From Sunrise to Siesta: a Piece of El Camino de Santiago

El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is a pilgrimage trek towards Santiago de Compostella, a cathedral for St. James in Santiago, Spain. There are numerous ways to get there, most commonly walking or biking vertically from Portugal or across the north of Spain from France. One woman I met began in Belgium where there were no official trail markers and accommodations until she reached the French border to “officially” begin. Rumors spread about this incredible woman, nearly 80 years old, a legend walking across Europe and sleeping outside churches. She was one of many unbelievable pilgrims, peregrinos, whose rich personal history is bigger than their backpacks. 

The symbol of Camino is the scallop shell. In St. Jean Pied de Port, the furthest starting point of the The French Way, peregrinos can choose a shell to hang on their packs. The shell symbol usually accompanies the arrows pointing towards the path direction to go. The lines of the shell are said to represent the many pathways to one destination. On some of the trail markers, people leaves stones for their sorrows. I didn’t know they were for sorrows, so I left well wishes and intentions.

Walkers (and cyclists) of Camino distinguish three main parts of the The French Way (from the French/Spanish border in St. Jean Pied de Port) according to the part of a human that is challenged most during that time. The first part, from St. Jean to Burgos, is Physical. The second part, from Burgos to León, is Mental/Psychological, and the final stretch, from León to Santiago is Spiritual. Here is a more creative take on the second portion from Burgos to León. This style is highly reflective of my experience in this portion, and includes segments from the journal I kept along the way.

Inspired by Oliver Sacks’  ‘River of Consciousness’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’. 

  1. I was starting to understand why it is people choose to sacrifice this portion of the walk. They avoid it like they avoid their chatty neighbor in the supermarket. They risk the label “fake pilgrim” which, I suppose, was only developed by the same people who were once the kids on the playground who took it upon themselves to referee recess games. It involves using methods of justice by outward blame via “That’s cheating!” and “No fair!!”

It’s the Meseta, or the flat plains in the middle of the entire stretch of The French Way of El Camino de Santiago.

2. It’s morning. No mid-morning, I think. The sun has been strong and striking me almost at a diagonal that reminds me of the poor soul in the early 1800s who had an iron rod slide right through his skull. Phineas Gage is the fellow I believe, and his personality drastically changed. With these iron sun beams, I think I am beginning to change as well. 

She’s far ahead and has been for hours, so I keep my pace and try not to acknowledge the subtle anxiety and usual body discomforts that have come along with walking something like seventeen days now. I’m not tired, I’m draining. My mood is bland and lifeless. I feel like a plain rice cake or the second slow song in a musical. Then I see it. It’s a single, square barn up ahead. I’m catching up to two people still too far away to identify who are about to pass it. Still not enthralled by this juicy spike in civilization, I continue steadily. Up by the barn as the figures pass, a dog is barking wildly then ceases. As I approach the barn and along the chain linked fence I wonder if the dog is there. I wonder if he will care. Inhale. Exhale he’s running towards me. I quicken my pace as my heart races and stare ahead to not look like a threat. The barking is so loud my vision is whitening. He’s so mad at me, and I know he can smell the fear dripping from me. Each violent bark sends a piercing spark that feels like my brain cells are popping. I’m going down, I can’t go down, I’m vertical, the length of the fence is extending, Pop pop, and inhale, the voice in my head is faraway, total whiteness.

The dog didn’t kill me. Breathing back to life, my body tingles like I’m getting goosebumps over and over. I feel as though I’d just been electrocuted or that there was a switch that has now made me aware of chemicals running through me, that I am entirely made up of chemicals. It was like fight and flight were arguing over custody leaving me to be blindly zapped through a tunnel following my own voice. I’m completely alone vibrating as my corpus callosum shrinks to the battle of the hemispheres. One claims this experience to be her own and there should be some sort of logical explanation to it, while the other believes she should have it since the experience was sensual and beyond logic. And so I run. I run with a bouncing 15 pound backpack strapped to me.    

