"Well, at least it's smaller than the Pacific Ocean!" my daughter Sonia retorted when I told her that I was going to celebrate my 50th birthday by spending the next decade or two walking around the Mediterranean Sea.
There were some practical and philosophical motivations behind my meditative Mediterranean walkabout.
Travel writing was getting boring and even exotic assignments smacked of déjà vu. I was both experiencing marital turmoil and seeking a long-term travel project that would, with luck, promote a unity of body, mind and spirit. I've always hiked and this expedition -- which I call a MedTrek because of its Med-iterranean, Med-itative and Med-icinal nature — would give me time to reflect, get plenty of exercise and perhaps provoke a life-changing adventure or two.
There's also a blend of agony, ecstasy and reflection involved in reaching fifty. Among other things, I realized that I now possessed the physical, financial and spiritual resources to embark on my long-time dream of walking the 10,000 miles around the world's largest inland sea.
The idea first occurred to me at the age of ten when I read Roman and Greek myths about epic voyages and the Golden Fleece. It was rekindled twenty years ago when I moved to the south of France and began writing about many melodious Mediterranean destinations. The hike became a distinct physical possibility in 1991 after I walked with Bogart, my yellow Labrador, from the French Riviera to Paris for a travel piece for an American magazine.
I'd already strolled around Walden Pond in Massachusetts, trekked in the Andes and climbed the Himalayas. But a real objective, a real midlife project, a true calling, required, I figured, a more substantial target. In addition, I knew that the panorama of religions, languages, cultures, cuisine, climates and countryside in over twenty Mediterranean countries would provide some literary inspiration, especially as I strolled by the villa where Jules Verne once wrote on the Cap d'Antibes and Paul Bowles' apartment in Tangiers. I figured I'd also run into some of the characters in "The Odyssey" by Homer, which is why I'm calling my book on the jaunt "The Idiot and The Odyssey: Walking The Mediterranean."
After first embarking on my MedTrek in the French city of Antibes and heading west, I occasionally wondered if my odyssey was a quest or a lark, poetic or philosophic, an act of maniacal ego, sincere spiritual soul searching, or, maybe, madness. But after clearing my head during the first six hundred miles, I realized, about the time that I crossed from France into Spain, that it didn't matter -- or at least I didn't care. Today, after walking 2,734 miles, I've quit asking questions.
I have, though, made some logistical concessions. Instead of obsessively completing the MedTrek in one compulsive spurt, I'm taking it easy and no longer hike during the European summer because the coast is too hot, too crowded and too expensive. And when not camping on the beach — and letting the Force Auxilliare keep an eye on my tent during my nights on the isolated Moroccan seaside -- I've kept expenses down by sleeping with the monks at the Lerins Abbey on an island off Cannes ($30 for full board) or spending about $36 for a room with breakfast and dinner at places like the Promenade Hotel in Pineda de Mar near Barcelona.
I'm surprised and enchanted by places like the Hotel Villa del Laredo in Fuengirola, Spain, where my fifth floor room looked out on wild waves illuminated by floodlights. And although I usually make my own simple meals, it would be impossible to beat the comfort and taste of my room service dinner (butternut squash soup with nut oil, a fresh fish stew and nut-flavored crème brule) at the Hotel Ile Rousse in Bandol, France.
There've been constant lessons as I walk every inch of the seaside and refuse to bypass even the most unattractive sites. I learned about tolerance when I marched through nauseating downtown Toulon in France and the disgusting port of Livorno in Italy. I've become very humble as I cope with incorrect weather predictions and mistaken information about the distance and time it takes to get from one point to another. And I've appreciated that MedTrekkers, even smelly Medtrekkers on a hot day, are treated well by everyone with the distinct exception of some security guards at private estates.
I try to be of service and, among other things, pick up litter on a regular basis. And I regularly express my gratitude about being healthy enough to indulge in the trek when I invariably run into someone too old or ill to walk. Patience, a relaxed sense of time, a complete lack of stress and the ability to do nothing are other rewards gained by taking things a step at a time. I've learned a lot about sea sounds and smells, not to mention things like beauty, serenity, wisdom, global warming and sun block.
Sure, there've been some problems. I'd trekked more than 2,000 accident-free miles -- along the sandy, rocky and rugged coasts of France, Spain and North Africa -- before I took a serious fall in Morocco. And a bit later, just a day's walk short of the Algerian border, I lost my passport, money and credit cards in the sea. Indeed, falling into the sea is one minor hiking hazard even though I keep everything, from maps and credit cards to clothes and food, in plastic bags.
I've definitely mastered the logistics of the walk. My average pace, and I've gone through four pedometers, is now a comfortable twenty miles a day and my backpack is usually light enough to hold above my head when I ford rivers that sometimes force me to head inland. I finally understand, and endorse, Lao Tzu's adage that "the goal is the path, the path is the goal."
Of course, I've accumulated a laundry list of MedTrek MileStones and a collection of humorous, meaningful and meaningless anecdotes. v Where did I hang my pedometer while walking across the "Nudism Obligatory" beach at Cap d'Agde in France? How did I return the dog that once followed me for 22 miles in Spain? What was it like picnicking near Brigitte Bardot's home in Saint-Tropez? What did I say to the Algerian who offered me a job as a mason or the Italian woman who, thinking me homeless, tossed me some coins? Why did I become smitten by a Franco-Spanish sorceress who offered me a room for the night? What is the "correct and polite" way to pass 54 Austrian hikers walking in a straight line on the narrow paths through the CinqueTerre National Park in Italy?
And I'm constantly bemused when I hear the reactions of others to my MedTrek.
"Ah, you're American," one Frenchman reasoned as I described how I always walk as close to the water as possible. "Et voila! That explains it."
"You mean that now, when people ask what you do, I'm supposed to say that 'My father is walking around the Mediterranean'?" concluded my daughter. "Uh, I don't think so."
This article is copyrighted by Joel Stratte-McClure.