After the experience with the erupting shower, the desire for normalcy overwhelmed me. You should expect challenges on these hikes, but there was something glaringly different about this one. I knew the pandemic would make this harder and I knew that I would find something different than I did in the past. I knew I would be different–particularly after the (still ongoing) trauma of the past two years. Different and challenging are fine.
The issue is that I was starting to feel that we were in the way. That maybe we weren’t supposed to be here at all. I started to wonder if the pressure we were putting on the owners of these albergues and restaurants was just too much. Maybe the infrastructure to host this many international guests had just not returned–and how could it have?
After we gathered up our things–and left a large tip in the room for the shower trouble–we walked downstairs to the cafe. Pilgrims packed into the small bar area hollering for coffee and the remaining croissants. If I could have leaped behind that bar to help, I would have. There are just too many of us right now, I thought.
Ben and I took our coffee and pastry outside to give everyone space. The vending machine next to the front door had pilgrim essentials–Compede, muscle cream, etc. I bought a 10 Euro ankle brace to fortify my twitching Achilles.
As it often happens, my anger dissipated once I got back on the road. The weather was breathtaking. Sunny and cool with a light breeze. The air smelled like woodsmoke. We were in the mountains now and you could see for miles. After spending so many months sitting on the roof of our apartment for any sunshine, I closed my eyes and tipped my head back into the sun. Ben caught the moment on camera.
And then we met Lynn (I’ve changed everyone’s names in these posts to respect privacy. Except Sally from two posts ago–her name is actually Sally–I’ll explain why I did that in the next post).
Anyway, Lynn! Lynn had hiked from St. Jean Pied Du Port and came from the U.S. She’d been walking with two other American women that we’d meet later in the day. As soon as the three of us started chatting, I could tell we’d be great friends.
We all hit a good stride. I pushed ahead as Ben and Lynn chatted. My ankle didn’t feel terrible and my knee muscles finally balanced out enough to get into a real walking groove. The Camino calls it your “sacred pace”–when you walk at a rhythm that just feels right.
A common answer to not walking the Camion is “I’m not in shape.” The idea of the sacred pace can help with this. For example, I went for a run this morning. I am not a fast runner. In fact, if you look up my pace online, it doesn’t quite “count” as running. Both of my feet leave the ground at the same time, but I run so slowly that the internet considers it a fast walk. Perhaps I defy the laws of gravity. Who knows. The point is that there is no required speed for walking. You can ramble, dally, and even dawdle for so long that it takes you 10 hours to reach the same town as someone who only needs three hours, and that’s fine. You can walk 5 miles a day. Or two miles a day. And–gasp–you don’t have to reach Santiago.
Move faster than your sacred pace, and you likely end up injured. Move too slow, and you may go mad from boredom. You get the point.
We chatted with Lynn about injuries and learning how to stop and take care of yourself when your body needs to rest. There is a service nowadays, for example, that ships your backpack ahead to the next stop. This allows people with severe joint or other health issues to make it through the day.
Unrelated to pace, Lynn told us a story of a woman earlier in the trail who ended up in the hospital with a blood clot in her leg. She nearly mistook it for standard Camino muscle pain, but trusted her gut and went to the ER. The crazier part is that the doctor didn’t originally detect the clot. It was a technician on hand that overrode the doctor and pushed that they take a second look. And lo and behold, there it was.
We debated whether that would have happened in the U.S.–a technician feeling empowered enough to second-guess a doctor. The pilgrim with the clot healed in the hospital for a week with meds, spent a week resting on a nearby beach, and then restarted her pilgrimage. Her bill for the whole week was less than $1,000 (it would have been less or zero if she lived here) and she even got a special pilgrim stamp for being at the hospital. Socialized healthcare!
The three of reached the bottom of our first descent and settled in at a small coffee shop. I remember going here with Christina in 2017 on a rainy day and drinking apple tea. Such a specific memory.
As I balanced my cafe con leche and tortilla on my arm, I chose a sunny spot next to Ben and sat down. Soon enough, Susan and Claire–Lynn’s buddies from the beginning–joined us.
Claire immediately asked Ben about his walking stick, which I assumed would happen with someone eventually. Ben had picked up the walking stick on a difficult downhill, but I wouldn’t say it was a small easy-to-carry branch. If anything, it had more of a future as a wizard’s staff or perhaps a fence post. It was…large.
