by Kenneth Schroeder
I left my home in Portugal in November, 2011 with a tent, a backpack, and 235 euros. I was carrying two peace petitions to deliver in Palestine. As a Quaker, I felt I had been led by God to do this.
After walking for 18 months I arrived in Cairo, having been denied entry into Israel. After being caught in a violent demonstration in Tahrir Square I went to Dahab, in Sinai, and I again tried to enter Israel through the Taba border crossing. I was again denied entry. I returned to Italy in June of 2013, and cycled from there to Germany, where I am living now.
I walked the first 1000 kilometers with my daughter, Olivia. I walked through the Balkans and part of Turkey with a Belgian woman– Moots– who went on to cycle into Iran and is now in India. While walking with Moots I began to lose faith in my ‘mission’. Meanwhile, I lived on donations from people who had quite a lot of faith in what I was doing.
‘The Promise’ took place just after leaving Sofia, Bulgaria, in December of 2012.
Bo and I are making our way through the industrial outskirts of Sofia, and I have already had to hold several large, shaggy guard dogs at bay with my walking staff. Bo is pulling hard on her lead, which is also my clothes line whenever we’re camped. I know she’s pulling hard to catch up with Moots.
“Moots is gone, Bo, it’s just you and me now,” I tell her, and with that statement I feel closer to the little black stray that had walked with us all the way from the Bosnian border.
I slog along at the edge of the pot-holed road, where it meets the ridge of hard, sooty snow. Another industrial zone dog barks savagely, but this one’s behind a fence, and Bo ignores it, still pulling hard ahead of me. I think about Moots, who’d cycled away this morning some fifteen minutes ahead of me, and I know she’s pedaling hard because she’s alone now– alone but for her puppy, Mien– and she’s already several kilometers ahead, and she’s gone, and that’s that.
“Just you and me now, Bo,” I tell her again.
After a few minutes we’ve got through the garages and metal shops on the east side of Sofia, and the road is covered in icy sludge, and we are surrounded by fields covered in snow and ice with a few tall weeds or the occasional scrubby bush poking through. The sun is bright but low, and though I’m stomping along quickly in my snow boots, I’m not warming up much.
The landscape looks nothing like it did on Google Maps the day before, when Moots had shown me the best way to walk out. I’d counted the number of roads on the map that I was to pass before making a left turn on a little road through the fields, but now the side roads are snow covered, and I can’t tell if they’re roads or private lanes. There is an industrial yard ahead, and I was to take the road just before that, but I see no road to take, so Bo and I continue on to the yard and turn left into it. The road into the yard is almost clear of snow, and I’m hoping it continues on in the direction I want to go.
We pass more auto garages and metal shops, and a few workers stop to stare. I’m walking with a backpack, and a sign on the backpack, still written in Serbo-Croatian, that says “Walking for peace to Egypt”, and I’m being towed along by a little, black, middle-aged street dog on a green, nylon line. Another big dog tries to attack Bo through a fence, and Bo reverses herself and pulls back and slips her collar.
She never does, though, and I know I’ll only get her back on the lead once she’s decided to return to me on her own. She sprints ahead as if trying to catch up to Moots, but she’s then distracted by a scent, and she circles with her nose to the frozen ground.
After 200 meters the road has come to an end, but there is a snow covered road to the side that I am hoping will lead us the right way. I don’t feel like backtracking so I continue forward in spite of my better judgement, passing Bo, who is still sniffing the ground.
But she doesn’t, and I go on, treading carefully now as the road surface has become packed ice. Looking ahead I can see that our path comes to an end at a chain link fence, and I am muttering under my breath and ready to turn around when I hear vicious barking, then the growling of fighting dogs, and Bo’s high pitched yelping. Behind me, two bear-like dogs are snapping at Bo, exposing their fangs, while Bo is on the ice exposing her belly.
I yell out to Bo, then at the attacking dogs to distract them, but they are focused on their attack, and I run towards the melee as fast as I can on the ice with 20 plus kilos on my back, sliding in my snow boots, and swinging my walking staff.
My feet slip out from under me, and I fall hard on my back, and I can hear the thin plywood sign on my back crack from the fall. The breath is knocked out of me, but I manage to haul myself upright, and when I reach the attacking dogs I yell again, but they’ve still got Bo pinned on the ice, and I raise my staff with both hands and bring it down on their backs with all my strength. The big dogs yelp and back off, still barking, with their eyes alternating between Bo, who is still on her back, and me with my raised weapon.
