The Via Alpina is one of the longest and most gorgeous trails in the world; 5,000 kilometers of ice-tipped mountain peaks, deep valleys, wildflower meadows, across little villages, vineyards, farms, and eight European countries, from the forests of Trieste, Slovenia to the beaches of Monaco.
Hannibal once crossed the Via Alpina on the back of an elephant, Lance Armstrong on his bicycle, and in between them both, Roman Emperors, explorers, and every year millions of hikers. There are as many reasons to go on this journey as there are people who do. One of them is my sister and best friend: Merya, the bravest girl I know.
She was on the trail at 7 in the morning, everything she owned piled with space-saving efficiency in an enormous backpack. Survival was nuts, dried fruit, and water, a spare change of clothes, a map, a first aid kit, a spare battery, and a lot, “a lot of stubbornness.” She needed it to drown out the panic of “what on earth am I doing?”
What Merya was doing was embarking on a forty-day solo hike.
Merya was not a hiker; she was twenty-five, an engineer, on the verge of a career in finance after a prestigious Master’s degree. She had no professional training and no experience to fall on, and no clear reason to do this, except
“to prove to myself that I could do it.”
She was ambitious, successful, well-traveled and well rounded. She had friends and hobbies and plans, and yet, “I was at a point in my life in which I was struggling to connect with anything or anyone.”
Perhaps she was tired. Perhaps her journey so far had not been easy. Perhaps life had been hard – not cruel, just hard, no more or less than for anyone.
Whatever the reason, “I thought this could be a good challenge. Maybe it would help me figure myself out.”
And so, one 7 a.m., Merya went. The plan was terrifyingly simple: Walk. Walk, from Italy, north, crisscrossing the Slovenian border, toward Austria, for as long and far as she could till she found an answer.
“I am not really sure what I hoped to find on that trail: an epiphany, some revelation that would make me less hard or change the way I look at people and life.”
There was no epiphany on the trail. There was pain. And scorching heat. And no one else around. And no turning back. And fear.
She found herself, alone. “That was the scariest part. During the day, my mind would wander, taking me to odd places, spreading my life in the light in front of me. I saw a lot I was not proud of.”
The hardest part was the very last hour of every day, willing her feet forward on the trail. Reaching her destination for the night “and eating alone.” Going to bed and fighting the urge to quit. The next morning, getting back on the trail.
And somehow, every morning she did. Courage, though she calls it “stubbornness, really. I had worked so hard to prepare for this trip and convince everyone that I wanted to do this, that I could not quit.”
She taught herself to ration her water. When she could not bear the sun, she willed herself to move from one patch of shade to the other.
And when even that seemed too difficult a goal, she focused on the next step.
When she stopped, she actually looked around and saw the nature and people she encountered.
She lightened the load she carried and faced her thoughts with honesty. Every evening, she sat with herself as she soaked her feet in hot water.
She found gratitude, for “the food that I got and the kindness of people.” People who shared their homes and their dinners, hikers who shared bits of the road. For the road itself, even when a fall and broken toe cut the journey short.
Merya did not make it to the end of her forty-day trip. But she was ok; it was not about the destination. “It is not the mountains we conquer but ourselves.” – Edmund Hillary
The bravest girl I know told herself that she would hike the Alpine Trail, and did. She told her feet to move and herself to be honest, and did.
“I discovered that I still have a long way to go before I become the person I want to be. That it was naive of me to think that a hike would change me and fix everything. And that if I really wanted change in my life, this was a good start to figure things out, but that the real work started the second I got back to my life.”
It took courage to get on that trail, the courage to stick with it, and perhaps most of all, courage to leave it when circumstances changed. Merya, I am so proud of you.
She has gone on many adventures since, that bravest girl I know, and she will go on many more. There is much yet left to conquer.