Suddenly my feet had no traction and I was beginning to fall. My hiking pole bent nearly ninety degrees and I almost went down when a young man from Turkey grabbed my arm and saved me from landing in the mud. Such is the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Whether it be the thousands of small acts of kindness or the synchronicities that line up, there is no doubt that there is a ‘flow’ about this place.
Climbing the Pyrennes, in the fog and the rain, wishing I had packed gloves, I thought that I had started to hallucinate when I thought that I could smell coffee. This was highly unlikely on an unpopulated trail almost 1500 metres above sea level.
I had just passed a flock of sheep that hurried over to the side of the trail. They appeared astonished and acutely interested in me as I walked by. I could see a truck with a makeshift enclosure up ahead. Could it be a coffee mirage? Was I experiencing the type of illusion common to people traveling across the desert? Would I lose my way in search of a phantom caffeine fix? I assumed that the vehicle was associated with the sheep in some way, but I was wrong. It was coffee.
Everyone that I have met along the way can tell at least one story about exactly what they needed coming into their possession just when they wanted it. A taxi appears just as the decision is made to call one; a stand selling hats opens right next to your table, right after you’ve lost your hat; or someone simply picks up your hiking poles for you. No small thing when you have a full pack on your back and muscles sore enough to discourage movement of any kind.
Dropping the timetable and deadlines has a way of allowing things to happen that becomes clear when all you can focus on is getting to the next rock large enough to sit on without too much effort.
And on we go down the Camino. Day six and counting…..
A kilometer, it turns out, is not a very good measure of a walk. It does not account for incline or decline, footing, stairs, wind, weather and unfortunately distance.
On the Camino, one of the first things that you realize is that all distances are “as the bird flies” and do not take into consideration how many bends there are in the path or even if the path bends back on itself.
The first time that it takes over an hour to walk less than a kilometer the uselessness of this measurement becomes apparent.
The truth about kilometers is second only in importance to having a place to sleep when you are finished for the day. In July, it turns out, this can be quite tricky. There are way more pilgrims than there are albergue beds.
This long winded explanation is really just my way of explaining why I have ended up without a ‘camma’ or bed in an albergue, not to be confused with a place to sleep, on a few nights already. Much to my dismay I ended up sleeping on a cement floored area designed for handball and futsal, considered the purest form of football, but I digress.
I slept with several men last night (and several women) in sleeping bags outside on a cement pad. Such is the Camino.
The Camino walk is characterized by a tightening of the legs and upper body in reaction to the pain generated from moving your legs and putting weight on your feet. This cramped gait is the way that you can identify someone in town that has been walking on the Camino.
Several towns have specialists that work for donations and spend several hours each evening treating the results of prolonged walking.
I am becoming somewhat of an expert on blister care myself. First, there are two types of feet. The ones that dry out from the heat which causes cracking and sores and irritated skin. I am from the other camp. My feet sweat so much I have trouble keeping my boots dry.
Dry feet should be covered in Vaseline. This is the opposite for sweaty feet which should be powdered and treated to dry socks at shockingly frequent intervals.
Once a blister has formed it should be drained. Yes, this does increase the chance for infection but until it is drained the pocket of liquid stuck under the skin will move around enlarging the size of the blister.
The draining can be accomplished with a syringe, a needle or a needle and thread. The thread is apparently left in place to allow the blister to keep draining.
Once drained, soaked with iodine and covered with an antibiotic cream on gauze it is then covered with a sticky bandage. This is supposed to allow the blisters to heal. I’ll let you know if that is true in a couple of days.
He opened the main doors to show me where the beds were in this particular albergue. The large open space had once been a garage, perhaps for farm equipment, and still sported two rectangular doors that could be rolled up and out of the way to let trucks in or out. Now, it was a huge open space with painted floors, multiple bunk beds, some plastic chairs and a couple of tables.