“Yaaaaah!” I yell, lunging at them again, and they slip on the ice trying to get away. “Get the fuck outta here!”
In the meantime Bo has gotten up and she’s sprinting down the road, yelping with her tail between her legs.
“Bo!” I yell, but she keeps running until a construction worker snatches her up as she runs past him 50 meters down the road. The worker waits for me, leaning over to hold Bo, and his colleagues stand by watching me approach. When I reach them they all stand staring– I’m breathing hard from exertion and adrenalin, and shaking a bit as I put Bo’s collar back on. I thank them, they say nothing, and I walk with Bo back to the road we’d been on before entering the little industrial zone. I stop and dump my pack onto the ground and kneel down to inspect Bo for injuries. I find some blood on her back and around her neck, but I can’t find any holes in her.
“Those were some big fucking bastards, eh, Bo?”
Bo is trembling as I check her over.
“We’re gonna make it Bo, don’t worry. You’re all I’ve got now and I’m all you’ve got so we’d better be friends. We’ll be all right.”
I roll a cigarette, looking back down the road we’d walked up just twenty minutes before, wondering where we’re supposed to turn to get back on track. I think about Moots, and how far ahead she must be on her bike, and that she’s gone for good, just like that. I think about my promise to take care of Bo, and to find a home for her before getting to Turkey, and I think about the fact that that promise is all I have left of Moots.
“I won’t let that happen again, Bo,” I say, throwing the cigarette butt away and putting my pack back on.
When we start again I know Bo is all right because she’s pulling on the lead to find Moots. We come to a depression in the snow with tire tracks on it, and I see that it’s a country lane, and it must be the lane we were supposed to take to avoid having to walk on the highway. We take it, crossing a big field of snow with a few brown weeds poking through, and Bo leads on an ice packed tire track. I want to let her loose but I’m afraid she’ll run away trying to find Moots, and I think that if I’d never made the promise I might have let her run away, just to be rid of the responsibility, but then I think, no, Bo and I are partners on this escapade.
“Just you and me, Bo,” I tell her again, and when we take another break before reaching a bigger road, I spend a few minutes stroking her, and she seems to appreciate it.
A few hours later we are walking along a road through the woods, and the sun has fallen behind them, and there are no more individual shadows being cast; there is only the single shadow that is dusk, and it is time to camp. Moots had warned me to find an abandoned building for shelter this evening as temperatures are expected to drop to -20° C, but the woods here are thick and go on as far as I can see in every direction. I take a little side road and step through the high snow into the woods while Bo makes a long series of leaps to plow her way through. When I’m deep enough in the woods to be out of sight of the road I clear a space in the snow with my boots so that I can pitch my tent.
The temperature is dropping fast, and I feel that I have to hurry, and as I lay the tent on the space I’ve cleared, Bo lies down on it to keep off of the snow. She won’t obey when I tell her to move, so I have to pick her up and set her down in the snow. She climbs back onto the tent, and I have to pick her up again. I finally let her have her way, and put the poles into the slots so they are crisscrossing each other, and when I bend the poles to raise the tent, Bo grudgingly moves off of it. As soon as it’s up, though, she hops in through the flap and settles down inside.
My tent is new; I’d paid 30 euros for it at a hunting store in Serbia, but even that was too much to pay as it is suitable only for summer camping when the weather is fine. As it is only a single layer tent I’d had sense enough to keep the outer shell of my old tent, and I put it over the new one, struggling a bit to sink the thin stakes into the frozen ground.
I dig into the bottom of my pack to pull out my sleeping bag, and after laying the new, and thicker mat that I bought in Sofia down on the tent floor, I spread my sleeping bag over it. I put my two packs into the tent, and lay my towel down in the space by my feet, and I pick Bo up, and she stiffens, and I set her on the towel where she settles down. I strip off my clothes, which are damp from sweat– that sweat will freeze tonight– and I’m shivering, and saying, “Shit… Shiiiit…”, as I put on dry thermal underwear, and several t-shirts, and a thicker pair of thermal trousers, and sweatpants, and three pairs of socks, and two pullovers, and then I put my big yellow coat on again, and my stocking cap, and over that my gray Siberian hat, then I feed Bo with the dog food Moots had given me that morning before cycling down the road. I eat some bread and cheese, and wash it down with water, and it is dark now, and very still, and I am shivering.
