I feel that familiar joy bubbling up on the climb into the clouds to the Plateau de Beille, a serpentine 16km tarmac ascent that's favoured every second year by the legendary Tour de France cycle race. How I love high places! Reaching the plateau, which is a favourite with Nordic cross-country skiers, I thrill to vast wide-open views and initially enjoy a somewhat easy meandering track used by occasional 4×4 vehicles. This is beautiful, I muse, but how about a little more wildness on my trek through the high Pyrenees and into the Principality of Andorra. Be very careful what you wish for, especially if you are trekking in high mountains. Hours later I'm wondering if my silent prayer shouldn't have been simply for a safe passage to my overnight destination at the Refuge de Rulhe, a remote hiker's lodge accessed only by ever trickier walking trails.
Mother Nature has arranged the wildness I've longed for and the weather is rapidly turning nasty. I listen with increasing concern as the rumblings of a storm move closer, the heavens opening and transforming the narrow cliff-edge path into something alarmingly treacherous. Within minutes a howling icy wind is threatening to topple me, the thunder claps are directly overhead and I realise I'm a perfect lightning conductor as I slowly traverse the skyline. With my decision to carry my computer and technology in a second smaller pack in front of me, I can’t see my feet as I clamber over rocks, once slipping and sliding on my back, another time losing one of my trekking poles and scaring myself silly as I recover it from the slippery rockface below. When I come to the traverse of a steep snowdrift that has turned to ice I have that familiar dry-mouthed, sweaty-palmed feeling I know from racing and rallying and I remind myself how useful that heightened sense of awareness can be. It sharpens the focus and brings all the senses to a state of red alert. Racing drivers deploy it to good effect and animals use it all the time as a survival mechanism, ensuring the fight or flight response is only a nanosecond away.
I silently thank the Universe for a day to remember, even if it is one that pushes me right out of my comfort zone. I slow my pace radically, concentrating on every step. One slip-up on the narrow muddy path can be life-threatening and even a sprained ankle could be serious for this solo trekker. My predicament makes me think about my other fear of not being able to breathe. In recent days I've suffered asthma attacks, the shortness of breath being worse than I remember at the summit of Kilimanjaro and during sustained trekking above 5,000-metres on the way to Everest Base Camp. At best it's like having only one lung when the air is so thin it delivers just 50% of the oxygen available at sea level. But where is this shortness of breath coming from? Something from my deep past? Some ancient cellular memory or simply the unrelenting pressure of pushing hard to keep covering the kilometres, writing the blogs and communicating with hundreds of people via email and Facebook. I remind myself to relax, have fun, celebrate wildness and not feel pressured by the deadline to reach Salamanca by October 3.
A small animal bursts from the vegetation alongside the path and brings me back to communing with the forces of nature and imagining what it's like to be a migrating wolf. My respect for this magnificent creature's survival instincts grows daily as I see the immense human-created obstacles in its path. If only its persecutors understood the vital role that wolves and other large predators play in creating balance in ecosystems, even to the point of helping the natural vegetation to return to its former vibrancy and diversity after being decimated by exploding populations of animals like deer. I'm so grateful that I'm walking the Trail to Salamanca and celebrating the comeback of wildlife first-hand. And that I'm part of the WILD10 initiative that brings together so many talented individuals and organisations committed to the Earth and all its inhabitants, human and non-human.
Our goal is to help Make the World a Wilder Place and explore all possibilities and I'm inspired by the quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” There are so many examples of people making a difference, among them British barrister Polly Higgins who identifies with our urgent need to reverse the ecocide that threatens the health of land, water, air and all lifeforms through the destruction and loss of ecosystems – all because of greed and a reckless lust for material wealth. She has proposed to the United Nations that ecocide be recognised in international law as a threat to peace along with genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes. She argues: "Take away the very world that feeds us and gives us all that we need to live in peace and harmony, and very soon we too will perish. Our right to life is under threat of being extinguished and yet we continue to ignore the signs. The very land we call our home is sacred. All too easily it is squandered for the profit of a few at the expense of the wider Earth community.”
Thank goodness for visionaries like Polly and for all those people working individually and collectively for the common good. I look forward to meeting many more of them when WILD10 convenes in Salamanca between October 4 and 10.