The albergues are as different as they could possibly be. Last night I stayed in an ancient home that had been built originally from rocks and cement and had been located beside a natural spring. There was no electricity and dinner was eaten by candlelight and the remains of the twilight before the sun set.
In a broad way the albergues can be
divided into three categories: municipal, private and religious. The religious ones are often found in ancient structures and might be run by nuns with strict curfew times and times before which you are not allowed to leave in the morning. Most of the municipal ones are large, newer and have extra amenities like individual outlets to charge your personal phones and cameras. The private ones are as individual as the people that run the places, varying from private museum-like spaces to elaborately decorated artsy places.
It is always a gamble. The descriptions in the guidebooks do not account for these types of qualities and focus on quantifiable things like the number of beds, availability of services and classification i.e. private.
So, tonight will be spent in a large garage with the possibility of forty other pilgrims all sharing the space. I hope that there are not many that snore…
A church bell is sounding off the time of day while a dog barks and a flurry of swallows chirp and dive in the plaza. Every small town has the same assortment of wild cats, often of a Siamese or calico descent. A rooster just crowed to remind me that this constant reminder of the rural nature of the towns is ever present. Most of the dogs move along free of a leash and often free of an owner.
The Camino takes travelers through town after town, open fields and cities. The towns are living evidence of how life was lived hundreds of years ago and the cities still reflect the architecture while adding modern touches. Often the view of a small town will bring a sense of relief that is quickly thwarted by the fact that they are usually an uphill climb away. The older cities are surrounded by walls that were used to protect the inhabitants. On the same note, they were placed up on a hill so that invaders could be seen coming from a distance. As you enter the Meseta this character slowly changes. The ground becomes flatter and the towns become more sprawling. The challenge of the steep climbs and fast descents gives way to the extreme heat. Temperatures in the 30s and 40sC make travel in the afternoon very difficult. One difficulty is replaced by another and on it goes…such is the Camino.
Pilgrims are dropping like flies. The stretch of the Camino that precedes Leon is a long straight path that runs beside the highway. The heat, sun and monotonous flatness is seen by some as meditative.
The cold reality (or hot!) is that a couple of people have been hospitalized for heat stroke, many more have suffered headaches and illness and some have chosen public transport.
There is little to see on this piece of the Camino that can take several days to cross on foot. No one said that it would be easy.
I am amazed at how many different aspects there are to the allure of the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain. Many religious figures and celebrities have travelled this route, across the top of Spain, and been buried along the way — the religious figures, not the celebrities. In addition to that, it was once considered a path to the end of the world. For Europeans, before the discovery of the new world, this trek took you to the Western most aspect of the continent, literally the end of the world as it was known at the time.
There is also the athletic perspective. As an outdoors adventure, this trail is designed so that you can “rough” it in the outdoors without having to carry tents and cooking equipment, unless you want to, and for that there is camping available.
The hike itself is almost 800 kilometers or 480 miles long. It goes through mountainous areas, open fields and cities. Great discussions are currently being held in various chat rooms about what distance can be covered each day, how demanding the trip is, how to prepare for this type of physical exertion and what to eat to enhance your performance.
Cultural visitors can visit rustic small towns and city centers all by travelling this path. The pilgrim is exposed to what it means to be truly Spanish, even if authentically it means that you cannot get service in the middle of the afternoon.
Spirituality beckons many a traveler and most of the people, other than the uber- athletes, do not know why they have a desire to walk this route other than the fact that they know that they want to do it. Initially affiliated with Christianity, the call of the Camino now goes out to people of various spiritual and religious perspectives.
A lesser-mentioned aspect of this journey is that the way is marked in the heavens themselves. This particular trek is directly under the Milky Way. If you were going to design a message or a marker that would not get lost through time, would not be subject to language and could be understood by anyone, isn’t that how you would mark it?
It has been brought to my attention that a walking stick is essential for this journey. This, of course, is another personal decision. I spoke to people about the most modern types of sticks. Some are fully collapsible, feather light, designed to absorb shocks and allow you to let go of the handle while the stick holds onto your hand.
