“Sube, sube, sube” Paco kept reminding me. To reach Spain, the road led up, up, up, for about thirty kilometres across the first mountain pass, then into an undulating collection of colls that roll you towards Pamplona. Despite the grind of climbing long hills, I always enjoy it more than flat riding. The twists and turns hold intrigue and surprises, the tops reveal dramatic panoramas, the descents whisk away the old and blow in fresh inspiration.
Many years ago and recently paralysed, I joined a section of the Camino de Santiago in the Pyrenees as part of a relay team. I have memories of being squashed up in a racing wheelchair, my head thrust down toward the tarmac, struggling up hills with no gears and arm muscles not yet adapted to a life of wheels. The journey across the mountains was a far better experience this time, the laid-back position of handcycling allowing views of the peaks, of lovely raw rock, of trees stretching tall to expansive blue sky. From the popular Camino starting point of St Jean Pied de Port, it isn’t far to the Spanish border, and on crossing it, my companions changed dramatically. Underlying anxiety and frowns were transformed to smiles and talk of Tapas trails. Paco and Solís were ecstatic to be on home turf, in warmer temperatures and familiar culture.
The Camino wanders between pretty villages with old stone churches and shuttered houses with colourful window boxes, alive with invitations to ‘Peregrinos’ – the Pilgrims – to sample the menu of the day or take a bed in a hostel. The Peregrinos are guided by the iconic symbol of the ‘Way’, a painted yellow Concha (shell) shining bright on blue, with a bold yellow arrow beneath indicating which way to go. Everyone walks with purpose in their stride, the ‘Way’ beckoning to move onward and forward. The path is often at the roadside or crosses it as it twists across fields, and as we pedaled by we exchanged calls of “Buen Camino”. I wondered about each person’s journey: Why are they there? What is their story? Why do they walk?
Whilst walking or riding, there is little interaction. The repetition of putting one foot in front of the other or the rhythmic circles of propelling a bike seem to lull each person into a quiet inner space. There is a feeling of peace and introspection, a moving meditation. But there is contrast too. On arriving in Pamplona, the city felt a shock after weeks on the road and any peaceful contemplation must be purged from any Peregrino: it’s narrow old streets ooze with life, it’s heartbeat pulsates strong. Crowds and tapas are pumped around cobbled alleys famed for the running of bulls. Paco is fast. He beats at the pace of Pamplona, his energy constantly buzzing. Without moment to object, he dragged us into the back of a shop and lifted me up some rickety stairs, insisting we pose for photos amongst a mock-up bull run. Rigged out in white t-shirts and red neckerchiefs, the guy working there enthusiastically arranged us amongst the plastic bulls, handing out props and encouraging dramatic body poses. The picture looked so ridiculous I didn’t think anyone would think it real. Posted with innocence and not a supporter of bull sport myself, I hadn’t thought it would be my most popular instagram post ever, or of the objections it would raise. Needless to say, we never saw a real bull except grazing in a distant field as we cycled by.
Back on the trail, the temperatures cooled and the weather turned a little bleak. We traded chilly camping and self-catering for hostels and menu of the day. We shared dinner with other way-goers, and at last learned a little of their motivation. “I’m on a career break and want to strengthen my connection with God again”, Susan from Texas tells me. “This is my third time” says Michael from Germany “I wasn’t planning to do it all the way to Santiago again, but it somehow just draws you along”. Some seem led by religion or a spiritual quest, others just by the route and the feeling it creates, or by a desire for change or to do something differently. Perhaps some that walk have been motivated by the Camino’s inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list, or by a spiritual path to journey to the remains of the apostle St James said to be buried beneath the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Certainly there is something special to be sensed. On the surface, the Camino is simply a way-marked path, but beneath it lies a story and richness that generates a journey: a shared experience whilst being alone, a daily purpose, a goal, an adventure into the unknown. It offers the ingredients that I perceive are vital to keeping lifeblood flowing, things so easily lost in the chaos of modern day living where many operate in survival mode. It is no surprise that so many people from all corners of the world are drawn to follow the Camino’s dusty trails across northern Spain and into the ancient mystical city of Santiago.
Our companion Stephen had to leave soon after Pamplona but in final week we were joined by my nephew Archie and a school teacher, Sean, from years ago. Sean is a chemistry teacher: the perfect fit for a Quest 79 project given it’s all about alchemy: encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones and discover something new, transforming ‘muddy’ bits into some ‘inner gold’: doubt into confidence, hesitance into boldness, fear into bravery, lethargy into action…
Fifteen and a rugby player not a cyclist, I was worried that Archie would suffer with a sore bum or aches from body parts not often used. Instead it looked effortless for him and he seemed to free-wheel uphill. He embraced the biting cold and wet of Galicia with barely a flinch, and on the final day riding into Santiago, the views non-existent through the mist of heavy rain and water jumping off the roads, he optimistically stated “we’ll be stronger for it when we get there”. His comment lifted me from the dread of five hours of wet riding – a handbike in the heavy rain effectively simulates a power-shower – and made me embrace the final leg of the Camino.
Following Paco’s backside up the road had become a familiar view and in the final kilometres of doing so, I reflected on the month gone by. Paco had taken control of everything. He had been our leader, the boss, a machine, a motivator and passionate dictator. I had let go and gone with his flow. The journey had not been a retreat or escape, I’m not religious and I hadn’t been in search of God. I hadn’t consciously thought about it, but I’d been riding through a life transition…but I find the most profound changes are those not over-thought or ruminated. I am moving away from a life I have known toward something new and I sense the excitement and expansion inside me. I feel healthy and whole, ready for new beginnings.
There is no finer way to take a journey than to share it with others and be welcomed by loved ones at the end. Waiting at the paving stone that marks kilometre zero, in the centre of the indescribably beautiful plaza beneath the cathedral of Santiago, we were greeted with hugs and dry clothes.
SPECIAL THANKS to Paco, Solís, Stephen, Sean and Archie, and to all of those who supported and encouraged us along the way, and our fundraising for Spinal Injuries and other good causes.