“I’ll tell you where the real road lies.”

My confidence has been knocked down a few pegs this evening. I tried an aerial yoga class, and though the teacher was very supportive, I felt a bit like my chonky cat tangled up in the shower curtain while the rest of the class flipped around like trapeze artists.

So as I ice my bruised armpits, I’m going to write a story about the hardest day on my Portuguese Camino. I haven’t been writing many blog posts on my recent hike. But I am happy to report that I am finally moving along with my book! It’s slow, but it feels structured and real this time. One can hope.

Arcade to Briallos, 28 Kilometers (17.3 miles): Day 10 of 12

I pulled out my hiking playlist for the hardest parts of the day, especially if I needed to be in my own head. The recent musical Hadestown makes several appearances on it, including the climactic song at the end of the second act. Hermes, the narrator, yells out the following lyrics as he sings to a traveling Orpheus and Eurydice:

You got a lonesome road to walk.
It ain’t along the railroad track.
It ain’t along the black-top tar
You’ve walked a hundred times before.
I’ll tell you where the real road lies:
Between your ears, behind your eyes.
That is the path to paradise,
And, likewise, the road to ruin.

*********

With only 12 days to get from Porto to Santiago de Compostela, I’d have to get through some longer days to balance out the shorter ones. These eight-hour treks seemed more reasonable toward the end of the trip — I’d have more muscle mass, more awareness of how to walk alone, and an overall greater sense of bravery. Day 10 was set to be my longest and I prepared my head for it the day before.

Up until this point, I remained in step with my tight-knit Camino family. We’d leave within an hour or so of one another, meet at the first cafe for a croissant, and message each other about any wild dogs (yes, this was a legit issue), confusing arrows, or in one case, a very tasty fig tree at arms length on the edge of town. Though I planned to meet my friend Neha at the hostel in Briallos, I knew my slow pace required a lot of time, and so I left significantly ahead of the pack. I was also worried that the public hostel in Briallos–the only option for a good deal of time–could fill up quickly if I didn’t hop to it.

The day would probably take about 7 hours of walking time, 8 when you factor in breaks and other random hold ups. I’d leave at 6:30am and hope to get there before 3.

The night before, I packed my bag as far as I could and folded up my clothing by the foot of my bed. My eyes shot open 15 minutes before my alarm went off at 6. Despite my fear of walking alone in the dark, I was ready for a day that felt like those on the Camino Frances–unpredictable and long with a mighty reward at the end.

(Not from the day I’m writing about, but a solid Camino sunrise shot.)

When I headed out the door of the hostel all suited up, it was still pitch black. Forty-five minutes until the sun was set to rise. We’d spent the night in a small village on the edge of a river. A man leaned against one of the buildings smoking a cigarette and I fumbled with my headlamp to show I wasn’t in the mood to have a chat with a man on a dark street. I also pulled out my emergency whistle, wrapped it around my wrist and held it at the ready.

Friends, word of advice. If you want to save money on hiking equipment: do so on a t-shirt or a hat. Do not save money on a headlamp. When you need your hand lamp to work, it needs to quickly. My clearance lamp activated with a very confusing series of swipes across the top, not with a button like any reasonable human would invent. After about 15 failed attempts, it lit up across the path in front of me. I pointed it down slightly so it wouldn’t pick up the thick mist, and closed my mouth from fear of dive-bombing buggies.

I spotted the first arrow at the bottom of the road and made a sharp right up a hill, deeper into the village streets. The arrows seemed to twist me through a maze of darker and darker roads until I rounded the corner and nearly smacked right into a woman carrying a bag as she headed off to work–my guess was to open a local restaurant. We both yelped. I smiled to break the tension, she did not.

At this point, I realized I’d made a mistake by choosing this particular day to leave both by myself and before sunrise. On my Camino with Christina, we left in the dark countless times. But aside from a rogue cobblestone or some Camino ghosts, we were safe with one another.

The solitude was palpable. If I turned back now, I’d have to walk at least a kilometer without clear arrows, and I didn’t trust my cell phone battery to get me out of here. Besides, I had to make it to Briallos today. This was my only option.

I made it to the edge of town and spotted an arrow pointing across the road and directly into the dense forest. Shit, I thought. This was the moment of decision. Do I walk into the dark forest alone? It was now 7am. Thirty more minutes without sun. I walked on.

When I was a little kid, I grew up in what was then–and still now, I imagine–a terrifying neighborhood in Central Jersey. We moved when I was 11, getting out by the skin of our teeth. We were far from unscathed, but we moved. Plainfield didn’t make me afraid of the dark, it made me afraid of who waited in the dark.

I started to sweat despite the chilling October air as my headlamp only lit a thin cone of ground about five feet in front of me. If I missed an arrow, what then? It must have been cloudy because the light of the moon didn’t even make it through the trees’ canopy. I stopped for a moment and spun around to make sure I didn’t miss a turn off. My own breath was so cold and visible in the air that it clouded up my light for a moment. If I stopped, I’d get stuck in the fog of my own breathing.

I moved delicately up a rocky hill, desperately careful not to misplace each step. At the top, the ground leveled out and looked out over a small bridge with water running beneath.

Two small yellows eyes blinked to my right. I gripped my whistle and turned my light toward it. Make yourself look really big, I thought.

A black cat without a hint of concern for me squinted into my headlamp’s light. I turned it away enough not to blind him. “Hola gato,” I attempted. After a several-second stare down, it hopped off its perch and headed on the road in front of me. At least I’m not walking alone. I spotted an arrow turning to the side and, sadly, we parted ways.

I realized I only spent 30 minutes in those woods, but every minute felt like a month of my life. My brain began to spiral. I kept hearing Hermes in my head.

