Things that changed on the HRP

I'd never walked 600 miles before, it was a new thing.  And a few things changed on the way through.  Here are some of them:

1. The will to continue, the will to finish.  I didn't have much of a problem keeping going, the landscape keeps changing and you keep walking, its pretty simple.  Some days its physically a struggle and some days you're on fire, mostly that had to do with food, or if any alcohol was consumed the night before (generally a bad idea, it slows you down, alot).  Apart from the odd bummed out few hours here and there, carrying on was fine - everyday is different, you put one foot in front of the other, and you're doing something you love...whats the problem?

But finishing is different.  I started out not thinking about the end.  But you have to, eventually, it takes you over.  In the west, I called the 900KM I walked 500miles (actually it's 559m, and I probably did more like 1000km with the week long detour....) because it sounded less.  At the top of Canigou, the last big mountain in the east, I texted my family: 'I can see the sea, I can see the end', and cried a bit behind my sunglasses.  Andy, who ended up being a co-walker for most of that last stage, and I walked down in silence for the next hour, both needing the headspace.  It was there that I realised just how big this trip was, how far I'd come and all the experience I'd packed into a relatively short space of time. 

So, getting to the sea was ok physically, being in the walk mentally having seen the finish line was not.  To do the thing to the bitter end, you have to be bloodyminded, a stubborn pain in the arse, a driven, foaming mouthed lunatic, because the days after Canigou were mentally difficult and the wild camps less inspiring.  I understood in the last days just how important it was for me to get to the end - apparently, there was NO way I wasn't going all the way, save a serious injury.  A few others dropped out or cherry picked stages, and listen, everyone walks their walk and their whole walk and whatever works for them...but for me that meant the whole thing - I was always out to thru-hike the HRP from beginning to end, with all the tall bits inbetween, and not crap out.  At one point early on I was told I was too focused.  Uh huh.

More confusing than this, is the urge to keep going.  You want to complete the walk but you don't want it to end.  Its a way of life.  It makes total sense.  Why stop?  Besides, by then you're hooked on the endorphins.  Both Andy and I talked about yo-yo'ing, walking back to the Atlantic before winter set in.  We also started to slow down after Canigou, imperceptibly at first, stretching out the last days, before train bookings and work concerns got us back on pace.

But I didn't know any of this at the start.  Realising you are that foaming mouthed fool on an errand is not an easy admission, because it means facing how important the walk is for you...but that's who it takes to get you to the finish.  If you don't care, then you don't get there.  By the time I got to the sea I had already arrived, it was almost a normal afternoon on the beach - swim, ice cream, beer.  Almost.

2.  Duration/distance.  Moving through country consistently for a number of weeks is a whole new head space.  On the Redoute de Lindus in the Basque country, I looked back over my measly 6 days of walking so far.  As far as the eye could see I had walked, and there was more I couldn't, back to the sea at the start.  I tracked back through days of mountains and valleys, blue hill after blue hill.  I knew them all, their crests and folds, far more intimately than if I had traveled by any other means.  It blew my mind just how far and how fast you can travel without hooves or wheels.  I felt tuned in to other travelers who had seen this then as I saw it now, back down the centuries.  We are built to do this, and we do it well, we are highly adapted all terrain transport vehicles for thought.

3.  Physicality/momentum.  I enjoyed being lean and strong, I even enjoyed getting that way.  At school I was pretty useless at sport, I quit smoking only 9 months ago, but this trip showed me that some form of athleticism isn't just for other people, that I can do it too.  Its a sort of reconciliation, and its a big deal for me - there is less divide between body and mind, and I grew to relish the daily physical challenges.  All of this, crucially, joined me to the physical landscape I was moving through more than ever before.  Bonded.  And before this trip I didn't understand others need for speed whilst traveling - why do some choose to do this stuff fast?  I'm still no runner, but the necessity sometimes to complete a section quickly meant I gained new respect for those who increase the speed - there is a rhythm and a grace that comes with walking at pace, that I now understand and even embrace. 

4.  Teamwork.  You learn powerful things about yourself and your co walkers doing something like this.  All the front is stripped away very fast, sometimes its not for the faint hearted.  A good team uses all it has in terms of individual strengths without chest beating, and compensates for it's individuals natural weaknesses whilst never letting any of the individuals give any less than 100%.  Being in a team isn't an excuse for poor performance, its an opportunity to learn and excel in great company.  None of us are perfect, but its about attitude.  And balance.  I want to know my co walkers are solid and have my back, because I do have theirs.  Most of all I want to know they are trying.  If I know these things, I'll go to the ends of the earth.  I want to walk with people like that, because it makes me better, and because it matters for our safety.  Early on I dropped the ball, I failed to make responsible decisions when others were relying on me because of bad weather and a lack of experience on their part.  I can't answer for them, but my part in that bit hard, and I won't forget it.

