I’m lying on my air mattress in the corner of a whitewashed room that is otherwise bare apart from a sink unit with no taps and a worn wooden bench. The wind is roaring outside, hard enough that it almost knocked me over a few times on the descent to this shelter. I saw the building from high up on the mountain as I came around the corner into this new valley, fresh from where I’d just climbed alongside a long green ridge, paths snaking through it from sheep trails and grass trodden through by walkers to the red shale earth beneath. The wind had started blowing strongly just as I came to the most difficult bit, a thin path trodden into fallen rock and scree that zipped along the side of a tall triangular peak, steep drop down alongside it. The mist came blowing at me fast, clouds barrelling over the ridge and pouring down into the valley. I could see straight down this one, along north to where the flat lands lay, further into France. How strange to see that, flat land; how strange for there to be no more intrusions of ridges and peaks, instead just absence in the sky and a long sense of distance, like the ocean.
I trod carefully along the steep slope, not letting my gait go swinging, wary of a sudden gust of wind coming to topple me. The rain came as I started on the main descent, rocks changed to grey granite, eons of aging underfoot. The shelter in the valley bottom, 300m below, a shepherd’s hut, this one in use, a sheep fold with bare trodden earth, a neat low building with grass roof, fresh paint on metal shutters and a low stone table outside. “It won’t be open, don’t get your hopes up” I thought to myself, but I tried a door anyway and lo, it opened to this empty room left for winter walkers, the rest of the building kept behind locked doors. There are still a couple of hours of daylight left, but a place where I can sleep without putting my tent up in high winds is worth the exchange of a few extra miles. I stare out of the half open stable door at the sheets of grey rain misting, listening to the booms and roars of the wind.
The wind was here when I woke up this morning too, as I slept in my tent on the side of yet another climb, in between clumps of heather this time, next to a small stream that gurgled delightedly all night. Chamois goats bounced away from the sight of me, further up the incline, stopping to stare then sniff loudly before springing away in the short grass.
It was the first day of winter hours, clocks went back overnight and suddenly I am facing sunset at 6.15pm. Sunrise was earlier of course, no longer after 8am but I needed to get up with the dawn to make the most of the daylight walking hours. Winter feels the coldest in the hour before sunrise, the idea of getting out of a sleeping bag that is warm with hours of conserved heat is the most difficult task imaginable. So much easier to doze a little longer, pack away in daylight as the sun hits the tent and the overnight ice begins to thaw and drip. But time wasted now can’t be made up for later, and so that day I set an alarm for pre-dawn, then find myself awake anyway with the bending and flapping of the tent in strong gusts of wind.
I’m tired of mountains, in the way that when it came yesterday to facing yet another steep climb, after I’d picked my way down underneath the face of a cliff, I sat there and moaned, thought to myself that I just didn’t want to. Every descent is followed by another climb, always up and down and up and down. The effort is so much. I am so slow here. Crawling through the mountains and going slowly doesn’t make it easier, just means the hardship lasts longer. I took a desperate little look at my map, checking what would happen if I followed the valley down to the road, whether it would get me to the same village. Nope, I’d just end up east of this particular lump of land, rather than north where the path takes me. There are no shortcuts, it’s the mountain or nothing. So I sit a while, with my head in my hands, drifting to sleep a little. That’s enough, I can get up and carry on, body heavy and steps slow for a while until, miraculously, energy seeps into my body again and I find myself walking without effort.
The forest here is mainly beech trees and pillowy drifts of orange brown leaves fill the crevices of the path. The previous storm a few days ago means that all the earth is sodden and muddy, slippery for me with my boots that are losing their grip after almost two months of abrasion on sharp granite. I tread slowly and carefully but even then I slip and fall in the treacherous leaf mould that covers wet ground.
I’m tired, in a deeply felt way that will not be assuaged by tonight’s sleep, even if I do get the pillow in the right position on top of my bundled fleece, on top of my food bag, on top of my empty rucksack. At least it won’t slide out from under me tonight as the mattress adjusts to the bumps and slopes of the earth, at least I’m on level ground inside a building, with a wall to lean against.
I’m tired in a way that needs days to make up for, that will take time for my muscles to release and allow me the drowsiness I would sink into if I could. The tiredness won’t stop until I finish the mountains. I’m so tired it’s taking me ages to finish the mountains. And so the whirlpool whips, and I am sinking under the weight of my own task.
It’s going to rain all night and all day and all night tomorrow, then more the next day. I’m booked into an auberge tomorrow night. I don’t like doing it unless for a weekly day off, my budget won’t allow for too many nights undercover, but this makes sense, I can arrive wet, leave dry, with everything washed and charged.
This village has a shop. I’ll buy salami, dried potato, bananas, mustard mayo, oats. Enough to provide a minimum of nutrition that I can carry without ruining the food or hurting my shoulders. After this it’s at least seven days until the next village; depending on how fast I can walk. The guidebook says seven days but I’ve never been as fast as that, maybe it’ll be ten.
