This is not a guide to el Camino de Santiago (“the Way of Saint James,” or “the Camino”). In fact, some of the things the people in this story do belong in the category of “exactly what not to do on the Camino”. What this is is a real story about real people who hiked the Camino in the summer of 2016.
The Camino is a series of trails which start from a number of different locations across Spain, France, and Portugal, all ending at one destination: the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. This city is known as the final resting place of Saint James (Santiago in Spanish), who was one of the apostles of Jesus. Some of the trails which make up the Camino have been used as a Christian pilgrimage route since the 9th century. The most popular route is called Camino Francés, or "the French Way," which begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. This Camino is an 800km hike on mostly even terrain, with the exception of crossing the Pyrenees Mountains.
The people in this story are real people; however, identifying details have been removed from the story. Some people have been combined into strange chimaeras, others have been removed, and everyone is referred to by pseudonyms. Still, the locations on the Camino and the events that took place there are real, as are the journal entries which begin each section. All this has been done to preserve the anonymity of each person, while still telling an honest tale of the Camino - a tale whose fantasy lies in the magic of the Way, and the wonderful flaws of memory.
29 June 2016 – Warsaw
Tomorrow I leave for Spain where I will land in Madrid, take the train to Pamplona, and prepare to walk the Camino de Santiago. How does a dream become reality?
In 2013, the Boy had watched a just-okay movie about the Camino called “the Way”. The Boy and his then-girlfriend watched Martin Sheen enjoy hiking, wine, and personal growth for over an hour. Although the film was a solid 6/10, the Boy could not get the Camino out of his mind. It stayed there for years. Sometimes, when all was still at night, he could hear boots crunching on the trail, feel the heat of the Spanish sun, and taste the sweet-and-tannin of wine. Now, three years later, and 8,000km from home, it was no longer a fantasy.
1 July – Pamplona
We spent a relaxing day wandering the city and visiting the Old Town, City Hall, and Museum of Navarre. With credencial purchased and a new friend named Pack-Too-Much, we will set out tomorrow morning on the Camino. For a week, I have vacillated between nervous and excited, but now I feel more ready than not. What lies ahead is mystery.
The Boy entered Spain with friends, both from his hometown: Artemis and Isla. Artemis is one of those pure souls. You know the people who you just cannot ever be mad at? The ones you want to protect from jerks at all costs? That’s her. Despite her innocent impression, Artemis is intrepid and more than capable of holding her own in this world. Now Isla, she is a unique one. A party-planner and party-animal, a teacher and nurturing friend, a world adventurer and a small-town-girl all wrapped tightly into a formidable burrito of personality. Like a burrito, Isla could get messy, and also like a burrito, you don’t ever want to let her go.
Artemis and Isla are amazing friends. The Boy had thought he might do the Camino alone. This terrified him, but he didn’t admit that to anyone, and especially not to himself. When he confidently announced that he would hike across Spain in the summer (while inside feeling not-so-confident), Artemis and Isla immediately began planning where they would buy their boots, booking flights, and dreaming about Spain.
The Three adventurers arrived in Pamplona, a much cheaper starting point than Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The Three almost immediately set out exploring the quiet town. Just days after the running of the bulls, the locals were still hungover, asleep, and the streets mostly empty. It was easy to get their credencial, also called a “Pilgrim’s Passport”. This document would receive a new stamp at every albergue along the Way.
(Albergues are like a cheap, basic hostel that usually costs less than 5 Euro. Every night, many peregrinos, the Spanish word for pilgrims, rest in these albergues.)
Intending to set out the next day as Three, the nervous Boy and his bubbly friends picked up a fourth adventurer at their very first stop. Pack-Too-Much was determined to quit the Camino and head back home, having crossed the Pyrenees from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port with almost 15kg on his back. This scrawny-yet-scrappy adventurer had completed the most fatal portion of Camino Francés with only a bag of gummie bears and some water. Other adventurers donated food to him, yet somehow no one had managed to convince him to drop the solar panels. Now in Pamplona, and also in great pain, with all his belongings spread out on the floor of the albergue, the Three was about to become Four.
2 July – Puenta la Reina
This morning I felt ill; however, Artemis was really sick last night and along most of the hike from Pamplona. Pack-Too-Much came with us and has been a good comrade to have around. We also met Candy, Raphael, and Beryl. The mountain Alto del Perdón had a spectacular view and art that I recognized from “the Way”. Today’s 24km felt relatively easy on the body but I suspect the cumulative effect of many days will be worse. I like our little group a lot and hope that everyone gets to complete their Camino. Tonight, we will watch Germany versus Italy at a local pub.
That first day on the trail had started with the Three singing their national anthem to their newfound comrade, Pack-Too-Much. It was a hilly climb up to the beautiful iron installations at the top of Alto del Perdón. After only a few hours, it was apparent that friendly chatter with strangers was a big part of the Camino experience. Everywhere they went, they met people from all around the world – Americans, Brits, Canadians, Dutch, French, Germans, and Italians were just as numerous as Arabs, Japanese, and Mexicans. The Boy didn’t walk alone at any time on this first day. His inner world was still as busy as the trail, but he didn’t know that yet. All he knew was the excitement of a new adventure. That excitement kept the Boy up most of the night.
