The Loch that Never Ends; Day Two on the West Highland Way; Balmaha to Inverarnan, 32km

“This is the loch that never ends, it just goes on and on my friends…”

17 miles into the day’s hike, I found myself repeatedly singing this line as I stepped up and down over large rocks, sloshed through mud, ducked under low-hanging tree branches. Every time the trail bent around a curve or the trees opened up I would look ahead anxiously, hoping to see something other than the gray, dim water of Loch Lomond. Instead, I saw the same views I had been seeing for the past 10 hours.

Before I set off that morning, I was aware that the day’s walk would have me following the shoreline of Loch Lomond for nearly it’s entire length- all 23 miles. I paged through my guidebook as I ate breakfast in the restaurant of The Oak Tree Inn. A giant spread was laid out before me: cereals and muesli, yogurts and toast and juice. Coffee or tea, eggs and grilled sausage and tomatoes and mushrooms and baked beans and haggis. I took a little of nearly everything and ate to my heart’s content, pleased and surprised to discover that I quite liked haggis (it’s a savoury pudding made of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep, all of it minced and mixed with onions and suet and other spices, packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled. This sounds absolutely disgusting and to be honest I didn’t really know exactly what it was when I ate it- I only had a very vague idea so I didn’t think too hard about what I was eating. And I found it to be delicious).

I set out for my walk with a full stomach and an easy feeling about the trail ahead. My guidebook showed the elevation of the day to be mostly flat, and there would be one split in the trail with an option for an easier route that I planned to take. All in all, it looked to be a straightforward and uncomplicated day.

And for the first part of the day, I found this to be true: the path hugged the shoreline of the loch and treated me to gentle, misty views of fog hovering just about the water. Every once in awhile I passed a few people on the trail, many of them walking in the opposite direction. But mostly my walk was quiet and peaceful, the trail a bed of dirt and small rocks that wasn’t too difficult to walk over.

After a few hours I stopped at a bar for a cappuccino, served to me in a large mug with a gingerbread cookie on the side. I took my drink outside to sit at a picnic table at the back of the property, just as the clouds parted long enough to throw some sunlight onto the yard. I sat in a pool of the warm light, sipping my creamy drink, and thinking about how nice of a day this was shaping up to be. A woman and her grandson stopped by my table to chat- they were on holiday and were curious about the walk I was doing.

I smiled to myself as I walked away, prepared to continue walking along the loch. My plan was to stop for lunch at the Inversnaid Hotel, the only restaurant I would pass for the rest of the day’s hike. I figured it would take me another 3 or 4 hours to reach it, but oh how wrong I was.

I’m not sure when I figured out that the path I was on was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Sometime after the coffee stop, the path began to get a bit tricky- I had to pay close attention to my footing given all the rocks and pits of mud that I had to navigate. I passed the point where the trail split, and this was probably my mistake. Instead of taking the higher, easier route that I’d planned to, I stayed on the lower path that continued to hug the shoreline. Here’s what my guidebook had to say about the lower route: “a small path which forges a tortuous route clinging as close to the shore as it dares. Many short, steep climbs, fallen trees and rocky sections make the going slow and arduous”.

So why in the world did I take this path when it wasn’t in my original plans? First of all, the split wasn’t exactly clear. There was a spot where I could continue on the path that I had been on, or follow a different path slightly higher. But at this point the signposts only indicated that the West Highland Way continued on the lower path. I’m still pretty sure that this was the split my guidebook described, and I knew it at the time, too, and yet I stayed on the lower path. I think it’s because after three years of walking the Camino, I’ve been trained to follow the arrows. Always follow the arrows. If there had been a sign indicating that the West Highland Way also followed the higher and easier track, I’m sure I would have taken it. But instead I chose to just keep following those arrows (or, in this case, the thistles), even though I knew that the low path could be quite difficult.

And it was. It wasn’t quite as bad as what the guidebook promises, and I think the most difficult sections were probably helped out by the addition of wooden bridges and stairs. But even with these structures, the walk was tough. My favorite kind of walking is the mindless sort- where I can just cruise along and let my mind wander. But the walking on this second day of the West Highland Way? I had to pay attention to nearly every step I took. Sometimes I had to stop and look hard at the trail and figure out where I should place my feet. My steps were measured and careful and muddy. And despite the “flat” elevation shown to me on maps in my guidebook, I had to step up and down over rocks so many times that my knees were soon begging me to stop. In fact, at the end of the day when I checked the health app on my phone, I discovered that I “climbed” more sets of “stairs” on that day than on any other day that summer. More climbing than in the mountains in southern France, more climbing than on the San Salvador, more climbing than on the days ahead on the West Highland Way. 20 miles of constant up and down over rocks made what I thought would be a rather easy day into maybe the most difficult of the summer.

So not only was the walk exhausting, but it took a long, long time. Because I had to be so careful, I was moving so much more slowly than I usually do when I hike. I figured I would be having lunch around 2:00 at the latest, but the hour came and went and I kept trying to peer through the thick cover of trees to search for the Inn somewhere in the distance, but I only continued to see nothing. Nothing but more gray water, more green trees, more sharp rocks. I stopped for a break and checked my guidebook and read that the kitchen of the Inn would close at 4:00 and I checked the time again and worried that I wouldn’t make it in time. I tried to pick up my pace and sometimes I could walk quickly for a few steps but inevitably I would have to slow down as I was greeted with a muddy pit or a pile of rocks.

Finally, I made it to the Inversnaid Hotel. It was after 4:00 and I tried to keep my expectations low, figuring that at least I could order something to drink and take off my shoes and rest my feet. I dropped my bag off in a side room where hikers could keep their things, and changed out of my muddy shoes, then went off to find the bar. To my great luck, the kitchen was opened until 4:30 so I ordered a giant sandwich and a mound of fries and an icy coke.

I wanted to stay there forever. Or at least check into a room and not have to do any more walking for the rest of the day. I had another 6 1/2 miles to go and I guessed that much of it would be along the same sort of path that I had been tediously and carefully picking my way through for hours. It was just after 5 when I left the Inn; on just about any Camino day in my last three years of walking, I would have been long settled into my albergue, showered and cleaned, and set up at a bar with a glass of wine and my journal.

“The West Highland Way isn’t the Camino,” I told myself as I set off again. The next few hours continued to be somewhat challenging, but I felt more relaxed. I’d eaten plenty of food and had renewed energy, plus I knew that I could take as long as I needed to. I had a bed reserved in a cabin at Beinglas Farm Campsite, and the sun didn’t set until after 9pm. No one was waiting for me, and there wouldn’t be much to do once I arrived in Inverarnan, other than shower and have dinner.

So I took my time and amused myself by singing silly songs, and eventually, the path moved away from the shore of the loch and opened up to some new views.

I finally hobbled into Beinglas Farm Campsite around 8:00pm. There was a pub on the grounds of the campsite and I checked in there. The guy behind the bar handed me a key to a small cabin that I had reserved, saying, “It’s all yours.”

“All mine?” I responded. I’d only reserved a bed and figured that I would be sharing with others, but this was another reminder that the West Highland Way wasn’t the Camino. Turns out that reserving a cabin means you have it all to yourself. Maybe. I’m actually still not sure how it works- when I emailed my reservation I asked for a bed in a shared cabin, and then I paid 15 pounds- certainly not the 40 pounds I should have paid to have it all to myself. Maybe no one wanted to share with me?

The cabin was basic- really basic- but it was all I needed. A mattress to sleep on, a roof over my head, and even a little heater that kept the room nice and toasty. I showered and then headed back to the pub, where I ordered a light dinner and drank a glass of wine. The pub was filled, and I noticed one or two other people on their own but mostly people were in pairs, or small groups.

But I found that I didn’t mind that I was alone, in fact, it was adding to the adventure of the whole thing- just me and my pack and my stick (oh yeah, I found a new one earlier that morning!), out in the great wild Highlands of Scotland. Bring on Day 3!

There’s always a mountain at the end; Day 1 on the West Highland Way, Milngavie to Balmaha 30km (19 miles)

I think I knew within a few minutes of setting off on the West Highland Way that I’d made the right decision. When I’d been trying to figure out my summer plans, I had wanted to do it all: another writer’s retreat in France, another return to the Camino and to Spain, AND I wanted to do something new. A trek in a different place. But in the middle of my travels, and especially when I got sick, I wondered why I had decided to tack on a trip to Scotland. It felt like a bit too much.

