This is the first year that I haven’t written daily journal posts from my summer long-distance walking adventures. Last year’s recaps from the Pennine Way took me nearly 10 months to write (or some incredibly delayed amount of time like that), and that walk only lasted 15 days.
But this summer I walked a total of 29 days on the Camino, and since I didn’t blog in real time, the thought of going back and writing a post for each day feels too overwhelming. It could take me years to write, especially if I also want to be working on other writing projects!
I’ve written a couple of posts from the Camino Aragones, the first part of my walking journey. But I still have 19-days from the Camino del Norte that I haven’t even begun to talk about here. There was a post of my favorite photos (which I loved putting together), but what about the stories?
The Camino has been on my mind lately. This happens every year, right about now. It’s early November and we’re turning the clocks back, the leaves have turned and many have fallen, the temperatures have dropped too, and winter is approaching. My hours of walking are limited and it’s been nearly three months since I came back from Europe. I’m settled back here at home, but that also means that my mind starts dreaming about the next adventure, picturing a time when I can be back on the road.
I’ve been thinking about how to write about the Norte, and I decided to just share some highlights. Maybe it will be one post, maybe there will be several. When I think back to my walk this summer, I always seem to remember the really happy memories: the days when I felt strong, the friends I made, the beautiful landscapes. My walk on the Camino del Norte wasn’t perfect, but right now I’m struggling to remember the frustrating bits (well, aside from all the closed albergues and the race for beds. But that might be a separate post altogether).
Mostly, I had a great Camino, a great return to the Norte. I’ve already written about my experience of repeating a Camino, but for this post I just want to talk about some of my favorite moments of those 19 days in northern Spain. These are the moments I think about when I’m longing to return, the moments that keep me planning my next trip, the moments when I’m stuck inside and missing those long days of walking .
In no particular order:
My Italian Family
“Ecco che arriva l’americano!” I heard a voice from down the pathway, and moments later there was singing, five voices joining together, loud and boisterous and off-key. I walked closer and the voices swelled, and I could see the group of Italian pilgrims that I’d been running into on and off for the past four days. They raised their arms, smiling and singing and cheering.
They were singing a famous old Italian song, about an American or maybe just America. I can’t remember the details, only that their song was one of the best welcomes I’ve ever had on the Camino.
I first met Alba and Ruggero in the albergue in Getaria, after my second day on the Norte. Alba could speak just a bit of English and Ruggero only knew a few words, and so we communicated mostly with smiles and gestures.
And then, we kept showing up in the same albergues- sometimes this is all it takes to make friends on the Camino. After only a few more days, Alba and Ruggero called me their Camino daughter. I only walked with them a little here and there, but they looked out for me and I looked out for them. They’d also befriended another group of 5 Italians, and I just sort of folded myself into the mix.
We were all together, the seven Italians and me, in Islares, where we stayed in bungalows at a large campground (this was when I had my serenade). I ate a long dinner with them, at a restaurant overlooking the sea. From time to time Gloria or Alba would try to translate the conversation but it was mostly all Italian, and I didn’t really care that I couldn’t understand. I was sitting in the middle of this warm and friendly and kind group of people, feeling like I belonged.
I lost Alba and Ruggero when I stayed in Güemes and they continued on to Santander, and afterwards, even though I started to walk longer days trying to catch up, I never could. We’d send each other text messages and notes through Facebook, updating our location and where we were staying, but I just didn’t have enough time to try to catch up with them again.
It’s funny- I walk alone, and I always think that Camino families are for other pilgrims. It’s so important for me to have my freedom on these longs walks that I never fall in with a group and stick with them until the end, which always makes me think that I don’t form “families”. But this year, I had to laugh when the truth hit me over the head. Alba and Ruggero called me their Camino daughter, and in return, I joked that they were my Camino parents. What’s more of a Camino family than that? I might not have stayed with them- or the rest of the Italians- until the end, but they had become my friends.
A Poem by the Sea
One of the best parts about the Norte is that, often, the route follows the coast. But a frustrating thing about the Norte is that sometimes the route veers away from the coast, continuing parallel to the water but a kilometer or two out of view. There are various alternate routes that leave the official Camino and continue along the coast, and I tried to take these as much as possible. But something else I did was to plan some of my stages so that I would end in a town or village by the sea.