When Bianca and I left our albergue this morning, the dark, cold air wafted the smell of baking bread. Together we fantasized ourselves being baked inside it all warm and fluffy, protected by its golden crust. Part of me resents the bread now that all around me as far as my human eyes can see is growing wheat. The Spanish baguette is slightly different from the French. 

I passed an elderly Frenchwoman yesterday sitting off to the side of the road with her oversized backpack sitting heavily beside her. I knew she was French because after a couple hundred of my paces onward, a car drove by with her in it. That’s not yet how I determined she was French. The car disappeared behind a hill in the path until I found it off to the side of the road with the woman pacing aimlessly alongside it. I didn’t know cars drove on this road, although looking at it, one wouldn’t expect it to be desirable to walk either. Anyway, a second woman, the driver, gets out looking desperate and asks in English if I speak English. She explains that this elderly woman only speaks French and she has been trying to explain to the French woman that she can help take her or her backpack down to the next pueblo only a kilometer away. One kilometer away. I clearly can’t be of any help in this situation, but before I go the driver offers me cherries from a square wooden basket. Don’t take food from strangers. I ate three. This man hikes up to us enthusiastically speaking Spanish from Argentina and helps himself to some of these free cherries. He asks me questions I attempt to answer in broken Spanish and goes on about the details of how he got here. Nobody simply walks. Just as my Spanish runs out, his family appears yelling “Que paso?!” concerned about the reason for this congregation. The woman driver looks flustered in the whirlwind of rapid Spanish, but offers cherries and wonders what to do with the large backpack in her back seat. I wave goodbye with a rush from seeing a distant pueblo and its bell-tower. My mouth itches from the unwashed cherries gifted by a stranger.  

My belly yells and the banana in my backpack laughs. I should wait until I pass through another tiny town before I fuel for the remainder of today’s distance. I haven’t listened to any music because random songs play in my head on their own. It’s a musical mashup in my head as a lyric in one song turns into another song. It won’t stop. What is the significance of the letter ‘x’? Xylophone. It makes the same sound as another letter not totally unlike other letters in the alphabet. Xylophone. That’s the only word I can think of that has ‘x’. Zzz—xylophone. My arm is suddenly so itchy. What is this? I think they’re bug bites or small hives. Aligned in a row then a cluster by my elbow. I’m pretty sure bed bug bites appear in a line form, but no, please that is not this. How can I get rid of them by simply hand washing everything? I should just get rid of everything in my backpack since it’s replaceable anyway. But my pack is also cloth, do they discriminate materials? Then my backpack itself has to go. What do I need anyway? I can’t afford to buy all new stuff right now. If tonight’s town is anything like last night’s it’ll only have a fruit stand the owner opted not to open. How could this happen? This is what I get for saving a few euros to sleep on a mat on a church floor. I hadn’t eaten so well as that meal in a long time, but they made me pay for it by reading aloud a bible verse. God, I hate reading aloud. Scratching, now I feel violated and repulsive. I should be exiled from the Camino community. Why do these bugs munch so linear? Are they on me now? Actually, I remember reading somewhere that they hate the heat—maybe they’re frying in my backpack right now. Will I open it to see dead bodies scattered in the folds of my clothes? Probably should skip that banana. Box! k-sss. That’s the sound it makes! 

Looks like a dark cloud. Can I outrun it?  From my shins to my feet will be soaked. It gets so steamy under this giant plastic tarp poncho. There’s lightning. I think my water bottle is aluminum. When out in the open, thunder feels like a rumbling hug. It doesn’t matter if I stop or speed walk. The clouds over there are swirly-looking; maybe a tornado is forming. Does Spain have tornadoes? I can definitely imagine one tearing through all this wheat. Let’s assume that’s a tornado over there. There’s a dent in the ground here, so I could dig myself a hole further that could possibly help somewhat when it passes. Now I’m passed it, so I’d have to act fast and run back to it if there isn’t a better one ahead. Timing could be critical, so maybe I shouldn’t bother. No one’s around, but I’m sure my passport will be found at some point. I could start running to try to find Bianca when I see it form. A part of me would rather die alone than die running. 