I took the advice of a friend that said, “Go out into the woods and find one.” At this stage of the journey, I’m glad that I did. There is always the possibility that I will regret this later because I will see the benefit of all of the upgrades to the newer ones and recognize that I could’ve used some 21st century help on my walk.
But, the romantic in me liked the idea of going into the woods and finding a stick. The stick that I found was only the third branch that I touched. It seemed to be waiting there for me. In my mind’s eye I had envisioned a stick with a bend. The natural position that I would like to hold my hand in, while holding the stick and hiking, required a bend. The stick I picked up had that bend. It was also the right diameter, not excessive, but sturdy enough to hold my weight and the right length. I tested this out by forcing my entire weight down on the branch. It did not give at all.
Unfamiliar with the various species of trees, I had to ask for help. The help came in the form of an email from the TreeCanada website. This group advocates planting trees and provides resources to that end. The man that answered my email said that it was definitely a birch branch and probably a white birch. To be fair to him, the photo I sent him illustrated a branch that had been lying on the ground for at least part of the winter and much of the bark was damaged or missing.
Birch has significance in many cultures. Apparently, it is a symbol of new beginnings and of taking a positive step forward. It is both male and female in a single tree. It is associated with growth and adaptability and is considered a pioneer. From a practical perspective, it is virtually imperishable, strong, light and has a natural resonance that will amplify energy. This sounds more appealing to me personally than it will fold up and go into your suitcase, but I may find that that is more important than I realize at this point.
For whatever reason, and I have to admit I am part of the group that does not know why I want to do this, just that I do, increasing numbers of people are making this journey, that in an of itself makes it interesting.
Snapping my hiking pole into place and having the segments line up and become rock hard is only part of the thrill of using two poles. The rhythmic arm movements force you to twist across your abdomen using muscles that are not normally worked while walking and give a feeling of great power. The power to conquer not only the groomed path on the way to work, but possibly a much steeper ascent. I admit that I had a romantic notion that I would be able to take a single walking stick. This all came to pass when I bought my knapsack.
Knapsacks are quite complicated. With the help of a woman that had some idea of what I might need in a knapsack I tried on several, all in the 50 – 60 litre range. That apparently is how much space you need to carry just the basics. Enough clothing to wash some while you wear some, sleepwear, sleeping bag and toiletries. Other than my iPhone, hat, raincoat and jackknife, I pretty well did not need anything else, other than perhaps a second pair of shoes.
The knapsacks are all adjustable to the extreme. Once we found one that fit me with the right combination of pockets, clips and supports, the woman from MEC put 25 pounds into the sac and both my knees gave way.
It wasn’t all that surprising to have my left knee wobble a bit under new weight. It has been unstable for over three decades and numerous doctors have strongly recommended surgery. I have found that if I keep the muscles around the knee strong, through regular exercise, I experience little discomfort, so why bother with surgery that is not going to be discomfort free? What shocked me was that my good knee shifted with the extra weight as well.
The beauty, and the selling point for me, of having two poles is that you can carry thirty percent of your weight on your upper body. Wobbly knees…two poles. What I was unprepared for was the impact it would have on the actual experience of hiking. The rhythm, the sound of the poles hitting the ground, the extra focus as I made sure that my foot and the pole had somewhere solid to land, was invigorating.
It made me sad to lose the romance of carrying a stick that I had found in a wooded area near my place. The white birch was only the third branch that I touched and it seemed to be waiting there for me. Birch is a symbol of taking a positive step forward. It combines male and female energy and is associated with growth, adaptability and exploration. From a practical perspective, it is virtually imperishable, strong, light and has a natural resonance that will amplify energy. This sounded more appealing to me personally than, “it will fold up and go into your suitcase”, but I didn’t know that I might need two poles to increase my chances of making the trip successful.
