I love my boots. Or, more properly, I should call them “trail running shoes.” (LaSportiva Wildcats to be exact.) They were comfortable from the moment I put them on. They are light, they breathe, and they look cool (although it is hard to tell that when they are covered with dust). You can see all kinds of shoes on the Camino. In fact you WILL see them stacked somewhere near the entrance of each place you stay because you are not allowed to wear them in your room. You will see big heavy boots that fit above the ankle. Light, low cut shoes. Outdoor sandals. Simple running shoes. Being the most important item of clothing on the Camino, it is a critical choice that each pilgrim makes. Some find they have made the wrong choice, and boots can at times be seen cast aside along the trail. The existence of outdoor stores in this region of the country is evidence that pilgrims often need to make a new choice. Some of us put little identifying objects on the shoes so as to avoid another pilgrim taking our shoes. There is more than one story about a “shoe switch” and about the affect it had on a pilgrim’s walk. What is interesting though is that when all the dusty, smelly, worn boots are all piled up at the end of the day,—they all look about the same
Boots, of course, can lead to blisters. I have heard tales of some who walked the Camino and never had a blister. I don’t believe them. Both Lena and I have experienced various kids of foot issues. Blisters are a big part of that. And everybody has their remedies. Special European bandages called Compeed. Duct tape. Vaseline. Clean socks every few hours. Toe tubes. Wearing two pairs of socks at a time. Cooling off one’s feet in the stream. I’m sure each remedy works for someone. Before we left, a few of you even offered some suggestions and gave me little gifts for my feet. Thank you. I promise a full report on our return.
I’ve already talked some about albergues, the pilgrim hostels we stay at every night. While there is much to say in describing these, I just want to highlight how much they vary. Last night in the town of Longronõ, we stayed in an albergue with 18 people in one room. There was no breakfast provided, and though the place was clean, and the hospitalera was kind – I felt like I wanted to spend as little time there as possible. Tonight’s albergue is a bit of an old house or hotel, along the river park in the town of Nájera. We were able to get a private room (even though we had shared toilets and showers as is typical) and facilities were available for washing and drying clothes. Frankly here there is a homier feel compared with the institutional setting of last night (bunk beds are not my favorite thing). Though there is no breakfast here either, a few riverside cafés are just a few steps away and open early. To be sure, each albergue has its own feel and culture. Mostly, I guess, we’re just glad to have a bed at night.
I had no idea how important bars would become in my life. No, not the roadside taverns and hotel cocktail lounges of the United States, but the bars of Spain—cafés really. They have become our life blood. It is where we stop to find breakfast in the morning. It is where I sit to write these updates. It is the best place for a quick salad or bocadillo (sandwich). Most will let you sit and linger for hours on end if you like (not that we have time to do that on an 18 mile day). This morning the bar we stopped in was a great reward after our first 6 miles of the day. You can’t beat having a second breakfast! Most of the albergues provide a VERY simple breakfast – but a bar steps it up – fresh croissants, fresh squeezed orange juice, café con leché! On top of that, most of the bars have outside seating…feels very European to me.
Today our walk was long again, 18 miles or so. (I’m still waiting for the short days.) But one of the ways we passed our time was paying attention to the produce of the land. Wine grapes—we are in the La Rioja region—a major center for Spanish wine. Olives—that olive oil doesn’t grow on trees you know (actually, I guess it does)! And over the past days we have seen corn, sunflowers, peppers and artichokes. We have discovered lots of (not so small) personal gardens. And everywhere along the path small but juicy wild blackberries grow. So when we get tired, we just look around.
I did finally start using my earbuds and listening to music and podcasts yesterday. At the end of a long hot day, it is my mind that is most challenged. So a little diversion really helps. Nothing like a little Bruce Springsteen to give you a jolt of needed energy. And I cried a bit, missing our children when I heard the Paul Simon song, “Father and Daughter.” (“There’s never been a father loves a daughter more than I love you.”) I also heard a bit of scripture – yesterday the reflection I was listening to chose the text from Ecclesiastes 3 – “for every thing there is a season.” And I agree – for blisters and boots, for moonlight and scorching sun, for getting lost and finding a comfortable bed. To everything there is a season.
Last night we had dinner in a small bar/cafe in the small town of Villatuerta. We were seated outside where a large table of families and children had gathered for a 5 year old boy’s birthday party. What was interesting about the party is that it had a Michael Jackson theme – Jackson’s greatest hits were being played over the sound system, the little boy got a shiny sequined hat for his birthday, and he (with his mother’s prodding) performed an excellent moonwalk among other signature Jackson moves. It as great to have a bit of entertainment and childlike innocence to go with our hamburguesa.
