In thinking back over the Camino experience (the people, sights, good and not-so-good days on the rocky trails, ascents and descents, too heavy backpack, 34 days of walking 5 to 8 hours per day, 500 miles covered, physical pain, and mind games to get ready for the next day), all I can say is, “WOW!” What an experience!
To recap some of the highs and lows, let me start with our van ride from Biarritz, France, to Saint Jean Pied de Port. We affectionately referred to Carolyn, who drove our van, as “Cowgirl.” She said the staff and pilgrims at the albergue where we were staying the first night were waiting for us so that we could all have dinner together. Typically, she said it was an hour or so drive through the mountains. But, she made it in less than half an hour. I think that on some of those downhill curves, we were on two wheels. But, she got us there in time for introductions and a great meal.
That first night turned out to be a graphic example of nighttime in the albergues. Denny likened that night to the bombing of London … Kraus, our new-found German friend, kept the other three of us in the room – and several people on the floor below – awake the entire night due to his intense snoring! In the morning, Klaus told us that he snores “a little” and hoped he did not keep us awake. We lied and said we barely heard him.
On day #2 in SJPDP, we acclimated to the elevation, studied our terrain maps, registered at the Pilgrim office, walked around town, and met another pilgrim, Kevin (from Ireland), who was waiting for the Pilgrim office to tell him if they had found him a place to stay. The funny part of the story is that we never saw him on the Camino until around the 30th day in the albergue lobby in Sarria while we were waiting to eat. Two pilgrims (one was Kevin) came in the door looking for pilgrim friends of theirs – a lady from Holland and her German lady friend. When Kevin saw us and we saw him, our mouths flew open in amazement! As we talked to Kevin about his two lady Pilgrim friends, we realized we had met them and had dinner with them the night before in an albergue and the next morning saw them again in Samos at the monastery. The Camino turned out to be a small world.
On May 15, we were ready to start the Camino, but were told by the Pilgrims Office that there was a lot of snow above Orrison, and that they had closed the trail and were sending the pilgrims back down to take the Valcarlos route along the highway and not over the mountain. We decided to wait another day to see if they would open the Orrison route. On May 16, we were allowed to go as far as Orrison and see if they would let us go over the mountain.
It poured rain on us all the way to Orrison, and when we got there, they said we could spend the night or go back down to SJPDP. The next morning, they said we would have to go back down and take the road. Well, we decided NOT to take the road, and we headed up over the mountain in the freezing cold snow, with fog so dense that you could just see a few yards in front of you. I had convinced the French that my many years of mountaineering and wilderness survival training in the States prepared me to take on the worst of conditions in hiking, and they had allowed us to go, but told us to take the R11 path down the mountain, not the R7, as it was too dangerous. Well, after climbing and freezing all day, we could not remember if they said take the R7 or R11 route, so we took the R7. Big mistake. It was straight down in snow, ice, and mud. Finally, we made it to Roncevalles, Spain, for what we thought would be a good night’s rest after our escapade during the day. Wrong, again. The albergue in Roncevalles slept 150 pilgrims all in one room … men on the left of the room, women on the right, and couples in the middle. The snoring and other bodily noises were as loud as Klaus’s! I can’t even imagine what it would be like if there had been 150 Klauses …
At the top of the mountain on the French side, about a dozen cars loaded with French people passed us, then stopped and got out of their cars. They were dressed in heavy hiking clothes and had hiking sticks and walked to the marked sign, which showed the dividing line between France and Spain. They took pictures of us with them and then went back to their cars to complete their “hike.” Those French are smart mountain hikers …
We heard several days later that two people did not make it over the mountain as we did – they froze to death, and two others had to be rescued. Not sure if that was a rumor or not.
The next several days were 7-8 hours of walking up one side of the mountain and down the other. There is no flat ground in this part of Spain.
Another funny story to relate (although you had to be there): At the albergues in Spain, they would show you where the bathrooms were (“W.C.’s” and “Douches”). Denny looked at me and asked if we had to have a ‘douche’! In Spain, the showers are called douches – much to his relief!!
We had settled in nicely to our walking routine, and then we got lost on the trail and ended up in a spargle field (white asparagus). So, being an experienced backcountry bushwhacker, I thought I saw a path through the weeds. So, I head off, jump a small stream and head to what I thought was the trail. Well, it was not a trail, so I back-tracked to the field, and we backtracked back up the trail. We planned to report the non-existent trail sign or yellow arrow. About that time, we noticed a sign approximately 2 feet by 3 feet along the trail with the yellow arrow pointing to the right and the trail. The lesson learned is, don’t talk so much, and pay attention to the trail markers!
By now, we are weeks into the Camino and are comfortable with the 7-8 hours a day walking and the usual daily happenings like our having to wait while huge flocks of sheep or cows cross the trail. Rush hour traffic is bad on the trail … The worst trail problems are the candy-ass bicyclers that give no notice they are coming up behind us, almost hitting us, and they are carrying no packs or gear. They have vans that meet them at the albergues with their gear. What’s that all about? One other problem on the trail is French women – three or more together always talking at the same time. We would pass as quickly as possible, and when we got way ahead, we would break for coffee or lunch, and the women would come upon us once again and still be talking and staying at the same albergue!
