My energy was low on the Rhine near the village of Rolandseck. It was a damp, dispiriting day and my steps were getting heavier – I still had a long way to walk before I had a place to sleep. At that point I came across a long metal plaque zigzagged into the paving stones, engraved with English words: a 2838 kilometre coast to coast walking journey on roads pavements tracks and bicycle paths from bilbao to rotterdam starting at the river nervion continuing to an alpine origin of the river rhine and following its course to the north sea ending at the hook of holland spain france switzerland germany the netherlands. Nearby was a sign with further explanation, but actually I didn’t want to know more. It was enough that someone had been here, that someone had walked this same path, and this evidence of a previous walker lightened my steps until nightfall.
Walking slightly drunk one afternoon (I was decanting whiskey into my hip-flask and the whiskey didn’t all fit), acted as a weird charm – out of a sudden squall of rain appeared a wild-eyed, grinning man with broken teeth and an enormous, demonic-looking grey dog. ‘Come, come, you must stay dry here,’ he said, motioning me into the shelter of someone else’s garage, and then embarked on a strange monologue: ‘My name is Harry. Like your youngest prince! But I am not a royalist, never! I am free. I hate hierarchy! Do you know that this class system, this system of kings and earls and counts, was brought here by the Romans? Before the Romans came to this land the Germans were free, we were all equal, no one was better or worse than any other. We must still overthrow this Roman mentality, so we can be free again…’
He went on in this vein until the rain stopped, at which point I walked on. It was only later that afternoon that I came across a little sign – a centurion’s helmet and the word limes – and realised I was inadvertently tracing the old boundary of the Roman Empire from Holland to the Black Sea. The Romans controlled the west bank of the Rhine but never conquered the wild tribes to the east. How amazing, a thousand years later, to meet a man enthusiastically babbling an ancient communal memory of tribal freedoms versus imperial oppression – however vague and inaccurate – through a mouthful of crooked teeth, on the line of that frontier.
Another route I constantly cross, follow for a while, lose again, and pick up a few days later, is the Pilgerweg – the pilgrim’s way – that spreads through all the countries of Europe until it becomes the Camino de Santiago. Until now I hadn’t realised that these paths were connected, branching and dividing and merging again like the map of a nervous system, until they converge, after thousands of miles, on that dusty little town in the north of Spain. I am heading east, not west, but I’m still tracing the same pathways. So far I haven’t met another walker, but sometimes I get the notion that someone might be shadowing my journey, or I might be shadowing theirs – they might be half a mile behind me or half a mile ahead of me, perhaps even stopping when I stop, crossing the road where I cross the road, having a rest on the same low wall, sneaking off for a surreptitious piss behind the same tangle of trees.
For two days this week I found myself following a series of little brown and white signs showing the silhouette of a woman driving an antiquated vehicle, with the words ‘Bertha Benz Memorial Route.’ These signs didn’t strike me as particularly exciting, but, I later found out, mark a journey of almost unimaginable significance – something that led, around the world, to cultural and environmental changes so profound that they seem better understood as a shift in consciousness. In 1888, Bertha Benz, wife of engineer Karl Benz, test-drove her husband’s prototype automobile on this road from Bruchsal to Pforzheim. This seemingly unassuming jaunt was the maiden voyage of the world’s first car – the car from which every other car, from the Model T Ford to the SUV, can trace its lineage. Even Karl Benz had his doubts about it, but by driving this route between the two cities, his wife proved that the automobile was a viable form of transport. Just how viable, she couldn’t have imagined. Only fifty years later, Germany gave that first car’s descendants the world’s first autobahns, ensuring their dominion over the landscape. Perhaps a walker following this route is like a Carib Indian – if there were any of them left – retracing the voyage that Columbus took with the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Sketching the outline of a journey that led to the destruction of a world.
Looking at Europe’s map today, the logical consequence of that journey can be seen in the webwork of red and yellow lines that divide and subdivide the continent, autobahns and their tributary roads that split the formless wilderness into abstract geometrical partitions – another branching nervous system like that of the Camino de Santiago, but one that has no end to arrive at, no destination. Walking alongside these roads, which I often find unavoidable, I see and hear and smell and feel that consequence every day. And yet, as I’m starting to discover, it’s not the only map. There are roads between the roads, from the limes to the pilgrim’s way, the cycle-tracks, the borders of fields, the Wanderweg – the wander way – the corridors of connected woodland left behind from carved-up forests, as well as the rivers and the streams that were Europe’s first thoroughfares. This is the map I am starting to glimpse, tracked by the ghosts of travellers past. Sometimes they leave traces.