Rain chases you relentlessly. After your departure from the south of France, from a week of bitter cold and rain, you inwardly celebrate a day of successful hitch hiking which brings you to the doorstep of The Way Of St. James—St. Jean Pied le Porte. 2 euros later, you hold in your hand your official passport, the document which will serve as both testimony of your efforts, and also grant you access to a number of services along the way.
“Will you be staying in the auberge tonight? The cost is 8 euros,” a sweet older woman asks after applying the first stamp to your passport.
An American man chimes in from across the room, “It’s very nice here. Very clean. There’s internet, and breakfast is included.”
You and Katie nearly cave from the temptation, but decide against it. 7 euros per day is all you can spend. You have only 5 euros left for the day. Staying in the hostel will only put you behind.
And so you leave—to the surprise of everyone, and begin walking The Camino at 6pm after a brief stop in a grocery to buy some provisions. Then, after some pains to find the route—as the original trail is closed due to snow—you find a nice quiet spot in some farmer’s muddy field and squat for the night.
It isn’t so bad. Still chilly at -3 degrees, but not so bad. Morning comes, and after a brief breakfast, you pack up and are on the road by 9:30am.
Walking with a heavy bag has never been very difficult for you. Never. You have enviable endurance and big, strong, slow muscles used to abuse. But you are worried. Worried for your right knee, unfortunately afflicted with arthritis, chrondromalacia, and—more recently in the past year—patellar tracking disorder.
Righty is a bitch. A cranky little bitch that pisses and moans about the slightest physical inconvenience—a 15km walk through Dublin, 2 months of bed rest, a few light body weight squats. It doesn’t matter. Righty stiffens, swells, grinds, and pops—though thankfully never throbs (anymore). Your earlier months in Ireland left you angry and anxious about the state of your knee.
How on earth could you walk 480 miles with a heavy backpack if your day-to-day activities left you so crippled?
After many hours of stretching in Ireland, many days worked in Normandy (some of which were directly on your knees) and after many kilometers walked in Paris, you trained Righty into a state of general cooperation. That is, until three days before the start of The Camino. Too many arm-loads full of rotten timber? Too many awkwardly-ambled trips down a grassy slope? Because the next morning, Righty was back at it, catching, popping, and slamming inflammation into your kneecap. You limped pathetically between the sitting room and the kitchen of your host’s home, cycling between the heat of the fire and the cold of a bag of frozen green beans. Righty calmed down, just in time, but you had no guarantee that she wouldn’t start up again with the slightest 50+-lb provocation.
And so, you begin The Camino with fear and anxiety, listening intently to your steps, whispering words of encouragement to you knee as she threatens tantrums.
5 hours walking at a 5km pace, all uphill. Through the rain. As you ascend the Pyrenees by the concrete highway, you feel strong, though hungry. The bottoms of your feet become tender from the pressure of your bag; your hips joints ache from weighted foot-strikes. But you are sound.
In an effort to shave off a few minutes from your day’s journey, you follow a few footsteps through 10cm of snowfall. It’s not so much. What snow?
Oh, that snow.
Snow that is knee-deep. Snow which soaks through your pants, socks, and boots and eventually your spirits. After 40 minutes of post-holing, you follow the foot prints up a steep embankment in order to regain the highway. Lefty—Old Faithful—volunteers for the job. Righty earns consolation points for participation.
3km to go. All downhill. Ahead, you can see the figures of three men—the first people you’ve seen in 4 hours. You assume it is they who had beaten the snowy path of futility. You count the distance in seconds between your parties and give chase.
Slam, slam, slam. Downhill. Lefty bears the load fearlessly–militantly–and Righty skips along after her like a puppy in training. You think only of how tender the bottoms of your feet feel.
Snow is everywhere. You are damp and cold. You can see no reason to risk sleeping in a tent in below-freezing temperatures. You’ve done it before. You’ve also fallen ill with pneumonia. You might be thick sometimes, but you do learn.
The 10 euro admission to the hostel is steep, but worth every penny. You and Katie pay it dutifully, guiltlessly, and amble upstairs to find space in the long corridor of bunk beds. The place has the feeling of a barracks.
You find yourselves sharing space with a whiskey-toting Dutchman named Cheerd, and a younger, bearded South African with a steel-external-frame backpack: his name is Gerrit. Katie makes small talk with them. You limp towards the bathroom, suddenly aware that your feet feel like tenderized meat. Your calves, your Achilles tendons—like tight guitar-strings. Your traps are hard and bruised from your shoulder straps. Rightly feels achy; perhaps she will cry in the morning.