You’ve got a lonesome road to walk…

My phone was turned off to save battery. No one would know where I was. Could I turn it on fast enough if something happened?

It ain’t along the railroad track.
It ain’t along the black-top tar
You’ve walked a hundred times before.

I could slip down the ravine to my left and that would be it. Ginny, the Camino girl, never got out of the woods because she insisted on walking by herself in the dark one morning. All the people who have discouraged me to go as a woman alone would be right.

I’ll tell you where the real road lies:
Between your ears, behind your eyes.

I came to a clearing and stared up, desperate to see a changing in the color of the sky. Was I imagining it? 7:15. So close. I couldn’t tell if I heard the crackling of my own feet on the leaves or if something else was walking around me. I kept stopping to check.

That is the path to paradise,
And, likewise, the road to ruin.

And then, light. The air changed to a pale purple. I made it to the edge of a paved road, and overjoyed in my escape from the woods, turned my head too swiftly around and came face-to-face with a dollar-coin-sized spider protecting its web.  I backed up slowly as it moved to the center of its home, legs spotted and slightly furry.

I heard footsteps and a man in his 40s came up from behind. I pointed, “AraƱa.” He didn’t answer. “Spider…” Still nothing. He just stared. I made a spider motion with my hand. No response.

Cool. Cool cool cool. Doesn’t like to talk. That’s not creepy. He spent the next kilometer about 10 paces behind me. I missed the solitude. Finally, I stopped to take off my fleece and let him pass and much to my relief, on he went. Alone again.

With the sun as my dearest new friend, I walked like an adventurer that had already reached her goal. I didn’t fall into the ravine! I wanted to yell. The sun is up! We can see where we’re going!

The funny part is that I had only gone 3 kilometers so far. There were 24 more to go.

I spent the rest of my day with the sharpest of senses. I walked through a heartbreaking fracking zone where sides of the mountain I had just walked through were torn to lifeless strips of mud. I spent an hour walking with a 70-something Irishman who was on his 4th Camino and had just bought a house in Southern France with the “little money he still had.” I got the feeling he’d just lost something or someone.

An old Spanish woman made me a ham and cheese sandwich. I met two great dogs. I walked into Pontevedra, one of the most stunning cities in Western Spain and bought a rosary for my dear Catholic friend at home. I gave money to a homeless man who said Buen Camino in such a way that made me want to weep. I ran into Neha–who had somehow passed me–who yelled my name across the courtyard as she sat eating a sandwich.

I went on a rant to a Swedish couple about the constant highway walking and how we should petition to reroute the Camino to less-dangerous paths. They told me to calm down and I stomped off without them. I walked through two hours of stunning fairytale forests and sat for a moment to simply watch the yellow-green light criss-cross through the leaves. I spooked a group of pheasants (a “covey” of pheasants, turns out) and they scattered into the forest as I yelled that I wanted to be their friends.

In the final 4k, my feet ached and my knees shook, but I was proud. This was my longest day. The longest day was over. I blasted Sara B in my headphones and with no one in sight, danced, sang and zig-zagged across the pathway toward Briallos.

Briallos

I reached the hostel to find it nearly deserted. No owner, no one to check you in. A locked door. Three older German women sat drinking a beer at what was now a closed bar. “You can go in and claim a bed. They show up at 8 tonight and you check in then. I’d say get a beer, but they just closed until 6.” Not the friendly welcome I was hoping for, but I didn’t care. I had a bed! A shower awaited me!

I put down my things on a bunk and messaged Neha that there was plenty of space. She was an hour or so behind me. I went downstairs to the bathroom with my clothes, quick-dry towel and flip flops. Half the room was for showering. Between each shower head was a three-foot divider. No curtains. It had happened–the dreaded communal shower. I thought I’d avoided it this time. Fine, I thought. I’m a big girl. I’m mature enough for this.

I hit the button to release the water. Ice cold. Sure. I just need to hit it a few more times. I hit it again, and then 10 more times. Ice cold water. Then, footsteps and chatter. Here I am, naked as a jaybird, shivering in the corner of the bathroom. I called out, “Just a heads up, this is a communal shower.” The three German women laughed at my modesty, flew off their towels and waddled over to the buttons. “Let’s try to hit them all!” They yelled with a cackle.

For the next 15 minutes, four strangers sprinted back and forth hitting shower faucet buttons and running in a joint effort away from the ice cold water. At last, “This one!” One woman pointed. Warm water spewed from all the faucets one by one, and we rejoiced.

Neha was just arriving when I came out of the bathroom, frustrated but clean-ish. “I’m sorry in advance about the shower situation.” The flip flops of the women squished past us. “I’ve seen everyone in this hostel naked,” I told her with wide, terrified eyes. We made matching grimaces and then laughed.

After a hearty dinner and one of the top three beers of my life, I settled into bed. We heard a strange rhythmic boom out in the distance over the next town. “Fireworks!” someone yelled. A three-day festival had just begun. It was far enough away not to keep us up but close enough to see the bursts of color above the steeple-filled horizon.

I slept well that night, only waking up during my typical hour-long break in sleep to hear the celebration somewhere off in the mountains still beating on. I thought of how dark those woods must be right now and how honored I felt that they let me in during those quiet, secretive hours before dawn. I thought of the guide cat, the protective spider, the Irish hiker, the homeless man with haunting eyes, the kind sandwich woman, and the two great dogs. It was done, it was behind me. And I had two more days until the end. I closed my eyes and fell asleep to the sounds of distant festivals.

One thought on ““I’ll tell you where the real road lies.”

  1. Pingback: The Longest Day – Maybe there will be cupcakes…

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