Each day on the Norte seems to bring something completely new. Maybe it was like this last year on the Frances- I’m sure it probably was- and yet, on this Camino, it feels like I’m getting a very, very different experience with each day.
I’ve had my walks alone, I’ve had my walk in a group, I’ve stayed in a train station and in a monastery.
After walking for so much of the day with others yesterday, I had anticipated that I would set off on my own today. And I did, but just ahead of me was Christine, a 63-year old French woman with a 14 kilo pack who can outwalk just about anyone here (except maybe this other French guy, who literally runs down the trail. Man, can the French hike!).
For much of the morning I wanted to be alone, so I would leave some room between Christine and I, but inevitably I would catch up with her when she would stop to check her guide. She’s fast, but what slows her down a bit is a need to always know exactly where she is on the route. So on and off I would catch up to her, and finally thought I lost her for good after I stopped for a break on a bench next to a church on top of a hill (for someone who doesn’t often check her guide, I had no idea where I was).
It was 10am and I’d been walking for about three hours and here’s the thing: I hadn’t had coffee. The Norte is a beautiful route and while it’s difficult, I can handle the hills and the rocks and the horrible ascents and descents IF I can start my day with some coffee.
Sometimes, I have a feeling it’s going to be inevitable: I’ll stay in a place without a kitchen or a bar and I’ll have to walk for hours before I can reach the first town big enough to be selling coffee. But today I made a mistake. The monastery offered breakfast, but it didn’t start until 7:30. Once I ate something and had coffee I wouldn’t be hitting the road until 8:00, and that’s late considering I had another nearly 30km day planned and by late morning these days get HOT (maybe these are unseasonably hot June days; all I know is that walking in the heat of the afternoons has been really difficult).
So before setting out this morning I studied my guidebook and saw that a town about 4km away from the monastery would have two bars, so I planned to stop there for my first coffee of the day. Except when I got to the town around 8:30, it was deserted. I tracked down a woman and asked her if there was a bar nearby and she said it wouldn’t open until 10. Noooo!!! The guidebook warned that there would be no more services until Gernika, a further 13 kilometers away. Oh boy.
At one point when I was walking with Christine I tried to tell her about needing coffee (she doesn’t speak much English so our conversations are in French) and she said, “Oh, I had coffee this morning at the monastery.”
“But weren’t the others in your room sleeping?” I asked. (The small ‘kitchen’ was in the same room as the top floor bunk beds).
“Yes, but I used the microwave and I didn’t care. They are pilgrims, they should be waking up early.”
So next time, if there’s a kitchen with coffee tucked away in the cupboard, I know to make some for myself regardless of whether others are nearby sleeping or not. Because my morning walk without coffee was tough. I thought walking all day in the rain was tough, and it was, but now I’m not sure which is worse.
So it was 10am and I had been walking for three hours and I sat down outside of a pretty church and Christine was next to me, chattering away in French. My head had a dull ache, I had a high suspicion that there was a small blister forming on the ball of my right foot (there was), and the last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone, much less in French. Eventually Christine walked on when she saw me open a can of tuna. She probably thought I was a little crazy to be eating so early but I needed something for energy, and a can of tuna fish was about my only option.
The day turned around for me a few kilometers before Gernika where I found an open bar, and once I had my coffee I was good to go. I ran into Christine again in the city, she had just been to the tourism office and was headed to the Assembly House- a quick and free stop for pilgrims. I followed her and did a 15-minute sight-seeing stop and as we were leaving the Assembly House Christine reaches around in her pack and pulls out a tall can of beer. She pops it open and while walking takes big swigs, and it’s all I can do to keep up behind her.
I laugh to myself, because she is something else. As we walk out of the city we talk a bit, and I learn some things about her: that she is recently retired, that she has been wanting to do the Camino for 30 years, that before this pilgrimage, she rarely drank. I already knew that Christine had started her walk in Paris, just over two months ago. Paris! She truly started this pilgrimage from her doorstep, and she is more full of life than anyone I’ve seen here, yet.
I’m writing about Christine a lot because she is the only other pilgrim I encountered on my walk today. After leaving Gernika we pretty much stuck together, although she was always a bit ahead of me. And today, for some reason, this arrangement suited me. Yesterday I felt a strong need to go off on my own, and was so happy when I went off to do my own thing. But today, I didn’t mind so much that Christine and I were headed to the same place, and that we were sort of walking together.
