“But the beauty is in the walking — we are betrayed by destinations.”
― Gwyn Thomas
Total Km hiked: 900
Days 47- 53: (Los Arcos, Pencacerrada, Zambana, Miranda de Ebro, Fontecha, Villanueva de Valdegovia)
Contemplating the rain and hoping Barry will make the tea!- A welcome rest under the porch of a monastery in the Sierra de Codes.
As we left the pilgrim town of Los Arcos at the beginning of Week 7, we also left behind the plains of Navarra and entered a new zone of landscape, climate and culture. We started climbing almost immediately into the Sierra de Codes, and were soon engulfed by the verdure of the Basque forests with their low cloud and wraith-like mists. After weeks in semi-arid moutains, the moisture, the abundant, luminous ‘green-ness’ of everything was soft on the skin and the senses. It is always satisfying to experience these transitions of geography on a long distance hike because, among other things, it confirms the reality of distance covered, which can otherwise seem unreal. There is also a thrill in traversing the vastness of geographies with something so diminutive as the human body.
The price to pay for such verdure though was rain and damp- damp feet, soggy socks, a sopping wet tent in the morning and a general struggle to keep our kit clean, dry and useable. Of all things, I find waking up to a damp/wet morning most demotivating. Not just leaving the snug depths of my sleeping bag, but the practical difficulty of getting packed up in long, wet grass- getting wet shoes and socks before breakfast never seems a good start to the day! So it was a week of dodging rain in church porches, barns and bus shelters: it was frustrating at times but more often than not, a welcome respite from the busy business of hiking and increasingly aching joints. Sheltering under the portico of a town hall building or the cloister of a monastery, we’d set the tea on to boil, pile our warm layers on and throw our foam mats on the flagstones. Safe from the curtains of rain driving in across the mountains, there was a precious sense of ‘nothing to do’, a rare repose when we could read, dunk chocolate digestives or just rest…..and secretly hope that the rain would last a little longer.
Being so close to the Camino still, we were stopped by many local people throughout the week who were convinced we were lost! The Camino is such a dominant force in the region, and so famous throughout Spain, that the idea we were walking any other trail was unthinkable! The scallop shells in our packs probably confused matters, and instead of trying to explain our ‘wild pilgrimage’ or the GR1 and Camino Primitivo, I took to drawing a little sketch-map, which helped a bit. Every person who stopped us meant well though, but as we thanked them and waved goodbye, we could see that they were still not wholly convinced that we knew where we were going.
In fact, sometimes in Week 7, we were not even on the GR1, having decided long ago that we would not be purists for the sake of it. Sometimes the GR1 does annoying or illogical wiggles, climbing hundreds of metres up forested hillsides (for no real reward), when there is a perfectly lovely, quiet road to walk along. On such a long walk, sections of roadwalking, where there may only be one car every hour, and which may be flatter and more direct than the trail, can be very welcome. Often the road will follow the valley floor below the GR1, giving more open views, crossing rivers and passing through more interesting habitats. We don’t make a habit if it, but in Week 7, with the mist down and constant threat of rain, there seemed little point slogging up into the forest, so it allowed us to make good time and was smooth, enjoyable walking. Indeed, the roads we did walk through the Basque hills were some of the loneliest on the hike so far, winding deeply through wooded gorges and through the striking cathedral atmosphere of spring beechwoods, where the vivid pealing of birdsong echoed in the dripping stillness.
As ever, re-supply was an issue, and by Day 51 little remained of our Lidl food bonanza from Longrono. Instead of circling around the north of Miranda de Ebro on the GR1, we decided to walk directly into the city, picking-up the GR99 (Ebro River trail) to guide us in. The 7km walk did not promise much- several busy road crossings and industrial suburbs plus a slight anxiety about security when walking into a large and unknown city. But it was fine, good footpaths/ cycle paths all the way and plenty of joggers and dog walkers about. All was fine that is, until we realised there was local fiesta on and everything was shut….and the hotels nearly full. Under other circumstances a fiesta would have been great, but as tired hikers just needing to restock with food it was a real pain in the a#se. Apart from the bars, the whole city was closed-up for two days, and I had visions of us pitching our tent in the city park until we managed to bag a hotel room cancellation. In Britain we are used to (and maybe come to expect) an almost 24hr society, but in Spain things work differently…which I think is actually healthier….just not ideal for hikers who do not keep regular hours! On the GR1 we seem to have a habit of always hitting our re-supply towns on a Sunday (shops closed), Monday (shops sometimes closed), during midday siesta or, latterly, a fiesta. It all worked out OK in the end, we caught a bus to the next large town, and although it didn’t make for an efficient re-supply mission, the extra night in a hotel room with a BATH(!) was an unexpected bonus.
On Day 52 we were glad to return to the trail through dewy morning meadows and with the sound of Roe deer barking in the forest. The attractions of the town are always short-lived, and among the hub-bub of 21st century life we feel like ‘outlanders’ from another dimension. Indeed this sense of slipping into another, parallel world is a powerful aspect of long distance hiking, and one that deepens with the length of time spent on the trail. A hike like the GR1 attunes our minds and bodies to a different pace in which we notice so much more around us, and it is this depth of noticing that gives hiking its sense of substance and quality as way to live and travel. This ‘fullness’ of each day also distorts our sense of time, and when I look back at pictures from weeks 1, 2 or 3, I can scarcely believe they are part of the same trip. It is almost a feeling of vertigo, looking back to those early days, as if over the precipiece of a tall building- I cannot mentally connect the ‘now’ to ‘then’ because there is so much experience packed in to the intervening time. This feeling contrasts with back at home when days/weeks/months can sometimes pass when nothing much happens, we live on autopilot, time is shallower and less ‘full’. Hiking is a way for us to fill our time to the brim.
Our GR1 world is populated by the details that are rarely noticed; the scurry of lizards into dry leaves, the pop of warm pinecones, the glinting eye of circling griffons. These things form our daily reality and take on a significance that is overlooked by the hurrying world. So many times on remote roads we have been overtaken by people in sealed, air conditioned cars, and as their dust-pall settles we remain, plodding on in the quiet, to see what is there, to notice the things that they did not have the time or interest to stop for. I am reminded of paintings by the American painter Edward Hopper, his vivid but unsettling compositions in which he illuminates people and unguarded moments which we might not otherwise see….they give glimpses of ‘the world when no-one else is looking’. On those quiet roads and tracks along the GR1, we are left to see the unguarded world of unnoticed things while others rush on to a more important elsewheres. We have been guilty of this ourselves and will be again, and there is a conceit in this speed (not just of cars but life in general), the idea that the important things, the ‘real business of life’, lays ahead wherever we are rushing on too. But maybe, all along, in some ironic way, the answer to the big questions, to some of what we seek in all our restless motion, is to be found in something as innocuous as the grasshopper’s leap and the dry crack of its wings on a hot afternoon. I don’t mean this wholly literally of course, but maybe metaphorically these details by the road or trailside, covered in the dust of our passing, are a portal to much that we need to know and understand. Hiking ‘buys’ us the time to take more notice, to slip through a trapdoor and observe closely the world we pass through, and so offers a unique and changed perspective upon it.
Catch-up with us in Week 8 as we enter the beautiful limestone hills and gorges of lower Cantabria.