Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 2) – Villafranca Montes de Oca to San Juan de Ortega

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.

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Though I believed I’d seen my fair share of the Spanish countryside by the time we got to Villafranca Montes de Oca, this day’s walk was to be a lesson in avoiding assumption. Shortly after leaving town that morning, we entered a large swath of beautiful, undeveloped forest land, and it seemed like there was a new surprise around every curve. I walked down a long, quiet stretch of fern forest, saw the prettiest little flowers, and happily analyzed every new type of rock I stumbled across (sometimes literally). My college geology professor would have been amused at how a girl who’d often slept through class (you can’t blame me – it was at 8am, and you already know I’m not a morning person) would one day grow up to geek out over pebbles.

One of the biggest regrets of my morning was coming to a huge dip in the road and realizing that no photos I took were going to capture its stupefying dimensions. I’d walked up and down mountains before, but this was something else. It looked like a freefall I’d absolutely hate to take via rollercoaster. I was in awe, but still remembered an important lesson I’d found on my first steep downhill climb, going into Roncesvalles on Day 3. I unpacked my sandals and switched shoes, just in case, to make sure there was no way of hurting my toes on the downhill climb. I might have been masochist enough to go on this stupidly long walk, but no way was I going to lose toenails in the process. (Click here to learn about how I took care of my feet on the Camino Frances.)

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It’s difficult to make out in this photo, but the dark spot in the trail ahead is where the trail drops completely out of sight. The little speck far in the distance on the trail is Natalie.

By the time I got to the big hill, Natalie was already far ahead on the trail. In fact, if you look very carefully in the picture above, you can just make out a tiny hiker wearing orange pants on the uphill portion of the next hill. I spent most of the morning alone, only meeting one other person, a woman pilgrim who was nearly done walking her intended portion of the Camino. She and her husband were vacationing through Spain together via RV, and she had split up from him a few days before to walk to Burgos, where they would meet up again and drive on. I thought it was such a pleasant idea for sharing an experience with your partner without forcing them into a specific travel style that didn’t suit.

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Before getting to San Juan de Ortega, where I hoped to regroup with Natalie, I ran across two things I hadn’t expected. The first thing was situated just before coming to the big hill – an archaeological site and memorial plaque, at the site of a mass grave. I couldn’t understand much of the signage, but was able to understand that this site was the unfortunate location of an execution during the Spanish Civil War (here’s an article about the dig, as well as the possible victims). I took a moment to reflect and offer up a prayer, feeling sadly inadequate – it was striking me how woefully unprepared I’d been to be a traveler here. It felt like the ultimate disrespect, to spend so little time getting to know the ins and outs of the country that was to shelter me.

I did my best on the Camino to divorce myself from expectation, and to be present and aware that it was my job to listen, follow the locals’ leads, and most of all, to be courteous in all dealings. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I take some solace in knowing that I tried. There was so much history under my feet, and I had so little prior knowledge of any of it. I walked on, sober in the realization that I was completely incapable of showing proper respect to the dead here. As much as I have tried to be open to being a child of the world, much of history is alien to me, evanescent, ultimately untouchable. Of course, this is obvious – none of us are time travelers (if you are, call me!) – but it doesn’t keep me from deep regret. The best I could do was to interpret the scene through a human lens, and understand the tragedy that accompanies any theft of life.

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This “Buen Camino” helped dispel a little of the unease felt on this part of the trail.

The second site I encountered was almost the exact opposite scene – an unexpected art installation, in the middle of nowhere. There were no explanatory plaques, so I still have no clue who made the art, or why, but it was a refreshing find. The path had become flat and very wide, and though the mud was drying, it was obvious that had we walked that way a day before, it would have been the same shoe-sucking muck that we’d encountered leading into Villafranca Montes de Oca. It appeared that there had been some deforestation along the trail in recent history. Where before, the trees had come right up to the trail, here there was a wide stretch of fern growth bordering the path on each side. At some point in this stretch, I began to feel uneasy. The quiet was overbearing. Something about the road just felt wrong. It wasn’t the first time on the Camino that I’d thought back to how medieval travelers hadn’t liked to travel through the woods, on account of the threat of brigands. At times, I felt time overlapping. It’s hard to explain properly, but I was afraid of the past of the woods, not the present. Present me felt no threat – in fact, felt no human presence lurking. But another part of me felt tapped into a primordial fear, like I was stepping into someone else’s feeling-shoes, and experiencing their emotional reaction to being watched from the woods of another time.