That changed the instant I got off the train in Milngavie and made my way to the start of the West Highland Way. My shoes were laced tight, my pack was loaded up, my hand felt a little empty without a walking stick but otherwise I felt ready to walk. And I was so excited to be walking in a new place.

The beginning of the WHW is about 10 miles past the center of Glasgow, in the suburban village of Milngavie (there were a lot of town names I had trouble pronouncing, but this is perhaps the most perplexing: “mullguy”. Sounds nothing like it looks). It’s possible to start walking in Glasgow, and my guidebook had a good map detailing the way; maybe if I ever walk the trail again I’ll do this, but because I was short on time I did what most people do, and took the 30-minute train ride to the official starting point.

It was past 8:30am but only a few people were milling about the main street of the village. Some shops were just opening and I looked around curiously. The skies were gray, there were dark patches on the pavement from the recent rain. I approached the obelisk that marks the beginning of the trail, and noticed a girl in hiking gear lingering nearby as well. We smiled shyly at each other, then offered to take each others’ photos. We continued to chat for a moment or two, then I waved to her as she set off down the trail.

I wanted to put a little distance between us, so I waited around at the start of the trail for awhile, reading the informational posts, retying my shoes. August is the busiest time for the West Highland Way, but I still wasn’t sure what that meant. Would the trail be crowded? Did I have to worry about not being able to feel like I was walking on my own? I already had my beds reserved for each night of the walk, but would the places where I was staying feel cramped, overrun?

I’d stalled long enough, and finally, I started walking. I walked 19 miles that first day- about 30km- and by the end of the day, I felt really, really happy. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I felt such happiness, but I’ll try to explain it as best as I can. Aside from a few bursts of sunlight, the day was overcast and windy and cool. Ideal walking conditions for many, but I always prefer blue sky and at least some sun. I had brief, friendly interactions with about a dozen people, but no real conversations or connections. There was a large hill/small mountain (still don’t really know the difference) to climb at the very end of the day and it wore me out. By the time I got to where I was staying- a private room at the Oak Tree Inn- I was shivering and wanted nothing more than to wrap myself up in bed and watch the Olympics (which, for awhile, I did).

All of this, and I felt nothing but happy. Happy, and excited for the next four days. I think it might go back to that very initial feeling of wonder and awe that I had at the beginning of my trip, when I was settled in my bunk in Bath, England. Just 24-hours before I had been in my apartment, and suddenly I had gotten myself to a very different place. Just like that; it’s easy, and yet, it also requires something of us.

I’d made it through my first day on the West Highland Way, and I guess it gave me the feeling that I could walk anywhere that I want in this world. Scotland is definitely a much easier country to navigate than many others, but the thing is, I think I’d forgotten what it was like to be somewhere completely new. Scotland reminded me of all the exploring I still want to do, and it made me feel like it was all still possible. If I want to walk around the world, I probably can. I just have to decide to do it. If I needed more proof of how much I love this thing- walking alone for great distances- then I got it on the West Highland Way. All I really need is my pack and a good pair of shoes and a walking stick. To be feeling healthy. Some good coffee in the morning, a warm meal at night. It’s a pretty simple recipe for happiness.

The scenery for most of the first day was okay; technically, the beginning of the walk was considered to still be in the suburbs of a large city (though the path was tucked away in parks and woodland), but very quickly it moves into the countryside. For the first half of the day I was crisscrossing with a large family who were out for a day hike- kids and parents and grandparents- and at some point the girl from the obelisk in Milngavie had joined up with them. After a few miles I walked under a drizzle, soon the drizzle turned into a steady rain. I pulled on my rain jacket and when I passed one of the members of the large family, the grandfather, maybe, he turned towards me and opened his arms out wide. Then he turned his face up to the sky, raindrops splashing on his cheeks. “It’s wonderful to be alive, isn’t it?”

The rain only lasted for about 10 minutes, and that was the only rain I walked under on the 5-day hike. Supposedly the weather in the Highlands is fickle and unpredictable; locals told me that it could be pouring rain in one area, while 5 minutes down the road it might be dry. On Day 3 of the walk I was ordering a sandwich at a cafe and the woman behind the counter shook her head in sympathy when I told her I was hiking. “I’m sorry about the weather,” she said. I only looked at her in surprise. “But the weather’s been great!” I replied. “No rain at all!”

The trail wasn’t too crowded on the first day, but that was probably the most crowded I saw it for my entire walk. There seemed to be a lot of people out for a day-hike, but there were several small groups of thru-hikers as well, loaded down with large packs and muddy boots. I said hello to everyone I passed, but it seemed as though other hikers were taken aback by my friendliness. Not all of them, but enough of them. That seemed to be the trend during my hike- I’d try to make eye contact and smile and a good number of people didn’t even really look in my direction, and if they did, they smiled lightly and just kept walking. Many hikers were in pairs or groups, and a lot were camping. It felt like everyone was doing their own thing, which is a very different experience from the Camino. Different, but it wasn’t bad. It almost felt easier to walk my own walk and stay alone and independent when I knew that the chance at community wouldn’t be as easy to find.

But while the other thru-hikers seemed to be in their own worlds, the locals were beyond friendly. I suppose that’s the case in some parts of Spain too, as I walked the Camino, but the difference there is that I couldn’t speak Spanish and communicate with them. But in Scotland? On some parts of the walk, it seemed as though I was getting stopped every 30 minutes or so, by someone who wanted to say hi. That was it! They just wanted to know how things were going- no one exclaimed over my being alone, no one warned me about the hard days ahead. They asked where I was headed to that day, and where I was from- often there was a quick comment about Trump and the upcoming election when they heard that I was American- but mostly it seemed that the locals just wanted to share their love of the Highlands. And I think they wanted to make sure that I was enjoying it too. They seemed pleased when my face would light up, when I talked about how great the weather was, how beautiful the scenery, how much I was enjoying myself.

About 10 miles into the walk I met a man coming in the opposite direction; he was from somewhere in northern Scotland and had walked the West Highland Way dozens of times. We talked for at least 20 minutes, as he told me about the best times of the year to walk, his favorite sections of the trail. He asked about the towns I was staying in, and told me that doing the walk in 5 days would be fine. “Let me see your pack,” he said. When he saw that it wasn’t too big, he nodded. “5 days won’t be too hard, don’t worry.”

The highlight of the day might have been coming across my first “Honesty Box”. There were several of these set up along the West Highland Way: tables full of bottled water, baskets filled with candy bars, and in this first instance, a large cooler filled with ice cream and popsicles. A sign showed the price of each item and there was always a lock-box to drop some coins into. But ice cream in the middle of a vast and empty countryside! (Well, there was a tiny village with a few buildings, but I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere). What a special treat.

20-miles was a big first day, and I had equally- and longer- days ahead. Most of the walk had been fairly flat and not difficult, but the day ended with a winding trail up the side of a small mountain called Conic Hill. The trail was steep, and my legs hurt. Up and up and up, and as I climbed the wind grew stronger, the air cooler. When I walked I worked up a sweat, but as soon as I stopped for a break I began to shiver. Dark clouds swirled around the sky and as I approached the top of the climb I squinted out towards the horizon. I was at the southern edge of Loch Lomond, the largest area of fresh water in Britain. From where I was standing, I was at the start of a 23-mile path that would wind its way along the edge of the lake; but that would be tomorrow’s walk.

For now, I just had to follow the steep descent down the hill and into the town of Balmaha, my destination for the night.

I felt like I stumbled into town with aching feet, heavy legs, my hair in tangles. But I was looking forward to my bed for the night; because I booked rather late, the cheaper beds in the bunkhouse were all taken, so I had to reserve a room at the Inn. It was an expensive night- the most expensive of the summer- but I welcomed the luxury with open arms.

I checked into my tiny room with the cleanest, shiniest bathroom I’d ever seen, and the first thing I noticed was a tray filled with mugs and tea bags and several packet of shortbread cookies. So I took a shower and then heated some water and crawled under the heavy comforter to eat some cookies, drink some tea, and watch some of the semi-final men’s Olympic tennis match. I didn’t want to move from the bed, and I only left for a quick trip over to the Inn’s restaurant for dinner (fish and chips and a tall pint of beer), and then I returned to bed for more tea, more cookies, more Olympics.

