caminando la meseta: burgos a león



time to get going again. this i am time off to burgos, where i will meet jenny and do some walking on the camino frances ~along the meseta. this is a part of the camino that i think will be very different to the walking i did across the north last year. the dramatic coastlines and lush green curves of the forested mountains of euskadi, cantabria, asturias, and galicia, are now going to be replaced by flat, dry, expansive landscapes, a stark spanish version of no-man’s land. This expectation is fed by what i have heard from others and what i have seen in pictures and through car windows. now, i look  forward to walking across these big spaces, being in intimate contact with them. i feel like somehow this will be an apt precursor to the camino that i will start next month, which will take me across andalucia, towards merida on the via de la plata, and then steadily up up up towards santiago.  but i am getting ahead of myself…………….first, burgos.

the journey to burgos starts in madrid, at peter’s house. i leave on a monday morning while it is dark, and even though i am still half asleep, it is quite pleasant walking the city streets at this hour. there are very few people moving about, and their absence allows me to step more mindfully through the pre-rush hour quiet. the (relative) silence means that off in the distance, further up the paseo de extremadura, i am able to hear the reassuring sounds of a street being cleaned, which reminds me that all is well in the city, that the cogs are turning and another day is about to begin ~only this time it will be a cooler day, as the summer heat has begun to be replaced by a lingering early autumn crispness……….

leaving the surface-level of the street, i descend into the metro ~another world~ there are people moving like ants under artificial lighting, this way and that, following signs, counting down minutes of time in unison with electronic information boards as they wait in limbo for the next train to come rumbling along. on the train now, i am sitting on hard plastic under fluoro lights and with a silent tv screen flashing news headlines and celebrity gossip above our heads. i resist the inertia that pulls my eyes up, towards the screen, so that i can instead entertain myself by looking at the similarly sleepy faces of the people sitting around me. i wish i was not here now. i really don’t like the transience of the metro. unlike other forms of public transport, when i look out of the window, all i see is blackness and busy platforms that all look the same. this creates a general sensation of not going anywhere. stopping and starting, but ultimately always coming back to the same place. in this place, we are all, as michael sorkin points out, “everywhere and nowhere”~ busy busy busy, always trying to get somewhere else……hamsters on wheels. i walk in this place, but my feet don’t connect with where i am.

transience is a part of the lifeblood that drives a city. it has a strong presence in the metro ~where movement and efficiency come together, obliterating any concrete sense of connection to place. city life demands that you spend a lot of time moving into, through, and out of spaces like these, and the sense of place that we need in order to have a stronger sense of ourselves is kept in check by artificial lighting, sounds, walls and floor coverings. the metro……high streets…………supermarkets………shopping malls, they are all designed to just keep us moving, while simultaneously directing us in particular flows so as to maximise efficiency, productivity, and of course, profitability.  thank god my legs allow me to go on long walks! in solitude, the long walk can be so simple, so deep. it helps me throw all of this artifice off for long stretches at a time and feel that which urban existence seemingly works so hard to numb- my thoughts, emotions and body.

there is one positive side to the metro. the latent savagery required to push through waves of moving people at the nuevos ministerios metro station at 7 am on a monday morning primes me for when i get on the bus at barajas and i have to take on a cranky looking biddy in the 2016 World Championship “Battle for the Window Seat”.  the window seat that i have reserved.  there was a time when i would have avoided such “battles” ~staying silent~ because really, who cares if you sit at the window or next to the aisle? ……but actually, today i really want that window seat.  having just said goodbye to peter and still coming down off an amazing weekend in soria, i feel a little lonely. i want to sit at the window so i can find my centre inside the stillness of movement. i want to sit by the window and feel like i am moving somewhere. the upshot is, i need this window seat. so, get out of my seat lady!!!

seeing jenny again is great. she has been walking now for almost a month, and i enjoy listening to the way she excitedly recounts her adventures, punctuating the narrative with “…..but we’ve got plenty of time to talk about that!….”. yes, thankfully we do. her stories flow along, carrying me along with them, infecting me, bringing me even more into the present. we are in burgos and we are going to walk. after we check into the albergue- a large-scale, modern affair -we walk past an open cupboard that is pulsing with the stench of hard-working pilgrim boots, up in an elevator (!) and to level 5 (!!). this is the biggest albergue i have ever been in. we find ourselves kind of squished into a dorm room with thirty or forty beds, which i suppose is what i would expect in a city of this size along the camino frances.

we head off to the cathedral, but the happiness i was feeling just a moment ago evaporates rapidly when i read a disturbing email that lands in my inbox. oh no, no, no……this won’t do. the words in the email have made some of the ground disappear from under my feet and i need to do a quick sidestep ~an emergency reorientation back into my centre~ back into the place where i worked so hard to get to while i was on that bus. back to jenny and all the others that i am so lucky to have in my life. away from this rubbish. the email leaves me feeling angry, and sad, and most of all, frustrated. there are tears unfortunately. i head to a nearby park, and sit under a tree. how annoying this is! it takes me an hour to see the situation more clearly and get into a more comfortable space, one where i am sitting outside looking in, where the emotions themselves take on a transient quality, moving and shifting. after a little while, the ground becomes solid again and i can stand up from the park bench and join jenny for a delicious late lunch. i resolve in that moment to enjoy myself, to live like life is too short to expend energy in this way, that the buck will stop here. what i mean is~ i resolve that i will take the thing underpinning this person’s words and clean it, transforming it into something else before passing it on.

