Puente la Reina to Estella to Torres del Rio

Written two nights ago:

Today was the most difficult day, and also the easiest. Nearly 30 kilometers. But first, yesterday.

We walked yesterday from Puente la Reina to Estella, leaving when the sun was barely out. For the most part, the walk was uneventful. And except for a few beautiful vistas at the beginning it wasn’t much of a spectacle. The most beautiful view came as we approached what I believe was Ciraqui. Set on a hill, the earth beneath it had long since been covered as buildings and roads sprouted up into a city of stone and cement and wood. From a distance it shined as sunbeams stretched across the fields to brighten it.

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Once we passed it there was little else to see until Estella, except one abandoned house that stuck in my memory. It would have been beautiful once, before the broken glass and the graffiti. At some point it must’ve been some family’s pride and joy, newly built and painted, decorated, and cared for. And now nothing, just memories locked in stone and wood and shards. Can’t take it with you, as they say.

Michele cooked dinner. Pasta with shrimp and tomato — it was delicious. The shrimp was served the way the rest of the world does it, with head and legs on, not shelled and deveined. Fortunately I’ve gotten used to that. I’ve learned a thing or two on the Camino about etiquette. Mainly, accept what is offered quickly and joyfully. Even if your intentions are good (you want to make sure everyone has eaten before you take more for yourself), refusal can be seen as rude or as a sign that you don’t like what’s being given, especially if you lack the vocabulary to explain what you’re thinking.

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The strange dreams continue. One focused on my walking staff. In the dream I knew I had died over and over again and that the staff had somehow brought me back each time. I carried it with me somewhere religious, some temple like an amphitheater of stone. People in the dream questioned the importance of the staff, and as the dream went on I started to fear that it was in jeopardy, that it would be destroyed. I woke up, fell back to sleep, and had other bizarre dreams.

Today’s road was long but peaceful, mostly flat or downhill. Should’ve been a breeze, but as we walked the muscle along my shin began to spasm and hurt. The pain was terrible, forcing me to stop whenever it would shoot through my leg. Lidia and Chiara were concerned, but I tried to assure them that I could continue even though I wasn’t really sure.

Forza e coraggio.

Siempre pa’lante; de los cobardes no se ha escrito nada.

Ultreia, ultreia, et suseia.

Things I’d whisper in my head to keep going. We paused at food stand. I asked for ice and it was given. People were kind — they offered medicine, leg wraps, a ride to Los Arcos. Some I accepted, but not the last one. I’m walking the Camino, and only walking. No rides.

We kept going and passed through an area where the Way swept broadly and gracefully like a river out before us through the fields of a wide and long valley, past our sight. We swam down it until it veered to the left, and in time we arrived at Los Arcos.

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We intended to continue to Torres del Rio, and so we went on. The town fell away to reveal an unending plain, the road laying straight and flat before us towards the horizon. Here the pain disappeared and I forgot the weight of my pack, and we walked for the most part in silence save for scuff of boots and clack of sticks.

Without the physical distractions I’m used to on the Camino, the thoughts came flooding back. What will I do when I go home? Why go home at all? What am I walking towards? Certainly not Santiago. I rarely think of Santiago. The Italians have invited me to visit at the end of my trip. Why not? But oh, the rent payments. The job hunt. The desperate search for a new cubicle or desk to spend hours in front of while the sun is shining. The search for someone to travel with through life — LA’s absurd games and trivialities, the foolishness of falling for someone a continent away.

I pushed it all back out into the void where recurring quarter-life crises belong. The Camino so far has been delightfully free of thought. How many times have I tried to learn mindfulness by meditation exercises when all I needed to do was walk?

Eventually we reunited with Merel and Sarah, and we walked together much of the rest of the way, Sarah and I talking at the front. What we do, what it’s like, what we want from a job, the value of wealth, objects vs experiences, how we got here, where we’re going.

