Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

April 19

April 19th, 2016

April 19

image

Today’s trek began before dawn, climbing up out of Torres del Rio, cresting a hill looking back out over the valley as the sun rose. I walked out with the two Karls, my German friends, so Karl-Heinz and I discussed books for a few km. He is a remarkably well-read man, particularly with books on walking or travel. It was a day to start extending the kilometers, so I finally pushed past 30. Given the general ease of the landscape, I’m not sure why I’m walking short–just trying to get into a good rhythm but am finding it elusive. Today’s midpoint was Logrono, the capital of the region and home to a number of old churches, all with those huge gilded altarpieces. I wandered them a while, hoping to see the paintings, but all was dark and I didn’t have the correct change to get the lights on. I did glimpse a Michelangelo painting before the lights went down. After Logrono, the path wound through grape fields, and around a large man-made lake. Along the dam, there were older men whose long fishing rods were set, while they say in folding chairs smoking and drinking coffee, casting eyes occasional at the tips of their rods to see if they caught anything. The weather threatened on the way into Navarrete, a medieval town on a hill where I found the municipal Albergue, settled into another evening on the Camino. I seem to have outstripped my original cohort of pilgrims, and now am among a different set– many Americans who laugh too loud.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 18

April 18th, 2016

April 18

 

image

There can be no doubt this is a wine region. On the way out of Estella this morning I walked past a wine fountain. Even early in the morning, not something to pass up. I thought about filling my camelback but refrained. The fields, which were lined with poppies, were either hay or grape vines of various ages. I saw new fields just being set out with grapes, and fields with vines of all ages. Most stark were the oldest. Set closer together than the newer ones which are laid out for tractor cultivation, those stumps are the very definition of the word “gnarled.” I hope to find someone who can tell me their age as they seem almost Roman. This place is all about time.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 17

April 17th, 2016

April 17

image

Puente la Reina to Estella. Still getting a feeling for this trail, getting at its history. In the USA we tend to build trails out in the wilds, but here, the pilgrim trail has been walked for millennia, so the towns have grown up around it, as have the primary roads. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a long distance walk is often within sight or hearing of a main highway. Today’s walk, which had many beautiful parts and great villages brought that lesson home. I often felt I was walking on the median strip of a highway. Still, there was great beauty even there. On the way out of town, I walked a bit with “John” the Italian, who I had passed a couple of days before. As often happens, we stumbled back and forth between Italian and English, having a great if limited conversation. A native of Milan, it is John’s third Camino, his second on the Frances. I always like to guess nationalities based on backpacks, usually with good success, but Osprey has been making inroads in Europe, so many Scandinavians now carry them instead of Deuter. John had a beat-up old osprey, clearly the companion of many miles, and his pace, humor, and genuine good spirits made for a wonderful first part of the trail. We crossed fields of dormant grape vines, and he celebrated the wine that would one day come from them, noting it had an Italian heritage as they had been brought by the Romans, something evinced by the very road we traversed which was cobbles and looked (and felt) like a traditional Roman road. The midpoint of the day was in the village of Lorca, where I stopped for coffee con leche and a chorizo baguette. It was mid-morning on a Sunday and they were blasting Puccini opera on the sound system– made me wish I had arrived with John who I expect would have provided the bass line. It was a day of small things, not big sights. Each town had a small church, so old they seemed to almost be growing from the rock that made them. What I found most arresting though was a tiny flower, the only one of its type I saw all day, a grape hyacinth. Such an inconsequential plant, much like the Acony Bell that Gillian Welch sings so poignantly about. I grew up on Summit Avenue in Woodstock Virginia, with four other houses in a row near mine. The rest of the landscape was orchard– peach and apple. Across the street was a mature, mixed apple orchard with trees of great variety (few were the same and the apples were like nothing of the cheap sweetness you can buy today). It was a meticulously maintained orchard planted with lush but coarse orchard grass that was bush-hogged or sickle-barred regularly. At some point, someone must have sown or planted grape hyacinth throughout, because in the early spring, that green orchard grass floor turned blue with those insignificant flowers. Being a kid, I got to experience them at eye-level, with a detail and intimacy that is denied adults. A blue that for me has defined the color ever since; those flowers are mine.