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Dat banana tongue, tho…

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Dear artist – if you’re reading this, your beautiful sun/moon/heart/rainbow composition was one of the prettiest things I saw on the whole trip. Thank you! ❤

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Either way, as soon as I got to the magical little clearing where the art installation lived, this eerie feeling passed. Perhaps it was the little burst of happy energy from all of the colors, or maybe I was just instinctively relieved to see signs of other humans nearby. I wish I knew who’d taken the time to leave this lovely little art collection behind, and I hope that it grows along the path, in the way that so many areas of Camino offerings seem to grow and accumulate more cairns and milagros. Soon after, I passed a really nice little km marker that gave me the burst of energy I needed to pick up the pace.

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As I’d hoped, Natalie’s pack and hiking pole were waiting in front of a little cafe in San Juan de Ortega when I arrived. I happily dropped my pack and went in to find her, only to realize that she had been waiting for awhile, and was impatient to leave again. Before I’d arrived, she’d taken a short tour of the monastery, checked emails, and had a leisurely cup of coffee. Though we were both relieved to meet up again, I knew that our speeds were no longer aligning, and got the feeling that she had something new on her mind. It felt like the distance was more than physical, and I began the emotional practice of reconciling myself to what was to come, another Camino “break up.” But it wasn’t to be today. She waited with me for a little while, so I could grab an Aquarius and a slice of tortilla, and we took a look at the maps to confirm our plan to march on to Cardeñuela Riopico that afternoon. After my short break, we strapped on packs and headed off towards Ages, chatting happily about the things we’d seen so far this morning.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 3). 

Anna’s Camino: Day 15 – Belorado to Villafranca Montes de Oca

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.

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Follow the arrow. Maybe I don’t remember too much of the day’s walk because it was mostly all in shades of brown and gray…

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.

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Mornings are tough – even on the Camino.

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).

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Packs and poles, waiting for their owners outside of a cafe.

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.

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Natalie and Terry, walking ahead of me.

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.

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Mud. So much mud.

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.

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Hopes crushed. *Sigh.*

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.

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This photo is from the next morning, but these are the cats from the garden. ❤

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.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 1). 

Exploring the Kaibab

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Happy hikers! All five of our backpacking group (I’m on the far left) after successfully climbing up to the South Rim on Day 4. 

I know I’m still only 1/3 of the way into telling you guys about my 2015 Camino experience, but I’m still working on it, I promise. In the mean time, I wanted to tell you guys a little about my 2016 birthday trip: going on a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon. Last November, I took a four-day backpacking tour starting on the North Rim, walking down the North Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch, then up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. The tour was through Wildland Trekking, and I enthusiastically recommend it. Here’s a link to the exact tour I took, in case you’re interested.

I loved the experience. Coming off of the Camino, I was looking for a somewhat similar experience, but this time I wanted to camp, carry more weight, and have less amenities at my disposal. I was also really interested in getting to be somewhere secluded, where I’d be able to get away from the Internet and too many people, and hopefully somewhere that I’d get to see the stars at night. All of my wishes came true. The hike was challenging, but doable. My fellow hikers were very respectful of my need to have quiet alone time, but were also friendly and accepting. I was paired up with a family of four, plus our guide, so I was the adopted family member, and we had a great time together. I loved our guide, Dakota – he was extremely knowledgeable about the history, geology, and flora/fauna of the area, as well as a great cook. I was especially appreciative of his patience with me as I asked a billion and one questions about the plants we passed. I normally don’t care too much about plants, but I found myself falling in love with all of the different cactus varieties we passed, and I grew to love others, like the agave, Mormon tea, and yucca plants.

I’m trying to think of my top memories from the trip. My time spent in Flagstaff before and after going into the Canyon were awesome – I really dug the vibe there. I’d like to spend more time in Flagstaff, and I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t strongly considered making it my next port of call. I also met new friends from around the world at the hostel there, and that’s always a plus 🙂

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Having a beer at Phantom Ranch to celebrate turning 35!

