♥ i am on the meseta, somewhere between “el quinto pino” and “a tomar por culo”. it feels like the middle of nowhere, even though the rational mind is well aware that i am on the camino frances, not wandering the desolate mountains of afghanistan. on this camino, there is always a small town within walking distance. there is no danger of running out of food, or water, or of not finding a place to sleep. nevertheless, in the past couple of days i have heard murmurs from pilgrims about walking the meseta, murmurs that are not exactly positive.
here is a case-in-point. one afternoon, sitting with jenny at a bar in a town called villalcazar de sirga, drinking tintos de verano after a dusty, sweaty day, in walks a german pilgrim. well, i shouldn’t say “walks” because really, this man is kind of “straggling”, burdened with the look of someone who has had a damned hard day. out of concern we ask him if he is ok and he tells us that he has walked over forty kilometres that day, having done similarly big kilometres in the days before. he doesn’t exactly look like an olympic athlete, so, it is easy to see that more than forty kilometres is probably going to be a massive day (as it would be for me). also, from what he tells us, he is planning to do another big day tomorrow and the day after.
the tintos de veranos have done their job and we are super relaxed ~putting our feet up, sitting in the warmth of the sun ~ so, from where we sit, this all sounds a little extreme and unnecessary. what is the rush? he tells us that he cannot stand the meseta and its’ emptiness, so his strategy is to put in a few big days of walking so he can get past it as quickly as possible, as if he were ripping off a bandaid. he frames his explanation in terms of being “efficient”, of not wanting to waste time on “nothing” so that he can dedicate time to more interesting things, but really, what i think he is saying is that he can’t stand the lack of distraction because it might take him somewhere that he really doesn’t want to go, that is, into the monotony of his own mind. for people unaccustomed to hearing their own thoughts, this place could be a little uncomfortable. however, at that moment, sitting in the sun, half pissed on tintos de verano, i feel quite differently. i actually look forward to exploring nothingness. i wonder what it will be like to just walk in a big long straight line for a few hours with no distractions. this will be a new experience for me. i wonder where my mind will take me. hopefully somewhere interesting.
i remember the german fellow the next day when i come to a specific 16 kilometre pocket of “nothing” that people have been talking about. it is a space where simple straight lines carve the landscape up into blue sky, yellow ground, and dusty path. there is not much else. sometimes haggard and lonely looking trees or orderly piles of hay appear on the side of the camino ~ doing their best to interrupt the visual boredom ~ but all they really do is just become a part of the monotony itself, augmenting it, making it all look even more sparsely repetitive.
i start moving along this stretch and pretty quickly decide to call my mother. when an untrained mind (like mine) sees nothingness all around, its’ default mechanism is to fill the empty space up with random thought. besides being a distraction from nothing for a few minutes, the conversation with mum forces me to do a recap on the previous week, bringing me back into contact with the mundane, reminding me of certain situations and people. there are nice, pleasant thoughts, of course, but there are also shitty thoughts. mostly shitty thoughts, actually. inertia throws this mental fodder into the trough so i can feed on the resulting distraction as i walk. into the trough it all goes, the past, the future, that ugly email that i received in burgos….. stuff that i actually don’t want to be in contact with. stuff that i want to just forget. thoughts become bubbles of sediment, burped up by monotony and drawn quickly to the surface by the constant whipping of unhindered air across the flat landscape. while i watch, the thoughts start to organise themselves on a conscious level resulting in half-baked theories and hypotheses- quickly coming to conclusions before shifting just as quickly onto something else. over and over. i. become. so. bored. so very very bored with myself and with my incessant and incredibly monotonous thoughts. how do i get out of here? i know that situated behind the monotony of thought there is something tantalising, delicious, liberating. it is the space of no thought, no mind. the space of being. i want to walk there. i want to go where i imagine the german pilgrim is too scared to go.
the way “there” for me is by looking down and focusing solely on the sounds of footsteps. getting sucked down into that touchsoundsensation of the crunch crunch crunch that is born every time the sole of my shoe hits the dusty path. and for a moment, i am there. but the eyes keep getting drawn upwards by the mind, as if to check. looking for something to grasp onto. for what? there are no surprises here! flat, yellow land, check. sky pressing down, check. a white path leading the way between the two, check. now, the little mind monkey is back out, jumping around, so i build on my earlier hypotheses and entertain myself by thinking about pilgrims in times past, the ones that were walking to pay a penance. i think of crime and punishment, and the torture of guilt when the mind is let loose in a place like this. the wind is whipping about me as i walk, and it keeps flipping the brim of my hat up and off my face, repetitively, over and over and over and over. i entertain myself a little longer, filling the empty space with irritation about things i cannot control (like the wind) and how useless my hat is. oh, if only this wind would stop……………………….action reaction action reaction. the impossibility of perfection. control. impotence. i hear a voice saying: you must do it right. there is no room to make mistakes. but, then the feet appear again, and i am once again with them through the sounds they make as they crunch crunch crunch crunch and only then can i come up for air, just for a few moments. into silence. and from that silence, for a split second, i am able to understand that all is well, i am walking and moving and everything is as it is, which is fine, not only fine, but actually great and what a luxury this is and how great being alive is………and so on and so forth i dip and dive on a rollercoaster of thought-waves, finding momentary release in nothing before going back to the never ending trough.
the lack of distraction distorts my perception of time because it feels like it takes me ten hours to walk this section. where is that town? i’ve had enough. get me off this path. as it has every other time, the destination emerges suddenly out of the landscape, but unlike previous times, it doesn’t shock me so much because i am too busy feeling wretched from the wrestling match between my mind and the monotony. and here it is, the big realisation: how on earth am i going to do this when i am doing the camino mozarabe?…..in winter?………….. today i have gotten a tiny taste of the solitude that i am going to experience very soon and walking through it has shown me that maybe that medicine is not going to be all that sweet.
coming off the dusty path, i go to the first bar that i see, right on the edge of town, and i sit down. i sit facing the camino, waiting to seeing jenny walking down it towards me. after she has arrived and we’ve rested a bit, we make the decision to move onto the next town for the evening- one which is hopefully less “frontier-town” like. we are both in semi- bad moods. slightly creepy grey clouds press down on the parched landscape, on us, as we head off. the mood just gets more and more dense as i walk. oh my god wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a beautiful bright blue sky right now? and what if there could be some lovely butterflies fluttering about in front of me as i walk? and the delightful scent of lavender drifting on a joyful breeze…….? unfortunately, however, the reality is that now i walk on a gravelled path beside a highway. the cars are whooshing past in the opposite direction, pushing against me. this pushes me over the edge and i start to feel really knackered. i am over this.
as it turns out, our decision to press on and away from the frontier town on the edge of nothing leads us to an albergue with a section of lawn where we can sit, where we can have hot showers, and sleep in single beds adorned with nanna’s old quilts. it also leads us to a really lovely evening with other pilgrims, laughing, drinking tinto de verano and passing joints around. after a shitty day of wandering through strange mindscapes, conversation and human contact are so very soothing. despite my emerging anxieties about the winter walk, i am comforted by an important reminder ~even though walking the way gives you a bit of a kick up the bum every now and again, it will also always provide a li’l “sumpin sumpin” to make you feel better (if you let it). sumpin’ sour, sumpin’ sweet, like life itself ♥