Saturday, 7 June 2008


How long have I felt this way about mountains? The foreboding; threats seeming to lie heavy on my mind. I know some people – Julie Andrews, for example – in whom the heart sings when they’re on a mountain top. But when we were sixteen and went youth hostelling in Hampshire, it was the wide horizons of open moorland in the New Forest that gave me that singing feeling, stretching away under their enormous ellipsis of sky.

For more than two weeks now we have been rained upon. Sorry, Europe has been rained upon; ceaseless waves of rain and lightening storms pushed up from Africa way to deposit their load on the Mediterranean and up as
far as Britain. Those same storms in one evening stripped forty percent of the grape flowers from the vines in the Midi-Pyrenees; they caused landslides in the Cantal and flooding in Italy and Germany. And they have turned some of our tracks into tumbling mountain streams.

Because for the last ten days, and much sooner than we had expected from our cursory survey of the road atlas, we’ve been above 2000 feet and most often around 3000 feet. That’s a Munroe, back in Britain. These are not jagged peaks of mountains. Thank goodness. They are smooth rolls and long ridges, densely wooded with dark pine. Occasional roads thread through the valleys and a village of two thousand inhabitants is reckoned a buzzing town. ‘Reckoned’ so only, since being in another valley, the people we ask don’t quite know for sure.

In my outdoors-y, walking-y youth I was brought up to respect nature. You know: not walking alone, leaving notes in the car or at the post office to say where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Taking spare clothes and food, a compass and whistle even if it’s cloudless when you set out. Knowing how to read a map, that sort of thing. So some of my nerves at these mountains can be traced there: are we respecting these foreign hills as we should? Are we respecting the foreign weather? Although we always reserve our beds in advance, sadly too many previous walkers have changed their plans without letting the accommodation. Now a no-show is seen only as bad manners, certainly not a reason to call in the search-and-rescue. But of course I’m exaggerating: that’s the thing about fear. We’re following the
GR3 which is very well signposted even if it is deserted. And while waiting out a thunderstorm under a single tree is an acknowledged bad idea, there’s no reason to suppose a lightening bolt will seek us out in a whole forest of trees.

As we entered the mountains with their heavier rain and closer clouds, we also entered a phase where to stay in a gite d’étap – a walkers’ hostel – is not a lifestyle or budget choice but a necessity. Excellent though many of these places are (and they are, especially the year-round ones in the mountains that double as skiing chalets), you’re never quite sure what you’ll get till you arrive. Cooking facilities, hot showers, blankets and sheets, ok. Sometimes a room to ourselves, sometimes a heater. Even meals provided, sometimes. But always lino or stone floors, no towels to wring our wet clothes in and an atmosphere that defies the drying abilities of even our technical clothing. Just two days of hostels and rain means everything we have is wet. Wet socks rub the wet feet raw; wet overtrousers summon up red welts on each hip. Overnight, moisture leaches from the wet to the once-dry, dragging that clamminess familiar to all campers and caravanners as they wake.

So far, so grim. But not worthy of terror, surely? And yet it is terror I have been feeling, the same closed-in panic I suddenly felt one day inside a plane and that spread out of the pressurised
container to infect many more corners of my life. It’s shameful for a daughter of Derbyshire to admit it, but the depression goes beyond physical wariness. This is something more elemental, an animal presence lurking. I prefer to close my eyes, not to look out.

So what’s to be done? There are weeks still at this altitude in the Massif Central, till we descend to the lower lands near Figeac. And more mountain ranges to come in Spain. Perhaps lifting the lid of these clouds would help? We agree that it’s not a physical inability to walk in the mountains. Although I plod slowly up the steep stretches and although my lungs and heart pound long after the exertion has stopped, in truth it’s not too hard and even the sack no longer feels so heavy, provided the straps are all pulled tight just so … But anyone who has had panic attacks themselves won’t need me to describe the waves rising up the body, the heat, sweat and paralysis. Yes, it’s irrational. Knowing that doesn’t help, since it’s the reason that is sick. And for me, with my sensitive metabolism (“Finely-tuned,” I tell David, “like a Ferrari”), the mind is hot-wired to the body. I lose all appetite but not my churning stomach. It
ceases to be traceable to any specific factor of rain or cold. It’s all-pervasive, yet amorphous. Something to run from.

We hold a summit meeting, in a valley. The sensible thing is sensible to be flexible and to sit out the weather when we need to. David can’t understand my fear, my panic. But he accepts it’s me. Does he too feel some sort of panic, at the idea of spending even a day, let alone two or three, in a mountain hostel or cheap hotel room in some one-sheep village? Nothing to do. Nothing to look at. A panic in the face of boredom? Or simply of emptiness. I, in my turn, cannot conceive of that feeling.

After coming through the winter and its difficulties; after adapting to the snows and floods of spring and yet still keeping on track, it has been salutary to experience these past two weeks and to be reminded that the Camino is not simply going for a walk on a nice day, as I put it. It is hard, a challenge – and there are many possibilities of failure still ahead of us. Yet now the challenge for us both is from the inside, and perhaps that makes it all more valuable. Will this experience teach me to conquer my panics once and for all, freeing David from the shackles they place on our lives? But softly, softly. A doctor once explained I needed to feel in charge of situations that might provoke the
panic and that I should look back on previous times and remind myself that nothing bad happened then, so why should it now? The second instruction I can do; but as for the first, those tumbling streams of inevitability drag me on, like just another storm-dislodged rock, not hearing my cries of “Stop! Just stop and let my mind catch up!”

6th June 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We are thinking of you and I know what you are going through but it does ease and then the small pleasures start to become more frequent and you will relax into things again.

Much love, Pamxx.