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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Saints and Cynics: The Meseta

You know you want to be here ...

The Camino de Santiago - or more accurately, the Camino Frances - is often divided into three sections each of which describes the nature of the suffering the pilgrim experiences as she/he moves from the south of France to the holy grail that is Santiago de Compostela.
The first stage, from St Jean Pied de Port to Burgos, over the Pyrenees, through the foothills and the rolling landscapes of Navarra and Rioja are characterised by physical suffering as the body becomes attuned to its daily diet of getting up, putting on boots, walking, taking-off boots and sleeping, with little more than pintxos, bocadillos and cold beers inbetween. It's gruelling, at times, but it''s not that tough; the scenery distracts and even if that begins to begins to pall there's tremendous entertainment to be had in observing - and even participating in - the formation of friendships and the beginning of families across linguistic and cultural divides.
And because it's the Camino, it works. Believe me, I'm a world-weary cynic but even my inner misanthrope is won over by its spirit, a spirit which works in material as well as metaphysical ways, just in case you're worried I'm getting a little bit too wishy-washy.  
But I've been 19 days on the Camino, hiked 370 kilometres, and I'm beginning to feel reasonably trail-fit. You know you're trail-fit when you can negotiate steep slopes without pausing for rest or even getting out of breath; this I suceeded in doing yesterday when ascending 300m from Villafranca up onto the Montes de Oca during a quite mesmerising day's walking. I have now become part of the Camino, physically and spiritually; if you wish to remove me you'll have to do it by force and I'm willing to bet that one of us won't survive.
Odds-on it won't be me. I'm a woman possessed.
But today, on arrival in Burgos, that physical suffering came to an end. Tomorrow begins the second and most ominous of the three stages, the one I fear the most. Tomorrow begins the Meseta, the torment - and believe me - that's sometimes how it feels, switches from physical to emotional. I know which hurts the more.
To the uninitiated, the Meseta is Spain's high, central plateau ranging from 500m to 1000m metres in altitude. It takes the concept of flatness and straightness to new dimensions; in the winter it's cold and blasted by bitter winds, in summer it's hot and the air doesn't move. Across the Meseta, from Burgos to Leon, the Camino abhors sinuosity and opts for the long and the straight and the narrow. One can walk for hours without coming across a bend or deviation; if you let it, the Meseta will torture you into submission and you'll look north to the mountains of Leon of the horizon wondering what the fuck you're doing spending a week of your life crossing this wasteland.
Been there, done it. And tomorrow I'll be back for more. I hate the Meseta so much I love it.
In May 2012 I stormed across the infamous 17,5 km almost entirely straight section of the Camino Frances from Carrion de los Condes to Calzadilla de la Cueza in just over three very angry hours. It was a Sunday morning, and I wanted it back; I was so angry that even when I finally came across human habitation and ice-cold Coca-Cola I turned my back on it; if you'd have asked me how I was feeling I'd have overturned your table and told you to fuck right off. 
But as The Pretenders once sang, it's a bitter line between love and hate. Last summer, after the hiking the vertiginous Camino de San Salvador through the Cordillera Cantabrica, I returned for a 38km one-day hike across the Meseta for no other reason than to experience that torment once again, even though I already knew I'd have to return again this year as part of my fieldwork.
What's going on here? For the past three or four days, even as I sat in the dentist's chair in LogroƱo, I've been thinking about the Meseta, preparing myself. Tomorrow it's going to happen. I can't wait. 
Believe you me, one way or another it'll end in tears. See you on the other side.
The third stage? It's spiritual suffering. That begins in the mountains; if you're still in one piece - physically and mentally - strange things will happen.

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