The story that follows is a true record of the events of the 2nd of July 2010.
My day started early with a 7.30 alarm. I pulled myself out of a broil of untucked and twisted sheets, off a mattress that was so old and so soft that I sank deeply into it overnight in a curve that made my spine hurt. I started a shower but the water was cold so i padded downstairs - whitewashed walls, odd artistic adornments and richly patterned tiled floors, different in every room - to look at the water heater. Damm, the gas was out. So, a cold shower it is then. I soaped myself and slowly inserted each piece of me under the freezing water. Most bearable - head. Least bearable - breasts. The rest was OK, I got used to it after a while.
As I was packing my rucksack I could see out of the window, paint peeling off blue shutters, down into a dusty yellow street where my host was unlocking a garage door. I watched him as I idly folded clothes but, as his wife approached him and they began to argue, I drew back into the shadow of the room, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping from so obvious a viewpoint. Three displays of temper in the two days I have been here.....I need to think about whether this is a good place to return to for the winter.
I gathered my things, made a quick breakfast and packed into the van as the wife waited impatiently. Something was missing but I couldn´t work out what exactly until Disaster! My map! It´s gone! I must have left it in a car. My special, waterproof, really useful, essential for hitchiking map. The woman shrugged, she didn´t care. We drove to the nearest town and she talked the whole way about her difficulties with volunteers and the problems they cause for her. We reached the garage where she had picked me up and I realised I might have left my map there. Hurray! They had the map! I jumped up and down and got very excited. But then.....Disaster! The handle of my case broke as I was getting it out of the van. This was really bad, without a handle the case is impossible to carry and I can´t fit another five kilos of crap into my rucksack. I love this case, it was a present from my brother and I have painted it in thick blue daubs so that it reminds me of the sea. I tried to work out how to mend it while my hostess remained bored and uninterested until suddenly she handed me a strap to wrap around the case and left to get on with her day. I walked down the road to a good hitching spot at the edge of the village and thought about my experiences at this art project. Do I want to spend the winter there? To have space and time to create, to write in a beautiful place. This amazing opportunity is brought to earth by the impatience and anger of the owners. There is tension in this project. Unhelpful, boring volunteers, a hyperactive, rude six year old and an empty village, abandoned to holiday homes and a struggling art project. These facts float slowly, like lonely sticks on the river of choking, unspeakable sadness that is the fact that the man, the husband, the artist, the father is dying of cancer, his ideas unfinished, his body betraying him. For me to blithely, blindly walk into this project, thinking that what I want will come easily...I´m not sure that could happen.
But these are thoughts of the future and I can´t think about that for too long. For now, the hitching. It´s 9.30 already and I need to get moving. I didn´t have to wait too long before a lorry pulled up. The usual thin, brown, wiry little Spaniard, driving lorries for 36 years. He wore a travel cushion round his neck; nerve pain, he said and, as he drove me 50km, we chatted amicably about Spain´s economic problems and his plans for retirement, seven years away.
As we parted he asked if I´d like to come a bit further with him, probably enjoying the company, but it really was in the wrong direction and so he left me at a service station in an anonymous flat valley where two back roads crossed in an expanse of rocks and yellow dust. I waited for a while; not many cars but I was in good spirits, walking up and down the edge of the road, singing to myself. Eventually a BMW pulled up, a middle aged man, big round belly, pleasant smile. Going to the dentist in Santander, he said. Bonus, another 70km. We drove down the side of a montain in winding curves; the road lined by tall red and white poles, there to guide the snow ploughs in winter. We were over 1,000m above sea level and I could see miles of green hill ridges, the spaces between them filled with fluffy cloud; the soft white breath of the earth, returning water to the sky. Suddenly the man started to overtake the train of cars in front of us in breathtaking, jerky manoeuvres. I know the road, he said, don´t be scared. The powerful car could skip around the others, catching them unawares on short corners. Don´t be scared, he said (as I hung onto the door to stop myself sliding over to his side of the car), I used to be a rally driver. ¿Que?, I said. Yeah, in 1970 I was the number 3 rally driver in Spain. I´ve raced down this mountain four times. Heh, fucking awesome! We got to the edge of Santander in double quick time, talking about why he gave it up (too expensive) and what he does now (owns a hotel) and he dropped me off on the edge of the motorway where it branched off towards the west.
