Crossing the meseta, a rant that isn’t really a rant, and a status update

The meseta

The meseta

The film The Way follows a baby boomer dentist, played by Martin Sheen, and some acquaintances he picks up along the way, along the Camino Francés to Santiago de Compostela.

I am the worst person with whom to watch it – well, me and every other returned pilgrim, I suppose – because I find it difficult to restrain myself from giving a running commentary on every building and geographical feature I recognise. And, at a little more than half way through, screaming, ‘Where’s the meseta gone?’

The meseta is the plain that takes up a lot of Castile and a significant distance of the Camino – nearly two weeks, at the speed we went. It is day after day of flat, grinding, almost featureless, path. It’s either hot and dusty, as it was when we walked it, or bitingly cold, as it will be when my brother cycles it in November. There is an awful lot of it, and it goes on, and on, and on.

You wouldn’t know this from The Way. Oh, there are some shots of cornfields and what have you, but they come nowhere near conveying the sheer thirsty tedium of the meseta. In The Way, you get the mountains at the beginning and the hills at the end, but you don’t get the long, long plain in the middle. It’s like one of those greetings cards that pulls out from both sides to reveal as much again in the middle. It’s an oddly truncated pilgrimage.

Of course, a hundred kilometres of nothing would have made The Way a very different film. Havi Brooks talks about the slow motion montage, how practice (or any repetitive activity, really) feels like you’re not getting anywhere, and how in a film it would be over in a flash, except you’d still have the sense of time passing.

In terms of the current book, I am in the middle of the slow motion montage, half-way across the meseta. Slogging away. Cranking out another hundred words, another page, another five hundred words. Catching sight of a snippet, and thinking it’s terrible. Re-reading a page, and thinking perhaps it isn’t so bad. Re-reading a chapter, and counting the holes in the fabric.

Filling the holes.

Another hundred words. Another fifty words. Another sentence.

I am beginning to see a line of hills in the distance.

I want to do that

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Unexpectedly, I had lunch with two of my brothers last Thursday. If I’d thought about them at all when I got into London on Thursday morning, I’d have assumed they would be minding their own respective business on the Isle of Wight, but I got a text message at about half past ten asking if I had any plans for lunch.

It turned out that one of them had come up to London to get ski boots fitted and, while he was in the area, to visit the Confraternity of St James and see if they had any advice on cycling the Camino de Santiago.

Why do the Camino?

When one arrives at Santiago de Compostela, one is asked to give one’s motivation for doing the Camino, choosing from religious, sporting, cultural, historical, spiritual, and so on. Well, I am a fairly religious/spiritual sort (often coming down more decidedly on one side of the balance or the other, depending on my mood), and so, when offered a choice by the pilgrim office at the cathedral, I went for that, and got my certificate in Latin. But really, I can’t claim that religious and spiritual reasons were what sent me off down that road.

Why do the Camino?

Because it’s there.

But it’s more than that – at least, it is in my experience. The Camino isn’t pure nature, pure challenge, the way that Everest is. The Camino is a human construct, human roads leading to a human city, and it’s often the human connection that draws us to it.

My brother wants to do the Camino because I did the Camino, back in 2007.

I wanted to do the Camino because a group of family friends did the Camino, back in 2000. The postcards, in Andrew’s spiky or Heloise’s scrawly handwriting, arrived over the course of several weeks, bringing with them the sense of space, of adventure, of time, and leaving me with a tiny seed of a wish.

I wanted to do that.

I did it.

The way I get into most things is by hearing somebody else talk about them, and thinking, I want to do that. I bet I could do that.

My brother wants to do the Camino. He knows about the Camino because I did the Camino, and because Andrew and Heloise and John Murray did the Camino.

I want to do the Camino again because I did the Camino before, and my greatest regret is that Anne, my companion of my last Camino, is not well enough to join me again: my best friend, who, when I said, ‘I want do do this,’ said, ‘I want to do that too,’ and came with me.

As for my other brother’s reason for coming to London? He just thought it sounded fun.

