The End of the Earth
Mark Aitken © 2015
Published in Lost Magazine Issue 4, 2016
I walk with an Irish woman along a mountain spine in thick fog. I don’t want to hear chatter about city woes so I slow down. The gap between us increases and her voice fades. Easier to lose someone by letting them steam ahead.
I descend to a city beach. It feels compulsory to get into the water after gnarling over the land. It’s overcast and there’s no-one around. I cross San Sebastian via the shoreline to the shelter on the edge of town. There’s a film festival on and everywhere’s full. These cheap beds are for walkers but I’m too late. The city edge rises steeply from the bay. I have a second wind. Someone has left a large water refill container and a chair on the side of the road. I pause to fill up. I’ve overdone it with 38kms clocked up on the first day. I find a hollow. It’s getting dark and I pitch up for the night.
I unzip the tent at dawn and smell spearmint rising through the dew. The sky sallow grey with an orange wound gaping east. I move quickly, folding everything into the pack. My needs reduced to eleven kilos.
Sheep’s bells chime with my footsteps on tar lanes. Cobwebs plaster my face as I walk through bushes. A fresh turd of chocolate grass. The animal was bigger than a rodent. I scan the roadside for a walking stick. My walking poles were removed at the airport in London. The man talked about rules and showed me his long list of contraband. I pointed to my knees.
The coastal route lopes up and down land gauged by rivers. I arrive in a medieval whaling town, winding up cobblestones to the steepest point and a shelter. My feet are hot. I take off my boots and place them at the end of a row of others. The woman who runs the place offers to drive walkers down to the town for food. We troop into a bar and everyone sits around a bare table. I ask the barman about food and he says only after eight. The walkers talk about these strange Spanish eating times. I excuse myself, saying the music is too loud.
I walk into a bar across the road. The music is even louder but I’m alone. I order food and red wine. About a minute later, the walkers file in. A Danish girl asks me if I was trying to get away from them. I smile. A long table is set up next to mine. I translate the menu to the Danish girl and her mother and eat squid ‘en la tinta’. I feel like getting drunk but resist. The wine is the same price as water and always good.
I sit with an Australian couple over breakfast. I’d say they were in their sixties but you never can tell with the harsh sun down there. Ralph had a swollen knee and a fancy brace that made it look like a flamingo joint. I admired the brace and he told me I should be admiring his legs. It was good to laugh. He then asked me where I was from and as we had time, I told him the longer version. New Zealand, South Africa and London for a long time but I’m always moving. He asked what South Africa was like. I told him,
As a kid I learned the colour of my skin gave me privilege but I didn’t understand why.
I’m still working that out.
- I don’t know why anyone would want to live there.
It was a good education.
I didn’t ask why he lived in Australia.
A few years ago, a local told me to pick and choose where to walk along this route. Cars and motorways now supplanted and fragmented paths walked for over a thousand years. There was no point suffering fag-ends, cans and bottles on a hard shoulder buffeted by lorries. I catch a train to the next town. I want to get into forests and mountains.
I meet a Dutchman called Adrien who’s walked for eleven weeks from his home in The Netherlands. He tells me thoughts left his mind after three weeks and he now dwells on nothing but each step in front of him. I can enter that blank state through exhaustion after just a half day of walking but I think he was referring to something else. He sings a lot – mainly four words that chime with his ringtone, ‘let it be me’. He smiles all the time. He burned out ten years ago and a friend told him about this walk. He put the idea aside and bought a new car and took anti-depressants. He returned to work. Nothing changed. Last year his boss told him he had seven years back-leave stacked up and that he should take it. He tells me he’s lost a kilo a week and already wearing out his second pair of boots. I can’t keep up and lag behind.
A man and a woman stand in a hole by the side of a track in a pine forest. It’s about ten feet deep and shaped like a giant cauldron. White strings are pegged this way and that, marking off sections. They scoop water from a puddle. I ask what they’re doing and the man tells me they’re standing in a medieval iron smelter. At one point, this region supplied most of the iron to Europe. Part of the Spanish Armada was built here and then whaling ships that dragged the punctured beasts back to ports along this coast.
I meet Adrien again and we walk towards a man plodding ahead. Claude’s walked from Paris. Rolled up mats are bursting from his overloaded pack held together with shredded plastic, string and tape. His belly wobbles out beneath a sports shirt. He says he prefers walking city streets. Claude’s sparkling blue eyes deny defeat. Grimacing, he pushes on.
The three of us descend steeply into a valley. I use a wooden stick to absorb the crush on my knees. The pole was honed by Adrien with his knife. It looks like walnut – the trees bearing fruit at this time of year. Emerald green globes like unripe plums concealing a cranium shell. Autumn is rich with figs, grapes, apples and blackberries. The sweet rotting smells ooze before you see them.
