Day -2: Waffle

Steve: My train booking is from Gleneagles to Grantham but Muriel took me to Stirling station this morning, the station after Gleneagles.  The Solheim Cup is on at Gleneagles Hotel golf course and the tiny country roads between home and the station are shut/diverted/who-knows so we thought we’d be safe and go down the A9 to Stirling.

Golf, as someone famous once said, is a good walk spoiled.  The contrast between the manicured-within-an-inch-of-it’s-life golf course ‘nature’ and the tracks across Spain of the Camino is marked (some wilderness purists would argue that the Camino is still a good walk spoiled and isn’t really nature at all but let’s not listen to them). The heavily logo-ed clothing of the golfers almost mirrors the equally heavily logo-ed gear of the long-distance walker but the intent is very different.  No sitting around with G&Ts for the peregrino.  Dodgy coffee in a dodgy café is a good as it gets – and I can assure you that’s pretty darn good.  By the time the 500 miles is done and you collapse at a pilgrim’s mass in Santiago, in a crowd of 1000+ fellow travellers, your gear is fetid and rank and, to use a good Scottish word, minging. But you’ve never been so happy.  The stink of eau-de-pilgrim is a thing of beauty.

Jen, Hamish and I did this same walk – the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela – back in June 2017.  You can read all about it here

I started that trip as a moderately fit 56-year-old slightly overweight Type II diabetic who thought it might be fun to stretch things a little.  Herbie, my large dog, and I frequently walk the hills around our hometown of Crieff and I thought that the Camino would be a similar sort of thing.  A nice long walk in somewhere less damp than Scotland.

Well, the ‘less damp’ part is true.  But a ‘long walk’ is not a suitable description for what the Camino did to me.  Two years and much thought later I still can’t put it into words.  But let’s have a go…

I once went to lecture given by Alister McGrath.  McGrath is an interesting chap and a frequent sparring partner of Richard Dawkins in the endless ‘Is There A God?’ debate.  Someone asked McGrath how he views the notion of ‘materialism’. Not the Kardashian-give-me-lots-of-stuff materialism but rather the philosophical idea that everything is ‘matter’.  Everything is basically chemistry.  And I mean everything. Not just the obvious things, like the water in the tap or the air you breathe but also the TV set, your mobile phone, the office stapler – they are all just collections of chemistry. As are much more complex things like trees, the dog, and you. And not just the bag of bones that contains you, but your brain, your soul, your emotions – the whole damn lot of you. It’s all just chemistry. In your brain neurons fire according to paths honed by millennia of evolution – it’s all basically chemistry. Art – chemistry. Music – chemistry. Creativity – chemistry. The fact you love your kids – nothing more than evolutionary advantageous chemistry. The reason anything exists and that anyone does any action is ultimately chemistry.


McGrath posed the question ‘Why does the kettle boil?’.  A good answer to this would be to go through the technology involved.  The kettle has a resistive heating element that’s connected to the electricity supply, via which the electrons generated in faraway power stations heat up the element, in turn boiling the water.  It’s electrodynamics, thermodynamics and good old -fashioned engineering. Chemistry at work.  That’s why the kettle boiled. 

But, said McGrath, an equally plausible and correct answer would be to say ‘I want a cup of tea’. 

I’m an engineer, I spend my days writing computer code used in high tech aerospace engineering (I sometimes claim – tongue in cheek I assure you – that I actually am a rocket scientist.  If any of my co-workers are reading this then my face has turned red).  The ‘chemistry’ answer to the kettle question is undoubtedly true.  And appeals to my ‘materialist’ default way of thinking. 

But, but…  The ‘I want a cup of tea’ answer appeals to a quite different set of logic receptors.  And I think those logic receptors lit up for me on the Camino.  Yes, I physically walked in my 56-year-old bag of bones.  I walked around 1,200,000 steps.  My feet worked.  My legs worked.  By the time we were done I had the finest pair of legs in Western Europe.  But the change in my head was even more marked.  Apparently, I really really wanted a cup of tea. And the Camino provided.

