The first woman to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada – and back

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With all this talk of Reese Witherspoon and the movie adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir (Wild), I’m feeling kind of giddy.

I’ve hiked in California, Oregon, and Washington states and loved them all. Expansive vistas, big sky, the smell of pine trees, and the reflections on deep blue lakes…my heart flutters at the thought of it all.

Two years ago, Strayed’s memoir of walking (part of) the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon stirred my heart strings. Two weeks ago, the movie adaptation stirred them again. I remember my 500-mile Camino experience with deep gratitude. I came home exhausted, but daydreamed of more long-distance walking.

My family asked: Isn’t it enough to go off wandering once? Is it out of your system now that you’ve “done it“?

No, and no.

Whether I would walk another Camino or in some other part of the world, I came home feeling strong in my heart’s desire:

I want to do this again…and again…and again! (But with physical training beforehand!)

Handsome Husband needn’t worry – life is long and I am in no rush for my next big walk. There’ll be time in the future. And I think the next few years will see a massive upsurge in people walking the PCT anyway. I’m sure the movie will have that effect, just like The Way (starring Martin Sheen) influenced the number of people walking Camino. You know my feelings on walking among crowds of people, so I’m happy to bide my time and wait until the crowds subside! 😉

But in the meantime, I’ve just read an article about Olive McGloin from Dublin, Ireland, who is the first woman to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada – and back.

I feel giddy at the thought of it!

She walked the 2,650-mile route (each way) that Strayed walked (only?!) 1,000 miles of.

I was (and am) impressed by Strayed’s mileage.

But Olive McGloin walked more than 5 times Strayed’s distance.

And she walked more than 10 times the distance that I covered when I walked Camino across Spain!

I Love It!

More details here: http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/a-walk-on-the-wild-side-meet-the-first-woman-to-yoyo-the-pacific-crest-trail-1.2071182

Wild: The Movie (and what I thought of it…)

So, a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about a new movie called Wild. It’s based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed – a woman who walked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone, through California and Oregon. You might have heard of her. Or maybe you’ve heard of the movie because it’s sweeping its way through cinemas around the world. Reese Witherspoon is up for an Oscar nomination for her performance. It’s all a “hot topic” right now.

I read the book 2 years ago – before I even knew that I would walk 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago route in northern Spain. I loved Strayed’s writing style, her story, and of course, that she wrote about California and Oregon – 2 states I have hiked in, camped in, and love.

I relished the memoir from cover to cover and I’ve held on to my copy of it. I don’t do that often but I want to re-read it at some stage. Let that tell you that I really loved this piece of work.

But I’ve been debating on whether to go see the movie version.

You know how it is: we’ve all had our favourite books and short stories butchered on the big screen, with disastrous results. I was nervous that the same would happen with this. And even though Nick Hornby worked on the script (and I love Nick Hornby’s work), I had my doubts. I wrote about them here: Wild: The Book or the Movie?

A few days ago, I felt inclined to give it a go and I bought my ticket to go see the movie.

I admit, movies about mountains and hiking hold a natural appeal for me, so going to see Wild is not an enormous stretch. And I admit, I already knew the story and the Pacific Northwest before I ever bought my ticket that evening. I even know how my own experience of long-distance walking changed me on a fundamental level, just like it changed her.

So, I was already sold on the concept and I didn’t need further convincing.

But I wanted to know how Hollywood handled the story, how it all played out on screen, and whether they’d honoured the book I very much love.

In short, I think they honoured it beautifully.

I really, really liked the film.

And I plan to go see it again.

I almost never do that but in this case, I will.

I’m not going to give away any spoilers or detail in case you haven’t seen it yet but I will say this:

When I arrived, there were only 6 seats left and they filled up behind me. I think it’s relevant that the showing sold out.

There’s no way of knowing whether the audience that evening were as familiar with the book, the trail, and long distance walking as I am. I’m going to presume that they weren’t. So, they probably weren’t as “sold” on the concept as I was when they entered the dark room and took their seats.

But they “eeeewwwed” emphatically during the opening scene….

At other points they laughed out loud….

They “ooohed” and “aaahed” in all the right places…

And at the end, they stopped their mad scramble for coats, bags, and the exit sign, and stood to watch the closing credits.

I think that counts for something, right?

The Things I Missed

A few days ago, I wrote a post about spending the night in the small village of Villambistia, in northern Spain. In case you missed it, you can read about it here.

I mentioned that while I walked 500 miles of the camino pilgrimage route, I really missed having a front door. I missed being able to separate myself from the dozens, and even hundreds, of people around me. I missed the private space and the boundary line that a front door offers. Without one, I sometimes felt exposed and over-stimulated, especially because I shared public dormitories in hostels every day for 6 weeks.

I’ve been idly reflecting on other things I missed while I walked camino. Ordinarily, I don’t reflect on these things at all because I remember my journey with fond gratitude. Choosing to walk the camino was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. Mostly, I remember the journey with humble appreciation and fond memories. I forget that there were challenges along the way. I forget that there were things that I missed.

Like what?

Couches or comfortable armchairs, for a start!