The morning we started walking this third of the trip, the sun had not fully revealed itself and was covered by the canopy of trees. I didn’t know these would be the last trees I’d see for many days, but I suppose we can never really know when something is one of our ‘lasts’. Anyway, my eyes kept visualizing shapes in the thick brush because there was no sound around me except my own footfalls. When there was nothing to hear, my eyes would step up to be stimulated. In an open landing in the trees, I saw a seemingly deserted van with tapestries covering the windows from the inside and a table holding an assortment of fruits and a 6 pack carton of eggs on the outside. A sign in imperfect English advertised massages I assumed would take place in the van by its owner and to take food all by “donativo”. Going further I noticed big wood carvings all around and a setup that looks almost like a commune only completely deserted. I half expected to find Bianca and the older Hungarian woman who had passed me earlier to be tied up as hostages with a fate of either the human sacrifices of the next ceremony or sex slaves. Since I likely can’t get very far defending myself with, say, my quick-dry travel towel or really any of the contents I’m carrying, I’d probably have to surrender and join them. Am I the type of person to orchestrate an epic escape plan when captured? Oddly enough, none of these fear provoking thoughts provoked any fear in me. It’s just another conclusion of the many hypothetical horrific tragedy scenarios I thought up along the way. I could be losing my mind. 

I like balloons. I like being underwater. I like my parents. I like cheese pizza. I like the color white because it’s all the colors combined. Mojitos with extra mint. The smell of bleach. The smell of freshly fallen leaves. How fine sand and untouched snow sparkle similarly in the sun. Fleetwood Mac. October 31st. Dress shopping. Board games. Drinking games. Rhinoceroses. Dance parties. Fluffy blankets.

I spent miles listing likes as specifically as I could. It passed the flat land like how counting to one hundred in Spanish got me up steep hills. Everything behind me was identical to ahead of me. I think that meant that all I had was that present moment. Whoa. Somehow that made me think of my apparent fear or avoidance of commitment. Or maybe it wasn’t commitment—it could be permanence. I pondered this as I pulled over towards the side of the path to pee.

After another day filled with wheat, I reached a town angry from the heat. I didn’t want to end the day this way, so I opted to continue to walk it off. From where I was standing on one edge of town, I could see the edge of the other side leading onwards. Honeysuckle bushes lined the path beautifully and smelled so sweet. This treat helped my mood change. I watched thick slugs lug their swirled shells all over the path in no apparent rush. I thought I might look like a snail from high up above.

I could see the top of the bell tower in the next town. Nearly every town has one, and it’s so comforting. I watched a local man cross over ahead and pick wild berries from a medium sized tree by the road. Some went to his mouth and some piled in his hand. He spotted me on his way back across and offered me the tart, red spheres. They’re good and free he said.

 The sun radiates towards and out from my body slowing my thoughts on pace with those after about three drags from a one-hitter marijuana bowl or one full bong hit. Why was I doing this? I can’t really remember much about the night I was sitting in my bedroom in my parents’ house with only the computer glare on its lowest brightness setting illuminating a bubble of immediate surroundings around me. I googled this thing. A walk in Spain. Across it. I read stories, packing lists, starting points, tips. This is a good idea. I’ll join hundreds of people walking a path guided by painted yellow arrows and scallop shells. I’ll set my own schedule that became rise before the sun, pack up, walk through the dark, set my meditative intentions at sunrise, walk until siesta, find a new bunk bed in a large room full of people doing this thing, shower, hand wash my clothes, lay down and wait to eat. Sometimes I’d meet people who’d interrupt the flow with invitations to drink more Estrella beer. Sometimes I’d see them again two days later or never again. We’d talk about how the walk induced pain while strand by strand wound it away. People would sew their blisters solely to keep going. But why.

