“Riding out through the windmills, and some of them were still, sometimes it’s hard to catch the wind and bend it to your will. Even though it’s hard to know, just where the story ends, the road is long and it takes its time, on that you can depend”…..(Rolling Thunder- Crosby, Stills and Nash).
Total Km hiked: 815
Days 41-46 ( Sos Del Ray Catholico- Olite- Llaraga- Los Arcos).
Week 6 pictures on Instagram Here
Under brooding skies, Barry climbs high above the plain to the village of Gallipienzo Antigua.
Geographically and psychologically, Week 6 marked a big transition in our GR1 hike across Spain. We finished our traverse of the various ‘exterior ranges’ of the Pyrenees, including the Sierra Garroxta, Sierra de Cadi, Sierra de Guara and Sierra de Gratal, before leaving the state of Aragon and descending to the plains of Navarra. Despite expectations that it might be a bit monotonous, our 70km crossing of the plains was in fact a welcome change of scene, there was some great birdlife, dramatic weather and the mercifully easy walking allowed us to make good time. Somewhere along the way we passed the half way point of our hike too! The week ended in the pilgrim town of Los Arcos on the Camino de Santiago, and we had the rare pleasure of the company of other wayfarers like ourselves.
The weather became more variable in Week 6, bringing rain and wind at times, but also an added drama to our crossing of the plains. As great weather fronts rolled in, cloud shadows and sunlight ranged over the land, continually shifting the patterns of light, colour and texture. Neither of us are fans of industrial farming, but there was a desolate beauty about the vast prairie-like fields as we walked the undulating tracks towards far horizons- passing the skeletal frames of giant sprayer booms and amid the ghostly rustle of wind in the wheat. With eyes roaming these distances, the mind could expand and relax too, our feet could take care of themselves, and the miles melted away beneath us- it was unexpectedly joyful walking.
Most unexpected however, and the highlight of our plains traverse, was the variety and continual interest of birdlife. Throughout we were accompanied by the ‘jangling keys’ call of Corn Bunting, and the fluting songs of Calandra Larks and Skylarks, rising into the sunlight above the wheat fields. From within the wheat fields, we heard the ‘drip, drip’ call of the secretive quail. We were especially delighted to see all three species of Harrier; Marsh Harriers displaying, the silvery-swift flight of the male Hen Harrier and the agile, buoyancy of the more slender Montague’s Harrier. The Montague’s Harrier was most common of the three, and I was lucky enough to have a silver-grey male hunting the field margin towards me. I knelt down low and he got close, before diving with a flash of black wingtips onto prey in the grass. Barry’s highlight was the northward passage of Honey Buzzards, with a number of flocks circling overhead (38 individuals in all), having crossed the Med at Gibralter on their journey from central Africa to northern Europe.
Taking a break ON the trail, Barry style!
Perhaps it was the broadening landscape, the easier trails, the sense of making progress, but something shifted in my mindset on those long, plains days- something that it had taken 5 weeks to let go of. I found there were no longer questions in my mind about ‘can we’ or ‘can’t we’ do the GR1, or worries about things I can’t control on the route ahead- they had dissolved and were replaced instead by a greater ease and the purity of ‘just doing’. In this way, I have found walking is like meditation, it can help gain clarity over the workings of the mind and how it’s perpetual ruminations can affect our sense of reality. To be fully absorbed in the ‘doing’, which is also the present moment, is very grounding and reassuring, and has allowed me to relax into the walking and open up more to the experience – without wasting valuable mental energy.
Indeed, there is a degree of surrender required on a walking journey of this length- a surrender to all we cannot know or control, to cast-off into the flow of days and miles, and let them take us where they will. Trying to grasp or grapple (physically or conceptually) with a 1500km walk is impossible, and in Week 6 I finally learnt to give up trying and settled down to just walking…..such a simple thing, but remarkably difficult to do sometimes!
Morning walking across the plains, air full of birdsong, towards the ever enticing horizon.
On Day 43, after a 32km (20 mile) push to avoid impending thunderstorms, we arrived aching and hungry into the fortified town of Olite, and the halfway point if our hike. The wind was gusting nearly gale force, the skies blackening and the bells clanging, and we stood feeling little bewildered, perhaps wishing there was someone to share our special moment with. But, as ever on the GR1, there was no-one there who really knew or understood in the way that fellow hikers would…in fact I have given up trying to explain the existence of the GR1 to people.
It being a weekend, we were surprised to bag a cheap room in a posh hotel in the historic quarter….the catch, as the receptionist warned us, was that it might be noisy- but with a bath and big, soft bed, we really didn’t care. We celebrated with a big pizza and red wine that night, before sleeping more deeply than I can remember. The local fiesta (and source of the noise) in the bar below, had been going on all night when it finally woke us at 5am, by which time the conviviality was waning and small fights were breaking out in the damp, morning street. The weather looked ominous, and it was touch-and-go whether we left at all, not wanting to get caught out on the long sections of trail across the plains where there was no shelter for miles. One ferocious squall could really trash us and our kit, but we took a chance, and for the next few days, timed our walking between weather fronts to stay warm and dry.