I walked 400km before I saw a couch and then I exclaimed with joy.

A comfortable seat!

An orange one, with fabric and cushions and with space to stretch out! I hadn’t seen a couch or comfortable armchair in weeks and hadn’t realised how badly I missed them until I saw one right in front of me.

I missed my own bed too, and the luxury of clean sheets. The few times I stayed in a private room, the clean sheets alone nearly drove me to tears!

I missed muesli…or indeed, any breakfast food that wasn’t a baguette. I can’t emphasise this enough….I don’t think I ever saw Bran Flakes, Rice Krispies, oatmeal, or pancakes. I think I saw Corn Flakes only once, about 200km from Santiago. I don’t think I ever saw scrambled eggs or sliced fruit, yogurt or crispy bacon. There might have been omelettes but I don’t remember them at all. Every morning, I drank coffee and ate a croissant, a baguette, or both. I missed having the choice of something less bready. Eventually, I bought my own bag of muesli and shouldered the extra weight on my back, just to have a bit of variety.

I missed having a kitchen…or at very least, somewhere to prepare food. I remember being in a supermarket somewhere along the way – an expansive, white-light, modern supermarket where everything was marketed with high sheen gloss….and seeing fresh pineapples for sale. Though it was only weeks since I’d last seen one, it may as well have been years. I had walked hundreds of miles by then and I felt like a nomad. The display of fresh pineapples was nearly too much for me – they lay there with casual abandon, and my mouth watered in anticipation.

I wanted one.

But I only passed through the town that day: I didn’t plan to stop there for the night. There was no way I could carry an extra 1kg of pineapple on my backpack, on top of the 10kg I already carried.

In the meantime, I didn’t have a knife with which to cut it.

And in such a glossy, slick supermarket, I couldn’t see any member of staff who’d have a knife behind the counter. Everything about the place looked like it was for display in a fancy magazine. It didn’t look like anyone there was doing any *real* work. I couldn’t see anyone that would be likely to deviate from their job description for five minutes and chop up the sweet, fleshy fruit. Truth told, I didn’t ask anyone either, mostly because I didn’t have enough Spanish to stick my neck out. If I were walking again though, I’d stick my neck out and ask anyway – I left the supermarket without it and the thought of that pineapple haunted me all the way home!

Occasionally, I stayed in hostels that did have a self-catering kitchen, and I enjoyed the opportunity to prepare my own food. It was never anything fancy but at least I could squeeze in some extra vegetables – another thing I missed! Pity that the availability of self-catering kitchens never coincided with the availability of fresh pineapples though – otherwise, I would have taken care of that craving and wouldn’t be rambling on about it here!

What else did I miss?

I can’t remember. I’m sure other memories will come to me but honestly, I missed very little. My basic needs (shelter, food, water) were taken care of, and the walking took over my days. Out there with all that horizon and all that sky, I forgot my everyday desires. I survived comfortably on two sets of clothing and with very few possessions. I didn’t really miss very much because I felt I didn’t really need very much. That was a glorious liberation for me.

What about you? What did you miss when you walked camino or went on your own travels? What do you think you’ll miss? And is there anything you just can’t bear to be without, so you’re definitely bringing it with you? I’d love to know.

The Logistics of Laundry on a 500 Mile Hike

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Breaking the rules by washing my clothes in the sink (instead of the outdoor stream) in the hostel at San Bol

I don’t know if my clothes had ever been so filthy as when I walked 500 miles across Spain.

Talk about the dust! It clung to everything…my hair, my skin, my shoes, and of course,  my clothes.

Every afternoon, finding a place to stay for the night wasn’t just about finding somewhere to sleep – it was also a task in finding somewhere to take a shower, and to wash and dry my clothes. For most of the journey, I walked with only two sets of clothes. I wore the first set as I walked  – usually from 6am until lunchtime.

Every afternoon, I walked into small villages, built-up cities, or countryside towns, and found a place to stay for the night. Every day, I scrubbed my clothes in a sink – usually with cold water and whatever detergent I had to hand. Mostly, I used shower gel to clean my gear. I couldn’t rationalise carrying a second type of detergent just for my clothes. So, the shower gel doubled-up as shampoo and laundry detergent too, in an effort to reduce the weight of my backpack.

I wore the second set of clothes while I washed the first set and waited for them to dry.

So, even though I alternated my wardrobe every morning and afternoon, I essentially wore the same clothes every day for six weeks.

As you can imagine, things got tricky when both sets of clothes needed to be washed at the same time. What would I wear then?!

Things also got tricky when the rain poured down and drying my clothes outdoors was impossible. The first time it happened, I stayed in Puente la Reina and 99 other pilgrims scrambled to use the electric washing machines and tumble dryers at the same time. I waited for 4 hours for my turn but eventually went to bed at 10:30pm exhausted and without getting a chance to dry my clothes from the rain – the machines had been in use all that time! I hung my clothes to dry indoors in the hostel but they didn’t dry at all, and I had no choice but to wear damp clothing when I left the next morning.

