Walking It Through by Sophie McKeand
I hear the call to travel south and return to the Eucalyptus trees. In dreams I walk; I walk and walk, but in reality, have no experience of hiking long distance over a sustained period of time. Nevertheless, each morning I wake restless, the soles of feet tingling from the miles walked in the previous night’s dreams, so I begin researching long distance hiking and a sort-of-plan forms in the mind like a child’s wobbly sandcastle, the sloping sides and lopsided turrets crumbling under the weight of fledgling ambition.
But I am nervous of hiking alone and worry about the logistics of solo-wild-camping out in northern Portugal where I know no one. As I dither at this crossroads the Camino de Santiago finds me, picks me up and shepherds me like a lost goat, so that from here I begin following the yellow arrows in a pilgrimage to the trees with the Camino as a guide, and I see her as a set of training wheels that might provide the confidence to later head out alone. The more I research, the more this feels right and in April trains and buses take me on a two-day journey from north Wales to Sarria with an 80L backpack borrowed from a friend that holds a one-person tent, sleeping bag, some rudimentary cooking utensils and spices, toiletries, roll mat, a first aid kit and a couple of changes of clothes. Arriving in Sarria feels both exhilarating and terrifying: I’ve never done anything like this before, and definitely not alone, but dreams pull me onwards as if I were a boat being summoned across a deep lake into fog and all I can do is hold on. I stay overnight in an albergue that was once a monastery and the next day begin walking the 116km to Santiago (albergue are the mixed-gender hostels where you can turn up any time and stay for around €10 a night and I will both praise and curse these places over the course of this journey).
Galicia is the Celtic area of Spain: lush, green and fertile, but with that comes the rain, just like Cymru and I find myself feeling often as if this could be a journey across Wales’s rich but uniform farmlands. I imagine the first week from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela as a training ground: time to learn about hiking, to get used to my ridiculously heavy backpack (14.6kg or around 18kg with food and water), and to get to grips with why I’m there. This will sound counterintuitive to some, but this journey is about being open to possibilities and change, so overly planning feels stifling.
When discussing solo walking with people the overwhelming advice I’m given is to be cautious, to not take risks, and I envision myself a lone wolf, wary of strangers, hiking solo and aloof, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. On day one I meet Maria from Moscow (who is also hiking solo) as I am standing in a large oak tree, and as we chat she explains the many ways in which my backpack fits badly, so we stand absorbing the Galician rain while she readjusts my backpack with good humour ‘Oh! My! Your waistband is so loose and your shoulder straps so tights – it’s a miracle you can walk.’ Well yes, I was struggling. We walk for a day together making 22km to Portomari.
The rain is the overriding factor for the first week making the thought of wild camping out of the question. Instead I meet additional women hiking solo, some who have already been walking for a month and close to 1000km: Maria, Svenja from Germany, Eca from Taiwan and Eugenia from Argentina, as well as others who joined the Camino at the same time as me: Fiona from Scotland, Elena from Italy. We conjoin for a time like rivers and I realise that many of the preconceptions about the difficulties of life walking on the road as a solo woman are largely unfounded. I discover a deep sense of camaraderie and friendship bonded tightly and quickly through a rigorous series of early morning starts, our joint suffering of the snoring of the older male solo travellers, sharing horror stories of blisters and swollen ankles, of missed albergues, getting lost, red wine and wild tales from our homelands, as well as continuing on through the ubiquitous rain.
I begin to understand that the things I want to learn are not necessarily what this journey has decided to teach me. My dreams of hiking off solo into the wild are foiled time and again by the need for support, or by the beautiful friendship of others and I decide to surrender to it, go with the flow, and just enjoy meeting so many interesting people, but I’m also conscious that the plan is to hike Sarria – Santiago – Finisterra – Porto and that I need to push on if I’m going to do this, so one sunny afternoon I hug them goodbye and set off on the final 19k to Santiago. We already hiked 19k that morning, and with this being their last few days, the group are winding down for a quiet afternoon with a plan to hike the final 19k into Santiago the next morning instead.
