Passing the Half Way Point on Camino Francés…and Still Going

Distance walked: 23.7km

Distance to Santiago: 360.6km (Despite what the photo says!)

Walking the Camino de Santiago on a Sunday is a bit different to walking any other day of the week. Shops and supermarkets are closed so if you need to buy a new rain jacket or some picnic supplies on a Sunday, you might find yourself disappointed. Generally, I discovered the shutters pulled and the front doors locked. Smaller village shops *may* open for a couple of hours in the morning so you might be lucky in buying a few basic supplies but otherwise, you’ll have to wait.

This makes small villages particularly quiet on a Sunday. Depending on your preference, you might find this stifling and dull or delightfully relaxing.

Me? I had no reason to hang around San Nicolás del Real Camino that Sunday morning so I enthusiastically walked on to Sahagún 6-7km away. I was hungry and in search of breakfast, and while I walked I imagined plates of fresh fruit, with pancakes and syrup and pots of hot coffee and bowls of oatmeal. After weeks of baguette, I wanted something different. My taste buds cried out for berries and pears and pineapple. As I walked, I convinced myself that Sahagún would have such a feast on a Sunday morning. There’d be some quirky café open for breakfast and brunch, and I’d sit in, listening to funky music, eating my (no doubt) organic, sustainably sourced feast.

And it would be *am-a-zing!*

Right?

Ha ha….nope!

On the way in to town, I passed through these beautiful markers, reminding me that I was half way between St. Jean Pied de Port and Santiago. In some ways, I felt I  had already travelled more than that but I stopped for a break and aired out my feet. When other pilgrims came up behind me and wanted to take photos of the monuments I had to shuffle out of their view. Hence, I never got around to taking photos of my own 🙂

Click to image to see the photo credit

Sahagún has a population of some 170,000 people so I imagine that some version of my (imaginary) pancake & granola café is there somewhere. In a town that size, there’s surely some potential for it. On that Sunday morning, however, I didn’t find it. I didn’t come even close. Every little café and corner shop I passed on my way in to town was firmly closed up. My dream for pancakes and oatmeal seemed increasingly absurd. I’d be lucky to get breakfast of any sort, never mind my imaginings! Walking camino is not like everyday life and even though I craved a bit of normality that morning, it just wasn’t happening. So, when I finally happened on an open café I was thrilled. And I was happy to eat the baguette, the chocolate croissant, the eggs, and two cups of coffee. Hunger is a great sauce 🙂 And across the road? A small corner shop was open so I stocked up on baguette, tinned tuna, and fruit. I was set.

Sahagún is remarkably historical and significant and others have written about it far more than I ever could. If I had stopped off some other day of the week I might have made an event of it but that Sunday morning at 8am, everything was closed and looked like it would be for the remainder of the day. I crossed over the river Cea and walked on.

Making my way to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos was mostly uneventful. The day was hot and dusty, and I was hopeful that there’d be space for me in the 22-bed hostel. I had chosen to walk 8.7km of an old Roman road as part of my journey to get there so the walk was tiring and sore, and I didn’t really have it in me to go on any further.

In the last 2-3km, a woman appeared suddenly at my shoulder. She’d come up from behind without me even knowing she was there, and she started to chat.

Where had I come from?

Where was I going?

I revealed that I hoped to stay in the hostel up ahead. She too, hoped to stay there but then revealed all the fear. She’d heard that there were no beds left. She’d heard that they didn’t open on a Sunday. She’d heard that if there was no space there that we’d all be stuck because there’s not another hostel for more than 20km!

And then she abruptly ended the conversation with me and ran off ahead.

Why?

To beat me to the hostel.

To get a bed before I arrived.

To maybe take the last one available.

And not for the first time while I walked camino, my heart sank.

Maybe I am foolish and naïve but in *my* head, I would have thought we could walk those last 2-3km together, continue the chat, and investigate the hostel together. If there were beds available, great. If not, then we could unite in finding alternative accommodation or in taking a taxi to the next spot, 20km away. She wasn’t my friend but she wasn’t  my enemy, either. I had no reason to not walk and talk with her, and share some of the journey.

But how sad that she saw me as a threat and literally ran ahead of me. What would she have done if, after all that running, there was no space for either of us? What would she have done then? Would she have pretended to befriend me again or would she have ignored me while pursuing her own agenda? I’ll never know.