April 16

April 16th, 2016

April 16

image

Bells, horns, birds, and bicycles. It took a long time to clear the Pamplona city limits, though it was a good walk. The parks are mature and well maintained, the path was clearly marked with metal scallop shell disks set in the sidewalk. An early Saturday morning, so the streets were empty except for the runners. The trek to Puente la Reina was mostly on a path going up over a ridge lined with windmills–a path shared with Saturday morning mountain bike riders. As usual, the way was lined with pilgrims, some familiar, some new. I encountered an older woman walking in boots, but also a shawl and long dress. I felt certain she was a nun, and just as I passed, I heard a ringing and thought it must be a pilgrim’s bell, an idea quickly abandoned when it sounded again right behind me and I jumped to avoid a speeding bicycle–so much for medieval reverie. At the peak were a series of sheet-metal pilgrim silhouettes and some food trucks, then a rapid descent down past trees full of birds. I heard a loud, arresting bird call echoing off the trees which became more and more insistent. Then, once again, a bicycle rushed past on the way down the hill, horn blaring. I guess the lesson is to stop romanticizing the aural landscape. Still, the views on the ridges– fields of rapeseed with forts, churches, and castles on the rises–were spectacular, as was the weather which alternated between bright sun and light rain with clouds mounding up on the horizon promising late day fireworks. Each town had squares, statues, and churches that invited lingering, with Puenta La Reina also offering narrow alleys with shops and restaurants tucked into narrow entryways. The Auberge Santiago Apostle (recommended by the Germans who ran last night’s Auberge) was a new structure set up on the hill half a click up a hill. Clean, efficient, and full of many of my acquaintances, it felt a lot like a locker room. After a shower and quick email check, I headed back into town, hotfooting it just ahead of the storm, to find a tapas bar out of the rain and in the midst of the locals, all enjoying a wet, low-key afternoon. That seems to be life on the way, Buen Camino!

April 15

April 16th, 2016

April 15

image

In what will surely be a constant refrain, a group of pilgrims who apparently don’t understand the notion of letting other people sleep were up, moving and talking loudly much earlier than necessary–the sun is not even up until after 7:00. (I’ll try not to repeat this in writing though I’m sure it will be repeated in daily life). The wine-swilling grocery store owner was up and at it early, providing coffee and Powerade for us dehydrated pilgrims. A short hike today into Pamplona, the town of the toros. The largest city on the way, Pamplona has a walled old town with winding narrow streets, the Castillo square, and a large bull ring. It’s not the time of year for the festival of the Bulls, but it is the semana des pinhos, so all the bars had incredible food (tapas) on the counter. It’s amazing what they can pile on top of a piece of bread, though in many ways the best thing is always the Iberica ham on a baguette. As Bruce reminded me, it is a lot like Virginia ham, a favorite of my father who would have loved wandering this town (though maybe not the trekking part). Of course I spent time at the cafe Iruna, a classic 1880s bar with the Hemingway room/statue. Patrick met up with one of his TA friends for a zero day, but only after we had a long couple of coffees on the square. The auberge Paderborn is one of the state owned ones, but is run by a German couple– very hospitable and just off the hill behind the bull-ring. It was an afternoon of strolling, coffee, tapas, and a few beers. Interesting to be in a bustling European city, particularly after 7:00 when everyone is out for their promenade. Late evening I met up with John, my Irish friend, and his German hiker friend Karl-Heinz¬†for a nightcap. He was a retired orthodontist who could discuss the intricacies of Heidegger, quote Rilke, Hoellderlin, and even Poe from memory, and had read most of the great walking books including Fermor and Chatwin. Just an amazingly erudite man, which made for a great conversation amongst all of us end to the day.