Along camino, a lot of the sinks were outdoors and had built-in washboards to help us scrub away the grime. They’re a smart design, and I felt like a Victorian washerwoman, bent double over a vat of stinking cloth!

In the hostel at San Bol, we were instructed to wash our clothes in the outdoor stream instead of in the indoor sink. I broke the rules on that one.

Sometimes, the hostel owners provided detergent and/or scrubbing brushes to help with the cleaning. Sometimes the water was warm or even hot, and I delighted in watching the grime melt away quickly. The smallest blessings can be the sweetest!

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A standard camino sink

Friends asked me: Why didn’t you use a washing machine instead?

After all, there were days when I was so physically spent from all the walking and my feet were so impossibly sore, that to stand at a sink and spend another 20 minutes labouring over dirty clothes was just *too much*. It takes a lot of time each evening to find a place to stay, shower, do the laundry, find somewhere to eat, and get ready for the following day. That small routine can take hours, and when I was tired and sore, it sometimes felt like the death of me.

So my friends wondered why I didn’t just throw my clothes in the machine every day and save my energy.

Short answer: many of the hostels didn’t have automatic washing machines….so I had no option but to scrub them by hand.

Secondly, washing clothes in a machine takes a lot of time. The quickest cycle might be 30 minutes in length…that’s quite a bit longer than it would take to wash them by hand. It’s actually labour-saving to quickly wash them by hand, hang them to dry, and walk away, than to wait for the machine to wash them. Plus, getting them washed was the easy bit: getting them dry was the greater concern. So, if you were to ask me whether I prioritised those extra minutes on the washing or on the drying I’d tell you that I tried to get my clothes into the hot sun as soon as possible. Only then could I fully relax.

Thirdly, it can be quite expensive to use the facilities every day along camino. Each time I used a washing machine, I was charged around €5-6. And it was the same each time I wanted to use a tumble dryer – an extra €5-6. I didn’t have enough clothes to fill a full load so I often shared with someone else and split the cost. But still, the costs add up pretty quickly and I didn’t want that expense every day. Assuming all the hostels had machines, I split the cost with someone, and I had time to wait every day…I’d still spend €6 on laundry every day for 6 weeks. Quite frankly, I’d rather spend the money on wine instead! 🙂

But in saying that, the few times I did avail of washing machines and dryers, the results were amazing! That photo at the top of the post is what I faced pretty much every day I had to wash them by hand in a sink. Don’t feel sorry for me…everyone else was the very same! But I’ll admit, my clothes were pretty grimey and I don’t know that I was much better myself. After throwing them in a washing machine, my clothes looked and felt truly clean.

Up to that, I appreciated washing machines in that kind of abstract, first-world way. During and after camino, I thought automatic washing machines were a truly awesome thing and I gave thanks for their mighty power!

Towards the end of the journey, in Galacia, I hung my clothes on an outdoors line and while I went away for dinner, the wind and rain blew everything across the fields. When I returned at 9pm, I had to walk around in the pitch black night and the pouring rain, looking for my clothes in dark, grassy field…and hoping that the wind hadn’t blown my few items into the cow dung!

Washing the gear was relatively easy but I found it trickier to dry the stuff.

Most of the time, I used outdoor clothes horses of all shapes and sizes. Occasionally, there were indoor clothes horses too. Often they were already full, so finding a free space was like shopping for gifts on Christmas eve – a bit of a competition.

Thankfully, in 6 weeks I had only a few days of rain so most of the time, my clothes were perfectly dry when I needed them at 6am the next day. In Ponferrada, however, my clothes were still wet when I woke the next morning, and I walked out into dark rainfall with the cold dampness seeping into my skin. My backpack too was full of damp clothing. I genuinely didn’t know when I’d get a chance to dry any of it properly – it would be hours at least, and maybe even days if the rain kept up. That was utterly disheartening.

But most of the time, I dried my gear on clothes horses sitting in the sun.

Sometimes, there were outdoor clothes lines hung between buildings or trees.

Occasionally, I hung my clothes from the end of my bed.

Once, in Carrión de los Condes, I had to weave my clothes through chicken wire to dry them.

And best of all was in Samos when the hostel guy told me they didn’t have a garden or any clothes horses, so I had to go across the road and throw my clothes on top of the shrubs and bushes there. 70 of us draped our laundry (including underwear) on the bushes, for the entire town to see as they walked past. I wish I’d taken a picture of it!

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Creative Clotheshorse in Carrión de los Condes

What were your experiences of laundry life on your travels? Did you wash your clothes by hand or use the machines? Did anything go missing, get eaten by goats, or show up in an unexpected place?

Welcome to Villambistia

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Villambistia, like Tosantos, is a small place. Wikipedia tells me that in the 2004 census, Villambistia was listed as having a whopping 65 inhabitants.

The sign advertising Internet was misleading. Even though I sat inches from the router, I couldn’t get enough coverage to send a message home. A first-world problem, I know!