The first 9k are stunning, eucalyptus trees line every footpath and I dance along, buoyed by the fact that I’m gaining time and kilometres so that Porto is back in sight. The next 10k are miserable. A hailstorm batters my face and poncho. The rain is relentless. My feet are causing pain in ways I could not have imagined – the blisters on my little toes are engorged and pushing around to the top of the toe causing a sharp tearing feeling with each step, on top of that my left leg begins to show signs of stress, perhaps due to the weight of the backpack, and a large lump forms on the front shin just above the ankle along with an ugly bruise that covers half of the shin. No matter how hard I work to imagine my feeble legs as tree trunks able to withstand this sort of pressure, I cannot shake the exhaustion.
Hobbling soaking wet and shaking into a café I order espresso, orange juice and cake. I cannot even contemplate what a vegan would eat just now – I need calories. The café owner tells me in a mix of English and Spanish that the next albergue is 2km away, Santiago is 7km and I decide to crawl to the albergue and make Santiago the next day, but it is raining and I am perhaps a bit delirious so miss the albergue, only noticing when I arrive at a sign saying ‘Welcome to Santiago’ which makes me laugh out loud, perhaps a bit manically, as I then stagger along another kilometre chuckling to myself at the absurdity of life, as well as with disbelief and delight at hiking so far by accident, before falling into an albergue on the outskirts of Santiago. The albergue is everything I don’t like, the obligatory older solo male traveller already snoring like a whale is in situ along with people who make me nervous so I lie on a bottom bunk bed in a dark hostel room, damp, alone and hungry but too tired to find or make food wondering why I left that lovely group of women behind just to hike off solo and make more kilometres.
Waking in Santiago to a beautiful day, I am high enough to witness the morning fog flowing around the buildings below like the Atlantic in slow motion. I am exhausted and perhaps a bit depressed – I will come to learn that this feeling often follows periods when I’ve overdone it. Shuffling to the Pilgrims’ office to get my certificate I am offered a beautiful gift: do I want to come for a special free lunch offered to only a very limited number of pilgrims? No. I want to be alone. And miserable. With horrible painful feet and a swollen ankle/shin that feels as if someone is hacking at it with an old rusty saw with each step. To put it bluntly I’m feeling sorry for myself and so I don’t want the joy of a delightful, free meal to burn off this raincloud, preferring to mope around like Eeyore. Instead, after getting lost around Santiago for a few hours, I find a café, order food and plan the walk to Finisterra which is another 90k. Alone.
This stage of the walk is, in my opinion, much more beautiful than the one into Santiago. It is more closely aligned to the vision I first held of white sandy pathways curling like smoke into gentle emerald hills filled with the heady scent of Eucalyptus and Pine trees, or bucolic scenes of shepherds returning my cheery wave as I potter along past their curious and happy white and brown goats. I am called to the Eucalyptus for a time and sit to eat, removing shoes so that I might fully connect with the earth. The question arises between us why are you here? And the answer I don’t know but I know that it’s ok not to know, sometimes you just have to follow your intuition and see where it takes you. I eat food, making sure to throw a good amount of it into the woods for the animals.
I’m not sure the trees want rags tied to their branches or silver coins thrown anymore. In the past this might have been enacted as a gesture of respect or to acknowledge the spirits of the land, but we scatter enough rubbish in the woodlands, and by continually clearing forests to create farmland or to force a monoculture of trees to grow for harvesting we are denying the woodland animals the chance to live and eat food from the rich and diverse ancient woodlands that would once have covered this entire continent. The trees tell me that taking litter with me and leaving food at least shows an awareness of this – and is a reminder that food is wealth. Stay longer? No, I want to push on.
A few more days into the walk and my ankle shows no signs of improvement. Some pain can be walked through, but some has to be listened to – knowing the difference is a skill I have yet to learn and so a day pushing on to cover 31k with a new walking group is the catalyst for an enforced break of three days where I have to book into a hotel.
I end up at this hotel because the previous day’s hike had finished my ankle off and the next morning, instead of resting, I continue on, only making it 10k down the road before ending up in heap, crying in the pouring rain, miles away from anywhere. At this point, from nowhere, a woman pulls up in a van, throws my gear in and drives to a hotel. In her broken English she explains that this is exactly what she would hope someone would do for her in the same situation and in my broken Spanish I thank her over and over again and am reminded once more of the kindness of strangers and how this contrasts greatly with my original misgivings towards strangers at the start of this journey.