One of these stops was at Caborredondo, a very small village between Santillana Del Mar and Cóbreces. The albergue here (Albergue Izarra) was small and charming and offered a communal dinner, but the best part of the experience was my late afternoon walk to the coast. The hospitalero pointed me in the right direction, and after a kilometer or two I found myself on a narrow pathway that ran along dramatic cliffs that dropped sharply down to the water. I looked to my right and to my left and there wasn’t another person in sight.
I found a flat rock and settled down on my perch. At first I was hot, and restless, and preoccupied with whether I was walking this Camino in the way that I wanted. I’d walked about 25 kilometers that day, but when I arrived in Caborredondo, I hadn’t been ready to stop walking. I’d felt stronger than any previous day, the kilometers were flying by, and I just wanted to walk and walk. But days before I planned to try to stay at this particular albergue because I’d heard good things, and sitting there on the rock along the beautiful coast, I was still conflicted over my decision. I didn’t know anyone else in the albergue, I’d lost Alba and Ruggero a few days before, and I was feeling lonely. All of that, and my body had wanted to keep walking, but I hadn’t listened.
You’d think I’ve walked enough long-distance trails at this point to know how to go about the whole thing, but the same challenges are always there: walk alone, or stay with others. Plan ahead or be spontaneous. The lessons of this Camino were no different than nearly every previous one.
So I sat and I sat, and eventually the thoughts in my head quieted. And once they did, other sounds appeared. The waves crashing against the rocky coastline. Insects in the grass. A whistle of wind, a spray of water.
Something made me think of the Wendell Berry poem called ‘The Peace of Wild Things‘.
“Ah,” I thought. “I’ll memorize a poem. I’ll memorize this poem.”
I looked it up on my phone and hunched over so that my body blocked the glare of the sun and I could see the screen. I read the words, over and over and slowly, I worked through each line, repeating the words aloud. Over and over and I put the phone down, closed my eyes, said the words. I checked the lines again, then I put the phone away. I sat on that rock, alone but no longer lonely, just me and the sea and cliffs and the birds and the insects and the rough grass and a new poem, a poem that I recited out to all the wild things.
The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The Knees of a 19-Year Old
When I saw that a massage therapist was offering massages at the albergue in Güemes, I was tempted. I’ve never actually had a massage before, not by a professional, but of all times when I thought I could use one, it would probably be in the middle of a really long walk.
I was talking about it with a pilgrim I’d met a few days before, Astrid, and together we decided that since there wasn’t much else to do, we might as well wait in line and see what it was all about.
We sat on the pavement behind 6 other pilgrims and waited nearly two hours. In that time I started to grow a little nervous. Everyone coming out of the small room was smiling, their legs shining with oil, their posture relaxed. “It’s great,” they said. “Worth the wait.” I knew that there was nothing to be nervous about, and yet, I wasn’t sure I wanted someone touching my legs and my feet.
When it was my turn I went inside and met the massage therapist, a Spanish man named Miguel. “Please,” he said, gesturing to the table. “Please lie down.”
I stretched out my legs and waited. Miguel moved around the table, looking at my feet, staring at my feet. He was silent, still looking at my feet, and I grew worried. I knew there was something wrong. I’ve never really liked my feet: they’re wide and my toes are stubby and finding proper fitting shoes has been an ordeal for my entire life.
I could feel my heart start to beat harder and I was about to hop off the table and tell Miguel to forget about the whole thing but then he looked at me, and smiled, and said, “You have the perfect feet for walking.”
I laughed. “It’s true,” he continued. “They are perfect.” He looked at them again, touching one lightly and moving it a little to the right, then the left. “Do you practice yoga?”
I shook my head ‘no’. “A shame,” he sighed. Then, all at once, he clapped his hands and started the massage.
He continued to say that my feet were perfect, which was when I decided that this massage thing might not have been a bad idea after all. He massaged my calves, telling me that it was amazing that I walk these long distances day after day, but I have completely relaxed muscles. I wasn’t really sure what to say, because I wasn’t doing anything special, at least I didn’t think I was. I was just walking.
Then he got to my knees, and when he started in on the right knee he suddenly stopped, and looked up at me in disbelief.
“What, are you 19??” he asked.
I laughed again and he did too. “I know you’re not 19,” he said, “But you have the knees of a 19-year old.” He shook his head. “Incredible.”
Maybe he was just being kind and flattered everyone with observations like these, but I like to think that I really do have the perfect feet for walking, and knees of a 19-year old (even though I’m twice as old), and that maybe this combination will keep me walking for years and years to come.
