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Sunday, 11 January 2015

We walk the paths, the paths walk us - part the first

You know what it's like. Some days you trip out of your tent, albergue or, as has been the case with me most of this year, en-suite hotel room, with a hop, skip and a jump and before you've got to the end of your tenth rendition of 'The Final Countdown' you've hoovered up half-a-dozen kilometres. It's like walking on air, as if the twin concepts of distance and destination have been inverted and the benign gods and goddesses of perambulation have granted you the gift of eternal wandering.
Other days you can't get into a rhythm for love nor money; every stride is an effort, as if those malicious god and goddesses of perambulation are up to their old tricks again, tweaking the law of gravity so it feels you're walking across a field of treacle. Why do they hate you so much?
Sometimes there's an obvious reason: the weather, the state of the path, the company you keep and/or being less-than-parsimonious with the gin and tonic the night before but there are days – we've all experienced them – when there's no logical explanation.
In her excellent trail-walking blog The Big Trip, 'German Tourist' (aka Christine Geth) documents some of the problems she encountered during an unhappy JoGLE (John O'Groats to Land's End) hike during the autumn of 2011. She concludes that the UK is not particularly amenable to long-distance trail-walking (or 'thru-hiking', as current parlance has it) for a number of reasons, two of which are the difficult terrain and the frequency of stiles and gates, both of which lead to a dramatic drop in her daily mileage. She writes:
'The combination of cattle, a lot of rain and no forest turns a huge part of British trails into one huge mud pool. Especially notorious are cattle gates: Because there is a lot of animal movement the area around them is generally one big dirt pool. But of course the gates are usually locked and you can only open it by stepping right into the deepest part of the dirt pool.'
There are, undoubtedly, a girt humungeous cohort of hikers who might take issue with Ms Geth's observations; gaitered mudlarks who feel a deep and sensuous pleasure in traversing a bog, knee deep in a cocktail of oozing slime and sticky clay. I'm not one of them; not sure I ever have been but it's only in the past couple of years that I've come to realise it's the nature of the path that's important to me; not just its gradient or type but it's consistency: I'm one of those walkers who likes to get her head down and go; if you start me up I'll never stop. Although I continue to walk regularly in the UK these are generally day or weekend hikes, certainly not long-distance expeditions or thru-hikes; for these I jump on the train to Spain (there's another issue here about the landscape of my beloved Wessex landscape perhaps not performing in the way that it did, say, five years ago but that's another story).
During a recent Christmas-avoiding trip to Girona I interspersed periods of study with excursions into the surrounding Catalunyan hills. I made three, in total, and as I laboured up a steep track at the beginning of the final trail it occurred to me that each hike had, in its embodied, perambulatory essence, been quite different to the others whilst the context – the weather, terrain and conditions underfoot - had been remarkably constant: blue skies; temperatures in the high teens; good, firm often paved tracks and a landscape Mediterranean forest, woodland and scrub.
Each hike had its own character and personality; a quality that went beyond distance but was a complex and often heady combination of emotion and affect which, together, served to create a mood that was constantly changing, never the same from one stride or vista to the next. Motion begets emotion, this mood might be compared to the moods created by landscape artists or even poets (think Wordsworth's Prelude). But I'm no painter nor poet; I am, so they tell me, a geographer. Yes, I know the former doesn't preclude the latter but how to represent emotion and affect is an integral – if not the integral – part of my research. The painting and the poem serve geography well (or is it the other way round?), but how to capture the dynamism of the moment, the constant being and becoming. What follows in this and a second post is a preliminary attempt at doing just that.

Walk One: Friday 19th December: Banyoles – Rocacorba – Canetd'Adri – Sant Gregori – Girona (40km)

Talk about flying out of the traps. I'd been in Girona barely 48 hours and already procrastination was doing my head in; instead of getting into bed with Deleuze and Guattari I purchased an Institut Cartogràfic de Catalunya (ICC) 1:50 000 map and spent all evening poring over it, gin and tonic at close hand. Yes, I know, that thesis ain't gonna write itself but what's the point in sitting in a student bedsit, writing about writing, when you get out in the field and actually do it?
The plan was to head straight for the high ground; follow an asphalted track up to the peak of Puig Sou in the Muntanya de Rocacorba from Banyoles, a thirty minute bus ride from Girona. I left late, didn't start out from the Estany de Banyoles, a lake surrounded by wooded hills with a backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees, until eleven-thirty; a typical pre-hike dawdling dilatoriness. It would mean a long slog in the dark later on, but these things never bother us at the time; out in the field we are always in the moment. Nothing else really matters. 
Estany de Banyoles. Canigou in the background

The sulphur Font Pudosa just outside Banyoles. The adjacent spa is now a crumbling ruin; it's one of thise places you smell before you see...

The road from Banyoles up through Pujarnol to Rocacorba climbs 880 metres in 14 kilometres. It's a constant climb, twisting in its later stages, but never steep. After three months of relatively sedentary existence teaching and studying I'd assumed I'd be out of shape and would struggle to crest the first hill but I practically scampered up the mountain, even, at times, breaking into a trot: it took me a little under three hours to get to the top. 
Who goes up ...
Clearly I wasn't as unfit as I'd thought but, equally clearly, there was more to it than that. Much, much more – whoever said hiking was a simple, straightforward task has never been on a walk with me.