The Camino is a funny thing. I’ve said that I want to be open to whatever kinds of experiences the Camino gives me, and I also want to be open to and aware of whatever I’m feeling, moment to moment. If I’m able to, I want to follow my feelings, even if they change one day to the next. So yesterday, I continued to the monastery even though I was leaving my friends and it would have been so easy to stay with them and have a comfortable evening. And today, I didn’t fall behind Christine or attempt to move ahead of her. I stayed close.
I’m now at my albergue for the evening- Christine and I arrived together around 4pm (so many late days on the Norte! It wasn’t like this at all for me on the Frances, and the only thing I can say is that the difficulty of the walk makes each kilometer take that much longer). When we arrived there was only one other pilgrim here, a man from Spain (who can’t speak English but can speak a little French… so it seems like another evening of practicing my French!). It’s now 6:30 and we’re still the only three here.
It’s a place called Albergue Eskerika, about 10 kilometers past Gernika. And once again, it’s a beautiful albergue. Our bunks are upstairs in a large, lofted room, and since there are only three of us we’re spread out around the room, giving us each our own little space. There’s a lovely outdoor space with a covered kitchen area where we can make food (unfortunately I didn’t know what the eating situation would be like here, only that meals were ‘available’, so I didn’t bring much food with me. Turns out that you can cook anything you have with you, or you can purchase something from a small list of items for sale. Since there’s no town nearby, I’ll probably buy some pasta here for about three times the cost it would have been at a grocery store. So future pilgrims take note! If you stay at Albergue Eskirika, bring some food items with you!).
There are picnic tables and a large sunny yard, tables and chairs in the shade, a small dog named Lolita running around and begging for food scraps, small trees and red flowers in green pots. It’s another ideal spot, and so peaceful and quiet, especially with only three of us here.
I’m starting to get used to the solitude of this Camino. There’s still part of me that longs for the vibrancy and fun of the Camino Frances, but it’s important for me to remember that most of the time, I found that Camino to be a little too noisy and party-like… that I intentional needed to carve away time for myself, and work hard to seek out smaller albergues in tiny villages in order to find some peace and quiet. And here, so far, I’ve loved these peaceful and quiet spots.
I’m also beginning to accept that this is a difficult Camino for me. So often last year I remember thinking, “This really isn’t bad at all!” And most of the time, it wasn’t. I trained well and started slow and lucked out with next to no rain or blisters.
But this Camino? It’s been so different. Every single day has hills to climb, mountains to climb. My mind knew it, but I don’t think my body did, because the road is taking it’s toll on me. Towards the middle of the day my legs sort of say, “Okay, we’ve had enough of the hills. No more going up.” And then when I force them to go up, they protest every step of the way. Each step is a slow slog through molasses. And then my feet begin to protest as well; they don’t like the rocks I have to climb over. So much so that the right foot has decided to stage a protest and grow a nice little blister on the ball of the foot. How did this happen?? Maybe I thought I was immune to blisters after not really getting any last year, and never getting one on a training hike. I’m sure my days have been a little too long, this early on… and the rocks aren’t helping either. The end of today had me limping a bit into the albergue. We’ll see whether this blister becomes an issue or not…
To end the day, we celebrated San Juan Day. The French were talking about this last night, it’s an annual celebration of the shortest night of the year, the summer solstice. I heard talk about fire and making wishes, and a few hours ago the hospitalero said that we would celebrate. I was sitting outside, studying my guidebook when I heard him call out something in Spanish. And then, slowly, “The fire is burning!”
The three of us walked over- Christine, the Spanish man and I- and when I saw the fire I made a face and said, “This is the end of my Camino.” The fire was huge, and laughing, the hospitalero said, “You jump later, when it is lower.” So we waited and watched the fire burn, and when it was only small flame and embers we took turns jumping over and making a wish.
What a way to usher in the summer.
So that’s Day 5 on the Camino: quiet, lacking in coffee, full of French, a little painful and lots more beautiful scenery and stunning views. And fire jumping. Tomorrow, Bilbao!