by Hank Leukart
July 10, 2015
How the sheer length of the Camino de Santiago changes the way people live.
Hikers walk past a wooden cross above Atapuerca, Spain.
This is the fourth essay in a series about hiking the 870-kilometer (540-mile) Camino de Santiago across Spain. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.N
ÁJERA, Spain — I’m sitting alone on the edge of an expanse of barley near Viana, Spain, eating gummy bears and gulping down water from my CamelBak. It’s almost silent, except for the sound of barley stalks swaying in the strong wind, like a broom sweeping slowly across a tile floor, and the intermittent popping of drizzle, dampening my backpack. Surfacing from the quiet, I hear the tap-tap, tap-tap of hiking sticks in the distance, quickly getting louder. A 26-year-old woman with a purple backpack and drenched, blond hair crinkles her nose as she approaches. “Horrible weather,” she says to me with a British accent as she catapults by, disappearing behind a hill without another word, her tap-tap, tap-tap swiftly diminishing.
After being bedridden in Estella for a day and a half to give my soul-crushing feet blisters time to heal, I’ve been limping along for two days since, completely by myself, leaving later in the morning than most hikers and unable to keep up with anyone on the trail anyway due to the pain. The solitude has given me time to let the distinct feeling of walking the Camino consume me. On most hiking trips I’ve done, when I’ve felt uncomfortable or just plain miserable, I’ve been able to take solace in the fact that the end to my inquietude is only days away. But, the Camino is different. Though I’ve already been walking for nine days, so much time (over a month) remains before I’ll (hopefully) reach the Spanish coast that it’s impossible for me to look ahead to see or imagine the finale. The Camino’s overwhelming length forces me to focus on every day moments — like the quiet sounds of a barley field — because the trip’s end is nowhere in sight. Sitting in this verdant ocean of grain, being pelted by wind and rain, time seems to stretch to infinity.
Eventually, I decide to get up and start hobbling down the trail, but I realize that it’s time that I do everything I possibly can to fix my feet, in a last-ditch effort to begin enjoying the Camino again and increase my chances of making it to the end. So, when I arrive in the large city of Logroño, I head directly to a sports store called Planeta Agua that I’ve heard other hikers mention. I explain in a desperate tone to the Spanish store owner that I suspect that my stiff boots are destroying my feet, my Camino, and my life. He appears sympathetic but unfazed, and it occurs to me that this Saint of Comfortable Shoes deals with tens of desperate Camino walkers in tears every day, hoping for him to save their Caminos, and maybe, their souls. After all, the Catholic church forgives all of the sins of those who complete at least 100 kilometers of the Camino, and this guy may very well be my key to absolution.
The Saint of Comfortable Shoes disappears into his storeroom and returns with a pair of green Salomon trail runners. I’m worried that the shoes’ soles will feel too soft and squishy when paired with a heavy backpack — the primary reason that I didn’t start the Camino wearing trail runners — but, at this point, I’m desperate. I slip the shoes onto my feet.
Hands down, it’s the most religious experience that I’ve had on the Camino so far. I feel like I’m floating through heaven as I stroll around the store, and though the Saint of Comfortable Shoes seems mildly pleased by my endless barrage of gracias, gracias, I can see in his eyes that this is the 38th time today that this exact thing has happened. When I pull out my credit card to pay, he quietly mentions that, the day before, he met my Danish friend Amalie and sold her a new backpack. That means she’s only one day ahead of me, I realize. I have no idea how he suspects that I know her, but I can only assume that the Saint of Comfortable Shoes has access to a knowledge database of which we mere mortals can only dream. He hands me a small gourd — a miniature representation of the kind medieval pilgrims used to carry drinking water during their pilgrimages — and I notice that it’s stamped with the phrase: “Buen Camino, peregrino [Have a good Way, pilgrim].”
I thank him, and, as I bound out of the store with newfound strength, I hear him yell from behind me, “Buen Camino!”
