures of the sun-baked vagabond with the big green backpack.
Q: Had you traveled in any of these places before?
A: This walk was my first visit to Europe, but the cultural world in which I’d spent the previous twenty years was Eurocentric. When I got on the plane to Istanbul, I was as well and as poorly informed about the places I was about to visit as I was about the country I’m ostensibly from.
Q: Were you lonely?
A: By means of this journey I prised myself from loneliness. There isn’t much desolation on this stretch of continent, and a continual evolving challenge is a kind of traveling companion in itself.
Q: But you did walk alone, all the way?
A: I both walked alone all the way and didn’t. On the one hand, no one did the trip with me, and no one else carried my gear. On the other hand, with the exception of a few mountain episodes, there were usually other people visible from where I was walking – usually passing in cars, but sometimes riding bicycles, driving horsecarts, sitting on benches, or leaning out of windows. On a few occasions, I found myself walking companionably alongside another traveler for a few miles before our paths diverged. There are enough people walking trails like the Karnischer Höhenweg or the Via Alpina that these kind of institutionalized routes don’t feel solitary at all; judging by the Santiago pilgrims I met along my own walk, I’d imagine the Camino is even more communal. Even in bad weather on the mountains in Wales, I kept crossing paths with other hikers in the murk.
Q: Did you do this for charity?
A: I wasn’t even aware that endurance challenges done for charity purposes were a thing until I reached the UK, where most people who struck up a conversation with me assumed that I had a charity connection.
Q: Why didn’t you ride a bicycle, or hitch?
A: I get around on foot.
Q: I want to go for a long walk, too. How should I prepare?
A: My two cents: 1) train like you fight, and 2) get your affairs in order. The first idea – train like you fight – has to do with getting used to things, both mentally and physically – getting used to long distances, rough weather, finding your way, dealing with problems, communicating with strangers, avoiding fights, defending yourself against animals/thieves/what have you, eating appropriately, sleeping in odd situations, moving in the dark, keeping functionally clean, coping with injury, carrying weight, and using your tools. The more you get used to these things before setting off on a march into uncertainty, the steadier you’ll be as you start the journey. It takes time to get used to all of these things, and it’s a gradual process. It takes months to get markedly stronger, physically, and it takes mistakes to learn some things on a basic level. You can also find that you’ve prepared badly, and then face the challenge of adapting from there. The second idea – get your affairs in order – has to do with being neat and responsible. Get your affairs in order at the start; get them in order in the middle; and get them in order at the end.
Q: Can you recommend any long-distance walking paths for me to follow on my own journey?
A: For the most part, I didn’t follow formalized long-distance walking paths. I did attempt to travel along the Kom-Emine Trail in eastern Bulgaria, but this trail was not well signposted for someone walking westward, and maps were difficult to find, so this attempt was short-lived. I had much better luck on the Karnischer Höhenweg and the Via Alpina Green Route in the Alps. In the UK, I found the Long Distance Walkers Association website very helpful for planning and navigation, and I recommend their map-search tool (http://www.ldwa.org.uk/ldp/members/search_by_path.php) to anyone looking to walk long distances in Britain without much previous knowledge of the established options.
Q: When should I walk across Europe?
A: For what it’s worth, I traveled from March until December, and that went well. It wasn’t too cold at the start, it wasn’t too cold at the finish, and the Alps were thawing out in July in the middle. It was uncomfortably warm on a few sunny days in Croatia and France, but that only meant drinking lots of water and finding some shade around two in the afternoon. Look at your distances, consider your elevations and latitudes, and take advantage of the climate charts on Wikipedia. Winter days are short, and summer days are long, long, long.
Q: Where did you sleep, when you couldn’t find, you know, an elegant room?
A: I slept where I could at the end of the day, unobtrusively. Settling on a place to sleep was a daily adventure. Unobtrusive little corners aren’t in great supply in a continent as thoroughly urban and agricultural and occasionally war-torn as Europe, where what isn’t planted or grazed or built upon or mined is usually prohibitively steep and rocky, or full of swamp. You know what’s not cozy? Gravel.
Q: How far in advance did you plan?
A: I had a general sense of where I wanted to go from the beginning – certain cities, certain mountain regions, certain peaks, certain buildings – but I only planned my route in detail about two weeks at a time, hunkered down over my laptop and furiously printing screen captures from Google Maps, toggling back and forth to Wikipedia, or ferreting out topo maps. For my stretch in the Alps, a visit to the Oesterreichischer Alpenverein was very helpful. Each planning session took a surprising amount of time, and resulted in a hefty load of paper. I found the Google Maps satellite images immensely useful in identifying potential places to sleep ahead of time, but occasionally disorienting while traveling small rural roads, particularly in eastern France.
