LETTERS

In the course of my journey, I sent ten dispatches out to friends and family: from Istanbul, Burgas, Sofia, Belgrade, Zagreb, Innsbruck, Paris, Sling, Tongue, and Edinburgh.  These are letters from the thick of things – sometimes they’re a little loopy, and they by no means tell the whole story, but I sure remember where I was when I wrote them.  For the full series, continue below.  Alternatively, jump to a dispatch by clicking on one of the links above.

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Çukur Mahallesi

Across Europe, vol. 1: Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey

10 March 2011

Dear friends, family, mentors, bright spirits and daredevils,

We may or may not have spoken in a while (fifteen years? fifteen hours?), but I’m about to embark on a long, long walk from Istanbul to Edinburgh, and for one reason or another, I thought the notion might amuse you enough to enjoy occasionally hearing how things are going.  At the very least, you’re one of the people whose example has nudged me in this direction; and for this I hope to be persistently grateful even while freezing in Bulgaria, gesturing frantically in France, or swatting midges in Scotland.

So, with a fanfare of trumpets – after a frenzied week’s preparations to abandon Seattle, I arrived amidst heavy sleet in Istanbul on the evening of March 9 to find that the box I had checked through was missing.  Contained in the box were all the things I suspected wouldn’t be allowed in the passenger cabin of the plane – my tent with its sharp metal stakes; my soap and toothpaste; my toolkit with its scissors and knife (and compass and flashlight) – plus some other things that might not have helped my backpack squeeze into an overhead bin, such as a spare pair of shoes, a miniature camera tripod, and a package of instruction manuals.  Along with several other supplicants from TK6 ORD/IST, I filled out a lost-baggage form; I made a hasty sketch of the map I had been unable to print, but which showed the address in Taksim where I hoped to couchsurf; I got onto a shuttle and went bumping into the darkness.  I hadn’t had more than two consecutive hours of sleep in four days.

Derya, my couchsufing contact, had described her neighborhood as “the belly of the beast.”  Spilling off the bus in the sleet, taking leave of some fleeting German companions, out into a whirl of honking taxis, sardine-packed shops and restaurants, hotels, electronic muezzins, phone stores, fast food, incongruous high-rises on the far side of the road (a glassed-in rooftop exercise gym?), feeling the slightest bit conspicuous, and after showing a few people my scrap of a sketch, down Tarlabaşı (“Careful,” he smiles – “it is dark place!”) – turn right at the armored personnel carrier – and into the pitched signless alleys, crumbling masonry, smashed iron bars – satellite dishes – walls craning overhead – a cat in every trash heap – accosted by an over-helpful teenager down alleyways in circles, wary strangers in half-lit doorways – more alleys – refusing to give me back my map – stairs – snatch back the scrap of paper – clutching hands at my backpack, throwing him off – shouting, shouting – running away – back to the bus stop.

The lobby of the Cartoon Hotel contains numerous life-sized statues of the cartoon pantheon, in the sense that Donald, Goofy, and Bugs seem precisely the size of imaginary things.  They were on a main street; they had a front desk; and the lights were on.  They had a scowlingly hospitable security guard with a landline, who didn’t give Derya too hard a time about the hapless American sitting thoughtful and dripping on a cartoon armchair in the lobby.

Against all odds, our destination turned out to be a truly charming apartment, miraculously full of light and air and space, psychotically haunted by a tiny particolored kitten who spent the night pouncing on my head, my remaining possessions, small bits of lint, etc., and purring like a miniature motorcycle.

Now it’s noon, and time to put some things in order, like contacting the airline again to inquire if my tent still exists; finding out why my debit card didn’t work at the airport; acquiring a useable (even unlocked?) phone, and generally getting as ready as I can for another foray through the belly of the beast.  We’ll see.