We meet a man cradling pumpkins and a courgette. His nails and hands are caked in dirt; his shirt dusty and trousers tied with nylon string. He asks me where I’m from and keeps enquiring until he’s naming streets near my house. By now we’re speaking English and he tells me in an Irish accent that he used to live in London but has been living in this village for thirty-four years. Before he had opened his mouth I’d taken him for a local farmer, which is what he is, except now an Irish local farmer. I ask,
- A woman. But that was long ago.
I eat with Claude that evening. He refuses wine. He says he’s drunk enough. He tells me that his kids have grown up and don’t speak to him anymore. There was no mention of a wife. He lost his job in construction and tried once and then again to start a business but failed both times. He lives on the edge of Paris. It was easy to walk out. He didn’t know what else to do. Claude said he often gave up and lay down on the ground in his sleeping bag and covered it with pieces of plastic. He’d wake up, heavy under rain or dew, get up and carry on. Claude described himself as being in a period of transition. His eyes hoped for something different.
I share a room with Claude and three others. No one sleeps except Claude who snores like a farmyard. We leave him still wheezing at first light. I set off with Adrien and we arrive through mist in a tiny village named after the revolutionary Simón Bolivar. There is a museum but the door is locked. Outside there’s a bust of the man and a birth date from 1783. Adrien says he shares the same birthday. I’m more impressed by this co-incidence than he is. Walking on he talks of a film where two strangers meet and part company without saying goodbye. Soon he speeds his pace. I miss his company for all of a few minutes and adjust.
Early morning in the woods induces feelings that give me some idea of why birds sing when they wake up. I celebrate everything around me and forget myself.
I stop and scribble something down at a table outside a bar that’s closed. Sunlight moves through clouds over hills and there’s no one else around. Birdsong is interrupted by the sound of a far-off motorbike tooling over ribbons of lanes. I go to cross a road but misjudge the engine roar. The bike’s upon me instantly, coming up the rise. I run across and feel the back draft. If I’d moved a moment later the machine would have collected me. The noise fades and the birds sing again. Eventually one of these moments will kill me. Being careful will never stop this happening.
I stop and listen to a far-off donkey braying with the world on its shoulders. Silence folds back in and then only my clumping footsteps moving forward, always forward. Sometimes paths are cobbled with round stones laid by Romans. Sometimes they’re hollowed out half tunnels with low branches curling overhead. Footsteps upon footsteps treading to Finisterre - the end of the earth. People started walking this route before God existed. But soon after the death of Christ, St James travelled from Galilee to Galicia in a boat made of stone. He flew up and down the coastline on his winged horse, pushing the Moors away from the north of this peninsula. Centuries later a hermit broke his silence to say he’d found a piece of St James’s skull in a field under the stars. Rejoicing was followed by doubt. The bone was sent to Rome to settle the question. The piece fitted perfectly into what happened to be the remains of St James’s skull in the Vatican. A messenger was sent to announce the building of the biggest cathedral this side of St Peters in a new city called Santiago de Compostela. Francis of Assisi walked there from Italy and spoke with the birds. The original route now shortened to terminate at a Catholic shrine rather than the roiling Atlantic at world’s end. Ask any walker and you’ll hear many versions of this story. They’re all true and all disputed. If you need proof then seek out St James’s boat, beached up in the town of Muxia and made of solid granite.
Then the discovery of a new world extending beyond the Costa de la Morte. The Cantabrian massif renamed Picos de Europa – the peaks being the first sight of Europe as ships turned the earth’s curve so laden with gold that water lapped over their bows. But still now we walk to the end of the earth. I descend through a narrow hollow. Trees flank me, the bark shines where hands have grasped for balance. These trees seeded by those rooted before just like the handprints that preceded mine. Then out of the woods onto a shaking motorway, trucks and cars oblivious to the footsteps haunting the conveyor belt.
Road signs are bi-lingual in Euskara and Spanish or as they say, Castellano – the language of dominant Castile. Origins of the Basque language are unknown and it bears no relation to any other. Castellano is sprayed over in black paint. There’s graffiti in English – ‘This is not Spain’. I see a farmer in the distance watching me. He leans against his long stick with all the time in the world. The man tells me children here don’t learn Castellano until they go to school. It’s not their mother tongue. But all the while, it’s the language that enables us to speak to each other.
A blister occupies too much space in my boot. I lance it with a needle and thread, leaving the cotton hanging out of the wounds as a wick and daubing the mess with iodine. The outcome is worse than expected and I hobble slowly until the pain subsides. My ecstasy from the morning now humbled.
I reach Gernika by nightfall and decide to have a day off tomorrow. I visit the museum and watch a film about reconciliation. Politicians back slapping each other in front of the Berlin wall; Mandela making speeches; the Northern Irish peace accord, a happy moment in Guatemala I was unaware of… as if reconciliation were an end in itself. Photos of Nazi carpet bombing on 26th April 1936 when Gernika was almost erased. Franco employing contract killers to exterminate the enemy within. Picasso’s painting. Memory nagging at reconciliation.
