Radio Camino

A few days into our Camino, as my feet were slowly, finally, maybe starting to adjust to long days and the extra weight of a pack, Eric’s turned against him. His shoes cut awkwardly into his Achilles tendon, causing pain. So he switched to sandals, but those caused a dreaded ampoule—a blister.

Wearing his sneakers protected his blister, but ate into his ankle. Wearing his sandals protected his ankle but rubbed the blister on his toe. He soaked his feet in an icy stream until they were numb one morning, but found little relief when we were moving.

He was miserable. I was always looking for a reason to cut a day short. So as the spires and towers of Saint-Come-d’Olt spread out in front of us, we decided to forget the reservation we’d made in a town still ten kilometers away. The guidebook said there was a gite communal here, and even indicated that they spoke English. If they had room, we would stay and be done for the day.

The heart of Saint-Come-d’Olt is round, walled, and gloriously medieval, dating back to the twelfth century.The gite is just inside the gate, set right inside the thick city walls. A door led us up a steep set of stone steps, deeply rutted by thousands of feet that had passed the same way. In a long, low-ceilinged kitchen, the gite host welcomed us in English.

“You’re the Americans! I heard you were coming!”

Wait, what?

“We didn’t know until ten minutes ago that we were coming,” I stammered. “How did you…who would have said…”

He laughed, and waved us to rest at the table.

“It’s Radio Camino,” he explained. “When pilgrims have all day with nothing to do but walk and gossip, there are no secrets along the Way.” A faster walker had seen us a few days before, then stayed here. It was a natural piece of conversation to tell the Canadian host about two Americans who were a day or two behind.

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Radio Camino at work

That was just the beginning of Radio Camino. The host was right. Pilgrims talk about each other—where we stay, where we’re from, what we’ve seen, who we’ve met. Radio Camino warned us about the two French women with the bad habit of turning on overhead lights when they went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and reassured us that our Dutch friend Jan—a solo walker with a particularly memorable gait—was still plodding along about half a day behind us. We heard that our English friend had found a “special someone” long before we saw them walking together, hand in hand.

In my experience, pilgrims rarely talk about world events or politics. We don’t brag about our jobs or what kinds of fancy grownup toys we have at home. None of that matters here.
Instead, Radio Camino focused on what mattered today:

Are you staying in Espalais, or will you walk on to Auvillar?

Remember that tomorrow is a holiday (or a Sunday, or a random Thursday) and the shops will be closed.

There are three albergues in this town; which one will you choose?

Do you know where the German couple is staying? I’d like to meet them again.

Do you see that man in the corner? He’s a terrible snorer; don’t get a bed near him if you can help it.

Radio Camino says that you are planning to cook a meal in the gite tonight. May we join you and share?

We knew who had a late start because they were hung over, who had terrible blisters, and who took shortcuts. When a stomach bug ripped through many of the pilgrims in Spain, we knew who had taken a rest day or two to recover.

Sometimes Radio Camino spread rumors and fear. We heard, early in our trip, that an older woman we’d met had been physically assaulted and robbed along the way. Two weeks later, we ran into her again, carrying all her belongings and with no such story to tell.

But mostly Radio Camino was kind. When my husband, blisters and tendon long healed, went charging up steep mountains like a mountain goat, Radio Camino buzzed. A friend we hadn’t seen for several days had us in hysterics one night describing how “women of a certain age” at dinner tables all along the Chemin du Puy were talking about “that American with the warm brown eyes.”

Some digitally-connected pilgrims used WhatsApp or Facebook Messages to stay connected. Those of us who were offline relied on the network of walkers, some faster and some not, to spread news up and down the line. In 79 days, I never once thought about plugging in headphones or tuning in to some other frequency. Radio Camino turned out to be better than any playlist or podcast to pass the time.

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