I’m sitting on a hunter’s platform overlooking a valley. Right in the middle of it I can see what I think is the outskirt of La Roche. A river twists and bends its way through the city and then the trees and I imagine myself walking there only a few hours before. The signage hadn’t been very clear to me and I’d felt utterly lost, after a few confused looks at the map I’d picked up earlier I’d mustered my best french and asked a local man if I was going the right way. Yes, he said, and he said it with so much confidence I had trusted him entirely. A little further down the road, I’d asked another group of locals again and they had said yes with perhaps even more confidence than the first. It was probably because of that, that it took a little while before I found out, but I found out soon enough to eventually find my way looking around and behind trees and signposts. They had sent me the wrong way, I guess it’s just the tourists walking these routes and not the locals. It didn’t really matter, though, the tracks and climbs and views were just as beautiful. It was just a little harder to navigate, walking a different route from the one I’d planned in the opposite direction.
I can’t find my pen, it’s gotten dark now, but it’s ok, a pencil will write the same words. The colours of the world have changed so much in the last few hours. I didn’t even notice, I was lost in another world, flipping the pages of my book until it got hard for me to read the words. The sun had set without me noticing and with it slowly the light had disappeared. I looked up in utter astonishment, and when I did my breath was taken away. Water drops and layers of dew and steam fogged the windows. Obscuring what was outside, covering the world which was now in warm shades of red, orange and yellow where street lights were turned on and in shades of deep dark blue and purple everywhere else.
“You never know what’s around the corner. It could be everything. Or it could be nothing. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you’ve climbed a mountain.” ― Tom Hiddleston
We went deep into Sherpa territory when we visited Nepal last time. “People are so focussed on Everest that they overlook the other beautiful peaks in the area,” Suman sighs. He points down at the pass that would take adventurers to the start of the trail to Everest base camp before they build an airfield high up in the mountains, one of the most challenging landing zones in the world. “Everyone just gets on a plane to Lukla nowadays, the pass forgotten.” I look at the trail, a small stripe of grey in a muddy landscape, far down the mountain we are ascending on our way to Pique. Typical. We’re all so focused on reaching our destination that the journey there hardly matters anymore. A plane flies by in the distance, it is way below us; we watch it until the sound of the engine dies out.
“If I didn’t know you, I would say you have hit rock bottom.” My brother in law sits on the piano stool while I lean against the sofa. I am on my way out after living with my sister for the past month. “You gave away your furniture, you are living like a gypsy hopping from one underpaid job to the other, you don’t have a roof over your head and you fucked up your relationship.” I played with the keys in my hand, taking off my sisters key as my brother in law summed up the fruit of my labour. “But,” he continued, “because I do know you, I know this is the only way you will find your happiness and I am proud of you for breaking free. I would be shitting my pants if I were you.” I moved my gaze from the keys to his eyes. The expression he held in them made me realize he was being nothing other than serious. This man who I had always considered to be the opposite of what I was, kept surprising me. “Thanks,” I said and picked up my bag. I handed him the key and made my way to the door. With the door handle in my hand I turned around. “You really don’t think I am a screw up?” He shook his head. “I think you are a complete fruitcake,” he smirked, “but I also think you are about to find your way.”
I kept my promise. I went back to the trail, this time heading out alone. I walked on a pair of 10£ shoes as I left my hiking boots behind in Wales where I had worked with a lady with dementia for a while. My backpack was left behind in London, where I was trying to make my new home, so I had to make my way to Santiago with a daypack that I bought in a charity shop and some shitty shoes. None of it seemed important at the time though, the most important thing was that I was going. And I was alone.
“The thing that astounded me the most on the camino was the great amount of love. There was room for everyone in the group, and everyone took care of each other – it was like a big camino family, and it surprised me how fast you can bond with other people. I have never met so many different people in one place, and it has made me realise that I can be exactly the person I want to be.”
Laila was a camino celebrity, but she just didn’t know it yet. The beautiful young girl from Denmark made the boys walk a little faster each day (she will hate me for writing this, but it’s the god honest truth). I had heard all about her on the first day I bumped into the group of pilgrims at the ruin, but only got to meet her after they all went out to go for a meal. “Laila is with a Dutch lady called Mirjam,” L said. “Excellent,” I replied with a confidents smirk on my face, “I can spot a fellow Dutchy from miles away.” And I did, when the two tall blond ladies walked in, the accent wasn’t too difficult to spot.
It was dark, people were getting ready to leave their homes and pour into the city in order to drink and dance and hit on other people, or hit them, depending on the mood. V and me were on the roof, watching our neighbours joining the crowd, listening to their drunk conversations, empty bottles rolling down the street.
There was a chill in the air that night and I was wearing V’s fake fur coat over my whimsical summer dress. We had a fire going on the roof, despite complaints from our downstairs neighbours that the protective layer was getting too hot and the lamps were coming down.
This was our revenge for them keeping us up at night. This, and opening their parcels when we were drunk.
Why do we do it? Because it’s there. Because we can. Because we don’t want to wait until we have retired to do it, when there’s no guarantee of making it to retirement. But why walking? Why not just have a really good holiday, lie on a beach in the sun and read a book?
I bumped into Fred and David on my last day on the West Highland way. They were walking across England. I felt fortunate to share some pints with them when we arrived at Fort William (me trying desperately to keep up with them both on the trail and in the bar). Turned out Fred wrote an amazing piece on her blog about her need to walk and was kind enough to let us publish it on ours.
“We love being together and we love being free, if that’s what drives you in life it is not hard to up and go from the perceived ‘comfort’ of ‘home’ to look for another adventure, it’s less a case of how do we do it than how can we not.”
When I think back on happy moments in my life, I think of people, and some people in particular. I met some particularly lovely ones on the road to Santiago de Compostela back in March. The idea of a zine about the camino started with my mate Sanne when we started the trip together last year. We had to break it off after a week, and I picked it up a year later, alone this time. But two hours after leaving Logrono, where I had to throw in the towel last time, I realized you don’t walk the camino alone, even if you set out to do so.