I knocked the bastard off. And a bastard it was for sure - this last stretch of E1.
But I will come back to that a bit later.
Mid-June, I prepare myself for Italy, where heavy rainfall is causing death and destruction. The weather settles just as I continue my journey on Passo della Giogo. A good start. Dry, not too hot, not too cold a good track.
Things quickly get a bit more challenging with overgrown tracks, ticks and afternoon thunderstorms. Some fabulous stretches, like one a bit northeast of Perugia, the area around Castelluccio or the Abruzzo mountains are able to keep my hiking spirit from plunging. Stretches which by far exceed my expectations. Also the endless beech forestes are a pleasure. Overall I am mentally fighting with myself, making my hike harder than it should be. Around the earthquake destroyed area of Amatrice, I reach a personal low. Never in my thru-hiking career did I struggle with myself so much. I am close to giving up. I'm glad for all the support I receive from home and overseas. It helps me to change my attitude, accept certain things the way they are, even see the good things in them. Like the rain.
So I carry on. However, shortly afterwards I start to realize: the route I have planed to hike across Campana and Calabria (along Sentiero Italia) is out of my league at this time. Too long, too many vertical meters, the uncertainty if the tracks are walkable.
In my head, I am mulling different option. The most appealing and realistic one is simply follow the coast from Salerno the Villa San Giovanni. The ferry terminal for Sicily. Yes, it would involve a lot of road walk. But by then I am tired of missing markers and getting lost, so I opt for the coast. With the beach calling, I can gain new momentum and I have some great hiking days.
Nevertheless, I then extremely spontaneously decide to take a couple of days off anyway. Head home, leaving the trail in Sulmoma. Waiting for the weather to improve, plan my new route.
Is it the right decision to take a break? Or should I have used the momentum. On the train home, I question my own decision keep on doing so during my 6 days off trail. What I can certainly say is that they help me to sort my thoughts and hit the trail well motivated and mentally recharged. A different hiking experience. Like in the good old days. And after a few days inland (where I also meet Umberto, who, with his amazing hospitality boosts my hiking spirit and therefore adds a lot to my achievement!) I hit the coast. Different walking. No more rain. Sunny and hot. Mostly enjoyable walking. Having the deep blue sea to my right, always available for a swim, gives me good feeling.
And following a flat, fairly straight route, obviously is flushing my down the boot towards the end of the mainland, compared to the inland route. Together with the lovely company of my friend and future TA, Maria, I tackle Sicily. Leaving the coast, leaving the road. Yet another completely different hiking experience. Remote, wild, hilly. And a volcano. No more water to cool down makes walking in the heat challenging. People I talk to think that I have lost my mind walking in this heat. With my goal so close, I am able to ignore it. Push all the was to Italy's southernmost point. Yet enjoying every day. Completing Italy, completing E1.
Of all countries hiked, Italy has been by far the most challenging. Not just this year but also last year. Physically, with the heat and the mountainous terrain until reaching the coast but especially mentally.
Many hours have I thought about it. Trying to figure the 'why'. Why the mental strugge? Is it the 'walking away from home', the difficulty to connect with the locals, the barely existing hiking culture? Or not knowing if the tracks I walk on are really existing. The uncertainty. The missing identy of E1 in the middle and south of Italy. Maybe a combination. Maybe also the fact that E1 has been consuming me a lot for the past 4 years and I am somewhat tired. 8000 kilometers is a big number to walk.
Anyway. I made it. I knocked the bastard off. In the end much faster than I anticipated. Better this way than the other way round.
As I am typing this, I am sitting on a pebbly beach near Taormina, still on Sicily. Enjoying Pizza and Ice Cream. Feeling fulfilled. Proud. And despite all the challenges, I don't regret hiking it a single bit.
My flight back is on July 4th. Maybe by then, or when I look down from the aircraft, I will have fully realized what I have achieved.
I already mentioned my gratefulness for the support I received from family back home and friends overseas. Namely Fredy, George and Rob. Also a big thanks goes to Pierangelo from Bernate Ticino and Umberto from Bologna. Your hospitality meant so much to me. And last but not least Maria, who joined me for a couple of days, enduring me and my stubbornness. She is still recovering from her blisters. I hope you can keep your toenails and also hope you could gain some experience for Te Araroa.
So that was Italy. Most probably, I will also write a quick summary about my whole E1 experience in one last (I promise) blog entry. Stay tuned.