The last few days have brought with them events unexpected, which perhaps, is to be expected during El Camino.
From sleeping in a haunted hostel, and feeling loopy from drinking tainted water; to walking half a day in the wrong direction, and realizing the need to reassess how we approach the remainder of the trail.
At the beginning of this trip, the Camino was shrouded in mystery; we didn’t know who we would meet or how the accommodations would be; we didn’t know if we had brought what we needed, or too much, or too little; we didn’t know if we would make it to Santiago, or how.
After almost three weeks on the trail, many of those questions have been answered, at least in part. But the last few days have made it clear that the surprises and challenges of El Camino don’t stop coming just because you’ve made it halfway, or because you’ve walked a whole 300 miles already.
Akash’s physical challenges have been more persistent and severe than my two days of shin splints. But it turned out that getting the shin splints was the only way for me to begin to understand what it’s like to have an injury on the Camino: to walk 18 miles a day when a sharp pain arises each time you take a step; to not be sure if you can make it that last 10 miles, or the last five, or the last three; to feel like your destination is moving farther away from you as the day wanes.
As my injury disappeared, Akash’s exacerbated. I slowed my pace to try to accommodate her; she walked more miles than she should have to try to accommodate me. We pushed and we pulled, and it worked well for a while.
Then, two days ago, the Camino threw something at us.
We followed the wrong arrow out of Villaviciosa, and several miles later found ourselves on the wrong trail: the Primitivo. We were directly and significantly south of Peon, the town that should have marked our halfway point for the day.
We walked around Sariego with our giant, and until then unused Camino map, asking weekend visitors if they knew the way back to Peon. They didn’t.
We made it to a bar and Akash spotted the woman to ask. She was a squat older woman with light red lipstick and a dark perfume that reminded me of my primary school teachers.
She tried hard to understand my creative use of the Spanish language.
“Peon? Ohhhh. Mira–” she said, and traced a red nail across the map as she went on to explain how impossible it would be for us to walk to Peon, and then our ultimate destination, Gijon before dark.
I zoned out and stared at the map, having given up on straining to understand her. Only the occasional “autobus a Gijon” made it into my consciousness.
When my brain turned on again, it told me that it was opposed to taking a bus to Gijon, it refused to walk backward to Villaviciosa, and that indeed, it did not seem possible to walk up to Peon.
It would have to be Akash’s suggestion: a taxi.
“Tal vez nos llamos un taxi…?” I suggested to the woman. And before I knew it she was on the phone and a car was on its way.
I relaxed a little. It wasn’t cheating exactly. Technically we had walked a mile or two more than we were supposed to anyway.
The taxi was a clean silver mini van, the driver was a soccer mom with a strong, smooth voice and short, greying hair.
A long, confused discussion about our destination ended in the driveway of our driver’s home, where her teenaged, English-speaking daughter clarified things.
I tried to keep myself from being sick and/or falling asleep during the 20 minute ride up the windy mountain.
“Hallelujah,” our driver said as we pulled into the parking lot at Casa Pepito’s just outside of Peon.
We were back on track, but walking again, I was disoriented. I felt like a bee who had been migrating when someone captured me, put me in a jar and sent me off in another direction.
We walked 10 more miles before we reached Gijon, another big city with bad signage.
Of course 20 miles was much more than Akash should have walked on her ankle and she was in pain and exhausted.
I on the other hand, couldn’t feel a thing. I went out to watch the sunset turn Gijon gold, and the Saturday night owls, dressed up and crowded around cafes with beers and wines in hand.
The following day, we walked separately after what I can only describe as an argument of sorts. Akash took a taxi through the ugly, industrial edge of Gijon and walked as many kilometers as her ankle could handle.
I walked fast out of the city and tried to figure out what had gone wrong. What was the lesson here for me? Should I have slowed down more? Should I have been open to taking taxis or buses? Should we have just walked fewer kilometers? Taken more rest days? Was there more room still for accommodating our different needs? Or was this just a part of the Camino? A natural break? Was it even reasonable for two people to walk the Camino in its entirety together?
An old Belgian guy caught up to me, confused about the signage. I explained that there were no arrows through the city, just the bronze shells on the ground. We walked together until we got to a big hill.
“Go ahead if you need to,” he said through a thick French accent. “I know how exhausting if you don’t walk your pace. It must be yours.”
I realized at that moment that I didn’t know what my pace was. I had been walking so fast all morning just because I could; just to compensate for having walked slower than I normally would have over the last weeks.
I’m glad that Akash and both our injuries opened me up (however little) to slowing down. Rushing to get to the end of things has always been my MO. The moral of The Hare and the Tortoise was lost on me as a child.
But ultimately, it’s not about how fast or slow anyone walks. It’s the individual who has to feel what pace is right for them. Everyone’s Camino is different; everyone has a different reason for walking, everyone is challenged in a different way, and everyone benefits differently. All anyone can really do to get through it is to take care of themselves.
Today we walked apart again and I found my pace. I didn’t have to think about whether I was walking too fast, or stopping to let anyone catch up. Three hours went by and it felt like ten minutes.
Akash made a Finnish friend who likes to take her time and walk the same daily distances.
The pressure we had both been feeling over the last few days to satisfy each other’s styles has dissipated.
We thought after two weeks that we had had this thing figured out, but no. We’re still trying to find our Buen Camino.