The heat sets the pace

I know it’s going to be hot, I’ve read the forecast. Doesn’t mean I can get out of bed though.

Yesterday I set an alarm for 5.30am,was walking by 6 and went all day until I put up a tent at 8.30pm, collapsing into bed in a copse of trees at the beginning of a low hill leading up out of a village where I’d resupplied with 3 litres of water and an icecream, gulping and sweating in the pain of 17 miles on my feet.

I lay in the twilight and felt my glutes twitching in a flutter of quick clenches. Sparkling threads of sensation ran through my back muscles, glowing and shrivelling like burning grass stalks, and I realised they were holding too hard, this sensation was blood returning to squeezed muscles. 

“How can I be so tired while I’m walking and then lie down and be unable to sleep?” I thought to myself, scratching at a bite on my stomach, origin unknown.
I’d done all the things; laboriously put the tent up avoiding the spikiest of the ground plants, draped the outer layer over the top to prevent it from slug nibbles, blown up the air bed, laid out my food bag, my admin bag, my pillow, positioned the vulnerable things where they wouldn’t get squashed, pushed the rest under my pillow to prop me up as much as possible. I’d gone for a wee, squatting and holding onto a tree for balance as my legs were slightly swollen and painful to tightly bend after a day of exertion. I lowered myself into the tent, pulled off my sandals, put on a pair of socks to protect my bedding from my dirty feet, laid back on the bed with a groan. Too tired to write my diary, too tense to sleep so I lie there in a twitching limbo as the sky darkens around me, occasionally sitting up to rub my feet or stretch myself against the everlooming ache.

Not surprising I struggle to get up and do it all again, is it.

It’s almost 9am before I start walking, a terrible waste of the coolest hours of daylight. 9am and it’s already 29 degrees. I am walking up on a hill ridge, with a small river gorge to the left of me and a wide open valley to my right. It’s very unsheltered, dry scrub and a wide stony track to follow for nine miles until I reach the next village. Nine miles before my next water point, a particular challenge in this heat, when I’m drinking 5 litres a day and still hardly weeing. I brought an extra litre with me from the village last night, not wanting to be caught without hydration today.
The road winds around the curves of the hillside, occasionally in the shelter of trees which dapple a pleasant pattern over me, but more often in the bright open sunshine. I’m tired today, I want to sit down often, stare at nothing. I do it, occasionally, underneath a yellow signpost which marks the kilometres to notable beauty spots enroute, on a long stone table which appears for no apparent reason by the side of the path, engraved with the year 1985. I lie full length on this one, in the shade that will slowly move away from me on a ticktock timer, limiting my relaxation as it reveals my body to the light a millimetre at a time. I eat a banana, I take a few gulps of water, I stretch my calves, I walk on. It’s hot but not in an out of control way yet, the landscape is easy to walk through, no steep climbs to raise my breathing. It’s short stunted oak trees, prickly shrubs that scratch at me in overgrown places. When the hill drops away to valley bottom it’s all vineyards now, with occasional wheat fields.
Gently waving arms of outstretched vines at the end of each row, leaves draped over the fruit, hiding the blooms of thick bunches dangling taut and juicy. I take a single grape every so often, tasting the different varieties, wondering what type of wine region I’m walking through. I was on the cotes du rhone a few days ago, where now, I don’t know.

It’s not the heat of the sunlight that gradually becomes a problem, it’s the heat of the air.
Hot gusts blow against me like being buffeted by a balloon, the air has grown thicker somehow, has a bloated presence.
I am laminated in heat, moving in soup, coated in gloop. There is no relief, all the seeking in every movement just finds more of the same. The force of the sunlight is a pressure against my skin.

There’s a big river on the map, a few miles further, out of the vineyards and onto a road, left along the road then a crossroads and another left. “I’ll rest there”, I think to myself, “I’ll swim, I’ll get myself completely wet, all my clothes and everything, the dirt and grease will spool off me. I’ll laze in the water until I am cool to my core and then I will lie in the shade until I am dry. It will be magnificent.”

