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Camino Confession

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I took the bus.

I know, I know. Call myself a pilgrim? A hard core walker? The same person who walked every inch of the 500 miles across Spain with a hanging-off toe and aching hips and knees?  Maybe I’ve gone soft, but on this occasion I just didn’t see the point.

The plan was devised late at night after reading the guidebook description of the next day’s route which runs through industrial estates and along the side of busy roads most of the way to Redondela. For me, the compensation for tired legs and feet, sleepless nights of neighbouring snoring, suspect mattresses, and the trials of bugs and living in close proximity with other people is the prospect of spending the daylight hours walking alongside ripening grapes, over old stone bridges, past churches and crosses or by the side of empty wheat fields. But on the leg ahead there appeared to be no promise of anything other than tarmac, concrete, noise and danger.

We left the albergue before 7am, paid our 2.75 to the bus driver and sat in luxurious comfort in the early morning darkness for thirty short minutes, watching huge yellow Camino signs flash by, warning motorists to be aware of walkers. Any tingling of guilt that I should be out there plodding along to the accompaniment of speeding machines quickly dissipated. The journey was over too soon and it was still dark when we jumped down and unloaded our packs from the deep recesses of the bus then set off, making our way through the streets and out of town.

There were some bonny stretches today, but the last couple of kilometres before Pontevedra were along the edge of the  busy road into the city so I decided to take the alternative river walk recommended in the guidebook. This woodland route was longer, but I’d walked only 18km and it was still early in the day. I could see that everyone ahead of me stayed on the main road, but just as I turned left onto the quieter route I met Sheila and Dan, two Americans from Oregon, and a limping German girl who had also decided to follow the track.

It was still in the woods; shady and quiet among the trees. We chatted for a while but I walked faster than the others so eventually I left them far behind and walked on, happy to wander alone along the meandering path. There wouldn’t be much peace in the big dormitory which lay ahead.

A man suddenly appeared, running awkwardly towards me and straight past. I noticed he was wearing ordinary clothes and shoes rather than running gear. I walked on. Then a few minutes later he reappeared behind me, overtook me and jogged back into the woods in the direction I was headed. Maybe I have an overactive imagination. Maybe I’ve read too many accounts of lone women having bad experiences on the camino, but I had a sense that something wasn’t right. There was no one else around and I wasn’t happy about walking on.  I stopped in a clearing and waited a while then began walking back to find the others. The woods were quiet and I wondered if they’d changed their minds and returned to the shorter route but eventually they appeared, the German girl limping worse than ever. They hadn’t seen the “runner” at all.

We walked on together at a snail’s pace, all the way to the hostel. The man may have been entirely innocent but the experience unnerved me. Maybe the noisy edges of motorways are safer after all.

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Life and death on the Portuguese


Camino Portuguese Day 1

Monastery or not, the bluebottle didn’t stand a chance.

The plump hospitalera grabbed my Brierley guide to the Camino Portuguése, took aim, swotted the insect in one deadly swoop, scraped it off the reception table and handed back the stained book with a satisfied grunt.

You can’t afford to be too sensitive  when the price of a bed is €5 and the tiny black-clad lady takes you by the arm and opens every cupboard of the kitchen to show you her pots, plates and marmalades. And then hangs out of a top floor window to point the way to the “supermercado” and mimes what can be bought on its shelves.

And so began my first night on the Camino, in the Mosteiro de Vairão, a monastery founded in the eleventh century which now hosts road-weary pilgrims. All I needed for dinner  after a nerve-jangling walk on the edge of fast traffic was wine and a taste of the marmalade on a bread roll, from the less than “super” mercado.

It will take time to adjust to being a pilgrim again. My legs feel strong after a summer of climbing, but walking on roads and cobbles is nothing like the spring of heather and moorland. And I packed with care, yet the backpack weighs heavy on my shoulders and I’m constantly adjusting and readjusting the straps to find a comfortable fit.

But the sun has transported me back to summer, my boots are eating up the miles and the characters on the road entertain and amaze. The young Dutchman now remembered  as “The Boy Wizard” carried a massive pack that was five times heavier than mine yet he claimed to be “flowing with synchronicity”.

He did slow down when we reached the first hill. And I haven’t seen him now for some time.

Another Way to Santiago

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I thought the Camino had eluded me this year.

The urge to climb high and view the world from Scottish peaks and sleep in green corrie campsites filled my head and heart all spring and summer. It absorbed every scrap of my energy and enthusiasm – and a lot of time when I should really have been working.

And yet. And yet.

Triggered by photographs, long shadows on walls or roads and contact with pilgrim friends on three continents, El Camino has lurked and tugged at my imagination. It’s three years since I first set foot on the Way from St Jean Pied de Port and there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t reflected on that journey, the people I met and the mark it made on my life.

And now, almost without warning, my backpack is loaded and my heather-scratched boots are patiently waiting at the door. My passport and guidebook are laid out on the table and the departure for my pilgrimage in the footsteps of St James is imminent.

This time I’ll walk along the camino portugués, along the route reputedly walked by Sant Iago himself when he first preached his gospel. Poignantly it’s also the way his body was carried back to be buried in the site now known as Santiago de Compostella.

I’m hoping for a Buen Camino.

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Making morning memories

P1070232When dawn is breaking at 04.15 and the sun’s rays are just starting to inch their way down the rocky mountain tops, it isn’t easy to walk away from the wilderness.

I’d been camping out in the remote wilds of Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north west for two nights, climbing some of the most inaccessible hills in the country, and it was time to leave.

My friends tents were motionless in the half light; the inhabitants still asleep. Quietly I packed up my dew-sodden shelter, stuffed the gear into my rucksack and set off on the track between the sprawling lochs and hills. What a morning to be alive and alone.