One of the great learnings of the Camino is finding one’s way. Sometimes it takes trust (as in trusting my partner’s wisdom and sense of direction), often it takes looking for way markers. While the Way is marked fairly well through most of Spain, one needs to know what to look for. Sometimes you will see a simple yellow arrow painted on a wall. Often you will see a yellow stylized scallop shell on a blue background placed on a concrete pillar. Sometimes a similar scallop shell will be found as a metal disc embedded in the road. On a good day – the shell seems to even be oriented as if to point the way, the design mimicking an arrow. But there are times where no markers appear. There are days when it might be easy to get lost. I am so grateful for those who mark the way here in Spain. Maybe that’s a metaphor for those who mark the way for us in life…
One thing every peregrino (pilgrim) carries is a credencial. It is essentially a pilgrim passport. We are required to show it at every pilgrim albergue we stay at. You can’t stay there without it. Each time you show your credencial you get a sello, a stamp on the document, to confirm that you have stayed or visited that particular place. We get them at albergues, but also at churches, bars, or other places of interest. Having these stamps is not simply a bit of fun, but confirm that you are actually making this pilgrimage. When one arrives at Santiago the stamps are reviewed to show that one has truly made the journey before one gets a compostela, essentially a certificate of completion. It is an interesting part of the journey, a bit like getting a postcard from every world city you have visited.
Today was a very hard day. It was our longest – about 18 miles. It was one of the hottest. Our last 3 miles, though flat, were completely in the sun. (Neither Lena nor I can understand how anyone could do this walk in the summer.) The last half of the day, there were no quaint towns to travel though, only farmland and hills. There was, thankfully, a bit of a snack bar – right in the middle of nowhere – were we were able to purchase some fresh squeezed orange juice. Thankfully too, at the end of the day, we had booked a private room in one of the albergues in Los Arcos, Casa de la Abuela. Tomorrow may be an even longer walk. Send us a few good thoughts and prayers.
You might expect that with five to seven hours a day walking, we would have loads of time on our hands to think. And you would be right. But to quote Lena, “I’m not sure I am thinking any deep thoughts.” The same is true for me. Just when I think I have a few flashes of brilliance, they dissipate. I am often struck most by gratitude – for a flat road, a great salad, clean sheets, or a kindness offered. More often than not I am considering the condition of my feet and what I will eat next. But I am rarely thinking philosophically, theologically, or even spiritually. But that seems OK. The real nature of the Camino is to simply take what comes – even in my mind.
I have not yet put in my earbuds and listened to music, a podcast, or an audiobook. It is not that I think that would be wrong, it is just that right now I am taken up with the quiet, conversations with people we meet, and paying attention to what we see.
One of the things Lena and I spoke about today was the varied landscapes we have already travelled though in the past 130 kilometers. Mountain vistas above the tree line, forest tunnels, vineyards, rolling hills, small villages, urban freeways, and industrial towns. It feels like we have actually travelled much further than we have (in time and space).
Today we had a wonderful conversation with a young couple from Wisconsin. She an art therapist, he a part time postal worker, they decided to take time off between jobs to do this journey. They met on a college exchange program in Poland, and recently did a 1000 mile tandem bike ride from Montana to Wisconsin. (That one is NOT on my list.) We reflected on life in general and pondered the state of politics in the United States. I’m always encouraged to have a conversation with folks who can look at our nation critically, but work for the best for all.
Tonight we stay in La Casa Magica – less quaint than it sounds. The smell of incense (which I enjoy) wafts thought the building. The restored medieval building has seen better days. Still—a bed, a shower, a patio on which to relax—we could do worse. Tomorrow we have a long day (18 miles) after today’s relatively short one (12 miles). So we are trying to get mentally prepared. I may have to crank up U2 on the trail tomorrow to give me a bit of extra energy (that and a chocolate croissant).
Walking in the darkness of the morning is a quiet joy. It was even better today because we had a full moon. We got up thinking we would make our way to a bar/cafe and have some breakfast, but we (and all the people in the room we were in) were up early enough that the bar in town wasn’t open. So we decided to eat a banana, a breakfast bar, and leave anyway.
The beautiful light of the sunrise was a good friend, and lit the remnants of sunflower fields we passed by. We climbed, but the effort was not too much for us in the early hours. Our first big stop today was Alto del Perdon, a small peak with the ruins of a chapel. The big draw on this high place is the famous Pilgrim Sculpture from 1996 that has become a powerful symbol of those who have taken this journey over time. We did our own posing with the sculpted pilgrims and then made our way down another rocky, slippery path.