As it happened, there was plenty of space for both of us and for everyone who turned up after us, too. Our hospitalero was warm and generous in his welcome, and greeted everyone with a wide smile. He exuded positivity.

So all that fear and all those rumours about there being no space? Most of the time, the rumours weren’t true. There was no need for the fear. And there *really* was no need to outrun and outdo each other.

But that’s my feeling on it all. What’s yours?

 

 

Camino Continues: Bye Bye Burgos!

IMG_0940

Distance left to Santiago: 501.2 km

After stopping off in Burgos for two nights, I felt ready to hit the road again. I had walked over 1/3 of the journey by then and found myself still up for the challenge. Sure, I was sore and tired but I wasn’t done with the walking. The city was beautiful but full of trinkets I didn’t need or want to carry. I left my private room around 7am and tentatively stepped my way down the stairs. It felt good to go.

I was surprised to find myself in open countryside in no time, and the sound of early morning traffic was replaced by birdsong and insects. The morning was cool and still: it felt ripe with possibility. My belly was still sore but emotionally, I felt robust again. Some “alone-time” and decent sleep had done me the world of good.

I hoped to walk to San Bol that afternoon and at 24km, it seemed like a reasonable distance. But with only 12 beds, I had my doubts that this private hostel would have space for me by the time I’d arrive. Pilgrims swooned about San Bol as some sort of mini-retreat or oasis spot…lots of people wanted to stop there but we couldn’t all fit. I pinned my hopes on it anyway and started walking west. In between, there were other places I could stop off if I really needed to. Having a get-out clause was important that day.

I don’t know whether it was because I had slept well, or began to find my rhythm, or what, but the next 1/3 of my camino journey was probably my favorite part of the whole thing. I was surprised by that. I knew I was heading into the Meseta region and was facing a week of flat landscape with nothing but wheat fields and beating sun. People around me had talked about skipping the Meseta region entirely because they’d heard it was “boring” or “too hard”. I’d heard that the Meseta was the mental part of the camino – all that open space and the lack of shady trees can do strange things to your mind. Apparently, it’s the section where people either:

  • Lose their minds
  • Find themselves
  • Find God
  • Start hallucinating, or
  • Give up and go home

It sounded pretty extreme.

I didn’ t believe in taking a bus or train across it just because the flat landscape sounded dull. But so far, I had enjoyed the undulating trail, with humpback bridges, woodland, and vineyards. I’d enjoyed the variety of colors and textures. The ever-changing landscape had fed my spirit, even on difficult days. So, how would it be to walk for a week across a flat, empty landscape, in 35 degree heat, for hours at a time?

Turns out, I loved it!

That morning, walking out of Burgos and into the open countryside was like being able to breathe again. The sound of my feet crunching on gravel, the sound of my walking poles tapping the earth, and the swing of my body with each step forward were, together, a liberation. I was on my third week of walking and things were starting to look up.

As early morning turned to late morning, the sunshine burned away the lingering clouds and dew to reveal yet another, azure blue sky. I could get used to a life like that!

IMG_0941

IMG_0942

One thing I loved about the openness of the Meseta, in particular, was being able to see when the next town or village lay ahead. The flat, expansive landscape made it easy to spot the rooftops and shade of human habitation. With it, there might be the prospect of a coffee or some lunch, maybe the chance to sit in the shade for half an hour and air out my sweaty feet. The 100m descent into Hornillos de Camino (above) gave me a great vantage point of the village ahead. Though it has a population of only 70 people or so, my chances of getting a coffee in a half hour were good. It motivated me to keep walking.

I’ve followed other camino blogs and seen versions of the photo above, taken in the spring when the ground was lush and green. To me, it was almost unrecognizable. The day *I* walked into the village, the earth was a dusty brown color for miles around. The crops had already been harvested and only coarse stubble remained. This was the beginning of my Meseta experience.

Hornillos de Camino did, indeed, give me a chance to enjoy the shade, air out my feet, and enjoy some tasty, tuna empanadas for my lunch. Afterwards, I pottered around the Gothic church, lit some candles, and gathered my thoughts for the next leg of my journey.  There were less than 6km to San Bol but I wasn’t sure of my chances of scoring a bed there. If I couldn’t get one, I’d have to walk another 5km to Hontanas, and the afternoon was only getting more hot. I needed to make sure I had the energy to walk that far, and more, if it came to it.