Hoping all is going well,

Owen

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The Black Sea

Across Europe, vol. 2: Black Sea intermezzo

Burgas, Bulgaria

28 March 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

It’s been thirteen days since I set out on the road, and during that time I’ve come along almost exactly 400 kilometers, or 250 miles.  Compared to what’s still to come, this doesn’t offer much in the way of room for colorful things to happen, but it has stretched generously enough to include:

Winding the entire length of the Bosphorus in a single day, only to find myself still in Istanbul, and having to start all over again a few days later, once my escape route from the world’s third largest city was a little better planned – spending my first night on the road almost literally on the road, sitting tentless by a drainage culvert at the side of highway D010 with just the moon and rain and heavy midnight cargo trucks to keep me company – fending off a pack of dogs with a pair of scissors at four in the morning while yelling, loudly, “Ya!  Ya!  Ya!” – singing the Wailin’ Jennys’ “Long Time Traveller” and James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” in tones (and at volumes) to suit any shade of light, amount of dust, proximity to errant buses, or degree of entanglement in mud-sunk brambles – navigating the Turkish Black Sea coast by guesswork and compass and livestock footpaths – securing a rescue for the two occupants of a van sadly overcome by the mounting mud outside Çilingöz – stumbling into the coastal town of Kıyıköy in the dark and the rain, and responding to a hotel-keeper’s piecemeal Italian in soggy Spanish – finding shelter at night in oak and beech woods so reminiscent of western Massachusetts it made the windswept miles drift away – being told by a maniacally sacrilegious man named Boris that I reminded him of Kurt Cobain, and was clearly a pious, righteous Christian – being woken by a cowherd, and told in sign language by an old man coming down to fish at the bridge below Armutveren that the US, the UK, and France were bombing Libya – finding blinding sunlight, heat, and thirst where I had warily anticipated cold and unremitting wet – watching a Turkish gangster movie from the 70s while gulping tea in a village too small to have a corner store – crossing a hilltop border to another country with another language and another alphabet – being pulled over to the roadside or otherwise made to show my passport at least ten times in my first 40 Bulgarian kilometers, courtesy of the relentlessly active dragnet of the Bulgarian border patrol – picking up bottled water at a weirdly salacious truckers’ cafe in Byala Voda – and a day of pastry-greased tranquility here by the shore of the Black Sea, before I head north tomorrow to join the trail that snakes westward along the Balkan Mountains toward Sofia.

Yours in sirene, in salam, in portokali,

Owen

PS – If the reference above to being tentless caused you any distress, don’t worry – the tent is fine, along with everything else in the box that was missing when I first arrived in Istanbul.  Somehow the postal service was able to deliver it to the address in Çukur Mahallesi where I couchsurfed the first week, and Turkish Airlines retains a warm spot in my heart.

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Katabatic storm

Across Europe, vol. 3: A hard day’s night

Sofia, Bulgaria

14 April 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

There’s snow on the ground and snowmelt on the eaves, and for the moment, I’m thoroughly enjoying a chance to let the soft tissue in my feet recover.  The way west along the Balkan Mountains and the Rose Valley was scenically impressive, socially hospitable, logistically puzzling, and arduous.  Food and shelter have both been much more problematic over the last two and a half weeks than they were on the way from Istanbul to Burgas; and since the uneasy tradeoff between the two has been the defining issue of the stretch as a whole, well, here follow two quick stories about cookies, sleeplessness, and peanut butter.

1.

I had originally intended to travel north from Burgas, catch the Kom-Emine / E3 footpath that runs across Bulgaria from the Black Sea to the Serbian border, and follow this route along the Balkan Mountains to Sofia.  The utter lack of trail maps for the region seemed less daunting given its supposed popularity with Bulgarian hikers, but my hopes in this case were abysmally misplaced.  It turned out that the Kom-Emine / E3 is merely one possible way of negotiating an extremely complex and ancient network of horse and sheep and goat and foot and cart tracks crisscrossing the range in every possible direction, blazed and signposted in a manner intelligible only for someone traveling from west to east, and not within easy striking distance of towns for someone needing regular supplies of food.  After two days backtracking and meandering amongst the hills, I resigned myself to descending back to the Rose Valley and continuing along the shoulder of Highway 6 until it intersected a more opportune section of the Kom-Emine / E3 at the center of the range.

Along the highway, there would be towns; outside or in between the towns, there would be gas stations; and thus I could be sure to find a regular supply of food, but hardly any shelter.  The Rose Valley is a patchwork of open farmland channeled by a parallel array of rugged hills, and the highway runs along the middle, skirting towns and rarely running up against the wooded margins of the mountains.  The most exposed stretch would be a 90-km run between the cities of Sliven and Kazanlak.  Looking at the satellite pictures, I could spot only one point along the way where the road would come tangent with a stand of trees – the rest was going to be wind, heavy traffic, scorching sun and soaking rain, and flowerless ill-natured wild roses, with little space left between the briars and the traffic.

