In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
Terry! Cats! Wet Laundry! Inclines! Cream Soup! Single Beds! Muddy Feet! What a weird, painful, memorable day. Well, kinda. I actually have very little memory of the day’s actual peregrination, just bits and pieces of before and after. There’s a vague impression of the albergue feeling cold and a touch damp when I woke up, and of waking to the sound of my alarm and quickly (very quickly – I got great at this) shutting it off before it could annoy anyone else.
On the whole, I was usually the very last pilgrim awake each morning, so for me, keeping the alarm noise down wasn’t so much about waking anyone else up as just not wanting to intrude on anyone’s need for morning quiet. I’m not a cheery, good-morning-y type of person (not grumpy or anything, just generally not at my best first thing in the day), and I’ve found that the more peaceful my first hour or so is, the better my entire day will go. I prefer to be woken gradually, with cuddles (not too many, not full body, not from the wrong person), soft music (not the wrong genre – which could be any genre, depending on how I feel coming out of whatever I was dreaming, so best that you watch carefully for cues that I’m hating your playlist), and/or cats (all cats are good cats, except Charlie, who’s just the worst). See – I’m totally easy going! Totally got this morning thing down. *Cue maniacal laughter as I set the last person to wake me up’s house on fire.* Nah, not really…I’d never do anything that unsubtle.
OK, you’ve got me, I’m painting a rather dramatic picture of myself. Ask anyone who’s woken up in the same room as me, and they’ll tell you that I’m an OK human being. My general setting is “even keel,” even first thing. In all seriousness, the only thing that is guaranteed to make me hunt you down and cause you bodily harm is unnecessary noise. Especially pointless and/or repetitive noises, like continued alarm noise (see above), TV sounds, music that I hate, dogs barking, or conversation that isn’t directly related to someone getting me coffee and/or bacon products posthaste.
I don’t care how much of a morning person you are – people who talk at full volume first thing in the AM, within earshot of people who are trying to sleep and/or slowly wake up, are complete asshats. Yeah, you heard me, loud morning person – you suck. Stop it. No, I don’t care if you’re chipper and want to get going, or if you think that the sleeping person should have already been up minutes ago. You’re awful, and the fact that no one has told you this yet is most likely due to them endeavoring to get their seething morning hatred out of the way lest they cause you bodily injury while requesting you put a sock in it. Take your conversation elsewhere, heathen.
I’m not always successful at it, but I do try not to be a hypocrite in such matters, especially in public situations. Which leads me to a controversial statement: I packed my clothes in a giant (crinkly, loud) Ziploc space saver bag. Quelle horreur! Anyway, to keep this blog post to a minimum, I wrote a whole new post re: Ziploc bags vs. packing cubes. Check it out here, if you’re so inclined. Long story short: if you’re the last person awake, everyone else’s packing-up noise far outweighs the Ziploc bag in the room (but when it’s bedtime, you should make sure you’re the first to finish up with bedtime ritual stuff, so you aren’t crinkling when people are trying to pass out). Yes, you guessed it – I’m also very particular about people being noisy when I’m trying to fall asleep. I probably won’t say anything about it, if you’re being noisy. But I’ll hate you, silently, forever and ever. Sorry ’bout that. I’m a work in progress, much like New Orleans streets (if you’re from New Orleans, you’ll get the joke).
So back to the Camino – I woke up, got dressed, packed up, and walked to the town square with Natalie. We stopped at a little cafe for cafe con leche and zumo, accompanied by our own snacks from our pack – bread, meat, and cheese. I had a brief laugh at the pile of pilgrim backpacks outside the door. We met up with Terry again at the square, and left town together, but the rest of the morning is a haze.
