TWENTY-FOUR YEARS ago today I stood alone in an Italy that very few people know. I was three days into my 18-month walk across Europe, and surrounding me were mountains that were far wilder than I’d expected, and far harder to cross than I wanted. It was a bit of a shock.
The location was the Aspromonte, in Calabria, at the southern end of the Apennines, and the mountains weren’t like any I’d previously walked. Instead of open and grassy they were cloaked in thick forest of beech and pine, even on the summits. It was impossible to see any distance, or walk in a direct line. There were no trails or huts or signposts; there were no signs of my own species whatsoever. To cross the range I had to follow my compass. The small-scale map I carried, the only map of the region I’d been able to find, was practically useless. Traveling against the grain of the land I plunged into steep-sided ravines, hacked my way up ice slopes, wallowed knee-deep through late-lying snow, battled through the sottobosco – the infamously dense ‘underwood’ of the Italian Apennines. Progress was slow, and – to be honest – I didn’t handle the isolation or the challenge at all well. I wanted an easy start to my journey. I wanted a gentle breaking in. And because I didn’t get what I wanted I struggled. I found myself in at the deep end, floundering. When it came to the real wild, I hadn’t yet learnt how to swim.
The land I had entered was the Italy that few visitors had even heard of, let alone visited. And it was the Italy that most Italians avoided. It was the ‘other’ Italy, the wild Italy, a parallel land existing alongside the better known nation that so many people know and love. In a normal year, Italy welcomes over 60-million visitors, making it the fifth most visited nation by international tourists. But very few of those 60-million visitors step into the remotest corners of the Apennines. Many probably haven’t even heard of the range! Places like Rome, Venice, Florence, Tuscany, the Alps, and the Mediterranean beaches – these are where most people go.
The purpose of my journey was to spend time in this ‘other’ Italy, and in the ‘other’ Europe, the hidden wilderness Europe that still very much exists. A few people I spoke with before I began my walk disparaged my goal. They didn’t believe that such a place as ‘wild Europe’ really existed. No, Europe was civilized, developed, over-populated. There was no wild left. And there was no space for a genuine wilderness adventure.
But as I soon found out, they were very wrong.
On June 1st I’ll launch my book about my walk through this ‘other’ Europe. Since I finished writing The Earth Beneath My Feet, I’ve been thinking even more about the ‘other’ theme that runs through it. For sure, it’s not the only theme, but it is central, and it’s only recently that I’ve truly come to see just how central it remains to my current approach to the outdoors.
Earlier this morning, to celebrate where I was twenty-four years ago in the ‘other’ Italy, I finally made it into the ‘other’ Colorado, or specifically: into a remote side valley that I’ve been meaning to visit for years. The valley is located just seven miles from home, and it cuts through a popular corner of Colorado’s Front Range that I’ve visited many times. But somehow, this particular valley has eluded me. Perhaps because there’s no trail to it, and no trail through it. Perhaps because I’ve already found other favorite off-trail locations that are marginally closer and are easier to reach. (After all, why keep looking when you’ve already found what you were looking for?) Or perhaps because, from a distance, it looks unusually rough and tangled, like a Colorado version of the Italian sottobosco. But whatever the reason for not going before, today I finally went.
As I turned out, it wasn’t quite a Colorado sottobosco, although it wasn’t far off. There were fallen trees to negotiate, massive boulders to scramble across, thickets of tangled brush to ease through, and treacherously steep slopes to teeter across. And, with rain and snow falling, and many of the surfaces slick underfoot, progress was especially treacherous. A quarter of a century ago I might have struggled, and rushed, and felt intimidated. But I’m not the outdoor traveler I was once was. From the hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of miles I’ve walked off-trail since crossing Calabria I’ve learnt a thing or two, and because of it this Colorado valley wasn’t a place to fight or fear, as the Aspromonte had been. It was merely a wild place, and today it was exactly what I wanted.