And then there is Lefty. She’s—remarkably–a little sore. Sore in a way she’s never felt before. Hotly sore, albeit in a small way. She’s worked very hard, pulling weight for Righty. You acknowledge her efforts with a gentle rub.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, you struggle with the induction range and two precariously-loaded pots of split peas. Six food explosions later, a kindly older Dutch woman comes to the rescue and explains the novel technology to you, then watches you with great feeling as you spend the next ten minutes absorbing the mess you’ve created with armloads of shitty paper towels.
Katie joins you for dinner of chalky split peas and crude french pancakes. You discuss your negative budget, the rain forecast for the following day, and your angry body parts.
Once fed, you return to your bed, directly across from Cheerd, who lounges in his underpants and a t-shirt in a half-zipped sleeping bag. You stare wide-eyed at his man-panty-bulge as he straps himself into a sleep-apnea mask—some other-worldly contraption that invokes images of space exploration.
You slip into a deep sleep, as comfortable as a therapeutic whirlpool. You are completely submerged, and your cheeks glow red.
“Blaaabbble blah blab blab! Ababab! Ahhhaahahahaaaa!”
Some bitch screams you awake with peals of laughter and commentary. Her offensively loud noises, accompanied by the lower-pitched noises of a group of men, blast through the room like surround-sound.
You cannot ignore this injustice. You twist and turn against Katie, pressed tightly against you in your teeny twin bed, and wish that the dregs of sleep hadn’t the power of castrating your otherwise confrontational cojones. That’s it. You will get up and shoot them an angry glare.
And so you do. You glare, just around the corner of your bed, and realize you see no one. Those asshole voices are carried quite the distance. You turn dejectedly toward the women’s room, and Lefty, along with Feet, Achilles, and Calves, moans in discomfort. Not a peep out of Righty.
On your return-trip to bed, you see Gerrit—the bearded young South African man—lying on his upper bunk, eyes furious and alert. After several minutes, he takes the initiative to demand silence from the group.
This is only the first day.
Wet feet. Post-holing. Accidental foot-submerging in hidden creek beds.
Katie cries softly to herself, having bled dry the last of her shitty-conditions fortitude.
Your teeth clatter uncontrollably, hands and fingers freezing. You strip off your wet layers in the middle of a park, fully visible from the road, with the dexterity of someone with socks on her hands. Then you pee. Zero fucks are given. Let them watch. When all is done, you grab your sodden, half-eaten french pancake—smeared with cheap hazelnut spread—off the bench and cram it into your face.
Katie says something about how she can’t wait until she applies for her next job. Then she can say, “Traveling has taught me to look on the bright side: if it’s cold, at least it isn’t rainy. And if it’s rainy, at least I have rain gear. And if I still get soaked, at least I can go to a warm place and dry off a little. And if I have no money for the warm place, at least I’m not starving. And if I have nothing quick to eat… well, at least I’m not dead.”
You both manage weak laughter as you beat an aggressive pace to lower elevations. Remarkably, your legs felt pretty good that morning. Pretty fresh. No pain at all. You are proud of your body for capitalizing on 8 hours of quality sleep, interrupted only occasionally by someone’s distant snoring.
The second half of the day generously stops raining. You descend from the snow line. From the distance, probably 20km away, you can see tiny fingers of sunlight touching some hills. A green landscape is always preferable to a white one.
You race furiously across the terrain, sweating against your rain gear, which is comparable to hiking in a plastic bag. You stop only for five minutes on one-hour centers. Enough time to dig your plastic sporks into hardened hazelnut spread and drag your greedy tongues over them.
You and Katie pass a woman soliciting accommodations to weary hikers, and are the second party to arrive at the municipal hostel—even after missing it the first time and limping pathetically around town with wide, pleading eyes and desperately hollow cheeks. Another 10 euro. You pay without reservation, rip off your boots, and stuff them full of newspaper.
Legs, again, are like brittle posts splitting around the edges—strained ligaments shudder their protests. Feet are mincemeat. Calves are separating from themselves. Lefty moans softly from below. Righty remains quiet.
The hostel is small but the atmosphere is good. People pour steadily through the door, and the common room floor floods with discarded muddy boots. Katie learns to cook pasta in a microwave. You stuff your face, feeling pleased with yourself for having managed to burst through the corner market’s doors two minutes before closing to obtain what few calories were offered at a reasonable price. Other slower walkers would end up buying bits and pieces from a distant gas station, or buying a restaurant meal.
Sleep overtakes you. And when you awaken, it is to the overly-loud conversation of a group of Spaniards—mostly women—who’d moved into your room whilst you were unconscious. You feel annoyed, but see by your watch that it is barely 5 o’clock, and they have every right to be talking.