I’m counting on it.
A Swim in the Sea
There was a lot working against me when I decided to go for a swim at the beach in Pendueles. For starters, I hadn’t brought a bathing suit on this Camino. Then there was the fact that the little beach was tricky to access: there was a very steep and narrow dirt path that required using the provided rope to get up and down. The beach itself was rocky, with no comfortable place to sit, and the water was chilly (I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to cold water).
But the day had been one of those really good Camino days. I walked an easy 19km from Serdio to Pendueles, taking a gorgeous alternate path along the coast for the last few kilometers. I arrived at the albergue over two hours before it would open, so I went to a nearby bar and ordered a large salad and a cold beer and took my time eating. When I got back to the albergue (Albergue Ave de Paso), I talked with two Italian girls and a group of Spanish college students- they’d all made reservations for the 14-bed albergue, and were alarmed when I told them that I hadn’t. “What if it’s full?” they asked. I shrugged; I was feeling relaxed that day, and had a good feeling that I would get a bed. But even if I didn’t, I knew there was another albergue in the village that I could try.
When the albergue opened and Javier checked us in, he announced that there were 13 beds already reserved and just one free one left… for me!
So it had already been a good day and I knew that there was a beach nearby. The Italian girls changed into their bathing suits and headed out, so did the group of Spanish students. I stood at my bunk, thinking. I knew I wanted to go to the beach, and the day was sunny and warm and the idea of taking a dip in the water was appealing. I looked through my very limited clothing options and decided that I could fashion a bathing suit from the thin pair of shorts I wore for sleeping, plus one of my buffs.
One of the buffs I was carrying is the one I’ve had since my first Camino, but the second was gifted to me by an Italian pilgrim, just before I took a bus up to the start of the Norte. He’d been going through his pack and removing things to ship home, and he was insistent that I should take his buff. At the time I wanted to be polite but I also wasn’t sure if I would ever need it; now I had the perfect solution. A bathing suit top! (It wasn’t perfect, but it worked).
When I arrived above the beach I clutched the rope and slowly made my way down the steep hill. The Italian girls weren’t anywhere to be found (turns out they missed the beach and walked two kilometers back to another one), but I could see the group of Spanish students, gingerly putting their toes in the water.
I left my shoes and bag in a small pile on the rocks then carefully made my way down to the water. It was cool, but not cold. I waded further in, up past my knees, then took a deep breath and dove under. And after that first shock of cold it felt perfect. I swam a little, back and forth, and then just floated for awhile.
I’ve walked the Norte twice now (or at least parts of it twice), and this was the first time that I’ve gone swimming. If I ever return to the Norte for a third time, I’m definitely going to pack a bathing suit and get in the water a lot more.
A Sunset on a Hill
The day I stayed in Piñeres, I walked 40km when I thought I’d only be walking 33. I’m not sure where the mistakes were (could have been one of the alternate routes I took, and getting stuck in a field with no clue how to get out and walking in circles for awhile). In any case, I was tired when I arrived in Piñeres. The first albergue I tried was completo, so I had to continue another kilometer up a long hill to the Casa Rectoral that purportedly had more beds.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to find at this albergue. Most of the group in Pendueles, where I’d stayed the night before, had made reservations at a new albergue in Villahormes, about 6km back. I’d passed by and the place looked attractive: an outdoor terrace with strings of white lights, colorful signs advertising ice cream and coffee and beer. There were a few pilgrims sitting at a table when I walked by, and I lingered, wondering if I should see about a bed. The race for beds on the Norte had been a distraction, and for the most part I’d resisted calling ahead and making reservations. Sometimes I get a feeling when I’m in a village or town, urging me to stay or else to continue walking. Nothing in my gut was telling me to stay at this albergue, and yet I worried that if I passed it by, I might have trouble finding a bed later. But I continued to walk, trusting in my gut, trusting that there would be a bed ahead.
The first albergue in Piñeres was full, so all I could do was trudge up the hill to try the next one. But in the middle of walking up that hill, I suddenly stopped, overcome with a strong memory from my previous pilgrimage on the Norte. It was on this hill that I took a selfie with some cows, green mountains in the background, and I remember feeling really happy. I’d been alone for a few days, not running into many pilgrims or anyone I knew (and I would continue to be mostly alone for another day or two), but I’d settled into the solitude and was loving the walking. So this time, when I realized where I was, I smiled. I looked up the path and saw two buildings at the top of the hill, and realized that one of them must be the albergue. Already the memory from my 2015 pilgrimage felt like a good omen.