5.  The real meaning of Anarchy.  Learning to be ever more responsible for food, water, hygiene, shelter and our direction of travel everyday, day in and week out.  No one is going to bail me out, I wouldn't want that anyway, and so I became as close to self reliant as its possible to be whilst not hunting.  When I made the wrong decision, the consequences were there, right in front of me, staring me down.  If I didn't pack enough water because I wasn't paying attention, I got thirsty.  It was up to me and my co-walkers, and the honesty of these equations was simple, beautiful and totally refreshing - the consequences weren't hidden and I wasn't looking for others to blame.  As was said often - 'It is what it is'.  This is as good a definition of true anarchy as I can think of - not chaos or an absence of order, as sold to us by politicians and the paranoid, but an owning of real and tangible rules for individual engagement in the world.

6.  Zen Troubleshooting.  I am at peace, and with peace comes perspective.  After a few weeks and a few mishaps, in times of decision or crisis I became calm, evaluated the variables and chose the best option from those available.  I developed the skill of a restful mind, albeit one troubled by less frequent dysfunctional human interaction as is often the case in the city.  I felt connected and not separate from the world, made of the same elements, and that helped me solve the puzzles of the walk effectively,  finding solutions to potential issues be they navigation, repair or supply.  I appreciated a feeling of deep space, which was only possible because of total immersion, over many weeks, in both walking and landscape.  The world is ours if we own up to it and act respectfully, there is nothing to fear at all.   

7.  Navigation.  There is the data, and then there is the interpretation of data.  Most of all there is a difference between the on the ground facts and what you might want to see in a clinch.  Knowing this helps me backtrack to the realities of map, ground, bearing, and mitigating factors such as fatigue, food/water status, group dynamic and weather.  I learned over time to use all the tools at my disposal (apart from GPS, which was used as a last resort twice) and read between the lines...which was needed.  As documented by others, the Joosten guide has some quite serious issues, which I'll aim to correct for others doing this walk in the future by producing a PDF documenting the hot spots.  The maps are OK but not to OS standard by any means - often the orientation of paths or even whole mountains is off by as much as 40 degrees, contour lines are missing, and many times paths are not marked at all.  In the east there is more iron, which can mess with your compass needle.  I'm still far from being the world's most technical navigator, and there is room for improvement always, but by the last few weeks I barely used the guide at all, just stopping to make my own notes for others and for comparisons to the mapping.  I got the feel of how things would 'go'  and weighed up all my data to make better decisions.  A good altimeter helped with this too.

7.  My understanding of 'wilderness'.  I intend to look at this in more detail in other posts, and there's alot to be said about this word which is used too often and too lazily.  I still don't think wilderness need mean an absence of people, as many seem to suggest, but it does need to contain wild-life - and that means at least on equal terms with people, and it might often mean in preference to people.  The Pyrenees are sometimes not wilderness, ditto many of the UK's national parks - often they are semi barren deserts that have had their wild-life largely exterminated through centuries of hunting, mining, damming, grazing and deforestation - resource exploitation.  It doesn't mean these places aren't sometimes beautiful, but I want to be more honest about my use of the word.  We go to 'play' in these places, and call the emptiness there wilderness.  We shouldn't confuse wilderness with a feeling of wildness - a strangeness, a feeling that this is an alien or inhospitable place.  In some cases, maybe what we are feeling is deadness!  On the treeline at 2700ms can feel wild, and may be so if not interfered with...but if surrounded by roads, agriculture, cattle, rubbish and other peoples turds it tends not to be, because those things destroy habitat and habitat is needed for the survival of living things.  Real wilderness below 2700ms in the Pyrenees is not empty, sterile grazing land, it is really busy! - chock full of buzzing, eating, drinking, transforming and frenetic life, a rounded ecosystem, a diversity that boggles the brain.  When I witnessed that on the HRP, it was amazingly, wonderfully noisy.  Other times, I saw abuses which broke my heart.  Lastly, I saw things which gave me hope, tell tale signs that nature is resilient and can come back from the brink or coexist, despite our best efforts at Scorched Earth.  If the HRP has one thing over any other walk in Europe, its variety - from shore to farmland to glacier to rock and all the way back again.

These are just some of the lessons.  More to come.

I walked the HRP for 2 great charities - the JMT and Soundmix.  If you didn't donate yet, you can still do that, here  Everyone who donates £10 or more gets a Trip Report bundle.  The blog will not contain the full report.  Donate, then send your details to davepowered(you know where)gmail(you know what) com and you'll get a report when its done.  Thanks