On the way up the hill, I was struck by a sign that said “Don’t forget, you were always on the way.” It is so true, that all of us are on a pilgrim journey towards something (or someone) we long for, and the important part of that journey is drinking in what you experience along the way. Those who are here in this physical place are experiencing one kind of Camino, but I believe we all experience our own Camino.
Feeling energetic , Lena and I took a “side trip” to a church called the Church of Santa Maria de Eunate. A 12th century octagonal building, it almost reminds me of some of the Eastern Orthodox structures one might see in Turkey or Greece. It is relatively small and simple, and I would have liked to spend more time there, but I am afraid I was beginning to get so tired that I couldn’t get up. Playing over the sound system was a chant in women’s voices, “Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.” Essentially – “where there is love, there is God.”
Food is such a part of my life and no less part of our journey. I am afraid I have not yet got my eating patterns to work correctly yet. Both today and yesterday Lena and I have gotten to the end of our daily walk thinking that we had not had enough to eat. While today we stopped for a mid morning breakfast and ate plenty of snacks and water, we have been coming to the end of our days both tired and in need of sustenance. And me, I just get cranky. So, I will work on that.
A few thoughts from last night. We stayed at a wonderful albergue yesterday called Suseia. The hospitalera was the embodiment of hospitality, the meal she served was in the gourmet range (for 13 euros), and the dinner company was wonderful. We shared a table with six of nine French women who were traveling together. These nine women, probably most in their 50s, have been traveling to Spain to spend a week together every year walking the Camino for the last 6 years. They were kind enough to speak English with us, and were delightful conversation partners. They talked lovingly of husbands and children, but mostly they just affirmed their commitment to each other. While I couldn’t figure out the spiritual practice of any of these people, theirs was a deep and joyful commitment to their particular community of women.
Two – thirds of today was a wonderful walk. The last third I sort of lost my pilgrim spirit. I’m not sure I was particularly kind to a woman named Eva (from Sweden) who wanted to walk with us. My “Health” App on my phone says we walked about 19 miles. I think we overestimated our abilities. In addition, while we had ample snacks and water – we did not make time for a proper lunch break and rest. (Not a good plan.) Tomorrow should be a shorter walk with a bit more time to rest. We made our way through forests and plains, and though our guidebooks told us this would be a relatively “flat” day, I’m not convinced. We also walked through the town of Pamplona, the site of the festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls. Were we a little bit more energetic, we might take a bus back into town to see a few sites, but right now the best I can do is sit here and drink a beer.
We did stop in at one church (San Esteban) at a place called Zabaldica, where we were able to ring an ancient bell and I sat next to a 13th century baptismal font. (Imagine those who have gathered around that sculpted stone object over the centuries!)
There too, the 9 French women sat and prayed. At the entrance of the sanctuary was a fascinating crucifix where pilgrims and others would write prayers on Post-it Notes and attach them all around the sculpture. It seems a fitting coming together of the ancient and post-modern world. The through line is that we always seem to yearn for someone and something beyond ourselves.
We began walking in the dark today. Not only that, we experienced our first day of rain. Time to test the wet weather gear. Again, the Camino has been treating us gently. While we got a few hours of rain, it was mostly a light sprinkle. We are being initiated slowly. So we put on our waterproof jackets, our backpack covers, and began in the journey. I’ve walked in the rain before, yet somehow this seemed momentous – an acknowledgement that we would have to receive what the Camino brings. A little bit of mud, a few slippery spots, but by about 10:00 a.m. we were able to stop worrying.
Walking in the dark was another thing. Lena had her headlamp – but her batteries were buried deep in her bag. I just didn’t even think to prepare for darkness and so my light was also a hassle to get to. We started to walk in the dark, but a fellow pilgrim came with us for a few miles or so and shared hers. The Camino is full of small kindnesses like that (I actually believe all of life is full of the same if we only paid attention.)
I am struck by how welcomed we were in small towns at 8:00 a.m. in the morning. The grocery store proprietor who made sure we found just the right energy bar. The bar (cafe) owner who was delighted to make our cafe con leche and serve us chocolate croissants. (I know, every trek should have time for croissants.) The many people along the way who offered friendly greetings and conversation. You should ask Lena how many nationalities have been represented in the conversations we have had, she is keeping a list.
We have been trying to make reservations at albergues we want to stay in a day or two in advance. It gives us a little bit more peace of mind as we walk. Some we do online, with some we phone call and stumble through few words of Spanish and hope the folks we talk with will understand, and today our kindly hospitalero was willing to call for us.
Tomorrow we will be walking through Pamplona – the first “big city” on the way. It will be interesting to see how it feels after all these miles walking through villages and countryside. Today Lena and I were looking at a trail sign, and I said to her, “it says 5 kilometers to Zubiri” – with a hint of relief in my voice. From a few feet away came a man’s voice in response that said, “Yes, a pity, isn’t it?” It was as if he was saying, “why would you want to stop walking?” Why indeed.
