1. The world is asleep
It was 3.45 am. The world was dark and cold. Every single soul in Europe lied curled up under a fluffy blanket. But somewhere in rural Belgium, an alarm clock went off. It must be a bad dream, it cannot be morning yet- these were the only thought rushing through my head. But deep in my heart, I knew it was time to wake up. There was no time to waste. We needed to cover 60 kilometres today, using only feet and nothing else.
2.Lord of the Rings
It was still dark outside when we arrived at the start of De Molse 60. Eyes closed, we reached for a coffee and a sandwich. Someone handed us our numbers.
Bagpipe music sent walkers on the way one by one. When they played for us, I had tears in my eyes. The whole scene reminded me of the beginning of a great fantasy adventure movie. It was like the scene from the Lord of the Rings, where the main characters set off for a long, dangerous adventure. No one knew if they would come back alive, how far they would get, or what awaited them on the road.
Like before every long trip, I kept asking myself: is it worth it? Wouldn’t it be better to stay home, sleep in, enjoy a Saturday breakfast and savour the lazy hours of the weekend? What’s so wrong with our lives anyway that we have to put ourselves out there? What are we chasing after?
The morning fog hung low over the canal water. The air was fresh, and the sun was not out yet. It was easy to walk, and our mood went up. Surely we could do it. What was stopping us?
During this first hour, other hikers passed by in herds, and we never saw any of them again. We always thought we were great hikers. We never knew we were so slow.
3. Why walk straight if you can take a detour?
A birdwatching hut stood on the lakeshore. Without thinking twice, we left the group of dedicated hikers and walked to the hut to check out the cute picnic spot and take a peek on the birds on the water.
No one else followed our lead. For some reason, we thought De Molse 60 would be a gathering of nature lovers, people who’d take out their binoculars to check out some strange feathery subject, pick up an alien plant, or take out the tree guide to find out about an unknown species. We were wrong. Those people looked like they would be happy to walk 60 kilometres in a dark tunnel if needed. These warriors came here for the goal, not for the trail.
4. Running through the first stop
Yes, there were even a couple of runners attempting 60 kilometres, but most of the participants were still walkers. But they were not the typical grandmotherly enjoyers. They were proper sporty hikers, who tucked a sandwich in their jacket pockets. They didn’t waste time on chewing it standing or sitting.
Approaching the first stop, we thought we would see happy chatty walkers stretching their legs during a short break. Nothing like that. People were coming out of the football clubhouse in Postel with waffles between their teeth, shovelling bananas down so quickly as if they were competing in the Tour de France.
It was weird to actually sit down to open the plastic wrapper of the waffle. Were we looked down as lazy, or as someone who was not taking the walk seriously? Maybe. But for me it feels terrible to gulp your drink down on the go, to gnaw your sandwich in front of your computer screen. What’s the point of rushing through life? What burns your ass so much that you cannot relax even for a brief moment?
I have lived without breaks, working from sunrise until I drop to the bed. But I’m done with that and feel now that life is too short to fill it to the brim with responsibilities, for not allowing yourself to take a break and appreciate the moment of being alive and healthy.
So, we sat down, chewed our waffles with pleasure and looked at the brave walkers coming and going. Surely they would have even skipped the toilet breaks if there would have been an alternative.
5. On the road again
The scenery had changed. The lakeside was gone. Instead, meadows and fields surrounded us. The sun peeked through the clouds and make everything look slightly magical. We had to go all the way back to the start now to finish our first 22 km loop. People kept passing us. Only a father and his 10-year-old son walked in our pace. The child played with the strap of his father’s backpack, seemingly bored. What’s the fun of putting a foot in front of a foot on this endless road?
Even for us, the first enthusiasm had worn off. When in the morning Tom was talking non-stop, then now we were more quiet, letting our thoughts take over. We took pictures of potato fields, yellow squares were rapeseed grew, and romantic bridges over forest rivers. People passed us. Groups of three friends, couples, solo hikers. We admired the jungle-like environment that the leafy forest in Belgium can offer. Through this jungle flew a little stream somewhere we will never know.
When I started to get desperate for coffee, we heard German. Two men emerged from bushes and, seeing us taking pictures, took out cameras as well. At least we saw other hikers who cared about the beauty of the surroundings just like us.
6. On familiar grounds
The sun was high up when we reached back to the start of De Molse 60. We had completed the first loop of four. It barely reminded the mysterious starting point of epic adventures it had been in the wee hours of the morning. Now it was just another breakpoint in a sports event. People poured water down their throats and hit the road straight after. We saw a woman starting her fourth loop. Amazed, we stood and watch her departure. How was that possible?
The rest of the crowd slurped soup and applied bandages on their blistered feet – yes, at the same time, behind the same picnic table. In any other situation of life, you wouldn’t probably do it, but here it was completely normal. Actually, it felt heavenly to pop off your boots when you’re eating. Besides, it’s useful to change socks to prevent blisters.