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At the first loch I unhooked my pack, washed my face in the soft peaty water, stowed my jacket and sized up the last of my food store: just an orange and a tiny breakfast bar. The walk would take at least five hours so I delayed my feast and crossed the stone causeway between two lonely stretches of water.

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I heard the cuckoo calling and startled a few red deer as my boots grazed the stones of the rough path. And as I walked I tried to think of other mornings in my life that had felt as magical and momentous as this one. The early hours when my children were born are unforgettable, of course; there’s a string of dawns spent walking out from a corrie camp one romantic summer many decades ago that merge into one; and most nostalgic of all are the occasional early mornings of an idyllic childhood when my father woke me early to walk with him up to our high fields to collect the cows for the early milking. I recall anxious swallows swooping with food for their young in the eaves of the barns and the otherwise stillness of summer dawn as I held Dad’s hand and we walked up the road. I remember my sandshoes getting damp on dewy grass, the herd rustling and impatient at the gate and the precious feeling that no-one else in the world was up this early.

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There was no-one else up early in Fisherfield either. I didn’t meet a soul for hours.

And I resolved to make more morning memories.

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Mountains on my mind

IMG_3159The hills lure you from every window in the wild rocky paradise of Assynt, and even in the rain the view from our hostel dorm to the massive hulk of Quinag was mesmerising. We dodged the stormy weather for a gentle evening stroll through rainbows to a chambered cairn just up the glen then decided to climb Stac Pollaidh next morning. It’s only  612m high but ranks 10/10 for drama.

P1060829It was a steep but short ascent and  once we reached our high vantage we gazed over to the distant, outlandish rocks of Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Beag and Canisp until their ancient outlines were imprinted in our minds, certain to call us back. Read more

The best view (a mother’s perspective)

P1060732 Wild squalls blustered down to batter us at an exposed 3400ft and swathes of swirling mist chose that moment to lock down all the views. But at the first glimpse of the white stuff in the corries to the north I knew snowball fights were inevitable. Equally predictable, once the missiles were fired, was my role as a human shield. Mothers know their place even when the “kids” are nearing 30.
Solitary Ben Wyvis lies midway on the road to Scotland’s west coast from Inverness. It’s not a magnificent hill; it can’t boast fine lines or soaring crags, but (on a fine day) it’s renowned for the extensive vistas to east and west. I’ve driven past it for 35 years and yesterday we climbed it on a day of rain, mist, gale-force wind and the very occasional blink of weak sunshine.

So it’s not for a fine panorama of Highland scenery that I’ll cherish the day, but the rare company of both my boys. The younger one is home from New Zealand for a brief visit and the three of us were on a long-promised Highland hike. Tents, sleeping bags, food, stoves, rucksacks and three full-sized adults were stuffed into my Mini and we headed north to a soundtrack of atrocious weather forecasts.

The tents remained unpacked and instead we retreated to climbers’ hostels with their accompanying pubs, pool tables, wifi and big industrial kitchens. Yet the hills still beckoned even when we couldn’t see them for the torrential rain or misted-up windows. We reviewed our ambitions and instead of aiming for long multi-mountain circuits we chose Ben Wyvis. We strolled gently through dripping birch woods; followed tumbling Highland streams to lower slopes then climbed steep stone steps as views teased and then evaporated.

Mist soared upwards in spins and wisps then closed in to hide everything but the few feet in front of us. Then suddenly we were up on the broad high ridge that stretches for a couple of kilometres along to the peak of Glas Leathad Mor. A rocky outcrop gave shelter to munch sandwiches and chocolate then we piled on every last piece of warm clothing to reach the cairn at the far end of the ridge. The thick snow that lay clumped and accessible in the corries was an entertaining distraction from the cold and wet. IMG_9407 A solitary ptarmigan disguised as a rock made a dash from his hiding hole then sat stock still as we watched and took pictures. P1060770 Pints in the bar and fish and chips were our reward then card games and drams from a hip flask entertained us. I was in my bunk long before the boys (ok, men) but wakened to the sight of their sleeping heads on nearby pillows. It has been a while so yes, I know it’s soppy and I’m biased, but it was the best view of the week. P1060743

When the yellow’s on the broom

P1060463There’s a popular Scottish song that tells of the travelling people who leave their stationary winter quarters to set off on the road  “when the yellow’s on the broom” at this time of year.

“We’ll meet up wi’ oor kinfolk

From a’ the country roon’

When the ganaboot folk tak’ the road

And the yellow’s on the broom”

I didn’t walk past any broom today, but for mile after dazzling mile the yellow was thick and heavily scented on the gorse; weak lemony pale on the daffodils; and the dandelions shone brightly, luring in the bees and butterflies from miles around. It was one long Mellow Yellow Scottish spring day.

I should have been working, of course. Or packing for The Big Move later in the week. Or cleaning. Or researching. But the sun was forcing its brightness around the black-out blinds when I opened my eyes this morning, and I couldn’t resist. I’ve been following Trepidatious Traveller Maggie’s adventures (http://magwood.me )  on her latest Spanish Camino these last few days and have been itching to get on the road myself, so on a whim I abandoned the world of work and set off on the first 12 miles of the long-distance West Highland Way.

And it all came rushing back: the satisfying crunch of boots on gravel; a pack strapped to my back; the adventure of the open road; sun shadows, random encounters and conversations with strangers.  I hummed the Yellow on the Broom tune as I walked towards the hills and reflected on my own nomadic experiences these past three years.

The rootless chapter of my recent life will close this week when I get the keys for my little fisherman’s house by the sea. The wandering years opened my eyes but I need a home again. Even when the countryside is yellow. P1060442

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