As far as the hike, itself, I had a lot of fun exploring just a tiny piece of the Grand Canyon, but it only gave me a taste for a much larger exploration in the future. I’d have to say that having an icy cold birthday beer at Phantom Ranch at the end of the second day’s hike was lovely – maybe even more so because the mess hall reminded me of summer camp when I was a kid, so it gave the entire trip a kind of summer vacation vibe. I also really liked a little side trip we took earlier that morning to visit Ribbon Falls, which took us over one of the scariest sections of hiking (for me, anyway). The path narrowed down so much that you had to lean against the rock and put one foot straight in front of the other. I fell into an agave plant and punctured my arm, which was not fun. After that, three of us ended up dropping our packs before the detour, so we would be a little more steady on our feet to crawl around the rock that we needed to get past to see the falls. I stopped bleeding eventually, and the falls were gorgeous, so it was all worth it.

 

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Mule deer eating.

 

Another great memory is seeing mule deer on our next to last evening, at Indian Gardens. Then of course, there was the hike to and from Plateau Point. Weirdly, though the view out there was by far the most beautiful that we’d seen, the mile and a half walk through flat desert to get out to the point was my most favorite scenery of the entire trip. For that little bit of the hike, we were on Plateau Point Trail, which intersects the Tonto Trail, and I got it into my head that I’d like to hike the Tonto one day. Instead of running from one of the rims, it runs side-to-side for about 70 miles through the Canyon. We walked back from the Plateau after dark, and I felt at home there, walking down that moonlit path, past the cacti. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want more lights and phones and talking. I just wanted to keep walking like that forever, nice and quiet, letting the stars do all the talking.

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The view from Plateau Point.

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Walking home down Plateau Point Trail.

Most impactful, but hardest to explain, was the darkness. I really liked that Flagstaff was a Dark Sky Community, meaning they have taken pains to keep their light pollution down. Then, once you’re down in the Canyon, there really are no lights, and the sky is absolutely breathtaking. I was happy to have my sleep mask with me, because the moon would have made it too bright to sleep otherwise! Once I got back into Flagstaff, I went to the Lowell Observatory, which is one of the oldest observatories in the United States, dating back to 1894. Pluto was discovered there in 1930, and when I went, I had the extreme pleasure of getting to look at the moon through one of their giant telescopes. It sounds pretty lame, since we’ve all seen the moon, right? But to see it so clearly made me literally gasp with delight. I wouldn’t mind getting to see it like that a few more times.

I’ve got a ton more photos that I’ll post after I’ve had a chance to go through and choose the best ones, and I’ll break down the trip a little better then. But for now, thought you’d at least like to hear a little bit about the trip!

How to Avoid Blisters on the Camino de Santiago

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.

Camino Feet

My feet at Finisterre, after 36 days on the Camino de Santiago.

I have irritatingly sensitive feet. My mom always jokes that I can get a blister just from looking at a pair of new shoes, never mind wearing them around for a bit. In fact, I plan my shoe purchases based on brands that don’t give me blisters when I’m wearing them in (my favorites are TOMS, Sanuk, Teva, New Balance, and Chelsea Crew). So when I started planning my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, my biggest worry was what I’d do about blister prevention. I scoured hiking blogs and pilgrim groups on Facebook, looking for the magical solution that would help me avoid maiming myself on the longest walk of my life…and my hard work paid off.

I set off from St. Jean Pied de Port, France on October 8th, and arrived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain on November 12th. In between, I walked over 775 kilometers across a variety of terrains and through all kinds of weather – and didn’t get a single blister. In fact, my feet looked better at the end of the trip than they did when I started out! Everyone’s feet are different, and results may vary, but this is a good place to start if you’re looking for tips on how to avoid blisters on the Camino de Santiago (or any other long hike).

There are 4 pieces of the foot care puzzle when it comes to avoiding self-inflicted irritation on a hike: load, shoes, socks, and care (before, during and after).

Camino Packs

Backpacks huddled together outside a cafe, waiting for their owners to come back from breakfast.

