Oviedo: yet another big ugly city, especially when you enter through the suburbs and walk to the ring road, streets of grimy apartment blocks overshadowing the tarmac, Spanish lives lived crammed on top of one another. This is the last place on my journey that has memories for me, coming to meet my sister underneath the railway station clock 12 years ago, drinking late at night in a tree lined square, telling jokes about smoking a chorizo. There’s a club somewhere here where I stood shy against the wall while everyone danced. There’s a theatre space where I stood up in a circle and read a piece of writing for the first time, experiencing the magical silence of people listening to you, really listening, a concentrated stillness that vibrates the air.
This time though, the memories felt too fragile and far away to mean much, the sensation of ordinary anonymous city life took over, people hidden beneath overcoats and umbrellas, stepping quickly between lines of traffic; the cheapest hostel in the city gave me a view of 20 windows, with washing lines clinging to the dirty walls under each one, rats running between the cars in the alleyway down below.
I walked in with Celia, she going to to walk to the coast via a mountain route, me cheering her on to carry on despite the rain then doing the hypocritical opposite and going to bed for two days. The first day was planned, I bought fruit and yoghurt, ingredients for omelette and salad, went to a restaurant for lunch and had the delicious broth of meat and beans and vegetables that is one of the Asturias staples. The second day it was raining and on looking out of the window, I realised I didn”t have to walk after all. All I wanted to do was get to Santander as soon as possible, but that didn’t have to mean walking in the rain. So I went to bed for a whole day. It was a public holiday so no supermarkets were open. I panic bought in a bakery, two slices of pizza, two drinks, two doughnuts, and that was my food the second day.
It seemed to work, something in my energy changed when I left Oviedo, I’d arrived feeling achy and tired after a 13 mile day, sharp pain in my ankles and the bones of my calves that went shooting down into my feet, yet on the day I left I walked 15 miles without feeling too bad. And the next day, and the day after that.
In fact I walked six days in a row of 15 miles a day, something I haven’t managed in quite a while.
It feels good to be powerful. I still had all the same aches in all the same places but they were no longer overwhelming, I didn’t feel drained anymore, overcome by pain, wilting by 3pm.
The coastal route isn’t actually all that coastal. There’s lots of inland walking, a mile or two away from the beaches, swooping in and out of sea views. The mountains are close to the coast here, sometimes a towering 1000m wall of rock fuzzed with forest, a mere 4 miles from sea level and sometimes a further away lick of snow on jagged peaks, hovering in the distance like a mirage over the hazy humidity of lemon and orange trees in well kept gardens, the palm fronds waving. The motorway runs in this space too, built up on high concrete pillars to cross the deep clefts of river carved valley as water runs to the sea. I swing from orchards deep below the rumbling road above, quiet places where farmers come to trim the grass beneath the trees but otherwise let the cider crop grow in peace, up to windy hill tops and bridges across the motorway. There’s lots of tarmac on this route, not popular enough to require separating from the road in the name of public safety, as on the French route, so instead I stride along at the edge of the road, quiet enough due to the nearby motorway that the cars don’t bother me too much.
I just want to get to Santander and rest. It’s a countdown to the ferry, it’s a countdown to the release from quarantine and then it’s a countdown to the end of the journey. I’m 95% of the way through this walk and there’s no room for new memories.
The beaches don’t interest me much. I walk on a couple of them with shoes on, taking care that the sand doesn’t get in my socks. Could I stop and lie down for a while? Paddle in the sea, lose myself in staring at the clouds? Yes, but every moment spent here is a moment less rest in Santander, and I need the proper rest before and after the ferry in order to prepare myself for the final few hundred miles of the UK section. There’s no real rest when you’ve got a pack beside you that will have to be heaved up onto your shoulders again in a minute. I am holding focus that will not truly release until I reach the top of Great Oak Street, Llanidloes. There’s a breath tight in my chest that will not let go.
Instead I put music on, a rare treat saved for when I have many miles on tarmac ahead of me, and I pick up my rhythm, building strength, legs working and muscles pumping. The reaction to the music is stronger when you hardly ever hear it, and I feel like a mighty beast, an unstoppable force.