Q: Did you ever get lost?
A: On a few occasions, I found myself walking in the wrong direction, either along a trail that had veered into the wrong valley or away from a town I had meant to approach. There was one evening in France when nothing I saw seemed to correspond to my maps, but things sorted themselves out the next morning. I also had to negotiate around mistaken word-of-mouth directions on a couple of occasions – one elderly French villager insisted that it was possible to walk the Channel Tunnel – but everything worked out. If I hadn’t had spectacularly clear weather for much of my time in the Scottish Highlands, that stretch would have involved much more anxious and perpetual routefinding than it did.
Q: What responses did you meet with regarding your walk, along the way?
A: Along my entire route, the only people who took my walk as a matter of course were a hotel receptionist in Kutina, Croatia, and the saintly border guard who let me into Slovenia/the EU. Turkish drivers, of every type of vehicle imaginable, were continually offering me rides; and this carried over into parts of Bulgaria as well, but not much farther. In the Balkans, the standard reaction was, “You must be brave.” In central Europe, this became, “You must be lonely.” By the time I reached the UK, the response had flattened to, “Are you doing it for charity, then?” I ran into fleeting and strictly individual direct civilian hostility only from one old man in Dolno Kamartsi, one old man in Susek, one old woman in Markušica, one old man in Ruševo, one man in Bristol, and one man in Liverpool. There were also the occasional shouts from cars, passive-aggressive shunnings, and suspicious stares at various times and in various places, but then, I did usually look thoroughly out of place, and smelling nice was simply not possible. For the most part, chance acquaintances in every region of every country were friendly and cheerful, and sometimes touchingly generous and helpful. Asking directions tended to yield wildly inconsistent results. Police in the Balkans hassled me relentlessly, but always let me go when they concluded I was too strange to be a troublemaker.
Q: How about as an American, specifically?
A: Early in my trip, an old man coming down to fish off the bridge below Armutveren gave me the news, emphatically, that my country was bombing Libya. In Bulgaria and Croatia, I repeatedly got the impression that my US passport was the only thing standing between me and an involuntary lift to a police station. I detected no love for the American government in Serbia, but (except for particularly thorough grillings on entering and exiting the country) nothing but goodwill toward me as a person, the graffiti pictured below notwithstanding. Throughout the Alps, I tended to feel my nationality mostly as a native speaker of English, sadly deficient in not speaking the several other languages that so many people I met in those mountains also spoke. I was so exhausted and ragged on my way across France that I was fortunate to be accepted as a human being; I think I might even have had doubts about me if I’d met myself; I certainly don’t remember how I felt about being an American at that point. By the time I reached the UK, I’d possibly become a person with a funny accent, an inexplicable unfamiliarity with yeast extract, and a familiar obsession with physical ordeals. The most frustrating thing about my time in the UK was, and remains, the pressures and disruptions imposed by border and immigration control. Going for a walk like this does not support a sense of nationalism.
Q: How did you communicate?
A: In the less-touristed areas of Turkey, the Balkans, and France, my appearance spoke for my peculiarity, my phrase cards gradually zeroed in on the necessary nouns, and body language did the rest. Conversations in these circumstances operated at whatever the level of mutual understanding happened to be. Sometimes it was rough going, but sometimes the mutual understanding was frankly magical. Each of my phrase cards was about half the size of a postcard, with very small writing, cobbled together from online dictionaries in the first place I could get an internet connection. I had one in Turkey, one in Bulgaria (which more or less served all the way to Slovenia, with amendments, thanks to Slavic similarities), one in Austria (where most people cut my gibberish short with English anyway), and one in France. I made no attempts at genuine syntax; I hope this and my road-worn appearance made me more endearing than aggravating. I found it very hard to explain my journey to the satisfaction of security squads in every country along the way, regardless; police, it seems, speak their own language.
Q: Were you ever afraid?
A: It seems important to distinguish between fear, which is mostly subjective, and danger, which mostly isn’t. I was flatly afraid on five occasions: three times when I was menaced by packs of dogs in rural Turkey; once at the prospect of sleeping in an emergency shelter on Botev, which was a case of straight-up paranormal anxiety; and once when I worried that some men outside Brestovac might have been considering following me down a lonely country road in order to mug me. Nothing bad actually happened in any of these situations, but they were stressful, and my fear didn’t improve anything. A more common kind of lower-grade fear had to do with the nightly adventures in sleeping, but that felt like more of a primordial animal thing.
Q: Why did you carry all that electronic gear?