3. Closer to León, there were more towns closer in proximity to one another. These four guys about my age were resting on a ledge off the road, but decided to keep going when I passed. I kept in time with the clicking of their walking poles while one pulled out his guitar and played original songs. I can’t imagine carrying that in addition to my pack. His pack was in front, guitar case across his back. They didn’t say too much after introductions. They met a couple days ago but joked like they’re old friends from high school. There was a Russian, a native Spaniard, a German, and an American. It sounds like the opening to a controversial joke. We walked 7km together before they took their next break. Once I sit it’s hard to get going again, so I keep moving on autopilot. It’s amazing people enter and exit your path almost constantly along the way then exchange Buen Camino, the well wishes intended to extend beyond this excursion. Painfully aware of the cliché, I still found beauty in Camino as one big concrete metaphor for life. Two weeks later the Russian guy, now separate from the others, reacquainted himself with me on the path and declared just that.

I think people avoid this portion of the Camino because you’re stuck with yourself. There isn’t much to look at for long kilometers only wheat wheat wheat right up to the horizon where the land touches the sky. There are barely even any signs or arrows pointing in the direction to go; it’s just implied that we know the only way to keep going is straight for as far as we can see. With no distractions and few people, some might fear the contents of their own minds, their own company to keep. Me, I sort of enjoyed it. I was on the brink of insanity at some points, a line as thin as the dividing horizon. Ultimately I felt to be in a dream state time warp. Is that in the DSM V of psychological disorders? I’ve heard many people indicate that this part from Burgos to León is not important or exciting enough. They say it’s the hardest part. But it’s where all the problem solving happens! It’s also where all the problem surfacing happens. There’s nowhere to go but walk through them. The issues would swirl around your head like the cloud of flies following your every step. They can’t be waved away, and sometimes one will fly from nowhere directly into your eye.

My mind reeled in two ways: stream of consciousness and beads on a string. Oliver Sacks, a neuroscientist, describes the simile of beads on a string as allowing one thought experience to happen at a time without relation or correlation to any others. It’s a theory that he says has been disregarded since technically all of our thoughts need to be connected to survive. But through mindfulness meditation I think we do sort of string beads by attempting to focus on only the exact present moment and slice the stream to better recognize our thought patterns. I began the walk with a steady stream of one whacky thought flowing into the next flowing into song. Then songs suddenly silenced and the thoughts slowed to one by one creating a necklace not chaos.

 I had also begun to imagine my life and some directions I’d like to see it go. By the time the sun rose I had planned a wedding, started a business, and thought up two poems. I realized I might not want any of those things. When you’re walking in the middle of nowhere, you’re forced to see yourself without any labels, to challenge yourself by stripping everything to see what’s left. It’s kind of like that song “Horse With No Name” by America. Then I worried and wondered what it might be like to integrate back into reality outside of the Camino lifestyle. Somehow I couldn’t see myself not walking. Sure I dreamed up my dreams, but here I was living one, and it was simply walking. I never quite figured out any ‘higher purpose’ for completing the Camino, but if I had to guess, it was all in the feeling when passing patches of sunflower fields that concluded the ‘Mental Messeta’.

We had established our pace walking at minimum 18km (~11miles) to 41km (~25 miles) a day. It took us 26 walking days to complete the 800km (~500 mile) trek across Spain. We had every ailment under the sun. Pamplona’s opening ceremony celebration for the week-long San Fermin Running of the Bulls festival destroyed us. I planned to complete this journey on my own, but my good friend Bianca said ‘Yes!’ to my mere explanation of it. In the final Spiritual portion of the journey I badly injured my leg and dealt with emotional turmoil that came with it. I can’t begin to explain what has come from excursion, but learning personal limits, strength, and how to surrender were some of the most notable. In Santiago, you can receive a certificate of completion in addition to your fully stamped “passport.” As annoying as this sounds, the papers are nothing compared to the footprints the established community and life-changing personal transformation leave long after it’s complete.

My stamped Camino passport (continued on the back!)

Feel free to send Live Fluently a message or comment below if you’d like some tips for embarking on this journey! If you like this page, please share it. Buen Camino!

Bianca and me at Santiago de Compostella August 1, 2018 9am

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