I walk through a park with an oak tree planted in the 14th century to symbolise Basque freedom. The tree rests in a mausoleum of pillars but its descendants live on – one of them having survived the German bombing. Tortoises with heads on stalks warm their cold blood on an island in a pond. Men with droning mechanical leaf blowers deny contemplation.
My toe is infected and I can think of nothing better than bathing it in the sea. It’s a short train ride to the coast. As I wait in the station café I hear Irish rebel music sung in Euskara or maybe it’s Basque music that travelled to Ireland. Ché lighters are on sale behind the bar.
I find a campsite outside the town of Mundaka on the coast. The site is sterile and full of people recreating their suburban homes in situ - complete with dining tables, clotheslines and televisions. I walk to a beach and watch a man knee deep in water reading a book while pacing from one side of the bay to the other. Behind me layers of train tracks, a motorway and a local road slice off the beach. Rest doesn’t come easily and I’m missing the habit of walking. Eventually I sit by a hermitage on a point watching the light drain over the sea. A single white sail knifes diagonally, counting down the remains of the day.
At dawn I return to the empty beach. Blessed by the water and swimming in slow motion. Over coffee I watch parents dote over children. Last night I watched a woman slowly walk her grandmother arm in arm along the promenade. Younger and older people seem to be visible and dignified here.
I see an African man laying out his stall for the day. A sheet of plastic on the pavement covered with rows of knock off designer sunglasses, purses and handbags. It’s rare to see an African in Spain working for anyone but himself. The man breaks for coffee and we speak. His story is a worn script. His name is Mar, twenty-six years old from Dakar, Senegal. He’s been in Spain for two years after crossing the Sahara, reaching Morocco and then floating over the straits to Europe. En route he encountered many bandits. His tongue is Wolof but he also speaks French and Castellano. There are other men from his country here and they all live in the neighbouring town. There are no women who speak Wolof here. Mar says he likes the town because he isn’t hassled by police like his brothers in Barcelona and Madrid. He has no papers but he’s allowed to remain here. He shows me pictures of himself on his phone wearing designer clothes and sunglasses. People at home think he’s rich. I don’t think he wants to change their minds.
I say that the name of this town sounds African. Mar smiles softly. He fondles his mobile phone that’s held together with tape. Last year I bought a leather bag from a Senegalese not too far from here. His beard was grey. I didn’t think he would ever make it home and wondered if this thought bothered him. I’ve heard these men complain about the lack of women here from their own country. They leave home because there’s no work and they have no money to get married. When they do have some money they have no one to marry. And the chance of making just a little more money keeps them from returning home.
I pick up the walk again outside Gernika. Sizzling power lines overhead cut through the pine forest. I stop and stare at a sunlit yellow daisy emanating an aura. I clean my glasses to make sure it’s not an illusion. Insects have all the fun.
I meet the Danish mother and daughter again and alternately share their company as we walk. The daughter has had enough and wants to return to the city and go shopping. She tells me things are cheaper here. I don’t think she needs a reason for shopping. Then I hear about her boyfriend who is going to live far away and how she once took drugs that made her feel very happy. The mother tells me that over the past few years she got divorced, lost her father and had a cancer scare. But these are not her reasons for walking. She’s always walked. When I tell the daughter that I’m the same age as her mother, she blushes and a void opens between us. She places me on the slopes that older people inhabit. She said she thought I was about thirty. Now her talk is guarded and polite. This is how she speaks to grown-ups.
I walk through a storm drain tunnel and read graffiti, ‘Love is an experience, not a position’. This makes a change from the constant bombardment demanding Basque independence and amnesty for political prisoners. Taking a position never seems to offer much love but maybe that’s the point.
I yank long green grass from the side of the road and feed it through fences to horses. They chomp down and step back, staring at me. Flies colonise patches around their eyes and they shake their heads, producing a hovering cloud that immediately resettles. A world without flies would make all the difference.
The wind is a turbine rush high up in the pines. My hand has discovered different grips on the walking stick. Something so simple feeling like a bespoke suit. I see more graffiti, ‘sometimes big changes happen because of insignificant decisions’. I ponder that maybe all decisions are insignificant until there’s a consequence. But mostly it’s me that’s insignificant. Surplus to what’s required. If I disappeared now and left my stick on the path, how long would it be before someone picked it up and poked the ground with it? The walk would continue without me.
I stop for a lunch of cheese, anchovies, bread and wine. The more you eat, the less you carry. I lay back and open my eyes to the canopy above. Swaying backlit leaves all shades of green, blurred by wine. A man’s singing is louder as he gets nearer. His audition for the opera going well until it ceases near me. He walks past and picks it up again around the corner.
