The lights of Seville glow on the horizon behind me, casting an orange yellow haze into the dark sky. Only the strongest stars twinkle above, willing themselves into existence through the electric light spilling into the night. Ahead, the horizon darkens to black, lit only by flashes of lightning in the distance. I never hear the thunder, it is too far, so I listen to my footsteps on the gravel road as I walk. It’s just past midnight and I’m a mile into a sixty-three mile day.
I’ve tried this on every trip, a single day to move as far as I can, to see how far I can go. You can touch four states on the Appalachian Trail if you’re willing to walk far enough. I walked fifty miles and bought thirteen blisters for the effort. Fifty-four miles on the Pacific Crest meant I walked 2% of the trail in a day. The same for sixty-two miles on the Continental Divide. I was so delirious that I started seeing ghosts on the last miles of that one. On the Mississippi I paddled a hundred then collapsed on a beach, lucky I didn’t fall asleep with a paddle in one hand. The miles would have been nothing in a flood, but they took me twenty-four hours with the river low.
I want sixty-three today, a sliver more than I ever walked before, over a hundred kilometers, and 1% of this whole journey. It feels so simple just past midnight on a gravel road with fresh feet and lightning flashing in the distance.
A symphony of frogs fill the night air. There must be thousands of them out in the darkness, singing into the night from the old canal I’m following. A bark breaks through them in the distance. The bark closes, big and deep-chested, nearing with every call. I stop and peer in the dark, my sticks ready as a massive dog emerges onto the road.
There is no fence between us. I flash my headlamp in its eyes and scramble to pick up a rock with my free hand. The other holds my hiking sticks like a makeshift club. The dog approaches, growling, barking, but stops when the light hits its eyes. I toss the rock in the dirt before it. A warning. It doesn’t move closer. I back away, watching it in the darkness, listing until its bark fades back and disappears into the chorus of frogs. My watch says it’s two in the morning and I’ve gone just under seven miles.
An hour later the gravel turns to pavement. Two tractors move in distant, fields, their lights parading back and forth in the darkness. A faint lightness appears on the southern horizon and I wonder if it is Cadiz waiting far, far away, glowing in the night.
The road cuts through two flooded fields as the clock rolls past four. I’ve been staring at the glow of Cadiz in the distance and watching it grow with each step. It reminds me just how close I am to the end. My feet feel light, my legs easy, an entire continent lays behind me. I check the distance. I’m fourteen miles in.
My right foot wins the what will hurt first prize five miles later. A little pain that I shake off as a shooting star breaks across the sky. I look to the east. A faint hint of dawn is building, the thinnest touch of light, almost imaginary.
The first rooster crows just after six. Stars still glow overhead, but light is bleeding upward in the east. Another mile and it’s light enough to see. Two miles and the sun is on the verge of the horizon. The first twenty miles are behind me, left in the night like a dream.
The sun breaks the horizon near seven. It paints the sky pink and makes the flooded fields glow with the reflection. Both my feet hurt. I stop for the first time, resting on a bit of broken culvert to eat and welcome the sun. I tell myself the day has just started even though I’m twenty three miles in.
I’m halfway by ten thirty, 31.5 miles. I celebrate by stopping in the shadow of a tree to rest again. The sky is clear blue and the air stands still. The road already feels like an oven.
I glance up at the sun. Its hotter than it should be. Both my feet hurt. I massage them as I hide in the shade. I need to make it to the next town. I need to refill empty water bottles and eat more food before the day heats up more. It’s not too far now.
I walk another mile and realize it is too far. My feet swell up as the pavement cooks heat into them with each step. The skin feels frail. I need more water. I need to cool off. I mistimed the town. It need to be around me already but it is still two miles away. I think of the 41 degrees Celsius it was in Seville yesterday. It feels hotter here, along this road, somewhere far above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, two miles should be nothing. Two miles is nothing if thirty-four didn’t come before them. I glare down at my feet. I plead. They’ve got to keep going.
I limp into town. I feel overcooked. My skin radiates heat. I buy popsicles, snacks, and water then plop onto a shaded bench. I feel a bit unraveled. Shaken. Just eat and rest. Strength can come back. I’m ahead of schedule. I’m thirsty six miles in and it’s only noon.
I eat. It feels like pouring oil in an engine after driving it for miles without a drop. The oil doesn’t matter once the damage is done. I feel suddenly cold even as the sun cooks overhead and I begin to trimble. I fill my water bottles again and stand to walk.
I limp out of town. By the edge, my feet are on fire. I pour water over them and expect steam to rise in response. The air refuses to move. It stands still and stubborn and bakes. I dump more water on my head, over my shirt, across my back and shoulders. It evaporates in a mile. The heat remains. I collapse in the shade of a tree a few miles later.
I kick my shoes off and lay back in the shade, cowering from the sun. My feet feel almost broken with blisters and bruised bones. Angry patches of red skin cover my legs. I run my fingers over them and feel the heat pouring out of them. Will I ever feel cool again? I look at my miles, just under forty.
“It’s not happening, kid,” Wally says to me.
“I know, Wally,” I say. “I really thought we had it earlier.”
He pokes at a blister and I wince. It’s like the whole callous came loose at once somehow. He frowns at the patches of heat rash rising across my legs and shakes his head.
“We’re going to need a lot of ice cream,” he says.
The two of us stand there for a moment, surveying the wreckage. We never failed before. There was always another mile, another step, another inch inside me. Every last time.
“A cooler day, a closer town, an earlier rest and maybe we make it,” I say. “Maybe we should have done this four thousand miles ago with fresher legs. Maybe we should have gone in the cold of winter when I could walk fifteen miles on a liter of water. Maybe if I’d eaten more or differently or something.”
“Maybe,” Wally says, his voice trailing off. “But what does it matter. We failed.”
The two of us stare at each other for a moment. Then a grin cracks across his face. It spreads to mine. We clasp each others in our arms and spin through the air laughing.
“We failed! We failed! WE FAILED!” we shout, joy rising in our voices.
It’s scary to feel your body shutting down, to feel helpless where you once felt invincible, but never failing is a far worse feeling. If you never fail, you never tried anything daring enough.
Wally works while I take a nap. He patches up enough pieces to limp into the next town. A mile and a half an hour, pain in each step, but we make it. We find a cheap hotel and collapse into a bed with a liter of ice cream for company.
“Don’t worry, kid,” Wally says. “I got this.”
I nod and drift off to sleep, the heat of the day still radiating off my legs.
Today’s Miles: 44.7
Total Miles: 6,249.1