“I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.” – John Steinbeck
Brown grass and scrubby bush have replaced the lush fields and palm trees. It reminds me of central Mozambique. I’m annoyed at myself for thinking that. Why can’t I just enjoy here as here? Too many places remind me of other places, other days on the road. My shadow marches along beside me. The way it mimics my every move irritates me. I’m grumpy. I prefer life when I have no shadow. It means there is no sun.
A hot wind is blowing. I’m struggling. I have stiff legs, bruised feet and I am tired. I’m making no progress at all. I’m a hamster on its stupid wheel. The damn road unrolls shimmering towards the horizon. How many roads must I walk down? I can feel the heat of the road through the soles of my shoes. Through my soul. My feet are on fire. I feel every pebble, every step. I stop, sit, remove my shoes. The soles have worn thin after hundreds of miles of pounding. I squeeze my feet, gently. I wince. They are badly bruised. I scour the roadside rubbish for something to pad them with. At last, here is a positive side to the litter strewn across India. I find a car’s inner tube, place my foot on the rubber and draw round it. I use my tiny penknife to cut an extra layer of inner sole. Every action is accompanied by a running commentary I do not understand from the inevitable gathering of people who crowd round me. My feet still hurt, but the new insole is an improvement.
A bridge spanning the river is not yet completed so people have to wade across to reach the other side. It’s odd how the mind works: my first thought, as I see all these lightly-dressed Indians crossing the warm river beneath fluffy clouds, is a memory of attempting to cross a frozen river in a Siberian winter, following similarly in locals’ footsteps. I was terrified of crashing through the ice into the death black water beneath. The kaleidoscope of strange mental link-ups is fascinating. But once I have negotiated my way across an unbridged river thousands of miles from home, the next time is understandably less of a surprise, less of an adventure. Perhaps I do not need to continually seek new places. Have I seen enough? Maybe there is a time to stop after all.
I shove my shoes into my rucksack and begin wading through the thigh-deep water. The current is gentle, the water warm and tiny shiny fish flash round my feet. There are a number of us crossing the river and we exchange smiles at how silly we all look.
The red dirt road on the other side heads slightly away from the river. The road is narrow and deserted. Farmers cajole oxen across tiny fields, dragging wooden ploughs. My trousers dry in minutes as I walk along. The silence is welcome. It wraps me in peace and I only want to curl up and fall asleep for all time. I know I need to eat. I am almost out of energy. I only manage about a mile before I have to lie down under a tree. I fall asleep until biting ants wake me. A stream of them run up my leg and into my pocket, eating my biscuits. The ants rush over my hands, biting, biting as I leap up and empty my pockets. I brush most of the ants off the biscuits -they are all the food I have left- and force myself to eat them. I know well the symptoms of heat exhaustion and I am being nailed by it now.
Even after all these miles on foot I still have a cyclist’s mentality that considers 10, 20 or 30 miles to be not very far. On foot, smashed by the sun and by hundreds of miles of walking, today’s final miles take many brutal hours.
I pass a wall on which is written, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The gate is padlocked shut. I smile wryly and walk on, fuelled by obstinacy. I am light headed and nauseous, close to passing out. I suck the last of the unrefreshing, hot water in my bottles and stumble on towards the next well. I toss the metal bucket down into the dark well. It takes all my strength to haul it back up again. Green and stinking, the water is foul. The well has been contaminated by animal muck and rubbish. I take the water anyway and douse it with iodine.
The afternoon feels like an eternity. A motorbike stops and offers me a lift. I decline. Then another one does. I am so tempted. I consider cheating. Nobody would know. Just one small little ride. Just this once. Nobody would care. I think about doing the rest of the journey by public transport. It feels easy to justify…
This is it. This is the pivotal moment. In climbing speak it is the “crux”, the tiny section on which everything hinges. Get through this afternoon and I can get through anything. Capitulate now and it is all over. The rest of the journey would become irrelevant. Adventures like this depend on their “purity”, however artificial and contrived that is. It may mean no supplemental oxygen when climbing a mountain, no re-supplies of food in the polar regions. Here it means no lifts: I am walking across India and therefore I must walk every step of the way from one sea to the next. This moment will define the trip. Not only will it determine this trip, I suspect it will determine my future. Can I still do it? Or do I no longer care enough? Have I had enough? I wish I was at home.
I keep walking. The arguments continue to bounce round my head (“keep going, stop, keep going…”), but I am still moving. One foot in front of the other. Westwards towards the sunset, towards the end, towards home.
The land is empty now. The road angles steadily upwards. There are no houses, no farmland, not even any litter. Monkeys scamper around rocky outcrops as I start to climb the mountain. Even through my fog of self-pity, I appreciate that this is a wonderful place. Wonderful except that I am almost out of water and it seems unlikely I will find any for some time.
Mountains do not care how I fare on their slopes. They were around for millions of years before my petty quest began, and they’ll still be standing, beautiful yet uncaring, when my grandchildren’s grandchildren feel the same call to test themselves. I’m pitting my guts and my luck against them. I might win or I might lose, my face marred by dust and sweat. But they won’t care either way. Perhaps that is part of the appeal of taking on challenges in wild landscapes. Do it for the doing, not for the praise of others. And don’t be put off trying something big by the fear of failure and the sneers of people who have not done anything.
I glimpse more hairpin bends winding above me. As my craving for water escalates, the wind in the trees sounds like water. It is all-consuming to be desperately thirsty. I am nothing but a metronome now, bullying myself to keep going, step after step, hairpin after hairpin. I hate this walk. I am angry with myself for being here, for attempting this stupid challenge. How many more times must I put myself through this? This is ridiculous. Pointless.
Ridiculous and pointless, perhaps, but I do not give up. I came here for a battle. I am going to grit my teeth and get through.
And, although I still feel terrible -as bad as I have ever felt- I feel a tiny speck of pride in persevering. As I push through these final terrible hours, the sun is imperceptibly softening and sinking. It is easing off the pressure and filling the world with golden light. I have passed the test. I have almost earned my reward.