Following an Impulse in Epinosa del Camino

I left the small village of Villambistia in the early morning darkness, and walked 1.7km to the next village – Epinosa del Camino. There, I found a small café bar that was brightly lit and open for business. Within: hot coffee, and freshly-toasted baguette with butter and jam.

Hmmmm….Camino breakfast…:-)

The Canadian ladies I’d met the day before joined me and somehow we organised to buy each other’s breakfast as a small treat. Our meal cost only a few Euro but it was a small token of friendship in the dark morning, in this tiny village of only 36 inhabitants. How amazing that this village was half the size of Villambistia but was the one with a café bar open for business at 6.30am, while Villambistia slept on.

The women and I had crossed paths several times in the preceeding 10 days – staying in some of the same hostels or passing each other on the trail. I’d witnessed one of them tend to blisters and black toenails because her hiking boots crippled her feet. I also witnessed her replace those $200 hiking boots with a pair of light running shoes, and abandon the boots in an albergue along the way. After the change of footwear, there was no stopping her!

These women had been endlessly warm and kind to me, supportive and encouraging. I hope I was the same with them. We laughed together and swapped stories about our lives and reasons for walking this ancient trail. I assumed our paths would continue to cross – over and back, all the way to Santiago. It wasn’t our pattern to pay for each other’s food and I didn’t really know them that well, but something overcame all of us that morning and we wanted to pay each other’s bill. Perhaps we somehow knew our paths were about to diverge. We toasted the morning by raising our glasses of hot coffee in clinking unison, and delighted in the baskets of fresh hot toast. Dave arrived minutes later and greeted us all with warm enthusiasm and hugs. Barb followed closely behind on the trail, and he ordered breakfast for both of them while he waited.

The ladies and I finished eating, bade Dave a Buen Camino, and made our way outside.

We strapped on our backpacks, grabbed our walking poles in hand, and started the day’s walking in earnest.

We must have walked at different paces or maybe someone stopped to lace up their shoes while the other went on ahead. Whatever the reason, we drifted apart later that day and lost each other on the trail.

I never saw them again.

And although our mutual friends kept me posted on their progress, our paths stopped crisscrossing. I missed out on knowing how their 800km journey unfolded, and who they were by the time they arrived in Santiago. I missed out on the closure that comes with saying “So Long and Farewell”, or so I thought.

Before walking Camino, I found it heart-wrenching to have my friendships drift, or get lost, in the ebb and flow of life. I fought hard to retain connections, despite everyone’s increasingly busy lives, and our distance across time zones and continents. I didn’t like to let things drift. I didn’t like to lose good people from my life. I worked hard to maintain them but struggled with losing them all the same, and with feeling bereft by their absence.

I took it all to heart and imagined a cold life, empty of friendship and laughter. (Bit of a drama queen!)

In the most gentle and glorious way, Camino knocked some of these hurting edges from my heart. I made friends all the way through my 500-mile journey:

I met some of them on my very first day while I travelled to St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking.

I made friends on the last night before I arrived into Santiago.

And everywhere in between, I met people who became friends.

Some of them were friends for a matter of hours, while others are friends I hope to know for many years.

The two Canadian women fell somewhere in between.

When we met, I had no way of knowing whether they would be in my life for a matter of minutes or for decades, but we followed the connection with warm kindness. That morning in Epinosa del Camino, our paths began to divide though we didn’t consciously know it at the time. Whatever the reason, we fell out of each other’s orbit and never saw each other again.

There is a certain bittersweet sadness to that.

I thought I didn’t get to say goodbye or thanks for all of their kindness. I thought I didn’t get to wish them well with the rest of their lives.

But I am happy that I followed the impulse to buy their breakfast that morning. I’m happy that some unconscious inclination took over and prompted us into a moment of celebration. We didn’t know why we wanted to buy each other’s breakfast, but we followed the impulse all the same. We just felt like it.

Afterwards, I looked back and realised:

Ah…that was the moment of closure. That was the morning we got to say Thank You and Buen Camino. That was how we got to say Goodbye.

