‘I thought I saw an eagle. It might have been a vulture. I never could decide’ (Leonard Cohen)
The 20 km hike from Orisson in France to Roncesvalles in Spain on a crisp autumn morning is bliss – if you don’t mind a slow but constant climb of 700 metres through meadows, then tumbling down 500 metres at about 20 degrees incline, on a track made up entirely of unstable rocks!
The spectacle of the morning breaking over the mountains is impossible to capture on iPhones, which click ceaselessly as 40 or so walkers leave the Orisson Refugio. The coppery tint in the sky is the ‘bride viewing light’ of my mother-tongue, a light that transforms your plainest daughters into fair-skinned houris. On the I-phone, the blushing sky looks at best washed out, at worst jaundiced. My fiddling with the camera settings produces a tacky pink like those cheap ‘artistic’ photos sold at every Indian mountain resort in the 1970s.
I am a hopeless photographer. True. But that’s not the only deficit here. The camera just doesn’t capture, what the eye sees: all at once, in one sweep, the little flower trembling under-foot and the crystaline mountain peaks a hundred miles away. At best you catch a mid-range shot while the barren hills cradling the path play havoc with your sense of distance.
You don’t need to walk to enjoy the majestic panorama. You can drive most of this road. But in a car you might miss the autumn-blooming crocus. Dull purple, shivering, sparse, the wild crocus are unobtrusive, almost secretive, as they stick their heads out of the earth, here and there, hiding in their yellow and orange stamen the world’s most precious, most fragrant spice, saffron.
If you drove here, you would miss too the cowbells ringing in concert, and you wouldn’t get nearly bowled over by the marching band of baa-ing sheep. Most importantly, if you drove, you might scare the mother resting with her new born foal.
Thankfully, there are very few cars here – we saw perhaps four in 10 kms, including the very welcome food van selling hot drinks, bananas and biscuits. This corner of the world is not on anyone’s bucket list unless they are walkers.
The mobile phones went berserk along the way, unable to decide if we are in France or Spain. The national borders here are messy. At Fuente Roldán, Roland’s Fountain, after many dozen attempts, mine decided that we are finally, definitely, in Spain.
This fountain was built early in this century to serve the pilgrims and to remind them of the epic hero Roland who died in 778, somewhere around here. The Mahabharata of French literature, Song of Roland, tells the story Charlemagne’s nephew and favourite lieutenant, the handsome (of course!) young Roland, who was felled after fighting bravely and recklessly, ignoring the advice of more experienced generals. Young Roland had been betrayed by his own step father and hopelessly outnumbered by devious and degenerate Moors. That’s what the founding text of French literature says. Basques say Roland was killed by a handful of wily mountain men, who, like all good freedom fighters, had the local knowledge to beat back a young French upstart.
Whatever the truth or the legend, the landmark here is unedifying. The drinking water tap is welcome but you nearly miss it as you hold your nose and rush past the garbage dump. Perhaps the message here is that some histories deserve grubby memorials?
The day’s climbing is done a little before we reach this blot on the landscape.
Now, the path is lined by trees standing at awkward angles, with their trunks bizarrely wrapped around each other. Later in the hotel, I google (as you would expect) to figure out what it is that I have seen. It is a rare phenomenon called inosculation, I gather: a process by which trees naturally, graft into each other! I took dozens of photos. None looked like the real thing. When the camera gets close, you can’t see the forest for the trees, and when I try a longer shot, you can’t see the trees for the forest!
Past the tangled woods, I turn a corner and just for a moment, the vista opens up to my left. Needle-sharp, icy blue mountain peaks pierce the horizon.
My camera battery is dead from the hour of failed bids to capture the entangled forest.
The flat battery finally releases me from the compulsion to record all things for the future. Now I have nothing to do but give in to the moment: take in the here and now with all my senses. For the walker, the moment is a lot more than the monumental views that mesmerise the eyes. The ‘here and now’ is the autumn on her skin; every fibre of the body aching from the climb; head filled with impatient curiousity about the twisted trees; adrenaline from exertion still flooding the heart and the relief palpable deep in the bones because the biggest climb of the entire 1500 kilometre Camino Frances is now behind her. What camera could record all that?