GR1 Week 2: To the foot of the high country

“We were born with our eyes wide open…so alive with wild hope now….can you tell me why, time after time they drag you down….know that the light don’t sleep”- David Grey, Silver Lining.

Days 8- 14 (Ripoll to Gironella).

Total Km hiked: 190 (over 10 hiking days)

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Walking on a cool morning through a misty valley in the Alta Garrotxa, past crumbling farms and hills covered in bare-limbed trees, it felt like we had returned to winter. It was muted and melancholy, but also beautiful. The walking was easy, so I turned on my mp3 player and selected ‘shuffle’, it gave me David Grey, which seemed to chime perfectly with the mood. Some of the lyrics from the song ‘Silver Lining’ (a.k.a those quoted above) got me thinking…about innocence and wonder…and how they relate to hiking of course! A large part of hiking for me is about idealism, it is about trying to hold onto that sense of wonder, to keep my eyes open and stay fully awake. It is also about maintaining a sort of child-like ‘wild hope’ about all life can be, in the face of so much cynicism in the world- that tries to limit, control and scare us, that wants to box-us-in, shut-us-up, make us tow-the-line, and paint our hopes as naïve, unrealistic or flawed, until we become cynical too. Phew! Glad I got that off my chest. I would say that long distance hiking for me is a way of keeping hope alive, of maintaining a sense of wonder (of innocence even), because out on these unfurling trails through forest and mountains, the world and I still feel new, unmade. There are no forces at play (media, advertising, government) trying to order or create my reality, trying to sell me things, create insecurities or to mold me into their image- out here, as the days slip past and I slip away from all that horrendous ‘noise’, I find what is real again. Sometimes that ‘real’ is not necessarily nice, it can be cold or grotty or boring as much as exciting, scenic or satisfying, but it is unfiltered and true. Truth may be no more than the pain of a pulled tendon, the chill of sweat drying, steam rising from a tea-cup, sound of hooves in dry leaves or the scatter of rocks kicked by our footsteps. What if just noticing these things, exactly as they are, is enough? Hiking long distance not only clears out the mind clutter, it slows me down, helps me listen and inhabit this world more deeply. Can innocence ever be regained…probably not, but hiking with butterflies flitting round my knees, noticing the patterns of tree branches in shining spring woodlands, laying in the grey dawn, smiling at the quivering hoots of a tawny owl, feels as close as I am likely to get. No matter the forces at play in the world, I know, through hiking at least, that ‘the light don’t sleep’.

So, I guess I should get down to some GR1 specifics now and tell how the trail has treated us in our second week of hiking.  Days 8-14 took us from the deeply wooded valleys of the Alta Garrotxa and out across low-rolling sierras towards the town of Gironella (a key re-supply point). At 190km from the coast, Gironella marked the end of Section 1 out of 7 on the GR1. These 7 sections were created by the guidebook author John Hayes, and signify distinctive ‘chunks’ of landscape along the GR1 route- they also help us get a feel for our progress. In week 2 the GR1 continued its charm offensive (with a few small exceptions), every day was varied with lots of easy walking on tracks through the landscape. In contrast to the GR11, which was pretty full-on from the start, it has been nice to just walk on ‘cruise control’, hiking smoothly and swiftly on good tread and watching horizons unfold. Most of the land is inhabited in some way, with lots of cultivation and isolated farms, but there have also been remote sections through pine forest and high onto crests of Holm oak and scrub, bouldery canyons, deep river gorges, ancient mule tracks and glimpses of smalls chapels on isolated crags. We have camped among of tiny wild daffodils, walked misty woodlands echoing with the calls of cuckoo and hoopoe, seen shepherds with flocks in hot midday pastures and enjoyed shining spring woodlands- white light, birdsong, primroses- and far-reaching views of snowy peaks through bare branches. After 2 weeks of seeing nobody, we also met our first GR1 hikers, a chap called Simon who was walking in the opposite direction.  Simon was from Germany and has hiked a number of GR’s, he also made the ‘conversion’ to lightweight hiking a few years ago, so we had lots of notes to compare and talk about. As we sat in a quiet meadow chatting, I was reminded how lonely trails like the GR1 can be, and how energising and enjoyable it is to meet someone on a similar adventure. Like us, Simon was wild-camping, but due to work, was on a shorter hike and was doing 1 week on the GR1 in Catalonia. Apart from a few day-hikers at weekends, we see no-one else on the trail for days at a time.

