I realize I have not been writing about the internal journey, just the external, physical and environmental one. The first week was sheer exertion, paying attention to my feet on the path, to my breath, to drinking enough water. I am listening to books on my iPod. Surprisingly, listening keeps me going but allows me to wander in and out a bit. Part of my brain is tracking the story, and another part paying attention to the walk directly in front of me. And yet another part is musing randomly, I think.
My mind has tried each day to figure out what will be best for the task ahead, the segment of the journey that will present itself to me this day. Since that alone is not a daily walk in the park, I have learned some coping skills. In the heat, stop every 15-20 minutes for a couple of sips of water. Try to make that pit stop in any shade you can find. On the very steep uphill, count twenty-five steps and then drink. Then another twenty-five. Make it thirty-five if you can. When that becomes the standard fare, try for a count of fifty. Then sixty. Sometimes, I reach ninety before I have to stop.
On the downhill steepness, be grateful for every step you take without falling. Be grateful for your hiking poles. Friends who told me I could make do with one pole have not been on these slopes, certainly not with my klutz habit. I have not fallen once, and I have ONLY the poles to thank for that. Each day, I take perhaps two dozen steps that would have afforded me the opportunity to hurt myself seriously. So I am extremely careful and always use the sticks, no matter the direction of the hill.
At times, I almost float, no matter the physical struggle. When there is nothing else to be done, no road to help with hitching, no taxi, no Brazilian hikers to take my pack, I have only myself, and I certainly won’t lie down on some cobblestone path to sleep for the night. Press on.
I notice something very unusual. I am not thinking about the future. Not about a week from now, not about whether I will have the time and energy to visit Portugal for a few days before returning home, not about the upcoming holidays, when my kids and Neil’s Lisa and her family will all be in Fort Collins. Not about classes I might teach in the early months of 2014. I am thinking about now, about finding a bed for the night at my appointed destination. Perhaps a bit about how far I will go tomorrow, at what town I will stop tomorrow . . . how far I can make it, given the slopes up and down, before I think I can go no farther.
I don’t care about food until it is in front of me. Making sure I get a few bites of something every couple of hours is crucial, so I carry a half banana, a small croissant from breakfast, and three bottles of water. Some days, fountains are few and far between but precious. The Pilgrim’s Meal in the evening is usually too much food for me, and rarely includes anything green. Tasty for the most part, but I end up giving up before the postros, the dessert.
I watch people go past me, some in groups of three or four, some on bicycles (how in the world they negotiate these paths, I do not know), some solo. The chatter is in French, Spanish, German, the English with British or NZ or OZ accents. As we pass one another, the strings of “Buen Camino” echo around us. That is a universal phrase.
The first week, I could barely pay attention to anything but how hard the walk was, almost all the time. But after the second week is nearly past, I realize I’ve spent every day noticing the landscape as it shifts from woods to wheat to grape vines to wheat again. Watching people and the size of their packs . . . I’m not the only one sending part of my belongings ahead, though I am not always doing that anymore. I pass two young women with flip flops on, and day packs. Two others with only flat rectangular passport cases on cords around their necks and shoulders. Men with enormous packs on their backs, and those with only small ones, cruising along like this is flat track.
Many of us have hiking poles. Occasionally someone has a lovely carved stick. Often I see people (apparently with tremendous balance) just chugging along with nothing in their hands. Hats of all sorts, Camelbacks, water bottles. Two Asian women with what look like speed skating leggings. Makes me sweat just looking at them. Skinny people, those with at least 50 lbs to lose and perhaps 30 on their backs . . . I admire every one of them, including myself! And I’ve seen a sort of “Yost from Amsterdam” twice lately, but he needs to be taller. Still, he had calves of steel and a huge gut, just like Yost. I wonder if he’ll be buying a new suit at the end of his walk. (For those of you who are out of the Yost loop, watch The Way and you’ll get it . . . my sister reminded me not to be too disappointed if I didn’t meet Yost along the way. And I haven’t yet!).
I find I care not at all what I look like. I see myself in storefront glass occasionally, this big busted oldish woman, zip-off shorts (I sent my other shorts home . . . these pockets are FABULOUS for all manner of essential items) and a huge pack, Tilly hat with a snap on one side (yes, Jeanne S, it looks like an Aussie Outback hat), and not enough vertical flesh and bone from the hips down to make me look like a normal person. Think the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.