I got a late start out of Sliven, and by sunset, I was still well short of my expected stand of trees.  I had passed women standing under overpasses in the smoke of fires sputtering in the rain, had sidestepped what looked like an unborn lamb left dead on the roadside with its head in a blue plastic bag; I had been pulled over yet again by police for a passport check, had been alternately soaked and scorched in turn; the bright lights of the freight trucks loomed up in the glowering east for miles behind me; and the thorns on the roadside brush ranged from prickling barbs to blood-red spines long and thick enough to pierce a hand.  Night settled with the bare dirt of the farm fields reaching blankly out on either side.  I stopped at a gas station; I stopped at another gas station; I felt peculiarly like an astronaut.  At 1:30 in the morning I reached the stand of trees, at a trash-spattered roadcut so steep I had to claw my way up off the road to reach a rough projecting boulder big enough to sit on.  I sat there wrapped in plastic, eating gas station cookies the taste of artificial hazelnut and watching the freight trucks lurch below, until 4:30 am, when I stood up, slung on my pack, and kept walking.  I reached Kazanlak in the evening.  I was tired.

2.

Reaching the village of Tazha, where crumbling concrete wreckage on the outskirts shares space with guard booths and a sign still displaying the hammer and sickle, I turned north from Highway 6 for my second attempt at the Kom-Emine / E3.  Supposedly, a road ran from the edge of town to join an offshoot highway heading up to cross the mountains just below the summit of Botev, the highest peak of the range and a confirmed waypoint on the Kom-Emine / E3.  This too turned out to be less than accurate.  I spent the morning out of Tazha alternately chasing dwindling paths through the trees and bushwhacking west-northwest, until I spilled out on a pasture, spooked the sheep dog and the sheep, and was told by the shepherd to keep heading uphill.  Barbed wire and guard towers; and then, unexpectedly, sporadic blazes for the Kom-Emine / E3, which promptly petered out entirely and left me none the wiser.  Up and up, with majestic views of Botev and a steadily widening perspective on the valley far below, until I cleared the trees in the late afternoon and came to a trail marked with a line of concrete-anchored snow-poles.  Following these up heavily sheep-frequented slopes, I came to an emergency shelter and checked to see if it might be a place to spend the night.

The door had been wired shut; I unbent the wire to open the door on an antechamber the size of a small closet, which had apparently been used to shelter animals, and which was furthermore heaped with plastic trash.  Through a second door was the shelter proper: a lightless, windowless drywalled cell containing more scattered trash, a wire cot, and a funereal yellow pallet.  A scrawled message on the side of the shelter indicated there was another refuge 800 meters uphill.  I kept walking.

The door to the second shelter had been left open, and the room inside had filled with snow.  It was considerably more spacious than the first, and had shelves, a window, and a wooden platform at the back for sleeping.  By the sound of it, something was living under the platform.  The ceiling was crossed with a series of hanging beams and countless dangling wire hooks, from which hung numerous bags of trash and several filthy, disemboweled mattresses.  I looked around to see what my options were.

Stretching away from the shelter was a low stone wall.  The only level surface in sight was the snow that had collected in the lee of the wall, and even this was liberally fouled with sheep droppings.  Still, the snow seemed preferable to the shelter, so I set up my tent in the most protected corner of the wall, piled in, and got ready to tackle the peak the next day.

At about 9:30 pm, I suddenly awoke to find myself lying in water.  My body heat had melted the snow beneath me, and the water had welled up through both my groundcloth and the floor of the tent.  I was wet; the tent was wet; my sleeping bag was wet; a gusting and rising wind was battering the tent from across the stone wall.  After rummaging in my pack, I hastily slid a large plastic bag underneath myself, propped my feet up on a few bags of muesli, and weighed the situation.  An hour later, my tent was broken down with my pack still inside and the poles still straight in their sleeves, stretched as tightly as possible under eight or nine large rocks from the stone wall, and I was sitting on the threshold of the emergency shelter with my sleeping bag wrapped around me, watching an immense darkness slowly cover the stars, and shivering to the sound of the wind as I peered down at the lights of a dozen villages along the highway in the valley.  At about six in the morning the sun rose behind the clouds, and the lights went off town by town far below.  I stood up, excavated my tent and retrieved my possessions, and pressed up the mountainside into a continual and rising headwind.

