When I set off to walk the Via Francigena from home to Rome in 2015, not only had I never walked a long-distance walking route before, I had never travelled alone. Anywhere!
For the first few days, I was not really alone: a couple of friends from my women’s book club took turns walking with me. And one of them was a qualified and licensed hiking guide! So I had no worries about finding my way, as she illustrated the various plant species and rock formations along the path for me. But as soon as she turned around to take the train back home and left me alone, I got lost. The path I was following through the woods to my hostel in a hilltop village had been covered over with leaves and branches blown off the trees and washed down the slope in a storm. I lost sight of the trail and found myself in the middle of woods, alone, as evening rapidly approached.
Feeling a fool for getting lost within half an hour of saying goodbye to my friend, and trying not to panic, I found a dry stream bed and reasoned that I could follow the bed of the stream up to the top of the hill. But as I approached the stream bed I glimpsed, through the trees, a couple of pairs of legs, on a gravel road just above the other side of the stream: saved! I made my way through the trees to the gravel road and followed it to the village.
On the rest of my walk to Rome I was to discover the joys of walking alone, and the joys of meeting other solo walkers along the way, sharing a portion of the trail with them before differences in our walking pace or the need to make a stop along the way separated us – only to meet again further down the road, and perhaps agree to share accommodations, or a meal. When I walk alone, I am more open to making new acquaintances along the way, whether they be fellow walkers, hosts for an evening, or people who live along my walking route or just happen to be there. I am more likely to attempt a few phrases in another language, if necessary to communicate with them. But what I like best about walking alone is the feeling of freedom it brings, of not answering to anybody: if I want to lie down in the grass and take a nap in the middle of the day, I can do it. If I want to wander off my route to explore a sleepy village or a ruined church, I can do that. If I like the look of the town around me and decide to call it a day and look for a room, or if I reach my planned destination for the day but still feel full of energy and ready to walk on to the next town, I can do so.
…or walking in company
On the other hand, there are plenty of benefits to walking with a buddy, or as part of a group. I don’t worry so much at the sound of a barking dog, or when walking a deserted trail through the forest or a road in a dubious semi-industrial suburb. I can split the cost of a room, and have dinner in company. I can laugh and tell jokes and stories to pass the time, when the way is long and weariness makes every minute seem an eternity. I can relax occasionally and let someone else do some of the planning, make some of the arrangements for accommodations and research the route.
Walking in parallel
Since my first walking experience on the Via Francigena, I have walked a total of over 5000 kilometres on the pilgrimage routes of Europe: alone, with a single friend, in a group of three or four, and as part of an organised group with a fixed schedule. And I have enjoyed all of my walks every bit as much! Perhaps best of all is to walk in parallel: set off in the morning in company, allowing natural differences in pace to separate you from your companion(s), and then agreeing, whether ahead of time or using today’s instant messaging technologies, to meet for lunch or at the end of the stage. Spending some nights in shared accommodations, and others in your own private room.
This way, you can enjoy the best of both worlds!
But I do recommend spending some time walking alone: in addition to the feeling of freedom, the other benefit it offers is empowerment. There you are, progressing on your way across the world, relying entirely on your own power and your own resources. And if you are like me, when you return home and find yourself once again entwined in the snarls of everyday life, in the face of difficulty you will say: Hey, if I can walk to Rome alone, I can definitely deal with this!