IMG_0948

IMG_0950

The hostel is a bit in off the roadway so you could spend half an hour walking there to ask for a room only to find none available, and have to double back to the main trail. There were days on camino when those half-hour detours were a luxury I couldn’t afford – in terms of time and in terms of minding my sore feet. This day, however, I felt good. I felt strong enough to risk it, and strong enough to walk another hour to Hontanas if I had to.

Even though two pilgrims ran past me on the trail to get to the hostel (and secure beds) that day, I kept my pace and my calm. I didn’t worry about it. Their anxiety about accommodation had dogged them every day for nearly three weeks already. We’d met earlier on the trail, chatted, laughed, and compared notes. But here they were, literally racing for beds and pushing ahead of me to do so.  I had expected (and assumed) the camino was all about camaraderie, humility, and surrender. There were days when I was surprised to find otherwise.

IMG_0960

As luck would have it, I made it to San Bol in the early afternoon, just in time to score the second last bed…what relief! I even got to choose a bottom bunk bed inside the cool, stone bedroom. The facilities were clean and modern, but basic. There was one toilet and one shower, so there was always a line of people waiting their turn. We were asked to wash our clothes in the ice-cold stream outside, so the scene of a dozen pilgrims rubbing their clothes against the rocks was….rustic. We sat in the shade of the tall trees, dipping our aching, blistered feet into the cold water, and getting to know each other. Somehow, the usual scramble for beds, showers, and laundry facilities was lessened here.

There was quiet.

There were pilgrims writing quietly in their journals and falling asleep under the trees. There was the sound of clothes on the line, snapping and flapping in the brisk, summer breeze. And there was a sort of idyllic calm to it all. It reminded me of childhood summers spent in summer meadows, lying in the long grass, gazing at the sky, with not a lot going on.

It was exactly what I needed that day.

IMG_0962

Later that evening, our hospitalera cooked up an enormous paella for us in a pan that was 1m wide, and we feasted on the seasoned rice and sticky chicken with gusto. With a green salad, lashings of red wine, and baskets of bread with olive oil, and we were happily sated. More pilgrims had arrived by then and would sleep on the tiled floor that night, but we shared a meal with merriment and laughter.

Our generator stopped working at 8pm so it was lights-out then, with no electronics, no lights, and no interruptions from the outside world. A small group sat outside by the stream to smoke cigarettes, finish the wine, and play soft guitar music while the evening sky gently darkened. I was in bed by 8:30 that evening (a record!) and fell into a deep sleep within seconds.

Bliss.

Camino Challenge: Live in Fear or Learn to Trust?

One of *my* personal challenges in walking 500 miles across Spain was to trust….the overall process, the people around me, and myself. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks. Compared to many of the people online and on the trail, I was grossly unprepared.

I hadn’t done any physical training.

I hadn’t learned any Spanish.

I hadn’t tested my gear in advance.

I wasn’t confident about the route because I hadn’t researched it very much. I wasn’t confident in my language skills because they were largely non-existent. I was only partially confident about my physical skills. I had hiked, backpacked, and camped for years but I had never walked 800km before – how could I be sure I was capable? Truth told, I wasn’t sure – not by a long shot.

I didn’t know how far I could walk each day, so I also didn’t know where I would sleep each night. I didn’t know whether I’d stay free of injury and illness. And even though thousands of people walk the French Way every year, I felt like I was stepping off into a great void. I didn’t know how far I’d get on the trail so when I started, I hadn’t even booked my return flight home. Quite literally, I didn’t know how long I’d be gone or what would happen in the meantime.

Unless you’re someone who thrives on this kind of uncertainty, all these unknowns can rack up the anxiety levels pretty quickly. There are a lot of “What Ifs”. Nice, neat answers are not always available.

What if there are no beds: where will I sleep?

What if I get injured and I can’t go any further?

What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I don’t make any friends? What if my gear is all wrong?

What if, what if, what if…..

The list is as long as your mind will allow. In the month before I left, my mind buzzed from asking a litany of questions, and I didn’t have the time to research for sensible answers. I can only thank the part of myself that realised that there was only a certain amount I could do to control the journey ahead – and the rest was beyond my control. I made some brief, but big decisions:

  1. I will not worry about the availability of beds.
  2. I will figure it out as I go along.

I decided these things. They were mental choices.

They weren’t just emotional aspirations or wishful intentions; somehow I ring fenced my mind so that I had answers to all of those “What If” questions.