Feeling too sorry for myself to share an albergue, and with the knowledge that this will overstretch the budget, I know time and the solitude of a single room to tend physical, and lick metaphorical, wounds is needed. I eat Galician soup in the café made of chunky potatoes, greens and cannellini beans in a broth, drink espresso and orange juice, eat sweets and candied nuts and write some more of the new novel-in-progress while being inspired by watching the fabulous Beyonce at Coachella on YouTube.
Three days later, getting back on the road feels good. The weather dramatically improves, and I begin to feel hopeful that wild camping could still be possible. Accepting that I will not make it to Porto is difficult but there is a choice: keep the heavy backpack in the hope I might wild camp, or post the camping gear back to Cymru, thereby halving the weight to carry and making it more likely that I could get the kilometres back on track. I decide upon the former as dreams push me to spend more time out in nature, and I have learned my lesson about chasing kilometres.
Almost as soon as this decision is made the perfect opportunity arises and I find a beautiful (if littered), deserted bay of vanilla-coloured sand, water whose colour sings in harmony with the bright blue sky and a froth of tall white waves in which to go for a dip. This cannot be called a swim because the Atlantic here is fierce, marching relentlessly across the fudge-coloured sand like a herd of cattle trampling anything in its path so I only venture into the ocean up to hip height for fear of being dragged out in the returning stampede, but the water is cold, the sun warm and I feel elated at this beautiful morning gift. After scrambling the rocks and eating food I hike up to a vantage point overlooking the bay. The pine trees offer shelter and the ground is dry with space enough to pitch a tent. I sit for the afternoon listening to the water singing along the coast, her voice woven through with birdsong and the occasional bass hum of a car.
I feel a deep sense of welcome here and know it will be good to camp for the evening – the only anxiety I experience is a cultural one, the nagging voice in the brain that says Should a woman be camping alone? What if something terrible happens? What if someone weird comes along and I’m here in the middle of nowhere. I remember rolling news stories of women raped, murdered, assaulted, beaten and kidnapped; think of the all the Nordic Noir box sets we’ve devoured over endless dark winters, the crime thrillers the horror stories and films that play in the mind like an absurd movie theatre. I sit studying this fear for a while like a particularly dark Facebook feed and breathe, working to hold this unwanted gift at arms’ length outside of my psychic space. The Cymraeg way of saying ‘I’m afraid’ is ‘mae gen i ofn’ or ‘I have fear’ which allows for the separating of self and fear; in Cymraeg, fear is something I carry with me, that I can work through and cast off, that I can examine and discard, whereas ‘I am afraid’ allows for no such clarity in the thought processes. In English, fear is an integral part of who I am. I decide the Cymraeg have the better process and work with that.
After pitching the tent, I sit in the cooling Spanish air and further examine what this fear is. I am surprised (but maybe shouldn’t be) when the conclusion arrives tentatively like an unwelcome guest, that many of these cultural fears of a women alone are based around men. I’m camped in this beautiful part of Galicia after having an idyllic day swimming and hiking by myself, the spot I’ve found feels right in heart, feet and bones, but the cultural fear is one centred around men and their potential action. I’m not afraid that any women will come along to rape, beat, murder, rob or assault me – and this realisation settles around the tiny camp like sad friends who can’t look each other in the eye after we’ve accidentally traipsed through someone’s outdoor toilet and are now surreptitiously trying to scrap shit-of-unknown-origin off our shoes. Previously I’d only felt the fear without examining its causes, and now I begin to understand how, as women, we are prevented from considering doing things alone for fear of what men might do to us. This is not something I’m throwing at the feet of All Men, but I wonder how much of our literary/film/TV/news culture is toxic in the way it portrays the treatment of women and the fear that it generates in us so that we think twice before venturing out into the wild when she calls to us.
