Yesterday there was a dead cat in the path. It was right in the middle, as if it had crawled there for assistance. Its guts were out. It hadn’t had an easy death at all. I slung its heavy body onto the side of the path with the end of my stick. What ceremony else? A surprising weight, but whatever spark of life had animated this lump was long since departed. Its eyes had been eaten, it was drained of moisture. What remained of it looked … angry. And well it should have, when you see the lumpish boys who walk these hills with death in their hands – when you see the red plastic of their shells in the flowers – when you hear the sharp bang of their toys in the mountain air.
Death is a constant companion as we walk. Some of us are walking away from it. Some of us are walking towards it. We are all walking through it. There’s the tale of the guy with terminal cancer who died in the cathedral at Santiago the day he finished. Another guy who had a heart attack as he got his Compostela. Loads of monuments to heart attack and embolism and sudden unexpected death in the exertion and the heat in a variety of different and marvelous ways. Then there are the roads and the trucks and the vans. After a long walk your head is pretty far above your body. If you’re suddenly back on a road with traffic it takes conscious effort to recalibrate. People drive fast through these empty hills. Lots of walkers and more cyclists get crunched up. Then other things happen – losing the path to hypothermia and ravines, meningitis, mystery – God help us, even murder. So we trudge every day through the dead leaves, past the dried out roadkill fire salamanders, past bleached sheep carcasses, past long fallen trees – we are still alive, we are still alive, we are still alive.
Right now on this path we are all actively experiencing everything. We push our living bodies through nature and we feel the unfamiliar as we go. It forces us into the now, where thoughtlessness and deadening routine have no space, no hold, no draw. “How did you get into work today?” “I honestly can’t remember.” Not here. We remember every inch of our strange day.
Right now I’m alone under a wooden awning in the hills. It’s dark. The cows in the field just to my right are stampeding from left to right, right to left like lethal excited dogs. I can see the stars and the mountains in silhouette. Animals bark howl and cry into the dark of the new moon. A cat is deciding if it’s worth the risk to ingratiate itself with me. In the distance I can hear a waterfall. The light of our artifice dims the stars. Every moment of every day is sharp on this walk. We have all become older than the time we’ve spent because the time is worth more.
There was a choice of route today. I chose the hard one. At the time I had company and they mirrored my choice. Most of the other people I bunked with chose the easy route. I felt responsible that my choice had affected theirs so I didn’t deliberately outpace them as I might normally do. We walked, we stopped to regather, and we walked again – an elastic unit of three. It was beautiful, the hard route, but they don’t call it “duro” for nothing and I was glad of the company.
As we stumped through the blood red of autumn we saw families with cars cooking in fires by the side of the route, surrounded by huge bags of the chestnuts that grow everywhere here. The trees are dying for the year, and as they go they shed their bleeding leaves and drop their tasty seeds. These families come with bacon and logs and they harvest life from death. They feast as they work. They offered us some bacon.
Death is a part of the cycle. We grow, we flourish, we pass, hopefully we drop seeds that are tasty.
While we are alive we have to remember to experience fully. To try to avoid deadening ourselves. This is how we become immortal, because we extend the time we live. I’ve been on this path for 34 days. I’ve been on this path for a lifetime.
Try something new today. Eat something you decided you didn’t like to eat when you were 8. Do some meditation you figure you’re too old for. Chant “Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo” for five minutes. Watch an old movie you’ve never made time for. Pick up the paintbrush. You decide. Extend your life with new things, and then when I get back to London remind me to do the same! Vale.