The walk from Tosantos was only 2km and I hoped to find a bed there for the night. My guide-book listed one hostel with only 14 beds. I may have wanted to stop there but there was no guarantee I’d get a bed. After all, I already decided to change my plans to stop off in Tosantos; I may have to change them again, too. Such is life on camino when you don’t book your accomodation in advance – every day is a guessing game. But considering I already walked 20+ km that day, I wanted to stop as soon as possible and get in from the blazing sun. I rested all my hopes on the 14-bed dorm and headed west.

Along the way, I happily bumped into two Canadian ladies I hadn’t seen in days. We first met in Zubiri, shared a dorm in Zabaldika, and lost track of each other until Logroño. Already, that felt like years ago and we had a lot to catch up on, so we chatted while we walked. Bumping into them was the sweetest part of my day, and I was glad of their warm company.

Out there in the middle of wide open farmland, hour after hour, all I could think of was this one term:

“Latifundia”

Lati-what?

Let me explain.

A lifetime ago, I studied geography and learned about how the European Union reformed agriculture across its member states. Northern Spain, for instance, was known as one of the “Bread Baskets of Europe”. Wheat and corn were grown there since Roman times and more recently, the area produced huge amounts of crops – all for profit. The area was full of commercial, large-scale farms (latifundia), which were owned by wealthy landlords. As a result, the northern half of the country was wealthy and prosperous, with well-developed road networks, markets, and industry.

So far, so good.

The southern half of the country, however, was the exact opposite. Andalusia, in particular, was riddled with small farms (minifundia), on land that was poor in quality and poor economically. The farmers themselves were tenants and peasants, working to feed their families or maybe for small profit. The holdings were small, so everything was done by hand, which made it slow and inefficient compared to activities in the north. As a result, southern Spain had poorly developed road networks and markets, and no money to speak of.

It was a tale of two countries, until the EU came along with massive amounts of funding and a plan of action.

The rest is history.

When I studied all of this a lifetime ago, I found it fascinating. Geography – both physical and social – explained the world in a practical, tangible way. I liked to hike, I liked to travel – geography gave me the backstory that no guidebook ever would.

That said, the farming practices of mainland Spain were somewhat abstract. I understood the theory perfectly: I just couldn’t relate to it in my own life.

But by the time I reached Villambistia that day in September, all I could think of, over and over, was the word “latifundia”.

All I could see around me were expansive fields full of golden wheat and straw. These were fields that followed the curves and slopes of the landscape, but had no beginning or end. These fields reached all the way to the horizon – on all sides of me. I had never seen so many golden fields all at once, especially on such a scale, and without any fencing between them. There were no boundary lines or walls to mark the beginning of one or the end of the other. The only thing that separated them was the patchwork of colour – all shades of amber and ochre, as far as I could see.

Enormous tractors and straw balers roared across the landscape. The evening hummed with the sound of engines and the clanking of iron.

Though the villages were small and appeared poor, I passed countless BMWs and Mercedes cars that day. Or rather, they passed me, as they whizzed by on the roads around the village. Spanking new, gleaming in the sunshine, with tinted windows and growling engines….this was no ordinary, poor little village.

*This* was latifundia in action.

I was relieved to secure a bed in the 14-bed dorm, and delighted that the 2 Canadian women had chosen to stay there too. Otherwise, the evening might have been one of my loneliest.

The village had just one café bar, and it doubled-up as my albergue for the evening. On the ground floor, the bar consisted of Formica-topped tables and brightly-lit slot machines. Those tables were cluttered with shelled nuts, bottled beer, and ashtrays filled with cigarettes. The room was neither inviting nor charming.

The wall-mounted TV showed Saturday sport, and the small room was filled with men – most of them 60 years and upwards, in oversized cotton shirts and polyester blend pants – yelling loudly at the screen. The blackboard menu offered 3 types of sandwich to choose from, and the ones already on display were surrounded by flies.  We were the only pilgrims in the village and stood out like sore thumbs, but were glad they had available beds. It saved us from having to walk further that day.

Upstairs, the dormitory extension was clean, modern, and newly built. The wooden bunk beds were probably the most sturdy on all of Camino, which meant they were quiet and comfortable. Small blessings.

The remaining 11 beds filled up over the next few hours. Each time a new pilgrim arrived, the hubbub began again.

The sounds from the shouting locals wafted upwards on the wind.

Backstage in the kitchen, pots and pans banged and clanged.

Pilgrims shouted back and forth between the bathroom, the bedroom, the washing line, the bar.

Bags rustled,

Doors banged in the crosswind,

Pockets were zipped and unzipped,

Things were knocked over, retrieved, and knocked over again.

Every new pilgrim followed the same pattern – shower, wash their clothes in the sink, eat some lunch, unpack and re-pack the bag…

It took hours for the room to settle.

I don’t mind saying it, but I ran out of there like my ass was on fire to find a quieter corner a few hours. One thing I really missed on camino was my own front door – and the boundary it creates in my life. No matter how demanding or crazy my day is, I get to go home, close the front door behind me, and keep the world at bay. That small gesture is a way of claiming some space. The front door is a dividing line between safety and storm. I love having one.