This trail is surprising in how remote it feels. It runs between the Speed River and residential properties. It is so secluded it is not possible to see the properties that back onto it.
Except for the path itself and numerous benches along the way, there does not seem to be any evidence of human activity, except in the spots where you can see the city on the other side of the rive. It was very lightly travelled the day that I was there. Occasionally, there are what I assume are private paths that lead up to the back of properties.
Several very old maples have bases that exceed 7 ft in diameter. With the river on one side and the thick overgrowth all around, it is easy to get the feel that you are in a remote area.
I would like to stress again that a map is very valuable here. There are other trails that meet this one and I had to circle back on more than one occasion. There are markers but they are often at intersections and do not necessarily make it clear which way you should go. RRT is Royal Recreational Trail, and is the name given to all of the trails maintained in Guelph, not a specific route.
This trail effectively connects Stone Road Mall and the associated retail shops, services and restaurants that have sprung up around it with the downtown core.
It cuts through a field that belongs to a local high school, behind a middle school and through a park. You can begin this trail at the mall or at Gordon Street where it meets the Speed River at the end of the Speedriver and Downtown Trail The entrance to this trail, near the mall is at the corner of Scottdale Drive and Janefield Drive where W.E. Hamilton park is located. The adjoining trail is the Hanlon Creek Trail and it begins on the other side of Stone Road.
Guelph has many trails that have different purposes and destinations. My largest piece of advice walking through Guelph is to have a map of where you want to go. The entire trail system is called the Royal Recreational Trail (RRT). This should not be confused with a single trail that has a beginning, middle and end. It is a combination of many, many trails that meet and diverge and head in various directions. It is possible to have more than one branch of the RRT beginning at any one location.
My first encounter with this, on this particular trek,was the Woodlawn Cemetery. Travelling east along Woodlawn, it was clear that there should be a way to enter the cemetery. I noticed that there was a small, unmarked trail veering off to the right of the sidewalk, (marked in a teal broken line on the map) just before you reach the cemetery. This turned out to be a path that led to the back of the cemetery and an opening in the fence.
It was as if someone wanted access to the grounds, but to make it not very obvious so people did not make a habit of crossing through the property.
The site is recognized as part of the Trans Canada Trail and there are markers visible. Markers, that are often at intersections and do not clearly indicate which direction you should travel. As I said, you need a map. I prematurely exited from the cemetery and needed to walk south on Woolwich. If I had had the map above, I would have emerged at Marilyn Drive.
This cemetery is quite old and I’m still looking into just how old. I saw stones as old as 1820, but some of the older stones were not readable. There is a huge amount of history here and there are plaques and monuments in addition to the headstones.
Between the cemetery and the trail that runs along the Speed River, there is a short walk along Marilyn Drive. This is a quiet side street with a little traffic. The trail travels along the river surrounded by park next to a quiet subdivision. This is another point where I’ll caution you about a map. A map will clearly show which side of the river you need to be on. There are trails on both sides, but only one will get you to a bridge that you need to cross over to the other side. Of course, being on the wrong side would not be a serious tragedy but you would have to either back track or walk along a busy roadway to get back onto the trail.
With the exception of the jog along Woodlawn Road, a busy, four lane road, this entire walk has multiple benches and picnic tables along its length.
As I happened by Goldie Mill Park, which the trail passes by, they were filming a scene from Murdoch Mysteries. Before I was told it was not allowed, I did manage to get one photograph.
In addition to that, there are over 70 restaurants all within short walk of this part of the trail. If you plan to go by this area during meal time I recommend looking into the type of restaurant you would like to visit. You will have to leave the trail, but most are metres away. Guelph is known for its restaurants so this is not the time to go to a chain restaurant because it is familiar and easy.
This segment of the trail connects Marden Tract on one end and Silvercreek Trail at the other. So depending on which direction you are travelling you would either begin at the intersection Woodlawn Road and Edinburgh Road or Gordon Street at the Speed River, where it meets the Eramosa River.