I reach a place called Lezama after walking an hour and a half on hard roads with no give. The ‘albergue’ is almost full. A big room bustling with bunk beds and walkers waiting for the lights to go out. I find Claude and his sparkling eyes outside smoking a pipe. Somehow he’s overtaken me.
The busy manager offers me a bed but I know there are too many people in one room for me to get any sleep. He asks me my age and apparently I’ve reached a point of being allowed a private room. I take a look and see I would be sharing with one other. I know who it’ll be. It seemed like a good time to mention how Claude kept us awake the last time we shared a room. Of course, he had no idea about this. He offers me the room solely for my use but I wish him a good night’s sleep.
I find a bar and order a gin and tonic. This ritual is an echo from years ago when after a gruelling slog in the sun I reached an endpoint. The barman looked the other way as gin glugged into a pint glass over ice, tonic water and sliced lemon. It was so perfect, I ordered another and of course, it wasn’t as good as the first. No gin and tonic has ever matched that one. I meet another Dutchman called Jan and we find somewhere to eat.
Jan tells me his wife left him for a work colleague twenty years ago when he was thirty-seven. He gave up his full-time job and worked with people who repaired and resold second-hand goods for the benefit of the homeless. Most of his clothes were second-hand and he hardly ever buys anything new. In the summer he lives in County Leitrim, Ireland where he and a friend nurse grapes and produce wine. He then gives the wine away. Ireland is good for building poly-tunnels as they don’t bother with planning permission.
Jan has months of walking ahead, with no real deadline and he’s considering not returning to his life in The Netherlands. He thinks it’s become a little too settled for his taste. Politics and positions have taken root. His parents still find his way of life difficult to comprehend and don’t know what to say to the neighbours about their son. He has no wife or job. What can you say? Jan says people are always talking about making a change and escaping the trap they’re in but seldom do. It’s always left for tomorrow.
Apart from his pack, Jan owns another suitcase with winter clothes that’s been left at his daughter’s house. He also has a small book of photos and his grandfather’s medal from the war. I ask him if there’s anything he could do without and he says he could lose the photos as he has his memory. But he would want to hold onto the medal.
I pitch my tent in a dark vacant lot across the road from the ‘albergue’. My wind-up torch fails and I blindly go through the motions. By now I know exactly where everything is. I grew up with a blind dog that never bumped into anything until we moved house. Then it would take her all of a day to imagine everything in its place and she would see again. I scribble in the dark about Jan and his few possessions; Claude sleeping soundly on his own and knowing that I can reach everything I need while being unable to see.
The final stretch to Bilbao is going to be hard roads through light industrial suburbs. I break off and wait at a desolate train station. It’s a grey Sunday morning and there’s no way of telling when the next train will be. A young man arrives at the same time, dragging regrets of last night with him. He throws up into a bin. I consider resuming the walk. Another man arrives and tells me the next train is arriving soon. He’s Senegalese but he has no work. He lives in Bilbao and tells me where I might find a place for the night. We glide through tunnels and land in the city.
Walking along the river that winds through town I bump into the Australian couple. Ralph mentions that the building in front of us looks like a ship. It’s made from sheets of titanium and appears set to sail down the river. The last vessel not to launch itself in what was once Spain’s biggest port.
After lunch I order brandy at the bar. The barman places the glass sideways on the bar and pours the rusty liquid in until it almost overflows. The glass made to measure the end of my walk. That night I drink wine at a table and watch four men carry a double-bed frame and lean it against a wall next to some rubbish bins. They leave and return with a mattress and shove that next to the frame. Ten minutes later an African man walks past. Without hesitating he picks up the frame and mattress and hauls them away on his back to a small room he shares with countrymen.
The airport bus follows the river up the estuary and I think of the people still walking to the end of the earth. On landing in London I walk across the runway to the airport. A man walks up and says hello. I don’t recognise him and he says hello again – this time, looking a little put out. He reminds me of our encounter in the woods at the medieval iron smelter. He lives in London and here we are, on the same plane. We lose each other in halting queues.
It takes at least two weeks to absorb the shocks of being back in the grime and the lack of space in all directions. I feel like the man in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ pretending to be a zombie so as to fit in. Then one morning I see a builder sweeping grit off the street. He pauses, carefully picks up two earthworms and frees them in the grass.
I watch two old labourers talking on a train. Their hands worn; fingers curled in scoops. I hear their talk but I can’t understand a word. I listen harder and then ask them what language they’re speaking. They tell me it’s Irish. I say it doesn’t matter that I don’t understand, it sounds like soft music and that’s good enough. They smile and continue talking.
Dedicated to Chuck Bowden, 1945 – 2014.
The finest writer I’ve been lucky to know.