Individual days mattered little last week, I ate bananas for breakfast, I bought more again. I stopped in the evening and spooned the usual camping mush of tuna, peas and potato into my stomach. I slept outside The Chapel of Welcome, named so as a pilgrim hostel centuries ago, I slept in the back room of a donativo pilgrim hostel, I slept beside a river with curious cows on the opposite bank and I slept in albergues with uncomfortable plastic cover mattresses to guard against bedbugs.
Things don’t seem to stick to me any more. Days don’t mean anything. Just another stretch of steps before I collapse and sleep and wake up to do it again, groaning as I stretch my calves and feel that familiar sensation, almost comforting when it’s a solid deep grumble, a yawn of an ache rather than a shrill lancing screech of pain like that which comes at the end of the day, when I’ve been moving for hours and am aiming for just a few afternoon miles more.
I go to stay in a donativo albergue, they were closed, I think, but I was given the number by David back in Bodenaya, his final gift to me was a string of welcome beads strung irregularly along my route all the way to Santander. It’s been a hard day, as usual, and I’m dazed, as usual. We sit around the table, three of us, and introduce ourselves. I talk a little about my journey, the usual facts about the countries I’ve visited, the mileage I’ve walked, the time I’ve been on the road. They express the usual awe and I try to move the conversation on; it feels as if I’m dumping an elephant onto the dinner table, ceasing all further conversation.
The next morning, I’m having breakfast alone with the host, he pours me delicious coffee, offers a selection of homemade jam on buttered toast, and asks how I really am. “I don’t know.” I say. “It’s hard to give an answer” I feel like an onion chopped in half, very aware of all the layers of this experience. I’m returning home after almost 3 years away, blowing the dust off valued yet neglected friendships, finding a place again, entering the usual routines of living that may well be both comforting and asphixiating. I’m not planning another journey yet but I don’t know if I have what it takes to stay. I’m sad and lonely and tired and equally happy and satisfied and proud of myself for what I’ve achieved. I’m incredibly strong and I’m at the end of my reserves. I’ve walked around 5000 miles through 14 countries and I feel full of journey. There is the physical pain, there is the pandemic, there is the worry of the ferry journey back to the UK. There are the plans for what I do next, how do I make the time to write and still earn money to live.
I hold my arms open to mime for him the amount of time I’ve walked and then pinch my fingers together to show how much of the journey is left. But the problem is that I’m holding all of it at once, I can’t let go of this or begin to process it until the end, until this is finally over.
I remember being told about Tiddalik the frog in primary school, the Aboriginal creation story where he drank all the water and had to be induced to laugh and pour it all out from his mouth so the other animals could drink again. I remember the storyteller miming a frog full of water, swaying their body like the motion of a waterbed and I feel the same; full of memories, bulging and wobbling with them and if someone asks me to truly unburden myself, I will wordvomit all over them, in a splashing uncontained mess.
He tells me about being a sound engineer, about how the difference between something changing from a mass of discordant noise to cohesive perfection can be a matter of the tiniest of adjustments. I know it’s there for me too, that something can change and all this emotion inside me can become magnificent. He makes a little motion as I walk away, miming himself at a sound desk, and I feel comforted.
One evening I see a building up above the road as I’m walking into twilight, looking for a bed. I’ve just had an incredibly unsettling experience where the ferry cancelled my ticket, and all foot passenger access, leaving me stranded in Spain until June. For 24 hours I walked without a satisfactory plan for what I’d do in Santander – get a plane? A bus? Wait for them to allow foot passengers again? Try and hitchhike onto the boat? A couple of friends asked amongst their contacts. I had a phone number for a guy who was driving up from the south, if I could be ready to travel the following day. I wasn’t, not really. Nowhere near a place to get a covid test, let alone finished the walking to Santander.
