When I lie down at night I struggle to remember what I did that day. It was walking, of course, but where, and what happened?
I fold myself into my small tent, big enough for the length of my body, with rucksack tucked under my head and possessions to one side of my sleeping mat, lower myself carefully to the jumper and pillow heaped as high as possible for comfort and try to recall. Where did I eat lunch? What did I see?
There was a puddle of golden sunlight on the mossy trunk of a tree that split into two stems, curved just right for me to sit and rest my back against one with my feet high against the other. I could let my breathing calm down, listen to the nearby stream as I massaged my calves and ankles, repeatedly pinching up and down to let the tension drain upwards and away.
There were two delicious bottles of drinking yoghurt, cold and thick, drunk slowly on a concrete step in front of a metal garage door, sitting in the shade with the drainage hosepipe of the shop’s refrigeration dripping into a watering can behind me. The benches were all in the sunshine and the busy tourists clustered around the cafe where I didn’t want to spend money. I drank slowly and watched the people coming to the shop in the last minutes of Sunday opening, wondering when the patience of the shopkeeper would run out. He came outside to bring in the postcard racks, lighting a cigarette with slim insouciance and standing by the front window to breathe out a couple of long langurous plumes before bustling back inside to serve the stragglers.
There was a place where the track stopped being flat and wound upwards for a few dozen metres, slowing my pace. I stopped at a bench for a quick wee, then sat for a while looking at the forests on the other side of the valley, fuzzy outlines like a trimmed beard, thinking about how glad I was to be there and how easy it was to forget that in a cacophony of pain, the immediacy of insect bites, rubbing dark rolls of sweat and dirt away from skin, the ache of stiff ankles and the deep klaxon of hip pain, rising from the depth of my body to wake me in the night. A couple of bikes came up the hill, first a man, lanky and bearded, sitting up straight and breathing hard. Then a couple of girls, older than 10, pushing well and keeping close together. I looked down the slope and saw more coming up, a younger boy and girl pushing their bikes and then much further down, more adults and children with trailers and tandems and all varieties of pushing their bikes or pedalling hard to get up this sudden steep slope. The small boy climbed on near to me and started pedalling and as he passed the small girl she climbed onto her bike too, helmet slightly skewiff on loose hair, the determination set in her from her movement straight from walking to pedalling, no pause to catch her breath. “Allez, allez!!!” I clapped and shouted for them, the small girl turned and smiled at me before continuing her task.
Small moments in days of exertion. Most of it passes in a blur of calorie intake and movement. Palming a handful of nuts into my mouth, licking the salt from my fingers, gulping a litre of milk for extra protein points, spooning in the evening mush of potato and lentils and tuna. I stop at bakeries, admire the displays of patisserie – proud cream concoctions sitting paused in refrigerated stasis, maintaining their crunch for that first perfect bite. There are variations according to the preference of the baker such florentines, palmiers, tarte tropezienne, paris-brest, rhum babas, religieuse. Then the standard fare of tart aux citroen, éclairs, macaron, petit fours, flan, and the baskets of croissant and pain au chocolate that it would be inconceivable to miss out. A croissant and a small quiche is my usual choice, bit of protein from the eggs, the flaky, buttery enjoyment of pulling the croissant apart, folding the crunchy crust where it rested on the oven floor.
The steps, I don’t remember the steps, I don’t remember where I went, the hills that I climbed, the trees I admired, the bramble that caught at my rucksack, the stone that slipped underfoot and twisted my balance awkwardly, the horse mouthing at the short grass of an enclosed field, sagging electric wire barring them from the juicier mouthfuls. It’s gone to nothing, wide yellow stone tracks, tarmaced roads, grassy footpaths. Nights in fields, in forests, at the edge of villages. All the endless miles, always keeping on going, always getting up again, always pushing on.
Small villages, not as picturesque as further east, greyer here, fewer pink and yellow shades of plaster. But still with things to admire, a carved wooden door, a stone bridge covered in ivy, an elegant avenue of plane trees arching far overhead like a cathedral ceiling. I pass through, I take water, I move on.
It’s hard to see France at the moment, I can’t grasp it, too tired. Like looking through a dirty bus window, I get bleary glimpses that disappear before I can understand them.
We’re all a bit more separated, I think. There are no more invitations for coffee, as happened multiple times a week further east.
More private people here, more need to keep wealth behind closed doors, more tourists tramping through their region, pandemic induced nerves. It’s hard to tell the reason for the change here, especially as I’ve only experienced a post-pandemic France. But I can have brief conversations on the street without any particular interest being shown by either party. “Excuse me, where’s the fountain?” “You need water?” “Yes” “There’s one down the road by the parking place, there’s a small bench where you can eat a picnic too.” “Thanks”. Same interaction a year ago and it’s unthinkable that there would have been no further questions about where I’m going or what I’m doing, a funny little spark or connection between the two people, looking at each other with interest, drinking each other in.
It adds a certain blandness to the days, the lack of intriguing interactions.
I was given a tomato the other day; walked over a mountain and where there were streams on one side the other side was dry, yellow grasses and purple heather vibrating with a high intensity against dark green pines and the clear blue sky. I conserved water in sporadic mouthfuls, stepped carefully downwards, bending my legs to put more strain into my thighs and away from my knees, and walked into the first village very sweaty and a bit fragmented by the heat. The kind woman at the first house brought me water and ice, chatted while I gulped a few glasses about the two different sides of the mountain and how it was cold and wet on one side and dry on the other. A couple of helicopters went over and she looked carefully to see if they were fighting fires. The streams run dry here, August and September, it’s a challenge to keep a garden and the risk of fires can be very damaging.
She gave me a tomato as a goodbye gift and I realised how rare it is to receive gifts from strangers these days, admiring her rows of tomato vines, interspersed with neat purple cabbages.
I chopped it into my dinner bowl that night, sweet and soft, as I camped in the pine forest and listened to the wind washing the treetops high above me.
I did a long day the next day, pushing to reach a helpful road for someone to come and pick me up and take me to their house. Interactions do happen, there is generosity, I’m not completely alone, but they’re generally more prearranged than before, points on a map that I can look forward to in advance.
I knew it would be a hard day, sticking to roads for maximum efficiency, long boring straight flat roads where there is nothing to do but trudge along with views that change too slowly to be interesting. I got my earphones out, plugged into some music, which I only do when I’m facing many miles on tarmac.
A dance mix, designed to induce euphoria, usually helped along by a stimulant of choice (mine being caffeine and croissants) puts my body into a regular rhythm, quietens my sensations of pain, keeps my attention span satisfied with small changes of noise.
The music lifts me, in elation and exultation, cresting on waves of joy, a swelling glee. I suddenly find that I want to cry, picturing all the steps, knowing all the effort. I am on the flat plain of the river Aude, walking around the city of Carcassonne through the satellite small towns.
Ahead of me are the Pyrenees, a faint blue line of mountains and beyond them is Spain, a place where I will walk clear across the top of the country until I meet the Atlantic Ocean. I imagine myself standing on top of a high mountain, in all the glory of the wind and the effort of attainment. I imagine myself meeting the ocean. Tears come and I cry, in joy and awe at all the struggle, at the size of this journey, floating in the feeling of the smallness of me making all this incredible effort to do this mighty thing.
I can’t remember the details of yesterday but I have added another link onto an unbroken chain of steps that stretches all the way back for almost two years, back to the other edge of Europe.
There is more behind me than ahead and I am starting to see the beginning of the end, to anticipate the pleasure of achievement.