I walked faster than Terry, and Natalie walked faster than both of us, but just like most days, we ended up playing leapfrog over the course of the day. Sometimes we all walked together, sometimes we walked in pairs, and other times we walked alone. I was generally somewhere between the two of them (sometimes behind, as in the picture above), so I kept an eye out ahead of me for Natalie’s orange pants, and behind me for Terry’s bright green windbreaker. When Terry and I walked together, we talked about books (we’d both read our fair share of Camino-related titles), and I asked her questions about her life. She’s the wonderful sort of woman who thinks of herself as rather ordinary, but then can start a sentence with “Back when I was in the Peace Corps in Africa…” I loved getting to know her.
We got into Villafranca Montes de Oca together in the early afternoon, too late for lunch, too early for dinner. Just before we got there, we had to walk down a long, terribly muddy hill. The mud was ankle-deep in places, and very slick, so it was a weird combination of trying to maintain balance while also trying not to get a shoe pulled off in the muck. That last stretch was a killer, so though it was a shorter walk than most days, in all, I was exhausted. As we entered the town and started the uphill walk to our albergue, my shins were screaming in pain. There was no doubt in my mind that I had shin splints in my left leg, and the muscles in my right calf were seizing up, too. I was terrified that this was it, the day I’d snap my Achilles tendon. Terry said she remembered reading something about massages available in town, so I kept my mind on that little snippet as we walked, to try to stay calm.
Terry and Natalie were both experienced peregrinas. This was Natalie’s second time on the Camino Frances, and Terry’s third, so I trusted their information more than any book or app. When we got close to town, Terry gleefully announced that there was an albergue in town that was attached to a very nice hotel, Hotel San Antón Abad, which was renowned for its hospitality. As we walked through the little town and up the hill towards the hotel, I was intrigued to see that we’d be entering the estate through a walled garden – basically the back door of the hotel. The garden was still lush, even at this late date, and to my delight, there were cats. They were a little more sleek and cared-for than seemed typical, and my estimation of the hotel was greatly improved when I saw that someone had even left bowls of cat food out on the back patio.
The hotel is a grand old building that has catered to pilgrims since the 14th century. The regular private guest rooms are inside the main structure, with the albergue segregated off into a separate wing in the back. Terry and Natalie entertained thoughts of the three of us sharing a posh hotel room for the night, and the staff were happy to let us take a look at our options. We all took our boots, by now covered in mud, off in the main hall, then padded upstairs in stockinged feet after the front desk attendant, who unlocked rooms and stood aside to let us inspect the digs. The rooms were ornate, with plush rugs and custom upholstery throughout, priced at about a third of what an American hotel room of the same quality would have fetched per night. It was almost a shame to decide against a night of luxury, but in the end, we decided as a trio to forgo the expense and bunk down with the other pilgrims for the night. As it turned out, this was a great decision, since the albergue had a whole room with single beds! The last time Natalie and I had slept in a place with single beds was nearly a week prior, at Zabaldika. Once you’ve been walking 15-mile days for a week or two, nothing can replicate the joy of knowing you don’t have to painfully clamber up metal ladder rungs to sleep in child-sized rickety top bunk.
Terry, Natalie, and I picked beds at the very end of the dorm, which was great in that I got an entire corner to myself (with my own electric plug – woot, woot!), and no one would be walking past the beds in the night. Unfortunately, this also meant that once the lights were out that night, I would be walking through a pitch-black room, past a long line of beds, to get out to go to the bathroom (and of course I had a couple of times that I needed to get up to pee that night – awesome). We chatted as we went through all of the motions of making ourselves at home. Everyone has something different that they do. I always liked to get my sleeping bag unrolled and laid out, my pillow inflated, and slip my sleeping mask and ear plugs under the pillow for easy access later that night. Natalie inspected every nook and cranny for bedbugs, flipping over her mattress and inspecting all of the joints of the wooden bed. Terry carefully spritzed down every available surface with a homemade lavender concoction to ward off insects and ensure a peaceful night’s sleep.
Once unpacked, I showered, put on new clothes, washed my dirty outfit in the bathroom sink, then went out to hang everything up on the line. It was cool and humid out, with low clouds hanging in the sky, so I had little hope that the laundry would actually dry by morning. This was a recurring theme for me over the course of the Camino, as it was always mid to late afternoon by the time I arrived. Between cool evenings and heavy morning dews, I got used to starting the day in cool, slightly damp duds.
