As I stand brushing my teeth in the small bathroom of the very generic Ibis Hotel in Dinant, Belgium, a feeling of elation builds up and I think ‘I was born to do this!’ To which my reflection grimaces back at me. ‘Born to do what? Strap a ton of weight to your back, walk for miles and miles and miles to sleep in a small uncomfortable tent while it’ll be a predicted 4° Celsius outside?’ I determinedly smile back and respond: ‘to go on an adventure!’
This particular adventure started a few weeks back when I was reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Her description of walking the Pacific Crest Trail was completely enticing, in spite of describing how hard and painful it was. I now wanted to walk the Pacific Crest Trail and then every other trail out there.
I became obsessed with this idea. So much so, that I actually reread the book just two weeks after I’d finished it and spent much of my precious time looking up stories of other hikers instead of studying (oops, funny how that works). Thankfully, my wish to know what I’d be getting myself into and love for planning everything kicked in and I decided to start with a hiking weekend. The first available long weekend was that of May 13th, so I blocked the dates, arranged a first night at an hotel, got all the camping-gear I could think of from various family members and persuaded my boyfriend Erik that this would be a fun challenge. And so, off we went.
As we left the hotel I felt really happy and positive. We were actually doing this! Yes, sir, we were! God, how good just to be walking instead of speeding along like we normally do and how healthy to spend the long weekend with some exercise and how fun it would be to camp outside, huddled together if need be. Yes, this had been one of my more brilliant ideas.
That is, until we cross the bridge near the Citadel of the city. While I am still able to joke around about the seemingly random saxophones on the bridge (apparently this is the saxophone-capital of the world?), my pack is already bothersome and heavy, I’m thirsty and hot and starting to doubt a bit. But hey, there’s a coffee-place on the corner, so we get something to drink and truly begin our long walk.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK – sort off
We’d decided to try and get 5km an hour done, so we’d have plenty of time to get to the village of our chosen camp site some 15 km further on. The walking is heavy and at times boring because really, all you do is walk. Maybe talk a little, but as we are walking along a road, we have to walk behind each other which doesn’t help with the conversation. Just as I am getting a bit tired and ready for our first rest, we near a bend in the road towards Castl
e Freyr sur Meuse.
There’s the possibility of getting off the road and onto a path. Or more a trail. Well, to be honest, more of a sort of flattened bit of forest next to an unused and overgrown railroad track.* It’s more secluded and filled with yellow buttercups that contrast nicely with the intensely green grass. At first I don’t really notice any of this, as the only thing I’m thinking is, this is where our adventure begins! We are off the road, doing our thing and who knows where we’ll end up and what we’ll see. I just hope it’s not to far off route because my god, this pack is heavy!
*disclaimer: I have since learned more about the damage we may do to any existing nature by going off any existing track or path and promise not to do so any more!*
I have to say though; this track is totally worth it. The scenery is stunning with al kinds of vibrant greens, the contrasting yellow buttercups and a bright purple flower I cannot identify. We walk to the singing of numerous birds a bit ahead and behind as they stop singing as soon as we approach. Then I hear something rushing and crashing through the bush. It sounds big and I freeze remembering our encounter with a bear about a year ago in the Redwood National Forrest and for a few seconds I’m certain that we are about to be attacked by a bear or a wolf or some other massive animal. In fact, it’s a small deer – baby Bambi sized really – jumping at lightning speed to get away from us. It’s gone in seconds and all that is left is a trail in the undergrowth where it left the track in order to disappear. Nature at its wildest – ahem.
WALKING, WALKING AND MORE WALKING
With that heart-attack survived, we continue on. After about 20 minutes and a little rest we get to the castle walls. We can either walk and continue on the track that now appears to be the old moat, or climb up a steep hill and see if we can walk out of the castle’s gates. The climb up the hill takes a few stumbles to conquer – with a pack on it is more difficult to compensate any missteps – but we manage to get up and are easily able to walk out of the castle’s gates. No security or anything so all the back up plans and explanations I’d feverishly been thinking of in the 5 minutes this took, were thankfully not needed.
We journey on at a little under 5 km and hour and make it to the village of Waulsort where we eat our pre-packed lunches on the steps of the deserted Hastière yacht-club. Erik notices a boat on the other side and surmises there’s a ferry crossing, but we don’t know how to get to the boat. Thankfully a family walks up, waves to the other side of the river and lo and behold, a young blond ferryman comes walking out of his office, gets into the boat and pulls it to our side of the river. We get in and journey across so we can continue walking in the forest instead of on the road. Much more pleasant!