I did say there were a few exceptions to the GR1’s  charm as well, mainly in the form of intensive pig farms, which the sight, smell and sound of at close quarters has cemented my resolve not to eat pork again. The thought of these highly intelligent animals contained in these dim meat factories (prisons) was appalling, and a side of intensive farming that is all too convenient to close our eyes too. Other issues include sections through homogenous forestry (pine) plantations, which are not the natural vegetation mix and hold little wildlife. Then there is the dog issue……this is a whole other story and I’ll deal with this next week, provided we don’t get savaged in the meantime :/

On Day 11 we sat out a day of rain in the hamlet of Lluca, watching cats slink around the monastery walls while sparrows went crazy outside our balcony and we were spellbound at the luxury of the crispest, whitest sheets ever! The hostal owner Kin, who hails from Argentina origionally, was exceptionally kind and generous too. Looking back to the east, the sea is long out of sight, there is only a broad glare of wider light, and even that is receeding. By Day 13, the GR1 had brought us to Gironella near the foot of the Sierra de Cadi, an impregnable-looking limestone massif which towered above the surrounding sierras- the GR1 game was about to change, abruptly! We reached Gironella by mid morning feeling frozen cold (it was a damp morning with a steady wind), and hollowed-out (the hiker hunger had taken hold). The cold and damp was making our joints achey and sore by now too. We-slightly desperately- looked for food and warmth, and found an amazing bakery with windows piled high with croissants, cakes, pastries- and went straight in. The lady was kind, and did not mind as we just dumped all our hiking stuff on her bakery floor and sat, wild-eyed and silent, munching large chocolate croissants until there was not a flake left. We left Gironella heavy with re-supply and looking forward to getting into wilder country. Our ascent into the Sierra de Cadi and our experiences therin will be covered in our week 3 update.

For anyone who has not really hiked and camped long distance, or who may just be curious about how we do things, I thought it would be good to round-off with a look at a typical day on the GR1 for us.

Generally it starts pre-dawn when the alarm goes and I unzip the tent to set water to boil for tea. Sometimes I sit in my bag awhile listening to the gas roar gently, before telling Barry to ‘shake a leg, it’s time to get up!’ We stuff our bags into their sacks and roll our mats up inside the tent before finally braving the cold and damp to start taking the tent down. I put the lid on the tea cup to keep it warm and we take gulps, along with cereal, bread, croissants (whatever we have) for breakfast. Total time from wake-up to hiking is usually 45mim to 1 hour, we are hiking by 8:30am (7:30 UK time). We often camp in the woods, so hiking into the first sunlight of the day is always a relief and layers come off as we get hot quickly. If the going is easy we cruise along listening to the birdsong, no matter how hard the previous day’s hike was, the next morning we usually feel springy and energetic- mornings are the best time to make progress. A mid morning ‘second breakfast’ (often involving cake) usually preceeds a late lunch stop for a hour or so, resting in the shade of the woods or in a village square. If the tent is wet from rain or dew, we always air and dry it at lunch and try to rehydrate ourselves properly, especially if the afternoon is hot.

Long climbs on hot afternoons can be sapping, even this early in the season, but if the terrain is easier we’ll often plug into our mp3’s- it’s amazing how a bit of music can energise us! Walking ahead, I stop and wait for Barry at forks or turnings in the trail, I often hear him before I see him, with scraps of Van Morrison songs drifting up through the trees from below. I love to hear him happily hiking along in his own world. Thanks to the efforts of our friends Barry and Madeleine, we have an eclectic mix of music to choose from as well as our regular listening material. If we are lucky, on all but the remotest sections, the GR1 will provide us with a little cafe/bar at some point where we can enjoy a cafe con leche or cerveza, depending on the weather. On Day 9, after walking for 3 hours in the rain, and getting damp and chilled, we found a typical Spanish bar in a quiet village to dry-out. The owners went to some lengths to create a perfect milky coffee for us, and we sat by a radiator watching the European ballroom dancing championships for an hour….such a contrast from the miles of misty forest trails! Throughout the hours of walking we also make time to stop and enjoy the flowers or old villages/ churches on the way.

We try to stop by 5pm, as long as we have refuelled with enough water for the night and any miles to town the next day. We set up quickly and cook dinner, usually some combination of couscous, pasta, tuna, cheese, olive oil and herbs, before climbing into our sleeping bags by about 7pm. The evenings are still cool, and after organising our kit in the tent porches we snuggle down and read or listen to more podcasts. We are listening to a biography of Leonard Cohen together at the moment, and after that we retreat into our own worlds of BBC podcasts (World Book Club, Radio 3 Documentary, In Our Time, The Essay) or audiobooks. The other night I got out of the tent to look at the stars, it was so cold, the dark pines loomed huge above and Barry’s headtorch inside made the tent look like a giant, green glowworm. We are hopefully asleep before the first rustles of night animals and often hear the first hoots of a Tawny owl before it begins to hunt.

This hike we have decided to go a bit easier on ourselves, mainly not being so stingy with the odd night in a hotel or a decent meal. These things are treats and good for our morale, especially after a long or particularly demanding section. We appreciate any little bit of comfort when hiking for weeks on end. On that note, it’s our ‘day off’ and we have a tough few days hiking ahead, so adios till next week and keep checking Instagram.com/wildpilgrims for photo updates.

 

 

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