Not having a bed to sleep in at night would have sucked ass. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I think having a secure place to sleep at night is low down on the pyramid, somewhere between physiological needs and safety needs. This means it’s considered quite essential. So, not having that lined up in advance is a bit of a gamble, especially in a foreign country and in walking cross-country for weeks at a time.

Unless I booked private accommodation in advance, there was no way I’d ever be sure of a bed at the end of each day. But I didn’t want to book in advance. I didn’t want the pressure of making it to Guesthouse A on Wednesday, Small Hotel on Thursday, and Private Pension on Friday. What if I got injured in the meantime and couldn’t walk that far? What if I got sick? I didn’t want the stress of making, and keeping plans with anyone. I also didn’t want the stress of reading my guidebook to find accommodation days ahead, and then go through the effort of conversing in Spanish over the phone as I tried to book a room – day after day, for weeks on end.

I just couldn’t commit to that much scheduling.

So I did the only thing I could do:  I threw the challenge up to the heavens and trusted that somehow it would all work out. I wasn’t sure whether that meant trusting a divine source of Trip Advisor or trusting the locals in Spain. Who knows, maybe they’re one and the same thing. But either way, I made a mental decision that *I*was not going to fret about it. Worrying about beds felt like something that was way above my pay grade. I surrendered and left it in the hands of something, or someone else.

That was a big lesson: Trusting that which is outside of myself.

Somehow, even though I couldn’t see every detail of the 500-mile journey ahead of me, I trusted that I would find my way. Quite literally, I trusted that the path would be there, and not washed away by flooding or erosion. Quite literally, I trusted that there would be enough food and shelter for my needs, and that things would be fine.

Just because I couldn’t see the path ahead, it didn’t mean that the path didn’t exist.

I had to walk in my hoped-for direction to find the path I was looking for.

The next one was also big: Trusting that which is inside myself.

No matter what disastrous scenario or anxiety my mind came up with, being able to respond with the thought: “I’ll figure it out as I go along” was a powerful reassurance to my over-zealous, inner drama queen. I could apply it to any scenario and feel better about my prospects. In the beginning, it was a way of calming my apprehension and it worked a treat.

What if my hiking sandals aren’t suitable for walking long distances?

Then I’ll figure it out and buy a pair of new shoes along the way.

What if I’m not able to walk 500 miles all in one go?

Then I’ll walk as far as I can and I’ll figure out how to come home early.

Even though I didn’t have all the answers in advance, I had at least some capacity to find them along the way. And the great thing is, the more I told myself that I would figure things out, the more I did figure things out….and my capacity grew even more.

It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That’s the funny thing: what we tell ourselves has a huge impact on how well our minds perform. If we allow anxiety and scaremongering to roam freely, then all of life becomes a disaster. The world is full of problems and life is full of threat. There is only pain and strife.

I’ve played around with positive affirmations over the years but you know, when I tell myself something like: “I am a glorious creation, full of positivity and light”, the inner cynic in me balks. I’ve no sooner proclaimed my greatness than some other part snidely remarks, “Yeah, right!” My greatness is swiftly ridiculed.

So, telling myself I am infinitely wonderful doesn’t always bring the most wonderful results! 🙂

But, telling myself, “I’ll figure it out as I go along” reassured me on my Camino journey. It meant I didn’t have to have everything planned and researched in advance. It meant I was allowed make mistakes. It also meant I didn’t have to follow anyone else or do what the guidebook said.

It meant I was allowed have my own experience, in my own way.

That’s a massive lesson – not just for camino but for life itself.

***

In my “real life”, lots of things are in flux right now because lots of things have changed in the last six months. I thought I had a good sense of what 2015 would look like but it turns out, I was waaay off the mark. Some of the changes are more welcome than others. Some of them are above my pay grade and the outcome is still unknown. I carry disappointment about the plans that have been thwarted and some anxiety about the ones that have come in their place.

I’ve noticed my mind looping through the litany of “What Ifs”.

It’s disheartening.

It’s all-consuming.

And I know I am missing out on everyday goodness in trying to ward off some doomsday disasters that might not even happen.

I’ve found myself wistfully daydreaming about camino, and sort of pining for the “simple life” I knew then. I’ve found myself romanticising life on the trail, back when “all I had to think about” was where I would sleep at night.

