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.
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.
The day that I lost my will to live, is one of my favourite Camino de Santiago stories. My feet were blistered, making walking painful, and every time that I entered a small town it was “closed”. This is an admirable way of life, I mean the Spanish way, not the fact that I was walking with blisters. Unlike North America where people will do anything to make a sale, including staying up all night, providing drive throughs so that you don’t even have to get out of your car and home delivery that is just a click of the mouse or phone call away; the Spanish put more priority on quality of life.
The coffee shop does not open really early in the morning because the proprietor must first get up and have some breakfast and then open the shop. Also, the shop does not stay open all day because the afternoons have traditionally been too hot to work, so everyone goes home. This was a huge adjustment for me, a Canadian, who is only inconvenienced by distance, or perhaps price, if I want something NOW, at any time of day.
So, my morning began at an Albergue, or Refugio, that did not include breakfast. This was just as common as those that did include breakfast and it was not expected that there would be anyone at the Albergue awake or serving breakfast if you left early, or late for that matter. I set off knowing full well that I was going to walk through a couple of small towns that day and I was not worried much about it.
When I arrived at the first town, there was a coffee shop that had not yet opened. Most shops, I have found, do not have their hours of operation posted on the door or near the entranceway. There was no way to know if this particular place would be open in a few minutes, an hour or if by chance the owners were away on vacation. No way to tell. So, I trudged on.
The next town had been “open” just before I arrived, but it had now closed for the afternoon. I had several kilometers before I hit the next town so it was difficult to force myself to keep walking. I had not had my customary caffeine and I was developing a “caffeine headache” and lethargy. I considered seeing if there was room at the Albergue in this town, but I suspected that I would not be able to get anyone to answer the door, in the middle of the afternoon, so I kept walking.
The only thing that kept me going that day was the decision to go home and spend the rest of my time off there. I was home sick. I missed my bed, my pool, my privacy and I was aware of the fact that I would have the place to myself with no obligations at all. I promised myself that I would close my website, end my life coaching business, draw into myself completely and curl up in a ball in my bedroom. This decision gave me the will to continue walking.
I envisioned getting on a plane, flying home, hiding out and consoling myself. There was a symbol on the map, which I had come to recognize as a travel kiosk, in the next town. I knew that if I made it to there, I would be able to arrange a flight home. I could get home right away. I could throw in the towel, admit that the Camino had kicked my ass and go home. I did not have to encounter any of my family or friends for a while and I could lick my wounds, feel sorry for myself and hide.
When I arrived in the town, the travel kiosk was a historical museum that had nothing to do with booking flights. There was a medic, who had a side business tending to the feet of the pilgrims, working in one of the Albergues. He said that my heel was infected and that it was dangerous to use the compotes (a type of bandage) in Spain. This was something that I had personally realized by this time. The blister had been about 3/4 of an inch across initially and was now closer to two inches. I guessed from the pain that it was infected.
The gentle man cleaned up my feet, drained and bandaged my blisters and gave me the sense that all was OK with my world. I had a nice meal, some coffee, and a nap. The next morning, refreshed, caffeinated and bandaged, I set off once again across Spain.
I had learned how key of a role coffee plays in my life. I had also gained a respect for kindness, comfort and the value of a nap. I can’t wait to go on my next walk across Italy. I am planning to do the Via Francigena this fall. Have any of you done this walk? I’d love to hear about it.
While watching Ben Saunders describe walking across the frozen Arctic Ocean in a TED talk, I understood something I had not been able to articulate before. He likened his love of adventure to having a crack habit. He admitted that all of his money got sucked into his endeavors and that it had caused the destruction of all of his relationships.
I found myself remembering how long it took me to get back to “normal” after my walk down the Camino in Spain. At the time, I described it as having my view of my life shattered, but his words made sense. To break out of our routines, to leave your comfort zone and to live a different life — if only for a while — gives us a taste of “the juice that we can suck out of our hours and days.” remarked Ben. Adding, “There is something addictive about tasting life at the edge of what is humanely possibly.”
Now, he was risking life and limb, literally, to walk across the Arctic Ocean and, of course, I was never more than a few hours away from a warm bed and some fresh coffee, but I get it. I still long for it. I still find my day-to-day life unsatisfying and somehow unfulfilling. We are here to dance, not sleep walk through life.
Once you have broken out of your routine, experienced the possible textures, twists and nuances of needing to pay attention to your life, it is difficult to conform to an everyday existence. The fact that even my morning routine, an almost immutable thing while I am at home, was disrupted by my changing surroundings, made me realize that I normally go through so much of my life without paying attention.
Have you ever driven to work and forgotten your drive? Have you ever realized that you’ve done nothing out of the ordinary for weeks? Is your vacation the only time you see new scenery and do new things? Just thoughts, but they are at the core a truth I am trying to discern.
If you have ever used a hammer to open a walnut, you know how the force it takes to break through the hard shell sends the soft, edible bits flying in many directions. (This was originally posted October 2012.) Walking the Camino did this to me. I have spent the last several weeks collecting up the soft bits and trying to reassemble them into my life.
The routines, patterns and generally robotic aspects of my life were difficult to break through and recognize while I was still engaged in them. Fly across an ocean with only the essentials you need to survive and walk for weeks in a country that you are unfamiliar with, that speaks another language and it throws your routine into disarray.
This was necessary for me to see myself more clearly. It is so easy to go through the motions of life without ever actually questioning your participation. Focusing on the abstract, the distant and the trivial instead of paying attention to the most important thing which is the present — your actual life — is like a societal obsession.
It has taken me weeks to get back to that familiar feeling of being in my own life and even though I have acquired that now, I must admit that my connection to this life is tenuous and unstructured. I’m back, but I am fundamentally different. No, that’s not true. I’m more myself. I have reclaimed the lost bits and I am willing to take them with me wherever I go.
Gone are the routines like coffee, shower, breakfast and work. Well, the coffee stayed of course… But every aspect of my life has been taken out, brushed off and examined. Parts of my who I am that I have not experienced for a while like my love of solitude, romance and politics are being welcomed back into my everyday existance.
I haven’t been writing because I haven’t had anything coherent to say. Like wading through thick mud that is hindering your movement and blocking your view, I’ve tried to carry on as I was before my trip and I’ve found it exhausting and unfamiliar.
I have realized that the price of being safe, conservative and following the rules are too high for me. This is a one time opportunity, this life, and I’m going to experience all that I can and engage in my life today, not some time in the future, not when I get a chance, not when I retire or win the lottery — now. Wish me luck.