My first night off Sicily and onto the Italian mainland I was walking a road along the coast searching for a place to sleep. To my right the rocky land shot straight to the sky and to my left the road plummeted to a rough Mediterranean sea. The sun was already below the horizon and the world was set in hues of blue.
I could see the orange light of town a few miles ahead. From looking at the map I knew the town was probably too small to have a hotel, and I didn’t want to pay for one anyway, but it had a shallow beach where I could set my tent on if it came down to it.
Savannah and I walked fast, my strides were full and Savannah’s muscular legs scurried along nearly at a run.
There was no shoulder on the road. The occasional car had to move over to avoid us. In twenty minutes, when the last of the light faded, the road would be treacherous. My cart had reflective edges and I would put my headlamp on, but even with those small assurances walking at night on a road with no shoulder was a gamble that couldn’t be won for long.
A man on a moped sputtered by then pulled over on a narrow strip of grass ahead of us. He had a big plastic bag on his back and bent over and kicked at the grass in search of plastic bottles.
I’d seen the man earlier, we’d been leapfrogging each other, and because I was searching for a place to sleep I wanted him to drive on. I didn’t want to be seen ducking off somewhere for the night. I wouldn’t get a good sleep knowing someone had seen me.
A few hundred meters before the strip of grass there was a sharp turn on my side of the road which led down to a few concrete platforms over the sea but below the road. There was a fence halfway down the road, but the place looked abandoned so if I could open the gate I’d stay there for the night.
I took the cart and Savannah with me. The man up the road didn’t see us disappear, but with any logic at all he’d realize there was only one place we could have went.
The gate was green and tall and from the end of the gate a chainlink fence followed the hill up to the road. The gate was tied to the fence in two places and with a little effort I could have unknotted the rope, and a few years before I would have, but I couldn’t do it this time. Some part of me had grown more rule-abiding.
I pushed the cart back to the road. We passed the man searching through the grass and even though we were both on a random stretch of coastal road at dusk he paid me no mind.
I walked as fast as I could without running. The light was dangerously low. We could make it to town in the last breaths of light but we’d have to move quickly.
Thankfully, around a bend in the road appeared a path down to a river.
From the road I couldn’t see what exactly was down there, but if there was a river letting out to the ocean then there and to be a path to the shore.
I let Sav off the leash and she ran down.
The river was about four feet wide and upstream it disappeared into the mountain. Beside where the river disappeared was a metal gate and behind the gate a road wove up to a house I could only partially see. There were no lights on, but someone probably lived there – the road was too well-worn.
We followed the river under the road and on the other side the air tasted of salt as the ocean crashed against the boulder-laden coast. Before the boulders a rusted door was built into the concrete foundation of the road and in front of the door was a perfectly flat space of dirt.
I banged my fist on the rusted door and when no one answered I laid out my tarp then set my tent.
By just about every measure I had as good a place as I could hope for; I was out of sight and tucked into a corner on public land. But I couldn’t relax.
I hadn’t been able to relax at a campsite since leaving Palermo.
The two months I’d spent with police escorts had messed with my head. Them preventing me from camping had given me their fear. I was in Italy, an exceedingly safe and developed country, and yet I was panicking at night like I was camping in Mexico for the first time.
I made peanut butter jelly sandwiches beneath the stars but when it started raining Savannah and I were pushed into the tent.
With the tent closed to the rain my mind race to paranoia. I didn’t like not being able to see outside. And it didn’t help that I couldn’t hear anything. The river crashed into the ocean and the ocean pounded the shore and echoed against the wall.
I imagined someone coming down from the house and finding me. Or fishermen seeing me and coming ashore.
It didn’t matter that I’d walked nearly three years and had never encountered a malicious person at night, my mind was already down the rabbit hole.
Maybe it would be the man salvaging plastic that would find me. He certainly could deduce where I was. With a little effort he might end the night with much more of a haul than a bag of plastic bottles.
There was no logic to my thoughts. They only continued downward.
And through the night it was no better.
The noise from the ocean and river filled my head. Every hour I woke with start to hastily unzip the tent so Savannah could dart outside. When I peaked my head outside there was only ocean and stars and still I imagined someone lurking just up river.
It was a rough night. Since Palermo they’d all been rough nights. I wasn’t sleeping well unless I was in a hotel or at a campsite.
And on a night a week later, as I walked a road carved into the hillside overlooking olive groves, I wasn’t panicked about finding a place to sleep, I knew I’d find somewhere, but I was worried that unless I found the ideal location I’d be buffeted with paranoia.
I knew from looking at Google Maps that the next field would be my best chance for a place to sleep and when I reached the field I was lucky to find there was no fence. The grass from the field led right to the narrow asphalt road.
I pushed the cart onto the grass and let Savannah off leash. The olive trees were like massive umbrellas. Between each tree was nearly thirty feet. No matter where I set my tent I’d be exposed.
Down the middle of the field was a gently worn tire-track path. It didn’t appear to be used much, but it was used enough to give me concern.