Over the course of the evening, you meet a number of people. There is the volunteer Dutch hospitalier—a former architect who’d decided to give up his career to bicycle through Spain and take up water-coloring. He’d lived in a tent on the outskirts of town for two months before gaining favor with the hostel owner who offered him indefinite accommodation if he worked for the hostel. He speaks to you at length about his boredom, and how he would like to try work exchanges, as you had mentioned.
You encounter an energetic, unusually social Spanish-born French-Canadian named Jenn. Jenn posts up outside the hostel door with a cigarette, and shifts her weight from one leg to another as she stretches her calves. You make small talk with her. She is walking The Camino with her boyfriend, just for a holiday. “I’ve got other reasons, I guess,” she says. “We’ll find out what they are. I’ve got some weight on my shoulders. We’ll see. We’ll see,” and she grabs her elbow and draws from her cigarette, and squints a smile at you through big, round, plastic-framed glasses. “What about you?”
You think about your answer with a smirk. Really, you are interested in thru-hiking, in ultra-running, in “endurance badassery.” The Camino is your first long-distance attempt. “I have a shitty right knee,” you explained, lifting Righty to make her acquaintance. “I figure if I can do this walk with my big heavy bag without any major complications, then I can do the Appalachain Trail—I can go anywhere.” You pause, feeling Lefty. “Only problem is, it’s my left knee that’s causing the problems.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know. It’s just sore. Too much use. Today I was literally running downhill to get to this hostel. My left knee was taking all the weight on behalf of the right, and I remember a few steps when I thought to myself, holy shit, you should slow down, what you’re doing isn’t healthy.’” You explain that you are sure you’ll be fine. Bodies and injuries are your business.
Inside, a weary Japanese tourist with minimal English learns that you are a stretching therapist, and you explain to her in simple terms what she must do. Jenn takes a few stretching tips. Then her light-eyed boyfriend, Fred, who proves to be equally energetic and social. The couple is kind, quirky, and very much into crossword puzzles. They comment on your unappetizing bedtime snack of cold, starchy split pea mush.
You return to your room to discover that Cheerd, the bottomless Dutchman will be sleeping across from you once again, sleep-apnea mask and all.
Day three. No rain. You and Katie are the last people to leave the hostel, just after Jenn and Fred. The sun shines, and you feel as happy and encouraged as a bulb pushing toward the light of spring. You amble along, feeling strong and confident, and speak excitedly with Katie about travel and nomadism.
An hour and a half passes, and you begin to overtake a group. You notice quickly that it is Jenn and Fred again, with two familiar faces: South-African Gerrit and the Dutch woman who’d seen your spit pea fiasco from the first night. Her name is Niny.
English speakers everywhere! You hear yourself launch eagerly into conversation with anyone willing to walk next to you.
“So,” you say to Gerrit. “Katie and I are two women. By ourselves. We sleep in a tent. We hitch hike. And we’re gay. Obviously that isn’t going to work out very well I Africa…”
He responds intelligently, in a smooth, melodious accent you find calming, and details a reasonable plan for two people such as yourselves. You learn that he is a journalist who writes about agriculture, has recently and abruptly ended up out of a relationship with his girlfriend. He has traveled in the past and now walks The Camino in order to sort of figure out what he wants to do—where he wants to invest his energy.
To Jenn and Fred, you speak of everything from your egg donation to conspiracy theories. Fred is a good talker, amiable, easy-going—and for such a good talker, he is also a good listener.
Niny walks her own pace, meets and passes you, falls behind, meets you all again. She wears glasses, and her hair, partially pinned back by a clip, grows like black pepper. She walks slowly and methodically, one hand on her walking stick, which is truly more like a cane quipped with a flashlight. You learn that Niny speaks six languages. But you do not speak with her.
Your group happens upon a charming little town only half the distance you intend to walk. The sun shines brightly over a small river lined by soft spring grass. On the other side of a stone bridge sits an old monastery, and the group decides to call it a day. They will go to the super market, buy loads of food and wine, and have a common dinner.
You look to Katie, whose energy is high. Yours, too. You feel it is too early to stop walking. But the group—this large group of English speakers—is too enticing. You decide to join them for lunch, and then you will continue on your way.
No surprise that no such thing happens! The weather is too good. The monastery too inviting. The company, too irresistible. You realize you must savor their delightful company as long as politely possible.
“I think we will hang out here with you guys for a while, but eventually we will go and put our tent down over there across the river,” you say. Then, looking to Jenn, who is fluent in Spanish, “Can you please let that guy know that we are not trying to sneak in? That we are only here for your company, and not to worry?”