April 14

April 16th, 2016

April 14

 

I didn’t expect to be haunted by Hemingway on this trek, but he casts a long shadow in this region. There are even plaques marking the “HemingWAY.” A number of people started their hike today entirely too early. The auberges are unlike any hostel facility I’ve ever stayed in. Huge clean modern dormitories that efficiently accommodate large influxes of pilgrims– all stored like cord-wood for the evening, then turned out onto the trail the next morning. You cannot lounge in the morning, so I soon found myself walking in the dark of the dawn on my way first to Burguete, a place I have always wanted to visit. Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises details the bad behavior of a group of expatriates, first in Paris and then in Pamplona, but in the middle he offers up a remarkably beautiful pastoral interlude. Jake Barnes, the main character, and a friend go fishing in Burguete. I’m not a fisherman, but that chapter has always made me wish I were. So as the sun rose, I found myself walking into Berguete, hoping to find breakfast and a bit of Hemingway’s world. I walked past the first cafe, to my regret as it turned out to be the only one open, and in my search for coffee, I lost the way, putting in a couple of unnecessary kilometers until a fireman set me straight. Soon I was out in the countryside, still hungry and caffeine starved, but also crossing the trout streams described in the novel. A satisfying walk. The next village supplied a ham sandwich and remarkable coffee, and soon I was in Zubiri, the end point for many pilgrims day. I walked a good bit of the day with Patrick Cooley, a recent Te Araroa hiker, and we pushed on to Larrasoana where we found a whole crew at the Auberge San Nicola, including Michelle, a 2013 Appalachian Trail thru hiker who shares a number of hiker friends. The market next door was run by a Doors fan who insisted on giving his patrons a glass of local Rioja before selling us anything– and of course he had a glass as well. The rest of the evening was spent telling stories and drinking San Miguel– all suffered the next morning.

A Walker of Rivers

April 13th, 2016

A Walker of Rivers

image

Water–you’d have thought I’d had enough of it. Starting the Te Araroa on September 1st (against the advice of everyone consulted), I sloshed my way through the Herekino and Rataea forests, splashed up the Mangapukahukanu, climbed any number of peaks to admire the fog, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to wade across the mouth of the Okura just north of Auckland. The better part of my first two months on the Te Araroa was in a damp mist if not outright downpour. But as spring gave way to summer, that fog lifted and water took on a new and surprising quality–indescribable beauty. When hiking the Appalachian Trail in the United States, I crossed many rivers–from the white water of the Nantahala in North Carolina to the broad slow tidal waters of the Hudson just above New York City, or the Kennebec in Maine where a paid staffer ferries thru-hikers across in a canoe. The Te Araroa has more than its share of tough river crossings, particularly on the South Island–the Rakaia, Rangitata, and my personal nemesis, the Ahuriri–but along with crossings, the TA also brings opportunities to hike a river’s length, to become a walker of rivers. Each has its own attractions and devotees, but for me, nothing compares to the trek from St. Arnaud along Lake Rotoiti then up the Travers River to its high mountain source.

I woke early at the backpacker hostel in the Nelson Lakes Motel–one of those places cherished by hikers both for its amenities and the information passed between staff and fellow trekkers. Triple Hands Dave, a mountain guide who had also hiked the Appalachian Trail, was already cooking breakfast for his crew. I made coffee while we talked about the differences between the AT and the TA. Little did I know, I was about to start a day’s hike that would bring into stark relief those very differences. I soon packed up and headed out, but not to the trail just yet. One of my Te Araroa resolutions was to never eat food from my pack when there was a restaurant nearby, so I wandered down to the St. Arnaud Cafe for the “big breakfast.” Hiking the Appalachian Trail brought few opportunities for a cafe breakfast. It was almost always an early morning meal of cold poptarts or granola bars before plunging back in the wilderness, so lingering in a cafe was quite the luxury. The morning was cold as I sat at the picnic tables waiting for the cafe to open, using some free wifi to catch up on the news and staving off obligations back in the States. Soon I was tucking into a hearty breakfast followed by ice cream (on both the AT and the TA, thru-hikers can eat as much as they want, a habit hard to break after returning to a more sedentary life). Soon the trail beckoned, and I started the thirty kilometer hike to Upper Travers Hut.