Over the next two hours, as I approached the saddle just east of the summit, the weather continued to deteriorate.  The summit was entirely obscured, and the wind steadily rose beyond anything I had experienced before.  First it became impossible to hold a steady course; then it became impossible to stand up; and then, as the turbulence worsened, it became too dangerous even to crawl on my hands and knees.  Leaning into the wind, there would be a sudden two-second rising shriek and then a colossal impact, and if I was not already flat in the snow, the wind would throw me wherever it wanted to.  It reached the point that I was lying spread-eagled in the snow, keeping my head into the wind to avoid being blown over, and inching sideways toward the saddle underneath my pack.  At this point, I wanted only to get down the far side of the saddle and off the ridge, because the summit was out of the question; but when I reached the saddle and fought through the ice that was screaming up from the far side, I discovered the north side was cliffed out.  No-go.  There was another concrete shelter at the saddle, so I splashed inside – the temperature was still just above freezing, and the snow was going to pieces – broke out the peanut butter, and listened to the glass rattle and the steel door quake as I prepared to retreat back to Highway 6.

It took me another four hours to reach the relative shelter of the tree line.  I don’t know how strong the wind was at the saddle that day, but looking at the current weather conditions at the summit (where there is a meteorological station akin to the one atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire), Botev is seeing gusts upwards of 300 km/h.  To which I say, do not – do not – mess with this mountain in April.

At any rate, I’ve reached Sofia without the loss of too many possessions to the wind; I’m still in generally good condition; and I’m still enjoying myself.  I expected the first leg from Istanbul to Sofia would be something of a shakedown, and it didn’t disappoint.  Now the next few days are for patching up equipment, healing, meeting people and catching up with friends, exploring Sofia, and planning out the route toward Belgrade.

Ah, spring,

Owen

[30 days, 890 km / 550 mi]

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Across the Danube, Romania

Across Europe, vol. 4: An inland riviera

Belgrade, Serbia

4 May 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

The Serbian forest in April is jungle, with creepers devouring trees and thorn-vines snaking through the undergrowth.  At sunrise and sunset a pall of mosquitoes seethes up off the river, from the carpet mosses on the trunks of trees, and strange armored beetles lumber out onto the roadway.  You wake to find yourself a-cling with seed-pods, caterpillars, flakes of skin.

In Bulgaria an old man chased me up a hill with two dogs in the mid-day heat, to hand me eggs dyed red and blue and green for Easter.

Unsettled, tired, in quiet walking breakdown, fortunate, expectant,

Owen

[50 days, 1,400 km / 870 mi]

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Minefield

Across Europe, vol. 5: The greatest shade

Zagreb, Croatia

18 May 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

A man in Završje had run to his back yard to give me the last two apples from his apple tree.  At five in the evening, the temperature on the thermometer hanging from my neck was still 30ºC; it had peaked at 36º or so that afternoon.  Over the course of the day, I would drink between six and seven liters of water, milk, and iced tea.  I had woken in a forest, eaten burek for lunch; at some point I think a police car pulled me over.  Later, three large men beside a car on a lonely stretch of road initiated the following conversation:

“Where are you going?”

“I am walking from Istanbul to Zagreb.”

“Istanbul?”

“Yes.”

“Alone?”

“Yes.”

They whistled to each other.

“Money, money.”

“Money, money?” I replied.

“Money –“ the man pulled several notes from his pocket and waved them in front of my face while his friend elaborated:

“He wants to know how much it costs you.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You are being followed?”

“I’m being followed?”

“He means, you have an escort, behind you?  Friends?”

“No,” I said, waved goodbye, and began checking over my shoulder at each turn in the road.

Deževci, Pasikovci, Orljavac; no shelter, no way off the road, stinging nettles, gut trouble from Serbia persisting, pain.  An old man interrogating me.  Blinding sunset.  As night fell and I reached the last building in Orljavac, a couple sitting at a picnic table under the eaves shouted for me to come over.  I set my pack down and collapsed on the bench across from them as it began to rain.  Of the two, the woman spoke the better English; and she used this advantage the better to appreciate the conversational subtleties as her more talkative companion and I exchanged gestures, grunts, and syntaxless assortments of nouns, verbs, and place-names.  After about fifteen minutes and a tour of the building – the local hunting lodge, all gussied up for a banquet the following evening – we were rattling along like a claptrap backwoods tricycle.  The man kept offering me things to drink, despite my steady polite refusal; eventually a mischievous look came into his eye and he set down his beer.

“Two months,” he said.  “Girls?  No girls?  Istanbul?  Požega?”