For much of the next day, I feel like the Saint of Comfortable Shoes has given me entirely new feet. I can’t believe how much better I feel. Still, my Satanic blisters aren’t totally healed yet, and I find that I’ve run out of energy a handful of kilometers before reaching Nájera, my next overnight stop. I’m about to sit down to take a long break when I see the British “Horrible Weather” girl approaching again. This time, with the drizzle long gone, she stops to chat and tells me that her name is Hannah. She’s walking with Arnaud, a 32-year-old man from Mauritius, with salt-and-pepper hair and a wry smile. The two of them have clearly been in love for years, and they’re walking the Camino while holding hands, stealing kisses, and basically looking like the cutest couple that has ever graced the Earth. Hannah tells me that after her graduation from Oxford, she quit her publishing job to rethink her career, while Arnaud jokes that his most recent job “quit him.” I’m shocked when Arnaud tells me that he and Hannah actually haven’t been dating for years, but met only 5 weeks before, when they started walking the Chemin du Puy, an extended section of the Camino starting in Le Puy in central France. All my Camino bragging rights dissolve when I realize that, though I’ve walked 195 kilometers (121 miles) so far, these two have done almost five times that — 931 kilometers (578 miles) — just to get where we are.
And, yet, to Hannah and Arnaud, the distance they’ve walked seems unimportant. They’ve traveled so far that, somehow, it doesn’t matter how far they’ve already gone or how far we’re going to go in the future.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do once I get to Santiago; I’ll probably just keep walking — maybe to Portugal or on one of the mountain routes,” Arnaud tells me. We pass a man in his seventies wearing a black cloak, and, unexpectedly, Hannah disappears behind us for a bit. “The end is so far away, I’m just not thinking about it much,” Arnaud adds. “Time is different here. I’m just living.” I realize that he’s right: I don’t know what day of the week or month it is. I can’t remember what my life was like before I decided to simply walk, every day, until I can’t walk anymore. The Camino bends time, somehow erasing the past, obscuring the future, and intensifying relationships, making two acquaintances who have known each other for only a handful of weeks seem like a couple about to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. It’s a humbling alternate universe.
Hannah reappears from behind us.
“He told me that his wife, Anna, died a few months ago,” she says, referring to the man in the cloak that we passed. “He decided to walk the Camino to take time to deal with his grief.” I’m struck by the gravity of the man’s story, but I’m even more touched by Hannah’s natural inclination to break away from us, two Camino walkers near her own age, to spend some time with a man over 40 years older than her. This is the thing I learn about Hannah today: her lithe exterior and pedigreed education only distract from her truly empathetic soul. And, as the three of us continue together toward Nájera, I watch Arnaud playfully whisper jokes into Hannah’s ear, sprint up big hills next to the trail, and explore mysterious medieval grain silos. I can see that he has an energetic spirit and boundless natural curiosity, and it becomes obvious why he and Hannah have been glued together for over 900 kilometers. Together, their enthusiasm is infectious, and when the three of us end up in a dorm room together in Nájera and begin to fall asleep, I can feel my own energy for the Camino renewing.
The next morning, Hannah and Arnaud leave in the morning well before me, but I’m surprised to discover that I feel okay about saying goodbye to them, at least for now. Just live, I think. There’s so much time here that you never know what can happen.
An hour later, after walking five kilometers out of Nájera, I walk into a cafe in Azofra and notice a brand new backpack sitting on the floor. Strangely, there’s a small water gourd hanging from it, identical to the one that the Saint of Comfortable Shoes gave me before I left his store in Logroño. I look up. Sitting next to the backpack is Amalie, the Danish, Netflix-obsessed medical student who, a week ago when my blisters were at their peak, I was sure I would never see again.
Read the next essay in this series about hiking the Camino de Santiago, in why I can’t figure out why I’m walking the Camino, so I head to a chocolate factory.
A gourd, representing those that medieval pilgrims used to carry water, sits strapped to my backpack after I received it as a gift from the owner of the sports store Planeta Agua in Logroño, Spain.
Groomsman and a decorated car sit outside the Iglesia de La Asunción in Navarrete, Spain in preparation for a wedding.