We split up just before arriving at Torres del Rio. When Lidia, Chiara, and I arrived, we found ourselves in the same room as Sarah, Merel, and Yannick, as well as Michele and Danilo. Shower, laundry, relaxing, beer, wine, dinner.

Dinner was raucous and joyful and everything I ever hoped the Camino lifestyle could be. I didn’t know I was looking for that until it was around me. Songs, pounding on the table, laughing until tearful, food, stories, wine. I probably missed half or more of the words themselves, but what does it matter? It was perfect.

Many of them will be leaving tomorrow at Logroño. I’ll miss them.

I may be getting a cold, or it may just be allergies. I wouldn’t be surprised by a cold, after all my body has been through in just a week, but I certainly hope that’s not it. We’re all in close quarters here and I don’t want to be patient zero getting everyone sick.

-Daniel

Zubiri to Pamplona to Puente La Reina

Written last night in Puente la Reina:

The road to Pamplona from Zubiri felt long, but mostly because of the relentless drizzle. In Larrasoaña we stopped for café con leche and muffins with chocolate centers. Yes, I have been drinking coffee. No, I still don’t like it. But we’ll see how I feel about it in Finisterra.

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The road from then on was mud and rain, dewdrops on blades of tall green grass, the clack of my walking stick and Lidia’s trekking poles. Many fotos del giorno, which may just be my Spanitalian transliteration of what I hear when they say “photo of the day” in Italian. Many cries of “tutti distruti” since we all have felt aches and pains everywhere since the first day.

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We were walking past a pasture with horses when one came up to the fence next to me, leaning her head out over the wire. Slowly I reached my gloved hand out towards her and gently settled it on her muzzle, petting a few times and talking softly to her in Spanish. I was a bit afraid she might bite, since horses have a reputation for startling easily. But she seemed very calm and welcoming of the attention.

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Eventually the sun paid us a visit, in time for us to enjoy a good view from a hilltop just before Sebastian caught up with us, with two more German men behind him. Many hours later we arrived, quite well beaten, in Pamplona. The walls and turrets of the entryway were much like those at the Castillo de San Marcos in Florida and the fort I visited in Cartagena with Daniela.

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It was late in the day, but luckily Chiara had reserved us beds at the albergue privado Casa Ibarrola, right at the entrance to town. The hospitalero César, bald and quick with jokes, gave us the tour of the facility. Compared to what we had in Zubiri it was like a spaceship. Each of us had sleeping pods with a privacy curtain, a locker, two power outlets, a light, and wifi everywhere, along with nice showers with plenty of hot water and a laundry machine and dryer. After the bare-bones albergue municipal in Zubiri it was a welcome change for tired souls.

We had beers nearby and were happily surprised when Sebastian walked in followed by our extended Camino Family and their new member, a friend of Merel’s and fellow Nederlander. We chatted a bit and then the girls and I went back to get the laundry from dryer.

Later we met with Adrián and his friends, all Spaniards. I first met him in Zubiri on the steps of the albergue, but I think Chiara and Lidia had met him already. We wandered the streets where they hold the Running of the Bulls, and stopped in for beers and group photos at a nearby bar.

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At dinner in Zubiri we had found ourselves next to two more Italians, and so I spent that dinner intensely focused but mostly confused. At the bar with Adrián’s group the shoe was on the other foot, except that the girls actually understand Spanish very well. Often better than me. After a while the girls and I left to explore Pamplona before stopping for pintxos and the most enormous bocadillos filled with tortilla de gambas de Huelva (Spanish tortilla, filled with shrimp that are presumably from Huelva).

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This morning we woke early and walked through the heart of the city in the morning light, until finally we left the urbanscape behind us and found ourselves on a path through rolling hills of grain and meadows. Spaniards ran with their dogs off-leash. One woman played fetch with hers. He leaped through the field, disappearing and reappearing with each bound above the plants. The sun shone bright and warm as we made our way to Alto de Perdón.

