Tuesday, 19 March 2013

In the Beginning, so to Speak

I forget his name. Andreas? Arne? He was Dutch, I think, and appeared to be in his early 40s. He wore an unattractive façade of cockiness over his broad shoulders and swaggered about the Oaklands Lodge hostel in Auckland like he were a cat amongst mice. I only knew him for a few days, but in that time I was able to learn about much of his life. In return he knew nothing of mine. I am confident that the few questions he did put my way were merely a route to allowing him to talk more. I did not like the man. But he had a magnificent story.

Three years prior, Arne (for the sake of ease) and his girlfriend quit their jobs in Holland and flew over the Atlantic to the east coast of the United States of America. Here they set out on a four and a half month trek - beginning in Spring Mountain, Georgia and ending at Mount Katahdin, Maine - known as the Appalachian Trail. The couple completed the quest, and to top things off Arne proposed to his girlfriend as they crossed the finishing mark. She said yes, how could she not? Of course, this alone is a staggering story; a 2,200 mile path winding and undulating through the Appalachian Mountains. However, it was not the facts of the trail and the challenge it presented that stirred something within me, but the look in the storyteller’s eyes. As Arne shared his experiences I could see how much they meant to him. He sat, immersed in a deep reverie, as he told me that ‘the Appalachian Trail was the best and worst experience of my life’. A few seconds passed, and then he glanced up at me. I could see a fire raging behind glazed corneas. And that is when I knew, I too wanted this fire.

Arne seeped out of my life soon after, like the dispersion of an unpleasant bout of wind after a Sunday roast. I never spoke to him again, I did not want to. Nonetheless, I was wonderfully appreciative; he had got the ball rolling.

I rushed to the computer, filled it with coins and began an adrenalin-fueled, research-based assault of the Appalachian Trail. I was surprised that I had never heard of it. It is one of the most famous long distance trails in the world and is extremely well documented. My research also divulged that the Appalachian was one of three long distance US paths (the others being the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail) that make up the so called ‘Triple Crown’ – a trio of paths that run north to south, east to west, through the nation. However, of the three magnificent routes, it was the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on the western side of the US that caught my eye the most; remote, diverse and long (Mexico to Canada to be more precise). I found myself getting more and more sidetracked from the Appalachian and increasingly focused on the PCT.

For months I talked, dreamt, wrote and sang tirelessly about my quest to walk the trail. I moved to Australia, attracted by the higher wages, amongst other things, to allow for more efficient saving. I told everyone I met of my plans and listened anytime I could to travellers’ tales of hiking and the wilderness. My plans were further fortified when my brother, Jake, asked if he could join me. The perfect trail companion, I said yes without a second thought. With each paycheck that I received I did not see money, but a new pair of boots, a tent or 100 high-energy chocolate bars.

As with many long distance paths, the PCT is heavily impacted by seasonal changes. Snow along much of the Rockies meant that it was advisable to walk south to north, beginning in April. Further cause for organisation included the preparation of food boxes, which could be posted ahead to a pending destination and picked up along the way. This, apparently, is a compromise one must take when hiking in the wilderness. Postage of food alone would cost in excess of £2,000 and would take months to prepare. The acquisition of a US Holiday Visa would also be essential. Six-month visas can be granted, but they are neither guaranteed nor simple to obtain. Furthermore, the trail, for relative novices like us, would take roughly five and a half months to walk, leaving us with an uncomfortably small amount of wiggle room for time-adding mishaps. Ultimate wilderness should not be this stressful.

I arrived back in England in early August 2012. This gave Jake and I eight months in which to get trail fit, sort out our visas and organise our food parcels, along with the additional hoard of tasks that would, on completion, deem us ready to begin the PCT.  But, no matter how hard I tried to stay focused on the task, I could not rid the almost constant niggling voice inside my head: ‘Is this really what you want to do?’ I thought the answer was yes, an undeniable yes. And, in its simplest form it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to put on my walking boots and complete the PCT with my brother. However, I did not want to plan my lunch for nine months and two days time. I did not want to be forced to go home early because our visas had expired and I did not want to get bitten by a Red Diamond Rattlesnake. Actually, that last point is a lie; if I was going to go, the fangs of a rattlesnake on the PCT would be my choice of exit. Nonetheless, the long awaited dream to hike the PCT was slowly slipping away, like warmed honey from a spoon.

I still wanted to complete a feat of similar magnitude; I certainly was not backing out in that sense. And so, for the second time, I bled the internet for all it had, this time broadening the specifics: ‘long distance paths around the world.’ Let me tell you now, there is almost nothing specific about trying to find long paths around the world. In hindsight, it would be obvious to assume that a global spread of seven billion humans over an expansive time frame is likely to leave a good number of paths. After a day or two of swinging from continent to continent and country to country I had narrowed down my search. The revised plan now looked vaguely like; to walk 2,000 miles across Europe. I built up a fine repertoire of facts, figures and phrases that would advertise the idea effectively to Jake, and then posed it his way with the timidity of a furless mouse.

After the initial shock, Jake warmed to the idea and began to see its advantages. We conversed over the logistics of the new quest, continuously changing our starting point, finishing point and direction, until finally agreeing. We would walk from Bristol, England, to Menton, France, using the GR5 long distance trail as the backbone of the route.  An irrepressible excitement plagued my body.y body.

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