When I take off my hat at the end of the day, a flat, wet mess greets me in the mirror. I shower and don’t even miss a blow-dryer at this point. And though I’ve brought some simple blush and eyebrow pencil, I gave that up on about Day Five, after I left Pamploma. Tumbling into bed in a shirt and capri pants, wrapped up in my zippered hoodie, hoping to fall asleep sooner rather than later, has become the ritual of the evening. And getting up every morning for the desayuno (breakfast) of cafe con leche and some form of bread always leaves me wishing for Neil’s garbage omlettes.
Some of the walkers cross paths often or stay in the same hostels for several nights in a row, especially since we’ve learned to have our “today” hostel owner call for tomorrow, if we can guess how far we might walk today. The hostel reception areas are typically full of large packs with tags on them every morning, waiting for JacoTransport or Globetrotters Transport to pick the bags up, empty the 7 Euro out of each tag envelope, and deliver the packs to whatever town and albergue is on the tag. A new version of “Pay it Forward”, I guess. Most of those people (including myself) also have some sort of day pack to take with them along the route. Then their bigger packs are waiting for them at their requested evening hostel, or somewhere nearby. I still feel spartan, since some of these folks are going to hotels, not albergues, for half of their stays, or at least paying for private rooms in the hostels that offer one or two. Too expensive for this Woodswoman. And unnecessary, I think, for me.
The pack transport seems to be quite efficient and lucrative, and if I lived here (though I have no desire to live in Spain), I’d start a company exactly like this. Everyone wins, at least almost every time. I did get stuck paying double a few days ago, because I wanted my pack to go to two days ahead of me. So they charged me twice the fee, even though I probably could have walked the two-day distance in one day if I had purchased that extra vertical section of legs I just spoke about. Can’t complain, though. It gets easier every day, at least so far. But I see by my little guide books that there are a few stages up ahead that will be bears to deal with!
Today was really the first time I was aware of bird sounds as I left Ciruena at 8:10 a.m. I have been acutely aware of the number of kittens just on the edges of the trails, especially through little towns. Three or four or five kittens and their mother, often barely out of kitten stage herself, scurrying across our path, or climbing up to a stone wall to nearly say hello to these strange strangers . . . and the dogs seem to be quite used to all of us. They stay where they are lying, for the most part. Almost none of them barks at us. And I refrain from petting any of them, but it sure does make me miss my Marley, Huxley and Zelda fur-creatures.
The hills are flatter, grapevines gone in place of what might have been wheat, one lone tree occasionally if we’re lucky, and just a few people on the trail ahead of me. Either they left early and have gone past me, or the fact that I only walked about four miles to the next bigger town for my rest and errand day restricts the number of trekkers actually on my section of road this morning.
My iPod was FUBAR for a day, but has somehow fixed itself. However, it gave me an opportunity to see how different my thoughts might be without earplugs in my ears. Not much difference, but for the fact that the part of my brain that was paying attention to storyline got to take a nap. Still lots of flickers, phrases, conscious breathing, stops for water, murmuring “Buen Camino” every time I sense someone coming up behind me.
Yesterday for awhile I walked with a Brazilian woman named Nubia . . . she has five weeks, and plans to spend a few days in Santiago, a day in Finisterre and two days somewhere in between, so she’s clocking 30-35 km per day. I can’t imagine it. Her 12-year old son is staying at home with a friend, and on weekends with her ex-husband. We walked side by side for about an hour, stopping at a metal barrel set sideways on the side of the road next to huge haystacks. A snack of banana, nectarine, juice and always more water, a bathroom break for her, and we were on the road again, but only for a bit, because her pace and her required KM total for the day had her moving much more quickly than I. Generally, I don’t even go that far with an one person. I am a solo walker, as are many others, and we all, as I’ve been hearing, have our own Camino.
Those who walk with groups stop to talk and then say, “I’m with others, so I can’t get too far behind.” That is exactly what I wanted to avoid, and I am very happy to be alone. A little dinner chat at our Peregrino table in the albergues that feed us, and then off to bed. I wait for the crazies to leave in the dark with their headlamps on, and then groan out of the bunk. A new ritual for me, the night owl.
More later . . .