What Happened?

A lot. Here are my Camino Diaries, day-by-day, every step of the way.

Camino del Norte: Basque Country

This was my most solitary and perhaps the most beautiful stretch of the Camino.  I followed all the official stages here, even the shorter days, as I wanted to build up the mileage slowly (and my friend David planned to meet me in Bilbao on July 6).  I learned something new about running the trails of the Camino, the generous people of the region around me, and the unique depth of Camino friendship every day.  And there was certainly no lack of adventure.

Day 1: Irún to San Sebastián

  • Distance: 27.5 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 818 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Irún: Albergue de Peregrinos Santa Ana (my rating: 3 stars; large, loud)
  • Albergue/Hostel in San Sebastián: Albergue Juvenil La Sirena (my rating: 4 stars; clean, friendly, big kitchen)

I spent the night at the official albergue in Irún and started running in pre-dawn mist.  The trail wound up and up through the clouds.  The pilgrims I passed all gave me strange looks, and I didn’t stop at all. 

Looking down on Irún.

Soon I was on my own on a wide dirt path, taking in the uniquely sweet smell of the Spanish forest.  After a long descent, I arrived in a tiny village of stone on a river.  I felt as though I was the only person there.  As I wandered through the empty streets, I saw that there was a Victor Hugo museum, and it was open.  I entered, still alone, the house where Hugo had lived with a family during a trip he spent walking alone along the same coastline.  I had not yet seen the sea, but I would soon become familiar with Hugo’s description:  

“When we doze off on the shore, 

All around us sways and strokes our ears: 

The sound of the wind on the waves, 

The sound of the waves on the rocks. 

In our dreams we hear, 

Sea shanties in the distance.”

When I left the museum, I found a tiny dock and a tiny boat, which carried me to the other side of the river. 

My Lilliputian ferry.

There, I ran out towards the coast and climbed up never-ending stone stairs.  The sun began to come out from behind the clouds and I saw the wild coastline for the first time. 

The rest of the trail was a dream, winding up and down right along the edge of the coast, until it brought me down to the lazy beaches of San Sebastián. 

I stayed in a private hostel there (where they were nice enough to let me shower long before their official check-in time), walked barefoot on the beach, visited a surprisingly exceptional pop-up exhibition on the history of Picasso’s Guernica, bought some compression socks and ear plugs, and cooked dinner alone, enjoying a full day of solitude. 

Day 2: San Sebastian to Zarautz

  • Distance: 20.4 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 558 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Zarautz: Galerna Zarautz Hostel (my rating: 3 stars; rather dirty)

Another overcast, misty run along the coast—I almost felt like I was in the Scottish Highlands.  I was surprised at how good I felt on the first, hard climb.  That was mostly on pavement, so I was thrilled to hit trails at the top.  There were some tricky downhill sections, including one of huge, round, cobblestones still slick from the rain. 

Fun running!

After descending into a grey, industrial town along the river, the trail climbed again to overlook the sea and ended with a long stair descent into Zarautz, and the longest beach in Spain. 

Not a bad place to end the day.

Once again, the sun came out for my arrival, and once again, I was lucky enough to talk my way into an early shower at my hostel.  I ate pizza by the beach, napped in the sun, and did yoga in the sand.  Little did I know (though no complaints), this was my last day of being alone. 

Day 3: Zarautz to Deba

  • Distance: 22.5 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 788 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Deba: Albergue de Peregrinos (my rating: 4 stars; perfectly adequate, though no kitchen)

Today I made my first Camino friend (a lovely French woman who had stayed at the same hostel) and I discovered the breakfast of champions (a pain au chocolat and cafe con leche).  I also learned that starting early is key when it’s going to be a sunny day.  The Camino out of Zarautz wound flat along the beach for five kilometres, a wonderfully easy way to start the day in comparison to the last two days of hard initial climbs.  I got plenty of climbing in later, though, choosing to take an alternative path on the coast that climbed up and down along 500 million year-old rock formations.   

The trail was breathtaking in more ways than one.

Today I also made my first of many Camino dog friends.  I was looking down at the path, but glanced up to find a very large Spanish mountain dog blocking my way forward.  Fortunately, Cerberus turned out to be more afraid of me than I was of him (though he did eventually let me give him a little pet).  Most dogs on the Camino are tied up, and the few exceptions (at least in my case) invariably turned out to be nice chaps.

He was a nice pooch…

When I arrived in Deba, I was immediately struck by its quaintness.  I had to wait a couple of hours for the albergue to open, so I bought some fruit from a smiling woman and ate it in the sun at the tiny beach.  When I got to the albergue, I found out that I had been assigned bed number 1, as I had been the first to arrive. 