So, I walked the rest of my journey without realising that our paths had already diverged. I walked on towards the western horizon without realising that our friendship had come to a gentle conclusion.

By the time I realised these things, I also realised that we had said goodbye already. So there was no reason to feel sad loss at their absence.

For me, Camino presented this lesson to me day after day. People entered and left my life on a daily, and even hourly basis. The ebb and flow was constant. I started out feeling rattled by the loss of so many people in my life. By the time I reached Santiago, I knew how to let go. After walking 500 miles, I was able to allow the natural ebb and flow, and not feel the sadness.

Sometimes the friendship lasts a few hours or days. Sometimes it lasts years or decades. Either way, there is a natural beginning and a natural end. Camino helped me understand this and come to terms with it, so I don’t carry the same sadness in my heart any more. Instead, I carry a quiet gladness that we ever met and that we had a chance to say goodbye.

Camino Continues: Viana to Navarette

Distance walked: 22.7km

I left Viana and its resident population of 3,500 in the early hours the next morning.

After a short walk the previous day and an afternoon of rest, I felt physically stronger. My new shoes allowed my feet to feel wonderfully cushioned, and my clothes were newly washed and dried. I felt good to go!

My fellow pilgrim and I walked in the early morning light, with the sound of the gravel trail crunching beneath our feet. There wasn’t much to say in the early hours and neither of us had eaten yet, so we enjoyed the quiet. I kept pace with her for most of the 10km to Logroño and there, we stopped in a café bar for breakfast, while the cathedral bells beside us rang out for early morning mass.

Beautiful!

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We feasted on several rounds of coffee and tea, and gorged ourselves on sticky pastries and savoury tapas, draped in roasted, sweet peppers. Wonderfully, the guy behind the bar offered us glasses of wine at the early hour of 11am. The two of us were in a giddy mood and would have loved the chance to sit drinking vino, while people bustled their way to work. We were tempted, but we playfully declined.

Walking the Camino sort of normalises early-morning drinking. Back in the “real world” you’d look like an alcoholic to open a bottle of wine at 10am but on Camino, the attitude is different. When you’re up at 6am and have walked a few hours already, a beer or wine at 10-11am seems entirely reasonable!

Personally, I liked to wait until 12 or 1pm to have my wine. It was probably a psychological ploy to convince myself that drinking in the afternoon was less shocking than drinking in the morning – but you know, the results would probably have been the same either way!

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Embedded into the pavement, yellow arrows point the way to Santiago. Each region uses a different style of sign.

On the far side of town, we bumped into 2 Canadian ladies we hadn’t seen since Zabaldika. One of them had just bought a new pair of hiking shoes and like me, was breaking them in while she walked.

She’d travelled to Spain with a pair of sturdy hiking boots – a pair she’d owned for less than a year and had already broken in. The boots had been the correct size to begin with, but her feet had swollen in the heat and with the exertion of daily walking.

This is normal for Camino.

The steep descent of the Pyrenees had caused her toes to press against the front of her boots for hours on end. This had led to bruising and blisters so by the time she reached Logroño, her toe nails were starting to fall off.

Ouch!

She’d just purchased a pair of lightweight walking shoes and had abandoned her boots back in the city.

“My husband will kill me!” she said, knowing the €200 boots would never be seen again.

She didn’t care at all – those boots were killing her toenails and they were too heavy to mail home: let some other pilgrim make use of them.

And she practically skipped her way out of the city, along the tree-lined pavements, and out into the open countryside!

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Rioja vineyards 🙂

I gently separated myself from the group to walk on ahead, alone, for a few hours. That afternoon, I passed through miles of vineyards where the soil was truly reddish-brown, and gave its name to the regional wine: Rioja. Funny how I’ve drunk it for years without ever really considering its origins. Only then, walking through the region and watching the red soil cover my fresh new shoes and socks, I realised that all of these things I consume each day, have an origin.

I know this, of course. I buy organic vegetables in farmer’s markets and I read the labels on things. I know where my food comes from.

