The first hundred days

One hundred days back on the road. One hundred days without a roof. One hundred days from Bristol to Bosnia.

There’s something solid about one hundred days. Three figures, a second order of magnitude. Though the distance between the orders grows exponentially, so a third order is only on the cards if the walk stretches out toward three years. Best not to get ahead of myself though, I don’t need to settle that either way just yet.

Conceptually, this leg of the walk, from Bristol to Bosnia, was the only part I’d really given any thought to. In a way, the restriction the visa imposed on crossing Europe, rather than creating difficulty, made the walk possible. A maximum of 90 days in ‘the zone’ presented a forcing function. I wrote before the walk about how that constriction seemed to reign in the amorphousness of a walk this size; I didn’t have to decide how long to take, indeed, I couldn’t. A year and a half ago I wrote down some ‘advice’ I would give to myself if I could intervene in the life of my younger self. In it I wrote that “almost everything is negotiable, and there’s no use worrying about the few things that aren’t”.

In the years since I first left England this philosophy has taken hold in me, and grown bold, bolstered by un-tallied influences and encounters along the way, and by the experience of repeated success in the pursuit of a life that people have long told me is unrealistic and unattainable.

So the ‘bureaucratic imposition’ of the visa gave the walk a shape, and within that structure I was freed to think only about those things that I could negotiate.

The visa also gave the walk it’s first number, 90. I like numbers, or rather, I like looking at the relationships between things, and numbers are a (sometimes) useful lens for that. Walking, particularly long-distance walking, offers much to the numerically inclined mind, through that lens the first 100 days sum as follows.

3052 kilometres — 4,409,355 steps — 10 countries — in 91 walking days.

7 nights within the law, 93 without. Of those rarefied ‘legal’ nights, 5 were spent at campgrounds (mostly for use of the showers/laundry); 1 night in a hostel, never to be repeated; and 1 night in a hotel (thank you Rahel!).

The larger latter group comprised 64 nights ’trespassing’ right on the surface of the world, be it on dirt, concrete, sand, or scree, hidden in alleys and valleys alike, nestled in forests and perched in the mountains; and a further 29 nights in derelict or ‘otherwise unoccupied’ structures of various styles and states of repair (including one night in a pipe).

Oh, and a grand and decadent total of 6 showers were had in these 100 days, but there were a good deal of river baths and flannel washes that the record does not account for, I promise!

Many things — often the best things — defy categorisation. Sleeping in a pipe on a construction site; is that urban wild camping or sleeping in a structure? I’d say the latter but it’s tenuous. When I slept under a shed I labelled that a night in a structure, even though I wasn’t really in it.

Likewise, a lot of words have been written. I don’t know precisely how many because I haven’t transcribed all of my journal, but somewhere above 50,000 and below 100,000. Of that, a little less than 20,000 words have made it either into the group or onto this here website. Of course, writing ought to be a qualitative pursuit not a quantitative one, and by that measure I’m still struggling. Sometimes I catch glimpses of what I was trying to write in the thing that I actually put to paper, or to you the groupWhy the walk qualifies there, it rings very true for me — but usually the feeling is of varying degrees of failure. Though every time it is a different failure, and I enjoy that.

Early on I was trying to bring you all into each day of the walk, feeling vaguely contrite for having kept my previous journeys almost entirely to myself, but eventually I realised that couldn’t work. For me it became tedious and the results turned trite. As with the walking, the rhythm of the writing will surely continue to change but, so far, eschewing that strict structure in the production of this work has yielded writing that I’m generally more happy with. That, and I enjoy being able to assemble photos more thematically rather than just blitzing out daily missives with a flurry of photos attached.

I remember talking with Jasmin about the many ways that people — perhaps men in particular, and certainly myself — conceal our failures. Atop that list is the ever hollow pretence of not having actually tried, forever editing our intent such that it is always reflected in the outcome. But doing this work publicly, be it in the group or, in even greater exposure here on the site, leaves no opportunity for that. Under your scrutiny, both real and imagined, I’m learning to write better, to take better photographs and, perhaps, even to live better; because every time I hit send I’m forced to admit, to announce even, “here, look, I tried!” and in that I give up the freedom to evade failure. But! In that same irretractable gesture I feel that I am teasing open another door beyond which lies a better understanding of people, the world, and my place in it.

The triumph lies in the attempt, or something of the sort.

That’s nice, but what about the walking? And what happened to the marathons?!

When I left Bristol I had decided on a method of five or six big walking days per week, using rest days to recover. After a little back of the napkin math I had figured that I wanted to average 30 kilometres a day over the first 100 days, so if I was going to walk five days a week that meant walking a marathon on every walking day. So how come there were only 19 true marathons?!

Note: I’m working up some visualisations of the walk where you’ll be able to see things like a rolling plot of distance, elevation change, number of marathon days, and other distributions, but, being a novice in the world of statistics, plots, etc… it’s taking a while.

