The Bridge of Hospital de Órbigo

Twenty-five kilometers past the Spanish city of Leon, pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago find themselves approaching a bridge. This isn’t unusual by itself – the Camino Francés is full of bridges, many that date back to the earliest days of the famous walk to Santiago de Compostela.

The 13th-century stone bridge of Hospital de Órbigo is 200 meters long and boasts twenty arches, which now mostly rest on bare ground now that a dam blocks much of the Orbigo River, but the bridge survives because of the Camino-worthy legend of Don Suero de Quiñones.

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Details of the tale vary, as 700-year-old legends do, but here’s what I’ve been able to dig up:

In the fifteenth century, the knight Don Suero fell in love with Lady Leonor, who unfortunately did not return his affections. Don Suero, who should have gone on to become the patron saint of emo, displayed his heartbreak by fasting and donning an iron collar every Thursday to show himself a “prisoner of love.” (That “every Thursday” part gets me every time.)

But a weekly collar wasn’t enough to get over the lady’s rejection, so in 1434 Don Suero also announced that he would joust any knight brave enough to fight him on the long bridge of Hospital del Órbigo. When he won 300 lances, he said, he would remove the collar and be free of his affliction. This became known as the tournament of the Honorable Passage.

Oh, but Don Suero didn’t really intend to fight all 300 jousts himself. Because there are bros in every century, he managed to convince nine of his closest friends to fight in his place sometimes — probably on Thursdays, when he was hampered by the collar.

The contests commenced, and since 1434 was a Jacobean holy year, there were many nobles passing through. However, not everyone wanted to fight (those who did not wish to participate in the tournament were required to throw a glove on the ground and ford the river instead of taking the bridge).  Plus, Don Suero and his pals didn’t win every joust. The ten knights combined had broken fewer than 200 lances when the judges, at the king’s order and probably because the jousts were about to impede the annual cattle drive through the city, announced that the contest was over, and Don Suero was the winner. They ceremoniously removed the knight’s collar and sent him far, far away — on a pilgrimage to Santiago, of course.

In honor of the great knight, if you are passing through Hospital de Orbigo on a pilgrimage of your own, may I suggest that you gallop (Monty Python style) across the bridge, rather than plodding across?

 

UPDATE: When I shared this post with the American Pilgrims on the Camino Facebook group, member Kevin Considine added these extra three lovely facts:

1. 10 meters more or less on the right as you cross the bridge is a column and etched into the stone are the names of the 10 knights.

2. Upon winning all his jousts he proceeded to Santiago and presented his jeweled iron choker to Santiago at the Cathedral. Today when you enter the museum in the Cathedral there is a statue or bust of a man directly across from the door and on it around it’s neck is the same iron choker worn by Don Quiñones.

3. 81 years later A book was written by an author inspired by the real life feats of Don Quiñones. The author was Cervantes and the book of course ‘Don Quixote’.

 

Walking the Camino as a Couple

Hi, remember me? I used to blog here (almost weekly) about my adventures and lessons from the Camino de Santiago. Then in October, my book released, and life got a little crazy. I’ve been on a whirlwind coast-to-coast book tour, with great turnouts at libraries and bookstores from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, and of course plenty here in the Pacific Northwest. (One woman in Bellingham even brought tarta de Santiago for everyone!)

At every event, there’s time for a Question/Answer session at the end. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to tackle some of the questions I hear most often. Let’s start with this one:

“What is it like to walk the Camino as a married couple?”

This is a question I get in podcasts, written interviews and face-to-face events. The idea that Eric and I spent 79 days together, 24/7, walking across two countries, fascinates people. (It fascinated people we met on the Camino, too. I can’t count how often someone would ask “you’re walking all this way together…and you’re still married?”)

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Tired, dazed, and ready for dinner about a week into the Camino

We met many people who walked the Camino alone or with friends, often leaving a spouse at home. And I get that. A long trek like this doesn’t appeal to everyone.

But walking the Camino as a couple brings a whole different level of experience. The unbroken time gave us a new language of shared stories an experience that most couples in the midstream of their marriages (we celebrated our 14th anniversary on the Meseta of Spain) don’t get. It unfolded a whole new perspective on the world, history, people, and ourselves that we could share.

No, we weren’t always blissfully happy together, and we had our share of sharp conversations and exasperated silences. But in the end, it made us better partners and better friends.

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Hamming it up at Finisterre, 79 days after we began.

For those who are thinking about journeying as a couple, here are some of the things I learned:

You both have to want to go.

Long distance hiking, even with all of the creature comforts of the Camino (read: real beds and daily showers), is a physical, mental, and emotional challenge, and it would be a million times harder if you were walking with someone who didn’t want to be there. The Camino was something that Eric and I would have each chosen to do on our own.

You have to be friends.

There was a day in Spain, almost 70 days into our walk, when Eric and I were walking together with no one else around. We were bantering about something, and I distinctly remember thinking about how grateful I was that after so much time, we still had things to talk about. But that’s also us. We always have things to talk about.

You’ll need space.

Just because we walked the Camino together doesn’t mean we were actually walking together every minute of the day. Eric’s natural pace is faster than mine, especially in hilly regions, and so he tended to go ahead for an hour or two at a time, and then wait for me to catch up. We walked alone, or with other people we met along the way. When we got to our destination, we sometimes explored together and sometimes split up. It was important, we discovered, not to get too insular or cut ourselves off from others, and to follow our individual interests and paces.

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At the gate of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, halfway through our thousand-mile walk

You’ll have a different kind of marriage.

The shared experience of exploring new places, meeting new people, and overcoming obstacles (from physical mountains to language barriers) together bonded us more than ever. But at the same time, we were sleeping in bunk beds in shared dorms and living constantly surrounded by other people. One Camino friend knew us for two days before he even realized we were married. “You never hug each other or kiss!” he said. But that kind of physical affection would have felt odd when we were surrounded by so many other people. A long distance walk builds a different kind of intimacy.

 

Three years later, that Camino walk still shapes our marriage. (And not only because Eric has been amazingly supportive of the book launch.)

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The Jusinos on book tour

What about you? If you walked the Camino as a couple, what did you learn? What advice would you give to other couples considering an adventure like this?

How to Thru-Hike Without Suffering: My Ignite Seattle Talk

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The book is launched, the book tour is happening, and right now I’m just trying to keep up with it all.

We started with a bang last week, when I had the gift of sharing the Camino with a crowd of 600 people at Ignite Seattle, “the largest open submission public speaking event in the Pacific Northwest.”

The challenge? Capturing a thousand-mile journey and 900 years of history in just 5 minutes, with the slides behind me auto-advancing every 15 seconds. It’s like TED Talks on steroids.

The payoff was priceless, though. Dozens of people approached me after to tell me their own Camino stories, or to tell me how much they wanted to go now. I stayed awake for the after-party and had a great conversation about how to unplug from gadgets and technology more often.

Here’s the talk, complete with a few wobbles and a few decent jokes:

Talking about the Camino with Pilgrim Strong and Project Camino

Wow, how the time flies! The official launch of Walking to the End of the World: A Thousand Miles on the Camino de Santiago is still a week away, but it’s already hitting bookstore shelves here in the Seattle area, and the launch is in full swing.

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My first sighting of Walking to the End of the World on a bookstore shelf

As you can probably imagine, this is a super-busy season for me, and my blogging here may be sporadic for a few weeks. I promise I will come back and finish my Camino del Norte stories and tackle some of the questions I hear most often.

In the meantime, here are links to a few outside conversations I’ve been having. One of the things that both excites and humbles me is how the Camino community is rallying around my story. Last week my friend and fellow memoirist Steve Watkins shared a conversation that we had about the book and my experiences. You can read it here.

“News from around the world takes on a new light when you’ve spent time with people who live in different corners.”

  –  from my Pilgrim Strong interview

This morning, the popular podcast Project Camino released a new episode, where Brendan Bolton and I talk about what it’s like to return home and re-enter normal life after a 79-day pilgrimage walk.

(We also take a few detours into the stories of my “Santiago moment” with the statue of St James, which I’ve written about here, and how Eric’s “warm brown eyes” captured more than a few hearts.)

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You can listen to the interview here on the Project Camino website, or on iTunes.

 

Coming next week: a podcast with the inspiring (and hilarious) women at Women on Adventures, an exclusive interview in Rory Moulton’s EuroExperto newsletter, and (gulp) the first two live events:

October 4: Ignite Seattle

October 5: Book launch at University Bookstore, Seattle

 

Thanks for all of your good thoughts and wishes. As I say in the Acknowledgments, the “likes” and comments here at Camino Times Two have encouraged me and pushed me forward more often than I can tell you.

Camino del Norte, Day 12: Everyone Stops in Güemes

 

Noja to Güemes: 16 km

One of the great things about the Camino de Santiago is that you can walk as far as you want to in a day. With plenty of towns and hostels along the various ways, there aren’t limiting “stages” that you must follow. If you want to walk 5 kilometers or 45, you can.

A result of that, though, is that people who you meet on the Camino may never end up in the same place as you. Walking just one town farther sets you up on a different path, and there’s no real shared experience until Santiago.

But there’s an exception on the Camino del Norte. Everyone, or at least almost everyone, stops at the Cabaña del Abuelo Peuto in the tiny Cantabrian town of Güemes.

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Güemes is listed as a “recommended” stop in every guidebook I saw, in every language. The tiny hamlet, population 277, hosted 11,000 Camino pilgrims from 80 countries last year. The bloggers I trust all listed is as a favorite stop.

But why? The reasons all seemed curiously vague to me. The Village to Village Guide mentions the “enigmatic Camino character” who founded the albergue and the “moving evening ritual.” Nadine Walks calls it a “’Camino of Life’ compound.”

As Eric and I drew close to the famous place on our 12th day of walking, our curiosity grew. About a kilometer before we arrived, we caught up with Sania, a British pilgrim we’d met before, and we all speculated together. Was it a cult? A religious thing? Was the mysterious “Padre Ernesto” going to try to convert us to something?

The walk that day from Noja was just sixteen kilometers, with no towns or bars along the way, so it was still late morning when we drew close. It seemed too early to show up at an albergue, so we stopped for a picnic snack about a kilometer from the albergue, in the yard of what appeared to be a church. When we looked closer, though, we found something more like a community museum dedicated to Padre Ernesto and the volunteer-run albergue. The walls were crowded with art contributed from previous pilgrims, and piles of guestbooks lined the tables, full of glowing reports. Signs in various languages explained the story.

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I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Could any albergue be this good?

“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” we warned each other, only half joking, as we approached the big white farmhouse on the hill. And then we were swept up into the most efficient, caring, understanding, intuitively perfect albergue I’ve ever seen.

Volunteers met us at the door and helped us take off our backpacks. They brought us cool water and the best cookies I’ve ever eaten. Inside, we found Peter, Michele, and Olivier, who I’d taken to calling the “French boys.” We’d lost track of them two days before, when they went ahead and we stayed to explore Castro Urdiales, but now here they were, just finishing a full lunch provided by the volunteers. Everyone stops in Güemes.

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Gradually, the volunteers helped us check in and showed us to an airy room with ten beds carved into the walls. The third-tier bunk seemed a bit precarious when we tested it, but our room had only nine people, so no one had to actually sleep there.

Outside, I started to understand the appeal of Güemes. Behind the original farmhouse, which I understood was the mysterious Padre Ernesto’s family home, was a Camino oasis. A wide, manicured green lawn stretched the length of the property, inviting stretching and naps in the sun. Custom-built albergue rooms and converted sheds and garages were all filled with beds. This place was equipped to house hundreds of people, but it never felt big or impersonal. There were benches everywhere, and plenty of laundry lines. A library, a nonsectarian chapel, and a lounge offered quiet, indoor refuge if the weather turned against us. It all looked like it was built bit by bit over many years, with care and carpentry skill but without much of a master plan.

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The afternoon was warm and sunny, and the gradually growing group of pilgrims lounged away the afternoon. It was quite the reunion, with many of the people we’d met in the past two weeks. Our whole Camino family was there, though the poor Giggling Germans were as late as we were early, after two wrong turns made their 20 kilometer day closer to 40. (The German guidebook for the Norte, I’m told, is notoriously  unreliable.)

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The only downside, at least in the minds of our French boys, was that there was nowhere to get a post-hike beer. But there were plenty of cookies, which were enough for me.

At 7:30, pilgrims streamed from every corner of the complex into the lounge. There, with the help of Sania as an English translator and Michele in French, a volunteer explained the story of Padre Ernesto and Cabaña del Abuelo Peuto. The short version was that Ernesto, who had not yet made an appearance, was a Catholic priest who had served in remote corners of the world, but returned home to Güemes where he was born. He inherited his family home and opened it to pilgrims – just a handful at first, but then growing. The enterprise is now run entirely by volunteers, on donations that also support other community projects. While we were not charged for anything during our stay, we were encouraged to donate what we felt was fair. It was funny and interesting and very well-rehearsed. This is what they do every night, and they do it well.

(The longer version of the story is on their website.)

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They also do dinner well. Our group of pilgrims was led from the lounge to the dining room, where volunteers filled us with soup and pasta and salad and wine. Plates were never empty long.

During the meal, Padre Ernesto finally arrived. The octogenarian had a full head of white hair and a quiet voice. He passed from table to table, greeting people in Spanish and inviting us to the chapel, where a series of murals on the walls would explain the philosophy of the place.

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I had no intention of going. I was tired, and inspirational lectures aren’t usually my thing. I slipped out, intending to read in bed until I fell asleep at 9:00, like normal. But the Camino had other ideas.

On my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth, I ran into Padre Ernesto, on his way to the chapel. He stopped to say hello, and in my fractured Spanish I thanked him for the hospitality. He asked where I was from, and when I said Seattle, he lit up.

Padre Ernesto of Güemes, Spain, population 277, had been a few miles from my home in Seattle just a month before. He had been making a tour of the Guemes of the world (there are three), including Guemes Island in the Puget Sound.

This, he decided, was a sign from God. He had just been to my home. He had gone up “the tall tower” (the Space Needle). He had been welcomed by the people. Seattle, he said, was a beautiful place. (He’s right.)

He held my hand as he said this, and asked if I was coming to hear the talk about the murals. It was very important to him that I be there. He wanted me to hear what he had to say.

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There’s no way to say no to that, so I went to the round room lined with benches and listened to the well-spoken volunteer explain the paintings while Sania translated, and then Padre Ernesto told everyone there about how I was from Washington state. He patted my head as he explained how important it was that I was here, bringing his journey full circle. And then, in the way octogenarians can, he spun off into a series of anecdotes about other pilgrims and other times. I’m still not sure what he thought it was important for me to hear.

By the time we were done, the sun was down and the compound was dark.

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The next morning at breakfast (because of course the volunteers of Güemes also provide an incredible breakfast, with more cookies), Padre Ernesto sought me out again, asking for a photo together to add to his collection, saying again how important it was that two peregrinos from Seattle came so far to his Güemes, after he had just been to ours.

When we finally broke away and set out for Santander, there was no doubt. Güemes would be on my “top places to stay” list, as well.

Maybe there was something in the cookies.

 

(Seriously, does anyone know what kind of cookies we got at Güemes? I’m craving them again, just writing about it. There were wrapped bars the next morning at breakfast made of the same graham cracker/chocolate combination.)

Camino del Norte, Day 11: All in a Day’s Walk

Liendo to Noja: 20 km

What is the Camino del Norte like?

Lots of people have asked me that, and there’s no one good way to answer. So here is the story of a typical day on the Camino del Norte, full of moments of breathtaking beauty, mixed in with moments of fear, confusion, surprise, and a bit of (off screen) swearing.

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From the top of “the rocky footpath,” looking back toward Santoña

We wake in our municipal albergue at 7:00, which is about the time that things start moving on the Northern Camino. With cool temperatures and spectacular views, plus albergues that don’t open until 2 or even 3:00, most people avoid the noisy pre-dawn departures that plague the Camino Francés.

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Looking back over Liendo

We follow the arrows through town, along streets lined with gated houses big enough to be called mansions, many of them now for sale. One house has a peacock strutting in the yard. The houses give way to farmyards full of goats, which give way to our first steep hill of the day. We’re in the woods, shaded from the sun, and everything feels fresh and beautiful.

We drop our packs and climb around in the ruins of what was once a small church, but this is just a warmup. The ocean is calling.

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The forest gives way to open ground, and to the cliffs and bluffs we’ve come to know. We climb and climb, the sparkling water spread out to the north with nothing to block our view, or our feet if we fall. “Be careful here in foggy conditions,” says the guidebook, and my stomach tightens a little at the thought. This would be a whole different experience with low visibility.

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Rugged and beautiful and terrifying 

But today is bright, almost blindingly so. Goats climb the pointed rocks above us, their presence given away by the sound of their bells. Paved roads become gravel, and then narrow to rocky walking trails, and then…where did it go? We’re in fields shared with horses and cows, no fences between us, and we’re following their footsteps. Is this the way? Is that?

We run into other pilgrims as lost as we are. A French mother and daughter go one way, scrambling through brambles along what I think is a horse trail. Another man, I think from Belgium, pushes forward and then calls us. He’s found a small yellow arrow painted on a rock near the ground. We follow him.

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The point where we all lost the trail

Eventually we all end up on a road, and there, finally, is a clear yellow arrow. It’s mid-morning and long past time for a break when we descend the steep, knee-straining hill into Laredo. We’re only 7 kilometers into the day, but it feels like we’ve already had a full day of adventure and beauty.

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Descending into Laredo

But as the commercials say, wait! There’s more!

Back at sea level, we enter Laredo’s old city, which dates back to Roman times. The cathedral is just opening as we pass, and so we pause to put our packs down again and explore. This was something I loved to do on my first Camino walks across France and Spain. The architecture, art, and engineering feats of these old buildings, and the reverence that still fills them, fascinates me. Plus, there are usually pews where I can rest my feet for a while. We linger on the worn, uneven stone floors and consider the votive ship hanging above our heads. This is something I’ve seen before on the coast but never inland, a way to bring God’s blessing not just to land but to sea.

As quickly as we enter the old city, we leave it behind. The Norte is full of places where you could linger if it wasn’t for the draw of what comes next. Modern Laredo is a vacation town with a population of 12,000 and a 5-kilometer beach that draws tens of thousands of tourists every summer. In mid-May the long stretches of white sand are mostly empty – holiday season here won’t really launch until July – but there are a few dozen determined, mostly retired people who are already promenading the white sand in very small bathing suits.

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Laredo’s 5 kilometers of pristine beach, where you’ll find plenty of seniors in Speedos and Camino pilgrims looking for a shortcut

We can walk along the paved promenade or take a shortcut along the beach. The sand is packed and easy, and at low tide we can cut distance off our crescent-shaped walk. We choose the water.

I’m footsore by the time we reach the end of the beach, where we’re supposed to catch a ferry that will carry us across the channel to Santoña. But there’s nothing here – no dock, no ticket building, nothing but a long boardwalk that ends in the water. We follow it and wait, uncertain.

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They say there’s a ferry at the end of this walkway…

This feeling of uncertainty, this lack of control, is my familiar companion here, so far from the predictable routines of my normal life. When every day, and often every hour, throws you into a place you’ve never seen before, it’s often hard to keep up. And that’s part of the experience.

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Is that our boat?
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Who needs a dock?

After about ten minutes, we see a boat approaching. Is this our ferry? How could it be? But yes, it just pulls right onto a beach, and a teenage boy drops a ramp and waves us forward. We board, pay the nominal fee of 2 euro, and it carries us across the water to another new city. There’s a dock here, and a paved promenade. We pause for a celebratory picnic of whatever’s in our bags and then push forward. The town is crowded with people enjoying the sun, and I think it would be a good place to explore.

But wait, there’s more.

The sun is hot, and we walk for another 5 kilometers on hard pavement, along uninspiring roads. For almost an hour we skirt the walls of a prison complex, barbed wire on top of blank walls. I’m really footsore now, and tired. But we’re so close. All we have to do is “climb a rocky footpath” and then “descend” to a beach.

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Staircase steep, full of loose rocks, baking in the sun, and perched precariously over the ocean, this short climb just before Noja was a mental mountain for me

I am not prepared, physically or mentally, for what comes next. The climb is short, probably not more than a few hundred meters, but it’s almost vertical. The dirt crumbles under my feet as I haul myself up with my walking poles, swearing at the path and the guidebook and the ocean and the sun and Eric (who’s scampered up ahead of me) and whatever else I can think of.

I’m afraid of falling, I’m afraid I can’t make it to the top, and I’m just really, really tired.

But as Newton said, what goes up must come down, and so once I reach to top of the hill, I have no choice but to pick my way back down the other side.

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The final descent of the day. Really, this time.

The beach on the other side, Playa del Brusco, is beautiful, but it stretches farther than I want to go. Eric befriends two Spanish brothers who say they will walk another 10 kilometers that afternoon, but I am done. And so we stop on the outskirts of Noja at a beachfront albergue that caters mostly to the water-sport crowd. I drop my pack for the final time, shower, and rest for an hour or two. That’s all it takes for me to bounce back, just as I do every day. (And yet every afternoon at the end of the walk, I forget again.)

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The beaches of Noja

I wander out onto the beach and soak my feet in the cool water, and poke around the rocks, and study the outline of the town.

Because just wait, there’s always more.

 

 

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Camino del Norte, Days 9-10: Cantabria

Pobeña to Castro Urdiales: 15 km

Castro Urdiales to Liendo: 25 km

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“I’d forgotten this part of Camino life,” I wrote in my journal on the 9th day of walking. “When the magic becomes normal, the feeling that walking is the way that I live now. The steady pattern of walk-eat-sleep-repeat. Take care of your feet. Soak in the sun. Be nice to your neighbors. Remember to look around. Just be.”

We’d come 180 kilometers already, and the rhythm was established, but the Norte refused to be taken for granted. As we left Basque Country behind and entered Cantabria, the geology changed. The rocks in the cliffs were more gray, the earth was drier. Even the cows seemed different. The rain stopped, and the sun sparkled on the ocean that popped up every few hours.

We spent a day surrounded by our Camino family, and a day walking alone, meeting new friends in a municipal albergue full of Germans. (Seriously. There were 18 Germans, 1 British woman, 1 Spanish man, and us.)

Sure, there were moments when we slogged along the shoulder of a busy road that curved precariously around sharp corners, with little space for us and the speeding cars passing by. There were grumpy moments when I wanted a rest or a cup of coffee or (most important) a bathroom. There were dull moments when the road Just. Kept. Going.

But with a few weeks of distance, those parts of the Camino fade, and what I’m left with are these snapshots of heart-stopping beauty.

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A green tunnel leads us up and out of Pobeña 
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Sunrise on the water. Those dots in the water are surfers, catching the first waves of the day.
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Goats in high places (the rock on the top right)
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Goats in low places
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Cows everywhere. The Camino del Norte has a surprisingly lax attitude about fences.
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Can’t go over it, can’t go around it, so let’s go through it
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The old and the new collide
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The rocks are gray in Canbria, but no less dramatic
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The moment when you crest the final hill and see your destination spread before you
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The ocean pilgrims
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Our Camino family in Castro Urdiales. We split here, with some going farther ahead and some staying behind. But we were never apart for more than a day or two.
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The cathedral, disappointingly locked even on a busy Saturday afternoon
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Castro Urdiales seawall
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Protected by both a fortress and a cathedral
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Imagine what it took to carve those steps a few hundred years ago
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Watch your step
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Another perfect dawn
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We can see which way the wind blows. Passing pilgrims took turns standing at that fence on a point, looking out over the ocean 
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And then, at the end of it all, a warm room, a decent mattress, and the promise of another day

Camino del Norte, Day 8: The Shortcut

Larrebetzu to Pobena: 46 km

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Did we really walk 46 kilometers in a day? Of course not. This was the Day of The Shortcut.

When Eric and I walked our first Camino, we were purists. The familiar mantra “Walk your own Camino” meant that it was meant to be walked, and I confess I felt plenty of self-righteousness when we’d meet other pilgrims who skipped “the boring parts” by bus or train.

But now, on the Norte, we faced a dilemma. Eric and I had a limited vacation (by our standards), with only 17 days on the trail before we had to turn around and go back to the US. We were walking relatively short distances most days, not always hitting the official stages of the Village to Village Guide. We were never going to get to Santiago, I knew, but I wanted to at least get as far as Llanes, to soak in what the book called “the best views of the whole Camino route.” But to do that, compromises to our purity would have to be made.

In Larrebetzu, where our last episode ended, we were on the outskirts of Bilbao. The next 30 kilometers of Camino trail would be urban, and Radio Camino reported that it was an uninspiring walk. The old city of Bilbao was beautiful, with a cathedral and the twisting streets of the Old City, but was that worth a whole extra day? Eric and I debated, discussed, consulted Google, and decided no.

According to Google Maps (a great app for navigating public transportation in Spain, by the way), there was another way. A bus would stop practically just outside our albergue door at 9:00 the next morning, and in just 40 minutes carry us around Bilbao entirely, cutting 30 kilometers of pavement walking. From there, we could still stretch our legs with 16 kilometers on foot to Pobeña, a small coastal town that seemed interesting.

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Peter and Michele, the yin and yang of our Camino family, watch the world blur by. Buses are incredibly fast when you’re used to traveling by foot.

Word of our plan spread through the albergue, and the next morning there were six of us at the bus stop: me, Eric, Peter the Australian, Michele the smiling French/Spanish linguist, and the two women we called The Giggling Germans. Navigating public transportation in a foreign country always makes me a little nervous. Will I know where to go? How to pay? When to stop? But everything went exactly as planned. The bus came, collected our fares of just over 1€ each, and carried us to the end of the line.

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The transporter bridge of Portugalete

There was even a bonus: the bus let us off on the east side of the Nervion River, at the foot of the city’s great Vizcaya Bridge. This ingenious “transporter” is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, first built in 1893 to ferry people and vehicles across the mouth of the busy river without impeding the busy commercial water traffic. Our group of six walked onto a small gondola-like carriage hanging from cables far above the water. Instead of going up and over the river, for € .40 (a whopping 46 cents US) we glided across it.

I suspect it was more fun than anything we might have seen in those 30 kilometers.

Did our shortcut make us lesser pilgrims than those who followed every yellow arrow? Perhaps. Were we even pilgrims at all if we weren’t going to Santiago? Maybe not.

Did it matter? Not at all. Every person, I was finally learning, approaches the yellow arrows for their own reasons and with their own priorities.

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Another shortcut?

From Portugalete, we wound our way through plenty of urban streets (with moving sidewalks!) and then through the industrial tunnels and concrete overpasses of urban sprawl. The walk was smooth but uninspiring until we hit Playa de Arena and, finally, returned to the beaches and ocean. Pobeña was just a kilometer or so inland, along a river inlet of tidal water.

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The municipal albergue in town was crowded but serviceable, and in the plaza just beyond it was a string of local cafes and bars. A group of older Basque men, most of them wearing black berets, went from bar to bar, singing classical folk tunes to draw the tourists (while having their cups filled for free in return). This, I decided, was the ideal way to enjoy retirement – surrounded by friends, music, and a few free drinks.

The afternoon passed peacefully, as we all soaked in the sun and watched the tide. Just before dinner, Michele – a man with the joyful heart of a child and the generosity of a much older man – convinced a group of us to go back to the beach. We’d been walking along it, observing it, for days, but he made us realize that none of us had actually dipped our feet in the water.

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And so we did. Three Germans (we added one somewhere in the afternoon), one Australian, one Spaniard, one Frenchman (Olivier from Paris had arrived that afternoon, after walking through Bilbao), and two Americans all flowed toward the ocean, just as the sun was casting its warm rays of evening. We rolled up our pants, shed our shoes, and…the only word I have is that we frolicked in the waves. We laughed. Splashed. Played like children.

A week before, we’d never met. A week later, we would be scattered back to the far corners of the globe. But there in Pobeña, the sunset and the ocean were ours.

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3 Camino del Norte Packing Essentials

Packing for a Camino always feels like a mix of research and guessing. Will I need this, or will it just add extra weight to my pack? Will I miss it? Can I wait and get it in France/Spain if I need it?

When I walked the Camino del Norte this spring, my packing list mostly looked like the lists from my first two Camino hikes (spring 2015 and summer 2017), adjusted for time of year. But there were three things I brought on this 17-day, 200-mile walk that were brand new to me, and that turned out to be essential:

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All geared up: rain pants, walking poles, and boots
  1. Rain Gear

The Camino del Norte hugs the coast of northern Spain, which is rugged and beautiful, but also wet and windy.

When I walked the Via Podiensis and the Camino Frances in 2015, I’d thought “hey, I’m from the Pacific Northwest. I have quick-dry clothes. I’m not worried about a little rain.” I brought only a lightweight, thrift-store jacket that, I discovered, let in as much water as it held out. Whenever it rained, I rolled up my pants, covered my pack, and accepted that I would be soaked to the skin. (It didn’t happen often, but there was one particularly long, chilly walk from Astorga to Rabanal.)

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Here comes the rain again…

But I knew the Norte was going to be different. Our chances of long, rainy days in May were high, according to the daly reports from other pilgrims on the Camino del Norte Facebook page. They were trudging through heavy winds and rain for weeks on end.

So I leveled up my rain gear. I picked up a high-tech Rhyolite jacket from REI that weighs almost nothing and protected me for hours with none of that clammy dampness that leaches through most raincoats. Then, after much debate, I bought a pair of Marmot rain pants on ebay.

And I discovered that backpacking in the rain didn’t have to be miserable.

Of the 17 days we spent on the Norte, there were 3 days when we had heavy rain for at least half the day, and 3 or 4 more with a shower or drizzle at some point in the hike. But I didn’t dread the rain the way I used to, because I walked in a dry bubble. My magical jacket and pants kept me totally dry. My backpack was lined with a trash bag inside, and a rain cover on the outside, and my boots were waterproof. Being outside for 8-10 hours on a wet and windy day wasn’t a disaster, or even unpleasant.

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Trekking poles for the win
  1. Walking Poles

I’ve tried “sticks” before. I bought 2 trekking poles in France during my first Camino but couldn’t get the hang of them, and when I forgot them in an albergue two weeks later, I didn’t miss them. And last year I bought one cheap pole in Pamplona for my walk to Burgos (which ended in Santo Domingo instead), but never felt like I needed it.

But on the Norte, the trekking poles were indispensable.

The Camino del Norte is a LOT more rugged than the Camino Frances, where thousands of pilgrims a year keep the paths generally wide and smooth. On the Norte, there’s more terrain: steep ascents and descents on loose rock; hills of slippery, ankle-deep mud; and this crazy path across a rock bridge of sharp rocks, with the ocean swirling in below.

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That’s me in the top left corner, swearing like a sailor as I crossed the sharp rocks over crashing water

 

(This was on a variant route just before Llanes. If wild walking across cow pastures and over raging oceans isn’t your thing, there’s also a road route.)

I used my poles every day, and was glad I had them.

(American pilgrims: most US airports will not let you carry trekking poles onto airplanes as carry-ons, even if they’re the kind that telescope down and fit in a bag. I wasn’t willing to check my backpack and risk it being damaged or lost, so I waited until I got to Europe and bought trekking poles in a sporting goods store in Irun, and left them in the Llanes albergue when my walk was done. It was 30 euro well spent.)

  1. The Right Shoes and Inserts

I’ve written extensively about my issues with my feet on long Camino walks, and about the hope I had for my Hoka One Ones. And it turned out to be a good choice. After three Caminos and four pair of shoes, I’ve finally found the pair that’s right for me.

The Tor Tech Mids and the Arch Rival inserts I put inside them were recommended by my sports doctor after I explained my past issues with high arches, tender soles, tendon issues on the top of my feet, plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, and the list kept growing. (Yes, almost every issue I have is below my ankles.)

The boots didn’t solve my problems, but they certainly helped, protecting my arches and ankles, while adding the shock absorption and cushioning that I needed for the daily beatings my feet took on rocky paths and miles of pavement. In fact, I’m still wearing them almost every weekend when we go for day hikes in the mountains near Seattle.

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These Hoka One Ones took a beating

Plus, they’re waterproof, which meant that I could brave not only the rain, but the treacherous mud.

Are they the right shoes for everyone? Of course not. Eric loves his Altras, and other pilgrims have their favorites. There’s not one hiking shoe that’s right for everyone. But if you’re someone with mid-sole issues like me, give the Hokas a chance.

 

What were your Norte packing essentials? If you’ve walked multiple Camino routes, what did you learn to bring on one and not another?

 

2 Months to Release: An Update

Writing and publishing a book, I’m learning, does weird things to time. On one hand, it seems like I’ve been working toward the release of Walking to the End of the World forever (well, okay, three years). On the other hand, the days left before release are flying by. October 1 is just around the corner, and stuff is happening.

Endorsements

While Eric and I were back in northern Spain this spring, walking the first half of the Camino del Norte, my fabulous publisher Mountaineers Books was coordinating with some of my favorite, most admired travel writers from both the Camino community and beyond. So many people — including Geraldine DeRuiter (All Over the Place), Kevin A. Codd (To the Field of Stars), Wendy Hinman (Sea Trials), and Steve Watkins (Pilgrim Strong) — were gracious enough to read and endorse my story with words like vividenchanting, wholly fresh, and self-deprecating. (Umm, is that last one a compliment?) You can read all of the endorsements on the Book page.

Off to Press! 

The book itself has been sent to the printer, much to my editors’ relief, which means all of the text is (finally) locked in. I’ll get to hold a “real” book in a few more weeks, and while the official release date is October 1, I’m told that copies will start trickling out before then. (So if you haven’t pre-ordered your copy from your favorite Everything Storeindependent bookstore, or direct from the publisher, now would be a good time.)

Events

Did you notice that new link up in the header? It’s still early, but book signings and presentations are already starting to fill my fall calendar. There are seven events now confirmed, spread across three states (yes, Colorado, I’m coming to you!), with more being added all the time. Check the Events calendar for the latest, and I’ll remind you as dates get closer. (Interested in me speaking at your local bookstore, travel store, book club meeting, or library? I’d love to. Shoot me an email.)

#Walkingtotheendoftheworld

Are you in Instagram? A couple of weeks ago I started a #walkingtotheendoftheworld countdown, tracing our Camino journey from Le Puy to Finisterre backwards with one photo from each day of the journey. It will end at the beginning, Le Puy, on October 1, just in time for you to start reading. Follow me (or just stalk the page if you’re not on IG) to see some of my favorite visual moments. (There are lots of Camino del Norte pics from this year, too.)

Blogging

And of course, there’s this blog. I have plans, some of them more reasonable than others, about how to grow this over the next few months. In addition to the Norte stories, I’m planning more gear and media reviews. Is there anything else you want to see? Questions you’re curious to explore? Leave me a comment.

Thanks again for your support and encouragement in all of these ventures. I couldn’t do it without you. (And I wouldn’t want to.)