and so i have nothing much to say about burgos, about its’ cathedral or its’ history, all of which are important in the story of the camino frances. but……. i can talk about other things relating to burgos. i can remember the chill of the early morning time streets as we were heading out of town the following day, and the glow of the soft yellow street lighting that was so soft that we had to pay very close attention to keep track of the arrows. i can hear echoes of the lovely conversation i had with some people outside the bar where we had first breakfast. i can see a beautiful canal, lined with trees for people to pasear up and down -great, medicinal trees- lots of statues, and an imposing cathedral that i would love to explore the next time i go…… is a city though -not the reason i am here. i want to walk away from these transient spaces and along those flat countryside pathways, where i have time and space to dip and dive.

this brings me to the landscapes of the meseta, which were spectacular. there was one section, on the second day, with an incredible payoff after an uphill slog. walking upwards and wondering what i was going to see on the other side of this climb, i began to feel myself slipping into the familiar sensation of the organic machine, the default position when doing uphill slogs. inhabiting my body in this way helps me feel   strong, capable, like i could walk on and on and on. now that i am not walking, simply sitting, simply remembering, i note that the corporal sensation of the organic machine is still fresh in my memory. i miss it. now, back to the landscape……. i reach the highest point of the slog and what i see in front of me is a steep slope, one that leads my eyes down down down to a long, white path snaking its’ way across a wheat-coloured pancake landscape, towards distant mountains. the sky is bending down to meet the earth, lowering a veil of clouds to within arms reach, seductively revealing the blue endlessness behind. the veil is shimmering, moving pretty fast, pushed along by playful abundant air.

for all of their expansiveness, these landscapes can still be deceptively provocative, sneaky little buggers. one walks, and walks, and walks, and as much as you don’t want to go there, you begin to wonder, hey! where is that town? the sign said that it was just 1 km! if you aren’t careful, you might fall headfirst into numbers and everything that they signify. you might find yourself in the midst of a tussle between trust and fear. i don’t mean fear in the sense that i am fearing for my life, i mean the fear driving the anxiety of not knowing what will happen because i need something tangible, some kind of evidence that i can hold onto in order to feel like i am in control. it is my need to just know. i keep walking, and walking, trying to keep it in the feet and the earth, to not engage with it, but the mind is there, collaborating with the landscape, playing tricks. surrendering to the ambiguity of not knowing in this landscape is a challenge. the hidden in plain sight character of this landscape is what makes it what it is, and it is this characteristic of the place that makes me who i am as i walk through it (that is, someone with a tendency to try to control). like good medicine, these sorts of landscapes offer me the perfect opportunity to resist this tendency, to punch through it.

towns emerge out of folds in the land that cannot be seen from ground level in such a flat space. they seem to just pop out of nowhere ~when you most desire, but when your eyes tell you to least expect it. some of the towns have a spanish-style “wild west” quality to them. they are frontier towns, existing in great part because of the camino frances. they are highly transient spaces on the way through to somewhere else. i consume these towns in a detached, superficial way, like i do metro stations or shopping centres, valuing them only for what they can provide me in terms of accommodation and food. like i said, what i am interested in lies between the towns, under my feet. this is where i feel that connection to place can really happen.

the way between burgos and leon spits up ancient convents and decrepit pilgrims hospitals, and of course, churches galore. another feature of the camino are the significant pockets of pilgrims that we move between and through. jenny knows a few of them. i am only a short timer, so i haven’t had the chance to gather any moss. the transience of the short camino means that there is thus a disconnect that comes from the knowledge that i am only walking a few days. there is a feeling of not being fully invested in the camino on a social level in the same way i might be when i walk for longer stretches.  in a longer walk, the “end point” is not so visible, so it is easier to slip more deeply into the shedding of the mundane and thus into the extraordinariness of walking with others ~to live walking like it is my whole life.

there is one difficult day of walking across a section of the meseta, where i can feel its’ emptiness reaching out to me, penetrating the eyes and up through the feet, talking to me. this is what most of my walking days are going to be like on my winter camino. there will be consecutive days of this sort of emptiness, with the end point far far ahead, far enough ahead that the end won’t come into being in my mind until after i have been walking for quite a while. there will more than likely be day after day of cold, empty spaces, mountains, and endless towns full of people that i don’t know. listening to other people’s stories as to why they choose to walk long distances, desire for solitude seems to be a big one. i see this desire in myself, but now, on the eve of my 1400 km walk, it seems a little scary, i cannot deny it. actually, in my gut, where the true voice lives, i don’t see why this should be a problem, still, i can’t help but ask myself (the niggling fear): what will it be like day after day? with no contact with other pilgrims? whatever…….there will be contact with people in towns and such. and i am far from alone in the world, so why fear this solitude? the emptiness gently reminds me that i just need to trust, and, more importantly, enjoy! none of this is a big deal. walking, i can adapt to changing situations because the movement is so slow and natural. i now know from experience that walking the way, whatever that brings, folds into the embodied organic machine, adjusting, strengthening, moving, intra acting with the mind and the spirit, with the all, then feeding back in on itself. walking, we co-constitute this thing called the “camino” ~the metaphor for life~ which is the backbone of this phenomenon. there is no need to worry, the only thing i have to do is put one (healthy) foot in front of the other, follow the arrows and stay warm.


many other things happened on this walk……i met people, i ate food, i laughed with jenny……, i write and the mind goes where it goes, which is usually further away from the details of where i went and what i did, and closer to emotions and random thoughts about this thing called walking. but to close this off, i am now in santiago, waiting for jenny to arrive. she is finishing her walk and i look forward to receiving her and pampering her for a couple of days- she deserves it, she has worked hard.

the weather here has turned grey, drizzly and cold. the winter clothes have been dragged out. it is an uncomfortable reminder of what is bound to come up for me on my own walk……but then there will also be beautiful sunny days, and even though it will be cold, there will be light, colour, and cocidos to help keep the cold at bay. it really helps to remember this simple point and keep things in perspective…………

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