“No,” I said.  “If I’d met someone, either I would be there, or she would be here.”

“But – lav?  Love?  Love.”  He executed a series of rapid, impatient gestures.  “USA.  Canada.”

“US, Canada?” I said.

“US, Mexico!”  He pressed his hands in an attitude of prayer.  “Granica.  How to say…love, bez granica.”

“Border?” we said.  “Love without borders?”

“Love without borders!”

Before sending me off into the dark and the rain, the man traced out the road I would have to follow to reach the nearest hotel, another 30 kilometers away in Pakrac.  It was the road I had hoped to take the next day, dotted steadily with villages; I just hadn’t hoped to have to stay in a hotel, and I hadn’t hoped to walk through the night.  He tapped the bleary map and pointed into the gloom as I folded it and put it back in my pocket.

“Twenty-five kilometers, not a house.  Straight.  Then Pakrac.  Maybe you find a girl in Pakrac!  Then –“ and he made the universal head-on-hands gesture for blissful sleep.  We bid each other a cheerful good night and I tightened my hipbelt, vaguely wondering, as their porch light receded and the pain kicked back in, what he had meant by “not a house.”

I began to run into the mine signs immediately.  I had already encountered several minefields between Vukovar and Đakovo, but that was in daylight, near towns, among people; it felt like life, if life under constant threat.  The valley leading north and west from Orljavac was something more like hell.

Dark, rain, fog curling serpentine and drifting from the road, a broad oblong moon through ragged clouds, car headlights white, car taillights red, the mine signs white, the skull and crossbones red, the stinging nettles, dark, the bridges over unseen rivers, engines howling in the distance, small, shrill, somewhere in the night, a dog; and soon enough, the villages.

Not a house: total, gaping, shellshocked devastation.  White obliterated walls.  Tall trees and matted brush engulfing wreckage in the headlights.  Me standing like a ghost in the bright light and the rain.  A dark memorial beside the road.  White signs, NE PRILAZITE; a single roadside window flickering and muffled with the blue flare of a television, howling like a bellows from a dark barn, desolation.  Signs and maps for towns that have been dead and gutted by the worms for sixteen years.

Days and days and days and days.

Owen

[64 days, 1,859 km / 1,155 mi]

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071-GOPR1755

On the way to Vorderes Umbaltörl

Across Europe, vol. 6: The bear goes over the mountain

Innsbruck, Austria

1 July 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

So.  On the 24th of May, if I have the entries straight, I arrived in Ljubljana, Slovenia, not having eaten very much in the preceding three or four days, and tramped up the pigeon-haunted stairs to the Zeppelin Hostel, Couchsurfing having come up completely blank.  At this point, my boots were pretty much toast, with holes and tears and gaps in just about every place you could hope not to find them.  I also discovered, when I tried to turn on my laptop, that instead of the usual log-in window it could offer me only a blank screen with a gloomy question-mark icon in the middle.  My anticipated two-day stay in Ljubljana thus turned into a week in limbo, for which I wound up being more than grateful.  After days of fruitless searching and anxiety on my part, a guide affiliated with the hostel found me a pair of boots that fit better than the ones I was discarding, and a repair center near the airport returned my laptop in full working order, all contents intact, the problem having been a single faulty cable and not the total hard-drive failure I had feared.  In the meantime, I met several extraordinary and wonderful people and got to spend some time in and around Ljubljana, which kept improving on its excellent first impression.  I got to help paint a world map on a wall; to tread a resoundingly hollow wooden floor in the castle casement’s surrealist art gallery; and to wander Metelkova.  I also learned to avoid chestnut trees in the dark.  Happiness.

Leaving Ljubljana on the evening of 31 May, I followed the hills to Bled and then around the shoulder of the murky Julian Alps to the border with Austria.  Every day there was a thunderstorm; somewhere along the way, I wandered into tick country, but I haven’t shown any symptoms of Lyme disease yet, and I hope it continues that way.  I’m also enjoying this new life without border police; crossing into Austria there was only a ceremonial tank by the roadside, pointed menacingly into Austrian territory somewhat against the grain of history, with passing drivers clambering on the turret to get their pictures taken.  Motorcycles everywhere.