I’ve also found myself marvelling at what it was to ring fence my mind and decide not to worry.

And I’ve thought: If only it were that simple.

But here’s the thing: Maybe it *is* that simple.

If I could ring fence my mind once, I can do it again. If I could decide not to worry then, I can decide now, too. My current concerns may feel more grown up and dramatic than anything I faced in Spain but I know where my bed is every night. That’s a huge bonus.

It was possible to reign in my worry back then. Maybe it’s possible to reign it in now, too.

So, I have two main options: I can choose to trust in that which is outside of myself or that which is inside of myself. I might even choose both, simultaneously. Or maybe I’ll choose both and interchange them, depending on what the issue is.

Either way, I can choose how much mental space I give over to anxiety and fear. As it is, I make the choice every single day – often without realising it – and my over-zealous mind frets too much. This is not how I lived on camino. This is not what I learned on camino. And this is not what I took away from my camino experience.

In Spain, the everyday challenge was real: Would I live in fear or would I learn to trust?

Right now in my everyday life, the challenge still exists.

What will I choose? What about you?

 

Camino Challenge: Great…but tough…

I knew different people over the years who had walked camino – whether for one week or for eight weeks, and they all said the same thing:

It’s great…but tough.”

I could imagine why it was great – all that open space, the joy of walking cross-country every day, the delicious wine and warm sunshine – it sounded idyllic. It sounded like a leisurely walking holiday with lots of new, interesting friends.

But I didn’t really understand why it was tough. Sure, walking long distances every day can’t be easy but why was it so back-breaking? I just didn’t get it.

When *I* came home from Spain, everyone asked me:

How was it?

And I found myself replying in exactly the same way:

Great…but tough.

It’s a lame reply. It gives very little detail. But most of the time, when people ask the question they don’t really want a detailed answer. They want the stories about cheap wine and balmy sunshine. They want to be told about how easy it is to make new friends. They want to be told that walking camino is great. So, we never really get to the nub of what makes it tough.

Months later, after lots of reflection and mental sorting, I’m able to articulate my own experience with a bit more detail. Here’s what made it tough for me:

  1. Everything was accumulative.

Walking 20-30km on a given day was surprisingly okay. Walking 20-30km *every* day – over six consecutive weeks – was fricking hard.

Day 1: I’m walking – I’ve started – how awesome!

Day 6: I’m walking – yay (I’m still a bit sore from the Pyrenees)

Day 11: Finding my groove – aw yeah!

Day 18: I’m still walking – strong, even if I feel a bit tired

Day 23: I’m still walking. Wow. I’m a machine…and how much is left?

Day 29: Really? I’m still walking? Feels like I’ve been out here for months.

Day 34: Oh my God I am *so tired* of walking.

Day 40-something: Whatever. I’m ready to be in Santiago already. I’m ready to go home.

For me, the pain in my body was accumulative. That meant pain in my feet, pain in my hips, pain in my shoulders and neck. I didn’t give myself the time to heal properly, get massages, or even rest for a few days at a time. My body put up with the abuse but it wasn’t without complaint. The longer I walked, the more the exhaustion, aches, and inflammation all added up. And still, I had hundreds more miles to walk if I wanted to get to Santiago.

*That* was tough.

  1. Being surrounded by people all the time was over-stimulating.

I say this knowing it won’t apply to everyone because I’m more introverted than extroverted. I was delighted to make new friends so easily but I needed lots of alone time to recharge my batteries. Alone time wasn’t always easy to come by.

The bedrooms in the hostels were noisy. The bathrooms were full. The coffee shops and restaurants had crowds, or queues, or both. Ironically, the churches were quiet but unsurprisingly, they were often closed.

The only way I could get alone time was to spend hours walking by myself every day. I did it gladly. I did it because I needed it. Without it, I easily got over-stimulated, overwhelmed, and over emotional.

But even out on the trail, there were groups of pilgrims in front of me and behind me. Most of the time, I looked up from the gravel and could see at least one person ahead with a backpack and walking sticks. It was a comfort in some ways but it meant I was never really alone, even when I wanted it.

And I found *that* tough going. It was over-stimulating and demanding.

As a consequence, I found the daily race for beds was tough, too. At one point, two pilgrims ran ahead of me on the trail to get to the hostel first and secure whatever beds were left. At the time, I was somewhere between horrified and mildly amused. Now, I just think their actions represented a side of camino that really caught me by surprise.