I take a final rest on a big stone under a tree by the stone track, so much of me wants to sink down to the ground right now but I push on to the river, gritted teeth with the effort of forcing forward motion, on painful tarmac where feet always slap down to the same surface.
It’s 1pm now, approaching the full peak of the day. It’s so strange to breathe in heat, to feel the air as the same temperature as your body. Cars rush past and I stick to the road edge, careful to keep aware of footsteps that want to waver and sway with tiredness. Down a path that skirts a very old mansion, high stone walls around it, perhaps the toll keeper of the ancient bridge, grown rich on his prescience to invest in a safe crossing and guard the access to it. The final sandy slope is steep and I choose my footing carefully on helpful tree roots revealed in the erosion of passing humans. Down to the treeline and the river is not there. No water, just an expanse of yellow rocks with a bridge in the distance, straddling nothing but air and stone.
Well that’s that then, no swimming, and I surveyed the riverbed in disappointed silence. I couldn’t face walking on, I’d expended too much effort to arrive there, and so I turned to the river bank where a sandy slope provided an almost acceptable spot to lay out my tarp and lie down. I swig water from the bottle which is now unpleasantly warm and completely unsatisfying. The heat is impossible now, over 40 degrees, and when I stick my hand out from the shade it feels struck by the force of the sunlight. I lie down to sleep, only managing the strange fantasies that are the beginnings of unconsciousness, before coming to the awareness of an ant biting a tender spot or the growing numbness of arms propped in unusual positions as I try to sleep on hard, sloping ground. The breeze puffs hot air against my back and even after more than an hour of lying there, I am sweating. Lying completely still, in the shade, sweating. This is impossible. I’m dehydrating just sitting here. Can’t stay longer, must go and find water. My palms are too damp to brush grit off myself, it just clings to new places.

The village of Vic is a mile away, along a track between a hill and a vineyard. I seem to take ages over it, walking along wondering why I’m hardly sweating and wondering if this is heatstroke, until I realise that I’m walking so slowly that I’m hardly exerting myself. The heat sets the pace, it is finally so overwhelming that I cannot force myself to win against it. I am under the pressure of a huge hand, there is no fighting this.
I sit down under a tree, panting, swallow another few gulps of hot water. Quarter of a litre left. “Come on. Up. Get to the village.”
“The only way to do this is to do it”, I tell myself, in a nonsense motivational phrase that gets me back to my feet.
Up a short slope to the village, in a stone trackway that winds up from the vines to the houses, entering a narrow stone passage. I hear English being spoken from a cellar door at the base of a building and, after finding nobody on the streets and the air of a sleeping place, I backtrack down to ask for water, swallowing the momentary tears that flash in the sudden relief of arriving at a source of help, water and friendly conversation all at once.

I realise that I am indeed sweating and panting and unable to think clearly, even though it didn’t feel that way on the path, but a short sit down with a nice British couple, some friendly conversation about travel adventures, and the quick gulping of more than a litre of water helps to calm me down again.

Thunder rumbles faintly in the distance, which wasn’t on my forecast this morning. I check again and see that there’s going to be rain for a couple of hours from 7pm. I joke about dancing round outside my tent enjoying the chance of a wash and leave the nice couple to walk through the empty village and out again into the woods. The path runs twisting and tiny through the low woodland, scrubby oaks and spiky undergrowth. It’s too steeply sloped for camping but there’s a wheat field alongside me which runs flatter and I push down through a gap in the bushes and step gingerly through old wire and snatching brambles into the mown field, spiky stems six inches high catching at my ankles.

A few drops of rain fall cold against my skin and the sky threatens in rumbles and towering blue-black cloud.
I lay the tent out where the edge of the field is flattest but find it’s also too hard to get the pegs in properly. Walking further into the centre of the field, perhaps where the tractors trampled less, but it’s the same, the earth is baked to a solid crust.
I can get the tent up like this, without secure pegs, but it’s not as stable, only staying upright once I’ve pushed my bed and rucksack and other belongings inside to weigh down the tent floor.
Still it’s good enough, and I settle down happily, glad to be undercover as the rain comes more thoroughly, and start my evening meal – rehydrating mashed potato and mixing tinned tuna and salt.
The confounding factor is the sudden wind, that catches the loose outer skin of the tent and flaps it like a plastic bag. I reach out and tuck it under the ends of the tent floor so it’s not so loose, putting out the empty tuna can in the rain to see how much it will fill with water.
The wind gets stronger, coming in huge gusts which lean the tent over to one side and make me worried about the strength of the poles. The untethered tent skin is flapping and flailing like a loose sail and underneath it is me, with one arm pressing against the tent roof to keep it upright while the other methodically spoons tuna and mashed potato into my mouth, trying to at least get food inside me and the bowl cleaned and put away before I have to deal with a broken tent.