The best beginning of a day, one that limbers up old arthritic joints, is an easy flat walk. Along the shore of Lake Rotoiti, one of the Nelson Lakes that give water a good name, the manicured path at times veers out onto gravel beaches giving a chance to linger and study the water’s color, texture, and the lake bottom which, regardless of depth, always seems just inches from the surface. By the time I got to the top of the lake, my legs felt young and the sun was shining brightly. There was a clear sense of adventure in the air, and the water was in the lake, streams and river, not coming down on me from the sky. The valley opened up as the trail crossed old pastures and followed the winding of the Travers, occasionally crossing by those swinging bridges that still give me pause. Walking those lower parts close to the river, I became increasingly aware of the water’s clarity, marveling at its almost unimaginable color. In the United States before the advent of brown ceramic insulators, rural electrical lines were strung on blue-green glass knobs. Today those knobs are collectibles (they make great paper weights). The one siting on my desk at home echoes the color of the Travers River, but it is a only a feeble echo.

The hike took me from the lake to the headwaters, so the river’s life unfolded across the day, going from the staid maturity at the mouth to the rollicking turbulence of youth (yes, the water really does rollick over rocks). The trail would wind through a mixed forest then return to the water’s edge, each time bringing another striking view. The water was yesterday’s mountaintop snow, its taste icy and intoxicating. I stopped once to look into what must have been a deep pool, though it was difficult to judge the depth of something so transparent. As I stared at the bottom– perfect, round blue-gray stones– a trout caught my eye. Large, brown, at least 20 inches long and initially invisible, the fish was holding steady in the current. I’m not a fisherman though at that moment I wish I were. Instead I found myself thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” where Nick Adams, the protagonist, is recovering from the mental anguish of fighting in World War I. He goes fishing in northern Michigan, and early in the narrative leans over a bridge rail to watch big trout in the current. Nick has travelled to this river hoping to find a way to steady himself. Similar to most long-distance hikers, his actions are studied–precise, almost ritualized. Taking care is a way for him to control his situation and dampen down the uncertainty that wartime trauma has brought. Standing there watching that particular trout, I began to better understand Hemingway’s story. The Travers plunges down the mountain to the lake below, waterfall after waterfall. Even slack water is anything but slack. That fish motionless in the pool was swimming fast. Holding steady is hard work.

Although smaller streams had been joining the river all day, toward late afternoon, they came rushing in louder. I could see the mountain looming after passing Hopeless Creek (one of many vaguely ominous place-names along the Te Araroa). In contrast to the valley, the trail became steeper and more hazardous. The surrounding mountains cast dark shadows, and the trail itself made that familiar move–climbing above the stream then striking out level along an edge both narrow and slippery. I walked with care, staring at the path to keep steady, occasionally stopping to see where it led–a narrow chasm cut by slips, slides, and tumbling brooks. Then I saw, dropping straight off a mountain top, a waterfall with fully half of the water making up the Travers river at that point. It was as if someone had just taken up half the river and leaned it against a mountain, then let it fall, that blue-green water rushing vertically for what looked to be hundreds of meters. There are no words.

