The Meseta. You'll have twigged by now that it's become something of an obsession, that it dominates my every waking thought and enters into my dreams and nightmares; can't live with it, can't live without it.
Carrion de los Condes, Sunday morning. Do NOT let this apparently verdant oassis lull you into a false sense of security. It will hit you. Soon.
I've just completed my sixth day on the plateau, six days and 140km as a high plains drifter; tomorrow, probably mid-morning, I'll quietly slip off and file my way along the main road that leads into Leon. There will be relief - I'm already looking forward to the return of the mountains - but that relief will be tinged with sadness and I dare say that when I'm up in the Montes de Leon I'll turn round and gaze wistfully at the golden haze in the distant east.
For the first three days, as far as Boadilla del Camino, all was well. At Tardajos, just before the Camino eases its way up onto the Meseta, I became reacquainted with my Camino 'family' with whom I spent much of the next four days; though we tended to walk alone we would meet up for refreshments and overnight stops. On the morning of day three, at Castrojeriz, two of our clan departed, leaving us as a foursome which, in my mind, took the form of a Camino 'mum and dad' and their two 'children'; I was one of the latter, an adolescent bastard child, always sulking and skulking at the rear.
Things fell apart along the straight, 6 km long entrance to Carrion de los Condes, a tedious hour and a half following the main road; needless to say, by the time I'd arrived at my destination I was fuming and spoiling for a fight. With my fellow pilgirms - especially - and, yes, even with the nuns in the albergue.
Get thee to a nunnery ...
It wasn't so much that the Meseta had broken us, more that it had worn us down. We had, all of us, until then, been unanimous in our appreciation for this great, golden tableland with its variety of vistas and landscapes. Walking through it, we had all, I think, become connoisseurs as well as admirers; it was a spell that only walking - dwelling - in the landscape could create. To the unembodied observer thinks it all looks the same, day-in, day-out, and I can understand that perspective; but when you're etching your way through its infinite layers you soon come to realise that every step just isn't the same. One the way out of Fromista a German pilgrim told me how, up on the plateau to the west of Castrojeriz, the clouds had worked their own magic and mesmerised him. We talk about making a 'crossing' the Meseta, as if it were a vast uncharted ocean. The maps and guidebooks tell us what's taking place at ground level, what happens when the land comes into contact with out own moods, emotions and personal histories is another narrative altogether. There were storms brewing, shipwrecks on the horizon.
At Carrion de los Condes two 'family' members went down with diahorroea and, under the supervision of 'mum' took a taxi to Sahagun, thus missing out on the Meseta's grimmest torture. Just when you think you've got the better of it, the Camino lays down its greatest, most arduous challenge. Forget the crossing of the Pyrenees, forget the long climb up to O Cebreiro, the 17,5 km hike between Carrion de los Condes and Calzadilla de la Cueta is the test; like Jacob wrestling the angel.
We'll meet again. Don't know where don't know when but chances are it'll be on the Camino in the next couple of weeks for we are family
I've already described, with, I hope some degree of success, the elation I felt as I passed the Virgen de Biakorri and the mountains opened up before me, my continued engagement with the landscape as the Camino wound its way through the vineyards and fields of Navarra, La Rioja and Castilla y Leon. These are bounteous lands of milk and honey that ease the mind and the soul; if there is ecstasy it's restrained and understated.
Then you get to the Dreaded 17,5 and all hell breaks loose. I have, of course, made this particular crossing before, back in May 2012. Then, as now, I realised one required a strategy to get through with one's sanity - such as that exists - intact. Mine was basic and consisted of two components: (1) walk like f***, close to the speed of light and (2) try to overtake as many of your fellow pilgrims as possible.
Head down, stride after stride after stride. @martinxo tweets telling me he bellows out songs at the top of his voice in similar situations, his tunes of choice would be old-school punk and new wave; The Ruts and UK Subs. I contemplate becoming Joey Tempest's twin sister and singing the Final Countdown ad naueseum but instead I retreat into myself, somewhere deep and hidden where a heap of unpublished, autobiographical novels written in the first person gather dust in my personal slush pile. Here are my heroes, and they are all, of course, alter egos: María Inés de la Cruz, Tallulah Scarlet, Charlotte Crowsettle, Samantha Lefebvre, Dr Simone Lacey. You don't know these people, they only emerge from the shadows of my imagination during ordeals such as crossing the Dreaded 17,5.
And so the Dreaded 17,5 begins. Those two tardy souls were my first victims, natch
Where the Camino leaves the asphalt and drives off in a straight line along a dust-track I make the sign of the cross and start to move it. It's a nuanced acceleration, I don't want to go down injured at this, the most crucial stage of the pilgrimage, and I'd been nursing a calf-twinge for the past couple of days. The pace picks up slowly; 500m ahead I spy a poor innocent who clearly has no idea as to imminent and immanent torture. She's ambling along as if she were out for a Sunday stroll by the sea.
This path ain't wide enough for the both of us. I pick her in my sights and feel a pusle of energy surge through my thighs; within minutes I'm upon her, surging past as if I'm late for a date with the devil. Blam! It only takes a couple of seconds. There's a brief exchange of buen caminos then I'm gone, disappeared in a cloud of dust. The victim, she knows nothing, is probably still labouring along right now. She's the sort of pilgrim the Dreaded 17,5 devours for breakfast before belching loudly.
On and on and on again ...
Me? I've overtaken 15 similar souls before arriving at the 11km point where the mobile cafe should be. Only it's not, and I don't top to see whether the fountain is dry; time is my enemy and by now I'm on a roll, pumping Adrenalin, moving like a highly-strung athelete rather than an effete academic. This is so good it really hurts.
'Right! It's twenty to eleven and I'm fucking motoring' I utter, breathlessly into my digital voice recorder. At times I'm close to running, at times I do, actually, break into a momentary jog, carried forward on a heady cocktail of angst and elation. Then, just at the point where it might have gone arse over elbow, yellow-painted words on a bridge wall: tienda 6km. The tienda, of course, is the end.
This is the end, beautiful friend, the end ... I'll never look into your eyes, again
The wind buoys me. I'm no longer a mere pilgrim or Exeter University research student, I'm Mercury with winged Berghaus boots, eating up the kilometres before a late breakfast. And suddenly, there it is, the church to the left and, before I've taken it in, the village of Calzadilla de la Cueza and a welcoming bar. I look at my 'phone, it's taken me just over two and a half hours - seven kilometres per hour. Predictably, but unashamedly, I go overboard into my digital voice recorder; all hell breaks loose: 'Fucking Hell! I've only just done it! Seventeen-point-five, you suck! Wow! Half-past eleven ... fuck that ... that's brilliant ... woah! I can't believe it ... this is the happiest I've been for so long. Woah, it's fantastic. Killed it! Absolutely fucking brilliant.'
Twenty-four hours later and still the buzz is burning. It was one of the happiest days of my walking like and thus, by definition, one of the happiest days of my life. With the Dreaded 17,5 burnt to a frazzle, the Road to Santiago is now clear.
For those whom the Dreaded 17,5 has destroyed, in mind and/or body, a taxi awaits
Elation, but melancholy, too. The moment is gone, I'll never enjoy the intensity of that emotion again and even though I made the most of it, like all landscape experiences it is fleeting, ephemeral. I down a celebratory Coca-Cola then lumber on; still 20km till my end-of-day destination. No sleep till Sahagun.