Reconnecting – 13 years later.
It’s two weeks since we got back from France. At first I was just confused, feeling terribly guilty and carrying a huge sense of failure. Of course everybody made the right kind of noises, being very affirming and saying they’d have done the same thing under the circumstances but it’s been very hard to shake off the feeling that I somehow wimped out. Since then I’ve been suffering from elective agoraphobia – not wanting to meet or talk to people, and skulking in and out of the village taking the quick way out onto the A38. I kept myself busy at home, installing a mobile phone repeater amp and helping the boys to decorate a bedroom, but I knew I was avoiding the issue. The fact is, my sabbatical project has gone down in an ignominious defeat, I’ve been sponsored for something I couldn’t finish, and I’ve got two months off with zero sense of what to do with it.From my notebook
On the other hand I can’t sit around forever feeling sorry for myself – and I did learn a lot even from the shorter walk. On the plus side we walked 350K and across the 4000 foot high Aubrac Plateau in really tough conditions and carrying everything we needed – so we walked further than Offa’s Dyke Path (283K) The Coast to Coast (307K) and the vast majority of other UK trails. The problems we encountered were mostly our own fault – not least a hubristic view of our capabilities and a failure to look carefully enough at the facilities we needed. This led us into some mammoth 35K walks carrying far too much weight. We also failed to realize that many French campsites only open during the school holidays – and many of the ones we stayed in that were open had not finished their winter refits – restricting facilities greatly.
The one factor we couldn’t have foreseen was the exponential growth of assisted and guided walks along the route. We were constantly surprised at the number of people who seemed to be carrying next to nothing. It took several weeks to realize that their belongings were being shipped from place to place by transit van. Sometimes we would find a large group sitting in the middle of nowhere eating a picnic that had been driven out to them. On one occasion one such group took over the only restaurant in a small village in its entirety. Naturally the infrastructure has followed the money, and so the facilities (which are expanding rapidly) are not for solo walkers and campers but for paying groups. Consequently many of the gîtes d’etape were being swamped by large groups – a problem which could only get bigger as we approached Spain.
If I was ever to attempt such an ambitious project again, I’d calculate the ratio between load and distance more carefully. To do the whole Camino carrying the loads we had – i.e. carrying tent etc. would ideally break down into daily walks of 20K maximum – 17K would be better. That would not be possible due to the uneven distribution of suitable campsites. Wild camping gets less and less possible as you move into more populated areas and it’s illegal in Spain. That inescapable limitation means that the only way to do it in less than 4 months (allowing one day off a week) is to ditch the tent and stay in gîtes d’Etap or B&B. This would increase the daily budget dramatically – from 30€ to as much as 100€. Even taking into account the shorter time it would still be twice as expensive and wildly more than I could afford.
Looking back on my notes now they seem unbelievably brief, often missing out great chunks of stuff that seem far more important on reflection. I’ll be adding to them and matching them with photos over the coming weeks. Watch this space.
Well that was then – 13 years ago, since when the photographs were gradually dispersed over three incompatible laptops, the original notebooks (which fortunately I transcribed soon afterwards) are somewhere buried in the strata that constitute my filing system and I’ve done everything I can to forget the whole thing. The sense of failure never left me and cast a long shadow over the following years. But gradually – and then suddenly in the last few weeks – I began to see a way to reconnect the threads.
Of course writing history, even the memoir of an event in which I was a participant, is a dangerous game. The temptation to gloss the hard parts; fill in the missing bits with fiction; to inflate or deflate those aspects of the narrative that suit purposes which I don’t even fully understand myself; or just to self-justify; blame someone else and whinge on about the blood, sweat, tears and blisters; all of which happened but all of which were mitigated by unexpected moments of grace.
So having spent a week organising all the written material I could find and united the photographs into a single and accessible library I’ve also got an idea (untested until today) of how to proceed. I’ll use the contemporary and unedited written notes and photographs to evoke some sense of our failed 1000 mile walk; then I’ll add some reflections on how we got to where we found ourselves; what we learned from it, how it’s played out in subsequent years; and to start at the beginning, the very first note which absolutely nails our unpreparedness :
18th May 2010
Couldn’t sleep so up at 4.00am. Stella drove us to Parkway. Saying goodbye was unbearable – I was praying she wouldn’t cry but she did anyway! Then it was just endless trains all day. We only just got to Paris Gâre de Lyon in time because I misread the tickets and forgot to advance my watch by an hour so we had to run up the stairs with our rucksacks on. People must have thought we were mad. Two hours wait and a grotty pizza at Lyon then the most beautiful train journey up the Loire valley: (I only worked out it was the Loire Valley when the conductor gave us a map). The first conductor out of Lyon was a beautiful black guy with a lovely smile. SNCF staff seem to wear whatever they like with one badge of office – often a cap. Spent night at a youth hostel in Le Puy after arriving at 9.30.
WTF did I think I was doing? Subsequently Madame has wasted no opportunity to tell me how completely out of character it was for me to just clear off for three months, and she’s right. I don’t think I gave a moment to imagine how lonely and distressed she would be. I was just obsessed with this batshit crazy plan to walk across France and Spain to Finisterre – the end of the earth. My companion (Modestine? – he often carried part of my load) was someone very close to us whose marriage had just broken down and who was compensating by drinking far, far too much. I asked him along because I wanted (needed) to stay close and look after him. It certainly added another layer of madness to the adventure.
Much more to follow, including a reflection on this whole pilgrimage business – what it’s about and whether some sort of immaterial and supernatural God has any part in it at all. I’ve never felt so nervous about pushing the publish button before!