i walk the camino. i put one foot in front of the other. i breathe. thoughts walk parallel to my feet, following the curves in the path around shadowy, mysterious corners. in this way, my mind moves into unknown spaces, each footstep bringing something new and fresh. walking should be as simple as that, but the simplicity also hides a darker, more complicated side, which becomes visible when i discover that suddenly gender and access to space are some sort of an issue. it is really annoying, but it is what it is. there is no point in pretending it isn’t. i just can’t ignore the ways that the tension between these two aspects poke and prod me, transforming me from one moment to the next.

… is april, 2015 and something happens for the first time in the history of the “modern” camino. an american pilgrim is walking the french way when she goes missing somewhere near astorga, in the province of leon. she is last seen walking with an italian. the disappearance of the pilgrim appears on the spanish news and everybody begins to wonder what might have happened to her. probably nothing good. predictably, the media machine transforms her into dinner table conversation, words, words, and more words begin to fly about. words like feathers flying uncontrollably on the breeze. her story transforms her into a nail in the coffin of any woman who wants to walk alone. then, a month later, another woman (this time a local from the area) is walking in the same place. two men pull up in a car, their faces partly covered. they try to wrestle her into the car, but she is able to escape as she knows the area well. following her experience, she reports that they spoke with strange accents, that they were possibly romanians. is there a connection between these two men and the missing american pilgrim?…..

beginning my walk in irun at the end of april, it doesn’t take long for me to become aware of this situation. i am not watching television or listening to the radio or reading newspapers, but the story reaches me anyway at different moments, brought to me courtesy of locals with good intentions. at first, the story runs across the surfaces of my thoughts without penetrating to any great extent, but then……

…i am walking a beautiful pathway around the back of castro urdiales. i walk past what appears to be a farm house where three men are standing around. two younger guys, one older one. as i walk past, i slow down and say good morning and before long, we are engaged in conversation. the older guy asks me if i am walking alone, which then quickly morphs into a retelling of the story of the pilgrim from astorga. this is probably the third time i have heard it. third time lucky. i begin to feel some kind of emotion prickling within. i am irritated to be hearing it once again, but my irritation is tempered by the belief that this story is coming to me from a place of good intentions. the older man uses this story to remind me of something that i quickly learn is often in the minds of locals around these parts: that it is entirely within the realm of possibility that a woman walking alone could be spotted by one (or more) “bad men”, be kidnapped, (gang)raped, and then killed. the man reminds me on this lovely morning as i stand on the side of the road bathing in morning bird sounds and watching butterflies fluttering across the spring flowers, that they would have to kill me so that i wouldn’t talk. prefacing my response with the observation that i understand that he is just trying to take care of me, i ask the man to tell me what he thinks i should do. should i stay at home? not walk? of course not! he responds. so, i ask him, why are you telling me this story? you are frightening me. although my reactions are my responsibility, it is hard to ignore the fear. i can already feel the grey tinge creeping in and sucking the colour out of my surroundings. i don’t want to walk with this fear within me, but you are not helping me. he understands this, and apologises. 

i continue on my way and i am able to push the violence of the story somewhere out to the edges. an hour or two later, the camino presents me with a decision that needs to be made. either i walk along the road to the next stop, or i take the original camino that strikes up into the mountains, effectively adding nine kilometres of up, down, and around onto the day. i opt for the mountains and off i go. i still have the memory of hours of asphalt on the day i left bilbao, burning in my mind (and my feet). i crave green.

moving past the last of the houses i start the climb upwards, following a leafy zig-zag route, moving deeper and deeper into solitude. normally, this would be the space of emerging bliss. but as i walk, my ears begin to zero in on the sounds of the wind whistling through the trees, the branches creaking as they bend. they are whispering warnings to me….be careful. rustling sounds coming from the bushes transform into a masked serial killer, a psycho waiting to whisk me away into darkness. dilapidated farmhouses become basque versions of wolf creek. i become an australian pilgrim never to be seen again. i am paying the price for watching all those horror movies! each sound provokes a corporal reaction where i jump nervously, my heartbeat speeding up momentarily, pounding in my chest. i have to stop each time and look around. to help myself overcome this crazy paranoia that just seems to be mounting, i get a knife out of my bag.  i am ready for action. then, as i come around a bend in the path, i see two male pilgrims walking. breathing a sigh of relief, i catch up to them and ask them if it is ok to walk with them. as it turns out, they are two policemen from madrid! in my moment of need, wandering the lonely mountain, the camino has provided me with perfect protection. the relief their presence brings me also gives me the necessary breathing space to observe my madness.

in the past couple of weeks that i have been walking, the story of the unfortunate woman from astorga has appeared and reappeared. the story has come from the mouths of both men and women. each time, i have asked them to consider their reasons for talking about it with me. it may be that as i am a pilgrim, and a woman, it is an easy point of conversation to draw on. it may be that there is a genuine concern for my safety. it may be that it is truly a bizarre concept for some that a woman would enjoy walking alone and without fear. it may be that there is a mindlessness when it comes to thinking about the violence hidden in these stories and the way that they perpetuate discourses that act to keep women in fear, inside. some people simply do not question the power of their own words and the ways that they can transform a potentially beautiful space, like the pilgrimage, into a fearful, dark space. words, carelessly strung together into a story and projected, have a broader impact on the camino itself, and the ease and comfort with which a woman might feel she can truly engage with the process of walking along it, alone.

the question is: how can i experience these sorts of stories productively when i walk?

i can reflect on the concept of acceptance of that which is not beautiful, perfect, harmonious.

i can counter these thoughts with the reality that such things happen rarely~ they are not everyday occurrences. for every shadow there are a thousand spaces of light and beauty.

i can try to engage people intellectually in such a way that they can understand (and perhaps think twice) about the ways that they speak of such realities.

i can take steps to protect myself. this is a challenge, because i wonder if arming myself is not just a way of keeping the fear present……..

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