The day was winding down as I finally made my way to the hut which, to my surprise, had smoke coming from the chimney. Hiking the Te Araroa early in the season had been a solitary experience, so I wasn’t expecting company up near the top of Mt. Travers. With the hut in sight, I decided to cut across a meadow in what seemed a more direct route only to discover the way I had chosen was more water than land, so I managed to soak shoes and socks within yards of my destination. On entering I was met by a party–two Kiwi guides from Picton and four trekkers from Australia. They had crossed the lake by boat and spent the previous night at John Tait Hut, clearly hiking a more civilized pace than I was, something evident by their buoyant good humor. Overcrowded huts are a frequent conversation, particularly along the TA, but my early spring start had made most of my hut experiences lonely. I well remember two nights and one very long day at Waiopehu in the Tararuas where I found myself wet, cold, and alone staring at windows made opaque by driving rain, wondering what was out there. The morning it cleared brought a clear view of Levin, the town I had hiked out of two days earlier, looking entirely too close for all my hiking efforts. The Waiopehu and Upper Travers huts are fairly new, spacious, clean and inviting with the Upper Travers made even more so by the fire in the wood stove and a group of enthusiastic hikers. I hung my wet clothes by the fire and instead of a solitary evening, I was treated with extra food, some wine, and lively conversation.

The next morning, I woke to the expedition leader rekindling the fire, and soon the rest were rustling about. I packed, made breakfast with steaming coffee and even had a second cup, but that day my goal was Waiau Forks which required a climb over Travers Saddle and then, later in the afternoon, Waiau Pass. I said my farewells and walked out into one of those days where the very air is like glass, imparting a sheen on everything within sight. The path soon climbed above the bush and spread out below was the entire river valley. Even though I couldn’t, it seemed as if I could see all the way back to Lake Rotitiri, so for a moment it felt as though I was looking at an illustration in a topography book, one that explained the parts of a river valley, and I had the view from the top. All around were peaks, jagged rocks, some softened by the remaining snow– the snow that melted and fed the Travers. I lingered for a while at that point where the river began, then turned to start the long descent to the Sabine Valley, heading off for another day of walking rivers.

T. Hugh Crawford

April 13

April 13th, 2016

April 13

image

The first day of the Camino is supposed to be the most difficult– 26 km up and over the Pyrenees from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles. The high trail was closed because of late snow, so I made my way up the valley along the river near the highway (along with many other pilgrims). Parts were soon familiar– a hawk circled above, periwinkle was blooming on the banks, and the cherry trees were starting to bud. In many ways I have been in perpetual spring, having trekked from September through December in the Southern Hemisphere, then traveling to Nepal in late February, and, after a brief interlude on the equator in Tanzania, hiking here in April. I am constantly surrounded by new growth, an unintended but welcome consequence of my chaotic calendar. Another plus was how strong I felt on today’s walk. Granted, it was only 26 km over a 1050m pass, but I felt good the whole way, so this should be a good trek. The one disappointment was how much was on pavement. Not sure how my knees will take 780 km of paved roads. The scenery though has been first rate. Not spectacular like Nepal, more rural like parts of New Zealand. Much of today’s walk was through farms– sheep not yet shorn and dairy cattle. A tractor passed hauling a wagon with ensilage, the smell was overpowering and evocative. Suddenly I was standing in my front yard back in Woodstock Virginia watching Tyrone Epard come by on a tractor. He was standing while driving, a shock of white-blonde hair in the wind, hauling a turd-hearse on his way to one of the many fields on what was then the Epard farm. Smells are the key to long-lost memories. What set today’s walk apart from many is that I’m on a pilgrimage route. Many of the people I walk with are here for a profoundly spiritual journey, stopping to pray briefly at crosses on the wayside. It was also a border trek today, starting out in France, crossing into Spain and back along the border for much of the day, before finally crossing the pass at Roland’s monument and heading into Spain for the duration. I kept thinking of Walter Benjamin who crossed the Pyrenees in 1940, only to be threatened to be sent back to Vichy France and chose instead suicide. National boundaries can have disastrous implications. Today the borders are not policed, and I made the descent into Roncesvalles early afternoon, settled into the pub with the other pilgrims enjoying the end of a first day’s trek.