A good first day on the West Highland Way. I knew that the days ahead would be more difficult, but finally, my excitement outweighed my nervousness. I couldn’t wait to see what would be next.

The Next Adventure: 5-days on the West Highland Way

Scotland- the land of kilts, whiskey, ruddy-faced men and a dish called haggis. Clichés? Sure. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about Scotland before my 5-day walk on the West Highland Way, and I only learned about haggis when I was planning my trip. Vague images from the movie Braveheart swirled through my mind, and I always meant to do research about this place that I was headed to, to at least read up on a little history, a little about the cuisine and the culture and the landmarks, but I didn’t have time. Or maybe I didn’t want to make the time.

One thing I love about traveling is that I’m exploring something that is, to me, completely unknown. And the less I know about a place I’m going to, the more open I am to whatever awaits me. So I think there was part of me that just wanted to arrive in Scotland and… see. Just see what was there, let my experience be my teacher.

What do I know about Scotland, now that I’ve walked about 100 miles through its hills and mountains and moors? Whatever I know, it’s hard to put into words.

Maybe that’s why it’s been taking me so long to write these posts. I left Scotland (and Europe) to fly home on August 20th, a full month ago. I keep thinking about writing, and sometimes I craft my blog posts as I’m out on a hike, thinking that I’ll come straight home and write, but I never do.

It felt easier to write about the Camino, maybe because I’ve done it before. I was never writing about Spain, not really, though parts of the culture and the countryside did seep into my words. But on the Camino I was always writing about the journey- there was always a bigger story that I was telling.

On the West Highland Way? I was walking. I was on a vacation. I was on an adventure. I was alone. I liked being alone. I liked haggis- no, actually, I loved haggis. I had no expectations. I wasn’t really walking towards anything, even if I had an end point. I was happy. I didn’t overthink things. Things were easy. Things were hard. I felt like I belonged there.

I’m sure there’s a story in there, somewhere, and I’m sure I’ll find it as I write about my trek. But while the Camino felt like a pilgrimage, while it’s always felt like a pilgrimage, the West Highland Way felt like a long walk in a beautiful place. I thought that maybe my days in Scotland would be like a continuation of my Spanish Camino, but that wasn’t the case. I was just out for a walk. An incredible, challenging, beautiful walk.

But when I started, I didn’t know what I heading into. All I knew is what I had just finished. My final day in Spain was spent in Santiago: the morning was full of errands: printing out boarding passes and picking up my extra luggage and finding souvenirs and remembering where my favorite corners of the city were. I always meant to write an entire post about this day but that’s going to wait for another time, maybe (most likely) a time that will never come; in any case, the day in Santiago was relaxed and easy and perfect. I retired early to my private room and, with a package of cookies and my West Highland Way guidebook, I crawled into bed.

I spent about an hour reading through the guide, really studying the first two days of the trek. I pulled out a pen and made some notes in the margins- places where I could stop to eat, a good lookout that I didn’t want to miss. But as I continued reading, studying the same words over and over, I began to get a little nervous. It seemed as though on every other page, there was a warning: Do Not Underestimate How Long It Will Take You To Walk. I flipped back, studied the maps, looked at the elevation profiles, and chose to mostly ignore those words. I was an experienced walker, after all. I’d always been fast on the Camino, why would it be any different on a path in Scotland?

But in the back of my mind I knew that I had no idea what I would be walking into. The West Highland Way is not the Camino, and I could feel a tremor of nervousness as I wondered how difficult the terrain would be, what the weather would be like, if I would get lost on the trail.

I flew first to London, then to Scotland the next morning. During the first flight I had an easy and fun two-hour conversation with the pilgrim seated next to me, and as we were about to part ways in the airport in London (where I had a long layover), he gave me a big hug and wished me luck. It felt like a good omen, and one final, last-minute Camino friend.

But when I arrived in Glasgow, I was greeted with gray skies and a steady rain. The tremor of nervousness was back, a little stronger this time. I wasn’t happy walking in the rain for the ten minutes between the train station and my hostel; what was I going to do if I had days of weather like this?

I found my room and my bed (top bunk) and began to arrange my things for the next day. The room was mostly empty, except for two girls sitting together on one of the bunks, their heads bent low over an open book. I moved through the room quietly, trying not to make too much noise, but then I happened to glance out the window and I couldn’t help but gasp.

We were up on the 9th floor, and the large windows of our room overlooked parts of the city and the River Clyde. When I’d arrived at the hostel the view was nothing but gray with wet splashes of rain on the glass, but all at once there were gaps in the clouds and the sun burst through and a strong and solid rainbow was pouring from the sky and landing somewhere that felt just out of reach.

“It’s a rainbow!” I exclaimed, looking over to the two girls. Other than a smile when I had first arrived, we hadn’t said anything to each other. The girls exchanged glances and slowly came over to the window. I was grinning like an idiot because things like this make me happy, it felt like a really good omen for the days ahead.

And when the girls saw the rainbow, all shyness and coolness dropped and the three of us were exclaiming over the views, and crowding around the window to snap photos. Then we started talking, and I found out that they were also planning to walk the West Highland Way. We didn’t move for at least 20 minutes- standing there in front of the window as the rainbow slowly faded, but talking non-stop about the walk and our plans and what to expect.

Their names were Claire and Josephine, they were from the Netherlands and had walked Hadrian’s Wall the year before. “We loved it,” Claire said, “It was hard but we wanted to do something like it again. We’re taking 8 days to walk, how about you?”

I hesitated. When I told them I was going to walk in 5 days, their eyes opened wide and they poured over their guidebook. “But, like, that means that the end of your day 2 is the end of our day 4! Whoooooa.”

The tremor of nervousness roared its ugly head and I can’t really call it a tremor anymore. Was I crazy to be walking the route this fast? The distances were big: 30km, 32km, 31km, 35km, 24km, but when I planned the walk I reasoned that it wasn’t something I hadn’t done before. And after hiking in France and spending two weeks on a Camino, wouldn’t I be in fairly good shape?

But part of my nerves were due to the fact that I was locked in. The 96-mile route is, overall, much more isolated than 100-mile sections on the Camino Frances or the Camino del Norte. There are places to stay in every town that you pass through, but you don’t pass through a dozen in a day. And sometimes the only option in a given town or village is a pricey room in a bed and breakfast or an inn. Plus, because August was peak season for walkers on the West Highland Way, I’d needed to make all my reservations well in advance. My beds were booked; if I wanted to slow down because of fatigue or bad weather, it wasn’t really an option. If I was going to walk the entire route, it was going to have to be in 5 days.

“Good for you,” the girls said. “I think it’s amazing you’re going to walk it that fast.”

I laughed, but the laugh was shaky and thin. “Well, it’s only going to be amazing if I actually do it.”

I went to bed just after the sun went down, tucked under a sheet and a blanket, high up on a top floor of a tall building in the center of Glasgow. My phone was tucked under my pillow, the alarm was set for an early hour. I closed my eyes and shut out all the questions and the worries about what I was about to do, and instead only focused on the good things: I was in a brand new place. I was about to set out on another adventure. Even if was only fleeting, I’d made a few new friends that day. There had been a rainbow. A beautiful rainbow. One way or another, I would be okay.

The Last, Perfect Camino Day; Day 9 on the Camino del Norte (Miraz to Sobrado dos Monxes, 25km)

Warning: this is a long post. I think this is what happens when I write after the Camino ends, when I’ve had time to think about my days and reflect on all that happened. So maybe grab a cup of coffee or a glass of good Spanish wine and read about my last day on the Camino.

It seems like each time I do a Camino, I have one perfect day. Or, a day that’s just all-around so good and I feel so happy that I don’t want to even think about it too much- I just want to be in the day, in each moment of it, soaking it all up. On the Camino Frances it was the day I walked into Burgos; last year, it was the day on the Primitivo when my friends and I cobbled together some food and ate in the garden of the albergue under a setting sun.

And this year, it was my very last day on the Camino. How beautiful is that? It seemed like good Camino symmetry, that I’d had a rather difficult and isolated time overall, until the very end. And the very end felt magical.

All three of these ‘perfect days’ have something in common: I spent them with people whose company I truly enjoyed, people who I felt connected to. This makes me laugh, because I spend so much time alone on these Camino journeys; walking alone is important to me, facing challenges alone makes me grow, being happy and content with my own company is something I admire about myself.

But in the end, I need people. I think we all do.