Descending into the lowlands of Navarra after weeks among deserted villages and forgotten countryside, landed us back into the 21st century with a bump….and not all of it was pretty. The pace of life, the industry, the roads and hurtling HGV’s were an assult on the senses and pause for reflection on how hiking changes our perspectives in relation to these things. Through the way it slows us down in time and space, long distance hiking can result in a psychological ‘distancing’ from the mainstream world- we come to inhabit a different space and time dimension- and this shift is one of the reasons we like it.
The accomplishment of big distances by something as simple as our own two feet feels like a great liberation, a reclamation of something very important, an independence that I feel is continually being eroded. Nowhere is that sense of liberation more acute than standing, as a hiker, on a motorway bridge, watching the traffic thunder underneath. Walking is one of the simplest, oldest things we can do, and yet ironically, set against the inhuman scale and speed of the 21st century motorway, it seems positively revolutionary!
In rural Spain 60 years ago, walking would have been the dominant mode of travel, mainly between villages, as evidenced by the cobbled, walled lanes we have spent much of our time hiking the GR1 on. The scale of their world at that time was much smaller and locally based, much has changed and ‘progressed’ since, but our walking these old routes (many becoming neglected and forgotten) is partly out of interest and respect for this slower, more independent way of life. In 2016, watching the cars and trucks rumble past, the long distance hiker, come in over from the hills and through the forests, is now the odd one out.
It is not that walking is always practical these days, time does not permit it. Also, I am not anti-technology or anti-modernity- as a hiker I benefit greatly from the technology in my shoes, sleeping bag, smartphone etc. It is a question of using technology without being used by it- so much technology now, while giving us the illusion of more choice/time/freedom, actually locks us into ever more dependence. We are convinced we ‘need’ technologies to do certain things, but for all that technology gives us, it also takes some important things away. In some ways, walking has been rendered obsolete by technology (not only the car or motorway, but phone and email), the world is not ‘designed’ for walking anymore, and the sense of liberation gained as a long distance hiker in the 21st century comes from reclaiming some of my human capability, my self sufficiency, the power of what I can do for myself, naturally and well. Sometimes ‘progress’ or the real revolution in how we live, might lie in the simple things and at the human scale.
Talking of highways, we crossed a pilgrim ‘highway’ on Day 46 when we reached the town of Los Arcos on the Camino de Santiago. There are many Caminos converging on Santiago, and the Camino Francis through Los Arcos is the best know and busiest, with 100,000’s pilgrims walking it each year. Our arrival here was much anticipated by us, and needless to say, after almost 6 weeks of very lonely walking, we were looking forward to some fellow pilgrim company. We checked-in to a fantastic pilgrim Alberge (hostal with dorms), with a super kitchen and communal areas, and settled in for an evening of warm sunlight, conviviality and cold beer.
The Camino attracts people from all walks of life and from all over the world, it was fascinating just to watch folk arrive, listen to their trials and tribulations and stories of what had bought them to the Camino. The bubbling social scene, and more importantly, the company of like-minded people, made us realise once again just how much we are missing this dimension of hiking life, and in some ways we felt sorely tempted to join them on their more direct route to Santiago! But it is not all idyllic on the Camino. Competition for beds in Alberges can be fierce, there are A LOT of people on the trail, and knowing our preference for space and quiet time in nature, I know the novelty of the Camino Francis would wear off very quickly. It did however, whet our appetites for joining the Camino Primitivo later on, a quieter but nonetheless authentic pilgrim experience.
Camp on the edge of an olive orchard- just after a thunderstorm, the clouds broke just in time for a stunning sunset.
So, on Day 47, with dark skies threatening and rain in the air, we left the pilgrims at a fork in the trail, and headed north-west, back into our grand isolation on the GR1. Deep down I know we are better off on the GR1, doing our own thing and being independent….we are ‘wild pilgrims’ afterall! 🙂 That night we pitched in a quiet meadow, and as we lay cozily in the Hubba Hubba, we heard the marvellous, chuckling call of the female cuckoo close by, and the whirring-buzz of the nightjar in the still, grey dusk.
Week 6 finished with a food bonanza at Lidl in Longrono, for which we caught a bus off-trail to visit. This food shopping trip had been much anticipated for at least 3 weeks…the problem was restraint- we had to carry all we bought or eat it there and then. Needless to say, we loaded up on all our favourites and some great hiker food, and ended up hauling heavy packs for a few days, but is was worth it!
Week 7 takes us up into the misty hills of the Basque Country into a different zone of culture and climate, before crossing into Castile y Leon and our gradual ascent into the mountains of Cantabria.