T. Hugh Crawford

April 12

April 13th, 2016

April 12

image

Camino minus 1. The day before a trek is all about reading the auguries. Maybe not slaughtering chickens to read entrails, but instead catching the tone or mood of the world that sets the stage for commencement. Feeling good so far about this one. Slept in and packed slowly, then headed out first to les halles at Biarritz because pilgrims need a scallop shell on the Camino. It is the emblem of the trek. At the fish market I found a stall surrounded by scallop shells holding back the ice in the display. I went into my ignorant American pantomime to ask to buy one. The proprietor smiled handing one over and declining recompense. I knew then and there this would be a good trek. Swung by the coffee shop for a large latte, the patisserie for some croissants and caught the bus to Bayonne. The trains were not running because of track repairs, so the SCNF had a bus to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port which, I soon discovered, was full of pilgrims (more than 40). I could hear a few American voices, but most were Scandinavian, French, or German. It is only the beginning of the season, but it appears the way will be crowded. On arrival at the town, I went to the check-in station, only to discover it was closed for lunch. I found a small store for a beer and was soon joined by Jen, a man from Denmark with a good appetite for beer and a good attitude about the trek. We had lunch together, checked into the hostel (good place with a great owner) and gathered our Camino passport, etc. Unfortunately the high route is snowed in so tomorrow I must follow the route along the road. Something of a disappointment but not unexpected. Jen and I sat by the river over red wine and were soon joined by Kai, a Norwegian also sharing our room. There is a real enthusiasm amongst the pilgrims which, even though the trail will be crowded, makes me optimistic about the upcoming walk.

April 10-11

April 11th, 2016

April 10-11 — Arusha to Biarritz

image

Transitions between treks are all about transit and time. An interminable time in terminals and on planes (Air Ethiopia–good airlines) brought me to Paris, Charles de Gaulle early morning — the cheapest flight I could find from Kilimanjaro to Europe. Some transport brought me to city center and a direct confrontation with western modernity–a place where the electricity is never off. Clothes, gestures, patterns of movement and encounter were all suddenly familiar. As if to underline my return to the west and, more particular, that I was in Paris, I found myself on the metro standing next to a remarkably beautiful French couple making out. I still had a long day’s travel on the TGV to Biarritz for a couple of days recuperation before going over to St. Jean Pied-de-Port to commence of my walk of the Camino de Santiago. By early evening I found myself in a ridiculously perfect seaside town, catching the bus from the station to disembark at the public garden just as the intermission for the ballet took place. The square in front of the opera house was flooded with dance enthusiasts, bringing a certain buoyancy to the atmosphere. My hotel was across the square, and I soon found myself sitting outside the Bar Jean eating moules and frites washed down with cold local beer watching European evening behavior. It was familiar and happy, but also much different from what I have been living these last months in Nepal and Tanzania. Of course I was alone, but that solitude was heightened by that cultural distance. Still, this is a joyful (if affluent) place which does provoke a smile. I keep thinking of the end of Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises when Jake first goes to Bayonne and then San Sebasti√°n, both towns very close to here. On my walk I will also see Burguete and Pamplona, so I’m on a sort of Sun Also Rises tour. I guess I’ll need to include some drunken nights in Paris to get a true feel for the book (given my trip in the snows of Kilimanjaro I guess I continue in his footsteps). Morning brought more delight, including a humorous pantomime with a man in the laundromat who helped me understand a fairly arcane system, followed by a stroll through les halles, the market. Apart from magnificent bread and cheese, what I found most striking was the simple care they take with their food. Everything was arranged and displayed with such care, marking out a different sense of time from life back in the US. People hurry to bring food to you, but its preparation is slow and careful. Spent the day wandering the town and the oceanfront. Hard to believe I was swimming in the Indian Ocean a little over a week ago. People are bathing in the Atlantic here, but it looks frigid.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Seo wordpress plugin by www.seowizard.org.