First off, let’s look at load. A good general guideline for beginning hikers (and more experienced trekkers who haven’t walked a partially-urban route like the Camino Frances before) is to carry no more than 10% of your body weight. For a 150 lb. person, that equals out to 15 lbs, which is more than enough gear. When I left, I weighed in at 197 lbs, and was carrying 14.4 lbs of gear, not counting water. Even though I’m a weight lifter and used to carrying much larger loads, carrying just that 14.4 lbs a day for 36 days was difficult. It puts strain on your neck, shoulders, lower back, hips, knees, and – you guessed it – your feet. The extra weight can make your arches flatten out and change the shape of your feet in your shoes. This, combined with the swelling that can happen as a result of constant exercise, can not only cause foot/ankle/leg pain, but also invite opportunities for blisters. Lesson: lighten your load to lessen chances of blisters and other foot injury. I’ll talk more about this in a later blog post.

Camino Shoes

Make sure your shoes are strong enough to resist animal attacks! (Playing with cats in Villafranca Montes de Oca.)

Next up is my favorite topic – shoes! Even though I might be blister-prone in my everyday life, that doesn’t keep me from being a tiny bit of a shoe addict. So when I heard that another key to blister prevention on the Camino was to buy shoes that were a size too big, I had my misgivings. I’m also not a huge fan of hiking boots. I’ve had multiple pairs over the years, but have yet to find a pair that I’d be confident about living in, pain-free, for a month. That, plus my preference for open toed, or at least breathable, shoes, really had me stressing out for a bit.

With this in mind, I again went first to the internet to ask questions and see what other people had to say about other shoe choices. You know that old adage about opinions, right? As you might guess, people have some very strong (and often smelly) ones about the type of shoes everyone should be wearing on the Camino. Some people insist everyone should be wearing boots. Others insist that sneakers are perfectly fine. Others wore hiking sandals and loved every minute. A generous subset of each group thinks that all the others are uninformed wahoos. In the end, I decided to go with my gut and take not one, but two pairs of shoes – a good pair of hiking sandals (Teva Tirras, which I wear all the time, anyway), and a pair of sturdy New Balance trail runners. I made this decision after an hour and a half at REI in Chicago, going through all of my options with a really awesome customer service person who really knew her stuff and was excited to help me find the perfect shoes. In the end, we decided that the trail runners would be breathable enough to keep my feet from getting too hot, plus comfy right out of the box – no blisters. One thing to note is that you need very hard soles to be able to compensate for the extra pack weight you’ll be carrying. Sneakers are not typically good for carrying a load long distance, but trail runners have slightly harder soles and more grip than street shoes. You can compensate even more (which I did) by getting these stiff custom insoles.

As for sizing, I wore the Tevas at my normal size, since they’re adjustable anyway. The New Balance were purchased a size too big, which hurt my vanity a bit since I already have humongous feet, but never impacted my stride. I thought at first that they might slip on my heel and rub a blister there, but after I tied them a bit tighter, there was no problem. My feet didn’t swell as much as those of other pilgrims I met, so I can’t say whether or not the extra room helped with swelling, but since I never got a blister I think I’ll continue to follow the one-size-up rule. Also, I found it incredibly useful to switch shoes after a few hours of walking. It gave my feet a break and gave me a new burst of mental energy. Lessons: Whether boots, sneakers, or sandals, wear the shoes you’re comfortable in as long as they’re appropriate for walking six to eight hours a day. Buy one size larger than your typical size. If they’re boots, wear them in a bit to make sure you’re OK in them. If you get sneakers, try trail runners and add custom insoles. Think about taking two pairs of hiking shoes if you can spare the weight.

Wrightsocks were my sock brand of choice on the Camino. I can’t speak highly enough of their durability, blister prevention, and quick drying time. Click image to find out more about their selections.

Despite what you might think, socks can be pretty awesome. I have a newfound appreciation for these delicate foot garments. One thing that no one had ever mentioned to me before I started packing for this trip was that socks can make or break you on a long hike. The key isn’t really what kind of sock you get – though you can be sure that, just like shoes, internet citizens all have their opinions. The key is that you’re supposed to be wearing not one pair of socks, but two. From here on out, the all-powerful liner sock is going to be your best friend. A barrier between your foot and the outer sock (most people seem to love a nice, thick wool sock), the liner sock keeps the outer sock from rubbing your tender skin and causing blisters. You can buy liner socks from many different brands, out of different materials. Depending on how your feet typically rub and blister, you might even want to think about buying Injinji liner toesocks.

