42: A Long Walk

42: A Long Walk

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

A Long Walk

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

~Lao Tzu

The worst kind of English weather had set in, the kind when you look at the dark, grey sky and think, “How is it possible that there is still any liquid left up there?”

I chased the soccer ball down the touchline. Then it stopped suddenly in a puddle, and I tried to slam on my brakes before I overran it. My left leg shot out in front of me and my whole body weight fell onto the right leg that had remained bent beneath me.

Then came the horrible sound. The sound that shattered a dream.

The coach looked at my knee in the changing room and said, “Put some ice on it — I’m sure you’ll be fit to play again by tomorrow.” Just a week earlier, he had told me that if I worked hard I could go all the way. That was what I had wanted for as long I could remember.

But I wouldn’t ever play again. I had three operations on The Knee and spent months at a time on crutches, but nothing worked, at least not for long. And each time I went back into the hospital, surrounded by people many decades older than me, I lost a little bit of the ambition that had burned so brightly in me.

Eventually I didn’t even bother to do the exercises the doctors gave me, and gradually the muscles on my right leg wasted away until I could hardly even run, let alone kick a ball.

Feeling defeated and hard done by, I started drinking heavily.

Eventually, it would be something as trivial as a picture that changed it all. Years after my accident, a friend of mine posted an old picture on Facebook of a bunch of us school friends on summer holiday, standing on a beach with the sea sparkling in the sun behind us. The photo was taken just a month or so before my injury. I looked at myself. I was so tanned, fit, strong and healthy. So happy and full of hope.

In the years since my injury I had become a little overweight, a little cynical, and completely unfit. I had done countless menial jobs, none of which I had stuck at. All I really knew was that I wanted to get as far away from England as possible and start afresh, but I kept blowing most of the money I made on alcohol. I was going nowhere fast, and somehow that old picture made it all too clear. That was all it took, but it was like a lightning bolt. I had to stop the rot.

Then later that night I started reading a book about the Congo. The author meets an old man who walks around 900 miles once every few months to sell palm oil in the nearest town.

My mind began racing. I could do that. There was nothing to stop me. I could do it all for charity and raise enough money to finally get out of England, enough to go somewhere in Africa and do something different, worthwhile — maybe coach football for a sports-based NGO (non-governmental organization). Perhaps I could even raise enough money to help fund an NGO project. I would get fit again. I would see parts of my country that I had never thought to visit before. Maybe I would even fall in love with my country a little bit again before leaving it all behind. It was perfect.

I went home and told my dad about my big plan. He looked at me with tired eyes. “But you’ve never walked anywhere. You don’t even walk to the shops. You’ll never make it. Not a chance.”

That was exactly what I needed to hear.

Three months later, I had raised over £3,000 and chalked up at least a hundred miles in practice walks. The Knee was feeling stronger than it had for years. I was ready to head off with my tent, sleeping bag, a small gas cooker and my clothes all on my back.

I left Land’s End, Britain’s most southerly point, on a perfect summer day. The road was flat and I felt good. I covered fifteen miles comfortably that day, then pitched my tent and slept like the dead.

But it wouldn’t always be so easy. For the next two weeks, it rained almost incessantly. I got lost, almost drowned wading through a river, and had a close shave with a very angry bull. I had agonizing blisters on my feet, and my bag seemed to dig into my shoulders more every day.

But I kept going.

Soon the weather improved again. Having given my body no time to wallow in the pain it was feeling, it had no choice but to mend itself on the move.

After a month, walking twenty miles every day had become comfortable. As I sat down on the grass next to my tent in the evening to eat whatever simple food I had made or went to wash in a nearby river or stream, I gradually became aware that I felt happier and healthier than I could remember feeling for years, if ever. I was accomplishing something. It was so simple and so rewarding. And England was more beautiful than I had ever imagined.

Autumn was already in full swing when I crossed into Scotland. My tent was covered in frost in the mornings, and I dreaded getting undressed and washing and shaving. The landscape had changed too. It was less hospitable, darker, wilder, more stark and striking. The closer to the end of my journey I came, the more I felt as if I was walking towards the end of the world.

After a little over two months, having covered 1,076 miles, I arrived at my destination in John O’Groats, the land having finally run out. I ceremoniously threw my walking boots into a dustbin. As I looked out to sea, I felt that I could do anything I put my mind to. Feeling hard done by for so long had just been the easy way out.

A few months later I boarded a plane to South Africa. I spent the next twelve months travelling around Africa working for a variety of sports-based NGOs. Then I came back to Cape Town to take up a job as a journalist for a news platform that focuses on development and social entrepreneurship in South Africa. I’m still here, writing about the things that matter to me most, and still coaching some soccer from time to time.

My dad came to visit me recently for the first time and meet my South African girlfriend. We have found a way to be close again even with this great geographical distance between us.

“Well, that was quite a journey,” he said when I met him at the airport.

“Yes,” I said. “It sure was.”

~Christopher Clark

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