A Long Day on the Camino

Now, I love the thru-hiking community dearly, but I can’t help but notice certain patterns to the conversations at shelters, watering holes, or shade trees:

“I just crushed 21 miles.”

“Yeah, I’m easily at 3.5 miles an hour — uphill.”

“Your pack looks like the new Gregory model.  I looked into that one, but then I chose one that experts say beats it on every level.”

“People say this trail is rocky, but it’s nothing compared to Mahoosuc Notch.”

“Guess I need to go grab some water.  This filter has 3,000 miles on it, but it will probably last a bit longer.”

“I should be in Canada in just a couple months.  Everyone could if they really put in the effort.”

There’s so much bro talk!  I try my best to avoid such conversations, but sometimes, especially when it’s clear that the speaker imagines he’s the most seasoned/fastest/toughest hiker there is, it’s too hard to resist asserting myself.  When Ant would catch me discussing pace or mileage on the PCT, he’d start calling me Rainbro Dash.

Years of these sorts of experiences had convinced me that that’s just the way the backpacking community was, and I’d stopped thinking much of it, bro-ing out when need be but (probably like many other hikers) relishing the deeper-than-gear-and-bro-talk conversations that happened one-on-one.  And, that’s why I was completely caught off guard by the absence of bro talk on the Camino de Santiago.

In the albergues at night and along the way, pilgrims didn’t discuss the number of miles they’d gone that day or on their journey. Pilgrims didn’t discuss pace.  There wasn’t any talk of gear.  No one exchanged resumes or tried to impress each other with tales of their adventures.

So, when I put in my first “big-mile day” on the Camino — my first marathon day of the trip — the only social consequence of my exhaustion was the way my sun-muddled brain struggled to string together Spanish sentences for the hospitalera.  I think the absence of external motivation made the day seem both more surreal and more fun.

The day had begun in Arrés, a tiny hillside town of 40 people.  I hadn’t slept much the night before, but I hadn’t cared:  I was in good company and had enjoyed my first communal Camino dinner.  We also breakfasted together, and then I set off.

I was on the Camino Aragonés, and the day seemed to dawn hot and just get hotter.  Along old rural roads, shade was limited, but I found a few cooler places to rest occasionally.  Most of the time, I was too busy marveling at the area’s “lunar landscapes” to stop walking:  The valley of the Rio Aragonés is dotted with eroded bad lands where nothing grows.

The middle section of the morning involved a brutally hot walk along a deserted new highway which may or may not have been the Camino.  (It’s a long story.)  It provided stunning views of a bright blue reservoir beneath long ridges, before yellow arrows led me downhill.  They took me along an overgrown, forested path, where a crumbling old ermita waited in a clearing, still providing a quiet place of worship and meditation to pilgrims.

Most of the Arrés crew stopped for the day in another small town under the towers of a medieval castle.  After cooling off with them, I continued on my way, surprised to find that the trail ascended into a forest.  I walked along a forest road, and the mid-day sun provided little shade, so I found a good spot and enjoyed one of my favorite components of a long day’s hike: a trailside nap.

When I woke, I headed toward Puenta la Reina once more and soon found myself in high moorland.  A longtime fan of The Secret Garden — I answered to “Dickon Sowerby” for about a year — I have a special love of the bioregions known as “moors,” and reaching the heathered highlands late in the day, already elated from exertion, was enough to make me quite high on life.  By the time my journey up there was over, I was thoroughly windblown, thoroughly sunbaked, and thoroughly happy.

Depending on the elevation gain, my favorite hiking days are generally 24 to 32 miles long.  That length seems to allow me enough time to stop and smell the roses and take some scenic breaks — such as my dinner break under a tree near the descent to Undués de Lerda — but still walk long enough to find a lovely hiker’s high.  As an Irish pilgrim told me, “When the body is tired, the mind feels good.”

That night, my mind was wonderfully quiet and content as I made my bed at the albergue.

Impressions of the Chemin d’Arles

When I set out to walk the historic Camino de Santiago, I knew that I wanted to experience the primary route, the Camino Frances, but also other smaller, less traveled paths.  Spreading out guidebooks and maps all over the coffee table, I decided on a general route I would take, a dabbler of Caminos that together formed a continuous footpath from Pau, France, to the western coast of Spain.

Oloron St. Marie and the Pyrenees

Oloron St. Marie and the Pyrenees

First along my route was the Chemin d’Arles, known in Spain as the Via Tolosana.  This route stretches from its namesake in southeastern France up through the Pyrenees, where it crosses into Spain (and becomes the Camino Aragones) at the Col du Somport (Somport Pass).

The western portion of the Chemin d’Arles, which was my introduction to the Camino, was beautiful, and I’ve been told that the section from Arles to Pau is even more lovely.

Highlights of the walk included community and town forests, tiny French mountain towns, and sweeping views of vineyards and rolling valleys.  Especially memorable was the climb to Somport Pass through an evergreen forest and then the meadows, wildflowers, and mountain air that greeted me at the top.  But, it wasn’t just the natural settings that I loved about the Chemin d’Arles:  I also have fond memories of a night I spent in a monastery and the sweet, chocolatey scent of Oloron St. Marie, a town straight out of a fairy tale, where homes looked down on a chilly river and flower boxes adorned the windows.