I think it’s important to note that I did not, strictly speaking, wear two pairs of socks. Because I wanted lightweight socks that wouldn’t make my feet feel too hot, the lovely customer service rep at REI suggested a brand called WrightSock, which boasts a special two-layer design, basically a liner sock that’s built in to the outer sock. I rotated two pairs on the trip, and was very impressed with performance. I even wore them with my sandals sometimes, much to the chagrin of my walking buddies. Lesson: liner socks are non-negotiable, whether you wear two separate pairs of socks or a pair with the liners built in. If you blister between your toes, check out toe sock liners. 

Last, but certainly not least, we’ve come to the section on foot care. When you’re on the Camino, you’ll see that everyone has his or her own special way of preparing for the day’s walk. It all depends on the shape of your feet, and what you start to learn about how your body begins to exhibit basic wear and tear after a few days on the road. The most important thing to remember is that the first week is generally the hardest on your body. If you’re going to get really nasty blisters, it’s probably going to happen early on, while your feet are new at this. If you can get a blister prevention routine started from day one, you’ll be much less likely to suffer serious issues later.

One big rule for avoiding blisters on the Camino is to never take a shower or get your feet wet in the morning. Getting your feet wet makes your skin soft, and soft skin is more likely to be blister. This is especially important if you’ve already gotten a blister, but no less important as a preventative measure.

The next big rule is to always – and I cannot state this adamantly enough – stop and treat a hot spot as soon as it starts to bother you. A lot of times (sadly, not always), before a blister erupts, you’ll feel that area of your skin feeling hot, irritated, and tender. The second you feel something happening, stop, drop your pack, take off your shoes and socks and take care of that area. First, let your feet air out for a minute or two. If your socks are feeling sweaty, pin them to your pack to dry out and put on a new, dry pair. Take a look at the hot spot area. If you’ve caught it in time, a minute or two without rubbing will make it feel good enough that you’re able to apply Compeed, moleskin, or some kind of tape to the spot to prevent further contact (I prefer moleskin, as it’s cheaper, lasts longer, and can be applied to either skin or shoe). If it’s already an open wound or blister, do not apply Compeed/moleskin. You’ll have to treat and bandage it if you can. I’ll go over blister next steps in a separate post.

Alba Un-Petroleum Jelly. This stuff rocks. Click image to visit site.

The third big part of caring for your feet to prevent blisters is to decide before the day’s walk what you need to do to prevent chafing. One tried-and-true method is to rub petroleum jelly on your entire foot before putting on socks. Since the idea of rubbing petroleum on my body for a month straight gave me pause, I researched similar options and found out that a lot of people like to use Alba Un-Petroleum Jelly for the job. It’s made with beeswax, coconut oil, and Vitamin E, smells pretty good, and has the side effect of making your feet look like a million dollars. Every morning, I coated both feet with un-petroleum jelly, making sure to get between my toes and up to my ankle on both feet. Early in the trip, I felt like I was getting hot spots between my last two toes on each foot, so I purchased toe tubes that are usually used for people with corns. The additional barrier kept me from getting blisters between my toes, and after a week or so my feet toughened up to where I didn’t need them anymore. I also occasionally felt hot spots on the tops of my feet where part of my sandal straps hit, so I’d put a preventative strip of moleskin on each foot each morning so I wouldn’t have to do it later in the day after I changed shoes.

Like I said, every pilgrim does something different. My German friend rubbed a deer fat (Hirschtalg) cream popular in Germany on his feet every morning to avoid blisters. My Canadian friend had walked the Camino before a few years ago and lost some toenails (yes, that’s something that happens), so this time she taped her toes up every morning. They both had great-looking feet at the end, though, because they took the time to take care of their feet every morning and listen to them throughout the day. On the other hand, I met at least one pilgrim who had to quit and go home because he had terrible blisters that got infected from a variety of compounding reasons, including wearing the wrong socks and using Compeed improperly.

Every site that I’ve linked to above is because I believe in the product and either used it with success on my Camino or saw others using it with success. There are so many different ideas out there about blister prevention, and I can’t state with 100% confidence that these ideas will work for everyone out there, but if you’re just getting started in researching ways to prevent blisters and take care of your feet on the Camino, this is a great place to start. If you have other suggestions for things that you’ve tried with great success, please leave me a comment. Also, all questions are welcome. I’ll do my best to help you find the right information, or see if there’s someone who can help you on one of the pilgrim forums online. Thanks, and Buen Camino!

