The next morning I pulled on my pack and walked out of the lobby of the Thermal Springs Hotel. I started to cross the road to begin walking as usual, but stopped when I spied the hotel’s breakfast buffet.
I had been in such a hurry to get back on the road that I was about to break one of my new cardinal rules: Eat real food whenever possible.
I eagerly ate the cheese, bread, cucumbers, and tomatoes available at the buffet. I scarfed down a couple of glasses of orange juice, pulled on my pack again, and crossed the road to begin the day’s walk.
I stopped at the other side of the road, pulled my camera and whiteboard out of the pack as had become my morning routine. I wrote my daily dedication on the whiteboard, photographed it, stuffed it back into my pack, and continued walking.
The scenery change that had begun to appear yesterday was nearly complete now. The lush flatlands of the Menderes river valley, where farm after farm had lined the road, had given way to gently undulating rolling hills, empty pastures of wild brown grass, and an occasional tree. My climb onto the Central Anatolian Plateau had begun, and would last for about a week.
I had been walking only two or three minutes, taking in the new scenery and falling into the day’s walking rhythm, when I felt a sudden stabbing pain in my right foot. I thought maybe there was a rock in my boot, so I stopped, pulled off my boot, held it upside down, and shook it to get rid of the rock.
Nothing came out. Figuring whatever rock I had picked up was gone now, I put my boot back on and put my weight back on the foot. A bolt of pain shot out of my foot and went up my leg. There was no rock. This was coming from inside my foot.
I walked a few more steps, hoping the pain would go away. It didn’t. I walked a little further, taking extra care to watch my form and make sure I wasn’t getting sloppy, but the pain became sharper. By the time I had covered another 100 meters, it was quite debilitating, an acute “you’re not going to use this foot anymore” sort of pain.
Panic started to set in. I had walked over a thousand miles in the U.S. in order to make sure this wouldn’t happen in Turkey, and here it was happening.
I thought, Boy if this continues I won’t be able to continue walking and I still have 95% of the country to cross. This is not the right time to find out I’m not going to be able to do it.
But I limped on. Limping is really hard to do with a heavy pack. Over the next few kilometers I tried to stay off the hard pavement by walking through a number of different surface zones. When there was dirt on the shoulder I walked there for a while. Coming to a construction zone, I walked for a while on the soft, newly-laid asphalt. The asphalt was sticky, and I could feel its heat through my boots, but at least it was soft. A little later I came upon a grass-covered median strip, and I walked there for a while.
I stopped at a gasoline station midway through the day for a break. My foot was still hurting. The pain hadn’t let up. I was in a full panic at this point, realizing that if the pain did not go away I would not be able to continue another day, and I was only about 5% of the way across a country I had promised, to myself and to others, to walk. I had even spent the last couple hours coming up with a Plan B, so I would be able to continue the walk even if I couldn’t carry my pack anymore.
The gasoline station was in the middle of a construction zone, so there were no customers, just two attendants sitting in lawn chairs in front of the office, looking out at the empty road. Hiding my panic and my limp (or trying to, at least), I said hello and motioned to the store. One of the attendants jumped out of his chair and followed me into the store, where I bought a bottle of water and a bag of cookies. I figured I was one of the few customers that day, so I used the bathroom, said goodbye, and hobbled out of the lot back onto the road, trying to hide my limp as I hobbled.
About an hour later, still limping, I came to a bend in the road. I recognized the bend from the map. The road was turning from straight east to southeast, the direction of Denizli. There was little to no shoulder along the bend, and a steep dropoff instead, and to make the situation even more challenging, there was a guardrail curving around the bend. On one side of the guardrail, I would risk getting hit by cars. On the other side, I would risk falling off the dropoff.
Under normal circumstances, I would just take a deep breath, mutter a prayer, run through the section, and hope no cars showed up to hit me. But in my new state I couldn’t run, and I still didn’t want to get hit by a car, so I chose to hold tight to the guardrail and tried not to fall off the dropoff.
