Follow on Twitter

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Trans Cantabrica

The Cordillera Cantabrica, as if you didn't know
Incredulity. Seems like, even now, I have to deal with it on a daily basis. It’s usually well-intentioned but every so often it comes across as a personal affront; gentle dig at my louche, dilettante character.  When the assistant in the Bristol branch of a high-street camping and outdoors shop expressed surprise at my intention to hike the length of Cordillera Cantrabrica I took it as the latter and, as much as I enjoy my carefully-cultivated earned reputation as a louche dilettante, there’s nothing more guaranteed to act as a red rag to by bull as a lack of faith in my ability to deliver the goods.
Over the past few months, preparing and researching this, my first serious foray into and across high mountains, I’ve been reading of the feats of women mountaineers. Not just the first woman to climb Everest (Junko Tabei, 1975) or complete the ascents of the fourteen eight-thousand metre peaks (Edurne Pasaban, 2010) but the wider issues of gender and long-distance hiking solo in upland wildernesses which still, to a large extent, remain the preserve of the male. The assistant in the Bristol branch of a high-street camping and outdoors shop isn’t alone in raising a sceptical eyebrow, the world – the non-walking world, that is – seems to fall into two camps: (1) Those who always suspected I had a screw loose and whose suspicions are merely confirmed by my announcement to trek 1000km across northern Spain. To be fair, the vast majority of those who subscribe to this point of view think the act of hiking itself to be utterly pointless. They are probably right, but that is the point; a means without an end. Why do I always have to get somewhere? What so good about getting there? I feel cheated by arrival, it's very much overrated.
Cordillera Cantabrica East - Montes del Pais Vasco
Then there are (2) those who express concerns for my safety, particularly as I’m not a member of a male gender – don’t I know that it’s different for girls?
Tell be about it! But this is an old chestnut, a red herring, based on groundless fears that for a single woman the countryside is a place of inherent fear and danger where her personal safety is always at risk. Statistically I stand a far greater chance of being attacked in towns and cities than I do in the countryside, a fact I can personally corroborate as I’ve been one of those statistics – twice. Yet the fear of the bogeyman – the proverbial ‘mad axeman’ – lurking in the wood pervades our psyche and stokes irrational fears.
The inspirational Christine Geth (aka ‘The German Tourist), about whom I’ve enthused in a previous epistle, hits the nail on the head:
First all this talk about how dangerous it is for women to be outdoors just irritated me – but the more I hear the more it makes me plain angry. I often think that all these ‘words of caution’ are just a modern version of locking women in and keeping them from discovering their freedom. And unfortunately this modern brainwashing is very effective: You still see very few women alone hiking, cycling or paddling. Most either don't go at all or only dare to go with a male partner – especially on long-distance trips. (1)
Cordillera Cantabrica Central
It’s all about knowing our place, isn’t it? Woman, police thyself! The most effective tool of oppression is one with which the oppressed connive; what did Rousseau say about (wo)men being born free, but finding themselves everywhere in chains? As long as we buy into these false mythologies, we will forever be at the mercy of others’ definitions of liberty rather than trying to find our own.
I say we, that first person subject pronoun requires some qualification. It’s easy for me to pontificate about what women should and shouldn’t do, to be blasé about fears that are all too real, but the truth is that I cut my hiking teeth as a boy and, more often than not, ventured out into the wild with my mostly male mates. I never had the fear of the unknown inculcated into me, could not possibly imagine what it might be like to be the victim, of being in constant fear of being stalked, set upon and sexually assaulted. These things only happened to me later in life, when I’d completed that most momentous of hikes, from one gender to the other. But they happened in the city, in my own street – in my own flat. And another truth is that although I might have cut my hiking teeth as a boy it wasn’t until I’d become a person of the opposite sex that I found my feet, that my perambulatory expeditions really began.
There’s a narrative here that I want to explore during my impending Trans-Cantabrican hike because it seems like I’ve been on the move ever since the morning of 13th July 1996, unable – or, perhaps, unwilling – to settle: wherever I lay my head, that’s my home. The walk without end is a metaphor: there are those who drift through life, heeding each and every word of advice, carefully avoiding vice and sticking firmly to the straight and the narrow. Then there are those of us who watch them scamper by without a care in the world, from our sloughs of despond or our heights of ecstasy. The road less travelled twists and turns through mountains and valleys and hills: it makes for in interesting journey but it has one fundamental drawback – one never knows what’s around the corner.
One never wants to know what’s around the corner, so when one does turn a corner one always has to contrive another corner, one that’s higher, sharper and even more effective at revealing the imminent and the immanent. And always a little more loaded with risk. And so on and so on; before you know it you’re addicted to flux, everything must be in a constant state of becoming and unbecoming.
And I can’t help feeling that desire to play the gyrovague is a symptom of a deep-seated malaise or discontent – if I might call it that. A perennial desire to move on, reinvent myself: fifty shades of Siân Lacey Taylder – and then some more. The intention this summer is to take the train from London to Hendaye on the French Spanish border (it always has to be the train, why? Because it prolongs the act of travel and puts off the inevitable disappointment of arrival?). From there I will walk along the Camino del Norte that shadows the coast before turning inland to the mountains near Bilbao. Everything beyond that point is up for grabs: what path I take, whether I stick to the ridges of the valleys, whether I wild camp or manage to find a hotel or albergue. Even the apparent certainty of putting one foot before the other, day in, day out, cannot be taken for granted. Accidents will happen, as Elvis (Costello) once sang; it’s not that I want them to happen – there is a limit to my recklessness – but I need to know accidents might happen, that they’re an ever-present. There has to be risk, not just physical but emotional and cerebral: you don’t have to climb the Matterhorn to put your life on the line. 
Cordillera Cantabrica West
I have six weeks. My inner anal-retentive would like to cover 1000km and gain notoriety as the first transsexual to hike the Cordillera Cantabrica – alone, and singing The Final Countdown to herself 24/7. But my inner anal-retentive also wants to become the first transsexual to climb the highest mountain in Mexico this December; I want my inner anal-retentive to go to hell. As does my inner-pilgrim, who wants me to hike the mountains to O Cebreiro then continue to Santiago de Compostela. Neither are going to happy unless I go all the way to Finesterre, as per the demands of my inner-Catholic martyr. Jesus! Who needs friends when you’ve got multiple personalities like these?
Who’s gonna win out? I’ll keep you posted.


  1. Great stuff, as always. I wonder it which shop you got the duff attitude from? If it was the same shop I got my walking shoes then it's probably fair to say it is a sheer lack of any grasp of the toils of the outdoors. My heels are scared because of their advice!

    Anyway, lots to ponder there. I happen to be reading Amelia Edwards' Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys. Not alone (but with a female companion), not on foot (she rode a mule), but still, a grand tour through the as then barely explored Dolomites, and without the reliance on men. She even covers some of the condescending ground you've mentioned in her preface. It's good stuff.

    And best for your hike! Kieron

  2. Hi Kieron

    Thanks for you comment. The shop with the 'duff attitude' was a high street chain named for a range of limestone hills in the west of England where you can find a lot of very twee antiques shops! I have to say that 'Blacks' and my local 'Wells Outdoors' were much more helpful and respectful.

    I've just finished Nick Crane's account of his hike across the mountains of Europe from Galicia to Istanbul - 'Clear Waters Rising'. I enjoyed but I think I might enjoy Amelia Edwards more - I'll stick it on my Kindle and read it en route.