On reaching Villach I took a brief vacation by train and bus to see Vienna, Prague, and Berlin.  Vienna was something of a Richard Linklater pilgrimage, and in this regard it was a total null; but I did circle beneath my first Gothic cathedral, amass an impressive collection of topo maps to see me from Villach to Innsbruck, and spend a while watching local climbers scale the massive overhanging wall of the municipal aquarium.  The palace area with its museums was largely cordoned off for a Central Asian economic summit, so a faint but authentic glimmer of the imperial past lingered on in the reflections from the policemen’s sunglasses and automatic weaponry.  I got the impression that Vienna in practice is a burgeoning and rather anonymous world city, loosely centered on a parti-colored pastel core where American and Chinese tourists chase after Mozart, Schiele, the Secession, and expensive crystalware – Freud, not so much.  Prague had a much stronger flavor.  The old central city is almost entirely devoid of Czechs, being crowded to the brim with plump tourists eating ice cream and wearing Kafka-patterned t-shirts reading “I  Prague” or “Prague is for Lovers,” but the architectural mayhem is wonderful, and the parks overlooking the river have character to spare.  I also spent a good six hours in the modern art museum, which greets visitors with a sign saying something like this – “Owing to the chaos and repression of the communist era, when the 1990s came around, we weren’t sure if we could put a cohesive exhibition of modern art together at all.  Fortunately, thanks to tremendous generosity, support, and dedication, we were able to assemble the rather idiosyncratic collection we present to you now.  It’s not exactly your standard major-art-museum fare, but we hope you like it.”  It’s brilliant.  I don’t think I’ll ever find another set of rooms where Picasso, Braque, de Chirico, Miró & Co. are mingled interchangeably with motorcycles, domestic wooden furniture, interwar theatrical design miniatures, heavy machine guns, weird flickering light-machines, and toy model airplanes.  The numerous Czech artists on display, hardly any of whom I had heard of before, held their own quite gracefully amidst the fray.  I was less lucky in Berlin, where I found the hostels already swamped and didn’t even manage to spend two days in town.  The general lack of geography was peculiar – I’m not used to navigating by street names and U-bahn stops alone – and the organization around the Unter den Linden axis was also strikingly different from the layout of the other major cities I’ve seen in Europe so far, all of which have been great-grandparents to Berlin’s teenager.  I got a glimpse of the electric Berlin I think people talk about on Oranienburger Strasse, and I found the open-air displays at the remains of the Wall and at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters interesting both for what they said and for what they didn’t say; but I didn’t see the Ishtar Gate, I didn’t manage to instantaneously ingratiate myself with any underground scene, and when I dashed to the Hauptbahnhof gallery and found it devoted to a Land Art retrospective, the colossal irony embodied in all that wretched Richard Long and Hamish Fulton made me physically nauseous, and I had to leave.

So: back to Villach, and back to walking.  As if to celebrate my return from my urban vacation, at this point things went reasonably insane.  The mountains along the Austrian-Italian border are strenuous enough in good weather; in heavy cold rain and wind and cloud, even Teddy Roosevelt might like them.  Between Villach and Innsbruck, I think I had only two days on the move that didn’t involve between 1,200 and 2,100 meters either straight up or straight down – or, more typically, both – often on friable, thinly-layered, steeply-tilted, slippery-when-wet metamorphic rock; or over snow; and my pack was at its heaviest yet – at what various people along the way estimated to be 40 to 50 pounds, or about 25 kilograms.  In the course of this Tyrolean idyll, I racked up my first injuries of the walk so far.  First my three-week-old boots reduced each of my feet to a swollen bloody mess, so that a doctor staying at a hut where I stopped to rest for a day blinked and said she’d never seen anything quite like them.  Then, while running pell-mell down a boulder-strewn valley to escape an equally determined herd of cows – because yes, Austrian mountain cows do chase people, and they’re appallingly fleet-footed – I lost my balance and landed full on my left knee, which has since shown a tendency to get stiffer than Ötzi whenever I stop moving.  To round things off, I decorated my hands with a few abrasions and small chips of rock in a fall down the hard snow on the east side of the Vorderes Umbaltörl pass into Italy.  In better news, I’ve since settled on a way of tying my boots that doesn’t cripple me; I’m giving my knee a few days of rest here in Innsbruck; and the scrapes on my hands have veered away from infection after all.  Knock on wood.