Let me first tell you about the end of our walk. We had a small detour. At least 3 people told us that when we get to a particular turn, to go one way and not another. One path, according to those voices, was “dangerous.” Being the kind of people we are – we were really looking out for it – wanting to choose the safer path. In the end however, we got confused and took the dangerous path. (Insert your own metaphorical interpretation here.) Mostly, it was just a very steep downhill with lots of loose stone. Lena took it in stride, I got a bit cranky. As it was, we made it just fine. I was worried about twisted ankles and blisters. Fortunately – none made an appearance.
The albergue we are staying in is huge. (For those following carefully, this was the one Martin Sheen’s character stayed in on his first night on the Camino. It is called the Refugio de Peregrinos. There are hundreds of people here, but the sleeping space has been remodeled with cubby like rooms. Very clean and comfortable. Incredibly well run.
Our walk was about 17 km (10 miles or so). It was a beautiful climb into the Pyrenees – with incredible vistas – and lots of horses and sheep. The weather was relatively cool and sunny with no wind to speak of. Until we got to the “dangerous zone” (which in the end was quite nice) I felt like I could do this for hours and hours.
At about one third of the way in, lo and behold, there was a food truck that helped us supplement our simple breakfast with a bit of protein. Who knows what the Camino will provide?
So tomorrow again we up our mileage. It is 22 km to a town called Zubiri. As each walk gets longer, I find myself still pondering how I can reduce my pack weight. What to get rid of? Shirt? Socks? Duct tape? I will keep you posted. It already seems like we have been out here a while, but we have really only travelled 25 km. Interesting how life is experienced when you travel at 3 miles per hour.
Ok, so I was thinking today would “only” be 5 miles. I’ve done that much more than that on my training walks with Roy. Lena has done much more on her daily walks. But this was serious uphill. We climbed about 700 meters. (2300 feet). It was hard. What made this walk so wonderfully doable was the scenery. Incredible pastoral vistas at every turn. Smiling pilgrims greeting us with a warm “buen Camino.” Relatively cool, sunny weather. And the promise of a shower and a bed at our next albergue. So we have begun the walking—hard but wonderful. I good day.
Bonus for us—in a albergue at Orisson (more of a spot in the road than a village) that has “men’s” rooms and “women’s” rooms, we got a private little room. Not much bigger than a Tuffshed you might buy at Lowes, with no electricity, but it is a dream come true for us. (I know, our bar must be pretty low!)
I would also say a word about the people we have met. I am regularly impressed by the variety and the depth of the people I am meeting on this trek. A Danish man about my age who gave up his banking career to be a caregiver to special needs adults. An Irish man who has worked for eBay for sixteen years and is now thinking of applying for a United Nations internship. A couple who just spent a few weeks at Plum Village in France, a Buddhist Center founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. I am sure the Camino is no more and no less significant than any of many spiritual experiences and practices, but it seems to draw people who are open to the Spirit, to change, to serve others. It is a bit of a wonder to me.
After 30 hours or so of travel, we are today in St. Jean Pied de Port, a small French town at the foot of the Pyrenees. We spent the morning walking the cobbled streets – it was as quaint and as beautiful as you might expect.
Last night, though exhausted, we had a marvelous introduction to the Camino. We stayed in our first albergue, called Beilari. The hospitalero was an amazing man named Joseph. We arrived just as those staying at the albergue were having a communal meal (cooked by a delightful woman from San Francisco named Elizabeth) and introducing ourselves to each other. About twenty of us said just a bit about ourselves and why we were walking the Camino. The food was fabulous and plenty – served family style. We learned that only about 6 percent of those walking the Camino are from the U.S.. Around the table were people from Ireland, Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Brazil and Argentina. We communicated with a mix of French, English, and Spanish – and lots of sign language and awkward smiles.
We slept in a room with 8 people in 4 sets of bunk beds. All was quiet by 10:30 p.m.. Showers were cold and quick in one shared bathroom space. Tight quarters but all were polite and kind.
I have a feeling the spirit of this place is unique and that Joseph seeks to make this a great beginning for all the peregrinos (pilgrims) who are walking. I felt so much better this morning, and though I wore earplugs last night – I am not sure I would have needed them. (I just asked Lena if anyone was snoring, and she wondered if it might have been me.)
Tomorrow we begin our hike with a fairly short day – about 8 kilometers (5 miles) – but seriously uphill. We won’t need to start too early, we are trying to be gentle with ourselves.
This morning I woke up about three in the morning, in the dark and quiet, and had an amazing feeling of relief and gratitude. This journey is finally underway.