“What would you do differently?”
I get this question a lot when I talk about my Camino walk. And I have a quick answer.
I don’t know how it happened. I spent months (literally) researching just the right merino wool shirts, the right lightweight hiking pants, even the quick-dry underwear. I carefully considered the weight of my SOCKS. I had a travel watch with an alarm, and a bag of safety pins, and plenty of water.
But when it came to shoes—arguably THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF EQUIPMENT a person can have when they’re about to walk a THOUSAND MILES, I choked.
I read all of the debates and opinions, which basically came down to two competing opinions:
Argument A: This is a long-distance backpacking trip, and so (duh) you need to have sturdy, waterproof hiking boots to trek over mountains and through mud.
Argument B: The Camino is a well-groomed trail that doesn’t require heavy boots, which will just cause hundreds of painful blisters. For the heat and dust you need lightweight, breathable sneakers/running shoes.
The latter seemed to be the more common suggestion among American pilgrims, and I read a fair number of stories about pilgrims who ended up chucking their shoes altogether and walking the Camino in sandals.
I was swayed by the counter-intuitive idea. After all, I run in zero-drop, fairly minimal shoes. I wear sandals as often as I can. And let’s be honest: thinking of the Camino as a stroll I could do in the same shoes I wear to walk across town made it far less intimidating.
The salesperson at REI backed me up. When I went in to talk about the Camino, he jumped right in and handed me Merrell’s Bare Access trail runner. “This is what people who are walking the Pacific Crest Trail are wearing,” he assured me.
They were (slightly) more substantial than what I was used to. So without even trying anything else on, I bought the shoes.
In the REI guy’s defense, there were a few things I didn’t tell him:
- I have extremely high arches.
- Those arches (and a bunch of other bad feet habits) leave me prone to plantar fascitis and shin splints.
- I’m not really a long-distance girl. Running the occasional 5k is not the same as being on my feet for 10 or 20 miles.
- I had absolutely ZERO backpacking experience.
And, oh yeah, there was also the tendon injury in my foot that had me in physical therapy and basically grounded until two weeks before we left. So while other pilgrims were doing these training hikes, or at least walking around, I was on my butt. The first time I put on my loaded pack was on the way to the airport.
So I flew to France tender footed and out of shape, with nothing but a pair of minimalist trail runners between me and the French countryside.
I didn’t even have arch support inserts.
It was a disaster.
I was generally okay for the first couple of hours every day, but after that my feet would SCREAM in pain. Every step felt like I was putting all my weight on a giant bruise. Every pebble, every angle in the road was agony.
We started calling my feet The Princesses. And The Princesses could not handle the peas.
At first I figured I just needed a few days to toughen up. But I watched everyone else work out their kinks, build up their callouses, and get stronger. I never did.
Every morning I would wake up thinking that things would get better. Every afternoon I would limp and stumble into town, beyond miserable. We kept cutting back our daily distances, because anything more than 25km left me in tears. Even then, when we arrived I would practically crawl to my assigned bunk and have to lie there for half an hour before I could stand long enough to take a shower. I could rarely explore a town, or take a scenic route. Every step had to be carefully considered.
Finally Eric—who was mostly tolerant of my whining and wimping out—suggested that it was time to acknowledge that this problem wasn’t going to fix itself. We were three weeks, and maybe 300 miles, in. There was still a long way to go. And those Merrells and I weren’t going to make it over the Pyrenees.
Of course, in rural France, deciding to chuck your shoes and start over is easier said than done. We were in a region of particularly small towns and smaller stores. The Via Podiensis, while the most walked of the four French Camino routes, has only a fraction of the pilgrims as Spain, and so also has only a fraction of the pilgrim-serving tourist economy–which I really appreciated when I wanted to experience a place. It wasn’t so wonderful when I wanted to find shoes.
In one town, we went to the Office of Tourism and asked where we could buy hiking shoes. They gave us directions to a store across town, and even circled it on a map for us. I limped and gimped over, only to stand, somewhat baffled, outside a garden supply store. Determined or desperate, I went in, wandered past mulch and trowels, and at the back I found one sad rack of gardening shoes and a few pairs of men’s boots.
We walked on.
Finally, after four or five days of picturesque villages that were barely big enough to have a market, we reached Aire Sur L’Adour. Once again, we went to the Tourism Office (pilgrim tip: if you’re traveling through France, and English is your first—and mostly only—language, the Office of Tourism will save you time after time. That is, if it’s open). This time, they directed us to a sporting goods store…three kilometers out of town, by the highway, and of course in the wrong direction.
Which is how I ended up in a modern strip mall, with a taxi waiting outside, trying to buy new shoes in European sizes, from a man who spoke only a handful of English words, and I spoke only a handful of French.
I actually don’t know specifically what shoes I wore for most the Camino. I know they were Salomons. And that they had twice the amount of structure and padding that my old shoes did. And when I put in the fancy insoles that were almost as expensive as the shoes, my feet practically sighed in happiness.
I could tell a difference within a day.
I still had Princess feet, but they were now supported. Cushioned. And safe.
I walked the rest of the way across France, over the Pyrenees, and across Spain in those shoes. They weren’t perfect, and they had holes by the end, and they smelled atrocious. I threw them away in a Paris trash can the night before we left. But they saved my Camino.
When I go back, hopefully next year, I’ll take the same pants, and the same pack, and the same sleeping bag. But next time, I’m going to also get some good boots to protect the Princesses.
Caveat: These are my experiences, and they won’t be yours. Eric walked the whole way from Le Puy to Finisterre in minimal Altra Superior 2s that made my Merrells look enormous, and he was fine. I met lots of people who were walking in Merrells, and in sandals, and they were happy. The lesson here is NOT “don’t go minimal.” It’s “know yourself and what works for you.”