“That’s not a walking stick, Ben, that is kindling,” Claire announced followed by my cackles. “We gotta find you a new one.”
And then Claire and I made another discovery. We narrowed down that we both grew up in New Jersey. And that we both lived near Cranford, NJ. And that we both went to a Catholic school in Cranford, NJ. And that–yes!–across the world in Spain, I was sitting next to someone else who went to the same middle school as me. We didn’t go at the same time, but this is not a large school. What an odd world.
The three women made excellent hiking companions as we descended the rest of the hill. We stopped to take a photo with an 800-year-old tree and slowly plodded town into Triacastela, the only town before our stop for the day. It turns out that we were all headed to the same very-much-off-the-beaten-path albergue. It was advertised similarly to the one in Pieros–natural and bare-bones amenities, a vegan dinner, a backyard with a swing. The whole earth-crunchy package.
We stopped in town for some grocery store lunch since there the albergue only served dinner. Ben and I grabbed some wine, bread, tomato, and a jar of pesto.
Just before cutting back into the woods, the five of us leaned on a wooden fence to watch a herd of sheep frolicking in the field. Two little lambs, curious about their visitors, stopped for a minute to check us out, but were clearly beckoned by their parents to return. But at the last moment, one decided that it wanted to have a special moment with Ben who happened to be holding an apple. It broke off from the group, ran up to him, did a sweet little hop, changed his mind, and bolted happily in the other direction. Ben has purposely stopped eating lamb because of this interaction. There is a video of this, but WordPress won’t let me upload it. Will send upon request:)
With the blessing of our new sheep friends, we carried on but came upon the woodland albergue just around the next bend. “It’s right here!” I yelled back to the group.
We were early, and a sign indicated that we should pick a bed and make ourselves at home. It also listed several rules about quiet hours (which I appreciated) and bringing no animal products into the hostel. I thought about my cheese-filled pesto and decided to play dumb if someone called me out on it. I needed to eat.
The wood-and-stone building reminded me of the refugio-style albergues more commonly found in 2009. You have to accept that the setup straddles camping and a traditional hostel. Running water and roof over your head, but that’s about it. Totally fine as long as everything’s relatively clean and safe. Outside of a pandemic, you could tell that there had once been a flourishing garden and seating area in the backyard. I assumed that the economic wallop of the past two years hit this place particularly hard.
Ben and I were always ready to go with the flow, but that voice in the back of my head that constantly feared bedbugs got a bit louder.
“So, when are we leaving?” Claire announced as she came back inside. We all quietly laughed. It’s not that we weren’t up for an adventure. And the owner seemed incredibly kind, and honestly, exhausted. But our guts were telling us that something was off. But it was late on a Sunday afternoon, we were far from the next town, and I didn’t want to leave the kind owner high and dry without a full hostel. So we stayed.
We spent a quiet afternoon sharing stories, sitting on the tree swing, and drinking wine. Other pilgrims trickled in and eventually filled each bed. Sally from two days before arrived and her ankle was doing much better. She instantly blended with our little group.
When I walked back into the sleeping area at one point, Ben had been cornered by an incredibly enthusiastic and chatty blonde American girl who couldn’t have been more than 22. Let’s call her Mackenzie. I know Ben’s panicked-but-being-nice face. Her body language would have made a less-confident spouse uncomfortable, but I just found it funny and sweet. I jumped in and introduced myself and I saw Lynn hovering as well.
When she fluttered off to the next room, Ben explained, “I said the word ‘wife’ like 10 times, trust me.”
I laughed. I never cared about that kind of stuff unless Ben is uncomfortable. If anything, Mackenzie reminded me of myself and my fellow hiking buddies in 2009. Right out of college, learning about any kind of world outside of New Jersey, and so convinced that your 22-year-old life plans are going to work out the way you think.
And then another character appeared in the back garden. Let’s call him Hippie Guy. I know his type. Long hair, walks with an old guitar strapped to his back, carries around a cloud of body odor and patchouli. I don’t care if someone wants to live off the beaten path, but it’s the rest of his type that gets under my skin. Hippie Guy–especially Camino Hippie Guy–knows more about the world than you do. He definitely knows more about the Camino than you do. I mean, he actually knows more about you than you do. What are the odds? He has everyone and everything figured out. He’s here to judge any standard conversation, to control it, and to tell you that you’re doing it wrong.