A: I carried the electronics because I wanted to shoot video along the way – this was important to me – and this made things both a lot easier and a lot harder. Easier, because the camera gave me a more removed, aesthetic perspective on my situation when the going was tough; harder, because keeping the electronics dry and functional was a major hassle, and because all that extra stuff weighed an almighty ton. All in all, I’m glad I’ve got the footage, but it’s certainly a close call. Bear in mind, though, that I also had no idea where I’d be living when I finished my trip, and that influenced my packing list as well. I didn’t carry a phone until I got to the UK, and never wanted one until then either.
Q: Did you couchsurf?
A: I couchsurfed in Istanbul, Belgrade, Zagreb, and Paris, and each of these cases was a wonderful experience, for which I am hugely grateful to my extraordinary hosts. I would have loved to have couchsurfed more, but setting things up while on the hoof, with limited internet access and a wobbly schedule, was not the precision exercise that effective couchsurfing seems to demand.
Q: What was your experience with hostels?
A: I stayed in hostels in Ljubljana, Villach, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Innsbruck, Interlaken, Reims, Paris, and Liverpool. A room at a hostel was usually about 20 euros per night. Hostels are very much a major-tourist-destination-city phenomenon, and usually have strictly enforced rules against the air-drying of clothes. In Reims, a roommate of mine on the way to Santiago was hauled in front of the management by another Santiago pilgrim who was upset that the man had hung up a few items of clothing to dry in the corner of the room. The manager told him it was a fire hazard, and my roommate wound up having to spend the evening sitting in a basement while his clothes dried in a machine. The only hostel I whole-heartedly enjoyed was the Zeppelin in Ljubljana, and that was largely thanks to the people, both staff and guests. Otherwise, hostels were convenient low-budget places to stay in major tourist destinations, more or less cheerful and more or less clean (Hatters in Liverpool was both cheerful and clean, thankfully – Liverpool was actually one of my favorite cities along the way). Balmer’s Herberge in Interlaken is absolutely awful. Incidentally, on a related topic, I happily and warmly recommend the Austrian Alpenverein huts – not exactly hostels, being a bit higher up the hills.
Q: How did you pay for this?
A: Wind the clock back to Seattle. Twenty-two years old, with a liberal arts degree from a faraway powerhouse school, without professional connections, and a new arrival in a faltering city that seemed to be running on a volunteer basis, I had won a part-time corporate retail job that didn’t pay enough for me to live in typical American housing or eat a typical American diet. The store itself had opened just before the economy broke, and subsequently hemorrhaged money. I have an ultramarathoner to thank for my job interview, and my parents to thank for my health insurance. First I lived in a walled-off half of a living room that had previously stored an asbestos heating unit; then I spent my first Seattle winter in a basement with unsealed walls while the house above it was being renovated; and then I lived in a 22-sided nook containing the hot water heater for the bathroom next door, with a sloping ceiling too low for me to stand under, in a house shared by eleven people. My diet consisted mostly of plain oatmeal, cabbage, and canned kidney beans, because these were the foods that cost less than a dollar per pound. After a year and a half of this, in prime first-world fashion, I had enough money and expiring frequent flier miles to walk across Europe, but not enough money to do much else. The choice was not hard.
Q: I’m thinking of doing a walk like this, but I don’t want to spend so much money. How much do you think I could rely on meeting helpful people along the way?
A: Remember that what you do, you do.
Q: Any health problems?
A: I don’t recall being ill during the walk. I dropped into a hospital in Austria when a tick bite on my leg showed signs of infection, but the visit proved more injurious (to my wallet) than the bite itself, which fortunately wasn’t a case of Lyme disease after all. I worried for a few days that I’d badly damaged my eye when I walked into a branch in the dark in Wales, but this healed up without lingering trouble. After the walk, I discovered that my failure to floss in Seattle and Europe had predictable dental consequences. The biggest sources of medical anxiety during the trip, though, were my feet and my knees. Breaking in my second pair of boots while crossing the Alps mangled my feet (see the picture below for what they looked like after the swelling had subsided), but a full day immobilized at a hut was enough of a rest to allow me to keep hobbling on. I’d seriously injured my knee about a year before the walk, but I tested it with a fairly intense trip in the Olympics before heading to Turkey, and the particular problem didn’t recur. Instead, I developed vague chronic pain in my feet over the journey’s last thousand miles, along with a persistent feeling of compression in my knees. It took a few months of rest in Glasgow for the feeling of compression to subside, and I intend to travel more wisely in the future. My next long walk, for example, involved a handcart.
Q: Beyond what you list on the stats page, what did you eat?