Other issues – the tent I’ve been using now inevitably fills with water when it rains, and the rain is getting pretty inevitable too.  Unfortunately, Innsbruck is surprisingly thin on outdoor equipment stores, and those it does have are surprisingly thin on decent lightweight tents, the summer sales already having come and gone.  I couldn’t find anything today that was worth trying instead of the leaky assemblage I’ve got; and until I can, I’m just going to have to deal.  Then there’s the question of where I go next on my way toward Freiburg.  One option is what I’m thinking of as the Swiss-Bliss-Blitz.  This would take me southwestward up and down a bushel of mountains to the Bernese Oberland, whereupon I would turn north toward the Black Forest; the southwestward leg would probably take at least three weeks, and would probably make the last three weeks look like a piece of cake, but the scenery (if visible) would be mind-boggling.  The question is how to careen through the Swiss Alps without 1) further damaging my knee; 2) overstaying my 90-day limit in the Schengen Area, which requires me to exit France by a specific day in August that I’ll have to work out by digging through my journal; 3) paying hundreds of dollars for maps; 4) freezing in an attempt to avoid paying for shelter; or 5) pauperizing myself in Swiss grocery stores.  Option number two would have me head as directly to Germany as possible, and then go west to Freiburg from there.  Less massive, but also much more easily manageable on every count.  The first step in either case would be to get out of Innsbruck, so I’m planning to head for Garmisch-Partenkirchen, from which either option will still be possible, and then Bodensee/Lake Constance.

I would keep up with the tally of how far I’ve come, but at this point, I don’t really know.  A long way, getting longer.

The place I’m holed up in at the moment rents its wireless signal by the minute, so I’m probably not going to be basking in the sun on Skype while in Innsbruck after all.  If the weather doesn’t lighten up a little – snow, rain, and furious wind today – I won’t be basking in the sun in Innsbruck, either; and this soaking tent will have to dry indoors.  Mostly, once the logistical issues are sorted out, it looks like I’ll be sewing, reading Herodotus, editing pictures of fog and other airborne water, and listening to Welsh punk rock while I watch the river hurry past.  A party animal.  I will check email again, though, before I head back to the hills.

Much love, best of luck,

Owen

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Paris rose

Across Europe, vol. 7: Je la terre dévore

Paris, France

12 August 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

Since leaving Innsbruck, it’s been over the mountains, through the woods, and then some.  I’ve fallen asleep to the roar of ice falling on the north side of the Jungfrau, to the whirling of wild boar in the forests of Alsace, and to the growl of combines coursing wheat fields well into the night; I’ve felt a mighty drum repeating in my head beneath the north face of the Eiger and the west wall of Strasbourg Cathedral; I’ve walked highways, byways, Roman stone roads and the Santiago trail, gotten tangled in thistles, hopped barbed-wire fences, and found myself standing by accident on the Rue Nicolas Flamel; I got an umbrella, because for two months straight it’s rained almost every day, sometimes long and pensively, sometimes with a five-minute fury that’s left roads steaming through the afternoon.  I’ve felt as though the calendar has suddenly leapt forward; a minute ago I was setting out from Beyoğlu in Istanbul; only a moment past, I left Germany on a race against my Schengen clock, doing a marathon or more each day across the fields of France.

Last night I finished reading Dreams from My Father at 6:00 in the morning, so yet again I’m lurching on two hours of sleep with a whole lot of walking to do.  Yesterday I saw Paris on the outside, all by foot; today I’ll see the same, but on the inside, much though I dread the thought of standing stock-still for hours in the August sun until the line advances far enough to get me in the Louvre, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Centre Pompidou – whatever time allows.  A moveable feast is one thing, and fast food, another.

From Paris I head through Amiens to Calais, and then to Dover on August 19.  I’m still not sure how to cross the Channel, but I suspect I won’t be walking; I just know that once I land in England, I’ll be very, very glad to take on each day a little less ferociously; will be very happy if there’s any chance to meet old friends along the way; and will be much relieved both for my friends and for the country as a whole if England itself is living less ferociously in the weeks to come.

Hoping everyone is all right,

Owen

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Millennium Bridge

Across Europe, vol. 8: The British invasion

Sling, Wales

24 September 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

After accompanying me for hundreds of miles, the last tiny fragment of the Italian Alps is gone from the palm of my hand; but I did manage to run my right eye onto the end of a sharp stick in the dark in Penrhyndeudraeth a couple of weeks ago, so the persistently bloodshot sclera is some compensation, at least.