But on camino, I didn’t have a front door. I didn’t get to draw a dividing line between myself and the crowds around me. Every day, I was at the mercy of random strangers and their behaviours, as we competed for bathrooms, dormitories, washing line spaces, sandwiches, coffees, wi-fi, space, quiet, time, and energy. Of course, most of the time, my fellow-pilgrims were considerate, accommodating, and kind. But that afternoon, my new roomies banged and shouted their way around the hostel as though it were a shipyard. It pushed a few buttons.

My two new friends had gone for a walk by themselves so I was alone in a noisy hostel and an even noisier bar. I would have liked a drink but felt intimidated by the crowd downstairs. There was nothing else in the village – nothing to see, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. There were no corner shops, no amenities, no other “hub”. Even the doors of the 17th century church were locked. For miles around, there were fields of wheat and corn, but not a lot else.

I was surrounded by people but felt isolated and alone.

I was surrounded by open space but felt trapped in this nondescript village.

(You’ll be glad to know that this wasn’t a running theme for my entire camino. I’ll admit, the first two weeks or so were really intense between the crowds, noise, and the push/pull on my energy, but I did figure out a better way of being. By the time I arrived in Santiago, I was a different woman! Still, those early days were rather mixed, as I figured out my own way of walking camino and I think it’s only fair to mention it…)

I sat in dappled shade under a horse-chestnut tree, and closed my eyes. Even though I didn’t sleep, I got some rest and took some time to decompress. The sounds of farm life carried on the breeze, and my nose picked up the smells of the land. On the surface, it was a beautiful evening in autumnal Spain, and I was lucky to have it. Inwardly, I just wanted to survive the evening and get out the other side, hoping I would stay somewhere better the next day.

Fingers crossed!

 

A Toast to Tosantos

I left the small village of Grañón at 6am, and spent most of the morning walking alone. The camino trail passed through acres of sunflowers and the landscape opened out into expansive farmland for crops. It was mid-September and most of the grain was harvested already, leaving behind fields of short, golden stubble. For miles around, it was all I could see. The sheen of the straw reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin, and I thought of turning straw into gold.

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I hoped to stop in the small village of Tosantos and find my bed there for the night, but before I ever arrived in the village I knew that something was up. A mile or so outside of “town” I could hear the sound of loud music coming from somewhere. It wasn’t live: it sounded more like a stereo.

Often, I passed pilgrims on the trail who listened to music while they walked, with earphones discreetly in their ears. Occasionally, I passed pilgrims who listened to music out loud on a stereo or through the speaker of their phone. They didn’t wear earphones discreetly in their ears, but preferred to broadcast the music to the whole world. Sometimes, it was an intrusion I couldn’t avoid. My friends like to think I spent days walking in quiet solitude, like a hermit on some isolated pilgrimage island. The truth was often very different!

Tosantos is a small place. I mean, really small.

Wikipedia tells me that in the 2004 census, the village had just 60 people. Brierley’s book tells me it has a population of 80 people. Either way, I expected to find a sleepy village, with someone washing their car in the noontime sun with the stereo on full blast.

Instead, I found crowds of people gathered in the central square, which was filled with a bouncing castle and gazebos, and decorated with bunting. The disco music came from metre-high speakers, which were hooked up to flashing disco lights. The adults drank cold beers and poured wine from cardboard cases. The children played Nintendo Wii video games in the shade and ate lollipops, before running around and bouncing on the cowboy-themed bouncing castle. All around me, the village was full of celebratory chaos.

I sat on a shaded park bench and took stock of the scene.

I didn’t know where the hostel was, but I could kiss goodbye to my thoughts of rest. There was no way of sleeping through that din, and it looked like it had hours left to go. Question was: did I want to stop walking for the day and spend my night there?

While I sat in the shade and took a break, a crowd of teenagers appeared from further down the village and made their way out on to the trail I’d just come from. They all looked like they were about 15 years old, and dressed in vest tops and jeans. No wick-away outdoor gear for them – they were way too cool for that! They wore canvas shoes and carried light daypacks on their shoulders. They exuded the giddy charm of highschool crushes – I could see the flirtations and politics even from a distance, and wondered what they were doing there.

At a guess, I’d say they were on an exchange programme or a school tour of some sort, based on the ID badges they wore around their necks. All I could see was the crowd – at least a hundred of them – surging on to the path, in animated laughter and chatter. They were going to walk the camino, it seemed. Just when I needed to get away from the crowds, I found myself right in the middle of them – and more noisy than ever!

After hours of walking in the quiet countryside, I felt like I was in the middle of a circus.

The music was deafening.

It assaulted my senses and I felt bombarded by the unexpected chaos of it all.

What on earth was going on?!

It transpired that the village was celebrating a fiesta.

Ah yes, Spain is great for its fiestas!

When I walked Camino Francés, I happened to pass through towns and villages in the middle of celebrating their patron saint’s feast day. On one level, it’s a great opportunity to witness “real life” in action, and a fine time to join in the festivities. If it’s your first time to Spain, then it’s a great way to join in the party atmosphere and soak up the good life.

