Is this the past?

At the top of the jetty an unlocked gate, an abandoned restaurant and Spain. It was an hour to the nearest town and an hour of minor internal carping: dwellings of indeterminate age and a Francoesque aesthetic, untended plots, few people. Portugal had not yet been put down. As we wound back to the coast the grey skies met the grey seas and low grey cliffs, the rain decisively declared itself and partied with our clothing. During a brief respite at a cafe, I looked as dew formed on the sward of my leggings, tiny droplets clustered like a miraculous apparition on a sacred relic. A Serbian couple had clear silicon overshoes, five euros in decathlon, covering their smart trainers. I had spent the previous hour, as my soaking socks were rinsed and rinsed in my soaking shoes, they’ll be cleaner than ever! remembering my dad’s galoshes, their weird lack of structure, just a floppy black rubber shape, their smell, the impossibility of moving in them. They defied my four year old imagination, what happened in the world out there, where did daddy go, my small feet unable to even play at being him. The Serbian remembered his grandfather having a pair, showed me a picture on his phone, and told me the word for galoshes in his language. The word has now gone the way of galoshes.

The rain toyed with us some more. I experienced a further infantile memory, the first successful solo completion of getting dressed, as, at the third attempt, I managed to throw my poncho over me and my bag and tie a cord around my backpack engorged waist. The main obstacle, as for the child, was the mystery of hyperbolic space, the inside of my poncho bearing no relation to the outside. Where would my head appear next? The rain was only minorly troubled, but I felt somewhat cosy in my well irrigated polytunnel.

Two nights in the tiny old fishing village of Oia allowed us to watch the waves of heavy rain from behind comfortably double glazed windows, but the barometer rested equally comfortably at its lowest point, rain tomorrow, and however dry we and our clothes might be, our shoes may as well have spent two nights in a stream.

Bran and Alan had joined us just outside Porto, but their company had been intermittant. I was reminded of staring at a small tank of water in the physics lab at school as the teacher dropped weights and described wave forms. Aged fourteen the scientific voiceover quickly receded and I drifted away into some other world. But from somewhere the memory of resolving wave forms appears, ripples smoothing out as they travel on. Our bodies had a four week headstart on them. Our bags were mostly weightless, incorporated like a tennis player and his racquet into our psychic bodies. Alan walked the final five kilometres of their first day with a bag on his front as well as his back, the only problem is I can’t see my feet. This after he’d negotiated a tricky downhill section, where for me being able to see my feet hadn’t seemed the solution to a safe passage.

We gradually wove our paths together, conversations, silences, meals shared. The action of walking, the stimulating texture of the path underfoot, smooth or the regular corrugations of cobbles or the wild chaos of the forest routes, these radiated up through our bodies and knots were loosened.

Slipping dry feet into wet shoes, five hours of walking ahead, we plunged into the day. I stretched my long legs as we headed up the empty coast. Much of the path was along the road, occasionally with little diversions down to the sea. We reconvened for coffee at a rare cafe, and then again for lunch. I left first, having declared my day to be map free, I’ll just follow the arrows until I get to Baiona. And so I did, head down, marching on through the pouring rain. I stopped at a bus shelter as a peloton whizzed past, motorcycles stopping traffic and then gunning away to the next pinch point. The walking path, a band of yellow, had a speed limit for bikes and pedestrians of ten km/h. The road curved round a desolate headland, I paused and sheltered by the walls of a solitary ruin. No one was to be seen. The final hour of walking had me imagining myself as the rusty tin man, just give me some oil, as the yellow paste road lead me on, so who was Dorothy, who the lion and the scarecrow?

I arrived in Baiona and wolfed down a fat slice of tortilla with beer. So, where was our hostel? How long til they catch up? I got out my phone and texted my companions. I turned on my camino app, where are the yellow arrows and the cluster of albergues?

They had arrived only ten minutes later having correctly followed the arrows which took them up into a beautiful forest walk that cut across the headland. I, on the other hand, had walked the cycle route, great if you have wheels. My thirties technicolour fantasy was rewritten by Cormac McCarthy, you should never have followed the yellow paste road.

Baiona was a lovely stop, old and new Spain, tapas in tiny streets, a great fortress, exotic islands in the bay, and the next day’s walk along a series of bays with gorgeous beaches was sunny and bright. The final hour into Vigo past shipyards and traffic culminated in a ridiculous climb up hundreds of steps, with exhausted legs, but once up we gradually headed down again into the old city centre. I blamed googlemaps, my companions demurred. Later that evening we made a decision to head off piste, inspired by a hosteleiro who said a short ferry ride and a walk through some hills would deliver us to Pontevedra a day early. An extra rest day and the prospect of avoiding the shifting archipelago of pilgrims spurred us on.

We took the nine a.m. Searail to Moaña, just us and two others aboard the moments before commuter packed boat. As we waited to leave we stared up at one of the two massive cruise ships in whose shadow we lay. Manika waved at the little figures perched on their balconies looking down at us, the dubious delights of Vigo and the quayside with its ranks of day trip coaches waiting to ferry them off to Santiago or Pontevedra or both. No waves returned. Twenty minutes later we were the only backpacks in town. A fantastic breakfast next to a fantastic fish market set us up for a deep dive into mapsme territory. Would we be following roads, clearings beneath pylons, routes that had been fabricated in an AI metaverse? For a while we followed a road until our leader switched off the ‘by road’ preference. From there on – what a walk! Paths through dense woods, over streams, past waterfalls, antique oaks covered with moss like the coat of a yak, a huge empty picnic park under the shade of trees, just us and a parked up tree felling machine. We kept getting magnificent views of the blue blue sea and the spectacularly finessed detail of the junction of earth and water, the rias delving into the land, the yellow bands of beaches with the towns and villages above them.

As we approached Pontevedra we kept expecting to hit a main road, or industrial units, but we emerged in a little street of houses and ten minutes later were gaping at the beauty and charm of the old town.

We were there two nights, and my internal compass, well it didn’t function. I wandered around exploring, getting my bearings, but later after a birthday meal, we headed off for a nightcap, and every turn was like stepping into another unexpected world. Oh, we’re here, but where’s this, squares full of evening liveliness appeared out of nowhere, I revelled in my dysfunctional lodestone.

Back on the well trodden path, egos were challenged, but this is MY camino, as the thread of pilgrims clotted into a cord. Our last hostel pulled out all the stops, no outdoor space, olympic level snorers, a maestro of flatulence, drunken late arrivers falling off bunk bed ladders, toilets a day’s journey from your bed. We were out early heading to Padron, of the peppers, and our last stop before Santiago.

A technical miscalculation by Bran, in search of their accommodation, had added an extra two hours to their walk in the hottest part of the day. We were full of concern, and kept checking for updates, are they alright, will we see them for dinner? The next day it was just another part of their journey, an unlikely treasure uncovered on the way.

The walking was beautiful. Through woods, little hamlets, vines, tended fields, streams, the numbers of pilgrims became just another part of a wonderful landscape.

And then the last day with unexpected delights, and lightness. The little granite milestones, with their obscurely precise distances, 18.051, 17.350, gathered speed, so the last five kilometres passed in an excited blur.

We entered the cathedral square, four of many, then six, watching photos being taken, resting in the shade, feeling the quiet, lively energy of the place.

Many steps, much joy.