As a distraction, and way to shift the mood, I decide to rearrange the backpack and post an Instagram picture of the entire contents along with a list of everything I’m carrying. This creates its own negative psychic echo that ripples out across the mind’s lake as I then get stuck in a weird feedback loop of social media checking/answering/responding/liking and as I have a powerpack I can keep charging my phone to my heart’s content. The next morning I wake deeply disappointed that so many of the previous evening’s hours were wasted in this activity instead of connecting with the beautiful environment I had taken so long to find and engage with, and vow not to do this again. I also vow to make more effort to disconnect when I’m back home.
Over the years I reach the conclusion that my addiction to social media is no different to when I used to smoke 20 fags a day; or take ecstasy most weekends; when I couldn’t get through an evening without a glass or two (or three) of wine; or when I kept buying things I didn’t need and couldn’t really afford. Addiction is caused by a lack somewhere else and it’s locating the lack in the self, examining that hole, the void, and filling it with the things we need, which in my case (and I’d argue most people’s cases) is creativity, self-actualisation and the feeling of true connectedness with like-minded people as well as nature, which is really what we crave. As the years roll by and I get better at reaching for a creative action (writing, knitting, recording sounds, exercising in nature, visiting a friend) instead of a negative one (a cigarette, wine, social media) I’ve found the latter group peters out naturally and organically. The trick is to give up giving up things and to focus instead on filling the life with so many positive, creative things there’s only a small space for elements such as alcohol or social media so that they can only demand a reasonable and positive space in our lives (and psyches). Later I will realise that perhaps this is exactly what the trees wanted to teach me.
I find space to wild camp again a few days later near the coastline outside Finisterra and spend the time scrambling along windy clifftops in bright sunshine as the Atlantic waves thunder below. Again, the tent is pitched but this time the powerpack is broken and the phone battery dies by early afternoon. It is heaven. I see only one woman all day. I am knackered and sit on shrubby grass in the sun feeling a great sense of oneness with the world and a deep confidence that this is exactly where I should be right now. Later I sit outside my tent, body washed in tree-shadowed sunlight and masturbate to a delicious orgasm that resonates through pelvis and feet down into the earth. A tiny ceremonial fire is lit into which I throw twigs and bits of bark that symbolise old habits, thought patterns and toxic behaviours that I am ready to leave behind; I feel an overwhelming sense of forgiveness and a new, more solid sense of self.
That evening I wedge my body between two giant white boulders on the clifftop, using them as a wind-break as I watch the orange sun melt like sorbet into the ocean with the tent pitched 50meters away in the shelter of pine trees, and I think that this might be the most perfect moment. The next morning, I wake with a subtle but inescapable confidence not held before in myself, my art, and my relationships, and I vow to honour this newfound place in the heart. It feels as if I have unfolded a new section of the map of self and now need to keep returning to her, create ceremony, retracing the tracks before they fade. I hold these discoveries dear – they are the souvenirs I will take back to Cymru as a reminder that I am not the same woman who left there three weeks ago.
Back home, after time to reflect on the journey (which eventually changed to hiking 250km Sarria – Santiago – Finisterra – Muxía) more thoughts begin to surface. I followed the call of the Eucalyptus trees but worried that I ended up in Spain, not Portugal as originally planned, and then the question – do the trees know or care about our arbitrary borders? Probably not. The original plan was to spend time alone with the trees but this happened a lot less that envisaged, instead I was folded into moments with people and reminded time and again of the kindness of strangers so that it occurs to me that this is also what the Eucalyptus wanted to teach: when I sit with the trees the strong thought arises I don’t need anybody, I can just go off on my own, I am fine alone and the answer I find in myself is that, yes, I can be alone, but that time spent with other people, breaking down barriers (whether cultural or personal), and working through relationships, is how we build a strong future together. And the words Now you are starting to think like a tree form in the mind.
The other side of this realisation is that women need time alone in nature, and to not be made to feel guilty or afraid of this calling, or to be schooled or herded into doing it. We need to support each other to devise our own personal ways in which we can autonomously explore and create our Selves through pilgrimages, connections and ceremonies that allow us to step out of cultural bondage and into our true nature so that we can begin to create the art of our lives outside the patriarchal framework currently stifling our hearts and artistic vision.