The Gorgeous Mistake

shel Two litres of water, eighteen dried apricots, a small pack of salted almonds, and half a bar of chocolate: these are our first mistakes. When is half a bar of chocolate ever enough for anything?

Our next mistake: we’re too fast. The eight kilometres to San Juan-Donibane roll past under our sneakered feet as if they’re being rung from a cash register and we’re having a sale on mileage. Up, up, up Monte Ulia we go, leaving San Sebastian sprawling lazily beneath us. We hike the steeper ascents and descents, then race over the lesser hills, last night’s rain rising from the treetops into a cloudless sky. At the top of the first cliffs we take a photo of the bay below: a smooth smile of beach urging us on, the Bay of Biscay slurping at its toothless gums.

The tourist office had promised us a hike of two to three hours, but we reach Pasaia in 90 minutes. We pay 70 cents to the boatman to ferry us across the bay to San Juan where we wander the cobblestone streets. But it’s far too early for lunch and we’re too fresh to just turn around and head back the way we’ve come.

We have a photocopied map of this section of the Camino del Norte — pilgrims’s trails dating back to the Middle Ages. The scale is too small to be useful and, in greyscale, the trail to Hondarribia vanishes in the contours of the hills. A sign in San Juan, however, informs us that it’s 22 km on the GR-121 trail to get to Hondarribia and from there a bus can take us all the way back to San Sebastian.

What’s the argument against  pushing on? Every other rock and tree so far has been dabbed with swatches of red and white paint to mark the GR-121. It’s the last day of our holiday in Basque country and we want to make the most of it. Why not, we say to one another, why not?

The GR-121 from San Juan snakes along the shore then tips steeply upwards, depositing us on a spine of rock that plummets to aquamarine on our left and green forest on the right. From here the trail levels out again and we’re back to jogging through forest and pastures that look more Scottish than Basque, dotted with heather, sheep, and honey-coloured cows. We stop — not long enough — at a sign with a map that offers us two routes to Hondarribia, both roughly 18 km. One wriggles inland, the other follows the coast and its breathtaking panorama. A no-brainer, we think, and head back out towards the sea.

A mistake, a mistake, such a gorgeous mistake. On this route, our red and white swatches are gone and we’re now following two white dots that, on the rare times we spot them, may or may not be splotches of lichen. The view is staggering, the stuff of calendars and coffee table books, but our excellent trail has been whittled down to an overgrown suggestion, choked with ferns and grasses slippery as silk, thick with brambles and thorny shrubs. Hidden underfoot is greasy clay that time and again whisks me off my feet. It is only by sidestepping,  hunching low, and clutching at the prickly branches that I can keep from scooting all the way down into the first ravine or worse, over the cliff into the waves leaping and snarling below.

“This is the kind of hike I’d love if I knew I’d survive it unscathed,” I say to Tyler when we reach the bottom of the gulley.

“This is a stupid trail,” he responds solemnly, his eyes flickering over the rocks and shrubs in search of our two white dots.

We ford a milky stream that looks unfit to drink then pick our way up the other side, lunging at anything we can to keep from back-sliding. We pause for pictures, but our smiles are forced. We’re expecting the trail to flesh out again inland along the hilltops but, alas, it plunges back down through the tangled vegetation towards the sea then up the other side.

Another two hours of slithering and climbing, I’m no longer speaking in full sentences, resorting instead to yelps and curses. Tyler is portioning out words of caution in an uncharacteristic, wild-west drawl that makes me worry how much sun we’ve already absorbed and how much more we’re still to get.

“This be treacherous,” he calls back. “Step to the right and you will surely die.”

We scale the thorny ravines, two, three more times. We ration the apricots and the water then permit ourselves a square of chocolate to celebrate what we assume is the top of the last ravine. It’s not. Now we’re inching so slowly down the mountainsides our Garmin watch, communing with the satellites, no longer deigns to register our movement. The sun and humidity are a hot iron pressing us deeper into the rocks and thorns, the dial set to steam.

At the bottom of the fourth ravine we’re confronted with a sandstone slab so smooth it looks impassable. There’s a sagging cable strung across at shoulder level, but no way of testing whether it is still firmly affixed on both sides. The only way to cross it is to match our feet along a pocked wrinkle in the stone, pinching at creases with our fingertips, our gaze fixed anywhere but at the churning waves thirty feet below. This traverse is madness without a rope and harness, but crazier still, we reason, would be to try and retrace our steps.

My heart is yammering in my throat and it takes every ounce of focus to still my shaking hands. Tyler, who goes first, coaxes me through it in his regular, 21st century, physiotherapist voice. We’re both blocking out all thoughts of what this fall would look like, whether such a drop could be survived, how not a soul on earth knows where we’ve whimsically taken ourselves today — this spontaneous extension to a last-day-of-vacation adventure.

