Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela: Just Walking It

by Craig Bernthal

I admit, first off, that this title is misleading. I walked only 200 miles across northern Spain, from Leon to Santiago, in 13 days. I was overweight by about 30 pounds, and it still amazes me that I did it, but it was not the whole Camino. If you take the most famous route, the Camino de Frances, you go from St. Jean, France, over the Pyrenees, through Pamplona, and then across to Santiago: 500 miles. My friends, Young Soo Chun, from Seoul, and Pamela Pollock, from Eugene, Oregon, did that trip, which is divided into 33 stages (one stage for each year in the traditional life of Christ) in 29 days. Now they're walkers! But people start farther back than that, because you can get on the Camino from all over Europe. I met a 65 year-old French woman who started in Arles, just north of her native Marseilles. I met a German who started in Germany. Theoretically, you could start in St. Petersburg, Russia or Prague. Some people walk from St. Jean, or farther away, and then walk back. I truly amazed myself in walking 200 miles, but I certainly amazed no one else.

When you walk 200 miles, you learn something about time and distance that you would never know otherwise. You finally get to see a country and see a people in a way that no other form of travel allows. You walk though the beautiful core of cities like Leon, Astorga, and Santiago, but you also go through the ugly suburbs. You meet cows with bells. You meet sheep with bells, and it dawns on you that “bellwether” means exactly what you’ve just seen. You meet very very tiny great grand-mothers, toddling down the village you’re walking through, cane in hand, three teeth left, who greet you with a great smile and a “Buen Camino.” You breath in heavy agricultural smells, and astonishing stinks from rice processing plants. Almost everyone has a “Buen Camino,” or “Buenos Dios,” or “Bueno” for you out in the villages, and they will talk with you in Spanish and bear with your horrible pronunciation with good grace, and your sign language, and you will communicate.

Its hard to get lost on the Camino, but not impossible. The way is marked by kilometer stones with the symbol of the Camino, a yellow scallop shell. You see lots of yellow arrows pointing the way. Few spots were confusing, but there were some.

One of the first scallops I noticed was in the pavement in Leon:

But most or the time, we saw something more like this:

You see the scenery, from knockout gorgeous to ugly. We went through at least 5 distinct zones. First, there was the central plateau of Spain, hot, agricultural, humid: for me, one of the toughest walks was in this heat, during the first days, from Mazarife to Astroga (Stage 22, and the longest, at 31.2 km.):

The hardest day for me was Rabanal to Molinaseca (Stage 24 at 26.5 km.) because of the difficult downhill trail over slate, and this part of the trip, because it took us to the highest point on the Camino (1,515 meters) and had vegetation that reminded me of heather, seemed a lot like Scotland:

The next day was Molinaseca to Villafranca (Stage 25, 30.9 km., but a relief after the previous day), and this was like Napa Valley: beautiful vineyards and hills:

The next two climatic zones occurred on the passage from LaFaba to O’Cebreiro (the last bit of stage 26) and on to Triacastela (stage 27), a little more than one stage in a day and about 26.4 km. LaFaba to O’Cebreiro reminded me very much of the country around Carmel, California, and the coastal range on the Pacific side:

(We liked to start in the dark, and saw some wonderful sunrises.)

(Just east of Galicia)

(The border of Galicia and Leon y Castilla; notice the Templar Cross
another symbol of the Camino)

But once we crossed in Galicia, we entered a country very much like Washington State: very green, lush, and cool, with ferns and Eucalyptus, imported from Australia. Lots of rain!

That was the territory, and at a walking pace, you not only go slow enough to see it—you go slow enough to meditate on it, which leads to a way of seeing that sinks in. On the Camino, you have a chance to see deeply. The difference between doing this, and day-hiking in the Sierra Nevada, which is what I’m used to, is that, when you do it day after day, it makes a difference. You become forced into looking and seeing as a habit, and your rhythm changes as the Camino works on you.

You also pay attention to how you are feeling, which is often, quite uncomfortable, at least in the beginning. I had major blister trouble. I walked on them anyway, and the pain went away, so long as I kept walking. My backpack, at 20 pounds, became heavier than I imagined it could be. I kept lifting it off my shoulders with my thumbs. When you walk about 25 to 30 km., per day, you find that every kilometer you walk after a lunch break is much harder than when you were fresh in the morning, and you are more than happy to reach an albergue.

Your body talks to you all the time. You find that you have many weaknesses, and they all reinforce each other. Bad knee? Maybe I should have gotten that brace after all. The bad left knee throws the left foot off. Blisters build up on the left foot, which is also a bit smaller than the right, so it is probably sliding around in the boot more. You adjust because of the blisters. You’ve used “Glide”; it doesn’t help much. Walking gingerly puts more pressure on the left knee. This goes round in a circle and produces more blisters and more knee trouble. You thought you’d get hiking sticks in Spain? Well, you haven’t seen any, but you have picked up one of the heavy wooden kind, thank goodness. You start composing prayers to Nuestra Senora de Fricción Perpetuo. 

In Rabanal, you pick up a knee brace and walk for a while with great relief, but, know what? Should have gotten one for the other knee. You buy one, on Sunday, in the only farmacia open, in Ponferrada. Young Soo—to be introduced later—lends you his high tech metal hiking stick for three days, otherwise, you’d still be up in the mountains. Then you buy another wooden one, and are relieved to give Young Soo his stick back, which you notice, now, that he uses constantly. Finally, in Sarria, right on the Camino, you hit a hiking store, buy high-tech aluminum sticks, which make a huge difference. After about ten days of blister pain and backpack irritation, the dawn breaks. You’re feet are broken in, your backpack feels almost as if it belongs there, and you make great time to Santiago—but you are very happy to arrive.

(To be continued)


  1. Craig, the Camino starts where the pilgrim starts walking! There is no geographic starting place for it - only those that guide book writers use for convenience. Spanish people who live near Leon probably walk from their front doors and they walk 'the whole thing' to Santiago. (Actually, Walter Starkie said that the Camino Frances starts in Paris so that would mean that very few pilgrims walk the 'whole thing!") So - "I only walked 200 miles" is a big deal for the millions of people who will never have the courage to get there are start walking!

  2. Sil, I see you have a terrific blog, "Amawalker." I hope people reading this check it out.