So it begins with the group.
You stay for dinner, offering what little spinach you have, gratefully taking small portions of their lamb stew, and drinking from a 5-liter (for 5 euro) jug of wine. The conversation never lulls, and you delight in the opportunity to gush about nutrition and fitness.
At 10pm, the hostel manager asks whether you are in fact staying the night. Drunk on wine and conversation, you realize the time and leap out of your chair; you rush toward your neatly packed rucksack to demonstrate that no bed-stealing has been intended. A few words are lost in translation. Niny and Jenn step forward for the assist.
“He says you cannot camp by the river. The police might find you. It also floods quickly. He would feel terrible if something happens to you,” Niny says.
“No, no… No es una problema,” you say.
Niny, “He says he feels responsible for you now. He can show you a place where he thinks it will be okay for camping.”
“Si? Gracias, señor.”
He leads you to a dim, foggy field behind the monastery. You are drunk and happy, and know immediately that the spot it secure. You thank the man energetically, beat a path through heavily bedewed grass, and pitch your tent for the night.
You stand outside the monastery at 8am, sharp, only to find that no one surfaces. 15 minutes later, Gerrit emerges without a bag, apologizes for your wait, and invites you in for a coffee. No arms are twisted.
Fred and Jenn are slow-moving in the morning, but you and Katie wait without the slightest bit of impatience, with Gerrit. Niny says goodbye are starts without you, claiming that she moves more slowly-being 60 years old–and that she is sure you will catch up to her.
The walking begins anew. Jenn and Fred have intentions to go to Pamplona (a mere two hours away) and stay the night and sight-see. Gerrit, as well, handily equipped with a guidebook, decides he would like to spend more time in Pamplona, but then walk a little farther. It might be nice to tag along with them and sight-see, and then perhaps follow Gerrit out.
On the walk, Jenn tells you about her past: about a bad 13-year relationship she’d had, about her job, her relationship with her boss, her general confrontational attitude. She speaks earnestly, emotionally, passionately–and later listens to your story about Alexis: about trying to force a lifestyle fit that wasn’t there, about being told who and what kind of person you are, about discovering the truth (and non-truth) of those accusations.
“Crazy, isn’t it?” she says. “Someone tries to tell you who you are, and you believe it. But when you’re away from that person, do you still believe it?”
“No,” you say. “I know exactly who I am. I didn’t use to. It was a lesson she helped me learn—thankfully! I guess we started fighting when I no longer agreed with her about who I was. Or rather, I couldn’t be the person she wanted me to be.”
When you are deep in conversation, everything else is out of focus. The other members of your group, wherever they are—whatever they talk about—are all unimportant. Pamplona falls below your feet, and you notice nothing. You ascend toward something. A wall? A church? A fortress? You don’t care. Even as the camera comes out and the pictures are snapped, you are very much stuck in the thoughts rendered from your conversation with Jenn.
You follow everyone through the old city streets, waiting here, stopping there, photoing this and that, until you come upon the city commons—a large square lined by cafes (a common feature in old European cities) and snap photos of Cafe Iruna—Ernest Hemingway’s old stomping ground, a place where many creative writers and artists came to nurture their projects.
Niny ambles out of the cafe and is greeted by your group with happy arms thrown high in the air. “Niny! We meet again!”
She encourages you to stop and have a coffee inside the gorgeous cafe, which you do.
And something isn’t right.
Lefty is unusually sore. You are only aware of this now, having snapped back into focus. Katie orders a coffee, but you remain seated, brow furrowed in concern. The memory does not make movies, only snapshots. You flip through the snapshots of your walk as rapidly as possible, wondering if they might provide some kind of flip book—one whose animation could reveal to you the source—the catalyst—of this sudden onset of such intense pain.
“Are you alright?” Katie asks.
In slow and careful words, as though tip-toeing on an injured leg, you explain that your knee hurts. “When I bend it… it really hurts. I mean. Quite a lot. I don’t understand this. Why it hurts so much right now. The walk in wasn’t exactly hard.”
You begin to slide into a shallow swamp of self-pity, as you do when your body hurts you in such a fashion as to slow down your progress toward whatever goal you pursue. You can think only of your knee, and follow the group with a hyper-active mind and an idling body as everyone walks in circles around Pamplona in order to obtain a stamp on their passports before descending from the city.
You walk. Mostly in silence, and later in conversation with Gerrit about gender efficacy, The Art of Manliness, and the pursuit of secure, balanced masculinity.