While I started out in that rhythm, with five marathons in the first week, soon enough I realised it didn’t suit me to take two days off each week, nor to force myself to walk a marathon if there were more enticing idle prospects. Structure is the great battleground of my life. I abhor structure, and I need it. I resist it and, like everyone, I become what I resist, doomed to wrestle at turns with structures external and internal. Long before jettisoning the structure in the writing I realised the futility of trying to impose any rigid structure in the walking, I’m pathologically fickle and so it just doesn’t work. Some people get up at the same time each day, start and end the days work on a schedule, and work magnificently and productively in that structure. If you tried to scatter plot almost any part of my life or, more reasonably, this walk, you’d be hard pressed to tease out a linear or non-linear relationship anywhere, it’d look like pure entropy.

So I tossed out the plan and, on the whole, the discard revision worked well. Not massive days, a loose, permissive rhythm; watching the average, but not very closely. I maintained that, week after week, for much of what followed.

I did ‘forget’ to take a day off for the 49 days between Canterbury, England, and Oberstdorf, Germany though, and the workers (legs, organs, et al) began at last to grumble. By the time I crossed through Lichtenstein the body had unionised and was planning a work stoppage. Knees, feet, gut, they weren’t having it any more. “Overworked and underpaid!” they shouted. The tyrant in my head had long pretended not to hear. I’d tried the union busters, “we’ll miss our deadline”, “this is a temporary crunch”. That had stayed the stoppage by a week or so, but by Oberstdorf I was a wreck — sick from contaminated water, I could barely walk — and took a couple days off.

A week later I reached Innsbruck, Austria and had another two days off, but that was for the writing bug, not the stomach one. In the Dolomites I cut a day short in order to bask in the splendour of those peaks. Ten days after leaving Innsbruck I took another day off, this time on account of the rain. Four days later I took a detour and summited Mount Triglav as I worked my way through Slovenia.

It became clear that now the revised rhythm had been broken too, and I was glad of it; the cycle of chasing, eschewing, and destroying structure, my constant companion, continues. I knew before I set off that I could go the distance in the time the visa afforded, but now — with only a couple of countries still to go in the Schengen zone — I felt almost completely relaxed about that deadline.

Short days, long days

About 400 kilometres from Bosnia I realised, with only a small contrivance to align my route and the distances so, I could make a neat package of the first major leg of the walk and cross into Bosnia on day 100, passing the 3000 kilometre mark on the same day. It meant stepping up the distance slightly — days 98 and 100 became the biggest of the walk in terms of forward distance at 67 and 56 kilometres respectively; late finishes both, with day 98 technically ending in the early hours of day 99 :D — but it appealed to my sensibility toward neatness, and those of you following in the group already know that it came together as planned.

Just before 11pm on day 100 a precocious little hedgehog led me across the border into Bosnia and out of the Schengen Zone.

I don’t know what the walk will look like from here, not in terms of daily distance, nor particularly in terms of direction. While I am nominally headed toward India, I’m not in a hurry and the list of intrigues between here and there is without end. On the one hand, I think it’ll take quite some effort to slow myself down fully, but on the other hand the days are already a lot shorter. I’ve worked/walked on the assumption that at some point in the winter I’ll stop and hole up somewhere until the spring, but I don’t know exactly when and I haven’t the slightest clue where. I’ll see how I feel as the days draw in.

I was curious and looked up the change in the daylight hours. The meteorological length of day in Bristol, England on the 9th of June was sixteen and a half hours, today in Livno, Bosnia it is twelve. So, I’m down four and a half hours so far and the days will shorten by a further three hours by mid December, to say nothing of how cold it is sure to get.

A part of me wonders where I’ll be in another hundred days, but somewhere South-East of here is good enough for me. With 100 days and many miles behind — and there are sure to be a few such numbers ahead too — it is the uncountable encounters with the good, kind, and interesting people of this rock we all share that stand out most. Time and memory prevent me from enumerating them all but, in my best effort at chronological order, my thanks are due at the very least to:

Margaret, met on the Bristol to Bath way. The Swiss trio of Vanessa, Ivan, and Eliza, as well as two kiwi boys whose names I forgot to ask, all met on the ferry coming across the channel. Michael, Franck, and the boys, for bread and wine beside the canal in France. Anne and company, for cake and chatter. Nathalie, Paul, and Marcel; if I make it to Singapore I’ll be looking you up :D. Maria & Patrick from Sweden, and the first through-hikers I met on the walk. Aleksanteri, Finnish, and a true kindred spirit. Milosh and Marek, for hot tea and lively reminiscences on a cold afternoon. The Joy of Devon/Switzerland/France herself. Jasmin, Tamara, and Matias of Switzerland, good luck with Te Araroa! Mike of America, and of unmatched enthusiasm. Steph in the lightning. Neeraj beneath the peaks. Gaurav after the storm. Dennis, Andrew, and co, the Triglav gang. Roman, thank you for the salts, and maybe I’ll get back on the bike one day yet. Edward, for your valiant efforts to put the fear of Bears in me. Richard, for loving the world in the same tones that I do. And Damir, a Croatian giant with a heart to match, and no end of Schnapps either.

As surely as that list will grow much longer in the months ahead, there are already a good many people missing from it, for no record, nor trial, nor memory is ever complete, but hopefully these few words hold these memories in me for a while yet.

From Bosnia, much love to you all x