But I don’t really consider what that place looks like or smells like.

I don’t really consider just how far my food travels before it appears on my supermarket shelf, and just how exotic it is to have global food available at arm’s reach.

When I bought Rioja wine at home, I never imagined that I would one day walk through that very region – maybe even the very vineyards that produced the bottled goodness.

And yet, there I was – happily plodding along, putting one foot in front of the other, and breathing in the smell of earth, vines, and live, growing grapes. How utterly exotic and yet, from a Spanish perspective, how utterly normal.

Truly, a gift experience.

When I arrived in Navarette later that day, I was thrilled to get a bed in the main albergue. It holds only 40 pilgrims and was the only albergue in town to run on a first-come, first-serve basis. All the others were privately owned and were probably already booked up.

Getting a bed in the main albergue, early in the day, felt like a new pattern for me.

Unlike previous days, I’d covered quite a bit of distance without feeling defeated by the effort. The new shoes had transformed my walking experience and I was in an unusual position:

I’d just walked nearly 23km but felt like I could go on further.

Hurrah!

I booked myself into the hostel and asked the staff if they could reserve a bed for my fellow pilgrim, who was somewhere behind me on the trail. They spoke no English and I had only a spattering of Spanish but we managed to come to some agreement:

They would keep a bed for her, but only for another 2 hours. If she didn’t arrive by then, they’d have to give the bed to someone else.

Fair enough, I thought, that sounds like a reasonable deal.

I paid my fee, they stamped my pilgrim passport, and I made my way upstairs to find a bed.

 

Camino Footwear: Do my feet look big in this?

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision.

Every year, hundreds of pilgrims log on to online forums to discuss this very thing – along with the weight of their backpacks and how to prevent blisters. First timers like me want to know what they should wear on their feet.

Boots or walking shoes?

How heavy or light?

Waterproof or not?

Should you wear the pair you’ve owned forever or invest in a new pair?

Everyone wants to talk about footwear.

 

A lot of people thought I was crazy to walk in hiking sandals.

Maybe I was.

In terms of footwear, I already owned a pair of 3-season, GORE-TEX, leather hiking boots from a German company called Han Wag. They were sturdy and reliable on wet, unsteady ground. I loved those boots. I thought about bringing them with me but they were too heavy and strong for gravel trails. They were also too warm for walking in September and October.

I crossed them off my list.

Next, I had a pair of hiking shoes from a company called Keen. I’d had the shoes for years and they were well broken in, but they scraped my heels after just a few hours’ wear. If I wore them more than one day at a time, they gave me blisters. There was no way I could walk 800km in them.

I crossed them off my list, too.

The only other thing I had left were a pair of hiking sandals from a company called Chaco. I’d had them even longer than the Keens. Parts of the straps were starting to fray, and if I wore them in the rain they sometimes sliced my skin, which hurt. On the plus side, they had pretty good arch support and they would keep my feet cool. The week I started walking in France, the temperatures were in the mid-30s (Celsius). I needed to keep my feet cool for as long as possible, and minimise the risk of developing blisters.

The sandals were the most likely contender.

Honestly, I tried to figure out a more sensible option before I departed for France, but it just didn’t work out. I planned my Camino in just a month, while at the same time resigning from my job. My days were busy, my weekends were packed, and I had a head full of ‘to do’ lists. I didn’t have much time to find a new pair of shoes and I had almost no time to break them in before departure.

A small aside: ordinarily, I’m supposed to wear custom-made orthotic insoles in my shoes. It’s something to do with having overly flexible feet. I’m not flat-footed and I don’t have fallen arches, but apparently I’m somewhere on the scale towards being double-jointed. So, my joints and ligaments are just a bit too stretchy and when I go walking long distances, it can affect my gait, my knees, hips, and overall alignment. I like to walk long distances but I don’t like having sore knees. So, some years back, I was fitted out for a very practical pair of insoles to keep my feet in a steady position within my shoes. They aren’t sexy and they make shopping for shoes rather tricky.

