In this heat and aridity every kilometre seems doubled, the climate and the landscape suck the energy from failing legs. You set out on what you think will be a routine stroll, even though you're already well aware that there's no such thing as a 'routine stroll' on high summer days like these.
The camino out of Batea is well signposted and soon the path is out of the town and following a minor road to Nonaspe. A kilometre further on, at a glorified roadside cross, the camino departs the ashphalt and follows rough, sandy tracks for the remainder of its course to Fabara, through scrub, pines and olive groves.
Scrub, pines and olive groves: a litany for this part of the Camino del Ebro. And bare rock. Evidence of human engagement with the landscape but not settlement in it, best keep to the towns which are few and far between. With every stride lines from 'The Wasteland' reverberate around my head:
And so it goes on, and on and on until the land seems to begin to resent the pilgrim’s presence. At every twist and turn you peer ahead, desperate for a glimpse of a roof, aerial or church tower but at every twist and turn there’s just more of the same. Then, two or three kilometres out of Fabara, human presence manifests itself in the shape of pig farms, the gravel-strewn track turns to asphalt and there is water and shade.
Ya basta! Enough already. Time to rest and rehydrate.
At what point does the body become accustomed to this change in routine? A change that’s both drastic and sudden, and which has allowed no time for acclimatisation. How does it feel to be plucked from the relatively sedentary routine of tutoring, writing and imbibing too many G&Ts and dumped on arguably the loneliest, hottest and driest of Spain’s Caminos de Santiago? It’s been sitting on its swelling arse for most of the past six months, what does it do now? How does it respond?
Well, in many ways that’s a rhetorical question because it doesn’t have any choice. Unless, of course, it decides it’s had enough and chucks its toys out the pram. I’ve seen it happen, pilgrims who are younger and fitter than me falling victim to a body that’s given up the ghost and decided it no longer wants to play ball. I’ve cooked lunch for a crocked Spanish sports student half my age in the albergue in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, her knee swollen to the size of a small balloon. Ruptured tendons and ligaments, stress fractures, general wear and tear, now and again pilgrims limp off the Camino like injured footballers, shaking their heads and grimacing, as if there were no justice in the world.
Well there ain’t, obviously, but that’s beside the point. Not so much the Grim Reaper calling to demand what’s rightly hers but the Angel of Consequence reminding you of what she said before you left home: ‘somebody’s going to get hurt; it’ll end in tears, you mark my words’.
Jesus, Angel. Nobody likes a smart arse.
Note how it’s normally the body that surrenders, not the mind: the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. A gambler who’s studied the form book might have laid a pony on me cracking within a couple of weeks and expected a return despite the short odds but even now my resilience and determination – if I were selling the Camino del Ebro as a Hollywood movie I might call it ‘true grit’ – never fail to surprise me.
Won’t give up? Can’t give up, more like. On the Camino Francés one has that option, save for the traverse of the Pyrenees and one long endless haul over the Meseta. If you’ve had enough for the day there’s normally an albergue in relatively close proximity. Or even, God forbid, an hotel!
No such luxury on the Camino del Ebro, or, I suspect, most of the other less-frequented routes to Santiago. I suppose, deep down, I must have chosen it to sound a bit ‘hard’ as well as to appear ‘different’. You can bet your last Euro that I wasn’t sounding so smug at two o’clock this afternoon when, dehydrated and suffocated by a dry, dusty heat, I thought my destination – the windswept town of Fabara constantly evaded me.
It’s easy for me to sit here now, bottle of Estrella Damm to hand, and pontificate. I’d been cursing the Camino and my decision to take the road less-travelled until Fabara suddenly materialised and then all was well. Isn’t it ever this? We spit and curse under the heat of the afternoon sun, condemn ourselves for falling victim to caprice, of having eyes bigger than our bellies. ‘You’ve bitten off more than you can chew’ says my alter ego, every time I’m flailing on the road to Santiago. And then, at the end of every day, it’s me who turns round and gives her the finger. Oh ye of little faith.
Tomorrow it’s a 21km hike to Capse, another five hour trudge through dry sand and bare rock with no shade or water. But there is no choice; once you’re five or six km down the road there’s no turning back, you have to go all the way.