As soon as the laundry issue had been sorted, I hobbled back down the hill into town. The hotel’s regular masseuse wasn’t in that day, but the front desk attendant had told me I’d find another massage therapist just down the street, at the bottom of the hill. My descent into town was consumed with thoughts of how heavenly the massage would feel. I had somehow come to believe that I would be miraculously completely healed if someone else could just touch my shins. In retrospect, it’s most likely this faith that made the resulting experience a breaking point in my day.
I found the right house, then knocked on the door. A woman answered the door, and in limited English told me that the therapist was away, but I could call her and she’d come back if I wanted an appointment. I asked if the woman would call her for me, since I didn’t have a phone to use. The woman said no. I asked again in a different way, using my limited Spanish vocabulary to try to bridge the gap, but she said no again. Finally, I gave up and trudged back up the hill to the hotel. One leg was throbbing, the other was filled with a stabbing heat. Halfway up the hill, I had to take a break to sit on the sidewalk and cry. It seems so trivial now, but at the time, the combination of pain, fear that I’d surely be gravely injured if I didn’t receive professional attention, and just the general frustration of not being able to make myself understood all piled up and pushed me over my emotional limit for the day. I sat there in the middle of nowhere and cried for five minutes or so, then did a mental “suck it up, buttercup” and continued back to the hotel.
One of my favorite things in life is soup. I love cream-based soups, in particular. New England clam chowder is an ultimate favorite here in the states, but long ago, a friend who lived in Austria turned me on to Knorr powdered soup mixes. Cream of asparagus soup and cream of potato soup fill me me with a sparkling inner joy that just can’t be replicated by many other things. Maybe smoked salmon, really good triple cream brie, and freshly baked baguette. OK, I shouldn’t be writing this hungry. The point is that as soon as I got back to Europe, on my first grocery store run, I scoped out the soup section and happily scooped up a few packets of Knorr cream soups. For the remainder of the Camino, I traveled with at least one soup packet on me, in case of dinner emergencies. In this case, in the aftermath of my failed attempt at finding a massage, and the fact it would be hours until dinner, I decided to make a pot of cream soup to cheer myself up. The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying soup and writing post cards to the folks back home, interspersed with a little time in the garden, trying to coax the cats close enough to be petted.
Pilgrims continued to arrive through the afternoon, and it was here that Ruth, an Anglican priest, first crossed our path. She would feature more heavily a day or two down the line. I also met a married couple who seemed a little standoffish with the other pilgrims, but something about them intrigued me. I’d meet them again a few days later, as well. Only one pilgrim out of the bunch stood out as someone I’d rather not meet again. I was lightly napping that afternoon when a gaggle of pilgrims walked into the dorm room and started to unpack and get settled. For the most part, everyone was doing their own thing and being quiet, but one older guy seemed intent on regaling everyone with his knowledge and experience. He spoke loudly, waking me up in his need to command the entire room’s attention. By now you will know how I feel about people who wake me up. I disliked him immediately, sight unseen, and as he continued to talk, I was further annoyed by his tone of voice, the way in which he sought to both ingratiate himself to his captive audience and place himself on a pedestal. He seemed like one of those people who define themselves as a “guru” or “thought leader” in their career field. Let’s call him Pilgrim Bob.
Pilgrim Bob proudly proclaimed that he’d retired from his job a few years back, and had been walking the Camino ever since. This was his umpteenth time walking the Camino Frances, though he’d walked other routes. He knew everything there was to know about every town on the route – just ask him. If anyone needed any help with anything at all, he was there to guide you to the right answer. But of course the Camino wasn’t what it once was. So many people, all year long. Just too many people, and everyone thinking they’re an expert, though of course most of them hadn’t walked anywhere before, and only found out about the Camino from watching The Way. Those folks weren’t REAL pilgrims. Not like Pilgrim Bob, who was now devoting his life to being a REAL pilgrim.
