Day 4: Arre to Uterga

Today’s plan is to not get wet. Anything else is a bonus.

We’ve got an albergue booked at Uterga so we’re in no hurry. The Arre albergue is quite casual and doesn’t kick us out until 9am. But, we’re out at 8-ish and we amble up the road into Pamplona.

Mike tells me that it’s the Rio Ulztama which imminently joins the Rio Arga. So now you know…

Having our own room means we can mess about and make noise.

Diana is on ‘have we got everything?’ duty

We pack all our stuff in plastic bags, just in case the 20% (depending on which app you use) chance of rain actually materialises. My walking shoes are too wet, so I pack out my Merrell sandals with padding, add moleskin plasters to my feet and slather the lot in vaseline before inserting the slimy result into my socks.

There are some great murals/grafitti on the walk into town.

Off we go through the very pleasant streets of Pamplona. No rain…. Yet.

Much upgraded way markers since we were here last. We have this variety…
…and these.

We walk past the ancient ramparts designed to keep the likes of us out in the olden days, and remark on what a different world it is now.

I do like a good sundial
Not sure I’m on board with the happy bulls and the bishop. Apparently it’s 307 days until the bull-bothering starts again
Leaving Pamplona.

Today is a very straight route, heading pretty much due west. The landscape changes west of the city. The last few days were in familiar territory – the trees and landscape could be Scotland. From now on we’re in what might be called stereotypical Spain. I look forward to it.

We head on up to Alto del Perdon. I love this place. It’s perhaps second only to Orrisson in my where-to-go-in-your-head-when-in-the-dentist-chair locations. And today it has more weight, more emotional thump than it might normally. It was in Pamplona four years ago that Jen and I left Mike and Llew, and headed back to Madrid to be with Muriel when she went to see the oncologist about a recent test. As most readers of this blog will know, that test was positive, and what with one thing and another1 Muriel was given an 18-months to live prognosis. Four years later, she is still here. I wrote earlier about this camino being ‘unfinished business’. Thanks to Jen and Muriel’s brother, Albert, who is visiting from Australia I get the chance to come back and pick up that trail from four years back, where, in an alternative universe, Jen and I head to the bus station and home. Today, the quantum world splits and I head west for the hill of Alto del Perdon.

The scenery is marvellous, even if the sky is un-Spanish in its greyness.

The track is quite badly damaged by the recent storm and we have to cross a fast flowing stream at one point. Jonathan decides to go barefoot and has to reassemble himself.

We stop at a small town for a bocadillo – basically a cheese and tomato omelette in a baguette. Can’t be healthy…

Eating bocadillos with two Texans

I walk ahead as I want to get to the monument by myself.

I sit and think and sit and think some more.

I can’t put this into words. In a way, it’s like some kid getting to go to Disneyland to see Mickey Mouse. There’s nothing inherently special about this time and this place.

And yet… and yet…

I weep buckets.

I worry what will happen when I get to La Cruz de Ferro. I fear I shall surf down the moutainside on a wave of my tears.

Damn right…

I leave and make my way down the other side of the hill, and try and catch up with the others.

Llew looking beatific, but the truth is that if he sat down he’d never get up again

We amble through the glorious countryside to Uterga where we have 4 slots booked in the Camino de Perdon albergue. And very nice it is, too….

We check in, do the washing of ourselves and our stuff and await dinner. It is excellent and we share our table with two Texans who have been training in 110 deg F heat for this. They’ll have no trouble with the Spanish heat!

I write this blog and get bitten by some evil looking insect. Tomorrow I reckon I’ll have a huge welt on my left hand. Oh well….

  1. I’m not going to write much about the details of this. This is Muriel’s story and it is hers to tell. ↩︎

Day 3: Stats

Arre to Uterga

  • Steps: 30,595
  • Distance covered: 23.9km
  • Apple Watch stats
    • 50 ‘Flights Climbed’
    • 2073 kcal burned

Preliminary waffle

There’s a fair bit of unfinished business for me on this Camino.  Almost exactly 4 years ago, in September 2019, Jen and I had to abandon our Camino in Pamplona (on roughly day #3) and return home.  Muriel’s routine breast cancer scan had produced the dreaded ‘please come in and see us’ response from the radiographers.  So, Pamplona to Madrid on the bus, then home as soon as we could.

It’s been a long story.

It’s now 2023; Muriel is 4 years into an 18-months-to-live prognosis and is most definitely still here.  Hospital trips and chemotherapy are now part of our daily lives, and have become almost mundane.  Chemo day: up early, drive to Edinburgh via Starbucks in Stirling for a porridge and a flat white.  M goes and sits in a comfy chair and is attached to the drips and pumps that deliver the magic blue liquid that makes her life possible.  I sit in the car, with a panoramic view over Edinburgh, a laptop, and a rather good 5g internet connection, and go to work.  Normal.

When M had the 18-month prognosis chat we decided to start doing the things that we’d meant to do, but the real world intervened and tamed our notions.  M had secondary cancer in her spine, so we thought “let’s buy the car with the best passenger seat and drive from the north of Norway to Greece”.  We had some good fun testing out Mercedes and BMWs in Perth.  But this was Jan/Feb 2020 and we all know what happened next.  Covid put the dampers on this and all our other plans. We retreated to our house to wait it out.

Let’s get morbid. If a cancer diagnosis does one thing, it confronts you with your mortality.  Yes, we all know that we can’t avoid death (or taxes), but it doesn’t really feel like that.  We’re all immortal until we’re not.

Reactions amongst our friends and family to this life-changing situation were mixed.  We are part of a large extended family, on both mine and Muriel’s sides, many of whom are heavily involved in religious work, either professionally or voluntarily. Ideas on the efficacy of religion when faced with a terminal illness are many and varied and I’m not going to talk much about that here – there are already too many words spoken on what is a very complicated philosophical position.  I take great issue with the ‘pray for healing’ types and I take great issue with the ‘well, that proves there is no God’ types1.  Both are horribly simplistic.  One of the hopes of this Camino for me will be time to think on these things and to try and articulate a coherent response.  On the other hand, maybe it just is what it is – so shut up and get on with it.

Readers of this blog will be aware that I am most definitely a ‘theist’ and am culturally and pragmatically a Christian (with the complication of a science PhD). Counterintuitively the events of the last 4 years have increased that theistic tendency, albeit that I now hold some beliefs that might disturb a vicar.  But I’m OK with that.  If your faith/agnosticism/whatever-it-is-for-you doesn’t respond to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, then of what use is it?

I’m tagging this post in the ‘waffle’ category, in case you want to avoid future philosophising. Hmmmm.

  1. M, for whom I would not dare to speak, has her own views. It’s one thing to be an onlooker to the horror of cancer. It’s quite something else to be the sufferer. ↩︎

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…