Santiago Sneaks Up on You

The funny thing about a trip of this length is that the end feels impossibly far away until suddenly, it isn’t. I woke up on the 9th day of walking with the realization that I only had three more days to be a pilgrim. I love this identity. I may not be religious, but the identity of pilgrim–someone constantly seeking something–has always aligned with who I am.

The New York Times has a long list honoring those who have passed away from COVID. Each person in the digital list has a photo, an obituary, and a small subtitle about who they were. I came across one woman in her 90s who was simply listed as “Adventurer and Writer.” I haven’t stopped thinking about her since. I didn’t realize one could still be an adventurer. I hope somewhere she knows that she inspired me to try.

Though I didn’t sleep well in the hostel that night, the sun coming through the curtains was a great reminder that time does pass. I was ready to get moving. Neha and I headed up the first steep hill together but decided to walk at our own paces and meet up when we naturally crossed paths.

It was a hot morning of steep elevation. It’s fascinating how your body cannot remember pain. You can remember you were IN pain but you can’t recreate the feeling of the pain from memory. This hill was a beast and my exhaustion wore on me.

When I crested the top of the hill, however, I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long while–water. Just next to Redondela–the city we were coming upon–was the Ria de Vigo. There was a large sound heading out in the ocean and the sight of it up ahead felt like a turning point. We’d made it to the sea!

Just as the road hit this high point, however, it plummeted, steeply. I have no idea how cars made it up and down these hills, it was hard enough on foot with a bad knee. I ducked into a cafe and Neha was close behind.

After second breakfast, we walked and chatted for the rest of the morning, crossing through small cities, villages, and even spending an obnoxious amount of time along a highway. The highway walking was becoming an issue. There is simply not enough space to press yourself up against the guardrail and still feel safe that a car won’t zone out. Car accidents are one of the most common ways pilgrims get hurt–and killed–on the Camino. I was preparing my “strongly worded letter” in my head when I reached home. To whom? I don’t have a clue. But someone!

The long afternoon of walking took on the thickness of a warm autumn air. The humidity of the nearby water was starting to play a role. People were starting to put out pumpkins on their stone walls. When we finally left the highway, you could spot the beautiful town of Arcade in the distance.

We’d run into a few other friends along the way and cross the walkway together over the river. The view was right out of a postcard. The small village beyond the bridge was, called Pontesampaio, was very quaint, and the hostel was just up a stone road. The whole town seemed like it was made of ancient stone, like the road blended into the walls of the buildings to create one fortress.

This would turn out to be one of my favorite albergues. It was run by a family of pilgrims–now with a young daughter–who took advice from other hikers on their favorite things at other hostels. It was clean and freshly painted. The little girl checking us in gave everyone a small wooden keychain she had made herself. Every hiker had their own bed pod, like an early 20th-century train car. I needed this silence and soft bed. I had a very long day ahead of me the next morning–the longest by far.

The owner handed us our own freshly washed white towels (oh to use a non-hiking towel!) and the beds all had new sheets. In the hiking albergue world, this was the height of luxury and kindness.

Barbara, Neha, Sophie and I headed up the road in the evening to the one restaurant in town–owned by the same people who owned the albergue–and sat outside for a slow dinner with great Spanish beer. The sun began to set on one of my last days with this family of humans.

I was tired and ready to go home but felt the tension of time pulling me in the other direction. I knew how much I’d daydream about being back at that very dinner someday–and I didn’t even have a clue what awaited us in the next 12 months.

One of my favorite photos of the whole trip.

On the verge of drinking one too many beers, I bid my friends goodnight and went up to bed. I planned to leave earlier than I had the whole trip so I could complete the 28 kilometers before 2pm. I set my alarm for 6, an hour and a half before the sun was set to come up. I didn’t feel incredibly safe walking in a meandering town in the dark–especially with how scarce arrows had become, so I tried to memorize the route on my app for the next morning.

I’d been lucky to mosey through several days in a row of one 17-20K. But my shorter days were over. It was time to get to Santiago. Three more hiking days, each over 25K. I could do it, bad hormones and all, I just had to keep my sights set ahead of me.

I placed tomorrow’s outfit at the base of my bed and packed the rest of my bag so I could just slip out unnoticed before everyone woke up. I nervously fell asleep thinking about the adventure that awaited me.

5 responses to “Santiago Sneaks Up on You”

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