Saturday, 13 September 2008


The Meseta is a giant lurking in the legends of pilgrims, just like the Roncesvalles pass. It intimidates with tales of dehydration and sunstroke and the even tougher mental anguish of boredom. There are endless kilometres of flat, distraction-less tracks, clear, straight and hot; and many are those who give up along the way and catch the bus to León.

We, however, were gifted with possibly the best of seasons to cross these eight days of cornfields. There were pink sunrises into which we inserted ourselves in a long line of ones and twos, planning to avoid midday walking. But the famed heat rarely arrived. This September has started with cooler breezes spinning off from storms across the Atlantic, and a sun that warms rather than bakes. Mackerel clouds have shrouded the sun just when it might have become too hot, and if rain or morning mist have sometimes taken us by surprise, they have served to add texture to the flat monotony.

But there was always that section. The one people use to define the Meseta. The one that, knowing little in advance, grows to be the character of the whole Meseta and causes advance sales of spare water bottles and parasols. Seventeen kilometres without shade or a single water tap, much less a bar in one of the villages that regularly punctuate the way. The thought of that Meseta has lain in my mind all year, along with the mountain peaks, as a challenge to which we had to rise.

It begins after Carrión de los Condes, which doesn't mean, as we imagined it does, "carrion for the eagles". Carrión is a pretty little town an hour from where we had slept. Oddly, for late morning, dozens of pilgrims were sitting in bars or on park benches, shopping for food or simply putting off the moment of setting out. The night had ended with a giant thunder storm and lightening that led to downpours and turned the tracks to mud. People were shaken from their rhythms. But now it was clear, and they seemed destined to wait for late afternoon to set out.

It was half past eleven when we moved on. The trailing breeze from the storm balanced the sun and even through the middle of the day kept us from overheating. Along the track beside an old country road there were frequent trees to give moments of shade, and there were even stretches lined with poplars for rustling refreshment. After an hour, the ruined Franciscan abbey of Santa María de Benivivire peeped like a shy country estate from its grove. Then we were onto the Via Aquitana, a straight, flat Roman road used to carry gold from Astorgas to Bordeaux. In the straight, flat, Roman way we could see our path, unchanging, for many kilometres ahead and behind, and count the other pilgrims who had risked the high sun: three.

For over two hours, then, there really was no shade to walk in. We picnicked sitting on rolls of straw and two of the three fellow walkers passed us by with grunted "Buen camino"s. Further on, a slab of shade from a collapsing barn might have saved lives; but the combination of tree, concrete benches and tables and a tap serving "unclean" water might have taken lives instead.

As the ground, impossibly, became flatter and more featureless, the horizons stretched so far that they ceased to exist and the monotony ground its way into our spirits. Though we weren't baking, a quiet desperation burned its way into our minds. And as we walked, the breeze turned to wind, blowing storm clouds to circle around us. Our hostess of the night before had spent breakfast spinning stories of the girl she had seen killed by lightning, and the deadly storms on the Meseta earlier in the year. I eyed the towering clouds, calculating the moment to fling my metal walking sticks far from me.

Three hours after Carrión and after three false mirages, the church tower of Calzadilla de la Cuerza came into view. But in these distances, things take a long time to arrive. Nearly another hour passed before the little village suddenly revealed itself in a slight hollow. Rarely have I been so pleased to see such ramshackle buildings.

The hostel had announced, nine kilometres earlier via a yellow-painted message on the single, deserted road we had crossed, that it possessed "an animated bar". No wonder. If everyone arriving had the same intense relief as I had, there would be a party indeed tonight.

9th September 2008

No comments: