Part 1 in a series of snapshots of my journey on the Camino de Santiago, Spain, February and March 2013.
Pain, boredom, loneliness, despair, worry, rain, snow, slush, mud: so begins my Camino de Santiago.
I leave Pamplona, alone, heading towards mountains that loom in the distance, the view hazy with incoming snow. My shoes are not waterproof. The wind slices into me as I puff my way uphill. I am not very fit.
I get scared that I will miss a vital yellow arrow or signpost in the snow. I concentrate hard on keeping an eye out. There is a memorial for someone near the summit; the faded fake roses at the foot of it are sodden and pathetic. There is no buena vista as reward for the climb; not much can be seen except for the dull, wet snow that falls. The whole image is bleak and harsh, and I feel very isolated.
Starving, there is nothing for it but to stop where I am and eat my Bocadilla de Tortilla, kindly prepared by my Basque friend in her home before my journey began. I stumble down a slope into some ruins; the nearest thing to shelter that this exposed land supplies. My feet are soaking. It’s an uncomfortable feeling but I know that soon I will get to the nearest Albergue and stop for the night.
The next Albergue is closed, and the village is totally dead; nowhere to even ask. I keep walking. The one in the next village is also closed. My anxiety creeps to a higher level as dusk swiftly falls.
The next morning I have company on the path: three other walkers who I gladly met in the hostel in Puenta de la Reina the night before.
We walk through slush; it splashes unpleasantly up my legs. The morning has only just begun and my feet are already sodden. When it snows properly I can appreciate it as a pleasure; the solid flakes fall easily off my poncho and my feet can crunch and find traction in the thicker snow. But when the snow is diluted with slush and rain like this, my body becomes tense trying not to slip, and my shoulders hunch to retain heat. In this state I become more conscious of the developing blisters on my feet, and I am intensely aware of how many kilometers are still to go.
I look at my watch, trying to see hope; calculating kilometers per hour, per minute.
I look at the ground and walk.
The rivers are a beige colour, opaque with silt and mud. They are swollen, sometimes bursting their banks. It becomes harder to find dry bits of path away from the streams of water filling the crevices. Constant diligence is needed to navigate the stepping stones, and we jump and weave to avoid getting our feet totally drenched over and over again.
Finally, I observe with horror and despair that the Camino track ahead gives up completely and becomes just another fast flowing brown river, indistinguishable from the rest.
So, after some deliberation, I too submit to the water and walk straight through, the moisture instantly travelling through the absorbent material of my shoes, filling them up. We squelch onward.
Arrival at the destination town of Estella is not the instant satisfaction and elation that I had anticipated: when we get there we discover that the Albergue doesn’t open for another forty five minutes. Standing on the doorstep, we are too sore and cold and wet and exhausted to do anything but shiver and wait.