My last post left off in the albergue of Miraz, where I’d eaten a hearty pasta dinner cooked by an Italian woman and eaten with a table full of new friends. I woke in the morning knowing I wouldn’t get an early start- the hospitaleros prepared a simple breakfast for us that they began to serve at 7am, so after a couple cups of strong coffee and a large stack of jellied toast, I didn’t set off until well after 7:30.

From my seat at the table in the albergue kitchen, I had watched the light change out the window. At first a dark, almost navy blue that slowly shifted and thinned, turning pale and then pink and orange tinged at the horizon and it was a perfectly clear, pastel colored sky.

I sat watching this sky in the albergue, wanting to be out there, walking, but at the same time content to sip my coffee and crunch into another piece of toast and make groggy conversation with the pilgrim sitting across from me. I almost felt like I was beginning to master something on this Camino (though in reality I’ve probably still got lots of work to do): I was able to just be in the moment, letting go of expectation and control of how I thought things should go or how I wanted them to go. I had learned to let go of worry or stress, and to just sort of take each day for what it was going to give me. I’m still frustrated that I got sick on my Camino, but if there was one take away, it was that everything felt so much easier once I started to feel better. And that I was reminded that feeling and being healthy is maybe the thing I’m most grateful for; if I have my health then I’m able to walk, I’m able to enjoy the food on the table in front of me, I’m able to smile and talk to a stranger. I’m able to be alive in the world.

So for the end of my Camino, I felt so settled into my days, accepting of whatever they would look like: if I would be alone, if I would make a new friend, if I would fly through the walk or if I would feel the burn in my legs. I had no need to make my last day into anything- to frantically fill it with all my favorite things, to make sure I drank Rioja wine or to have a cafe con leche break, to ensure that I would walk alone, to walk to a beautiful sunrise, to arrive at an albergue at any given time. Maybe I’d have these things and maybe I wouldn’t; it was okay.

This is a long way to open a post about my last day, but I’m reflecting on it now because I think my attitude probably contributed to how beautiful this day turned out to be (and it’s a reminder of how I try to keep living, back at home… it’s awfully hard but I’m trying).

When I did finally leave the albergue, full of coffee and bread and the warmth of the hopsitaleros and my new friends, the walk was beautiful. The day was beautiful: it was barely 60 degrees and a strong wind was blowing and the world around me felt a little wild, and free. And by extension, I felt a little wild, and free. I was alone for most of my walk, facing forward but also turning around to catch the sun reaching over the peaks of distance hills. The light was golden and cast long, deep shadows across the reddish dirt and rough stone. I walked, sometimes feeling like I was gliding, being pushed along by the wind.

And as I approached my destination, Sobrado dos Monxes (after a 25km walk), I didn’t feel sad or anxious to try to capture the last steps of this year’s Camino, to savor each one. I just felt… good.

Just before the small town of Sobrado is a small lake, and sitting off to the side along a stone wall was a big group of Spanish teenagers and a few young adults. One of them flagged me down, and began speaking quickly. When I told them I spoke English, another came over to translate. “Do you know where we are?” he asked. They wanted to know where I had come from- they were walking in the opposite direction, not on the Camino exactly, but maybe on a scouting/camping trip. I mentioned the names of towns I’d seen as I walked, and pulled out my guidebook and pointed at a map, to help them orient themselves.

I walked away feeling satisfied that someone had asked me for direction, knowing that I felt sure about where I was, what was behind me, where I was going. I walked a few more steps and saw two pilgrims sitting on a small dock at the water’s edge. They were two English guys who I’d seen a couple times the day before; we chatted for a few minutes- they were killing time because apparently the albergue in Sobrado didn’t open until 4pm. It was almost 1:30 at this point but I didn’t want to linger too long, I wanted to get into the town and find a restaurant where I could get a good meal. One of the guys nodded and said, “Natalie passed by about 15 minutes ago, so she’s just ahead of you.”

I grinned as I walked away, pleased that this pilgrim had linked me together with Natalie, even though I’d only met her yesterday. And I was pleased that she wasn’t far ahead of me. I’d known that just about everyone I’d been in the albergue with the night before was planning to stay in Sobrado- the albergue is in an old monastery and there were over 100 beds available for pilgrims. So I continued walking and I arrived at the monastery to read a sign posted on the door: the albergue had been open until 1:30, and would reopen at 4:00. I checked my phone for the time- it was 1:38. I had just missed a chance to drop off my pack and claim a bed, but in keeping with the theme of the day, I wasn’t bothered by it. I noticed a German man who I’d met briefly the morning before, and for some reason- even though he hadn’t stayed in the Miraz albergue with us and I didn’t even know his name- I considered him part of our group of solo walkers. I grinned and shrugged at our bad luck and said, “Lets go find some lunch.”

We went back to the main square of the town, looked around, and I picked a bar that had a large black board propped against the wall, listing some items from the day’s menu. After using translators on our phones to decipher the food choices, we ordered and took glasses of wine to a table outside. No sooner had we settled in than Natalie, Silvia, Michael and Matthias walked up (they had made it into the albergue before 1:30). They laughed and cheered when they saw us, and we all crowded around the table, then moved inside when the wind started blowing over chairs and knocking over glasses.

My food came out first, and it was then that we realized we had stumbled onto something great. This wasn’t just another Spanish bar with bland lettuce and watery tomatoes, fried slabs of meat, hunks of white bread. I’m sure there are restaurants like this in larger cities on the Camino (I’ve even been to a few good ones), but this was a hidden gem in a small, dusty town. On the outside and on the inside, it looked like any other bar, maybe a touch more modern, a touch more clean. But the food! The guy bringing out our dishes was the chef, and he owned this restaurant. He was young and full of energy and ideas. He could speak some English (which I hadn’t encountered much), and explained that his menu evolved; he aimed to use the freshest, most local ingredients, and so he cooked with whatever was available and in season.

And it was evident in the food that we ordered. My salad wasn’t a normal ‘ensalada mixta’: the lettuce looked like it had been picked sometime in the last hour (and maybe it had; it took awhile for the food to get to us). The tomatoes were the right color of red, there were thin slices of radish and a broiled cheese that I couldn’t identify but the flavors burst on my tongue and I scraped up every last bit. My next dish was mounds of smoked salmon piled on top of an avocado mousse and layered on thick toast and there was so much I could only finish it because it was so good.

I’m not totally sure of what everyone else was eating because I was so absorbed in own meal, all I know is that everyone was raving over the quality of the food. I saw some sort of pulled pork, and long plates of deep green padron peppers. We drank glasses of wine, and then more glasses of wine. When the chef came to ask us if we wanted dessert, we rubbed our stomachs, looked at each other, and asked what he was making.

I ordered his personal recommendation, in English he called it “cream cheese with jelly”, but even he knew that this description didn’t do the dish justice. “Just try it,” he said. “It’s made with ingredients unique to Galicia, and it is the very best.”

And it was. After dessert we ordered coffee, because there’s nothing like a strong shot of espresso to end a really long and really good meal. We thanked the chef countless times and raved over his food and he urged us to come back later that night. (I’m kicking myself for not noting the name of this restaurant; my google searches are bringing up nothing).

Just as we were leaving, I noticed the two English guys I had passed on my way into Sobrado. One of them- the handsome, blond one with long hair pulled back into a knot at the back of his head- was paying at the bar and I decided to walk over and talk to him. I did it without giving it much thought; he had caught my eye and I wanted to say hi. I was feeling good from the weight of the wine and the fullness of my meal, from the soft morning sunlight and the wild wind, from the freedom I’d felt as I walked and the confidence I had at the end of this journey through Spain.

We stood at the bar, talking, then moved outside to where his friend was sitting, then all walked together back to the monastery. We stood in line together and waited to check in, talking about the day’s walk, about where we lived, about our ideas for the future. I was so distracted by the conversation, by the English guy’s light blue eyes and his nice smile that it wasn’t until we were almost at the front of the line that I realized I had left my walking stick behind.

My stick! You guys know how much my walking sticks mean to me on these Caminos, and this year was no exception. I’d found the stick on my second day of the San Salvador and it was different than the sticks I’d carried on my other Caminos but I’d learned how to carry it so that it fit into my hand perfectly, I learned to love it. I couldn’t believe that I had gotten distracted by a guy and left it behind. I was about to turn around and go retrieve it, but then I realized that I didn’t need it anymore. My walking was done, the stick had fulfilled its purpose, I was going to leave it behind that day anyway. (I did go back later to look for the stick, but it was gone. And that, despite knowing I was going to leave it behind anyway, made me a little sad).