The logistics for pilgrims can be tricky, though, as most hostels and B&Bs close their doors during fiesta. This is one of the reasons I got stuck with nowhere to sleep in Zubiri. Fiestas were a great excuse to party, if only you could find somewhere to sleep. And for pilgrims who walk for hours every day in the blistering sun, finding somewhere to sleep is a top priority. So, it might not be possible to stop off in a village when it’s celebrating fiesta, however much you want to.

Wikipedia tells me that:

“800 years ago a woman, known as La Hermita, lived in a cave in the cliffs above Tosantos and ministered to the passing Pilgrims. A chapel has been built into that cave and once a year, on Fiesta day, the inhabitants of Tosantos hold a procession through the town, up the winding path to the cave and give thanks to God, Santa Maria and La Hermita for blessing the town.”

As it happened, the day I arrived into Tosantos was the very day they chose to celebrate La Hermita and hold their fiesta.

I sat for a half an hour in the shade and reflected on my situation. I had wanted to stay there, but I was in no state to handle such crowds, such noise, and such a party. Some other time, when I had more rest and a private room, I thought it could be fun to stay there and join the celebrations. That day, though, I preferred to walk on.

I only hoped that the next village on the trail would have the space to host me. I decided to take my chances.

Spain: Walking from La Rioja to Castilla y León

Crossing from the La Rioja region into Castilla y León….

I love that the Camino signage changes from region to region….

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And I love that the water fountains along the way are so ornately rustic:

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Brierley’s guidebook tells me that “Castilla y León is the largest autonomous region in Spain with an area… 11 times the size of the region of Madrid but with a population of only 2.5 million (less than half that of Madrid).

You will spend over 50% of your time travelling through 3 of its 9 separate provinces Burgos, Palencia and León. It contains the incomparable Meseta the predominately flat table or plateau region that makes up a third of the Iberian peninsular…

Cereal crops cerales hold sway here, mainly wheat but with oats on the poorer land and some sheep and goats grazing on the hillier parts. It is a sparsely populated arid region, primarily flat with gently rolling hills. However, the seemingly endless horizons are broken up with delightful villages seemingly unaffected by the speed of modern life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camino de Santiago Continues: Grañón to Villambistia

Distance walked: 22.5km IMG_0904

After a night sleeping on the floor, I left Grañón’s donation-based hostel and made my way into the early morning light.

Did I have breakfast before I left?

I honestly can’t recall, but I have a feeling that the hostel offered coffee, baguette, and jam, and that we gladly availed of the sustenance. Most of the hostels I stayed in didn’t offer breakfast of any kind, and I had to walk to the next town or village to get my morning coffee. Walking camino, you never quite know where the next coffee will present itself. You could plan to eat in a certain village miles up the road, only to find their café closed when you get there. Sundays, in particular, are a quiet day for business in Spain. You get into a pattern of gladly availing of whatever food and drink is available, when available – however modest it may be.

That morning, I passed through acres of sunflowers that gently rose their heads to the rising sun.

I walked for a while with Barb and Dave, who had also spent the previous night in Grañón. Pity that my photos came out blurry…perhaps I needed more coffee to feel fully awake, but they were all smiles, as usual! We initially met when I stayed in Orisson, back on our fist day of walking. The next morning, they saved my socks from blowing away on the side of the Pyrenees, and had since treated me to breakfasts and lunches along the way. Over the course of the 800km, our paths crossed over and back, and they generously watched out for me at every turn. IMG_0899

When I look back on my photos now, I notice that they’re there in the very first ones I took in St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking. I don’t want to spoil the ending but Barb and Dave were there on my last day, too. And they were there countless days in between, with unending support and friendship. IMG_0900

My walk from Grañón happened on a morning of brilliant sunshine and cloud-free skies. I walked most of it alone, enjoying the quiet time for idle reflection.

By then, I’d walked some 250km of my intended 800km, and I felt the effects of it.

The initial adrenalin had worn off, along with the strength and rest I had brought from home. I slept well every night on Camino but I felt quietly exhausted. Even though I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then, my body was still adjusting to walking for hours every day, in 30-something degree heat, with all my belongings on my back. (Although I have to admit, how often do we say in life, “I was walking for almost 2 weeks by then”….no wonder I was tired!)

My body wasn’t getting the recovery time that it needed.

Some days were shorter than others, which definitely helped. And yes, ever since I swapped my hiking sandals for hiking shoes, my feet hurt a lot less. That freed up a lot of energy, right there.

I was able to cover more ground every day and I was glad. I also learned how to stagger my walking so I was out of step with the people following Brierley’s book. He directs people to start at Point A and finish at Point B every day, and many pilgrims followed his suggestions to the letter. It’s an efficient plan if you want to walk 800km in 33 days. But the surging crowd created a race for beds, and I found it stressful to get wrapped up in the frenzy. Instead of following his directions, I stopped at intermediary towns and villages. In doing so, I gladly avoided the shortage of beds I’d experienced in Zubiri and Los Arcos. If I did nothing else in my first 2 weeks of walking, that small shift made a huge difference to my emotional experience.

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Church of Santa María in Belorado (with storks nesting at the top)

But still, the trail and the hostels felt busy and noisy. When I combined the crowds with my physical fatigue, my nerves began to fray.