Motorways are a crappy place to be dropped, always meaning a long dangerous walk with lorries and cars speeding past touchably close and no guarantee of a good hitching spot any time soon; but I am at the mercy of the driver, as always. I walked about a km down the road, couldn´t find a good place for cars to stop so had to settle for a smaller, quieter slip road.
It was past noon and the sun was high and fierce. I waited as 30 cars drove past me then went for a rest under a tree. The sky was a bright, clear blue and I was lying in a clean, green landscaped space between two busy roads. Occasionally cars would beep at me but I ignored them and dozed for a while, ants tickling at me insistently. I awoke to find an amazing insect on my arm, struggling to keep balanced on six delicate legs. It was bright green, the size of my thumbnail, with a blocky body, all points and geometric planes and a blunt, triangular head.
But I can´t dream too long, there´s always a car to catch. A nice, motherly lady stopped and offered me a life to the next village, 3km away, but I declined. There´s always a tinge of regret as the car pulls away, should I have gone? Swapped this spot for an unknown quantity only a short distance away? I always say no to these offers, preferring to wait for a longer lift. One of these days I should start saying Yes, just to see what happens.
Another half hour wait and two older men pulled up. They were only going 10km but I accepted, it was time to leave this spot. I asked to be dropeed at a service station if posible and this triggered an arguement between them in true righteous old man style about where was best to drop me off. I stayed quiet on the back seat as they shouted and grumbled up front and soon enough they gave me a choice - side of the main motorway or gas station on the old road that runs parallel. I chose the gas station and, on arrival, decided to head for the grubby little cafe sign that hung outside the building. I clattered into a tiny room, just big enough for a single table, two chairs, a fruit machine and the bar counter. The four men filling the room fell quiet in suprise as I hefted my chunky rucksack to the floor. It was too small a space for me to smile politely and ignore them, as I usually would, so I gave them a big smile and a Hola; one made a joke about not being used to strangers and soon we were talking about England and lorry drivers. The barman offered me bread and chorizo and, when he could see I was hungry, considerately went into the back room and cut me some more. He also paid for my coffee and I left with a full water bottle and a free can of coke (which I didn´t want but couldn´t really turn down). I stood outside feeling exuberantly happy. The sun is shining, I have a wide open road in front of me and people give me free things that enable me to live!
I walked up and down the road, grinning and twirling in the sunshine, it was easy to smile at cars in welcoming expectancy. Two cars offered lifts to the next village but I said no, I was enjoying myself here too much. A van pulled up in the garage and two sharp eyed boys with over-gelled hair got out and started to fill tractor inner tubes with air. On their way out they pulled over and started making filthy suggestions - I didn´t understand all the words but the gestures were enough. All with the clear piercing looks that come when you have enough cocky arrogance to insult a stranger. I wasn´t particularly insulted, I just smiled and gave them the finger until they pulled away.
After a while, another man stopped, another 15km. He told me I was brave and dropped me in the centre of a village about 2km from the motorway I needed. Ok, so I have to walk it. Not easy when you´re carrying around 30 kilos....2km is about the maximum I can manage in one go. But I did it, non stop, first striding and finally plodding, reaching the motorway sticky in the humid heat. The sun had disappeared and, looking down the valley over factory roofs, I could see the edges of storm clouds peering over the hills about 20 miles away.
I was hot and uncomfortable but had to keep long sleeves on. Hitching in a vest is inadvisable, men tend to get distracted by my ample assets and so I try to keep my body covered to avoid encouraging uncomfortable situations. I tried in just a vest but almost immediately a great fat man in a lorry stopped and leered at me so I gave up and put an extra top on. Lightning strikes and thunder rumbles advanced towards me as I hung there, waiting on the grey road.
