September 2002. Giving up on protesting against the ‘war on terror’, Katie goes on a 13-day pilgrimage in Northern Spain….
Day 2, Mortality: over the pass to Roncesvalles (20km).
By the time I left the barn where we’d slept, there were only two pilgrims behind me. They were an English brother and sister who were deeply involved in washing clothes and then attaching them to their rucksacks to dry. As we were going to be above the cloud line, there was little chance of them drying. However, these were the instructions given in the bright green laminated guide book of the Confraternity of St. James. We were to carry only three pairs each of socks and pants – one clean, one being worn, one being dried on the back of our pack. It was made as a practical suggestion, ignoring the fact that washing powder is as heavy as underwear, before you take into account the recommended scrubbing brush and plastic pot with screw-top lid for holding the powder. I suspect the deeper reason was to keep the pilgrims in a constant state of washing clothes, on the Magdalene Laundries principle, so that through all that external scrubbing our souls might be purified.
I haven’t often seen the dawn and it was hard to take my eyes off it and get on with walking. Shiny pink clouds hung all over the sky, like brand new cars in a show room. Below them and me the clumps of sweet chestnut trees stood out prickly among the pastures. Further away the stone walls of Saint Jean crouched by its river. I kept stopping and turning round to look at the hills heaving and spreading out below me.
The other reason I was dawdling was that there was a large cow ahead. She stood astride the path and leered at me. A great bell hung at her throat. One horn pointed straight towards me like a javelin, the other was twisted back behind, giving her the lopsided look of a pirate. She eyed me and she didn’t budge. I kicked my heels, and threw looks over my shoulder at the tossing bed-clothes of hills below. Some way down I could see the courteous Frenchman whom I had met under the oak tree, ascending with two new friends. I decided I might as well be sociable and wait for them. After all, it was the Frenchman who had advised me to go ‘doucement’.
Just in front of the cow, the Frenchman introduced me to his new friends. Gilles, a smiling man with big blue eyes and a white moustache, was from Quebec, and had been on the road for a month already, having started from Le Puy in central France. The other was Sandra, a young woman from Berlin. I stepped politely onto the grass, to allow them to pass closer to the cow, and strolled along beside them.
We hadn’t gone more than a few steps when Sandra’s most characteristic trait began to show itself: the laugh. This was not because I was being witty, but because for her the mere fact of trying to walk with the quantity of stuff she had on her back was pure comedy. She certainly looked as if she had included the whole of her life in that bag, including a saucepan, coffee pot and cooker dangling from the bottom. I wondered if she was an itinerant or moving house the hard way. Anyway, at the slightest provocation she would tip herself forward (not hard with her pack) and emit four clear notes as sweet as the far-off tinkle of goats’ bells. The laugh said, ‘Aren’t I silly? Aren’t we a pair? Isn’t the human race beyond belief?’
She had golden straight hair and a fine small face with a golden glow to it, like the face of a Flemish High Gothic painting of the Virgin Mary. When she tipped forward to laugh she seemed to be at just the same angle as one of those virgins in the paintings receiving the news from the angel Gabriel. Perhaps indeed if we could hear those Gothic virgins, so silent in their paintings, they would be emitting a very similar resigned and musical laugh at the bizarreness of the holy spirit coming upon them. ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Hee hee hee hee!’
By this time we had reached the high, narrow neck of the valley. The rock was closing in on three sides. ‘So now you see,’ said our Frenchman, ‘It goes much quicker when you have someone to talk to…..’