You use the words between you to fuel your progress towards the next down. As you walk, your gait becomes more labored, more injured looking. Your energy level is fine, but Lefty howls with every step.
“We stop here,” someone says, and leads everyone through the front gate of a charming hostel. The garden looks like Eden, and three large tortoises crawl up a ramp from a small pond. The hospitalier is an old woman with a terrible accent and a wonderful sense of humor.
“I give you advices! First, you must take care… of your feet. Blisters. Hurting. We can help you. Do not walk too fast. Be careful on the downhills! Always drink wine. Wine! Wine every day. It is full of antioxidants. This helps with the healing. It is good for the legs.” The woman’s face is soft and pouchy, and when she smiles her tiny teeth, it twists tightly upwards, obscuring her eyes.
Everyone laughs, pleased by her performance.
Jenn asks on your behalf how much it would cost to pitch your tent in the garden.
No exceptions. A delightful woman not the slightest bit interested in compromise. Still in a negative budgetary position, you and Katie decide not to sleep there. You discuss the possibility of walking on, not wanting to impose yourself on the paying members of your group; Lefty wants nothing of it. So you ask the hospitalier if it would be possible to leave your bags within the hostel walls while you set off limping to find a safe campsite.
You limp like you haven’t limped in years (admittedly, much of your adult life has been spent with a limp of some type or another). The progress is slow and laborious. The campsite options are few and poor, or downright sketchy. Katie, unaccustomed to illegal camping, feels anxious about the plan. Why? Why did there have to be an abandoned, dilapidated shack so reminiscent of the Blair Witch, and so near to your intended campsite?
In the end, you decide you will camp “in the gypsy forest,” and you drag Lefty back to the hostel with the intention of offering the hospitalier 4 euro in order to use their kitchen and enjoy a warm space for the remaining hours of the day.
These experiences are a unique lesson. Unlike travel in the past, during which your days are filled to the brim with hitch hiking, food shopping, and leisurely sight-seeing with and without the bags, The Camino Schedule is cruelly less varied for a couple of girls who want to camp.
Walking begins around 8am—9am at the latest. A typical walking day covers 20-24km, which translates into 4-5 hours of moderate-to-fast walking, breaks not included. A 5-10 minute break here, a 30-45 minute break there, and you get no more than two hours of non-walking time. At the very latest, you complete a day of walking by 3pm, which leaves more than 4 hours of strong daylight, followed by another three hours of pre-bedtime darkness. That’s seven hours of time that must be spent, only no one has any energy to carry their bag much farther. You either hide it in the bushes somewhere and pray it isn’t discovered, or you keep it with you and tend it awkwardly from whichever chair you choose to occupy as you assure the owner of some establishment that you are not trying to steal a bed, or block potential paying customers.
Being indoors, as you know well from your experience of “homeless chic” in times of more inclement weather, is a paid privilege. Any chair you sit upon—unless it’s a park bench—is paid for, or momentarily and unfairly borrowed in a manner that says nothing other than “free-loader.”
There is a fine line between making efficient use of circumstances and free-loading. You have certainly free-loaded before: pocketing toilet-paper and sugar packets, liberally pouring milk into an empty Starbucks cup, and helping yourself to stacks of chairs put away for winter. These circumstances have either been pre-paid, or have been characterized by ridiculous abundance so that you have been able to shelve your guilt.
But free-loading services that others have paid for is a foul and enticing plan. Truly, on the first day with the group, you used the monastery’s kitchen and offered a penny to neither friends nor the manager. At the time, you thought it was going to be a one-time convenience.
So when the opportunity presented itself again on the second night, you had your doubts. You wanted to avoid a type of free-loading you call “piggy-backing,” illustrated in the following example: as long as someone else is paying, you can invite yourself along—hang out in their hostel, sit at their cafe table. Whatever.
“Is is possible to pay you some euros so that we can eat dinner with our friends here tonight?” you ask the funny old lady in broken Spanish. Piggybacking is unfair.
She dismisses your request as ridiculous. No money is accepted. Of course you may eat with your friends. And, have you considered camping in such-and-such location? The look of you, perhaps, has softened her. Your sincerity, you hope…
You and Katie find a supermarket and are allowed only 2 euros to spend—enough to render you +.10 for the next morning. Your purchase includes 1 kilo of frozen mixed vegetables and a beer. You gulp down the beer to distract you from your pain, and once back at the hostel, use the vegetables to ice Lefty.
You eat before the others do, wishing the meals had been timed better, but the others have momentarily settled into a sentiment of individuality. By 7pm, just as the sun begins to set, you say your goodbyes and promise to meet them the following morning. It is time to camp in the gypsy woods.