I’m amazed that I don’t have a good photo of this year’s walking stick. So here’s another shadow photo.


We got our beds and I showered and a French woman I’d never met before asked if I wanted to share the washing machine with her so I didn’t have to hand wash my clothes. While my clothes were washing I walked around, exploring the monastery. I couldn’t quite believe that I was staying here on my last day of Camino walking. It was my kind of place. Old and nearly abandoned, crumbling and decaying, vines growing through empty windowpanes, the flap of pigeon wings echoing around the vacant spaces. In many ways it was sad to see this beautiful, imposing building left to rot, left behind. But it was also quietly beautiful, more beautiful to me than so many of the gilded and ornate churches that dot the path of the Camino.

The rest of the afternoon and evening went by too fast, and I wanted more time. Time to run my errands and wander through the town. Time to write postcards to my friends and family, time to explore more of the monastery, time to talk to my new friends. I was able to do some of this, all of this, but I wanted just a bit more. More, and yet, what I had was enough. A big group of us did go back to the same restaurant where we’d had lunch, we ordered several bottles of wine and plates of tapas and stayed until just before 10:00, and then we had to rush back to the albergue before we got locked out.

At some point in the evening, Natalie asked me if I was sad that my Camino was over, that I couldn’t continue on to Santiago. And you know, I surprised myself a little that my answer was ‘no’. It would have been wonderful to continue on for two or three more days to Santiago, to try to stick with the group I’d found, and with the people I was continuing to meet. But a few days into the San Salvador I’d known that I couldn’t walk all the way to Santiago this year, and despite my recent connections, I was okay to say goodbye that night. The entire day had felt surrounded by a haze of that ol’ Camino magic- and I was happy. Content with the way I’d walked, excited about a new adventure to come, but mostly just focused on the beautiful place I was in at the moment, the beautiful people surrounding me.

Walking back to the albergue under a half moon and the fading light of the sky, my friends before me, I thought to myself, “This is the perfect end to a Camino. I don’t need anything else.”

The Camino Magic is Back; Day 8 on the Camino del Norte, Baamonde to Miraz, 15km

It was my second to last day of walking in Spain when everything changed. I’m not sure what happened; I think it was the moment I decided what the Camino experience was going to be like for me, when I said: “It’s just a really solo walk. Not about connection and families and friendship, it’s about me.” That’s when the Camino showed up and responded with, “What have I tried to tell you, time and time again, Nadine? You’ll never walk alone.”

I suppose I helped determine my own path a bit, in addition to whatever Camino magic was happening in those last days. On the morning of my 8th day of walking, when I left Baamonde, I stopped in the bar just around the corner from my albergue for a cafe con leche and a croissant. As I got ready to leave, I saw a girl sitting alone at a table near the door; I’d noticed her the night before, as well, sitting alone on a couch and reading.

When I passed her I paused, and then stopped and introduced myself. Her name was Natalie, and she was from Belgium. We chatted for a minute, talking about where we were going that day, and when I moved towards the door to leave she said, “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you soon.”

She was right. I walked alone for the first 7km of the day and then stopped in a bar for a second breakfast. It was the first place you could stop on that day’s walk so there were lots of other pilgrims there, as well, and the place was actually like a little pilgrim haven: it was attached to a new, private albergue and was filled with pilgrim paraphernalia. The owners were friendly and welcoming and I was immediately comfortable. Natalie walked in about 15 minutes after me and we shared a table- she chatted with some other pilgrims she knew and introduced me, and suddenly, I didn’t feel different or isolated, not like I had the night before. Here, I was a pilgrim like everyone else, and suddenly- for one of the first times since I’d been on the Camino this year- it seemed easy to talk with people, easy to fit in. I felt part of something and not separate, like I was doing this on my own.

Natalie left the bar a bit before me but once I started walking I caught up to her, and then we walked together. At first I hesitated; this was the first time I had walked with anyone on my trip, and initially I was resistant to it. But it was a short day- only 15 km to Miraz and the albergue I’d heard so many good things about- and already the day was half done. Natalie was planning on staying in the same albergue as me, and so we walked the rest of the way together.

And it was great. It still surprises me when I can meet someone who I almost instantly feel comfortable around, someone similar to me even though they’re from a different part of the world. We discovered that we had near identical beliefs about how we wanted to walk our Caminos: connecting with others when it felt right, but always going our own way and following our instincts, which often meant walking alone and not sticking with a group.

Because the day’s walk was so short, it, almost strangely, felt like a rest day to me. I had been walking really long days (and the shorter days I walked when I was sick felt like they would never end), so it was a treat to be feeling good and only walking 15km. Natalie and I both didn’t want to rush to Miraz to ensure we got a bed in the albergue we wanted to stay in; I’d decided days ago that I wasn’t going to stress about where I would sleep, and I liked that Natalie had the same view. So we took our time, or maybe the Camino encouraged us to take our time.

Our first stop happened when we passed by a house with intricate carvings in the stone wall out front. We heard music blaring from the lawn and a bright yellow arrow pointed the way through an open gate.

“Should we go in?” Natalie asked.

I looked at her and nodded. “I think we have to at least check it out.”

It was the home of Francisco Chacon, a stone sculptor with a studio in a garage attached to the side of his house. He was working when we wandered in, but put his tools down and came over to talk. Natalie could speak some Spanish so mostly I just listened to their conversation, doing my best to try to understand what I could and communicating my appreciation for his work.

Examples of it were everywhere: in the stones under our feet, covering the walls of his house, designs carved into columns, small figures lined up on table tops. He took us inside his home to show us more, and then back outside to give us stamps for our credentials- hot orange wax dripped onto our pilgrim passports and stamped with his seal.

We walked away, grinning and chattering about how happy we were that we’d made the decision to poke our heads inside. We kept walking, but it seemed as though every 10 minutes we stopped. First a man flagged us down, just wanting to say hi and ask how we were doing, then an older woman who heard Natalie’s French accent and wanted to tell us all about the 4 years she lived in France when she was in her 20’s.

Then we saw a deer bound across the road, then we passed a few pilgrims that Natalie knew. Before we knew it we had arrived in Miraz- it was noon, and the albergue didn’t open until 3:00. We joined a few other pilgrims who were seated outside the entrance, and I was pleased to recognize them all. Two Spanish boys I’d met in the kitchen the night before, Michael, the Swiss lawyer who I’d had coffee with several days before (it turns out that he had been in the hospital for a day with stomach issues!), and Silvia, an Italian girl about my age who I’d first seen in the albergue in Gontan, and again the night before in Baamonde.

Since we were so early, Natalie, Michael, Silvia and I decided to walk to the next village to have lunch, so we left our bags propped up against the albergue wall and sauntered out of the village. Our lunch was wonderful- caldo gallego (a white bean soup that’s a specialty of Galicia), roasted chicken and rice, ice cream and wine and bread. We took our time eating and made it back about 30 minutes before the albergue opened.

And once the albergue did open, I realized why it had been recommended to me. It’s a simple place- there’s nothing fancy about it- but instantly I was comfortable. It’s run by the Confraternity of Saint James, which is a UK-based charity that helps promote the Camino, and the hospitaleros were warm and kind and soon as we walked in. The albergue is donativo and they provide breakfast in the morning, and tea or coffee any time we liked. The kitchen was large, clean and well stocked, and the bunkrooms were also clean and spacious.

After showering and washing my clothes I made myself a cup of tea and settled in with my journal at one of the long tables in the kitchen area. But no sooner than I sat down did I hear someone say, “The fruit and vegetable truck is here!” It was like I was back at La Muse, waiting for the honk of the weekly bread truck so I could run outside and make my purchases.

A group of us ventured outside and when we saw that the truck offered more than just fruit and vegetables, we decided to buy ingredients for a big pasta dinner that we could enjoy together. We walked back to the albergue with plastic bags full of round, heavy tomatoes, onions and garlic, olive oil, two packages of penne.

Silvia was tasked with making the pasta because, well, she was Italian. She set to work immediately, even though it was barely 5pm. “I have to let the sauce simmer for as long as possible,” she explained.

