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Monday, 5 October 2015

To be a Pilgrim?

The beginning of the #TransCantabrica was also the beginning of the Camino del Norte in Irun
August: the dog days of the English early autumn, a time of year many still think of as summer, labouring under that illusion, huddled behind windbreaks as the wind whips up the sand and the beats down with an unerring consistency. The swifts are gone and that, I’m afraid, is that. Conferences loom; hibernation seems the best policy.
I returned from my #TransCantabrica hike about two months ago; a three day train journey from the heat and graceful bustle of Leon to the failed utopian dreams of Letchworth Garden City broken by a week with the family in the Sarthe valley, a quieter, less anglicised version of the Loire. It was a family holiday, but I kept on walking.
Adios cariño Camino - leaving the Camino del Norte for the GR121. I was that close to tears!
The #TransCantabrica trek didn’t turn out as I’d expected, but then these sort of expeditions rarely do. It mutated, deviated, returned and reinvented itself over six weeks and about seven hundred kilometres. Of course, the primary modus ambulandi was just to get walking: day after day, week after week. You might think six weeks a long time, I’d beg to differ; I have promised myself there will come a time, once the PhD is done[1], that I’ll set out on a hike with no time restrictions, I shall walk myself into the ground[2].

I’ll outline the route I eventually followed – or did it follow me? – in a future post. Here I want to address one of the questions that’s been bugging me ever since I succumbed to the addiction of slow movement back in 2012: Am I a hiker – a ‘thru-hiker’, perhaps – or a pilgrim? I might as well state here and now that I still haven’t found the answer and in many respects it doesn’t really matter; you get out on the trail and put one foot in front of the other. The pilgrim’s destination might be imbued with sacred properties but it might be the same as the hiker’s, who walks for any number of reasons that might not be religious or even spiritual – though where the religious ends and the spiritual begins is another matter altogether. Victor and Edith Turner (1978) describe pilgrimage as being ‘anti-structural’ and ‘liminal’; the pilgrim undergoes a period of ‘in-between-ness’ before transitioning to a state of communitasan unstructured community in which people are equal. The trail is a liminal space which ‘allows room for the pilgrim to reconceptualise their own identity removed from the confines of their society, and additionally creates a space in which pilgrims can critically examine the society from whence they came’ (Turner and Turner 1978: 2).
The red-and-white flash of the Gran Recorrido. It's like leaving your partner for another lover.
In a Europe of declining religious observance is the question relevant? It’s hard enough trying to distinguish between spirituality and religiosity in the first place; On a recent ‘A’ level field trip to Santiago we noted the appearance of pejorative graffiti referring to ‘turigrinos’: ‘secular’ tourists who to take advantage of the Camino’s relatively cheap infrastructure. On the same trip, my students and I attempted to introduce the notion of ‘spirituality’ as a motive through interviews with pilgrims on the final stage of the route; perhaps inevitably we came up with more questions than answers.
I would suggest that in the complex religious-spiritual landscape (pun intended) of contemporary Europe it is often hard to draw a line between the two. Julian Holloway’s (2003) research on the ‘sacred’ rural reflects my personal experience of living in and around Glastonbury and exploring its spiritual/religious landscape; where do Glastonbury’s community of ‘New Agers’ fit into this equation? Does neo-paganism qualify as a religion ‘alternative spirituality’? As often as not, conflation is the name of the game, be it in the syncretism of Catholicism and pre-Columbian religions in the Caribbean and Latin America and in contemporary, religiously-pluralistic Europe with its culture of ‘cashpoint religions’ and ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ spirituality.
Perhaps the whole messy situation is best summed up by US pop singer Pink: ‘I love Native American spirituality and paganism, and I've studied Buddhism - I steer clear of organised religion and go straight to spirituality’.
And I'm back. Off the GR121 and onto the Viejo Camino in Sodupe, Pais Vasco
If I, like Pink, have got my work out trying to distinguish the spiritual from the religious, heaven help me in my quest to work where the hiker ends and the pilgrim begins. I find myself wondering whether it’s actually necessary to separate the two; rather than being either one or the other, perhaps it’s perfectly possible to flit between them, or even be both at one and the same time. 
More infidelity: after a week or so I forsook the Viejo Camino for the Ruta Besaya, heading north, back into the mountains: there'd been an awful lot of road-walking on the Viejo Camino and the lofty peaks of the Cordillera Cantabrica had been tempting me for a couple of days. At Reinosa I quit the camino again.
 Nevertheless, the distinction still bothers me. There’s an assumption that the landscape might perform in a different way to the pilgrim than the hiker, partly because each one is expecting something quite different in the landscape. If we assume that the pilgrim walks with a motive that is either spiritual or religious (or both), then might she or he be more disposed to experience the landscape spiritually or religiously? If that’s the case, then will the hiker’s engagement with the landscape be profoundly different, if, indeed, it exists at all? 