So, when it came time to look for Camino footwear I was looking for something:

Durable

Comfortable

Lightweight

Possibly waterproof

Affordable

Supportive

Blister-free

Cushioned

Trustworthy

and

Orthotic-friendly

 

I’m not joking when I say I found only one pair of hiking shoes that accommodated my orthotics properly. They were waterproof, sturdy, and trustworthy. They were relatively comfortable but heavy. They also looked remedial and made me look more club-footed than I wanted.

The shoes were ugly and ‘too much’ commitment when I was under time pressure.

So, I started Camino in my Chaco sandals and I wore them for the first 154km to Viana. All things considered, I think that was pretty good going – especially since those kilometres had included the ascent and descent over the Pyrenees. I knew my shoes weren’t perfect but I was open to buying another pair if necessary.

I don’t need to be perfect: I’m willing to change and I will figure this out as I go along.

The benefits of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. I’d already broken them in
  2. They kept my feet cool
  3. They allowed my feet to swell without giving me blisters or chafing

The downside of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. They had no cushioning
  2. They had limited support
  3. The straps cut into my skin a bit, even when dry, which hurt. I wore socks to minimise the abrasion and keep my feet clean. That was one of many fashion disasters 🙂

In the evenings, I wore a pair of newly purchased Crocs:

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The plus side:

They were really light

The holes allowed air into my feet

I could wear them in public showers and they drained out pretty quickly

 

The minus side:

They were bulky and took up quite a bit of space in my backpack

The occasionally scraped the skin off my toes. Ouch. But this was because the skin on my feet grew softer over time, from wearing shoes and socks every day. Not exactly the Crocs’ fault.

 

Why didn’t I wear flip-flops?

I thought I might need to wear socks in the evening and if I did, they would fit better in a pair of Crocs than in a pair of flip-flops.

The few times that I did wear socks, the Crocs allowed me to do so without having a thong thingie between my toes. That would have been another level of fashion disaster!

Flip flops seemed to be more popular but one woman told me that the thong between her toes gave her chafing and blisters. Like me, the skin on her feet had grown soft over time and the flip-flops seemed to dig in and cause problems.

I’m sure there’s some way around that.

 

Would I recommend walking the Camino in hiking sandals?

Not really.

They served me well in the first few days – particularly in the heat – but by the time I’d reached Viana my feet were horribly sore from over-stretching and flexing. I needed better support and structure. That said, by the time I’d reached Viana, my feet had swelled so much that I needed shoes that were a full size bigger than normal. I wouldn’t have known that if I’d bought my footwear before departure.

A lot of people thought I was crazy to buy shoes on Camino and break them in while I walked.

Maybe I was.

But I was delighted to find an outdoor gear shop in Viana, and deeply grateful to have a range of shoes available to me. I tried on everything in the shop – with my hiking socks and swollen feet, and in the end chose these, a pair from a company called Solomon:

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The upside:

LOADS of cushioning – they were like walking on springy mattresses!

Great support

Lightweight

Breathable

Non-remedial in appearance 🙂

 

The downside:

They didn’t accommodate my orthotics

They weren’t waterproof (time would tell whether that was an issue)

 

When I walked out of Viana in them the next morning, I knew a transformation had taken place. My first week or so of Camino had been painful and had taken a lot out of me. I thought I was being soft or whiney. I didn’t like that about myself, and thought I should shut up complaining. No one else seemed to be whinging, even though many people had nasty blisters by then. I’d come away without a single blister to date: what was I complaining about?!

When I put on the new shoes, I realised that the walking was instantly easier. No more screaming tendons, no more overly stretched ligaments – my feet felt comfortable and supported for the first time. Comparing the two sets of shoes:

Walking in the sandals felt like walking on cement in my bare feet

Walking in the shoes felt like bouncing on mini trampolines

It just goes to show: getting the right footwear makes all the difference.

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision but you don’t necessarily have to get the perfect gear before you depart: you can buy footwear along the way and break it in as you go.