At 7:00 we went over to the village church where the hospitalero gave a small talk explaining some of the history of the village and the church we were in, and we were invited to sit quietly and pray, or just reflect on our pilgrimage. I sat for a few moments but then I walked outside, where I had to zip up my fleece against the cold air and the chill of the wind. I walked in a long, slow circle around the church, and thought about the day. How was it possible that I’d found myself in the middle of such a kind, welcoming group of people when just the night before I had felt alone? When, in fact, I’d felt alone for so much of my time in Spain? Suddenly it was as if the Camino was back, and back in full force.

The rest of the evening was beautiful. We all sat around a large table and feasted on the pasta that Silvia made. Matthias, a German man with light blond hair and ruddy red cheeks had procured a few bottles of wine at the neighboring bar, and the rest of us pulled out bits of bread and cheese and crackers that we’d been carrying in our packs. Michael invited the hospitaleros to join our meal, I included the two Spanish boys who, with only two potatoes between them, looked hungry.

We talked and laughed and toasted and when I went to bed that night, I felt full. I come back to Spain, time and time again, because I love walking through the country. I like that I can spend all day outside and not have to worry much about where I’m going to sleep at night, that I can have my cafe con leches and my vino tintos and that it’s an incredibly affordable way to spend weeks in Europe. But I also come to Spain and come back to the Camino for the spirit, for the like-minded people, for the community. It took awhile this time, but finally I’d found it, my own group of solo-walkers, people who were doing this Camino on their own and in their own way. Somehow, we’d all found each other that night, and just like that, and even for just a very short time, we became a little group. A family. I fell asleep feeling full, and happy.

Photo credit: Natalie

Like it was all a dream

I’m back! In more ways than one: back with another blog post, and back home in the US.

Back home, already? I was gone for 7 weeks- I did a whirlwind few days through Bath and London and Paris before spending three weeks at La Muse in southern France, then two and a half weeks in Spain, and then a week in Scotland. Before I left for my trip, I was overwhelmed with everything I had planned, with all the different parts, and I worried that it was too much. And when I started the Camino and then got sick, I still worried that it was too much. “Why am I going to Scotland?” I asked myself. “Why did I decide to do so much?”

But in the end, I have to say, I’m glad I decided to do it all. And the traveling and the unpacking and repacking of bags, the different bed every night, the connections and the directions and all the different towns and cities… by the time I got to Scotland it didn’t feel too difficult or too hard. In fact, I sort of felt like I knew what I was doing, even though I had never been to Scotland before. I felt like, maybe just a bit, I’d gotten rather good at this traveling thing.

That being said, it’s good to be home. In the last few days of my trip, I kept thinking to myself, “I only have to do this two more times. I only have to do this one more time.” “This” referred to showering in cramped and not-so-clean hostel bathrooms, to waking up in the morning and trying to be super quiet while packing up my stuff, to having to dry myself with my incredibly small travel towel that I should have upgraded to a larger size two years ago.

But it’s also strange to be home. Nothing has changed here, and I wouldn’t have expected anything to, and yet, when you’re away from home for a long time and have seen and done so much, you return and expect that the changes are at home, too. That everything should look a little different, should sound a little different and taste a little different. But my apartment is my apartment- a bit musty and cobweb covered but everything is in the exact place where I left it. My mailman waved to me yesterday and said, “Welcome back”, at Trader Joe’s the shelves are reassuringly stocked with the same familiar products, the sounds of cicadas come in through the screen door and it’s like background noise that has always been there.

I fell asleep on my couch last night around 7:30; I was trying to stay up as late as I could to beat jet lag, but I decided to close my eyes for a just a few minutes and of course that sent me into a quick and deep sleep. I awoke with a jolt about 40 minutes later and blinked my eyes and looked, confused, around the room. Where was I? Home? Why am I here? It was the strangest feeling, I struggled to understand that I was in a familiar place, and for a split second, it felt like all of my traveling had been a dream. Like I had been on that couch all along, and had only dreamed of the writing in France, the trekking through Spain and Scotland, the different lands, the new friends, the sunrises, the green mountains.

My next post should be back to the Camino, to finish telling you about that journey, and then I’m anxious to write about Scotland and my experiences there. I tried to write a bit in the last week of my travels but I never got very far. The faulty keyboard made it difficult, and to be honest, most evenings, I didn’t feel like writing. I sat in bars with a glass of wine and a hearty meal and watched what was going on around me and sometimes chatted with the locals, or other travelers. I just wanted to absorb where I was. One night, I set up my keyboard and iPad in the hostel in Glen Nevis and started writing a post but then a Londoner named Tony started talking to me and then so did a woman from Minnesota and then a man from Norway and so I folded up my keyboard and put it away.

But my keyboard is open again, and I’m so happy to return to writing, to telling these little stories, to processing my experiences and then looking forward to my next projects. It was good to be away, and now it’s good- in different ways- to be back home. Thank you all for following along, for your comments and emails, for any time you took to read what I had to say. I hope you’ll keep reading.

An Adventure All My Own; Day 7 on the Camino del Norte, Gontan to Baamonde, 40km

I’ve been having some slight technical difficulties over here; my trusty keyboard that a good friend gifted me before my first Camino has been malfunctioning. Sometimes it seems as though certain keys don’t work at all; just now I had to wait for awhile and fiddle with it and tap and tap on each key until everything started working. There’s a lag in my typing, the ‘m’ key never seems to register and I always have to go back through and add the ‘m’s’ back in. But right now it looks like things are in (somewhat) working order so I can finally get around to writing another post.

I’m days behind. In fact, in “real time”, I arrived in Santiago today! (by bus, I just didn’t quite have enough time to make it all the way by foot). And tomorrow morning I’m off to Scotland, and it seems surreal. This was a fast, fast Camino- just 15 days of walking which is half of my usual time out here. And the first five days were a totally separate Camino from the Norte, and awfully isolated, and then I was sick for nearly a week, and it wasn’t until 5 or 6 days ago that I finally felt like I was “in” a Camino.

It’s been disjointed, but as I’m sitting here in a bar I know and love, drinking a glass of vino tinto, listening to the happy sounds of pilgrims on the street, I feel great. The end of my Camino was amazing and unexpected, in only the way that a Camino can be. 

I’m going to eventually write about it all and who knows, maybe I can keep churning out posts, but some of these recaps will probably be delayed. I have no idea what my trek through Scotland will be like- if I’ll have extra time, if I’ll have time to myself, if I’ll be able to write- and it might remove me too much from what I’m experiencing to be writing about Spain while I’m off in a different place. 

A tiny plate of tapas was just delivered to my table- a wedge of tortilla and two croquettas. I’m going to miss Spain. Just as I was getting my footing back, finding my joy again, remembering all the things I love about doing a Camino in this country… it’s time to leave. The overwhelming feeling of the past few days has been that I want just a bit more time here.

But the last three days were so great, each in a very different way. So lets go back to where I left off, back to Day 7, the day after I felt like I was flying through the mountains.

I was planning on a 40km day. I’d already done one a few days before (and really, the day through Ribadeo registered at around 4o as well, with the extra city walking), so I wasn’t too concerned about taking on too much. But as I well know from past Caminos, no good feeling lasts forever. I’d had such a strong, strong walk the day before, but now my body was asking for a little rest, or at least an easier day. And I said, “Sorry… I have big plans.”

I think I knew pretty early on in the day that my feet were tired and that my legs weren’t moving quite as quickly. I wasn’t in a hurry- my destination was Baamonde, the site of one of the largest albergues on the Norte (I think about 96 beds?)- so I knew that even if I arrived in the evening, I would have a place to sleep. So when I realized that I was tired, I took my time. 

And sometimes, even with fatigue, days like this are fun. I kept thinking of it like one big adventure- planning a long, epic day of walking, pouring over my guidebook to plan my breaks, thinking about what food I would buy when I passed a grocery store, wondering how I would feel when I reached 20km, when I reached 30km. 

I barely saw other pilgrims on the walk either, and this added to the ‘adventure’. Just me and the road- lots and lots of road.

I crossed into Galicia two days before, but on this day I really felt like I was in it. If I had the time or the memory to give some background on this region of Spain I would do it now, but I have neither. What I do know is that there are strong Celtic influences in this region, and that some parts of the area have a very mystical feel. I can’t think of a better word than mystical, though I’m not sure that’s quite right. In any case, whenever the trail passes through the woods, it’s a different kind of wood- the trees are large and knarled and twisted in a way that I don’t see at other points on the Camino. Everything seems to be covered with a thick layer of moss- the heavy tree trunks, the crumbling stone walls. If I conjure up an image of Galicia in my mind, it is always darker here, more confined, quiet, almost a little spooky. 