The conversation went on in this vein for some time, until someone actually did ask him a question. The answer was to unnerve me for the rest of my walk, and possibly forever. It’s seriously something that I still worry about. It was a question about bunk beds vs. single beds, and if we’d be seeing any other places with single beds. Of course, Pilgrim Bob couldn’t answer the question properly, but made up for this by telling an anecdote. It seemed that a few years before, Pilgrim Bob had stayed at another albergue, where they’d just gotten new wooden bunk beds. He was on the bottom bunk, and had been napping there for awhile, but decided to get up to get something out of his pack. Only seconds after getting up, the top bunk collapsed. Had he stayed a moment longer, he would have been peregrino mush. Bob went on to say that he heard of another pilgrim who was killed in this same manner, crushed by a falling top bunk. I already hated climbing to the top bunk, and feared rolling off at night. Now I also feared sleeping on the bottom bunk and being crushed in my sleep. Awesome. Thanks a lot, Pilgrim Bob, you jerk.
Terry and Natalie were out walking around town, and missed out on the Pilgrim Bob story, so I told them that night when we met up for dinner in the hotel dining room. The hotel offered an excellent pilgrim dinner. I had spaghetti as my first course, followed by steak and chips, and I remember that Natalie had cuajada for dessert, but no clue what I had. Probably creme brulee, my old standby.
I had a breakthrough moment during dinner, as well, possibly as a result of the emotional current of the day, maybe just because the wine was flowing, or perhaps it was all of this and more. Many days on the Camino seemed to just be powerful, in their own weird way. I learned so much, changed so much, came to appreciate my weirdness, my wildness, be it ever so elusive. As we sat there at our little dinner table, all three of us peregrinas, I looked at my friends’ faces and saw myself. I saw who I would become, and for the first time, I wasn’t scared. I was excited. I was 33, turning 34 in under a month. Natalie was about 15 years my senior, and Terry was around 20 years her senior. All of us were unmarried, a condition that had been lately filling me with fear and dread, even though I simultaneously felt like a total idiot for feeling that way. After all, I was dating, and I didn’t need a man to survive. Indeed, most of the time, flying solo seemed the most natural and only truly acceptable state.
Tonight, I looked at my new friends across the dinner table, both so strong and free and genuine. I already loved them, so soon into becoming acquainted. How could I not? We’d shared so much of ourselves, no games or posturing. Just honesty as we placed one foot in front of the other each day. They were amazing women, living interesting lives on their own terms. I’d spent the last few days coming to terms with my high esteem for them, and here at dinner, I was now suddenly connecting the dots and seeing that I could have just as much esteem for myself, if I chose. I didn’t need to be scared of being somehow broken and useless because I wasn’t married by some imaginary “sell-by” date. I didn’t need anyone else to make myself amazing. I just needed to keep on being me, and I’d be amazing all on my own, just like my friends were.
After dinner, we strolled back through the garden to our dormitory, happy and sleepy. It was cool and crisp out, and the air smelled of wood smoke from someone’s fireplace. We had all just started to get ready for bed when the hospitalero (rudely, we all agreed) popped into the dorm and turned off the lights about 20 minutes before 10pm. A low murmur of shock traveled down the room, and the room (even Pilgrim Bob) united in a general grumble-fest for about five minutes. No matter the albergue, the rules stayed the same, and we pilgrims got used to a certain routine: lights on at 6am, everyone out of the albergue at 8am, lights off at 10pm. Turning the lights off early was just not cool, man. Headlamps came on (not mine – I’d thrown it out a few days before, to save weight), there was a flurry of last-minute pack crinkling and sleeping bag rustling, and then, one by one, the tiny lights went out. Another day on the Camino had ended. Lucky for me, I slept well, with only a couple of awkward trips down the length of the dorm room to get to the bathroom in the dark. The next day was to be one of my hardest yet.