A field of seedlings

A field of seedlings

Perhaps like some other Americans, I’d grown up conflating “France” with “Paris.”  I’d heard that French people were stuck up and obsessive about fashion and unwelcoming to foreigners.  While I had a difficult time reconciling that vision with the France of D’Artagnan’s boyhood, I suppose that, somewhere along the line, I’d just accepted it.  When I got to France, I was reminded of the fact that New York and Washington, D.C., are hardly representative of our entire country.  Perhaps rural people anywhere in the world have their own ways of being.

My least favorite portion of my time on the Chemin d’Arles was a rather death-defying roadwalk along a curvy mountain highway.  Naturally, the day I walked that section was a rainy, misty one.  I found myself clinging to the cliff face when I was on the inside of curves.

A little snail

A little snail

A simple, unexpected pleasure of the Chemin d’Arles — and, indeed, of much of my Camino — was the number of snail sightings it afforded me.  I’d read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, a precious musing on chronic illness and life’s little pleasures, before my pilgrimage, and the snails I saw on the path, on fence posts, and on flower stems made me smile.

My time on the Chemin d’Arles was brief, especially considering that pilgrims who walk from Arles walk for a month.  However, I walked along the path long enough to enjoy my time, look forward to the rest of the Camino, and decide that walking the entire route should happen someday.

In a tangentially related note, I wanted to share that I’ve begun felting wool paintings from sights I loved along my Camino.  First up is this scene from the Camino Aragones.  I added the cairn to the foreground this morning, and I’m looking forward to felting the snow-capped Pyrenees tomorrow!

Lescar Rainbow

My First Night on the Camino

The first pilgrim I met on the Camino was an older man who’d walked years before.  I think.  He only spoke French, and I only spoke English; nevertheless, we talked for half an hour or so.

As a local caretaker of the “hostel,” he’d come to the refuge in Lescar soon after I arrived.  He added my name and stats to the register he kept — I learned that I unusually young, alone, and American — and encouraged me to make use of the beautiful country home Lescar offered pilgrims on their journeys.  Then, he gave me a huge, colorful scallop shell to carry to Santiago.

When he left, I went to sleep, still exhausted from London and the travel.  I was awoken by late-hiking pilgrims — young, American pilgrims!  We were all surprised to see each other and have easy conversation.

As we ate dinner and discussed our love for Bernie Sanders, the skies opened up.  So thankful for a roof over my head, I watched the storm from the windows.

By the time we were doing dishes, Arianna from California called the rest of us to look out to see a rainbow.  Sure enough, over the field next to the house stretched one of the most vibrant rainbows I’ve ever seen.  As someone who’d hiked more than 4,000 miles as “Rainbow Dash,” I couldn’t help feeling that the occasion was auspicious.

Rainbow in Lescar

Rainbow in Lescar

Falling in Love with the Pink City

I’m not a city person.  My general MO in a new city is to get out of it as quickly as possible — or, if that’s not possible, find a happy place in a patch of green somewhere inside the concrete jungle.  However, even in spite of its hosting Eurovision 2016 while I was there, the city of Toulouse, where my journey to Santiago began, promptly won my heart.

I flew there from Heathrow, where I enjoyed operatic arias in the restrooms and the relaxed pace of the terminals.*  The British Airlines’s flight was pleasantly bilingual, but French was everywhere (and often unaccompanied by English) once the plane touched down.

From the airport, I took a shuttle to the heart of the city, where I’d catch my bus to Pau the following morning, unless it had been canceled by the bus strike.  I arrived at the Jean d’Arc station (fangirl moment!) and then navigated my way to the hostel.**

Instantly, I fell in love with Toulouse.  Nicknamed “the Pink City,” it did, indeed, appear as though I viewed it through rose-colored glasses.  The buildings ranged in hue from salmon to ballerina pink, as did the sidewalks.  Plentiful street trees infused the city’s palatte with green.  It felt warm and inviting, especially after the rain and greys of London.

The city’s crown jewel is its Basilique Saint-Sernin, which is a destination for pilgrims on the Chemin d’Arles.  It was stunningly beautiful — but, in my mind, so was the rest of the city, from the winding pink streets to the huge municipal plaza to the banks of the river, where I’m convinced that the city’s residents go to enact Sunday in the Park on a daily basis.

I enjoyed a “takeaway” dinner from in a park, as I watched the sun set across the river.  Then, I retired to the hostel, to sleep amid the evening’s last birdsong before setting off on the Camino the next day.  I made a pledge to myself:  If I ever were to have a European love affair, I would take it to Toulouse.

*Conversational blue blaze:  From what I could tell this summer, it seems that everyone in Europe thinks we Americans are bizarre for removing our shoes for security.

**Another blue blaze:  Pre-downloaded Google Maps saved my life this summer.  Google Translate was helpful, too, but Google Maps is amazing.