Day 4, 22 March
When Sara and I set out on the Camino, we experienced the future as a kind of nostalgia. We imagined the best and the worst. Beautiful nature, the woods alive with birdsong, how we would grow strong and tan from long hours of hiking in the sunshine; or pouring rain, the weight of our packs too heavy to carry, the pain in our feet. What we never imagined was how mundane it would be, how stretches of land could near drive us insane with boredom: long, straight roads through agricultural wastelands, military training grounds, gravel factories or paths by the highway. We’d chosen to go through Fessenheim, Cernay and Thann, then figure out a way to get to Dijon or Cluny. This part of the Camino, between the Black Forest and Vogesen should better be called the Crimes Against Nature Path, we decided. We were utterly alone, and yet utterly imprisoned by the unfortunate side products of civilisation. Here and there, we met a few joggers or cyclists, never other hikers.
“Why are we doing this again?” Sara kept asking me. Looking at the dystopian surroundings, I began wondering, too.
I’d had a bit of experience camping. Funnily enough, four days wasn’t the longest I’d ever gone without a shower. I was doing fine. When the exertion or the endless straight roads became unbearable, we’d play category games, listing all the foods, animals, authors, cities, and book titles we could think of. It didn’t take us long to develop a routine. Waking up at seven, as soon as there was light, preparing cereal on the camping stove, dressing, taking care of hygiene as best as possible, packing before the first joggers showed up. Walking until the sun went down. In the evening, we’d make lentils or some instant meal Sara had packed on the last day in Freiburg (while I’d been busy trying to save what was left of my crumbling relationship #1). Sara would read ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed to me before we slept. I had given the book to her for her birthday three months before. We had each brought one, plus the ones we’d need for the Camino that held maps and descriptions of the trail. I had taken ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman. The first two weeks, I would read a stanza of ‘Song of the Open Road’ each day. The books were perfect, almost hilariously so, mirroring our individual reasons for this adventure. We had both gone into this in similar ways, dropping out of uni before getting a degree, but we had entirely different questions in mind. Sara, I knew, was trying to find her place in the world, to prove to herself that she could do something crazy and incredible that other people didn’t dare to, that she never thought she would dare to do. I knew I could do it. I had found a corner of the world that I liked and belonged in, but at the same time I felt like I belonged on the road. It was calling to me whenever I met other travelers. So I was trying to stay unsettled, before I suddenly grew old, tied to family and house like the middle-class suburbia I had come from. There was another question in there, I thought as my feet trailed a stretch of gravel path. To our left lay a barren cornfield, to our right, a forlorn smattering of forest. The question was what I wanted my relationship #1, my life with Cups to be like. The question was what I even expected of relationships. I loved Cups, I knew that. The months since Cups and I had met in November had been among the happiest of my life. Yet, ever since this journey drew closer, things had grown tenser and tenser between us. I was here now, on this road, to be myself. I knew who I was when we were not together. Independent, free, wild. I had allowed two people into my life, after these two years of being on my own. Finally? I didn’t want to discredit the single years, no, they were needed, the same way I needed to rest after each day and look back on all the ground we had covered. I hadn’t been unhappy, not because of that. The difficult thing, I concluded, was to stay happy (and) in a relationship. I was wild, and some people had the nerve to try and tame me, but it was a tight-rope act: at the moment it made me feel caged, I would run. I kicked a piece of gravel in front of me. I didn’t want to think about my future now. I was even a little angry at Cups for sending me off with this question. Of spending a future together. I did not want him to plan his life around me, or plan mine around him. Relationships? Wasn’t that when two or more people loved each other, everyone just sort of did their thing and somehow it worked out? That’s what I wanted. I was 24, jobless, without a degree or any significant ‘qualifications’. I couldn’t make promises further than I love you. I will love you. I’ll want to see you again. and I’ll come visit you. I had made those promises. But they weren’t enough.
Day 5, 23 March
Finally, we managed to camp out in a small forest, hidden from any sort of path and the joggers that would certainly appear around nine. We were following the river Thur through Staffelfelden to Cernay, which we planned to reach that evening. This night in the forest, we’d woken up to some loud barking. A boar, I thought, a spike of adrenaline going through me. There were two of them, calling to each other. But no, boars didn’t bark, did they?
“What is that?” Sara asked, suddenly awake, too.
I remembered I’d heard this sound on another camping trip. “A doe,” I said.
“A dog?” Sara said.
“No, a doe. They bark. Don’t ask me why.”
We listened to the two sources of noise drawing closer to each other but away from the campsite. It started to rain. I wasted one last thought on the laundry dangling from a string of parachord between the trees and fell asleep again. I was comfortable, I was cozy, I was safe. We had access to water here, we’d been able to wash ourselves in the stream, we had food, two books, notebooks to write in, and each other. What more did we need? This was the simplicity I’d been craving all my life. When you’re preoccupied with seeking shelter and staying warm, all other problems become a distant river-trickle. I loved doing things with my hands, my body. Getting drilled to be smart, smarter, the smartest, it took me long enough to realize that. Last year, I’d spent a week in an open air Stone Age museum North of Hamburg, the same place Sara and I would return to at the end of our travels. There, I’d slept in one of the neolithic houses, and during the day attempted to construct a clay oven. Days consisted of nothing but sitting on a stump of wood, buckets of clay, sand, straw and water in front of me. I kneaded the straw and sand into the clay for hours on end, morning til evening, interrupted only by a small lunch break. My linen clothes got sprinkled with mud, my hands ached, but the sun was shining, soaking into my skin, and I was happy. It had been one of the simplest times.