The Casa Recotral had plenty of beds. The building was old and quirky, but the location was amazing. The building next door was a church with a small cemetery, and otherwise there was nothing around as far as I could see. The hospitalero was kind, and when I was making my dinner from items I’d bought earlier that day, he offered me a huge piece of watermelon. I took my food outside and sat at a table and watched as the sunlight changed the color of the mountains. I chatted with some pilgrims- a few that I knew, a few I’d never seen before- but mostly it was quiet and peaceful.
As the sun dropped and the mountains glowed pink, I started to gather my things to head into bed, but then wondered if I might be able to see a sunset. So I walked over to the church and then along a path next to the cemetery, and was greeted with the most stunning sky. My view stretched across the hills and I realized that I could see straight out to the sea, and sure enough, the sun was sinking down below the water’s horizon. And just as the sun dipped down, the church bells started ringing 10pm, and I listened to the bells and watched the pink sky, and a small cat wandered out of the grass and brushed against my leg.
It was an unexpectedly magical night.
My walk on the Norte this summer provided lots of puppy encounters. There were other animals, too, but the puppies were my favorite. I said hi to a couple on my first day, about 30 minutes after I left the albergue in Irun. Then there were two more outside of a farm on the way to Deba (these two came sprinting over to me as I walked up, so excited and happy). And then there were four more at the albergue in Pozueta. After I showered and washed my clothes, I sat down and pulled one of the puppies into my lap, and wondered if I could somehow tuck him into my bag and walk the rest of my pilgrimage with him.
The Walking Stick
When I walked my first Camino- the Camino Frances, in 2014- I bought a walking stick in a tiny shop in St Jean Pied de Port, right at the very start of my pilgrimage. But for each long walk since then, I’ve always waited until I was on my way to try to find a piece of wood that would work as a walking stick. Sometimes I’ve had to walk several days before I find something. Some sticks are perfect, some are a little short, or a little tall, or have a quirky bend.
But this year, I got my stick from a pile in the back of the gîte in Oloron-Ste-Marie, where I started my pilgrimage on the Camino Aragonés. I’d noticed the pile of sticks the night before, and as I was eyeing them up I thought one or two might make a perfect walking stick. Before I left the next morning, I asked the hospitalera if I would be able to take one, and she was thrilled to be able to pass one over to me.
So my walking stick was with me every step of the way on this pilgrimage, and like all the walking sticks that have come before, I grew very attached to this one.
On my last day, as I walked into Oviedo, I met a Spanish pilgrim. We walked together for about 30 minutes, he had just started his pilgrimage the day before, and would be continuing from Oviedo on the Camino Primitivo. He was eager to talk to me: asking questions and telling me why he was on the Camino. Already, he had blisters, and his pace was slow and labored. I had to really slow down to stay next to him (remember, I was on my 29th day of walking!), but even so, I think he had to quicken his pace to stay next to me.
I was feeling distracted, knowing I only had another hour or two left of my summer Camino. What I really wanted was to be walking alone, and thinking about the last kilometers of the walk, and thinking about the last month, and trying to process it all… not walking really slowly and trying to make conversation with a new pilgrim.
At one point he looked at my stick. “That’s nice,” he said.
I also looked at my stick, the part at the top rubbed smooth by the palm of my hand, the bottom that was covered in dirt. I looked at the stick and then looked at the pilgrim. “When we arrive in Oviedo, if we are at the same albergue, I’ll give it to you.”
A little later I continued ahead, and had the last hour of the pilgrimage to myself. And later still, in the municipal albergue in Oviedo, I found the Spanish pilgrim, and presented him with my stick.
“This is for you,” I said. “It’s helped me on my walk, and I hope it helps you on yours.”
He was thrilled, smiling and thanking me and telling me that I might have saved his Camino.
Sometimes I just need to leave my stick when I finish a Camino: in Santiago I left it resting against the cathedral, on the Chemin Le Puy I left it tucked into the corner in an albergue. After my first Camino del Norte I was so attached to my stick that I shipped it home (and now it’s on the mantel above my fireplace). But this ending felt the best: putting it in the hand of the next pilgrim. Maybe it continues to be passed from hand to hand, maybe it’s still out there now, walking someone to Santiago.
Hopefully I’ll be back with more soon… more posts from my summer, more thoughts and musings about life and writing and walking.