When the competition for beds is with some nameless, faceless pilgrim who hasn’t arrived yet, that race is kind of abstract and easy to rationalize. There’s a certain “me verses them” mentality and with so many hundreds of people on the move, it’s not personal. In this scenario though, I had met these two pilgrims before. We had shared food and laughter, and we exchanged warm conversation on the trail. When they chose to run ahead, they weren’t just running to beat some nameless, faceless pilgrim – they were running to get ahead of me. 

As an isolated incident it wasn’t that tough. But walking all those miles every day, and trying to arrive somewhere by lunchtime before the beds fill up…only to have people run ahead of me on the trail? Well, as a daily, emotional undercurrent was tough. It wasn’t at all what I expected.

Of course, the flip side is probably also difficult. I imagine that extroverts who walk during a quieter time of the year find it tough to walk camino with so few people around. I’ve read accounts of empty hostels, closed-down coffee shops, and hours of walking without even seeing another human. For an extrovert who wants company and chat, I imagine that’s tough. It’s probably quite lonely and isolating. It’s probably every bit as tough as my experience of being over-stimulated…just for the opposite reasons.

  1. It’s not really a holiday.

Walking for a week at a time and staying in pre-booked private accommodation is probably quite leisurely. Your body has opportunity to get proper sleep and the occasional hot bath. And before you know it, you’re back home in your own bed and booked in for a massage to pacify the gentle ache. Going for a week at a time is a walking holiday, I think.

Walking 500 miles of camino all in one go was not a holiday. It was a break from normal life and a gift of time, certainly….but not a holiday. At least, not in the traditional sense.

The hostels allow pilgrims to stay only one night. Plus, they kick you out between 6-8am. That means no leisurely lie-ins. It means getting up in the dark and leaving without breakfast. It becomes a norm and it becomes surprisingly routine but there isn’t much pampering.

Sharing a bathroom with 20 strangers is intimate and noisy. Shower curtains may not fit properly. The floor is covered in water from the previous 18 people who showered before you. There are no fluffy towels.

When people talk about strapping on a backpack every morning, they don’t really mean that they’re out for a gentle ramble for 2-3 hours. They mean that they’re walking anywhere between 3-10 hours, even if they have infected blisters, sprained ligaments, and sore shoulders. They walk in the scorching sun. They walk in relentless rain. It’s not always leisurely: sometimes it’s plain grueling.

When people talk about drinking €1 glasses of red wine and eating tapas, they’re not necessarily talking about appetizing, savory delights. Sometimes, the “tapas” were just slabs of Spanish omelette and greasy bowls of olives. Nothing wrong with that, but too many slices of omelette have swarms of flies buzzing around them while they sit on a counter, going stale in the midday sun.

Eewww!

Walking camino was great but it wasn’t a leisurely stroll. Some days, it didn’t match up to the accounts I’d heard, or read on someone else’s blog. The marketing and the reality didn’t always align.

I found *that* tough, too.

 

There’s a lot of swooning about camino and in all the hype, it’s easy to think that it’s great fun and profoundly rewarding. I’ve noticed it’s easy to talk about all the great things but it’s not so easy to talk about the tough parts. To do so, means admitting we were lonely or short-tempered or afraid. To do so is perceived as negative and pessimistic, and who wants to be accused of that?

It’s easier to tell everyone about the cheap wine and the great people, and give a glossed-over account. It’s much easier to proclaim our physical greatness and say it was “challenging”, just like people talk about triathlons and marathons.

The reality, whether we ever articulate it, is more complex.

But there was greatness too.

Oddly, the things that I found tough about my camino were also closely tied to the things that were great about camino. The aches and exhaustion were accumulative, but so was the sense of achievement with passing through every small town and village. The longer I walked, the closer I got to Santiago. That achievement made the aches and pains (somewhat…ha ha!) more bearable.

And even though I found the crowds intolerable at times, to have walked it all alone would have been lonely. I made great connections along the way, shared picnics and laughter with people from all over the world, and have had the joy of meeting up with some of those friends since then. We have a shared experience and shared memories of the road. And I have to say, when I finally arrived in Santiago, being able to share the occasion with close friends was one of the sweetest moments of my journey. I may be a happy introvert but even I understand that having good people in life makes it all sweeter.

Camino *is* great…but tough…but great…and tough…

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.

IMG_0909

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.