A: Food varied for me by country: I picked up food as I went, from whatever source was most readily at hand. In rural Turkey, I mostly ate plain white bread. By the time I reached Bulgaria, I badly needed a more varied and nutritious diet – meat, fruit, honey. Balkan sirene cheese was too salty for me to eat in large quantities, but by the time I reached the Alps, cheese was a major part of my daily diet because of the fat. Fat was important not only in itself, but also as a sort of blood-sugar antidote to the huge quantities of highly processed carbohydrate foods I was eating in order to keep my energy up. Think of those fourteen pains au chocolat from the stats page, or their equivalent in other countries, as jet fuel – 5,500 kilocalories is the kind of daily energy intake most commonly associated with extreme endurance athletes and combat infantry. In the Balkans, I ate huge quantities of cake, pastry, and cookies. In German-speaking countries, my equivalent carbohydrate source was muesli, but I found raw Central European muesli appallingly harsh on the guts. In the UK, I switched to heavy breads like bara brith and Soreen loaves. I had a passing, unhealthy flirtation with sugary fruit drinks in Serbia in particular, but this had swift and dire digestive consequences, so chocolate came to the fore instead. By the end of the walk, I was eating a few hundred grams of chocolate per day; sometimes as much as 500 g of dried fruit in a day; dairy whenever I could get my hands on it; salads when I stopped overnight in a room with a roof. I found that I couldn’t digest more than about 300 g of meat per day, though; there was a definite limit there. I didn’t carry a stove and couldn’t easily manage fresh produce, so just about everything I ate was packaged, and thus pretty unhealthy in normal terms. By the end of my walk, I had cavities in several teeth. I wish I’d flossed.
Q: What tent did you use?
A: I finished my trip with a Tarptent Scarp 1 – http://www.tarptent.com/scarp1.html – which is overall a very nice tent for this sort of trip. While it has some condensation and icing issues in cold weather, its chief year-round awkwardness is that, with so many points needing to touch the ground in roughly the same plane, it’s prone to go up slightly askew on uneven ground. The tent weighs just under 1.5 kg without the extra poles that make it freestanding. I do sometimes wonder about hammocks, which many people who travel exclusively in forests favor over tents.
Q: You brought a water filter? Why?
A: Habit. I used the water filter only rarely until I got up into the Alps, and bought more bottles of drinking water than I ever expected to. I found that European Turkey and much of the Balkans have roadside drinking fountains as part of the Ottoman legacy; but you don’t want to be drinking from valley waterways, many of which are quite visibly and horribly polluted. In France, I was finally introduced to the idea of filling my bottles at cafes and pubs and restaurants…aha!…and I continued this way through much of the UK, until Scotland, which is, technically speaking, an immense lake only loosely held together by moss. I never used my emergency iodine tablets, but also never hoped to: they were in case I somehow broke both legs near a body of fresh water, but somehow couldn’t use my filter. The Serbian border police, however, were pretty sure they were illegal, so that held me up for a while when I tried to leave the country.
Q: Why Istanbul? Why Edinburgh?
A: Books played a major role. Among the novels, some by Milorad Pavić, Mika Waltari, and T. H. White stand particularly prominent. It was a question of what each of them represents and of what stretches between them: perhaps the answer is, because that is what I am like, or wished to be. As for what lies between them, I knew I would have just enough time and just enough money to pull off the walk between winters, and that I would hit the Alps when the snow had mostly melted at 3,000 meters. I also wanted to stick to wooded areas of the continent as much as possible, both for scenery and for shelter. Putting these factors together, I came up with a preliminary estimate of 20 miles per day for seven months before I left for Istanbul, and this is pretty much how things would have turned out if I had miraculously never needed or wanted rest days along the way, or if Scotland hadn’t so thoroughly surprised me.
Q: What surprised you?
There were surprises all along the way. Through experience like this, surprise becomes so constant that it stops surprising – you’re wading deeper into it as it rolls in blue, like waves; and then you’re swimming. I never expected western Europe to be so full of slugs and ticks, for example, but so empty of mammalian wildlife; I didn’t think the Hagia Sophia would feel like the world’s biggest train station; I didn’t expect Ljubljana to be so much more captivating than I had already been told it would be. I didn’t expect to love northwestern Bulgaria so much, or to find such deep shadows of war in Slavonia. In the beginning, I had no appropriate respect for rain. I had no premonition of the beauty of eastern France; in Paris, I didn’t expect to be so impressed by La Défense, or so unnerved by everything Haussmann. I had no idea central London would be so incredibly loud, Liverpool so distinctive, or Bristol so logistically awkward. On arriving in Glasgow, I didn’t imagine it would turn, even for a little while, into home. When I started walking, despite knowing, absolutely, that I would reach Edinburgh, I somehow never saw myself walking to a real place, or to someone.