I write in my journal, but it is difficult because my hands are cold and because the ink in the pen is too cold to flow freely. The light from my headlamp is dim, and I hope the batteries last through the night so I can see what I’m doing if I have to find something else to keep us warm. It is early, but it is dark, and I zip up the flap of the tent, and I climb into my sleeping bag to keep warm. Once I’ve zipped it up I arrange its hood over my head and tighten the string to form a cocoon, then I put on the gloves that are inside the bag and I settle down, and I think:
I won’t sleep well this night, because I’ll be afraid of not waking up, and because I’ll be thinking of Bo not getting through the night. Bo is all I have right now, and I made a promise, and I’ll protect her.
I love Olivia, and I wish I were with her now, but it’s best that she’s not with me now. I love her, and I hope she forgives me.
I hope Linda forgives me.
I was never supposed to come this way. I was never supposed to be in the Balkans in December with my summer tent and my summer sleeping bag.
What made Scott pull his support for me? I’d really thought he’d help me get a better tent and a subzero sleeping bag. To hell with him. He’s warm in his castle in front of his big screen TV. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. There’s no place else I’d rather be than in this summer tent in the frozen woods in Bulgaria, testing myself. To hell with Scott and his comfort.
I hope Moots forgives me, but she won’t– she once said she never forgives– but maybe she will.
Moots is in her tent by now, I am sure; it’s too cold for her to be outside cooking on her camping stove. Perhaps she’s been able to get to a lower altitude on her bike– maybe it’s a few degrees warmer where she is– maybe she’s found some shelter– maybe someone has taken her in. No, she’s in her tent with Mien, the puppy, and they’re both in her sleeping bag. She has a very good tent, and a sleeping bag for subzero temperatures, so she should be all right. I won’t be there to take Mien out at 2am for a pee. Even if I were, I wouldn’t on this night.
What the hell am I doing here in a summer tent and a summer sleeping bag in the frozen Balkan woods?
Our hosts in Sofia had invited us to stay for a few more days so we wouldn’t have to venture out into this weather, and we’d declined.
What, are we crazy?
But I wasn’t comfortable there, with all the regrets.
I shouldn’t have said those things.
How did I get here?
I really have to get my shit together tonight.
Lord, help us get through the night. Help Moots and Mien. Help all of us.
Bo will freeze if I don’t put her in my sleeping bag.
It takes me five minutes to undo what I’ve done to get in the sleeping bag, and I call for Bo to come, but she never does, she just raises her head a bit and stares, so I reach over to pick her up. She stiffens as I lift her, and I try to squeeze her into my bag.
“C’mon, Bo, you’ll freeze if you don’t. I’m all you got now, so try to cooperate, okay?”
Bo’s expression is rigid; stoical. She’d rather be with Moots.
“Moots is gone, Bo.”
Bo is crammed now in the sleeping bag, but it is a tight fit even without her, and with all the clothing I’ve got on and with Bo I can’t zip it up. I lie there for a few moments, and the air is cold, and I watch my breath project to the tent ceiling, and it is early. This is just the prelude. By five in the morning it will be much, much colder. I pull Bo out of my sleeping bag.
“Sorry Bo, it’s me or you.”
I put her back on the towel and try to wrap her up in it, but she won’t lie down; she just stands there on trembling legs. I dig in my pack for anything else I can find to cover her with– another t-shirt, socks, underwear– and I arrange a bed for her, and she finally turns and settles down, and I cover her. I’ll keep an eye on her through the night, but I don’t know if she’ll get through it– I’ve heard of dogs freezing in their straw-filled doghouses on -10C nights.
It takes another five minutes to arrange myself in the sleeping bag again, and I wait for the sun to come up.
As I wait, I alternate between stillness, and even moments of comfort before having sudden fits of trembling from the cold. My face is the only exposed part of me, and it is cold, and my back feels cold, and I am happy for my new foam mat, or my back would be much colder. My feet are cold and they are numb, yet they ache. I shudder again, and I can’t think of any way to get warmer, so I try to take my mind off the cold, but the cold is all there is. After a while, I grope my way out of my bag to check on Bo. My elbow hits the side of the tent, and it seems to be snowing inside, and when I turn on my headlamp I can see that the sides of the tent are covered in frost. I tap the side of the tent, and it snows again. Bo is curled up, and the towel and other odd bits of clothing are covering her, and her eyes are open just a slit, and she is also alternating between stillness and fits of shivering.
“We can do it, Bo, we’ll do it, we’re tough Bo.”