After another half an hour walking – with only a slight delay because an old woman needed to talk to someone and told us all about how she and her husband had been coming to this place for 35 years now – we arrive at the bridge of Hastière and make our way to the other side. This is the final village of the trip and the campsite should be just outside of the tiny town. We decide to use Google maps to see how far it really is and discover it’s another 3,5 long and heavy kilometres. Our first encounter with the fact that distances mean something different to drivers and walkers.
At this point I am no longer enjoying myself. My back hurts, my feet and legs hurt and are tired, I’m hungry and thirsty again and just thinking about having to set up a tent and then cooking a dinner or finding a snack bar near the campsite seems exhausting. Not to mention how frustrated I am that I cannot even manage this light hike. However, there’s no other option but to continue, so after a little rest I gather what courage and strength I still have left, spurred on by a seemingly indefatigable Erik and somehow manage those final kilometres.
We have finally arrived at the campsite! Sure it looks a bit dodgy and quite, but we made it! All we have to do now is find the proprietor or reception area, ask for a place, set up camp and we can really rest! And as it’s only four o’clock I’m looking forward to resting a bit before we actually set up camp.
So we walk around, but other then some angry little dogs, nobody seems to be around. We walk up to some poor looking fishermen and in my best high-school French I ask them how we can arrange to stay at the campsite. They point us back to the campsite with what I think are helpful suggestions, but due to their garbled speech have no way of understanding. We are trying to decide what to do when one of them walks up to us and takes us to one of the caravans.
A guy who clearly could not be more disinterested in us tries to tell us the owners are not around, but at the insistence of the fisherman calls his grandmother who apparently gives us a spot. We are shown a square of grass next to yet another dodgy-looking fellow. As we are grabbing our backpacks both Erik and I feel ill at ease, but we are both exhausted from walking and don’t want to keep going.
Our feeling of unease about the campsite wins out however and before anyone can catch us – although who would, we merely changed our minds – we make for the road. Slowly we are walking and being so tiered we decide to hitchhike, for the first time – ever. I ask again and again “are we doing this? Are we really doing this? Ok, I’m doing it, I’m sticking out my thumb, are we sure? Ok, I’m doing it” and then I pluck up enough courage and stick out my thumb.
Not even 5 seconds pass before the very first car passes us, drives up to the side of the road and offers us a ride! This is not what we expected, but after laughing to ourselves about our good fortune we gratefully accept the ride back to Hastière and promise to pay back the universe by taking hitchhikers along at some point in the future.
In Hastière we have to walk up and down town a bit before we manage to find a B&B – aptly named Utopia – but when we do, we are very happy with our decision. The hosts are very friendly, the fresh drinks nice and cold, the room is spacious, the bed perfect and the bathroom beautiful and clean. We rest a bit and take our poor aching bodies out for dinner.
Dinner was supposed to be a cheap affair, but as we are spending money anyway, we decide to go to a restaurant. Sadly, this drab looking town doesn’t offer much in the way of nice looking restaurants – with plenty of cheap looking places pumping music at full volume and one very expensive and completely full restaurant – but we manage to find a restaurant that, in spite of it’s weird décor, offers ok food.
We talk and laugh about our adventure so far, about our daily lives, about stuff happening to our friends and families, about our dreams and fears for the future and in short, appear to have a completely normal date night, until I have to get up and almost can’t because my back hurts way too much. After dinner we – well I, Erik is fine – stumble back to the B&B and I take a nice long hot shower. Seated of course, there is just no way my feet can endure any more standing up! We read a bit and then it’s lights out and to sleep, because tomorrow – as Scarlett O’Hara so brilliantly said – will be another day.
THE DAY AFTER
The next day I feel like Cheryl Strayed after a couple of weeks of hiking – even though I’ve only been hiking for one day. Everything hurts and for the first few minutes I cannot stand up straight.
I manage to shower and pack my backpack and somehow descent the stairs to the breakfast area where we are greeted by the hosts and apparently some of their neighbours (they live in another city during the week). We chat a bit about the different political landscapes of our countries and how difficult it must be to be young in this day and age with so many choices offered only to be met by a recession and all the accompanying horrors such as youth unemployment the minute we graduate. Although really, it feels much more like a friendly chat than the subjects seem to imply.