Paul, a very old friend of mine is a physicist, and is sliding slowly but inexorably into Buddhism. He visits every now and then from his home in the US and we take ourselves to the very splendid Mhor84 restaurant in Balquhidder, get in some seriously strong coffee and catch up on each other’s quests to find the Meaning of Life, The Universe, And Everything.  Paul is well into the modern interpretations of the old Greek philosophy of ‘idealism’ (again, nothing to do with the commonly accepted use of that word.  Go look it up on Wikipedia…) and, what with being a physicist well versed in quantum theory, he makes a good case that the physics of the quantum world indicate that materialism is wrong.  At the top of everything, says Paul, is consciousness (and some Christians, including myself, agree).  Out of consciousness comes matter, stuff, atoms, you, me, the dog, the trees and everything else.  In contrast the materialist would say that material or stuff is at the top of everything.  Out of stuff emerges consciousness, and you, me, the dog and so on.

I think most of us sit on the fence that divides the idealists from the materialists. I’ve spent most of my adult life on the materialist side. The Camino has changed all that. Somewhere between Ribadiso de Baixo and Pedrouzo something happened and I vaulted that fence. I think that the grass is greener over here…

Postscript: Paul put me on to the work of Bernard d’Espangat, including his book ‘Physics and Philosophy’.  D’Espagnat is an idealist (I think!) and, amongst other things, he argues that the philosophers need to keep up with the physicists. He contends that any constructive philosophical thinking being done these days is by people who understand quantum theory (notwithstanding Richard Feynman’s famous quote that “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”).  

Now this book is both French (it’s in English, but seems to be largely a direct translation of the much more flowery French original) and it’s about philosophy.  Let’s just say it’s a dense read.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a book with so many ideas per page.  After 50 pages I thought I should try an introductory text so I got a hold of another d’Espagnat book.  That didn’t really help, either.  So, I bought John Gribbin’s “In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat”.  Which is a much more accessible tome. I’ll get there in the end… per ardua ad astra, as the Romans would have said.

French philosophers, quantum mechanics and this is supposed to be a blog on walking?  Pretentious?  Moi?

I fear there’s going to be more of this…

Day -2: Packing

Steve: I write this on the train from Gleneagles to York, and then on to Grantham where I’m staying with a friend prior to really getting started tomorrow.

The art of ‘getting ready’ for a Camino trip is tricky.  I’m going to be away for a month and I’ll be carrying everything I need on my back.  Which implies a certain level of rigorous planning.  But I’ve got a wallet with credit cards – the modern travellers ‘get out of jail free’ accessory – so, really, what’s the worst that can happen?  But nonetheless…

I write as someone who has tendencies to, how shall we put it, overanalyse things.  ‘Analysis Paralysis’ is a good phrase.  I have done this before, and I’m going with my daughter, Jenni, who has done three of these things.  I ought to know what’s what.  But the over-anxious part of my brain – the one that worries if I’ve left the cooker on, or forgotten the dog in the back of car (yes, that happened once…) – won’t let up.

However, a deadline to catch a train is a proper deadline.  And so my bright red Deuter Futura 42 pack is in the luggage rack above my head as we hurtle towards Newcastle on the 10:13 from Gleneagles to London.  It’s crammed full and weighs a frightening 11kg.  Eeek.  I’m not entirely sure how that happened.  The only things I can think of that didn’t accompany me on my last trip are a blanket thing made out of sleeping bag material, a truly enormous Anker power pack for all the gadgets, and my raincoat.

Last time around I sent home a pair of shoes, my raincoat, and some other bits and pieces from Pamplona on day three.  Sending home the raincoat – a fine Rab jacket that can keep out a hurricane – was a mistake.  Once we hit Galicia and the weather turned, I had to buy a cheapish bright yellow thing that made me visible from space and, unfortunately, also made me smell like a chicken farm.  Given that this trip is starting in September and we’re heading towards autumn I think the coat will stay this time.

There is something liberating about having just the right amount of stuff.  It’s tricky to do and I don’t want to go all Marie Kondo on you, but it’s a worthwhile exercise every now and again. I think of Steve Martin in ‘The Jerk’ – “this ashtray, this paddle game, this remote control – that’s all I need” and fully understand.