3 – Estella
The second day was more painful than the first. I spent a lot of time walking alone today. Perhaps I want to prove to myself that I am capable alone, that I am an independent adult.
I really liked the two villages that we passed through, but I didn’t stop at all for the last 8km. Again, I’m not sure why I didn’t take a rest or wait for the others. I have some fear moving ahead actually.
I also thought about Roza a lot. She is a special woman. I hope that she is coping already back in Warsaw.
As if in rebellion to the business of the first day, the Boy spent most of the second day alone with his thoughts. There were many thoughts: memories of the past, plans for the future, pre-occupations, regrets, and doubts. One thought returned many times: “I want to let go of the grief. When I get to the end, to the Atlantic, I can finally let go.”
Yet, in a young heart, desire and longing occupy far more territory than the diminutive fiefdom of thought. A woman far away is forever close. So, the Boy barely slept.
4 – Los Arcos & Torres del Rio
We continued without Raphael towards Los Arcos. The first half was easy, but afterward there was a long section without cover in the oppressive sun. My ankle bothered me somewhat less, though. Artemis and Pack-Too-Much lagged behind by about 45 minutes. When they arrived, we had lunch and decided to press on in the afternoon. So, we made the extra 8kms to Torres del Rio as the clouds rolled in. A storm with thunder and lightning caught us and we were soaked. Torres is a picaresque town on a hill overlooked by another town, higher, more prominent, and with a church. I am proud of our progress today. Tomorrow, we head for Logroño where I hope to meet Raphael again.
Those first days on the trail affected everyone’s body differently. Raphael, a tall, strong, former military man whom one would think would be able to ruck-sack indefinitely, sustained a minor injury which became increasingly bothersome to the point where he had to stop walking. Artemis remained sickly for three days, unable to eat most foods. Since it was necessary to wake between 0400 and 0500 every morning (to ensure the day’s hike was done before the heat of the sun became too intense), Artemis hiked for several hours every day without anything in her belly at all.
There is just as much kindness, luck, and grace on the Camino as there is suffering. Pack-Too-Much, feeling much better having shed nearly half of his original pack weight, walked with Artemis all day even though he could have hiked ahead at a much faster clip. The day suddenly cooled off in the afternoon, too, which meant the Four were able to walk even farther than they had originally planned. The rainstorm, complete with roaring thunder in the distance, actually lifted their spirits, and they danced as only carefree wanderers can toward the tiny hamlet on the hill: Torres del Rio. There, they found an idyllic albergue with a little pool. The Boy and Pack-Too-Much drank Spanish beer and watched the girls frolic in the water. The clouds rolled away, the stars showed themselves, and the Boy was touched by the wonder of the universe. He slept deeper that night than he had in ages not knowing that, tomorrow, he would be touched by grace in a moment that would change his life forever.
5 – Logroño
After a night at a great little hostel in Torres del Rio, we left early, linking back up with Plumeria. I felt quite energized after a break in Viana, so I walked ahead. Lost in my own thoughts, I realized that Artemis and Isla had taken a different path than I had. This concerned me greatly and so I walked alone for over an hour. In this time, I encountered many of the peregrinos whom I have met before.
Logroño is a neat city, and we met some new folks here. Since we will be staying an extra day, some will go on ahead but that’s okay. I’m looking forward to leisurely sight-seeing and relaxation tomorrow.
That morning, the Boy was packing sandwiches with the other adventurers. It was very early, and only the streetlamps illuminated the cobblestone path that wended through Torres del Rio. The yellow shell of Saint James shone in the darkness. Then, a familiar person walked by and thunder roared again, but this time from inside the Boy’s heart. He dropped the sandwich in his hands and ran out the front gate of the albergue. “Hey, Plumeria! Hey, it’s me! Are you walking alone? Come with us today.”
Although the Boy and Plumeria had started their Caminos separately, and although they had started their lives on separate halves of the globe, from this moment forward they would walk together. They walked together not only on the Camino, but they would walk together for three more years on a much longer trail. But then, in the grey of the early morning, they didn’t know that.
6 – Logroño
Morning consisted of two small breakfasts and some errands before we began sightseeing. The Museum of La Rioja (the province we’re in) was interesting. The section on prehistory was very thorough and the Visigoth relics were in fantastic condition. During the day, Pack-Too-Much and I visited two cathedrals to St. Mary, and we all enjoyed a siesta in the park. Jackie Robinson joined us for most of the day.
Jackie is a great guy who makes for good conversation. In the evening, we had pintxos and vino on Calle del Laurel. Overall, it was a great rest day and I’m excited to get back on the road tomorrow with everyone.
The Boy drank wine with his new friends and his old ones. As they walked down the narrow street, he was overwhelmed by the ecstasy of experience. Every sense had been turned up to 10 - the colourful cloth that draped overhead was so vibrant, the many tongues of hundreds of tourists sounded so sweet, the aromas that poured from the open fronts of every bar smelled so full, and the wine was the best he had ever had. Glorious La Rioja!
He thought back to his hometown and the dream he had once had. This was nothing like his dream – it was so much more. He had once thought of walking alone across vast yellow fields in the hot sun. But, the Camino has a way of bringing people together. A walk that had begun as Three was now Six. In the weeks ahead, they would walk another 500km together. There would be pain, love, tears, and loss. But tonight, there was only wine and each other.