We got going later than usual. The sun was up, painting trees across the roof of the tent. A population of insects had found refuge from the rain under the outer tent wall, but I didn’t mind them so much. We kept hiking by the river for a few more kilometres. The closer we got to the Vogesen, the further we left the Black Forest behind. The cornfields, too, were gradually receding and making way for prettier sights. The first trees had started to bud, Magnolias, which we sometimes encountered in people’s gardens, were in full bloom. Sometimes we would hike through an obviously populated area but come across no living soul. The suburbs of Staffelfelden lay quiet and unassuming in the midday heat. A cock was crowing. Laundry was dangling from a clothes line. Yet no one who lived there made an appearance. We left this eerie town behind and got to Cernay in a matter of hours. It was only three o’clock, and the last stop in the first of our four guide books, Thann, lay a mere two hours away. When I’d checked on my phone, there was a Gite d’Etape there that should admit us for the night. And so the mad dash for Thann began. I hadn’t been in real pain before. The previous days, my ankles had acted up a little, but my knee, which I had dislocated a week before, had yet to complain. Now though, I was in pain. Due to the heat, I’d taken off my fleece jackets and hiked in a tank top, and now my hipbones were missing a protective layer of fabric. Soon, the pain in my right hip got so bad that I unclipped my hip belt entirely and resolved to carry the full weight of my pack on my shoulders. There was no other way. As we made it up and down another vineyard and into the forest, our water supply was dwindling fast. We couldn’t make camp here on the remaining two litres, I knew that. The only way out was through. I conjured up every inspirational person I couldn’t think of, trying to channel their badassery. Cheryl Strayed, Walt Whitman, Thor Heyerdal, Royal Robbins, Rambo. People who had set out to do crazy things and pushed through. In the end, it was one of my own characters walking beside me who saw me through. “Straighten your back,” Dale said. “You can do better than this.” She strode through the woods with such ease and determination, the sun glinting off her hair, the tendons in her arms popping out as she pulled her pack tighter. I followed her to the foot of the mountain. The Black Forest lay on the other side now. For the first time, the mountain range that was my home lay invisible behind us. Our safety line, Sara had called it. As long as we could see it, we’d know where we’d come from, we’d be in touch with home. Now, it was gone. The church tower of Thann lay ahead.
Day 6, 24 March
I woke up to a door being slammed shut, and some teenage shrieking. I slid my hands down my face as if that could wipe off the adrenaline coursing through my blood.
“I hate them,” I said, turning to Sara in the other bed. It was seven o’clock. I had barely slept. We had checked into the Gite d’Etape the night before, exchanging the woods for two beds and a shower for two nights.
When we got to the Gite, the sign on the door proclaimed the office would close at 17:30. It was 17:35. No one was there. But the door was still open, so we snuck inside. On the second floor, we found a couple of bathrooms. We were thinking the same thing: If we couldn’t check in, we’d just make use of these showers, sleep in the hallway and vanish at first morning light, like we’d never even been there. We explored the other floors until we met a man who called the Concierge for us. She gave us a key and stamps for our pilgrim IDs. Besides the two of us, there was a school class of horribly British teenagers staying at the Gite, that eyed us sceptically when we came into the communal kitchen to make our Tortilla wraps. They had brought a whole bunch of Domino’s pizzas and bantered back and forth in high pitched voices, taking unflattering Snapchat pictures of each other. And here were we, dirty, sweaty and exhausted, our short hair sticking to our necks. Sara bit into her Tortilla wrap and let out a happy sigh.
The class was still roaring and laughing and shrieking in the other room when we lay in bed. I stared at the ceiling, every nerve in my body shrieking to get away. There was no whistling of birds, no quiet whisper of foliage, no doe barking, no soft rain falling on the tent walls. As hard as I tried to imagine those sounds, all I could hear was laughter, the cars outside, doors closing and opening. The lamps on the street by the window were a sickly orange. I lay frozen and nauseous. Pack the tent, run to the woods. Pack the tent, run to the woods, a voice was chanting inside me. My whole body was humming with tension. I was caged by these walls. I wasn’t free. I wasn’t home. The past days had all been marked by the same certainty: that for the night, we would set up the tent. Its olive green fabric used to comfort me. The packing routine had become my stability. I took some deep breaths to calm this intense feeling of homesickness, but it wouldn’t leave. What was I even doing here? Two nights? How were we ever going to manage this journey?
For a second, I contemplated running home to Freiburg, ringing Cups’ doorbell. I knew he’d welcome me with open arms, he’d even said so: That wherever he was, there was a place for me, there was home, I was always welcome. I could live with him until I had found a flat. I imagined what it would feel like to fall asleep in his arms again, in that too cold room with the too small bed and the flatmate I would run into in the kitchen in the morning that would surely drive me insane. I wasn’t sure I missed Cups. Not yet. I missed the way we’d been in the beginning. Happy, reverent, calm, slowly exploring each other and growing closer with a kind of innocent curiosity. I missed the way we’d been after breaking up and getting back together a day later: Drunk in love, delirious, stupid. I could lose myself in the two small moles next to Cups’ left eye, the dimple in his right cheek that showed up when I poked it, the silky skin on his hipbones and the way he said my name, always a little surprised, a little amused. But lying here, I didn’t miss Cups. I didn’t miss Swords either. Thoughts of Swords were melting like strawberry ice cream on my tongue, remembering all the wonderful things he’d said (that I would sometimes steal shamelessly) sent tingles of warmth down my spine. The future was a kind of nostalgia. I knew we would see each other again and that we would ache with love. What was the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? I did not miss Swords.
I missed the tent.
Breakfast was a quiet affair. Sara and I took our notebooks to the kitchen, writing, drinking coffee and occasionally sharing what we’d written.
“I’m sorry this is so terrible to you right now,” Sara said. “We’ll be back outside tomorrow.”