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Crossing Europe by Foot

UW Daily, 15 October 1999, by Paul Condra
No longer available online. If you feel this article shouldn't be archived here, please contact the librarian's desk.

Journey: UW CHID major reflects on his five-month walk from London to Istanbul

John Roderick in UW Daily, 1999

John Roderick explains how an enthusiastic attitude was crucial to meeting villagers.

    This summer, The Daily featured communications from John Roderick, a senior in comparative history of ideas, as he made his way from London to Istanbul on foot. He carried only a sleeping bag, two pairs of pants, four shirts, four pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, a sweat shirt, a rain jacket and a compact history atlas of Europe.

    Roderick set out walking on May 4 from London, and on Sept. 21 he arrived in Istanbul. Three days later he returned to Seattle in time to begin his fall quarter classes.

    "Have you ever heard of the wandering womb theory?" was the first thing Roderick said as he sat down on a couch in a U-District coffee shop to discuss his recent travels.

    His eyes revealed confusion as a friend explained the theory.

    But after speaking with Roderick for a while, it became apparent that the randomness of that question parallels the random and often unplanned way in which he has chosen to live his life.

    Now 31 years old, he came to the UW in 1993, after studying at Gonzaga for a couple years. He is currently working on his CHID degree and said he hopes to graduate this year, but that's not something he stresses out about.

    "I never want to feel like I'm slogging it out [at school]," Roderick explained. "When it gets frustrating, I bail."

    For Roderick, not being a full-time student allows him to concentrate on other things in life. He said he generally tries to find two or three part-time jobs at a time, never focusing his attention on one thing full time.

    Before he left for Europe in the spring, Roderick simultaneously worked at a newsstand and sold vintage guitars in Pioneer Square.

    It was really Roderick's link to music that is partially to blame for his decision to walk across the continent.

    He started playing the guitar in high school.

    "I knew five chords and I wrote silly songs from that.".

    He formed his first band, called Chautauqua, in 1991 in Seattle.

    Roderick continued to play in various bands around Seattle, developing his "creative outlet."

    By early 1999, he played in a band called the Western State Hurricanes. Roderick said the band still wasn't making enough money to make a living, but it was his most successful venue yet.

    After touring across the country, the relationships in the band began to wear thin.

    "You never know what somebody's made of until you put it to the test," Roderick recounted.

    He said some members just weren't willing to make the commitment.

    It was then that Roderick realized his own behavior also needed a little time to heal, to put things in perspective.

    "I was behaving in questionable social behavior ... turning into a business person - glad-handing, butt slapping."

    Roderick grew disgusted with himself and the music industry. He said it had come down to "cool versus uncool" and he realized music, such an important part of his life, had been based on something "fickle" and "lame."

    Roderick was determined to take a short trip to cleanse himself.

    "You need to get out of your bad head. More than anything, walking would be a simple thing that would take all day."

    His first thought was to walk from Vancouver to Tijuana, he said. Then as a sinister smile crept across his face, he admitted the adventurer in him wanted a little more fun - after all, his chosen journey crossed 10 countries.

    But Roderick had been to Europe before. When he was 20 he spent nine months hitchhiking across the country. He was in Berlin when the Wall came down. He's traveled to Morocco and Greece as well.

    "I like [Europe] a lot," he said.

    He went on to say that a lot of people turn their noses up at Europe because for them, a simple train ride from Paris to Florence is a common trip for tourists.

    "It's an easy trip for people who want to get out of America."
    But there was nothing easy about Roderick's European vacation. He stuck to country roads, going to small villages where some inhabitants had never seen a foreigner.

    He visited towns not accessible by train and traveled roads not wide enough for a tractor. He followed goat paths over mountains, not seeing anyone for days, drinking from springs and eating cheese given to him by a shepherd or pork fat from a park ranger.

    He spent nights sleeping in haylofts and farmers' sheds when he could find nothing else.

    Roderick spent his days walking - sometimes 35 or 40 miles.


    July 2: I would like to describe a physical sensation. I've started walking some really long days, a couple of times going over 50 kilometers. At the end of the day, sitting with my feet up, I have the feeling that my feet are ringing, like when your ears ring. It's the only way to describe it. Not tingling, but ringing. I must massage them and tug at them for a while before I am even able to sleep ... I've almost completely stopped sleeping outside for the time being ... The prospect of some midnight existential despair hitting me in a field in the Czech Republic is enough to keep me looking for a bed in the villages. It's hard enough when that feeling hits me in some strange farmhouse.

    Roderick remembers crossing the Carpathian mountains in Romania as a climactic point of the journey. He said it was mentally, physically and spiritually the most challenging part of the trip.

    Part of what made it so difficult, yet rewarding, was Roderick's desire to avoid mountain roads.

    "There are maybe five roads. I wanted to cross the mountains just across the mountains."

    He eventually found a goat trail in Retezat National Park. He recounted instances of crossing ravines over fallen trees and having to cling to rocks to keep from plunging into a rushing river.

    But it was after the three days in the mountains that Roderick felt the most pressure to just stop and go home.

    "I felt like I should just run to the end, but that wasn't possible."

    He still had another month and a half of walking until Istanbul.

    Aug. 26: I've slept in haylofts and out in the fields, too. One night I slept on a hillside and watched the shepherds taking their sheep down to the valley at dusk. After I had gone to sleep, I was awakened by a group of wild boar who apparently congregated every night under the same tree I chose to camp. They approached from upwind so didn't know I was there until I sat up abruptly, then they scattered in a frenzy. Intense. Also, in the mountains, I surprised several bear over the course of the days, so that I took to whistling and talking loudly to myself.

    But when he wasn't sleeping under the open sky, Roderick found that most villagers were willing to give him shelter and food.

    In Craoiva, Romania, Roderick milked cows and enjoyed fresh, homemade sausage and freshly laid eggs. He also helped villagers gather fallen plumbs for brandy stills.

    But it wasn't as easy as just going up to everyone he saw, asking for help. Roderick said it took him time to become comfortable enough to make these connections.

    "I didn't become just more confident in myself, but in other people," Roderick said. "People will help no matter what culture."

    Often, Roderick had to sleep outdoors, eating stale biscuits and mineral water.

    "Every town is different, and this lends itself to the constant feeling that anything could happen."

    When people became too persistent with him (often villagers tried to keep him around and would force food or gifts on him) Roderick used an abrupt snap of the fingers and a firm "no" to get his point across.

    He reached Istanbul on Sept. 22. His reaction was surprising, considering the effort it took him to get there:

    Sept. 22: Almost five months of walking - I am curiously unelated. For months I've been picturing myself entering this city, having a sumptuous meal, treating myself to steam baths and a new suit of clothes and an endless array of fantastic desserts. In fact, I am too tired to care about any of that. I'm staying at some cheap, local hotel.

    The truth be told, I want my own people now. I want to be among my own family and my own friends. I can't recapture the tourist in me. I can't find the desire to see mosques and museums.
There was no triumphal moment, entering Istanbul. It was a long walk like so many others. I cannot believe that my walking is finished; that I have arrived. For months I've gotten out of bed in the morning and started to walk. It is what I do. Now ... what do I do? I don't walk now? Just like that? I'm supposed to ... what? Sit around? Oooh and ahh at tourist sights?

    I can't believe it. I'm coming home. I'll figure it out then.

back to top |  Notes from the Field 7 July |  21 July |  11 August |  Crossing Europe on foot, interview

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