 

First Adventure In My New Boots

In November, I got to take my new boots out for a spin. One of my friends in Chicago has a yearly hike around his birthday, and a bunch of my group of friends get together to spend a day in nature. Of course, our version of a nature hike includes wine, snacks, enough chattering to scare away the wildlife, and typically at least one stupidity-induced injury. In short, it’s not exactly serious, but it is a lot of fun.

The friend who puts all of this together, Nate, is an architectural history enthusiast, and when I lived in Chicago, we’d regularly go and explore cemeteries and old historic sites together. I was so happy to have my monthly work trip up to Chicago coincide with his birthday hike, since he always picks somewhere interesting to go. What’s great about hanging out with Nate is that he’s able to find the historic gem in the middle of the most banal setting. For instance, the following pictures are from Red Gate Woods, a forest preserve in Lemont, IL. I found out during our hike that it was the site of Site A & Plot M – the world’s first nuclear reactor (and subsequent disposal area).

One of the nature trails in Red Gate Woods.

One of the nature trails in Red Gate Woods.

Nate at the Site A marker.

Nate at the Site A marker.

A close up of the marker.

A close up of the marker.

Most of the trail was in the woods, but there were some open areas, too. Plenty of prairie grass here.

Most of the trail was in the woods, but there were some open areas, too. Plenty of prairie grass here.

Do Not Dig. Seriously, don't do it. You won't like the results.

Do Not Dig. Seriously, don’t do it. You won’t like the results.

We found a pond near sunset. It was frozen over enough that some of us (not me - I'm not crazy) were able to walk out onto the ice.

We found a pond near sunset. It was frozen over enough that some of us (not me – I’m not crazy) were able to walk out onto the ice.

The day was perfect, and my boots did their job perfectly. By the end they were caked in mud from the trail, but throughout the course of the day I was able to try them for extended periods on asphalt, gravel, grass, dirt, and mud. They were warm and waterproof, and I think they’re going to do me well on The Camino!

One Foot In Front Of The Other

“It is no use walking anywhere to preach, unless our walking is our preaching.” – St. Francis of Assisi

When I first started seriously considering going on pilgrimage, I made this silent agreement with myself that I would only approach the concept of the journey from a place of positivity. I guess that might sound strange – after all, what’s there to be negative about when you’re considering a soul-shaking adventure that promises to completely change the way you encounter the world from that point forward? Positivity wasn’t part of my grand plan; it wasn’t something that I carefully decided on and then tried hard to fulfill – being positive was just something that happened, then continued to happen. And now that I’m writing this blog post, I’m finding that indeed, I’ve been used to thinking about this trip in such glowing terms that it’s hard for me to put words to any underlying worries.

(Side note: Yay for positive thinking! It actually works! This is especially important since I’m generally kind of a realist in the day-to-day, definitely not anything near to being a Pollyanna.)

There comes a time, however, when you must confront potential issues, if just to work through them and visualize what your solutions might be should problems arise. For me, my greatest concerns about this trip have been focused on either side of the Atlantic: my cats’ wellbeing while I’m gone, and my physical stamina on The Camino. 

If you’ve ever read my other blog, Compass & Quill, you’ve probably seen me mention my two cats, Izzy and Munky, at least a few times. Though I wouldn’t go as far as some cat ladies and say that they’re “my life,” they are definitely my fur babies, and I love them. When you decide to share your home with another living creature that depends on you, there are always going to be some sacrifices made for their wellbeing. For instance, though I don’t always have the money to go to the doctor, they always get a yearly vet visit, stay current on their shots, and get the healthiest food I can afford. They make a mockery of my upholstered furniture, despite constant claw clipping, double-sided tape, pheromone spray to keep them from being stressed, and a dozen other tries at possible deterrence, but that doesn’t mean that I’d ever consider declawing them. And now they’re going to cost me a pretty penny for a pet sitter while I’m gone.

But even though I’ll most likely have at least a couple of people looking in on them on a regular basis during my absence, I still worry. Izzy is high strung and only likes one human – me. The last time I left for a couple of weeks, even though she had constant care and companionship, she still meowed herself hoarse at the door, waiting for my return. What’s she going to do when I’m gone for a month and a half? Luckily, Munky loves everyone. I doubt he’ll even notice that I’m gone as long as he’s still getting back rubs on a daily basis. But I’m afraid to think of the stress I’ll be putting poor Isabel under by being gone for an extended period. There’s no real solution, so I guess it’s really not something I should think about too much more. I’ll shower her with love for as long as I’m here, and I’ll make sure that their cat sitter is the best possible choice for a loving surrogate while I’m out of town. After that, it’s out of my hands.

