I looked down the steep and narrow dirt path feeling a sort of resigned disbelief. Not only was the path at least a thirty-degree grade but it had been worn into an unwieldily ‘V’ shape by years of water flowing down it.
There were rocks jutting out all down the path which was both good and bad. Good because they were occasionally angled in such a way which gave my footing the perfect counterbalance to the cart, but bad because as I rolled the cart downhill the cart rocked severely back and forth.
My cart weighed about a hundred pounds but with a secure foothold and one hand clenching the handle I could keep it from tumbling over Savannah, off the edge of the path, and into the thorn bushes.
For the moment the cart was leaned back on two wheels and my feet were staggered on separate stones. As I lifted my right foot from its foothold the weight of the cart was moved from my legs to my right arm. It didn’t require a great deal of effort to keep the cart in place but I could feel my toes of my left foot curling in their shoe to keep hold.
I moved my right foot down a stone and shimmied it into a secure position. Then I moved my left foot. The cart rocked to the right as it rolled over a stone. A few more degrees and the cart would be on its side.
I could see the right axle bearing the full weight of the cart and knew at the bottom of the hill the tire would wobble a little more than it should from an axle no longer perfectly straight.
With both feet in place I paused to catch my breath. I’d been at this descent for an hour already. No wind was getting through the forest and the air was humid. My clothes were sopping. With my thumb I flicked sweat from my brow.
Savannah didn’t seem to notice. She had no weight to carry, no burden to bear other than the light vest which kept the sun off her back.
As I lifted my right foot I felt my left foot slide. My foot didn’t have the grip on the stone I thought I did and in an instant my left foot slipped from its place and the full weight of my cart was held only by my right hand.
The cart pulled me down. I slapped my right foot down, then left, but I could find no hold.
I dug both my heels in only to have my feet bounce off rocks and slide over the dirt. I held onto the cart as though my life were inside it. The cart jumped off a rock. The abrupt change in weight distribution caused my feet to be swept out from under me. I landed on my back and my left elbow slammed against a stone then immediately I was twisted as my right hand remained clutched to the cart and the cart continued downhill.
A moment later the cart rolled over a large rock, fell to its side, skidded a foot, then halted. It came to a rest with the front wheel hanging over the paths drop-off. If the cart hadn’t tipped over I would have been down in the thorn bushes with it.
I groaned and stood. Then I found my footing and swung the cart upright and back onto the path. My left elbow throbbed. I had cuts along my arm.
Savannah peered up at me, likely wondering why I was making such a fuss.
“How about it, girl?” I said, clearing my face of sweat with my shirt.
Savannah opened her mouth slightly, allowing her tongue to come out about half an inch – her version of a smile.
The path below her was more of the same. It was steep and uneven. Through the pine trees I could see a dirt road. I was nearly there.
It took me another half an hour to make it the two hundred meters to the bottom. I lost my footing again but didn’t bang my elbow. At the final turn I was sprinting downhill with the cart handle in both hands and the cart bouncing madly in front of me. I ran past Savannah and the cart took one final jump at a bump in the road before skidding to a stop.
“Jesus Christ,” I said to Savannah, shaking my head.
Savannah gave me an uninterested glance then strolled over to a stream and lapped up some water.
This path, the GR11, which I thought would take Savannah and myself all the way along the Pyrenees, would not work. My plans were scrapped. I was in the middle of the mountains and needed to get myself to a more reliable route to take me across Spain.
I opened my phone and on the map I traced a connection of smaller roads I might be able to follow to Pamplona. I knew once I got to Pamplona my options opened greatly. I could follow a smaller road to Barcelona or even a bike path beside the Camino de Santiago.
Pamplona was eighty kilometers away though so I had to hope that the roads leading there were decent (meaning not too trafficked or at least possessing a decently wide shoulder).
From the base of the mountain I followed the dirt road up and around a bend and was deposited onto a paved road where a family was looking over the stone railing of a bridge at a placid green lake.
On my nose hung a drop of sweat, my arms were covered in dirt, and my shoes had shreds of grass and leaves lodged in the laces.
As I followed the bridge the father of the family by the lake ambled over to me. He was in athletic gear but moved with the lethargic gait of a man who had little intention of doing any physical exertion on his vacation that wasn’t an absolute necessity.
“Food? Here?” the father asked in a thick French accent.
I shrugged. “I’m not from around here. No soy de aquí.”
“Food? Restaurant? On the lake?” The father mimed putting food in his mouth.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know. Lo siento, no sé.”
I held up my hands and walked off. The father waved. His children and wife watched me curiously.
The road continued around the lake. There was a wooden sign for a restaurant and since I hadn’t eaten since morning I followed it. An ascending path bordered by tall hedges opened to a minor oasis. Dogs moved across the grass, there were tables filled with people, and the smell of pork cooking wafted through the air. The lake had appeared empty, but here at the restaurant was a wellspring of life.
I wondered how the French family had missed this place, but gave no thought of going back to tell them. I was too sore and tired for such generosity. The sign for the restaurant was difficult to miss.
At the restaurant I had my first meal on the road in two months. The food was mediocre – grilled chicken and french fries – but the view, and the sensation of being free once again was a high like breathing pure oxygen.
I’d been stuck in the beach city of San Sebastian for two months. The city was nice enough, but I had no friends there and no reason to do anything apart from busywork. In the mornings I studied Spanish for two hours and for a while after I felt content with life and that I had made some progress, but during the rest of the day time seemed to exist only so it could be lived through.
I took Savannah to the park four or five times each day, always hoping I’d run into one of the two Brits who also walked their dogs there.
I had conversations in Spanish too, but there was no emotional weight behind my words or in those spoken to me. My Spanish wasn’t strong enough – especially in the Basque country where the accent was thick and words were cut and conjoined.
Then in the afternoons, if the sun was shining, I’d head to a bay where I could take a swim and read on one of the massive stones along the shoreline. Those were pleasant hours, but charged with no more purpose than entertainment.
Now, back on the road, even eating a mediocre meal of grilled chicken and french fries held purpose. I needed to refuel.
After an hour and I paid and departed. There was a backroad which passed behind the restaurant that would help lead me to Pamplona.
It was afternoon and cloudy, but beyond humid. The backroad was absurdly steep and my legs weren’t conditioned quite enough to push a hundred pound cart up that without feeling it.
I stopped and started. Savannah was panting heavily. After just a few hundred meters I pushed my cart onto the grass beneath a tree and collapsed.