I smiled at a man my age with soft curly hair, he returned my smile with an open face, stopped his car for me and for a second I could imagine the gentle, tender sex we would have and how we would lie together afterwards, curled together. But he was only going to Torrelavega, 5km down the road and difficult to get out of, like all cities. So he left and we exchanged only smiles.
The sky was a great clamour of whirling pools of cloud, dropping and rising in strange circular dome shapes. Finally a woman stopped for me, looking like a great mix of hippie and punk. Long, thick black curly hair, big dark eyes ringed by strident black makeup, totally confident without any need to be aggressive. Big, curvy with pale creamy skin. Exactly the kind of cool that I want to be. She knew about hitching and said she´d take me to the other side of Torrelavega; as I got into the car, drops of rain started to spatter against the windscreen. Thank fuck I missed the storm. She dropped me at a posh, commercial service station where I sat upstairs in an empty cafe and drank another coffee. I also spent two euros on an overpriced, chemical icecream that, after 10 minutes of sitting in icy air conditioning, I didn´t even want so I put it in my bag to eat on the road. When I went into the toilet I looked in the mirror and suddenly felt fat and ridiculous. My hair was mad and frizzy, my breasts stupidly, cartoonishly large and the huge rips in my jeans that I thought looked cool with black leggings underneath now seemed obscene and ugly. I pushed my hair around and pulled my jeans a bit lower; best I could do in the circumstances, it made me feel a bit better.
On my way down the road a van stopped for me; two beautiful hippies inside. They were only going 20km, did I want to come? I loaded my bags into the back with their patient dog and squeezed onto the front seat. All of a sudden I was sweating and uncomfortable, somehow unable to stop talking. They were chilled and at peace; I had just had a coffee on an empty stomach. I found myself talking about the art project, about the scarecrow museum that´s being set up there and, as I didn´t know the Spanish for scarecrow, I had to describe one in terrible Spanish. They didn´t get it. I fet trapped. I had to swallow, take a deep breath and try again. (Here´s what i said, it´s all I could manage - When you have a farm and you don´t want animals on your earth, you make a man out of wood and clothing for the fear.) They understood the second time but it was awkward. I was horribly aware that I was rabbiting random bullshit but they nodded and smiled and the girl wrote down the address of the project. When it came to my stop it was raining again, the couple were paused and unsure whether to invite me further with them but I got out anyway. I put on more clothes, covered my bags and sat in the rain to eat the icecream that I had been too embarassed to eat in front of the beautiful people. Such self awareness my love, surely it can only hold you back. My hands were shaking, definitely too much coffee. So I stood and waited and debated with myself about what to do in the rain at the end of the day. 5pm. Two and a half hours of hitching left. I could keep going on the motorway or I could stop here and find a place to sleep. There were three roads to choose from. I threw a dice to decide what to do, it said to keep on this road, the motorway.
Luckily the rain slowed after a while and I could relax a little. I could feel that I was getting tired and tense so I experimented with different standing postures to do with chi and energy flow and found that after a while my face relaxed and I could smile clearly again at oncoming traffic.