One of the smartest things we did when we were in Pamplona and decided that our packs were way too heavy was to go to the correos (post office) to send ahead a big box of our clothes and extras to Leon. We had to send to Leon instead of Santiago because the correos would only hold the box for 24 days. So, when we were in Leon, we then added to the box and sent it on to Santiago.
Those of you who have been reading the blog know I had to visit the hospital in Leon. Several have asked why I did not rest longer than the few hours. Well, in Spanish, the words, “hours” and “days” sound the same, and I got confused. (At least, that’s what I told my wife.)
Another interesting thing happened to us in Pamplona. First, we got lost again – no yellow arrows again, and we walked around where we thought there was an albergue. Sure enough, there was, but it was on the other side of the river, and the bridge was out. So, we asked a woman which way to go to cross the river to get to the albergue and pointed to the albergue on the other side. She told us to go to the right and that we would come to another bridge. So, we started out, and then came upon three Spanish men. They asked if they could help. We must have still looked lost or that we had been walking for over eight hours. We again pointed to the albergue and told them what the woman had told us, and they laughed and said to go back where we were and turn LEFT and go less than one block where we would find a bridge. Sure enough, we found it! I am sure there is a lesson there about getting directions from one gender or the other, but I won’t even go there …
We made it to the albergue and found out it was for Germans ONLY, as it was sponsored by a city in Germany. We walked in anyway and the man asked us (in German) if I spoke German. I don’t think I look much like a German, though. Anyway, I said “no,” gave him the sob story about getting lost, etc., and he asked to see my passport, which I gave to him, and he called the other German man in the office, and laughed, but finally asked if I was related to Winston Churchill. I said, “yes,” and he gave us their last two beds. Thank you, Winston.
The weather was very good except for the first two days (snow, etc.), and the moment we set foot in Galacia, where it poured rain for four straight days.
One thing Denny and I found very different on the Camino, and maybe it’s that way in Europe, is that men and women sleep in the same room on bunk beds that are pushed next to each other. Also, for the most part, men and women use the same showers and bathrooms, and in at least two cases, there were no doors on the showers, and you had to walk past the showers to get to the bathrooms. Of course, neither one of us would have looked when we were walking by the showers if there were women showering … Although, I did see Denny’s camera flash a few times as he was going to and from the bathroom. (Just kidding!) This arrangement did not in the least bother the European men or women, so we just went with the flow.
The last things I want to cover – the towns, buildings, and scenery – were fantastic. Just to name a few, we saw the Palace of the Kings of Navarre in Estella; ran with the bulls in Los Arcos; visited the cathedrals in Burgos and Leon; stayed in a Benedictine home for nuns and went with them to their private prayer service; saw the original jousting grounds in Puente De Orbigo; and saw a 9th century church in Trabadelo and a 6th century church in Senia. We visited a Knight’s Templar castle/fort in Ponferatta that was amazing and a monastery in Somos, which is the oldest monastery in Spain. We also saw lots of Roman ruins. Some of the most sobering things we saw were memorials (both hand-made and professionally done) in honor of pilgrims that had walked the Camino and had passed away at the spot of the memorials.
Probably the best thing on the Camino were the people we met, cooked with, ate with, and walked with for a few hours or several days. The names we will never forget: Boris from Germany who helped tend to our blisters and medical needs; Maryann and Caroline, mother and daughter, from Holland; Andrew from Australia and his friend Cecelia (the Swedish babe); Kris from Austria that we saw every week or so; and Iris from Denmark whom I had a very serious talk with about Socialism. Iris told everyone else she saw on the Camino about “Jeff from Texas.” Whenever anyone asked where we were from, Denny would say that he was from Indiana and point to me and say, “He is from Texas.” Their response was, “Are you the Jeff from Texas?” So, not only did I have lively discussions with Iris, but others from France, Canada, Holland, Spain, and Australia, and really heated discussions about our gun laws. If you want the details on those discussions, ask me in person, as they were fairly graphic … The other item that I had fun with was the Texas flag on my backpack. Pilgrims would come up and ask what country that the flag was from, and I would tell them, “Texas” or “Le Republica de Tejas.”
OK, I have hundreds more stories about things we have done and seen and people we have met; so, if you are interested, I am usually at the Dixie Chicken on Wednesdays around noon.
One last story, though … Denny, my amigo, was trying very hard to learn some Spanish and use it. The most needed words he wanted to know were pimiento (pepper), mantiguilla (butter), gracias (thank you), and de nocta (you’re welcome), among others. When we were shopping or in a restaurant and he wanted butter or pepper, he would ask me how to say it, and then he would practice saying it, call the waiter or clerk over, and then make HAND MOTIONS and say “pepper” or “butter” and look at ME to actually say piemento and/or mantiguilla, or he would say thank you in English and then remember gracias, etc.! Those of you who know Denny – please ask him what the Spanish words are for pepper, butter, fish, please, yes, and thank you!
Well, I think this is quite long, but if you feel like you’d like to hear more, just let me know. It was a fantastic adventure, and we learned a lot about our fellow man and, of course, ourselves.