There was a heavy wind while I walked, it whipped through the tree branches and blew dust up over my legs. When I entered into a dark tunnel of heavy trees, I saw the first pilgrim in many kilometers. He was standing in the middle of the path and he seemed to be waiting. I had a slight feeling of trepidation- I knew that everything was fine, but the wind and the dark green moss and the wild tree branches all made me feel a little uneasy. But when I reached the pilgrim, he only asked if I could take his photo. And then the took one of me. 

On this walk I began to feel like the towns and villages I passed through were more conscious of the presence of pilgrims, they took note of us and respected the path we were on. Just when I was craving a piece of fruit, I passed a house that had a table set up outside, filled with baskets of peaches and nectarines and melons and plates of cheese. There was a hose that poured out fresh water, and a small bowl that asked for donations. I pulled some coins from my pocket and picked out a round peach and just as I was walking away, a woman opened the window of her home and waved to me with a great smile. “Buen Camino!” she called out, waving her hand furiously. 

I walked and I walked and I walked and I stopped for tortilla and orange juice, I stopped for an icy cold coke, I stopped in a town with a big grocery store, I stopped to set up a picnic lunch on a patch of grass between a chapel and a small cemetery.

And then I kept walking, and walking. Forty kilometers is a big day, but this one seemed to last forever. The trail kept passing over the highway, and while I appreciated that it often wound away from the big road, I knew that it was snaking and curving and adding on extra kilometers. I’d pass signs that said, “Baamonde 7km” and then I’d walk what felt like 3km and I’d cross the road again and see another sign and it said, “Baamonde 7km”.

The day was sunny, and hot. By 4pm I just wanted to be out of the sun but there was no shade on the path and it was inescapable. I pulled out all the stops- my ballcap to cover my face, my buff to cover the back of my neck, but man, the sun was strong. (I’m attempting to post a video- one of the only videos I took on this trip. This is what the end of a long day looks like!)

(Side note: I’m still in this bar in Santiago, writing, and I asked for a second glass of wine. With the wine came another plate of tapas and a small bowl of potato chips. I love Spain!!)

I finally arrived in Baamonde and it was after 6pm and it was probably one of my latest Camino walking days. The albergue was large and clean, the space was really beautiful (and I regret not taking photos). But I walked in and felt like a stranger. I didn’t know anyone or recognize anyone, and people were sprawled out and settled in and sitting in groups and laughing together. I knew it was more my own feeling of shyness than anything else, but it felt really difficult to walk up to a group and start a conversation. And I didn’t even feel like I was in an albergue on the Camino, it just sort of felt like a nice youth hostel where a bunch of people were there for different reasons. It’s possible that I had just spent too much time alone that day, that I’d been spending too much time alone on the Camino in general- but whatever the reason, I retreated from the groups of people and spent the rest of the evening in much the same way as I had the evening before- in a bar around the corner, doing some writing. 

And when I woke up the next morning, I told myself that it was all okay. “It’s a quiet Camino,” I thought. “This one’s just not about other people, this one is about you.” I thought I had things figured out, but it turns out that the the Camino had other plans for me. Isn’t that always the way? Just when you think you know how something is going to go, you realize you don’t know anything at all. So stayed tuned for what turned out to be a day on the Camino that was the last thing I expected, but exactly what I needed.

Small Connections in Galicia; Tapia to (some small place whose name I forget) 34km

The previous day I had taken a slightly alternate route to get to the albergue in Tapia, the one with the million dollar views. Well, I’m not sure if it was an alternate route or not- the guidebook says it was, but in the meantime it seems as though official Camino markers have been placed all along the path. In any case, I was taking the E-9, which runs more closely along the coast (and is an option at other points on the Norte as well). I continued to follow the E-9 out of Tapia, hoping that I would have more coastal views, but mostly it ran through endless corn fields (which, incidentally, I loved).

But then the path wound down to a small beach and I happily walked on the sand for 10 minutes; this was the last day that the Norte would be along the coast, the last moments, actually. As soon as I reached Ribadeo, which I would in about 8km, the Camino would move away from the water and into the mountains. 

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I returned to the Norte this year; I remember that last year I was a little sad to veer off onto the Primitivo, and regretful that I would miss more coastal walking. But since coming back to the Norte, views of the coast have been slim, and the official Camino path stays frustratingly far from the water. Really it had just been this one day- the night at the “albergue with a view”, and the morning’s walked that dipped down to the beach (and, I suppose, that day that offered a couple close coastal views). 

I wished I could have had more coast time, but I soaked up what I had. There was a bar that overlooked the water and I stopped here for a good long cafe con leche break. Once again, I was feeling strong that day, and even stronger after the coffee and toast. 

I crossed a long bridge into Ribadeo, and as soon as I reached the city I met a couple from New Zealand, who must have been in their 70’s. We walked together for about 10 minutes until they found the bus station- they were frustrated with never being able to find free beds in albergues, and were giving up on the Norte. As we said goodbye they shook my hand. The man gave me a long look and said, “I wish we had met you before this.” 

I continued into the city and promptly got confused. The Camino markers completely disappeared, and I complicated things by making a few turns to find a grocery store and an ATM. I think I started to walk in circles but then found another pilgrim and we walked together for awhile until she turned off to get a coffee. I finally found the tourism office, asked for a map, and was given good directions to get out of the city. On the way, I saw a pilgrim far behind me who had been at the albergue in Tapia. He looked confused, so I waved my arms over my head for a minute until he saw me, and then pointed to the path I was on. Either I helped him, or he thought I was crazy. Maybe a little of both.

Once out of the city the fuel came back into my legs and I powered on. I walked for a little bit with Roman, from Luxembourg; he had brought a hamock and was spending most nights in a bed strung between the trees. “It’s better this way,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about the stress I see in all these other pilgrims, who are searching for a bed.”

All of these interactions were good for me. I think I expected to come back to the Norte and instantly be surrounded by a pilgrim communiity- maybe I could even find the one I left behind last year. But it takes time, and I needed to settle back into this, or maybe I just needed to find my footing again and get out from under the cloud of sickness, to have these kinds of interactions. 

When I crossed the bridge into Ribadeo, the Camino left Asturias and entered Galicia. And strangely, almost as soon as this happened, it seemed as though the crowds and the craziness disappeared. The route wound through the countryside, and there were several albergues scattered along the way. I poked my head into each one, the first two were empty. I had planned to stay at the second but there was another only 2km away so I decided to continue on in hopes of finding more people. 

But even that third albergue was quiet, with only 3 other people there when I arrived (it filled in a bit, but was never close to full). Nearly everyone else there was German, so my evening was quiet- the restaurant in the village was closed because of a fiesta that night, so I cooked up some pasta and ate outside, listening to conversations I couldn’t understand. It’s funny how a little time and experience can change things; last year, this would have been frustrating to me. But now, I was just happy that I had a bed and a meal and was around other pilgrims. 

The fiesta was less than a kilometer away- up a small hill and in the middle of an open, empty countryside. The festivities didn’t start until 10:30- past my bedtime- but I could hear the music until late into the night. 3am, maybe even later. It didn’t keep me up, not really- instead I think it entered my dreams, a Spanish soundtrack to my Camino sleep.

No Stones in My Pack: Day 4 on the Camino del Norte (Luarca to Tapia, 42 km)

Just before Beatrice left our hotel room in the morning (Day 4), she said, “I hope it doesn’t feel like there’s a stone in my backpack today.”

I understood exactly what she meant- on the Camino, sometimes your pack feels perfect. It’s not too heavy, everything is sitting perfectly, it’s just like an extension of your back. But on other days, and sometimes inexplicably, the pack is heavy. It pulls away from you, it feels like it hangs low, there is an extra, very heavy stone inside.

When I left Luarca that morning, a little after Beatrice, I began walking up the steep pavement that led out of the city. Up and up it climbs, and for the very first time since coming to Spain, it felt like I did not have a stone in my backpack. And that’s when I realized that not only had it felt like I’d been carrying a stone, it felt like I’d been carrying a great big bag of rocks for the past week. Suddenly, the weight had lifted, it was gone. I powered up the hill, it felt easy. Then the path flattened out and I walked away from town with the sun rising aginst my back, the light of the sky pale and soft in front of me, and I felt the Camino. I remembered what it was like to walk with the rising sun, what it was like to walk and not think of how difficult it was to walk… to walk and just be. 