I'd been here before, the previous year. A day on the Camino de Santo Toribo. In reverse. Is it all getting too familiar?
This year I started out on the Camino del Norte in Irun and followed it for three and a half days as a wannabe hiker; I decided to stick to hotels, pensiones and camping to avoid getting locked into a pilgrim-routine, making friends, developing relationships. If there’s one quality that might distinguish the pilgrim from the thru-hiker it’s the more gregariousness nature of the former in comparison with the solitude of the latter. Pilgrims often start their journeys alone, perhaps with the intention of remaining alone, but most eventually succumb, as I did in 2012, and fall into a camino family. The thru-hiker, on the other hand, remains a resolutely solitary figure, away from the crowds of the more popular trails. Some might suggest that we are lonely only because of the nature of the trails we choose, it is the path not the hiker but as I’m going to argue over and over again in my thesis, the cumulative effect of pilgrimage and thru-hiking is to erode subject/object dichotomy; we become the path, the path becomes us. It’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the two. 
That affair didn't last too long. Back on the Camino del Norte again at Pesues

 Does the hiker choose the path or the path choose the hiker? We are drawn to the qualities of the trail so that if I decide, for example, to follow the Viejo Camino rather than the Camino Francés it says as much about me as it does the trail: that I am, perhaps, a misanthropic snob in search of solitude. 
  I left the coast and took the bus to Leon to hike the Camino de San Salvador
So I ask again: Hiker or pilgrim, does it really matter? Clearly it does, to me at least, because I’m devoting a whole chapter to the question in my thesis. I’ll sign off with one final observation: this summer I hiked a series of trails, both religious/spiritual caminos de Santiago and ‘secular’ gran recorridos with the aim of exploring the Cordillera Cantabrica and every time I forsook the yellow arrow for the red and white flash it didn’t last long; I was back on the camino within a matter of days. Like a moth to a flame.

And finally, a day back on the Camino Francés, from Sahagún to Mansilla de las Mulas. 38km across the meseta; what was that all about?

Julian Holloway (2003) Spiritual Embodiment and Sacred Rural Landscapes in Country Visions Cloke ed Pearson 158-175
Victor & Edith Turner (1978) Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture Columbia University Press

[1] Or, increasingly hacked off with academia, I simply walk away – literally as well as metaphorically.
[2] Plans are afoot to hike the Camino de Roma – 2,500km from Rome to Santiago – in 2017

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Fine Art of Pfaffing - Part the First: Trans Cantabrica Days 5 - 7

I suspect I shall carry the trauma of that descent into Ermua till the end of my walking days. The physical scars have all but cleared but the emotional wounds have carved themselves deep into my psyche. Still, a valuable lesson learned, never follow a path that looks like it might deceive, that will tempt and lead you down a dead-end track. But I am always an Eve, my spirit willing but my flesh easily led. In any case, if you don't stray, you'll never know what lies beyond the confines of the straight and narrowĤ. In the words of the legendary Buck's Fizz: 'Something nasty in your garden's waiting/Patiently, till it can have your heart/Try to go but it won't let you/Don't you know it's out to get you/Running/Keep on running'.

