It’s summer and I’m on the Camino de Santiago along the northern coast of Spain. I’m approaching a half a kilometre long road bridge which is hundreds of feet above a river mouth. I’ve seen no warning comments on any Camino website about the bridge, so have put it out of my mind as a possible danger spot. Not a smart move. I suffer from vertigo, which is not much fun. Uncontrollable shaking, clammy palms, sweats, and sheer panic. It’s all in the mind, they say. You try having it, it’s terrifying and debilitating. You can’t fall from there, there’s a barrier, they say. I know, but I want to jump.
The first time I remember getting vertigo was at the top of the bell tower at the Mezquita in Córdoba. I looked over the low walls into the courtyard below, and as the bells struck right above my head, I sank to my knees and scurried away trembling like a frightened mouse. Crossing a narrow pedestrian bridge over a busy motorway is also terrifying, the waist high railings calling you to topple over. The last time I found myself on one, completely unexpectedly, I had to will myself forward, force myself to move and cover my peripheral sight, shaking like a puppy in a thunderstorm.
I’d set off from the tiny village of La Caridá, 20 kilometres away, in the dark with a diverse group of early risers, guided by ‘miner’s lamps’ on their hats, and split up from the group once day had dawned, they being rather irksome. Yet in my haste I got lost, by following some people who seemed to know where they were going, but I lost sight of them while re-arranging my bag. I asked a few locals for directions. I got sent one way by an old man, only to be told I was going completely the wrong way by another, and as I was on a country road with very few people to ask, I started feeling aimless and anxious. I finally got put on the right road, through small villages and in the direction of Ribadeo, a nice town the other side of the river estuary which divides, or joins, Asturias and Galicia. There’s a motorway bridge over the estuary, I’d read that you can walk across it, but had not given it much thought.
I’m due to catch a train from Ribadeo this morning to jump to the second part of my journey, on the Camino Inglés from La Coruña, there’s only one a day and I’m not missing it. The Puente de los Santos comes into view, there’s a grassy rest area at the side, just before the path leads onto it, and I wave at some pilgrims sat there taking a rest. If I’d thought, I could have asked to cross it with them, maybe I would have felt supported, but armed with a train ticket and plan, I’m not stopping. Later, I would identify this as determination, bloody-mindedness and maybe a symbolic taking control of the reins of my life, not giving in; this is my life and I will do what I have to do.
The bridge is more than six hundred metres long and extremely high, it spans the Ribadeo estuary, and spectacular it is, sure enough, with three lanes of motorway traffic in both directions and a narrow walkway for cyclists and pedestrians. Retired housewives are strolling across it, fat old boys on bikes are crossing it, someone on his mobile is skateboarding across, so let’s do it, let’s cross this thing.
I take a deep breath and step out over the abyss. Once above the gaping chasm below, I know I’m in for a test I’ve not had before. I cannot walk straight ahead, rucksack weighing on me, the surging river below me left, just there…heart beats fast, pulse races, my god, this is terrifying, I don’t even think, I can’t think, all I can do is just move, step forward, keep going, I turn sideways, cling onto the high railing to my right separating me from the motorway traffic and edge forward like a crab, I talk to myself, come on boy, every step you’re one step closer, every breath you’re getting nearer, you’ll be there soon, it’ll soon be over, come on, we’re gonna get that train, I talk to drown out the thoughts that will come if I don’t, god, this is unbelievably terrifying, I fear for my very life up here on this parapet, lost unto this world, but I can’t, I will not give in, is what my unconscious is saying, we will not give in, we will do this together, you and I, for we are one, come on, son, let’s keep going, every step a small step, a giant leap, come on, we’re gonna keep this together. I look back I can’t see where this thing begins, god, can’t someone help me please, this is so bloody bloody awful, I can’t see the other end, it’s miles away, but, hey, come on we’re gonna do this, every step, come on, son, you know the score, we’re gonna make it, just keep moving, we’re alright here hanging on to this wire on top of the world, thank god for it, we’re holding on tight, don’t look back, we’re gonna do it, we’ll be there soon, that train’s going at half eleven and we’re gonna be on it, someone walks past in the other direction, what are you looking at me like that for, can’t you see I’m terrified out of my wits here? don’t look down, don’t look back, we can’t even see the beginning any more, that means we must’ve come a long way, maybe we’re over halfway across now, that means there’s less and less to go, we’re gonna do this, but I can’t see the end, from the corner of my eye I can see there’s still all that water below, but let’s keep going we’re doing fine, we’re gonna make it, every step is one step less, every metre one metre less, god, I’m so far out now I am so bloody alone, just keep talking and drown out the thoughts, why can’t anybody understand this, ‘vertigo is an irrational fear, of course you won’t fall,’ who said anything about falling, I wanna jump, but we’re not gonna do that, we’re not even gonna think that, the traffic’s thundering past on the other side of the fence, lorries, vans, caravans, more lorries, why can’t I be in one of them, good job they’re drowning out the sound in my head, hey, are you alright? not really, I get vertigo, this is bloody terrifying, if I cling on to this fence here and edge forward we’ll make it, I’m sorry if I’m in your way, no, don’t worry, I’m in no hurry, take it easy mate, you’re fine, we’re getting there, we’ll be there soon, where you from, I’m English but I live in Sevilla been there 30 years, yeah, I thought I recognized the accent, that’s funny, an Englishman with an andalusian accent, I’ve been there a few times myself, lovely place, not much is funny at the moment. Where did you start the Camino? Santander and I should be in Santiago in a few days, and you? I started in Avilés, and I’m gonna do the Camino Inglés, which is appropriate, isn’t it and I’m gonna get a train from Ribadeo if I can get across this bastard bridge which I didn’t really know about maybe I should’ve found out about it before but I’m stuck with it, right now all I got’s this lonesome day, how are we doing, are we nearly there yet? yeah and then to Ferrol, yeah, take it easy, you’re doing fine, just relax, I’m here, we’re getting nearer, we’re nearly there, yeah, I did the Camino Inglés, some of it’s really nice, apart from the first day around Ferrol, and I’ve done the Francés a few times, I’d like to do the Via de la Plata, but not in summer, are we getting near yet, I can’t look down ya see, if I keep going like this, I’ve been talking to myself, it’s the only way I can do this, thanks so much for this I really appreciate this, no worries, yeah, look there’s the other side, take it easy, you’re doing fine, I’ve never seen anyone get vertigo like this, yeah it’s a right laugh, you can imagine, I’m just glad I’ve got this fence to hold onto and it’s a good job it’s not windy, now that would be, no stop thinking about that, I can see the other side, it’s just there now, but not yet, don’t look, keep going we’ll be there in a minute, look thanks a lot, I really appreciate this, you’re really helping me, just being there, no, don’t worry, you’re doing great, look, we’re there now, shit, I’m holding a lot of people up behind you, don’t worry about them, look, there we are over the other side now above dry land, the bridge runs down into a path, zigzags back down to ground level and I’m on the pavement of a street. Take it easy, yeah, thank you so much you really helped me I can’t tell you how much, Buen Camino.
There’s a bench and I sit on it. Walkers, cyclists, women out for their morning stroll, don’t they get scared, what’s wrong with everybody? My head goes down into my hands and I throb as the tears burst out. It took everything I’ve got to do what I just did, I dug deeper than I would have thought possible and I’m reeling here. I get up and walk on, asking for directions for the station, I’m still in time for the half eleven, maybe even fit in a coffee first, I certainly deserve it, lace it with something. The cyclist from Huesca comes back and asks if I’m alright, I assure him I am, shake him firmly by the hand and well up again.