I assumed that:

the trails felt busy,

the hostels felt crowded,

and

the bathrooms felt noisy,

because I’m an introvert.

I like people but I need lots of quiet space away from people, too. Otherwise, my batteries deplete rather quickly.

Despite my best efforts to spend my walking hours alone, I felt overwhelmed and overstretched.

Every day, I met both new and familiar faces in cafés, dinner spots, hostels, at water fountains, and out on the trail. Sometimes we’d exchange just a few words of hello. Other times, we’d walk together and chat for hours.

People were kind and receptive, and I was glad of the blossoming friendships. But despite the fact that I made connections and friends easily, I felt rather anonymous and alone. I didn’t know any of these people well enough, or long enough, to express my full experience. None of them could replace the connection I felt with Generous Husband, or my close friends from home. I’d chosen to walk camino alone. When I felt emotional and overstretched, I didn’t know who to confide in.

I didn’t want to whinge.

Rightly or wrongly, I felt I had to put on a certain amount of “brave face” and keep going.

At the same time, I badly needed some downtime to rest and regroup. I needed to recharge.

But every night I stayed in communal dorms, where we queued for the showers, competed for sunny space on the clothes line, and listened to each other snoring. Everywhere I went, there was chatter and noise. It started before 6am and didn’t stop until after 10pm each day. Some days I felt able to handle it but other days I felt a bit too sensitive and tired, and wondered if it was all in my head.

That is, until I heard that 2 weeks earlier, the authorities had recorded the highest ever number of pilgrims passing through Roncesvalles.

That was around the same time I passed through the town, after the steep descent from the Pyrenees.

The highest number ever recorded…..wow.

The trail and the hostels felt busy then and you’ll remember, I found myself stuck for somewhere to sleep.

Even though I changed my own behaviour in the meantime, the trail still felt busy and crowded to me. I

assumed it was because I was slower than others.

I assumed the lack of training had caught up with me.

I assumed that I lacked competitive spirit, even though I never expected competition on a pilgrimage route.

But the statistics confirmed what I also knew: The Camino was exceptionally busy for that time of year.

I was relieved to know I hadn’t imagined the crowds or their impact. I was relieved to know that it wasn’t all in my head or indicative of an over-sensitive heart.

That day, I felt a bit over-wrought and I hoped to stop in the small village of Tosantos in the late morning or early afternoon. Brierley’s guide-book listed a donation-based parish hostel with mattresses on the floor for 30 people and I liked the idea of a quiet, low-key evening. I hoped for an afternoon nap and a night of restorative sleep.

But it wasn’t to be: it seemed life had other plans for me.

Wild: The Book or The Movie?

In early 2013, I happened to read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of walking the Pacific Crest Trail. This was months before I knew I would walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but I knew on a gut level that Wild was a book for me.

I’ll admit, the front cover helped.

That simple image of a hiking boot on a white background grabbed not just my attention, but tugged at my fundamental core, too.

Hiking is hardwired into my heart and I can’t help but turn my head when I see a pair of hiking boots. Images of nail polish and designer perfume don’t excite me. Images of hiking boots, however, do. 🙂

Like the author, I’ve walked and camped alone. The world tells us that, as women, this is dangerous and reckless. The world tells us that we are under threat of attack, and that hiking alone isn’t safe. I understand that there are real dangers in the world but you know, I don’t believe in shying away from the great outdoors just because I’m a woman. That mind-set only perpetuates the myth that women shouldn’t be physical and strong.

That makes no sense to me at all.

And it only makes me more determined to disprove the myth. So, my mentality is to be sensible, organised, and mindful. Know how to stay safe in the outdoors. Learn how to navigate and survive. Then go enjoy the world’s biggest playground!

Strayed walked 1,100 miles, alone, along the west coast of the United States. Here was a woman I could relate to. Here was a woman I could understand. I wanted to know what she had to say.

The trail passes through states I have visited and loved – including California, Oregon, and Washington. The Pacific Northwest is a corner of the world I cherish dearly. Think of big landscapes: giant redwood trees, expansive lakes, coastlines with yellow sand beaches that go for miles and miles.

Not everyone visits this part of the country.

Even fewer backpack across it.

Fewer again write about the backpacking.

And the amount of people who have the writing skills to recount their experience in an engaging, funny, and humane way, are few and far between.

But I think Cheryl Strayed managed to do all of the above in a most beautiful and seamless way.

Quite simply, I loved her book.

I relished every page and when I got to the end, I wanted to start all over again. I stopped myself from doing that, but I’ve held on to my copy so I can read it again sometime in the future. The book feels like a close and intimate friend.

So, I’m feeling conflicted and confused about whether to see the movie version, which was released recently. The world is full of movies based on books. Sometimes the adaptations are great. Sometimes they are a heartbreaking disappointment. How can you tell in advance which it will be?

I’ve noticed that when the author is involved in the screenwriting, the book and film seem to compliment each other nicely. It makes sense – the authors get to influence the tone and integrity of the script. They have some control of how closely it resembles their original work.

