On Saturday, our final walking day, six of us did Stage 29 (out of 33) in John Brierley’s practical guide to the Camino. Everyone else walked a somewhat shorter distance by joining the Camino five and a half miles farther on. From Portomarín we all traveled by bus to the outskirts of Santiago and walked the final two and a half miles to the Cathedral.
It’s 13.7 miles from Sarria to Portomarín. Our guide estimated it would take us between six and eight hours. It took four of us five and a half hours. That wasn’t a bad pace considering there were 900 feet of elevation gain, some slightly tricky streams trickling down the Camino at several points, and a herd of cows we had to step aside for, and given that we stopped twice at albergues for coffee, pastries and to use the restrooms.
I found myself striding again with Chuck, my walking partner on our first big hike over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles. Chuck’s legs are significantly longer than mine, he is younger, and he’s a longtime hiker. So I had to work to match his pace and not slow down on the uphill. I was wondering how long I could keep it up at whatever speed we were going.
I have been one of the faster walkers, though not the fastest. I’m also a lifelong runner and veteran of a fair number of road races. I’ve never run a marathon, but since turning fifty-eight I’ve run four half-marathons. It’s enough running history that when someone drops me off at Point A and tells me I have to get to Point B, I start fast out of the blocks, calculating as I pass mile markers how long it’s likely to take me to reach the finish line.
But this was the Camino, not a race, as so much of the Camino literature likes to point out. True, we had an estimated time of arrival, and a group of people waiting to board the bus and drive to that night’s hotel. In some ways we didn’t have the luxury of a true Camino pilgrim, who might decide to shorten or lengthen any particular day and adjust her plans accordingly. But that didn’t mean we had to beat our guide’s ETA.
Well, you can walk the Camino like that, like the retired Dutch executive from Shell Oil we met. He’d hit his stride at 18 miles per day. He wasn’t doing the Camino for religious reasons. We never asked him why he was walking it, but he clearly wanted an expeditious journey.
But unlike those marathons that feature rock bands at every mile to keep you going strong, or the water stations where volunteers hand you cups as you run by so you can drink without stopping, the Camino has ways of snagging you and making you slow down, if only a little.
To begin with, there is the scenery. Poppy fields in Navarra that make you want to lie down in them like the poppies that beckon Dorothy and her companions in “The Wizard of Oz.” Mountainsides near Astorga blanketed with heather. Wild flowers along the Camino inviting you to abandon yourself to their intense blue-violets, pinks, yellows, and their whites as stark and assertive as the tops of the waves at Finesterra.
Large farm dogs lie in the middle of the path as you enter a hamlet somewhere in the hill country of Galicia. They are so used to pilgrims that they don’t move, so you move around them. A small woman herds a group of six Jersey cows down the Camino, preceded by a little terrier, and you have to stand at the edge of the path to let the procession go by. Birds hidden in rushes at the edge of a canal or in the bushes that hang over the Camino sing unfamiliar songs in an almost preternaturally loud coloratura.
Then there is the simple necessity of a stop now and then to re-fuel on café con leche, cheese and ham sandwiches or pastries at one of the many cafeterías along the way, which also entitles you to use the bathroom.
And sometimes you come to a fork in the way and have to pause. Instinctively, you begin looking for a yellow arrow, perhaps painted on the stone foundation of an old house or the base of a garden wall, or below you on the asphalt, and sometimes on an actual Camino obelisk mottled with moss and age. The yellow arrow becomes a welcome companion, appearing suddenly just when you need it. “And when you turn to your right or when you turn to your left,” says the prophet Isaiah, “you shall hear a word behind you, saying: ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” The yellow arrow is the silent word, not behind you but ahead and below and out of the corner of one eye.
On Saturday we came upon two older American women who were not even carrying day packs: they had flimsy little book bags slung over their backs. One of them was saying the Hail Mary over and over, not loudly, but not in a mumble, either. We passed them, but then I stopped and walked back and said one Hail Mary with them. One of the women smiled at me and crossed herself and then we walked on, leaving the women behind. A few more minutes lost, at least by some calculations.
I was not racing to Santiago because I was about to board a bus that would take me almost into the city. Nor was I racing against my fellow pilgrims, although I sometimes had to remind myself of that. Anyway, my running days are probably over. I was learning that the Camino’s rhythms are its own.
Stop. Start again. Look for the arrow, and then walk that way.
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