Carrying a week’s food is heavy and it’s unusual that I’d have to do that but the way ahead is complicated. It’s almost winter now and one shop enroute is in a summer resort village which will be closed, here at the icy end of October. The other shop enroute is in Navarra, the region of Spain which is currently closed, a perimeter shutdown. I won’t be entering that village, but will walk quickly around it, crossing roads when they’re quiet and hoping that police cars don’t see me.
I was supposed to be leaving this mountain route in Navarra, supposed to walk a line through the high places along the frontier between Spain and France, until I reached a road that led down to Roncesvalles, the beginning of my Spanish camino. But no, for the first time since June, the shadow of covid 19 is falling across my path and closing off the way ahead.
I’m hoping it’s temporary, in the blinkered way that does not want to accept how serious this is, that my plans might actually be truly thwarted. I’m putting off the decision on whether to abandon Spain altogether and carrying on walking through the mountains instead, all the way to the Atlantic coast, the Basque region where it is safe to be seen, for now.
Every morning I check the restrictions, see how many more municipalities have locked down, or set curfews, or closed hotels and bars. The number rises daily, same as the covid cases, a 52% increase in the last fortnight. 1% of the population in Navarra have it right now.
I haven’t had to change my route due to covid yet, just pause it during the French lockdown. But I’m worried about what’s happening in Spain, worried that I might get caught in a region which suddenly closes. I’ve experienced it already once, in Italy, where all doors were closed to me, no hotels, no bars, no cafés, not a single place where I could sit down indoors, and it was so unpleasant that I’m wary of repeating it.
Maybe it would be OK, maybe I’ll have experiences in Spain which would make the hardship and uncertainty worthwhile. I’d be walking a camino with almost no other pilgrims on it, in a land where the history of walking is intertwined with place. Would I feel the ghosts of pilgrims past? Or just a worried void? Maybe that depends on me, not the camino.
I’ve been able to ignore the world’s problems while I’m in the mountains – issues of weather and food access thrust themselves so fully into my consciousness that the rolling ticker tape of rising infection numbers becomes a background scrolling that has been easy to look past.
But this pandemic is the toothache that glows quietly and steadily in the night, it is the tight muscle you can never seem to ease, it is the mould that you see under the kitchen sink, the crack in the bedroom wall, the heavy tree branch hanging over your garage, the persistent ache in your aging joints. It’s a problem we can ignore, bury our heads and try to carry on as usual while it gnaws away at us invisibly, until suddenly, explosively we can’t carry on, we very much can’t.
This pandemic is the underlying stress that makes small disasters catastrophic. It is the reason why decision making is difficult. It is the reason I feel close to tears when I meet someone who is kind to me.
I remember these feelings from cancer, the sense of vulnerability to an immutable force, of having my world shaken, of the rules being overturned, of everything being up for grabs. But now it’s not just my world, it’s everyone’s.
It’s the next morning now. It’s 6.30am, I’ve been half awake for a while, not surprising as I’ve been sleeping since 8pm. Once it’s dark there’s nothing else to do. I was cold at first, last night, but after a couple of hours, once my skin recovered from the hours in the wind and began to give off heat, the bag warmed up and I was toasty, even sleeping without gloves on. I can’t hear rain outside, which is puzzling. But when I wriggle out of my sleeping bag, slide into boots and go to open the door, everything is white outside. It’s snowed! I’m laughing, shocked, stepping out into wet, crunching snow while tiny flakes tinkle against my face. In the grey faintness of early dawn I can see the clouds hanging low on the surrounding mountain, the complete white covering on the nearby fields. I wee, still giggling to myself, wash my food bowl in the nearby running water, and go back inside.
Eat breakfast now then. Normally I walk a couple of hours before eating but I know that today I won’t be stopping much, certainly not to unpack my bag and eat a meal. Eat now, while you’re dry and warm, then pack up and plunge out into the snow, walk down the mountain towards the village, eat peanuts from your snack pocket and get to the comfort of an indoor space as early as possible, soaking and red nosed and happy with a beautiful tough day of snow walking. I eat with the door open so I can watch snow TV while I breakfast. The flakes come thicker and thicker as I watch, entranced, until the air is greyed and then completely white, full of snow as if it were mist, fat flakes now, slowly silently falling.
Just keep taking small steps and don’t stop. It’s the phrase I chose to write in my last book when I was signing them for people, told to me by a man I met on the Offa’s Dyke Path when I was struggling up a hill. I don’t always carry on, quite often I stop and puff and lie down and give up for a while. But I always start again.
It feels like all I can do right now, nevermind the looming awfulness of the world, the idea that I won’t find work when I finish this walk or get a book published, the idea that I’m on a fools journey sidestepping between covid restrictions like they’re swinging blades.
Ignore it. Focus. There is always a way forward, even when everything feels terrible, and you might just enjoy it when you find it. “Hold your own” says Kae Tempest, a farseer, a modern day Oracle. Just keep taking small steps and don’t stop.