In the case of Wild, I’m heartened to see that Strayed herself has written the script. So has Nick Hornby, whom I also enjoy. Both authors write in a style I find immediate and entertaining. I could read them all day.

So it bodes well for me that they’ve both been involved with the screenwriting and I’m hopeful that it makes for a good film adaptation.

But still, I’m not quite sure. I really loved the book. Would I also really love the movie?

What about you? Have you seen it?

Do you plan to?

Do you think the movie version ever lives up to the book?

And what would you do?

 

 

 

Camino Kindness

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Just look at those smiles! Wouldn’t these two chaps lighten anyone’s day?

When I bumped into Fred and Dennis in Grañón, we happily sat out in the sunny grass in front of the hostel, catching up with mutual friends. Our day’s walking was done so all that was left to do was rest, chat, and enjoy the time. Looking at the photo now, I feel a warm softness for the rustic simplicity of camino life and the sunny blue sky. It may be tough walking but it is an everyday charm, too. Looking at the photo tempts me to go back for more.

By the time we met in Grañón, Dennis (on the right) was suffering several nasty blisters which covered the soles of his feet, but you’d never guess it by the grin on his face! I still don’t know how he managed to walk so many miles while feeling such pain, and have such fun along the way. I guess the occasional cervezas helped 🙂

Fred (on the left) saved me from a wardrobe malfunction by kindly gifting me with new t-shirt when I was stuck. That small kindness probably meant nothing to him but it resonated through the remainder of my camino. I wore his t-shirt for the remaining 600km or so, and was thrilled to have it. Anyone who says chivalry is dead just hasn’t met Fred!

On camino, I was blessed with generous kindness and care every single day, from fellow-pilgrims, business people, and locals on the street. They offered their support with open hearts and tremendous goodness. They made it all bearable. They made it all sing!

So here’s a toast to Fred and Dennis, for bringing warmth and generous laughter to my days on the trail.

And a toast to all the rest – most of whom I don’t even know by name – who made it a journey of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

2015: The Year to Walk Camino?

Happy New Year, and happy new year resolutions to you, too!

I haven’t made any new year resolutions yet (so I haven’t broken them either! :-p) but I’ve been reading blog posts from people who hope to walk the Camino this year. I’m excited for them, and I know their goal is both inspiring and ambitious. It takes a certain amount of preparation and organisation to fulfil such a massive goal. It takes a leap of faith. It’s a stretch, but thousands of other people have walked before so we can trust that it is doable. That gives us hope.

Most of us don’t walk 20-25km on a regular day. Even fewer of us walk that every day, for weeks at a time. So I’m going to be honest here and say:

Walking 500 miles of Camino in one go, and carrying all your belongings on your back is sweaty, exhausting, and sore.

No doubt about it.

But the rewards are tremendous! And the rewards are many.

A year later, I’m still articulating my own journey. It re-wired me from the inside out and had a profound impact on my life.

Actually profound.

I don’t use that word lightly.

I feel tenderly grateful for that because I planned my Camino journey in just 4-5 weeks and it could have been very different. My decision to go was a spontaneous one. My head told me I was crazy to quit my job and go walking, especially when I hadn’t done any prior training.

My head told me I was very reckless.

My heart responded with buoyant excitement.

My gut assured me that I was safe and that everything would be taken care of.

My biggest challenge was to trust my gut. Everything depended on it but as soon as I did trust, the logistics and details came together smoothly.

Before I decided to walk, I hadn’t done any physical training.

I didn’t have all the necessary gear.

I had only a few words of Spanish.

And I had never attempted to walk such long distances every day, for weeks at a time.

In my 4-5 weeks of planning, I bought a guide book but didn’t have time to read it. I bought new gear and didn’t have time to take the labels off. I certainly didn’t have the time to test it out! I read a few online forums but often came away from the chats feeling grossly under-prepared and clueless.

I thought to myself:

What am I doing?!

I don’t mind saying it but there were days when my aspiration to walk Camino felt impossibly huge. I didn’t have time to prepare myself in all the ways I wanted to prepare. I had a strong heart and a strong gut but I felt ill-equipped, both physically and mentally.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed.

But I found a series of video blogs on YouTube that gave me some perspective and some hope. I watched a few of them – just enough to see that this young couple planned to walk the same route but under very different conditions.

They walked in the depths of winter but I planned to walk during the warm autumn.

They carried a lot of heavy bags with them but I would travel lighter.

They carried a baby with them but I would be infant-free!

And they were vegan, which somehow tipped the scales for me. Walking Camino with dietary restrictions is rather difficult, and I couldn’t imagine how this family would mange theirs.

I thought:

If they can do it, then so can I!

And you know what?

We all did!

So, if you’re feeling a little daunted by your decision to walk Camino, take a look at some of the video blogs at the link below. I think the trick is to watch only a couple of them so you don’t pre-empt your own journey too much. Personally, I watched only six (just to see how they coped with a certain stumbling block) and left it at that. The videos gave me the confidence I needed and some reassurance that all would be well. After that, I wanted to go live my own journey.

Let me know what you think!