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The climb was at times steep and others gentle. At last we reached the iconic sculpture of pilgrims pressing on against the wind. We took photos, enjoyed a rest, and quickly made our way down the steep and rock-strewn path leading away from the mountain. We passed through several pueblos, each appearing deserted as it was siesta time.

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Finally we reached Puente La Reina, and now I’m sitting in the common area writing these words.

The experience so far has been more physically demanding than I expected. Pero vale la pena — it’s worth it. I don’t know that I’ve had some life-changing epiphany yet, but I am on an adventure. Walking down the path with nothing on my mind but the weather and the views and the sounds and the pain in my feet and the company of my friends. I’ve lost track of days and months, and I don’t much care. In Zubiri I dreamt for the first time since leaving, and again in Pamplona. Strange dreams about work and old flames and the Camino. I haven’t given them much thought yet.

Not sure what city we’ll stop in tomorrow. I’ll have to check the guide. Later tonight we may join the Spaniards for food and beer and a football (soccer) game on TV.

-Daniel

Roncesvalles to Zubiri — Rest for the Weary

Written a day ago, with photos added tonight in Pamplona:

We woke early to the lights of the albergue in Roncesvalles and the singing of a guitarist as he walked up and down the halls. Dressed and packed, Lidia, Chiara, and I walked out into the cold morning and the light rain, through muddy paths.

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We passed through forests and farms, past horses and rams and cows and found ourselves in Burguete, a tiny medieval town where we stopped for coffee and a croissant. The streets were lined with a drainage ditch than ran like a tiny stream, though not one I’d be keen on drinking from. Leaving Burguete we passed through a farm where the bulls walked up to the fence and drank the waterfall from the roof’s rain gutters. I tried to get very close, but they frighten easily.

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Route Napoleon – How I learned what heavy feels like.

Written two nights ago:

I’m in Roncevalles tonight. Coming up to the door of the albergue was like reaching the promised land after 40 years in the desert.

It’s been busy ever since I landed in Madrid, but I’ll focus on today for now while it’s fresh.

I woke before the sun this morning in my albergue in Saint Jean Pied de Port, Gite Ultreia. I dressed and packed in the dark so as not to wake the three Australians I shared my room with. Breakfast was quick — bread and butter and, and milk because I don’t care much for coffee. Up Rue de la Citadelle to the supply store where I purchased a hiking pole and waited a bit to meet the two Italians, Lidia and Francesco, who I planned to walk with. But I was a few minutes late and they’d left already.

Erica, the girl from New York who I met in Bayonne waiting for the bus to Saint Jean, saw me and we decided to walk together. She’s been traveling for a very long time, having come most recently from a long stay in India. She’s an experienced hiker who has walked to Everest Base Camp. We set out on what was meant to be a rainy morning, leaving Saint Jean Pied de Port and roaming out into a cascade of pastoral hills and farms on the Route Napoleon, the more challenging way to Rocesvalles and, some say, the most challenging stage (etapa) of the entire Camino. Around us: cows with bells, lambs, rams, and a dog at Hunto who craved affection but approached everyone with his head down and tail low. For a moment there I thought he’d be walking on with me to Roncesvalles.

After Hunto it became clear that my pack is awfully heavy. On flat terrain I fare fine, but uphill was a terrible battle and I’ve never moved slower in my life. But my photography and this blog and project are important to me, so I don’t regret the weight even though it was pretty brutal. Erica walked a good deal faster than me so for a time I walked alone, though I stumbled frequently upon others I’d met on the trains to Saint Jean.

Among the beautiful hills and steep climbs I found Orisson, an albergue and restaurant some choose to stop at for the night or just for lunch. There I was reunited with Lidia and Francesco who had found a group to walk with. I skipped lunch and filled my bottle with water from the fountain, and followed them (they’d walked ahead a ways already).

Francesco and his group moved quickly, but at the first pile of rocks with the yellow arrow of the Camino at their top, I met with Lidia and another girl from Italy, Chiara. We walked together the rest of the way. The rain held off but the wind didn’t, and the road seemed to go up infinitely. But around us the hills and valleys were lush and green below the low and heavy clouds. Eventually we ascended  into a thick mist along the border of France and Spain, which slowly turned into a light rain as we pressed on.