Her tail doesn’t wag when I talk to her, but it almost never does anyway.
I am thirsty, and I reach for my water bottle, but the water in it is already frozen half way through, so I leave it alone. I feel there’s something I should do to get both of us warmer, but there is nothing more I can do, and now as I’m exposed to the air my breathing is loud and jerky, and I go through the cumbersome process of getting back inside my summer sleeping bag– taking off the gloves and putting them in the bag, zipping up carefully so the zipper doesn’t catch on a fold– but it’s difficult to zip to the top because I am so bulky in all the clothing I’m wearing, and I feel clumsy, and I bump the side of the tent and it snows again– then I settle down and manage to work the hood over my head, and to find the string to pull it tight, and I grope in the bag for my gloves and get them on my hands, and I wait for the sun to rise in another twelve hours, or maybe it’s only ten hours now– I forgot to check the time, but I won’t go through the long process of freeing my hands now to check the time.
As long as I’m awake and shivering, I am alive, I think. Bo might not get through it, though. One day on the road without Moots and I’ll already have broken my promise.
It is a few hours later and I have to pee. Also, my feet hurt. I remove my gloves in the bag, and loosen the string on my hood, and unzip, and bump the tent and it snows. I turn on my headlamp and sit up, and everything is still, utterly quiet but for my breathing, and my whispering to myself, “Okay, okay.”
I shudder, blow into my hands, rub my feet for a minute, then look at Bo, and she is still curled up, but on the bare plastic floor of the tent– for some reason she’s pushed everything aside– towel, clothing, everything scattered away from her.
“Bo, what the fuck, Bo?”
I feel her and her fur is cold. She doesn’t respond to my touch, and her eyes are slits. I lift her a bit, and she is limp, as though lifeless.
“Ah, shit!” I say because I have to pee, and I struggle with the zipper on the flap of the tent– I can’t get it open very far– it is genuinely stuck from the cold but I am also being clumsy and my hands are cold– so I squeeze out with my feet still inside the tent and I pee in the snow, and in that helpless moment when there is nothing I can do but pee I look through the dark, frozen woods and think how beautiful it all is, and how serene, and perfect, and deadly. Then it’s back to Bo.
I shake her to wake her up, but she is still limp, and I rub her as vigorously as I can to revive her a bit, but she is unresponsive.
“C’mon Bo, we can do it, we have a long ways to go.”
I think of the Robert Frost poem for an instant.
“Miles to go before we sleep, Bo.”
I take off my big, yellow coat and put it around Bo, then set her down while I go through half of the re-entry procedure with my minimum +5°C sleeping bag.
“I hope my brother’s nice and comfy tonight, Bo,” I say.
I take the towel that Bo has discarded and wrap it around my feet after rubbing them again. My arms are still free, and I pick up Bo wrapped in my coat and put her on top of me, and hold her tightly.
“I’m sorry little Bo,” I say to her, and then, “I’m sorry Moots.”
And I’m sorry for this whole escapade of mine, and I think of that dream I’d had before leaving over a year ago– “No Future,” written on the wall.
“Fuck that shit, Bo,” I say, “let’s get through this fucking night and get back on the road.” Then, “Fuck you,” I say to whoever wrote that on the wall in my dream.
I shift a bit in my half-zipped sleeping bag and bump the side of the tent and it snows, and little bits of frost sprinkle over my face.
“Fucking unbelievable,” I say, and I can’t help but laugh a little, and I wait for the sun.
At the first hint of light I’m awake, and I reach into my coat to check on Bo, and she feels warm, and she’s making little whining noises and moving about, then struggling to break free, then she’s on her feet, and I’m saying, “How ya doin Bo? How ya doin? Tough as nails, Bo! You are tough as nails!”, and once I’ve gone through another dramatic struggle to unzip the tent flap, she’s out in the snow doing her morning routine, and I’m on my numb feet peeing from the door of the tent, watching her hop around as though she’d never been near death.
I skip breakfast, and can’t drink the water because it’s frozen solid. I have a shaky smoke, then go about the business of packing up, and it feels colder than ever, and I can’t feel my hands, and I’m moaning as I work, and I stop occasionally to hop up and down and shake my hands and blow on them and curse, but I’m happy– cursing and happy– and as Bo and I leap and stumble out of the woods, I yell to Bo, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”, and I know she agrees– her tail is wagging and she’s full of pep, and I’m stomping the ice off of my boots and onto the asphalt, and we’re back on the road and moving.