I awake in Mauleon-Licharre and strike out into the dawn. The binmen are working and wish me a good day as I plod dustily by their truck. Christian, the soldier, has left half an hour before the dawn. The two old ladies Anne and Christiane leave with me, but they’re taking a short cut down the main road. It’ll save a few hours for them. I’m going over the hill though.
As I’m leaving town I run into a proper old Frenchman, beret and all, everything but the onions. He is dragging an ancient dog. He sees me and drags it towards me as he beckons. The dog’s foot gets caught in a drain. It shouts in pain. “Attention au chien!” I suggest but he wants to talk to me. He just tells me the route. I thank him profusely and gesture to the dog which is in pain. I go to help just as it frees itself with a yelp. I head on my way, sorry for it. The binman says in an undertone “Last week he stepped on its foot.”
The first few hours are temperate and I eat up the miles, going at a blistering pace. I stop for a coffee in a little café in Ordiarp and they’re playing Clandestino by Manu Chao, one of my go-to stupid summer albums. I take it as a good omen. As the day heats up I head for the hills, and boy does it heat up. At noon I find myself at the base of a hill with no cover. At one I’m at the top and I’m dripping sweat. I collapse into the first shade I find, and slowly, thoughtfully, eat an orange. Without any shadow of a doubt it’s the best orange I’ve ever eaten. If I was a mad king I’d make it the Duke of Orange. I was low on water so chose the orange as a substitute to give me power. Because then it was time to push on for another hour and a half without enough water through glorious heat.
My relationship with food is changing. In my lunch bag I have about 10 cherry tomatoes, 2 slices of lettuce, cheeses and bread, and half a brown avocado. I don’t make a sandwich. Too hungry. I just eat them with my hands, methodically and completely, tasting as they go, enjoying the hydration and the nutrition. I wrap the remaining cheese and bread and get back on the road.
At about 4 there’s a farmer, shouting to his dogs. I shout to him and ask if he has a tap. He does. He takes me there and I overindulge in water. I leave with a brimming flask, at a good pace, and almost immediately say out loud to myself “Water is amazing stuff.”
It’s the simple things. I’m one day away from St Jean Pied de Porte – the traditional start of the route. This evening I’m staying in a farmhouse with a double bed behind a door I can close. I had a hot bath, and then massaged all my pain spots with arnica oil before rubbing Tiger Balm into the spasmy bits.
I’ve worked out where the phrase “blistering pace” comes from. But blisters? Meh. Nick’s grown a new head but I’m keeping him contained. Careful grown up blisters aren’t like the teenage blisters we remember. My feet can’t be any worse than that old man’s dog’s. It’s all part of the journey… (Screw you with your platitudes.)