My Midsummer MorningInspiration
An excerpt from My Midsummer Morning by Alastair Humphreys
Most days in Spain I walked beyond the horizon, 20 miles or more. Ferreras de Arriba, Sarracín de Aliste, Riofrío de Aliste . . . The villages came and went, but I remember the discomfort. Gravel tracks, sharp underfoot, stretching ahead until they melted into a pale horizon beneath a vast blue sky flecked with clouds. I remember the heat, my nose and lips burning and splitting. And I remember day after day alone with my thoughts. The percussive chirp of insects in dusty bushes, lilac and scraggy like heather. Green kilometre markers counting down the approach to towns. Raising a hiking pole to wave at drivers. Shouting a brief explanation to inquisitive workmen tiling a roof. A soulless village with heaps of rubble on the pavement, garage doors hanging off hinges, but a shaded pelota wall to rest against.
I remember the dragging hours of busking. Pausing between songs to stretch my back, shift my weight from leg to leg, and summon the resolve to play again. Everything hard: the ground, the light, earning money.
I remember food. Watching a child eating tortilla with oily fingers, tipping back his head to fit the slice into his mouth, golden egg and potato spilling wasted onto the pavement. I saw a painter crack open a boiled egg with his brush handle and craved eggs for days afterwards.
It is important on a journey to grind out these slow, un- remarkable miles. They heft you to the landscape and the moods of future joys, the hardship building the soundtrack to your unique journey and the new poetry of your life.
I appreciated the slowness of walking in a fast world. It is the ancient way of travel, and even technology cannot help. Only persistence and effort make an impact. It is easy to begin but hard to stick at, which is why I respect anyone who has completed a long hike. You learn a lot about someone by hiking in the hills.
Writing now, I must try to lay down the ambient background of slowness, heat and modest but constant pain. Too loud and you will tire of the moaning. Too soft and you miss a critical dimension. Plug away, plod away, drift away. Time does the rest, turning a walk into something richer, as cream changes to golden butter under duress. Though individual days blend together, the result becomes an experience more vibrant than the mere cumulative act of trudging towards the next sit-down and sandwich. Travel long and slow and you learn to pay attention.
Time moves strangely on the road: at once fast and slow. There is real time, told by tolling church towers and the sun’s relentless sweep. But there is also walking time, marked by the body and mind – tortured soles and souls – that pays scant heed to the chronological order of the universe. Weeks fly, days pass, hours and minutes drag: just me, my violin and my shadow slowly crossing the landscape with Laurie. ‘The days,’ he wrote, ‘merged into a continuous movement of sun and shadow, hunger and thirst, fatigue and sleep, all fused and welded into one coloured mass by the violent heat of that Spanish summer.’ This is just one day of my life. But every day to come will depend fractionally on what I do today. I must live it as vividly as I can bear to do.
In 1935 a young Englishman named Laurie Lee arrived in Spain. His idea was to walk through the country, earning money for food by playing his violin in bars and plazas.
Nearly a century later, the book Laurie Lee wrote – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – inspired Alastair Humphreys. He travelled slow, lived simply and slept on hilltops. For 15 years, Alastair dreamed of retracing Laurie Lee’s footsteps, but could never get past the hurdle of being distinctly unmusical. This year, he decided to go anyway. The journey was his most terrifying yet, risking failure and humiliation every day, and finding himself truly vulnerable to the rhythms of the road and of his own life. But along the way, he found humility, redemption and triumph. It was a very good adventure.