The other thing that worries me is the physical toll of walking 500 miles. Unlike the cat situation, this is something for which I can prepare myself. However, much like the cat situation, no matter how much preparation I undergo, it is inevitable that there will be a considerable amount of pain involved. If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading so many Camino autobiographies, it’s that I will think that I’ve thought of every eventuality, but I’ll miss something. But the best I can do is try to go with the flow. Put in as much work as I’m capable of, then take my chances.

Right now, I’m walking about seven miles a day on average, with a 15 lb. backpack. I’m going to try to keep upping that number (pack and distance), until I’m closer to walking 10 miles a day with a 25 lb. pack. Hopefully that will negate some of the shock to my system when I kick things off in St. Jean Pied-de-Port. I’m also going to need to start doing some thorough stretching on a daily basis to try to get my hip and back pain under control prior to leaving. If anything has a real chance of sidelining me, it’s going to be hip/back/knee pain or a major blister. Unfortunately, I’m really prone to blisters, so I’m not sure if there’s much I can do to avoid them, other than properly breaking in my hiking boots, wearing good socks, applying some sort of non-chafing cream/lotion my feet every day, and bringing along plenty of bandaids and moleskin patches for hot spots. One thing I should be much more worried about, but am not letting bother me just yet, is the fact that there are no hills or mountains anywhere near my home in New Orleans, yet much of the terrain I’ll be covering in Spain is hilly or mountainous. The best I’ll be able to do is start walking at steep inclines on the treadmill, and hope that helps a little bit. Other than that, all I can do is put my boots on and just put one foot in front of the other, and trust that they’ll get me where I want to go in the end!

Have you had any worries about walking The Camino, or about leaving your life behind to go on pilgrimage? How did you address them?

Footloose, Fancy-Free…Fashionable?

Yeah...no.

Yeah…no.

Here’s a confession: I have no clue what to wear on The Camino. Sure, I know the basics, like sturdy boots, a warm, waterproof jacket, breathable shirts, convertible pants/shorts, and thick wool socks, but I’ve never purchased any serious outdoorsy gear. Hiking and camping aren’t really huge pastimes here in New Orleans, and the last time I went on a “hike” I lived in Chicago, wore sneakers, and brought along a couple of bottles of wine for the journey. With pretty much zero experience and a seemingly endless array of different Camino forums and camping websites, option paralysis has already taken hold. When it comes to putting together my all-star list of perfect pilgrimage duds, I’m feeling pretty lost.

My rational side tells me that this is all a bit of a gamble, and that I should try my best to not get bogged down in the details. Things that matter: weight, waterproofing, temperature control, long term comfort, injury prevention. Things that don’t matter: color, attractiveness, current trends.

In the end, I’ll probably make some sacrifices on both sides of the coin. For instance, I know I won’t be comfortable wearing a dark jacket. What if I fall down a cliff and the rescue team can’t see me? So I’ll be looking for a combination of performance and obnoxious color – preferably magenta, since it makes me happy. I’m also thinking of trying to find minimalist hiking boots, which will probably come across as a tad trendy to most people. However, I love walking in minimalist shoes, and my hips and back feel a lot better since I stopped using shoes with extraneous cushioning, so in that case trend and performance are on equal ground.

Socks, as small a purchase as they are, are one of the most important choices I’ll have to make. Blisters can slow you down, or even end your pilgrimage, and I am notoriously prone to blisters on the tops of my toes and backs of my heels. There are methods to avoid this, like rubbing Vicks Vaporub on your feet each day before donning socks, but your choice of socks is still key to preventing foot injury on the trail.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten as of now, other than discovering that there are about a million and one choices for everything on my list, and all of them have pros and cons. In the end, I’m going to have to start trying things out, one at a time. I’m going to probably spring for boots and pack first, so I can practice and wear them (and myself) in. Everything else will have to happen a piece at a time, so I guess I’d better get started comparing reviews, huh?

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