I saw him write us off and make a b-line for Mackenzie. I didn’t like the cut of his jib. I suddenly felt very protective of our sprightly American girl.
Luckily, it was time for dinner. I’d been daydreaming about a traditional pilgrim dinner since my last in Portugal in 2017. Would we even find one during Covid? The owner cooked a hearty, delicious vegan meal of soup, hummus, and vegetables. We passed around the wine and bread and occasionally threw another piece of wood on the fireplace.
Hippie Man, however, self-designated himself as the Jesus of the Last Supper table. “Okay, everyone, please listen,” he said, “I think we should all go around and say why we are walking the Camino.”
Now, I wanna make it clear that I find this question unfair in certain circumstances, especially if you’re putting a group on the spot. If you’re a nun, a close friend, an acting teacher, or heck, the actual host of the albergue, perhaps you have the right to request vulnerability from a room of tired hikers. But who the heck is this guy? Why you’re walking the Camino is a massive question. It takes some people years or decades to decide. Some people walk because a family member died, because they almost died, or because they might die soon. It’s a big question. I like to ask, “How did you learn about the Camino?” If someone feels comfortable divulging more information, that’s fine, but not forced.
Anyway, the group entertained his request and started to answer his question one at a time. He leaned into Mackenzie during her turn, because he was of course sitting next to her. She talked about her boyfriend back in the states and wanting to explore the world before she settled down, got her dream job, got married, and had kids. Oh to be 22.
So, Ben–who, if you know my husband, you know he could not stand this guy–had kept a snarky answer to this question in his back pocket for weeks. I knew exactly what was coming based on the smirk on his face.
“I’m walking it for the money,” he said without breaking his stare at Hippie Guy. There was a long, bewildered beat and then chuckles from the absurdity-lovers in the group.
Ben loves chaos-inducing humor. I told him that no one would understand the joke, and he answered…that was the point. He wanted people to have a brief moment of, “HE’S GETTING PAID FOR THIS?”
He eventually broke his stare, explained his actual reason for walking it, and how he learned about it through me. And then it was my turn.
“I can give you my answer in about a year,” I responded. “It takes me at least a year, if not more, to fully know why I had to do this.” He was clearly bothered by my not-answer, which pleased me. I wanted to let anyone after me off the hook in case they also felt put on the spot.
As you can imagine, all of this ramped up to him explaining to us why the world should walk the Camino and how it’s the best thing for humans to check out and disconnect and give up worldly things and blah blah blah blah blaugjbskfjdkjhfsdkjdfkdsfskdjh.
After his imparting his great wisdom to us, he went back to pushing himself into Mackenzie’s personal space and the table continued the conversations we’d started before his big question. Ben and Sally told me to stop worrying about her–she could take care of herself–but I kept one eye open.
We wound down for the evening after sunset and several people pulled up chairs around the fire. Claire kindly offered some sleep aids she’d brought from home, and me–being stubborn and silly–declined. I had my melatonin! That would clearly work!
With nearly everyone safe in bed–including Mackenzie–I put in my earplugs and knocked out for a couple hours. When I opened my eyes again, it was dark and just past midnight. My friends who had taken the sleep aids were fully knocked out. I’d made a huge mistake. Ben was on the bunk above me and I debated texting him to see if he was also staring at the walls as the night went on.
And then I heard people talking–the noise that had clearly woken me up. I took out my earplugs and sat up. Hippie guy, the owner, and two others were sitting in the dining room by the fire speaking in full voice–totally against the intense list of rules on the sign when you come in. They were all about three feet from four bunk beds of people trying to sleep.
I’d had it. I was gonna be that jerk. I got out of bed and asked them to be quiet. They looked at me like I was the RA in their college dorm and snarled. They said they’d go to sleep soon and I sauntered back to bed.
I’ll never understand the disconnect between the earth-loving, self-declared free-spirited type and lack of respect for other humans.
I went to bed grouchy and I hated that. I never liked getting into a judgmental spiral on this trip. But if we’re gonna live by the old “everyone has their own Camino” adage, then don’t get in the way of other people doing theirs–such as by being a creeper or keeping people awake.
They finally went quiet around 1am. My frustration left me laying in bed wondering if I was accumulating a collection of bed bugs. We were supposed to walk 29k the next day–the longest day so far.