You Ski Bro?From The Field
Words and Photography: Leon McCarron
Leon McCarron traveled one thousand miles on foot through the heart of the Middle East, from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai, taking on some of the planet’s most challenging environments and trails.
Below is an extract from The Land Beyond (published by I.B. Tauris) – a book about perseverance, endurance and walking. ‘I would walk because I love walking, and because I have yet to find a more immersive or exploratory way to travel.’
Apart from the dead lizard in the shower, the guest house was a little patch of heaven. Finally, in an effort to break the lethargy, I left the sanctuary of my room and walked to the Crusader castle, which was built on a fine strategic point overlooking the wadis that led to the Dead Sea to the west. By the time the Crusaders left the Holy Land in 1291, they had built dozens of such fortresses, many of which still remain in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus and Turkey. Kerak is one of the finest still standing. The architecture was striking, mixing original Western European design with later Byzantine and Arab features. Inside, long vaulted hallways and banquet rooms led to dark towers with only narrow arrow-slits letting in the light from beyond. As usual, I was the sole Western tourist, although a couple of Jordanians from Amman joined me to read an information board about Saladin’s heroic capture of the castle in 1189. We smiled at each other and they asked for a selfie.
‘This is great!’ enthused one of the men before asking the now-universal question: ‘Can we be friends on Facebook?’
When my muscles had stopped aching and I’d begun to get restless, I began walking onwards once more, setting off through a dense fog that cloaked the land. Visibility was almost zero, so I stuck to the King’s Highway until late afternoon, seeing little and speaking to no one.
I spent a damp night in a ditch, and the next morning plodded through thick mud and heavy rain. For hours I skidded along treacherous slopes, the rain turning paths into mini-landslides, and twice I fell, rolling 5 or 10 m down the hillside before I caught onto a rock to halt my descent. Somewhere behind the veil of fog was the great chasm-like Wadi Hasa, a natural boundary that formed the ancient border between Moab and Edom and, to me, a landmark which represented the last of the vast Dead Sea canyons that I would have to cross before I hit the south. Limestone changed to granite beneath my feet and, I suspected, the view beyond would be altered too. The map topography confirmed this, but of course it was all academic; I couldn’t see a bloody thing.
I walked along in a mood that reflected the weather around me: grey, heavy and all-encompassing. Long journeys always force one into deep internal self-analysis. I had been through it before, but it had been some years since I’d travelled alone for such a long time, and I was not sure I could recall being so unenthused. Subconsciously I had made a habit of travelling with others to avoid the intense solitude of my own company, but now circumstances had conspired to force me into a lone journey which it was clear I had not prepared for.
What I had noticed from past experiences was that mood management was key. When I walked across China I had found that if I woke up in a good mood I would finish the day as high as a kite, relishing every inch of trail and brushing off difficulties like beads of water back to the ocean. If I awoke grumpy, however, I would spiral terribly, regardless of what the day brought, so that by evening I might be hopelessly depressed. Ironically, of course, the cause and solution for my woes were one and the same. I needed to walk.
There is a convincing case for Rebecca Solnit’s contention that ‘the brain works at three miles an hour’. Since the times of the roving philosophers of ancient Greece, there has been no shortage or writers and thinkers who have both walked habitually and seen fit to record their feelings on the subject. Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed to be completely unable to think without taking to his feet; Frederick Nietzche unable to write unless rambling up a mountain. William Wordsworth is famously said to have walked 180,000 ponderous miles during his lifetime, and Arthur Rimbaud walked himself into a fury before penning poetry. Henry David Thoreau isolated himself from the outside world so that he might march relentlessly in a quest for clarity. Virginia Woolf split her time between the streets of London for inspiration and the lanes of Dorset for reflection, and Søren Kierkegaard would rampage around the streets of Copenhagen alone before retiring to the attic in his parents’ house to scribble down his revelations.
We walk too, perhaps, because it is in our DNA. Since Homo erectus, nearly 2 million years ago, there have been various waves of human migration. During the Stone Age, Homo sapiens wandered farther than ever before: initially out of the East Africa rift into other parts of the continent and then, 60,000 years ago, onwards, pushing the frontiers. The best guess is that humans started this movement to outrun a major climatic shift in the home they knew. They crossed through Sinai, or perhaps via the Babal-Mandab Strait between modern-day Djibouti and Yemen, and moved into Eurasia. Perhaps the toughest leap of all was through the East Asian Arctic, where intrepid hunters traversed a land bridge to the Americas; 50,000 years (and 20,000 miles) later they arrived in Patagonia with no land mass left to explore, completing human dispersion. Why did they keep going all that way? Partly for survival, of course. For food and shelter, and in the hope of a more plentiful and easier existence. I like to think too, though, that it was out of curiosity. They strode out to see what was beyond the next ridgeline, across the far horizon. If this is the case, stasis is something that is relatively new to our species.
I had spent a large part of the previous few months acting out these various types of walking: walking to understand; walking as exploration; walking as human nature; walking towards something. Yet I had also, inadvertently, been walking as a means of escape – walking away from something. Long-distance journeys are a great way to avoid real life. They give a welcome break from a city-based existence of deadlines, money, rent payments and complicated relationships. For the best part of a decade I had regularly put on my boots or grabbed a bicycle and disappeared to another continent.
The fog began to lift and, with a little persuasion, my mood slowly did so too. Ahead, the trail stretched out impassively, at once intimidating and appealing. There were many miles still to walk, so I picked up the pace and opened my eyes, settling into the natural loping measure of the road – the rhythm of the oldest movement we know, and the one that would carry me wherever I wanted to go. On the descent to the bottom of Wadi Hasa I passed shapes that were once houses, created around natural caves in the granite. Modern brickwork had been used to make doorways and windows leading into the cavernous voids beyond, but the arrangement was no longer desirable for human usage; sheep scat and some old stalks of straw suggested that shepherds still kept their flocks inside during poor weather. By the waters of the river that ran through the valley, I spotted another sign of more recent habitation, this time a white UNHCR tent on a small rise above the bulrushes. When I moved closer it was clear that the permanent residents were not refugees (these tents were sold by the UN to refugees to provide temporary shelter, and were a relatively common part of the landscape) but rather a large number of goats, and four Bedouin men lounging outside on a plastic tarpaulin soaking up the heat of the newly arrived sunshine, and watching me with much bemusement.
I sat to drink tea with them and watched as one of the Bedouin used an old hosepipe to create a splint for a goat with a broken leg. He tore a rag from his keffiyeh to hold it in place, and sent the hobbling animal back to his mother. Another of the men held on to one of the animals and stroked it as one might a much-loved housecat, while a third – the youngest of the group – was ordered by the rest to go and refill the water troughs, and to make sure the flock didn’t go too far.
The men had ruddy cheeks, wore tattered clothes and laughed with ease. ‘We’ve been out here for three nights now,’ said one. ‘It’s more fun than going home to my wife,’ said another. There were more laughs, before the youngest came over and produced a small bottle of whiskey from his pocket. ‘Hey, you’ll like this, Mr Ireland,’ he said. ‘The Irish drink this every day, eh?’
The whiskey, despite being rough and cheap, warmed my soul in a way that tea never could. They all stood to wave me off, and to giggle at my pack and hiking poles.
‘What are these for?’ I was asked. Then, after my rather lame explanation: ‘Do you ski, bro?’
They fell about laughing and I crossed the river into a new kingdom, and a new phase of the journey, with heightened spirits and a whiskey-induced swagger in my step.