Image of Virgin Mary, Ermua
Ermua and Eibar lie deep in a steep, wooded valley that forms the main corridor of communication along the coast between Donostia-San Sebastian and Bilbao. Eibar is much the larger town, Ermua a sort of overspill. There's just too much going on in too small and narrow a space. The road and the railway are hemmed in; horizontal is not an option, there's very little sense of sideways so everything must go up. Apartment blocks, supermarkets, offices, the effect is overwhelmingly claustrophobic and I feel bad about not liking the place though it takes me a good two hours to leave as waste precious time searching, in vain, for gas cannisters - bear with me on this, it will become a major distraction.
Preparing for fiesta, Eitzaga
I'd planned a relatively short hike south out of the valley of the river Ego (I kid you not, if ever there were a geomorphological feature named for me, that is surely it) and into the adjacent comarca of Durangaldea but which your correspondent immediately - and quite predictably - began to refer to as DuranDurangaldea.
I know, there is no hope and there is no cure. I'm more or less condemned to a life of OED (Obsessive Eighties Disorder).

Aixola urtegia
The ola de calor that seemed to have arrived alongside my train in Irun a few days previously was scaling the thermometer and it was another day of sweat and sweary words; even a relatively gentle climb of 250m along the GR121 to a small reservoir elicited a steady flow of both. The reservoir offered a good half hour of respite, level walking in the shade and I eschewed the kind offer of the GR121 to climb a hill (are you kidding?) and followed the pista around the lake. But all good things do come to an end and sure enough the track began to ascend, to the small town of Elgeta, its industrial estates simmering under the heat of the mid-afternoon sun. It was siesta time, the place was shut. A four or five km hike along a main road brought me to my overnight destination: Berrio-Aldape, a small hamlet - if that's not a tautology - in possession of a hotel and bar. Within a few minutes of arrival my overnight stay had extended itself.
The valley of the Rio Ego is deep, steep and narrow, the valley of the Durangaldea is high, wide and handsome, an extensive declivity backed by the fine, ridge-backed mountains of Udalatx and Anboto which, once I'd crossed the watershed, suddenly emerged. I had arrived, here was where the coastal hinterland ended and the Montes Vascos began.

The sublime and magnificent Udalatx
Strange how the smallest of settlements can attract a noisy throng; my rest day, Sunday, coincided with the final of the Campeonato Manomanista between Aimar Olaizola II and Mikel Urrutikoetxea.  Clearly I know absolutely nothing about Basque pelota, aside from the fact that two men - gender equality has not yet reached this sport - strike a squash-sized ball against a wall with their bare hands and fists. On the one hand, it's a bit like squash, on the other, it's nothing like it. But even when the commentary's in a language whose complexity has thus far utterly defeated me, I can tell a fighting comeback when I see one. Urrutikoetxea was cruising towards an easy victory until the veteran Olaizola II (his ninth appearance in thirteen years, having won the title four times - you can see I've done my research) fought back to close to parity. Olaizola had the momentum and the experience but he inexplicably threw it all away with two careless shots which handed victory Urrutikoetxea. And then, impresseive alacrity, the throng dispersed and I went off to listen to Forgotten 80s.

The hike was supposed to resume the following day - Monday, day 7. The intention was - note how often those two words, 'intention' and 'was', appear alongside one another - to purchase a gas canister in the town of Elorrio, about four kilometres away down in the valley, then head up into the mountains. There was a sports/hiking shop in Elorrio, just as there had been in Eibar, but as in Eibar they didn't sell gas for camping. I was directed to the nearby town of Durango - whence Durangaldea - so I checked in to a hotel and hopped on a bus. The heatwave had scaled another notch on the thermometer and the sky was cloudless, if the streets had been any busier we'd have been fighting for the shade. Eventually, the elusive gas cannister located in an out-of-town hyperstore. It was too late and far too hot to do anything else than return to Elorrio and plan a route for the following day.

The Basilica de la Purisima

I fell in love, quite unexpectedly, with Elorrio and would gladly have stayed another day or two. It's a pleasant town of some 7,000 inhabitants with a casco antiguo and old streets. Had I arrived the day before I'd have been able to partake in its dia de orgullo - Pride. For a town of its size that's pretty impressive but as it was over and done I had to console myself with the stunning interior of the Basilica de la Purisima Conception; I've no doubt the Virgin Mary was as present in the Pride festivities as she was in the church
The elusive gas cannister