I met the guy in the crowded albergue (a hostel for pilgrims) in Mérida about a week into the pilgrimage. He was tired and slightly injured and was leaving the next day to meet his friends in Madrid who had also bailed on walking to Santiago.
We weren’t walking the traditional Camino that everyone reads about, with its throngs of convivial pilgrims and cafes every couple of miles–the Camino of the movie The Way.
This man and I were on one of its many variants—the Via de la Plata–a longer, less traveled north/south route from beautiful Seville in the south through Mérida, Salamanca, and Zamora, finally ending in Santiago in the far northwest of Spain. This route has fewer pilgrims, less infrastructure, longer walking days, and, in my experience, a preponderance of older folks, mostly men. (One young female complained about being “so tired of seeing old men in their underpants.” True dat.)
I sympathized with the guy in Merida. This Camino was hard–and I had taken it seriously.
I kept expecting the walking would get easier or that I’d get more used to it, but that never happened. Every day was hard. The whole 600 miles. Granted, it wasn’t as hard, and I did become so accustomed to my pack that I rarely noticed it. Once, once, I even ended the day with energy to spare, thinking I might be able to walk farther, but I didn’t.
Most days I started out cheerily enough at dawn, searching for the first yellow arrow. The weather was often lovely. If the road that day was well-marked or maybe just easier to navigate, or if the distance was shorter, I would be full of confidence. I could do this!
But more often, I’d have read the description of that day’s trek obsessively in my guidebook and learned about confusing spots or poorly marked stretches. Or maybe the weather would be hot or cold or wet. (It was all those things, at one point or another.)
Once I set out, I had no map, no GPS, no cheat sheet. I had a general idea of each day’s route, and I had the yellow arrows. Other pilgrims might be ahead of or behind me—or they might not be.
Two things were predictable: the complete unpredictability of each day’s walk, and that, nonetheless, somehow, I always found my way.
No matter how carefully I read the guide and tried to memorize the twists and turns, the towns I’d go through or the number of kilometers between them, the actual walking was always unexpected. Sometimes it was delightful. Maybe the day began in a national park with the sun rising over my shoulder, shining through the cork trees and silvering the grass with the everpresent call of the cuckoos as accompaniment.
Maybe I’d pass through village after ancient village with their sometimes crumbling stone houses and little plazas and fountains. Sometimes I’d literally walk through farmyards with sheep and cows and the huge mastiffs the country people seemed to keep.
At some point, however, I’d encounter what I came to call el insulto final, which is just what it sounds like—some unexpected, unfair hurdle between me and my destination. It might be a long, hot, climb or miles of a treeless, exposed slog along a road. Once or twice, cold, relentless rain drenched my soul along with everything else.
During those times I discovered a secret.
I walked this pilgrimage carrying three intentions to lay at the altar in Santiago: two for friends and one for “the babies.” My daughter was somewhat miraculously pregnant with twins, and when I left for Spain, she was having some complications.
Every day when I set out, I mentally put on my intentions along with my backpack. Sometimes, I’d say a rosary, sometimes, I’d just hold up my intentions to a God that felt both diaphanously near and as remote as the vast landscape around me.
During the times I struggled—to climb the hill, to slog through the mud, to keep on going—I clung to the reasons I was doing this. At those times, my intentions carried me. They gave me purpose and motivation to go on.
The other remarkable thing was that I never got lost. Some pilgrims had phone apps that showed them exactly where they were on the Camino. Others had maps in their guidebooks. I had none of these and was completely reliant on the yellow arrows and monument-type markers to guide me for 600 miles, over hill and dale, through small towns and big cities (which were usually the worst).
Sometimes I’d read in my guide that the arrows were confusing, or that some prankster or hostelkeeper had redirected them. This is an awful trick on a pilgrim like me. In the final days through the northern province of Galicia, work on a high-speed train had torn up large swathes of countryside—and the camino along with it. Here, the way was rerouted and confusing.
But I never got lost, even though I have no sense of direction and can get turned around on a dime. Some folks with the phone app got lost. I heard stories of people wandering for miles, having taken a wrong turn. Once, I followed the road rather than the new, rerouted signs for the Camino, and that was a costly detour. Once, I missed a turn because I was taking pictures of a herd of sheep (to be fair, it was a very badly marked turn and a nice herd of sheep), but I went less than 1/2-mile out of my way before retracing my steps.
I hate being lost, inevitable as it may be for a traveler. I was having enough trouble getting through the day as it was. Retracing my steps even a little was anathema to me. So, even though my eyesight sucks, I could spot a certain shade of yellow at a quarter-mile. (A type of fungus was that same yellow, and that was disconcerting.) I learned to carefully watch every intersecting path for a surprise turn. I could be on a long, broad, straight gravel road, and unexpectedly, the way could veer off onto an obscure path through the woods.
At times I cursed those vagaries and uncertainties. Often, I thought–or said– Help! and it always came, whether in the form of the next yellow arrow or a passing car or a fellow pilgrim. Several times “Camino angels” popped up at just the right moment to redirect me. I never once wandered for long.
I was often my own worst enemy. I was always anticipating the day’s destination. Always adding up the hours and kilometers to go. I’d urge myself on with the promise of a rest and a snack. One more hour and I could eat my orange, which became the most refreshing treat imaginable each day. As I grew more tired, I’d play magical thinking games. The albergue had to be closer, didn’t it? I couldn’t still have three hours left to walk, could I? I did, and those three hours became an eternity.
And yet. And yet, day by day, stage by stage, Santiago grew closer. I’d drag into town, sweaty and footsore. I’d claim a bed—a bottom bunk with any luck. I’d slowly unpack, suss out the sitch, as my granddaughter says, take a shower, sometimes jostling with other sweaty, footsore pilgrims. I’d change clothes and hand-wash the ones I’d worn that day. I ended up walking in the same pair of pants and socks every day because they were the most comfortable. I lost one shirt and some underwear, (top and bottom), which was inconvenient until I replaced them in Salamanca.
Then my focus was food. I have never eaten so much as I did on the Camino. Unless the albergue offered a meal, I had to make it to a local restaurant before it closed for the afternoon at about 3:30. If I missed that deadline, I’d have to wait until the shops reopened at 8pm! I also had to locate supplies for breakfast and the next day’s walk—yogurt, the orange and maybe a banana, some bread, cheese, and chocolate, if the weather wasn’t so hot that it became a gooey turd.
By morning, I was good to go again. That, too, amazed me.