After breakfast we get some last minute necessities – water runs out way faster than you’d imagine – and after a painful struggle to get our backpacks on, we are on our way. Funnily enough, I’d been looking forward to this moment. In spite of the various aching body parts I was elated to be doing this, actually doing this. I was hiking and pushing myself and by the end of the day I would be able to lie down in my own bed and congratulate myself and finishing a two-day hike. Not really what I’d imagined – we set out on a three-day hike – but an accomplishment none the less.
WALKING DAY TWO
As such, the first few kilometres hurt a bit, but I am enjoying myself, moving again, working out the kinks in my sore muscles and looking at the lush green scenery that sits on either side of the river. The first 5 km fly by and we arrive at the little ferry before either one of us is really tired, so after crossing the river, we continue on without any rest.
After a while though, walking gets harder and harder, I start to get tired and thirsty and hungry, but as we are walking along a busy road, there is no way to rest at first. I simply have to power on – Erik seems fine to me – and content myself with sipping as much water as I can manage.
We pass the castle again, but this time we don’t take the adventurous trail and simply continue on the road that is much easier to walk on. Thankfully we get to a buttercup filled field where we can finally rest. I don’t so much as take of my backpack as simply let it fall to the ground in order to collapse next to it and rest my feet and legs and back for a few glorious minutes.
I eat a banana – instant energy! – and watch a dog appearing from the field, seemingly out of nowhere, connected to no one and completely free. He seems happy, but doesn’t approach us, so we just assume its owner must be nearby enough for the dog to feel safe. In a matter of minutes, the dog is gone and we also decide to push on so we can get back to Dinant as early as possible.
WHAT COMES AFTER 79
At first, I feel refreshed and energized, but the feeling soon disappears and I am left again struggling to continue. My feet are blistering, my back now really hurts and walking becomes an effort. Thankfully I remember Cheryl Strayed writing how she’d walk everyday until she couldn’t and then start counting her steps to a hundred in order to keep going.
I feel like a fraud having to use this trick on only my second day and moreover on a road that doesn’t ascend or descend much, but I need something to keep me going. So I start counting, gladly announcing each one hundredth step to Erik – who at first logically thinks I’ve lost my mind. After a few rounds of this I get into a pattern. 1 Through 39 or so go by in a flash, but it gets harder to keep focused enough to continue counting. And insanely, every time I get tot 79 I have to strain my brain for a few more steps before I remember 80 comes after. And then it’s a breeze again to 100.
This keeps me going for a while, but I notice myself going slower and slower by the minute and Erik has to stop a few times to wait for me to catch up. Clearly I need a new trick, or the amount of time I’ll need to get back to the car will start to approach infinity. Erik tells me to simply walk faster, but I don’t see how until I remember how I used to just keep going at festivals.
No, you idiots, this is not a Dutch girl admitting drug use on a hike! I simply remember how energizing hardstyle music can be and try to think of one of the songs to keep me going. I had so many memorized, but my exhaustion makes it hard to remember one. Thank havens I then hear a song start up, somewhere in the deeper corners of my mind. It’s wake up! by Brennan Heart and the Prophet.
“Hush little baby – Addy? – don’t you cry; it is just a lullaby. Dreams of rainbows make you stop, and I am here to wake you up!”. And wake up I do. I walk faster than I’ve done all weekend, muttering the song to myself. Not just the lyrics, but every single sound of the song I sing to myself and I keep going, keep going, keep going.
We get to the first bridge we’d crossed the previous morning and I keep going, keep going, keep going. There’s the gym in a monumental house, the Ibis hotel, the casino and there, finally, blissfully the car!
I made it! We made it! I am so, so, so tired and I realize that perhaps long distance hiking is not (yet) really my cup of tea, but having made it this far I can only be happy and hope a next time will come and be easier. All I want now, is to eat and eat we do. The entire bread we’ve got with us is gone in minutes.
Then, as it has started to rain, nothing remains but for us to start our drive back home. Back to comfort and warmth and a really, really long hot shower. Back to a place where I no longer have to wear heavy boots on aching (and slightly blistering) feet and where I no longer have to walk anywhere. Back home to relax and recover, but knowing that I can do this! I was born to do this! Even if it’s not hiking*, I was born to go on adventures like this!
*Since then I have found a that I do actually want to do more hikes and even set a potential goal