The last month and a half are something of a blur.  Leaving Paris, I found food in surprisingly irregular supply, and if I hadn’t had the otherworldly, gigantic grace of Amiens Cathedral to lift my eyes and spirits as I hurried north, I would have reached the Channel in sorry shape indeed.  Coming over the hill to Calais was like reaching the edge of the earth.  Tired, hungry, shouting loudly to myself on the side of the road, and suddenly the horizon fractured clear across, a whole new color to the air.

After crossing on the ferry – pacing the observation deck all the way being the best compromise I could come up with – I passed through Dover, Canterbury, London, Oxford, and Bristol on the way to Wales, ducking the mirrors of heavy trucks and scraping past hedges in long days through the frayed-lace suburb of the south of England.  Up until the town of Machynlleth, the pace was still as exhausting as it had been in France; but at this point a combination of gear failures and characteristically heavy Welsh weather forced a halt.  An out-and-back detour by train to Liverpool took care of most of the gear issues – my deteriorating laptop the major exception – and I was able to return to Wales and cross the fogbound, gale-wracked mountains of Snowdonia not only easier in mind, but more or less dry, too.

At the foot of Snowdon itself, I was adjusting my equipment in a parking lot when a man with a small fluffy dog clutched to his chest asked where I was headed.  Snowdon, I replied, up the Rhyd Ddu Path.

“Rid Doo?” he said.  “Ah.  Well, not to diminish your sense of achievement, but I once went up the mountain that way with my daughters, then aged seven and eight.  It’s really not that difficult.”

“Well, that’s good to know,” I said, cinching my shoulder straps.

“Where are you coming from, by the way?”

“I walked here from Istanbul.”

“Ah, Istanbul,” he said.  “I’ve been there, too.”

Ahead, the northwest coast of England, the Lake District, and Scotland – up the western edge of the Highlands, around the uttermost end of the island, and back south to Edinburgh.  The end is both close enough and far enough away to make me anxious.  Over the next, last several hundred miles, the days will shorten and the temperature will fall; the weather in Scotland has a dire reputation.  It was always going to be a stretch, and now it’s time to do the stretching.

Hope all is going well,

Owen

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Skye

Across Europe, vol. 9: From a mountain called Hope

Tongue, Scotland

19 November 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

As of tonight, perched on the starless edge of the Kyle of Tongue, the Scottish Highlands are behind me, and with them the push north to 58º.  The blue horizons of the Irish Sea, the sprawl and the crazy-quilt colors of Liverpool, the cold roaring darkness and horizontal hail of the Lakes, the highway miles through the Southern Uplands, gray smoky Glasgow with its unexpected glow, and golden twilit days across the wild north, over bog and mountain and innumerable waters, past.  The sun going down on Loch Hourn.  An auburn silver-laced expanse receding into cloud from Buachaille Etive Mor.  Snow underfoot, leaves turning – wind-rime and beechwood, as though once more in Bulgaria, in April, still wondering what lies ahead.

It’s time to see if I can make this last.  From here I head east to John o’ Groats; and while the original idea was to finish by walking the east coast down from there to Edinburgh, there are things now that matter more, and I’m not sure my body could recover from it anyway.  Instead, from John o’ Groats I take buses or trains back to Glasgow, and dart the last days of this walk out to Edinburgh from there – I reason the continuous trail of footprints, if forked, still holds.  A celebration at last instead of an ordeal.

It feels right.  It feels worth however many thousands of miles this has been; a brightness of heart and spirit on the edge of new life.  Now I just need to convince my feet and my knees that they’re still feet and knees in the morning.

Hope all is going well,

Owen

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East toward break of day

Across Europe, vol. 10: A doorstep

Edinburgh, Scotland

5 December 2011

Dear fellow-travelers,

The city is quiet, and the countryside is under snow.  If it weren’t for the accent, in the dark and on first arrival this might be anywhere in Europe; but as it is, this is the Haymarket, and somewhere in the night to the east loom the castle, Arthur’s Seat, and the last rising mile of the walk.  Wake up into a new place.

Moving at the pace I’ve been, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.  You can see life on the other side of hills the way a town’s lights turn the night a fading violet, red, maroon; not like the sun, neither the blazing white of Turkey nor the low gold on the North Atlantic coast.  The last eight and a half months have been the sun’s day and the moon’s night, even when the sun and moon were nowhere to be seen.

They´re closing things down; I´ll have to catch you again from Glasgow.

Hope things are going well,

Owen

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Continue the journey at walkthewest.wordpress.com