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The path continued to climb and climb until very suddenly it dropped down via an ancient Roman road, slippery and muddy from the rains and snow. The forest grew thick around us in the mist. The way down was in many ways as challenging as the way up, stressing already tired muscles with the act of balancing. I was glad to have my walking staff.

At last, when the three of us were at the end of our rope, the trees parted and we could see the medieval walls of Roncesvalles. We quickly entered and registered. I showered, and then we made a reservation for a pilgrim’s dinner at the only restaurant in town. We attended the mass at 6 in dimly lit stone cathedral with pointed gothic arches, and received the pilgrims’ blessing in many languages from the priest. Then dinner, planning, and now I’m writing in my cozy top bunk.

Lidia and Francesco are from Sicily, walking two weeks to Burgos before they go home. They speak more English than most Italians I’ve met, and otherwise we communicate in Spanish or my awful Spanish-Italian hybrid language that I make up on the fly. I’ve spent much more time with Lidia and Chiara than Francesco — he walked on with another group. Lidia works in ambulance administration for Sicily and her worried mother texts her constantly.

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Chiara is from Verona and practices law. A friend of hers did some of the Camino in winter and described the experience to her, and so she decided she would also go. She actually didn’t plan to hike the Route Napoleon, but the bus she thought would take her to Roncesvalles from Pamplona actually took her to Saint Jean Pied de Port. She is traveling to Burgos too.

Editing photos on this tablet really is a challenge, especially when I’m half asleep. It may not be until I get home that I can do the portraits any justice.

More to come.

-Daniel

One Last Night in New York

This will be my last night in New York City. Tomorrow night I fly to Madrid, arriving there at around 11am. I feel strangely calm about it. Maybe when I’m boarding the flight I’ll start feeling those “it’s really happening” jitters.

Yesterday morning I had a tooth filled. Of all the things I’d prepared for, a cracked filling wasn’t among them. So let me be the first Camino blogger to add “new dental filling” to my Camino preparation list. Fortunately it’s very lightweight.

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Lauren

I met my friend Lauren for dinner at a gastropub on Lafayette and Prince called Soho Park. She and I took classes together at the University of Central Florida, and now she is a production supervisor here in the city. The last time she visited Los Angeles I was visiting New York (d’oh), though the trips were offset enough that we were able to get lunch.

The weather out of Saint Jean continues to look bleak. But to quote Paulo Coelho, “If you only walk on sunny days you’ll never reach your destination.” I suspect he was being a bit more figurative, but it works.

My plan for the rest of my time in New York? To relax. Soon every day will be a day on the road.

-Daniel

New York City

My plane touched down at New York’s JFK airport on Thursday evening. In the terminal I stopped to strap my sleeping bag to the top of my pack for better weight distribution before moving on to the carousel to grab my suitcase full of pre-trip clothing, which I’ll leave here when I fly to Madrid.

I waited at the subway platform. Nearby a large family of very orthodox Jews stood. Father and sons had shaved heads except for the curls hanging from their temples. The family was entirely dressed in black. One of the daughters dutifully carried her father’s hat box; the hat on his head was like a giant fur halo in black. They spoke only Hebrew.

Another couple standing nearby spoke Italian, and another Portuguese. One girl I talked to briefly spoke hesitant English in a French accent. The diversity was a welcome reminder of where I was, and a precursor to where I will be soon.

I boarded the Manhattan-bound A Train. Continue reading

What’s in the bag?

Short answer: probably too much. Camino veterans recommend a light pack, somewhere around 10% of your body weight. Since I’m choosing to carry my camera and a few lenses, along with this tablet for blogging and photo backup, my pack is up to around 22 or 23 pounds, which is closer to 15% of my weight. So if you’re a future pilgrim scouring the internet to see what others are carrying, you’ll want to bear that in mind as you read the list.

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