A day’s walking isn’t just about that one panoramic view; it’s all the little things and thoughts that make it unique and unrepeatable. Leon McCarron slows down and charts a day’s hike, in all its molecular detail.
Perhaps it’s the early light that wakes me, filtering in and diffracted through tent fabric. Or maybe it’s the dawn chorus that rises and falls outside, at once deafening yet so easy to miss if one isn’t listening. Both are gentle nudges into morning; tranquil, calm. I roll over, onto a large rock under my sleeping bag and swear loudly to myself.
The peace is gone.
The morning routine is second nature by now; outside to pee, back inside for coffee in the (tent) porch, granola and milk in a steel pot, raspberries on top. Then, pack my sleeping bag and camping mat, pile everything else in on top of them in the pack and finally, bring down the tent.
Mornings here are fresh. A light wind blows and the birds have stopped serenading. There’s a brief moment of assessments: Do I need sunglasses yet? Is it cold enough for a second layer? And finally: movement. I’m off, boots laced and soles on the trail. I clean my teeth as I walk. I enjoy the efficiency and minimalism of it all; I relish the ritualism. It is another day on the road.
“Here comes the Sun, doo doo doo doo …”
I sing as it gets hotter, and the trail climbs through a forest. I pause to take off the second layer (that was a bad idea) and notice droplets of water clinging to the leaves. It rained hard for a few hours last night, and the air is crisp. I look at the map. Somewhere, not far, is the border with Italy. But I’m still in Slovenia. At least, I think so. The map is not particularly clear, but the path ahead is more so, so I don’t worry. I walk on.
The noise of a river reaches me before I see it. This is so often the way, yet we tend to remember sights more than sounds. It drowns out all else, and soon it’s in front of me; a tumbling mass of turquoise glacial water, thundering down from high on the mountainside. A wooden bridge crosses it, and sways gently under my weight. I pause in the center to feel the vulnerability of being suspended above such power. When the fear is gone, I move.
I continue to sing as I walk; snatches of half-remembered songs, and refrains from rock ballads that I can’t shake. I wonder if anyone has ever sung Rainbow or Tom Petty on this stretch of trail before. Three hours pass and I haven’t stopped to rest because I don’t feel tired. My routine is generally confined to morning and evening, when I can control some of the elements at play in the margins of the day. The rest is freeform.
The path for this day is made of soft earth, well-trodden, no more than a meter across. On one side, gnarled trees reach in with tentacled limbs, as if keen to snatch up a hiker; and on the other, it drops away until dense forest takes over. I’m walking on the edge of a mountain.
I hear an engine somewhere close by—an unnatural sound, and immediately jarring—and at the next turn, a tiny village appears, bounded by dry stone walls and fairytale-like farmhouses along a small road. One building has a sign in Slovenian, and I knock on the door. Another world awaits me inside.
How much different would it have been if I’d come in July? But also, how different if I’d arrived even just a day earlier, or later. The beauty in any part of these journeys is that it’s unique and unrepeatable.
The first thing I see is an enormous man sat behind an accordion. His whiskers reach his elbow, and his elbows bounce with the rhythm of a jaunty tune played to a scale I don’t know. The scene is both familiar and a reminder that I’m far from home. All around, small wooden tables are filled with stony-faced women who turn in unison to look as I enter. Are they glaring? The whiskered minstrel smiles at me and nods me in, and the women turn back to him. A young waitress with hair to her waist shows me to a crooked table at the back.
“What is this place?” I ask, and she answers in perfect, accented English. “We make local food for tourists in the summer, but now it’s off-season so we have other visitors.”
I’m walking in September; an odd time. My days had been generally quiet, and most campsites and hostels and cafés were closed. The rhythm of life along the trail rose and fell with the heat of summer, it seemed. How much different would it have been if I’d come in July? But also, how different if I’d arrived even just a day earlier, or later. The beauty in any part of these journeys is that it’s unique and unrepeatable.
“This is a group of women from a local village,” the waitress tells me. “Each week, they visit a different region and go to a café for lunch.”
“Have I interrupted?” I ask.
“No.” She laughs quietly. “They just don’t smile much. Except when I drop a plate. That’s hilarious apparently.”
I smile back at her, and we share a moment as two outsiders to the group around us. I order soup, and it’s perhaps the best I’ve ever had. Then I remember that lunch is always the best ever when I’m walking, until the next day.
As I leave, the waitress tells me that summer tourism here was the highest in a decade. “Germans and Austrians and French used to go to Turkey for holidays, but now they’re nervous because of the news of terrorism and so on, so they come here instead.” I think about this for the next two hours.
The afternoon is a trance. An orange and black gecko waddles across the pathway. I suddenly wonder how long it would take me to learn enough to identify basic reptile species. Another crossing of the river, and this time I can look back along its path and see snow-capped peaks beyond. It stops me in my tracks. I take a photo, and think about who I’ll show it to, then get annoyed at myself for spending too much time thinking about something so self-involved. I climb a switchback and see a sign for the trail I’m on: The Alpe Adria. It runs all through Austria, Slovenia and Italy, and takes most people over a month to complete.
There’s been nothing particularly remarkable about this day, but I know I’ll remember it.
I pass only one other person, a farmer, and as I try to say hello, I sneeze. It makes the old man laugh, and I decide I’m OK with looking silly. Afterwards, I wished I’d talked to him. Clouds gather and move at speed across my horizon as I crest a pass, and the most wonderful view appears as if by magic just when I started to feel vague unpleasantness as pack eats into my shoulders.
I’m looking east—I know this because of the position of the sun, but I double-check the compass on my phone to be sure. The mountains in front must be Italy. They look the same. Borders are so intangible, I think—the soil and rock is the same, yet passports and language and cuisine changes. More too, but these are the first things in my head. I wonder why I’m thinking about passports, so I check I haven’t lost mine. (It’s still there).
I linger on the top until the sun drops behind the forest behind. Off-trail, just a hundred meters or so away, I see a flat grove among the trees. There’s no-one else around, so I scramble down; it’s flat, and perfect for camping. I remember to check for rocks, and put up my tent. And so the next ritual begins: A sip of whiskey from my hip flask, then a cup of tea. I read a book about Slovenia, but it seems wrong to look at a page when I can see the land itself.
There’s been nothing particularly remarkable about this day, but I know I’ll remember it. The constant changing of scenery, the physical and visceral toll of a few thousand footsteps, the snatches and glimpses into another life and place—I won’t forget these easily. At home, the days roll into one, but not so now. Soon it’ll be time for pasta, then bed, and then it’s tomorrow, and another day on the road.