100 untimed books: steps

92. steps

92. steps

I’m going to walk the Camino Inglés to Santiago de Compostela next year. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, so they say. The Camino Inglés isn’t anywhere near that long – it’s less than a hundred miles, in fact. Last time round I walked five hundred miles of the Camino Francés, but these days I have a full-time job.

Anyway, I reckon the journey starts with a decent guidebook.

100 untimed books

All roads lead to Santiago

Buen camino!

Buen camino! (ignore Falconer’s Lure; it just happened to come in the same batch of post)

Over the next few months I’ll be writing about my preparation for walking the Camino Inglés, from the north coast of Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. I’m planning to do the walk in May next year, fitting it in between my stepsister-in-law’s wedding and my father’s seventy-fifth birthday party. We’ll see how that works.

I walked the Camino Frances in 2007, between university and the real world, and have been wanting to do it again ever since. However, taking eight weeks to walk it isn’t really compatible with having a full-time job, and so I’d assumed that I’d have to wait until retirement – which is a way off, and maybe even getting further away. It only occurred to me fairly recently that I could fit the Camino Inglés into a fortnight.

As always, the things I most need to work on are physical fitness and the language. Living in Cambridge, I don’t get much practice with anything steeper than the bridge over the Cam, so I’m thinking about nipping down south to stay with my parents and walk the Isle of Wight Coast Path. As for the language, I suspect that the (Castilian) Spanish that I learned last time around will come back to me, but I’d also like to learn some Galician as well, since my pilgrimage will be entirely within Galicia.

I’ll write more about this as my plans crystallise. In the meantime, my friend Jo is cycling the Camino Frances, along with her husband and another friend, as I write, and so I’m going to send you over to her blog, Wheels Along the Camino, for some stunning photos and thoughtful reflection.

100 untimed books: go west

79. go west

78. go west

Go west? Follow the road west to Santiago de Compostela, or perhaps even further west, to Finisterre, the end of the world. The shell I took with me; the book is The Scallop: studies of a shell and its influences on humankind, edited by Ian Cox and published in 1957 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Shell Transport and Trading Company, Ltd. Yes, that Shell. It’s rather a lovely book, whatever reservations one might have about the publisher, with a wide-ranging expanse of subject and expertise, from the biological (the habits of the shellfish themselves), to the theological-historical (the Camino de Santiago, my own special interest).

100 untimed books

Compostella

I remember how when we came to the city
we stopped, having no urge to go further,
as though that which had led us there rested,
and there was peace there,
and rest, and time to recall
who we were, who we had been,
and why we had come there at all;

And, though they told us before we set out,
and all down the way, that we’d want to walk on
to the world’s end, west,
west, until the abyss
stretched endless, roaring, before us,
and, though we once wondered if after all
we should go there,
go on to the end, just to see what was there,
to quiet our consciences, say
we had been all the way to the edge,
we remained; we had found what we came for;

And though my soul clamours still
to walk that same great starlit way once again,
onwards, westwards, to wonder,
I don’t know that this time
(whenever it comes)
I would want to go further.

For Anne

We’ll walk again.
We’ve known, between us,
sickness and fear, the madness
that makes friendship loneliness,
mislaid vocations, learned to love,
never quite forgotten that we walked
or that we’ll walk again.

We’ll walk again:
drink wine that springs from roadside fountains,
meet angels, know them by
their wire-spoked wing-umbrellas,
understand the Incarnation
eating sardines on Maundy Thursday,
hear the cock crow mid-Mass, standing
out where hands weren’t washed or wine poured,
toil across endless dusty plains,
follow the stars spread westwards, seen once,
follow the subtle trail of golden shells,
wonder how your great-grandfather
walked almost all the way up Everest
(and then, more, down again)
while your feet dissolve in friction.
I’ll turn out, another seven times,
not to be Irish,
disappoint another seven bands of pilgrims;
we’ll walk west,
catch wandering horreos,
sing psalms in kitchens so new,
so ill-equipped,
there’s nothing else to do there,
we’ll walk,
arrive,
hug, disbelieving, in the square,
pat St James
(timidly)
on his shoulder,
linger…

It won’t, of course, be like that this time,
but even so, we’ll walk.