I decide to collapse the tent poles to avoid them snapping in what is now a storm. Thunder is directly overhead and I see white flashes of what must be lightning diffused through the tent. I lie there in what is now an envelope of flat tent, feeling the rain hit the length of my body, checking my feet and head every so often to see that the tent inner is more or less covered. Everything is going to get wet, this is obvious, but at least I’m not directly in the rain, this tent has become a leaking boat but not a sunken one. I lie under the tent covering, holding the mesh away from my face and smile wryly to myself. This is another fine mess isn’t it, 8pm and drenched in a field. It could be worse, I think, at least the rain isn’t cold, although it does come pelting down so hard at one point that I wonder if it’s hail.
It lessens after a while and I decide to put the poles back up, scurry out, carefully putting on sandals and standing up without pressing knees or hands against muddy ground. The earth is softer now, baked crust melted by the dousing, and I can get the pegs in, secure the outer and stand my house up properly.
I don’t bother checking inside the tent, everything that is wet can continue to be so, I’m floating on the air bed and can sleep inside the layer of bivvy bag to marginally protect my bedding. My pillow is damp, everything is damp, but I don’t think about it too much and settle to a reasonable sleep.

In the morning I wake to either the flamingo pink light of a strong dawn, or the rustle of an approaching family of wild pigs but either way I turn to watch the pigs hustle by in a crashing and squeaking of alarm as they realise there’s something moving in the dark lump by the field edge. I fumble my glasses on to watch their passage and see one of the mothers whirl into a defensive stance, legs splayed and facing me while the others trot away behind her, a piglet coming back for her but running too far and having to turn and follow again as she leaves, stuck to her centre of gravity like a planet on a wildly elliptical orbit. Then I turn to the hazy dawn and admire the sky for a while, the peace and promise of sunrise, before starting to bail out my tent, dipping a cloth under my air mat and squeezing water onto the earth, happy and tired and damp and dirty.
A new day and I am alive and undamaged, able to walk my body in its sturdiness and strength through the forests and vineyards to villages where I will buy a slice of pizza in a bakery, speak Spanish to the owner and be given a strawberry tart for free; wash my tent in the fountain and dry it in the village square; drink coffee in the bar and fill my water bottles.
Sometimes I’m flowing in unison with this journey, sometimes I’m carried along by it and sometimes it bowls over me and leaves me paddling in the wake.
It’s never awful though, honestly, it’s never awful.

5 thoughts on “The heat sets the pace

  • August 6, 2020 at 4:47 pm

    Extraordinarily vivid, gruelling and joyful. I hope there will be easier days.

  • August 6, 2020 at 9:40 pm

    Hey, really enjoyed reading this Ursula, what an adventure, beautifully described. I didn’t realise you had crossed the border into Spain. I hiked the GR11 and GR1 with my partner three years ago, it was cooler though, earlier in the year. Check her blog out if you like on

  • August 8, 2020 at 3:57 am

    Ursula, Thank you for this piece….You write so vividly I truly feel like I am experiencing this with you. Being stuck in limbo with Covid19 and unable to hike your writing is like water to a person dying of thirst!
    You are so brave….. I am 66yrs old and travel solo but as yet haven’t had the courage to camp out. I am hoping to build the courage vicariously by following you. So maybe…. after lock down finishes here in Melbourne, Victoria, Love Kerry-Ann

  • August 9, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    People think that trail walking is just about physical strength and movement, but your post makes it clear between the lines how much has to do with intelligence, awareness (of surrounding conditions and conditions ahead), good sense, planning and organisation based on experience but limited by resources carried on the back … Well done for these skills honed over time. And carry on taking care of yourself as well as you possibly can.

  • August 10, 2020 at 6:38 am

    What a magnificent read. I’m in awe at the strength of character you have to just keep going.


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