I marveled at how good I felt. And before too long, I passed my first group of pilgrims, the first time I’ve done that on this trip. I didn’t know how long this feeling would last, but it felt good to be back. So good.

I flew across Spain that day, and I wanted to dance down the trail. I didn’t feel one hundred percent better, but man, was this an improvement. Everything looked more beautiful, too- the light was gorgeous, the fields seemed to glow. Even the barking dogs sounded friendly, and not menacing.

I stopped for a cafe con leche and orange juice and tortilla and sat outside a bar amongst other pilgrims. I still didn’t really know anyone, but I felt a little less alone, just being surrounded by pilgrims. And as the day continued, I began saying more than hi- I asked where people were from, when they started, where they were going. Basic Camino language, but for the past week it was almost like I’d forgotten how to speak it.

After a stop in a grocery store to buy a few lunch supplies, I sat outside on a bench with an American girl and German guy. They reported that the Norte was very full, and that they were reserving ahead whenever possible. We split a bag of Doritos Roulette (one in every 7, or something, is hot and spicy), and I thought about what they had said about reservations. Nothing has really changed about this for me- I still don’t like calling ahead to reserve a bed on the Camino. I think that part of what I love so much about walking a Camino is the ability to just be in the moment, to not have to plan, to follow your feelings. I knew that I’d already run into some trouble and couldn’t stay in the albergues I’d planned to, but I was going to continue to trust that if I showed up to a town and really needed a bed, something would come through. Or that I would figure something out.

I ended up walking 42 kilometers that day (I can just hear you all now: “Nadine!” you’re saying. “Didn’t you just drag your sick self through a 15km day??”) But I have to say, I felt good for all of those 42 kilometers, though my feet were a bit sore at the end. I wouldn’t have gone so far if I hadn’t been feeling so good, and in the end, my destination was more than worth it. It was, hands down, the best albergue I’ve ever stayed in. The actual albergue was only so-so; not very new, two floors of rather rusty bunks, a “kitchen” that was a microwave and a few dishes (no knife, grr). But the view, oh, the view. The building was smack up against a wooden barrier that overlooked the water. We were right on the coast, we were practically on a cliff.

There were three beds left when I arrived at 5:00, and before I could do anything, Beatrice was ushering me into town to find the tourism office so that we could get our keys for the albergue (things at albergues have been a bit weird, I’ve yet to see a hospitalero on sight when I’ve arrived, and at this place you sign in and then go find a key, which we never ended up needing, so who knows). As we were walking there I ducked into an ice cream place for a few scoops, and in the grocery store picked up a coke and chips, along with salad stuff to share with Beatrice. This is significant only because it really meant that my appetite was coming back- the first ice cream of the trip! (Still no vino tinto since I’ve been sick though- is it really a Camino if I don’t have a glass- or 2 or 3- of vino tinto? I don’t have an answer to that yet…)

And once back at the albergue I barely budged from my spot overlooking the water. The wind was cool so Beatrice and I sat against the stone wall that had been warmed all day by the sun, and we ate our salad and later drank from mugs of tea, all the while listening to the sound of the waves. I recognized a few people in the albergue- a Spanish girl and guy who walk fast with their clacking poles, Yoko from the albergue in Cadavedo, the young girl from Madrid who’d been at the same albergue.

I didn’t feel like such a stranger on the Camino anymore. I felt like I was back, that the Camino was back- though really it had never left. I had just needed to find it again. 

The Last Bad Day; Day 3 on the Camino Del Norte (Cadavedo to Luarca, 15km)

I’m now several days behind on posting, so because I know what happens in the next few days and you don’t, yet, I’ll give you just this little preview: things get better. I say that because this is going to be another sort of downer of a post. And before anyone starts thinking that I’m having a no-good, horrible, unfortunate Camino, have no fear. Things start looking up, and soon.

But lets go back to Day 3 of the Norte. In the comments of my last post (thank you, by the way; your words of understanding and encouragement were such a needed booster), a few Camino friends urged me to stop in Luarca. A charming port town only fifteen kilometers from Cadavedo, it would make for an easy day giving me plenty of time to rest and explore and eat ice cream.

Oh, Camino.

The day started out overcast, and a light rain began to fall around 9am. It was just enough to be a nuicance, but by the time I got to Luarca it was falling heavier and I was a wet pilgrim mess when I entered a warm and cozy looking bar. But, no matter: the walk still hadn’t felt easy (my pack continued to feel heavy and my legs like lead, my sickness was zapping all my energy), but it hadn’t been long. I ordered a cafe con leche and orange juice and settled into a table. It was eleven thirty, the albergue would open at noon, I was in no hurry. The day’s walk was done.

But then I heard the urgent tone of a frantic pilgrim. “The albergue is already full. People have called ahead and reserved.” He was talking to two pilgrims at another table, and they, too, had looks of panic on their faces. “And everything else is booked in this town,” he continued. “You can try the albergue and see if they have suggestions, or maybe the information center in town.”

I sat back in my seat, feeling rather defeated. The last thing I wanted to do was scramble all over town, trying to find a place to sleep. The next albergue listed in the guidebook had closed, and the albergue after that was… far. And it was raining.

(A note on the shortage of beds: the best I can guess is that this is a bad stretch of the Norte for albergues. I’d run into this problem once last year, aroud Llanes, and had to stay in a pension. From what I’ve heard, there are currently a lot of pilgrims on the Norte, and to make matters worse, this is high tourist season, so it’s difficult to find a free bed in a hotel or pension. And when you do, often the prices are a lot highter than they’d normally be).

So I went over to the pilgrims to talk over what I had just heard, but didn’t come up with any solutions (one of the pilgrims had injured his foot and proclaimed this to be “the worst day ever”). I went back to my table, and finished my drinks. For some reason- maybe I was just tired of things not working out- I wasn’t too worried. Because for as much as things didn’t seem to be working out well, I had a feeling that I’d figure out a plan. I was in a large town, I wasn’t isolated. I could always just take a bus or a train… somewhere. Further ahead on the Norte, or maybe just all the way to Finisterre where I could find a room and stay for a week and recuperate and write. That plan was starting to sound better and better.

I weaved my arms through the wet sleeves of my raincoat, hoisted my drippping pack onto my back, and headed back out. I made my way over to the albergue to see what the scene was like, and the only one around was a female pilgrim in a long, draping skirt. She called to me from across the street, “Albergue is full! But come over here, we’ll figure something out.”

Enter: my Camino angel. Beatrice, from Sweden. 

She has more energy than nearly every other person I’ve ever met, and I would find out later that she averages at least 40 km days on the Camino, always. She did the San Salvador in 3 days, the Primitivo in 8, the Frances in 23. Her “not walking” energy is high, too. We ducked into a hotel across the street, found out it was full, but used the shelter of their lobby to look for other options. She whipped through her guidebook, called a number, and in muddled Spanish managed to secure us a double room for 60 euros, coming out to 30 a piece. I’ve been spending a lot on this Camino with all the unexpected private rooms, but standing there in Luarca, all I could feel was relieved that I had a place to spend the night.

We spent the rest of the day together- luxurating under the powerful water pressure of our shower, wandering through town in the rain to find a place to eat, holing up in a cafe for tea and pastries. I was happy to have some long overdue company, but I was also exhausted, and it was hard to keep up with Beatrice. I should have just told her that I wanted to go back to the hotel and take a nap, but this was the first sustained human contact I’d had in awhile, and besides, I also needed to eat, and find a grocery store (and on the plus side of things, I realized that my appetite was slowly starting to return. I was craving a plate of calamari, and it felt good to be craving something other than orange juice or Sunny D or Fanta).

But I coughed all through the afternoon and the evening, and for as much as I wanted to be attentive to Beatrice and participate in the conversation, I knew I was only half there. It didn’t seem to matter though, and I was relieved for that, too. Beatrice just kept talking and telling me stories, and even though I was essentially sharing this day and this hotel room with a stranger, the Camino makes things like this easier. 

But I went to bed thinking that this Camino wasn’t much fun, not much fun at all. And the question that had been lingering for the past few days continued to burn through my thoughts: Should I stop doing this? Should I just stop walking?