Instead of floundering I flourished. Instead of battling forwards to get through as fast as possible I slowed, and traveled gently, relishing the obstacles and difficulties; reveling in the wildness; delighting in the remoteness; celebrating the commitment – the knowledge that I had to take absolute care. Even though popular trails curved across hills a couple of miles away there was no sign down here that any human had ever visited, or that anyone ever would. I’d be really hard to find if a mistake was made! I was truly on my own, and it was a life-enforcing treat. Instead of boot prints I saw the tracks and scat of numerous animals. In an old snow drift there were footprints that might have been made a week earlier by a mountain lion. A heap of old bear scat lay in a clearing. And I stopped to watch a golden eagle as it took off from a pine tree and soared down the valley into fog and rain. I was only seven miles from home, but I might have been a hundred.
As I traveled up the valley, I probed the ‘Other’ Places theme as I’d never probed it before. And then something clicked. All of a sudden, I saw what The ‘Other’ Places were to me: important, if not essential. I mean, I’d understood their importance before, but it had been an intuitive understanding, never consciously considered, never articulated out loud. But now I really got it. I finally saw with great clarity that I don’t step outdoors for mere scenery, or for photography, or for exercise, or for peace and renewal, or to escape, or for adventure, or to find stories to bring back for others, or simply to be among mountains and forests. For sure, I love all wild places, and all of the reasons I just listed (and others) are still valid, but most of all when I step outdoors it is to find The ‘Other’ Places, the parallel places – the places where no trail goes, where travel is difficult, where consequences are serious, where nature hasn’t been visibly altered, where it exists much as it must have existed ten thousand years ago. I go to find The ‘Other’ Places, and to lose myself within them for the simple but profound experience of being there.
I now realize that I’ve been seeking The ‘Other’ Places all my outdoor life. It’s what I was searching for on my long walk across Europe. It’s what I felt touched by the first time I encountered the wild for myself, at the age of ten, when I saw Dartmoor through a car window during a family holiday. It’s why I’m happy to spend so much time in the unassuming foothills while others brave highway traffic on long drives to the high country. I can find almost everything I need in the untracked side valleys and canyons close to home.
The ‘Other’ Places are mostly overlooked by the majority. They are often less scenic, less spectacular, less noteworthy. And definitely less accommodating. But they’re not about size – they’re about quality. The beautiful thing about them is they don’t even have to be big to be ‘other’. Almost two decades ago, before moving to Colorado on a fiancé visa, I spent a year ‘stuck’ on the edge of London, waiting for bureaucracy to grant me permission to enter the U.S.. Although there was no wilderness in London’s suburbs, there were pockets of wildness. Some of these pockets were only a few steps wide, but a few steps was all it took. In the midst of a bramble thicket, down a steep slope beside a hidden pond of rainwater, in the heart of a deciduous wood just thirty feet from a path, I found The ‘Other’ Places, and they served the same purpose that bigger wilderness places had previously served.
This is the key thing. Most people don’t imagine that The ‘Other’ Places exist. But they are everywhere. Mountains and forests aren’t needed. The ‘Other’ Places are often hidden within easy reach.
So that’s it: a few thoughts about The ‘other’ Places! Twenty-four years ago, at the start of my 7,000-mile walk, The ‘Other’ Places were more than I could handle. In the years since I’ve often wished I could revisit the Aspromonte and cross it again… and do it right, not in haste and fear but slowly and in peace. And I guess today I did. I returned to The ‘Other’ Places, and, as always, they filled me with joy.
IMPORTANT NOTE. If this blog sets you searching for The ‘Other’ Places please, PLEASE search with care. The ‘Other’ Places are fragile treasures – perhaps we should call them The ‘Secret’ Places instead, or The Places That Must Remain Hidden! It only takes one broken twig, one crushed flower, one tiny scrap of litter, one careless boot print left behind, one disturbed bird’s nest, to make them ‘normal’ places, trammeled and diminished like almost everywhere else. If you do go, make sure you go slowly and gently, without leaving a trace, without disturbing the residents. And make sure you tell no-one where exactly you went. What one person can safely visit once every season without impact two or three people will inevitably change. If you can’t see this, then please don’t go – instead find value in simply knowing that these places exist. Thank you!