On the other side of the slab, some deep breaths and a miracle: a cabin, recently inhabited.  There’s a mask and snorkel hanging on a hook outside a boarded-up door and beyond that a rocky track winding out of the bay.

We spend 15 minutes looking halfheartedly for our little white markers on a smudge of path that cuts off the dirt track. It seems only to link the cabin to several other shacks and a lone, battered jeep. The allure of civilization, of an artery that might lead to somewhere other than an overgrown gulley — it’s too much to resist. We head up the track, away from the coast, reasoning that this rocky road will likely cross our other trail, the red and white GR-121, and we can take that the rest of the way to Hondarribia.

Hour five and the almonds are gone; two apricots remain with maybe 100 ml of water. We climb higher and higher up the track seeing no markers and no trail. We must be close, we tell ourselves. If we could just find a path heading East, another signpost, or drop a pin in iPhone Maps — see if Google can find us in this haystack. But that won’t work either, we can’t get a signal. We can glimpse cellphone towers on the hills around us but they can’t see us, or chose not to. The occasional breeze from the sea is fresh but the hill itself is panting like a stranger leaning in too close at a crowded nightclub. We could be anywhere under this searing sun.

Out of nowhere: an apparition. A fellow human. A Basque bohemian, twenty-something, wrapped in dreadlocks and scarves and tripping merrily down the road towards us carrying a rolled sleeping bag the size of a Burmese mountain dog. I’ve been so hot, for so many hours, even the concept of a sleeping bag seems like a hallucination.

Is she real or imaginary? We have no way of knowing, other than the fact that she speaks rapidly in a language that is neither English nor Spanish, which is hard to invent, even with sunstroke. She tells us many things, in Basque presumably, with a bit of Spanish thrown in, most of which is incomprehensible. The fastest way to Hondarribia? She points back down the long steep road we’ve been slogging up for the past 45 minutes. That’s where she’s headed now, to the little bay with the shacks. And the trail from there, we ask? She shrugs and holds up six fingers, then seven: six or seven horas along the coast, she manages to convey, very far.

Tyler takes out the map the tourist office had photocopied for us, back when we were envisioning three hours to Pasaia and a lunch in San Juan. Here? He points to the elbow of coastline that juts out of Hondarribia. The bohemian’s bushy eyebrows float skyward and she shakes her head, her finger hovering over a bump of land just northwest of San Juan. Here she points. She herself has walked from San Juan’s neighboring village, Lezo, and — she emphasizes with a nod to her enormous sleeping bag — she hasn’t been walking long.

We wait until she’s disappeared from view before turning to ascend the rocky road further into the hills, trying to remember to comment on the beauty of our surroundings, of the need to enjoy this last day of our wonderful holiday in Spain. It’s hour six before we find a wavering cellphone signal and confirm that the Bohemian’s global positioning estimate was bang on. We are nowhere near Hondarribia. Indeed, after stumbling across a paved road and following it for a kilometer, we come across the track we should have taken from the outset, clearly signposted: GR-121 — 17.9 km to Hondarribia; 4.6 km to San Juan. Our GPS watch, meanwhile, informs us we’ve covered 23 km in six and a half hours.

It’s laughable, and we can laugh now. We know the route to get back and we didn’t break any bones, collapse from the heat, or plummet to our depths. We choke the last two squares of chocolate down our swollen throats and make our way back through the section of Scottish pasture, reverse our steps along the spine of rock, and retreat back down to the medieval streets of San Juan and the best beers we’ve ever tasted.

*   *   *

We board our train back to Barcelona the next morning, aching limbs trying in vain to find a comfortable position in the rigid seats. I watch a white-haired, mustachioed man in the row ahead of us pry open his laptop and spend several busy minutes sorting out his Wi-Fi and headphones, then googling “Gloria Gaynor.” I close my eyes, hoping to drift off, but can’t.

When I open my eyes again, the elderly man has found some grainy, late 1970s-era Gloria Gaynor videos. He’s snapping his fingers, drumming the edge of his keypad, pecking at the air with his chin. He plucks out an ear bud and tries, unsuccessfully, to nestle it into the ear of his disinterested wife. It’s too delightful, clearly, to keep to himself. I can’t hear the music and I pass the time trying to figure out who Gloria Gaynor is and what she might be singing based on the pixilated gyrations I can spy through the gap between the seats.

Outside, the dense forests of Basque scroll back towards yesterday, mountains capped by a rising mist and encrusted with ferns and thorns. Then it comes to me. “I Will Survive.” That’s what Gloria is singing soundlessly, which makes me smile. Now I can read her lips, pick out the lyrics as she belts them into her mute microphone. I put the question smugly to the hills rushing past my window.

Did you think I’d crumble?

I ask you.

Did you think I’d lay down and die?