Firstly, this hike – this set of three hikes – was a bit of an unexpected bonus. I'd intended to spend just a few days in Girona, each with my head down in a book, before heading backreturning to Somerset for Christmas until I was politely informed I'd be better off staying put: Christmas would still be Christmas without me, probably even more so. Suddenly all bets were off. I extended my trip to ten days – ample time to study and hike; the gods and goddesses of perambulation were looking favourably on me again.
And who can blame them. 
Secondly, I'm not generally a winter hiker. Walking yes, hiking no. In Wessex, past October, the fields are too muddy, the paths too slippy and waterlogged; winter slows me down and I don't like it. Maybe I'll nip out of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, pound the minor roads and take on the traffic in driving wind and rain but the longer treks are saved for the summer. I hadn't anticipated the Catalunyan climate being so favourable in late December; it seemed a crime to sit inside staring at a screen. What am I saying? It seemed like a crime? It was a crime: I had to get out.

So that first walk, unanticipated and unlooked for, was loaded with an intense feeling of liberation. Not just in the sense of being out-in-the-field but in the sense that I'd emancipated myself from what I consider to be the banalities of the run-up to Christmas. My emotions were heightened, the landscape became my conniving accomplice; we'd eloped, skipped through the boundaries of the quotidian and the routine and found our promised land.
No wonder I felt a little frisky!

I was on fire, the landscape responded. Ascending, vistas opened and closed, revealed themselves in different shades, colours and tones. Contours sharpened then, around the next bend, suddenly blurred and, occasionally dissolved; each step a new dawn and new creation. Each stride like going to the same party but in a different dress.
Or maybe no clothes at all. 
'What's another Year' sang Johnny Logan in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest, receiving a stunning seven sets of douze points. 'What's another summit' might be my apt, less insipid riposte. You've seen one top-of-the-hill, you've seen them all, after a while only a few stand out (pun intended). 
What's another romanesque chapel ...
People – hikers in particular – get precious about their peaks. The minimalists like them pure, no physical presence to celebrate the triumph of elevation. They cuss the cairns and crosses that litter so many summits, probably cuss anyone who has the temerity to be there as well on a hot summer's afternoon. I have my moments of misanthropy but there's nothing I like more than seeing others out in the field, liberating themselves.

But its not only us outdoorsy folk who have our eyes on the hills and our nemeses got to the top of Puig Sou before us, built a fence to protect their aerials and antenna, effectively sealing off the top ten metres from the rest of the world. Not so much a forbidden mountain as a proscribed prominence. 
But do we have to get to the top? Stand astride the uppermost elevation as if the extra couple of centimetres might make all the difference, bring us closer to God's right hand? From the ridge the mountain drops away sharply; to the east Banyoles so tiny and insignificant I could, if I so wished, stub it out with my heel, like a cigarette. Talk about perspective and power, altitude and attitude. My megalomaniac moment passes, to the north and west the Pyrenees float over wisps of thin cloud; I'm here, up high, but there are higher things above me. It's Canigou that grabs my attention, looming over the French border. More of that mountain anon.

The geeks might have appropriated the very top but they weren't the first to appreciate the privilege of height. The Church was there before them, in the twelfth century, to be precise, And, like shoppers at Waitrose, it realised that quality is better than quantity, form infinitely preferably to function. It chose not the highest point of Puig Sou to build the Santuari de la Mare de Déu but the most dramatic: a girt, humungeous anvil-shaped hunk of rock that, with the addition of its chapel, looms larger than the summit itself. It's all about presence and performance: the telecommunications station is at 992 metres, the Santuari 929. Does the Blessed Virgin Mary really care about that missing 63?
Somehow I doubt it.

A straightforward ascent, a more complex return to the horizontal. A path, steep and rocky, zig-zagged down an almost precipitous slope till it eased out into an russet-earthed cart track and metamorphosed into a metalled road. Straight back down to earth; I'm at that age when you have to start worrying about my knees as well as twisting my ankle but this was one of those trails where a false step could've sent me tumbling to the valley below; an untimely but not ignominious end. 
... must come down
I was never going to win the war against the onset of night but at least I'd secured a first strategic blow against the darkness, beaten it to the village of Canet d'Adri from where it was all tarmacadam till Girona. 
She'll be coming down the mountain ...
The problem with both the ICC's maps and the Catalunyan roads is their insistence on you, the traveller, knowing exactly where you are in distanced-space: the dreaded kilometre post on the ground and its equally portentous equivalent on the map. It didn't take long to work out that 13 km of walking separated me from the outskirts of Girona, then another five to my student digs. Normally this might've taken the edge of what had, to that point, been an exhilarating hike but if anything the long plod along increasingly busy highways served only to accentuate and enhance its pleasures. Head down, stride after stride, the mind at four kilometres an hour, by the time I'd got home I was buzzing with the effervescence of magnesium reacting with water.

Narcotics? Who needs them.
I still haven't found what I'm looking for ...


  1. Great post Sian. Looks a fantastic landscape to hike through.

    Not sure I'm with you or your German friend on the Great British stile and gate - I find them reassuring markers of my route. Also some classic UK long distance routes - Offa's Dyke and Coast to Coast spring to mind.

    Look forward to the next episode of your Spanish pilgrim-rambler adventures.


  2. Hi Eddie

    Thanks for the kind words. I've been thinking about your response for while, I had a feeling that someone would leap to the defence of the gate and stile. I've nothing against them per se, except, perhaps, at the end of a long, long hike when every stride is an effort in itself without the added complications of straddling the stile.

    I should also add that although I've walked long distances in the UK I've yet to attempt any of the long distance walks. Offa's Dyke does appeal, as does the South West Coast Path but the older the more I yearn for the landscapes of Spain and Latin America. I'm not quite sure why that attraction is so strong, it's something I'm hoping to explore in my PhD research.