I walked as far from the path as possible, but even then I was only four rows away and could be spotted easily.
Savannah was happily running through the fields while my mind ran through the likelihood of being found out.
But there was no time to search for somewhere else – this was as good as it was going to get. Since I was going to be exposed no matter where I put my tent I decided to set it near the road. That way if I was found by the landowner I wouldn’t be far onto their property.
With my tent set I relaxed a little.
I started my stove and put some pasta on.
Savannah laid on her belly to work away at her dinner.
Even in the dusk I could see all the way across the field.
Headlights flashed from the road above the field and occasionally I could here a truck lumbering around a bend.
The road behind me was little more than a service road. A kilometer from the field was a highway which absorbed most of the traffic. The only people who’d use the service road were locals.
When I heard a car coming I turned my headlamp off and waited.
The car came around the curve in the road, passed, then stopped and reversed.
It reversed until it was beside me and I sat staring over my tent at the tinted front windows. I waved and the car drove off.
I thought the thin line of trees between the road and field were enough to hide me from view. Now I knew every car that passed would be able to see me.
I considered breaking down my tent and resetting it further into the field, but if the person who spotted me was the landowner and they returned they’d just want me off the land, I wouldn’t be in any danger. And if they weren’t the landowner it was unlikely they’d return because they didn’t know who I was and I was on someone else’s land.
After finishing my pasta I laid my tarp over the tent so when I was writing the light from my laptop couldn’t be seen outside.
For a little while I wrote, but I was cramped, sitting on the inflated mattress my head pushed on the tent ceiling even at its highest point. My back was sore so eventually I gave up writing and laid down.
Once I wasn’t doing anything I started worrying I’d chosen the wrong place to camp. I’d been spotted five minutes after setting my tent, what did that portend for the rest of the night?
But I couldn’t move my tent. I’d be exposed in the field too, maybe more so.
And where had my confidence gone? I hadn’t be able to make a decisive decision on a campsite since leaving Palermo. My judgement was all out of wack. I camped in Mexican graveyards with more assuredness in my decision than I was doing in Italy.
I turned over on my stomach and did my best to read. But concentration was nowhere to be found when I needed to peek out of the tent at every rustle.
Eventually I fell asleep. Savannah woke me when she came in and curled on the towel by my feet. Then I was asleep again.
Then there was a snort and in one moment I was awake and had unzipped the tent for Savannah to dart outside.
Savannah growled. The snort came again and I was more awake now to realize it was a boar. I fumbled for my headlamp, found it in the corner, then unzipped my side of the tent and perched on my elbows shot a beam off light directly at the noise.
The light from my headlamp was strong and showed the boars hulking silhouette. The boar had its head at a slight angle so I could see the curl of a tusk. I envisioned its hirsute body.
Savannah’s hair was on end. She continued to growl.
The boar stopped snorting but didn’t move.
That worried me.
It should have ran off the moment I shone a light on it. I’d had a dozen or so boar run-ins and they always fled as soon as something unusual occurred.
A second stretched into a minute as I calculated my options – there was mace in the hip pocket of my backpack and my backpack was in my cart, there was a knife in the food box which sat in the tent, there was a Leatherman in a bag somewhere at the bottom of the cart. None of them would be very useful. The knives were only a few inches long and the one in my food crate was dull and the Leatherman would take too long to find. The mace was my best bet.
I tried to imagine what effect mace would have on the stout silhouette across the field. It wouldn’t do much, but at the very least it should be enough to turn the boar around.
I realized the boar could charge at any moment and I was still in my sleeping bag and propped on my elbows. I needed to get the cart between myself, Savannah and the boar. Once that was done I could reach into the cart for the mace.
Keeping the light on the boar, I unzipped the tent further then slipped out of my sleeping bag and stood. My feet crunched the dirt as I stood and either that or my movement startled the boar enough that it squealed and took off.
The beast disappeared from sight almost immediately, but I could hear its squeals for a minute longer before they too faded.
Then it was just Savannah and I standing in the darkness. The stars could be seen through the canopy of olive leaves. The only sounds were the wind and the hum of cars on the highway in the distance.
I gave Savannah a rub on the back. Her hair was still on end. She sat and kept her eyes on where the boar had been.
I clicked off my headlamp and climbed back into my sleeping bag.
Suddenly, for the first time in two weeks, I found myself totally relaxed in my tent.
I’d camped in Mexico, the jungles of Costa Rica, the mountains of Colombia, the deserts of Perú and I’d always been able to handle myself. The Algerian and Tunisian police escorts did more of a number on me than I realized.
But now that irrational fear was purged.
A boar, a man, it didn’t matter, they were not equal to the exaggerations of the imagination.
The boar encounter reminded me of that. Life was not the imagination. It was simpler; less malicious and more mundane.
Reassured, I fell into a deep and immediate sleep only to wake a little while later to a snort. Savannah was already outside and I heard her growling.
I unzipped the tent, took my headlamp and shone it on the boar. This time the boar fled the moment light struck it.
I laid back down and slept straight to morning.