Zumaia to Bario Ibiri: 18km
“I seem to be on a road, walking, greeting the hedgerows, the rose hips, the apples and thorn. I seem to be on a road walking, familiar with the neighbors, high-handed with cattle, smelling the sea, and alone.” Annie Dillard
We woke to dry skies on Day 4, but the previous night’s soaking rain had left its mark.
The first bit of the walk was glorious. The fields were glowing and green. The sea on our right was a moody shade of grey.
The paved farm roads were smooth and empty, and we walked, on and off, with Peter and the two women we called The Giggling Germans (to distinguish them from The Tall German and The East Germans and The Young German…we met a lot of German pilgrims on the Norte.)
A note about Camino nicknames: this is something everyone does. There are people you see every day, walking at about your pace. They’re on the trail, in the cafes, and often in the albergues. But for whatever reason—be it language differences or just lack of opportunity—you never formally introduce yourselves. Conversations on the Camino often skip over the mundane practicalities of normal life like What’s your name or what do you do for a living, and focus instead on the immediate experience – would you like more wine and wow, that was a steep hill to climb. And so we all develop private nicknames for one another. For many people we met, I know that Eric and I will always be simply “the Americans.” (Or, in Eric’s case, “the American with the warm brown eyes.” He had a fan club among women of a certain age.) On some level, we were all so close, sharing experiences and sleeping quarters and laundry lines for hand-washed underwear, that names were almost unnecessary.
Eventually, though, my pilgrim pack veered off the paved road and into The Mud.
This is capital letter, proper noun Mud. Slick, slimy, and ankle-deep, tracking up and downhill, with barbed wire fences on either side. Serene goats and cows watched from the other sides of the fences, reminding us that the mud was likely not just dirt and rainwater.
Forget the steep climbs and the steeper descents on rough bricks. The real test of a Camino pilgrim happens when there’s standing, opaque, smelly water. Will they plow through? Step nimbly on rocks and branches? Fall face-first into the mire?
Not for the first time, I said a blessing for my ankle-high, water-resistant, can-survive-anything Hoka One One boots, and another for my stabilizing trekking poles, and I plowed through. And while I had a few close calls, the boots held up, and I stayed up, and I emerged with dry feet and muddy rain pants.
Looking back at the maps, it was probably only about three kilometers of actual mud, but it seemed to go on forever. It was comically hard, and then just hard, and then downright frustrating. Would it never end? Finally, Eric, Peter and I emerged into the town of Deba exhausted and triumphant, and we were rewarded with another new Camino method of transport: an elevator.
Yes, there is a public elevator, waymarked with a yellow arrow so it’s “official,” that takes residents and visitors up and down the steep slope of the town. We dropped about three flights of stairs into the heart of town and rewarded ourselves with a hearty lunch of tortilla and Basque sidra (a light, very dry cider) before moving on for one final ascent of 300 meters, once again in the mud, to the tiny hamlet of Bario Ibiri and Albergue Izarbide.
Once again, we were back in what was probably a cow barn once upon a time, but it had been converted into a practical space for about 30 muddy pilgrims. There were big rooms of bunk beds, a modern bathroom, and lockers for our belongings. The outside space, like the albergue in San Martin, was spacious, looking out over spectacular views. But once again, the rain hit just as we arrived, and those cheerful picnic tables and lounge chairs were out of our reach.
So instead, I curled onto a corner of the couch, trying to stay out of everyone’s way as they moved through the daily routine of showers and clothes washing. I was tired and cranky, my body still trying to adjust to this new rhythm. I wanted a couple of hours alone to journal and think and, okay, to sulk a little. But Kiwi had other plans for me.
No, Kiwi isn’t a Camino nickname. It’s his real name.
Kiwi is a small white dog who was walking one week of the Camino del Norte with his person, a young Madrileno named Gabriel. When we’d met them both in San Martin, I’d tried to keep my distance. I was a little judgmental of the whole “dogs on the Camino” idea. Most albergues wouldn’t allow dogs, for obvious reasons of hygiene and allergies in shared sleeping quarters, and Gabriel was having a hard time finding warm spaces for his muddy, smelly, damp canine friend.
But Kiwi was irrepressible and, it turned out, irresistible. On the trail, he was fearless and explored everything. (Which made him less of a white lap dog and more of a mud-colored, dreadlocked ball of wet fur.) He confused the sheep and challenged the alpacas and had to sniff everything. You couldn’t watch this perro peregrino and not smile.
In the albergue’s outer room that afternoon, Kiwi also seemed to be looking for a place to be out of the way. Preferably a warm, dry place. He chose me.
It was pretty much impossible to say no to that shaggy face, and so I scooped him up (in Gabriel’s sweatshirt, since I was wearing my only dry, cleanish clothes), and he settled into my lap for a long, twitchy nap (his, not mine). Eric and Peter kept me stocked with sidra, and for the rest of the afternoon I accepted my unexpected calling: dog lap.
A pilgrimage is always full of surprises.