7. Welcomed by an orchestra
We were energised. It didn’t feel like we had just walked 22 kilometres. It felt like real adventure only started. The next loop of De Molse 60 took us through Sluis, the village we knew quite well. Here we had practised for the hike.
The road to Sluis took us to lakeshores, canals, and over bridges, through little grassy roads, and narrow passways. Most of it, we walked in royal loneliness, which was weird since we were already used to crowds and people passing us along the way.
During the whole hike, we passed exactly four people- the father and son and two women in pink. After we’d passed the ladies, both of them lit their electronic cigarettes. If you’re not enjoying your life now, then when will you, right?
We had walked kilometres without seeing a soul and thought that ladies were far behind us. Until one moment Tom told me: “I think the women have hurried up. They are approaching fast!” That came as a shock to us. We really didn’t think we were that slow. But right he was, there was no doubt that the pink jacket belonged to one of the ladies. We hurried up. As you see, we too got infected by the general attitude and competitiveness of De Molse 60. We simply couldn’t let it happen that they would pass us! No way.
All of a sudden, we heard an orchestra playing and thought it was probably an event happening somewhere in the village. But no, the orchestra that played near the building where Tom had sexual education class was here to welcome us, the hikers!
The sun was shining, we munched our cookies on the white plastic chairs and life was beautiful. In this breakpoint, we spotted also several supporters, drinking their cokes and beers. The outdoor bar was busy. The father, now without the tired son, had a quick rest. Two men, who looked like they could be brothers, ordered beers. Yes, these people were definitely our kind of crowd. If only it wouldn’t be that we still had to walk so much until our final destination, we’d have happily stayed a bit longer, enjoyed the music and had a drink, but we were not even halfway.
8. From halfway to no way
“Ouch!” I grabbed my knee just after taking some pictures of the halfway point sign. I tried to stretch and bend my knee, but the only thing that helped for the pain was not leaning on it. That brought our pace drastically down. But there was nothing to do, my knee was on a strike and refused to function.
I had a joint infection when I was a child, but I haven’t had a problem with it since I was a teenager. The doctor told me that swimming and cycling and basically all physical activities are fine, in moderation. I guess the term moderation has its limits and I cannot stretch it endlessly.
Snail-like, we approached a sign that had two arrows. It said that if we wanted to take a boat over the canal, we should turn left, and if we chose the bridge we should go right. The picture of a boat looked like a mirage in the desert. Boat? All we were doing was walking. No way there would be a possibility to sit in a boat, enjoy the little spring breeze in our hair, and just get carried over the water. We decided it was a joke, and took the long boring bridge instead. Of course, later we learned there actually was a way to cross the canal by boat.
I found myself a walking stick made of a tree branch, then Tom found me another one. And like that, with two homemade nordic sticks, I lagged my way through the last seven kilometres. Now even the old people could pass me easily, not talking about fit young people. For a while, we couldn’t see anything but other hikers’ backs. But I couldn’t move any faster. Hoping that rest would help, we sat down along the canal.
Sitting didn’t help. The most annoying was that I wasn’t even tired, it was only my knee that ruined it. With crutches, I could probably have jumped to the end.
But the road went on, and we had a decision to make- whether to try to make it with the pain or give up and only complete two loops. Soon it became clear to me that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t walk until the end of De Molse 60. A sharp pain penetrated my knee on every step. We had to bury our dreams and admit defeat.
10. Nature in cotton candy colours
But the nature around us was no less beautiful. We had just entered the surroundings of lake Zilvermeer which means silver lake. And the pretty lake truly deserves its name. At the end of a hot summer day, when the last sun rays touched its surface I saw how its water really turned silver.
We didn’t see the lake itself this time, but the trail winded through its flowery surroundings. Here it felt like nature had gone crazy with watercolours. We saw pastel tones everywhere you looked: little lilac flowers, warm beige sand, and every hue of green. Everything was so fresh that you could almost breathe in the colours.
No wonder that the landscape here attracted painters from all over the world at the end of 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, to grab their brushes and capture the delicate tones and shapes of the landscape.
We found a perfect picnic spot- a sandy lakeshore. Yes, I just said we couldn’t see the famous lake Zilvermeer, but apparently, there are dozens of less famous lakes in the region. This one was even so unimportant that it didn’t have a name at all. Poor thing.
Now we walked and limped through some green leafy tunnels and then we were there- back to the beginning of De Molse 60.
Sitting down with coffee and snacks, we noticed how the breakpoint had transformed into a festival ground. A lemon tea coloured light covered the whole place, barbecue smells tickled our noses and a band played somewhere further. The atmosphere was relaxed and happy. The joy in the faces of those who had accomplished the challenge of walking 60 km, is hard to describe. But we were happy too, and our bodies felt so light.
The whole thing proved again that the human body is capable of a lot more than we think and we should use its abilities more often. How often do we take a bus, car or motorbike for a distance we could easily cover on foot? Our excuse is that we have no time. But is that actually so? I think that for many, getting things done quicker means spending more hours in front of screens. Are the screens really worth rushing through life and forgetting the joy of walking?