After an age, when I was almost giving up, a car stopped. It contained a young, dark skinned man in a smart, striped shirt. He was going another 15km, this time to the coast. We exchanged names and pleasantries and suddenly he swooped for the classic Spanish greeting, a kiss on both cheeks - while driving along the motorway. Dangerous and a little odd. After a while he told me that I am beautiful and sadly, for the first time that day, there was the unpleasant whiff of an unwanted sexual advance in the car. He asked me where I was going to sleep that night and, when I told some hasty lies about calling friends, he invited me to come to his house for some sex before continuing my journey in the morning. I politely declined and, for once, he didn´t press the issue any further. We got to his junction but he drove past it and said he would take me a little further. As he drove he talked about how hard his life was, how hard he had to work and how, in his native Tunisia, there was no money and so he´d had to leave his girlfriend behind and come here to work. I was listening uninterestedly, my stomach clenched, waiting until I had shown enough lack of sexual interest for him to stop the car. The subject of age came up, he was 28, I am 30. He reached over and patted me on the knee - You are a little girl, he said, in a baby voice. I was instantly infuriated. I am 30 years old! I said and, on instinct, reached over and patted his knee. You are a little boy, I said, in a high pitched, singsong imitation of his pathetic comment. He wound his fingers against mine in a twisting, sexual kind of a way. I pushed away his hand which was making its way to my leg and turned away from him. It was a joke, he said, uncomfortably. I stared out of the window and didn´t speak, irritated by this man who thinks he can touch my body without first touching my mind. After a while he jerkily pulled the car over to the side of the road and I got out, relieved.
I was on the top of a high hill, about a mile from the next village. I put my bags down for a minute to prepare for the walk but then, five minutes later, found myself pacing in a circle, still irritated by the fact that some sleazy bloke, younger than me, can pat me on the knee and patronise the fuck out of me. Ah Christ, it´s just another five minute adventure, leave it behind, nothing happened, you weren´t in danger. Forget it.
So I picked up my bags and walked forward, down the hill, past the village until I found a turning for a beach. It looked quite commercial, there were signs for hotels and camping and I debated whether I would find the quiet, secluded sleeping spot I wanted. However, as it was another walk over the hill to the next beach and I was pretty tired by then I decided to chance it. The road led to a well populated beach and campsite, damm. But there was a river running alongside the road and on the other side was a flat tidal field in front of a steep wooded hill. Long grass and a pile of yellow canoes. Exactly what I was looking for, I just needed to cross the river.
The stony riverbed was slippery with algae and, wlthough the water was only calf depth, I had to feel each step slowly, carefully balancing the weight of my bags so as not to fall. The feeling of sliding my feet over the stones was incredible after the long day of walking and standing. As I got out on the other side there was a sudden flurry and rush in the water as unseen animals fled from the shallows into the deep centre river flow.
I walked slowly through the long lush grass, savouring my resting place. There was driftwood everywhere, perfect. I dropped my bags and, after a short search, found a little depression in the ground just inside the treeline. It was slightly under an overhang of earth and soft with layer upon layer of fallen leaves. I squatted for a while and waited, turned over a few rock, no sign of ants, nothing. Excellent, my bed.
I crossed the river again to collect water and, on my way back, realised I could see more movement underwater. The river was teeming with fish, gently feeding from the riverbed, flashing glints of silver as they twisted in the current. There were at least 50, not small either, you could only fit one on an A4 page I reckon. Wow, I could eat one. Could I eat one? I have fishing wire but no hooks. Do I have it in me to pull a fish out of the water, kill it, cut it and eat it? Five years ago I could never have imagined myself capable of my current lifestyle. Will I ever reach the point where I can kill my own meat? If not, shouldn´t I stop eating it?
I walked slowly into the water this time, no splashes and was able to watch the fish wallowing for a while before they took fright. Back at my campsite it took an age to decide where to have my fire, I really was tired by this point, but finally, as the sun went down, I had a nice small fire and was cheerfully cooking a scanty meal of rice, onions and garlic. I could hear an animal in the woods behind me, cracking sticks and for a while I entertained myself with fears of wild pigs but I knew really that it wasn´t wild pigs and, as the fire burnt low, I made myself comfortable in bed. I was happy and settled, about to go to sleep but....horror! When I reached up to adjust my pillow I found something sticky on my fingers and then.....a slug! An ugly, hard, button of a slug! I had a split second recoil of pure disgust but, before I could properly freak out, out of nowhere came a voice, deep and calm and it was mine and it was saying This is the life you choose. This is the life you are choosing. And the voice, me, is right. So I took a deep breath, picked up the slug and threw it away and settled down to sleep, content.