About an hour or two later I reached the village of Saraykoy. I stepped off onto a side road and walked a few blocks deeper into the village, looking for a mosque garden or some place to rest for a while. I found a covered garden area near a car mechanic’s shop. A man about 35 years old was working in the shop and he came out to say hi.
He invited me to sit down at a nearby picnic bench, protected under some wooden eaves from the late summer sun, and went back inside the shop to get a couple of glasses of cold water. I took a seat and waited for him to return.
It was hard to concentrate on anything except the shooting pain coming from my foot, but I tried to wipe any sign of worry off my face, so that when he came back he would see me relaxed and smiling.
He arrived with the cups of water and we sat there drinking our water and making small talk. After about 20 minutes he took his leave, apologizing for having to go back to work. I thanked him for the water and said all was fine and asked if I could stay there for a few more minutes. “Of course,” he said.
I sat there hoping that either my foot would magically stop hurting, or that I would realize there was a Plan B that would make the problem irrelevant, but neither happened. So after a few minutes I pulled my pack on and limped back out to the main road. Visibility was clear, the road nice and straight, so I initially estimated that it would be easy to cross it. However, I found I still couldn’t move fast enough to cross in the window of about 30 seconds between passing cars.
I finally managed to cross the road, and I walked another two kilometers to the center of the village, but then I stopped and thought, I can’t do this anymore.
What was I going to do? I hadn’t seen anyplace quiet and hospitable in this village where I could stop. I was going to need to do some thinking and I was going to need to be alone for a little while to do it. A public place or staying in somebody’s house was not going to work.
So I decided to catch a mini-bus back to the Thermal Springs hotel where I had stayed the night before. I waved down a mini-bus, loaded my pack into the back, and we drove to the Thermal Springs hotel. The owner hotel welcomed me warmly, recognizing me from the night before, and quickly showed me to my room.
I had spent the day so far trying to put on a public face and to hide my limp. I hadn’t told a soul about my problem. But once I got up to my room I took off my pack, leaned it against the wall, and let the panic rush in. My walk had only just begun, and I could barely cross a street. In fact, I could no longer put any weight on my foot at all. I couldn’t even walk across the room to get a bag of crackers and oranges I had set down on the desk, so I went without dinner.
It was late Saturday afternoon.
I gave myself a talk, Okay, Matt, you can let things get as black as they need to go for the rest of the day. Just let your emotions run wild, don’t worry about putting on a stoic public face anymore, just let the emotions flow now. But tomorrow morning you are going to have to wake up and solve the problem, because nobody else is here to solve it for you.
I didn’t know how I was going to solve the problem, but I decided I would have to take it on faith that I would.
I had sacrificed a lot for this walk. I had quit my job. I was homeless. I had no belongings except for the stuff I was carrying on my back. I was at only 6% of the walk so I still had a long way to go.
It was pretty hot in the room, so I lay back on one of the beds and turned on the air conditioning. I put my feet up on the wall so the blood could drain from my feet and my legs and they wouldn’t swell up, a little trick I remembered from my cycling days. I tried to fall asleep but couldn’t, so I just lay there with my feet propped against the wall and stared at the ceiling, letting the tears roll down my cheeks. I was sick with panic and loneliness.
Shortly after I realized it had grown dark outside, I hobbled into the bathroom and drew a hot mineral bath. The hotel likes to brag about the healing powers of these hot thermal springs, maybe I should test them out, I thought.
I eased myself down into the warm, penetrating, cloudy-white water. I’m sure under any other circumstances it would be quite relaxing, but I wasn’t in the mood. The bathtub was lined with stone tile, and as I sat there naked, my foot throbbed against the unforgiving surface of the tile.
Realizing the bath was not going to make me feel any better, I stood up, dried off, hobbled back to bed, and quickly descended into a deep sleep.