It wasn’t just the immediate problem of how to get to the UK, it was the finish line date I’d set for myself, all the people I’d told about it, the friends who had it in their diaries, the people who were coming out to walk with me, to host me as I passed through their towns. The week I’d arranged to stay with my brother, the date I’d arrive at my friend’s place, the plans I had for summer solstice, all in jeopardy and if I delayed one thing, all the others would fall like dominoes.
I knew there was nothing I could do in the immediate moment, nothing I could fix, so I tried not to worry about it, just plug in music and keep on walking. I felt like a beast, stomping along the side of the road, latest problem? No problem. I’d get over this just like I’ve got over everything else. Fuck covid, the pandemic, the delays, the uncertainty, the fear. I would complete this journey, I would jump this hurdle, just like I’ve jumped all the others that I’ve found in my way.
I walked all day, trying not to think of the problems. Solve them when you get to Santander I thought to myself, you’ve got enough on your plate, there’s no need to focus on it now, trying not to check my phone too often for nonexistent solutions.
Then at 5pm, as I sat outside a bar, there came a message from a friend. They were travelling home from Portugal and had a space in their van, did I want to come with them? YEA! And just four days before my original boat, meaning less time to rest in Santander but more time to complete the final distance in the UK. We spent an hour messaging and then I waited nervously for them to tell me I was on their ticket. We did it. Problem solved, leaving me shaky and emotional in the aftermath. Yet another hurdle, yet another trap to stop the journey continuing that I’d dealt with, through patience, steadfastness…and a whole lot of help from other people.
So, after all the boat drama, with the end of the day approaching I needed to find a bed quickly, and when I saw an empty shed above the road, perfectly hidden from passing traffic, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. But as I climbed the bank and walked towards it, there was someone sitting under the porch roof. A younger guy, bike leant against the padlocked door and pannier possessions scattered around. Obviously too good a spot if someone else had claimed it first, but he invited me to join him and we settled down for the night. Jakob was his name, but he introduced himself as Kuba. Young, only 20, and taking his first big travel as he called it, before he went back to Poland to try university for the second time. He’d quit a philosophy degree, thinking he could learn it from books while he worked, but soon realised that jobs take all your time and energy, and he’d never have a better chance to study than now, before adult life sucked him in. It meant that he wasn’t afraid to ask all the big questions, and we launched into ideas like covid fears, capitalism, and the ecological value of bamboo toothbrushes.
There’s something particularly exciting to meet another true voyager, not just in a hostel or bar but really out in the wild, two tramps making connections between their equally unconstricted lives. He cooked eggs on his little campfire, boiling extras for the next few days as the pleasant smell of eucalyptus smoke washed over me. He tended his fire and I stretched, teaching him a few words of Spanish as I did so, both of us laughing at his mistakes.
His face brightened when I said I had bananas, he had nutella, and we made nutella and peanut butter soup as the grand finale of the evening, loosening it with a little water then dipping the bananas into it.
I couldn’t really answer any of his personal questions, it all felt too much, too big to explain. “Are you happy?” he asked me, and I didn’t know what to say, all the layers of my life bleeding into each other a little like the cut onion, happiness relates to my lack of partner and children just as much as it does to the chocolate soup. I’m feeling more weary than happy, although I also know that I will look back at all of this someday as one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done. Happiness is the last five minutes and it’s also the last 50 years.
“I’m not sure if I’m happy, but all I can say is that I’m the best version of myself I’ve ever been”. I can’t ask for more.
We talked right through into the darkness, feeding twigs into the fire until the metal holder was full of glowing embers.
In the morning I left early, said goodbye as the sun was rising, just a few days walk from Santander and eager to push those final miles out. “That was a really nice night” said Kuba, sitting up tousle headed from where I gently called his name. “Yeah, it was. Remember to have fun.” I said, and we gently smiled at each other, turning away in different directions, him to head for Finisterre where I’d recommended a nice beach he could sleep on, and me to the east, heading for the ferry. The end of my journey and the beginning of his. The night the novice met the sage.
I feel very much like a crone right now, I’ve seen it all, I’ve done it all, let me go to bed for a month and rejuvenate. Less than a month more and I can shut the door on almost three years of memories.