There were four older Spanish men in my room, and for some reason they were incredibly proud of me for making it ahead of them.  It turned out they were all teachers from various parts of northern Spain who had become fast friends on the Camino.  They invited me to have lunch with them, and I suggested we all share a big load of laundry together.  They taught me some key words and phrases in Euskara (the language of the Basque Country), and I led them in a mini-yoga/stretching session.  Soon I found I had been officially adopted. 

Day 4: Deba to Markina-Xemein

  • Distance: 24.4 kilometers
  • Elevation gain: 881 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Markina-Xemein: Albergue de Peregrinos (4 stars; very peaceful, no bedding provided)

I woke up in the morning (July 4th, baby!) totally congested.  At least this cold didn’t take it’s time in hitting me.  The guys and I had decided to set out at the crack of dawn to avoid what promised to be a hot day.  I felt surprisingly fine running in spite of my cold and two, brutal climbs.  I did break into “America, the Beautiful” at the top of one of them, though, so it’s possible I was totally out of it.  Pretty sure it was just my normal level of crazy, though.  

Happy Fourth of July!

Once I finally made it to the top of the second climb, the trail followed the ridge line through a quiet forest.  Suddenly, every tree around seemed to have been cut down (apparently there had been a disease affecting them), and the trail became dusty and exposed.  I stopped for a water break and realized my bottle was almost empty.  Fortunately, I was only five or six kilometers from Markina, but still, it was really hot. 

Barren mountains…

Just as I was packing up, a Guarda Civil jeep drove past and came to a halt on the gravel beside me.  These amazing guys were out making sure that all the pilgrims were doing ok in the heat.  They couldn’t believe I was running, and peppered me with friendly questions and asked if we could take a picture together.  When I mentioned I was short on water, they immediately produced an ice cold bottle for me.  Smiling and hydrated, I sped into Markina.  

Unfortunately, the albergue didn’t open until 2pm and there was no sign of anyone around to let me have a cheeky shower.  So began my tradition of surreptitiously changing clothes in a cafe bathroom.  I sat outside and read with a coffee until the guys arrived, smiling and waving.  Somehow they were able to charm the hostess of the restaurant where we ate lunch into making me vegetable lasagna, making me a happy camper.  

After I was fed and watered, though, I really started to feel my cold.  As soon as we checked into the albergue, I showered and crawled into my bunk bed.  After a couple hours of fitful, congested sleep, I went in search of help.  A kind new friend from Colombia, Andres, taught me some helpful vocabulary so I could ask for the right cold medicine at the local pharmacy (I’m allergic to all NSAIDs, which includes ibuprofen and aspirin, so I have to be careful.).  It was instant relief.  After a quiet shared dinner of fresh melon in the park, I finally slept well.   

Day 5: Markina-Xemenez to Gernika

  • Distance: 24.3 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 703 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Gernika: Albergue Juvenil Gernika (my rating: 4 stars; unfriendly staff, broken shower, but beautiful rooftop terrance and free breakfast)

Though a good night’s rest and a decongestant helped, today’s run was kind of a blur.  I felt tired and achy, starting the cool morning with a long ascent.  The path climbed up to a stone monastery, stretched out on dewy grass.  It was so quiet I stopped running, not wanting the sound of my footfall and shifting backpack to disturb the otherworldly peace. 

The road to Guernica.

The Camino continued through dark, wet woods along a sliver of a stream, and I ran in a trance.  I finally exited onto quiet, country roads, and soon saw a bar with some pilgrims standing outside.  Recognizing a few friendly faces (including a reserved Dutch man who had somehow managed to get an earplug stuck in his ear and was having it removed by a disgruntled Spanish woman), I stopped for a chat and a burst of energy.  Feeling grateful and replenished, the final kilometers flew by and I reached the infamous Gernika by 10am.

The hostess at the hostel was not the least bit interested in letting me shower, so I changed my clothes in a cafe again and rested outside in the sun until the guys arrived.  Then I got myself in a small pickle.  When I went to unlock the door after taking a shower, I found that it wouldn’t open.  I stood in momentary shock until I heard a familiar voice outside and realized it was my friend Sergio. He brought all the guys to the rescue, which included unscrewing and removing the entire door handle, and when that didn’t work, literally breaking down the door.  Free at last, and full of laughter, I had a long nap and an absolutely massive lunch (including my first taste of lluvias, delicious beans from which the restaurant was kind enough to remove the meat).  

In the evening, we explored the city, visiting all that remained of the Tree of Gernika, a symbol of the unity of the Basque Country under which its leaders used to gather annually.  It was struck, like so much of the rest of the region, by one of Franco’s German bombs, leaving only a scarred, blackened trunk. 

What remains of the Tree of Guernica (and my friend Val).

Yet the Gerkina of 2019 was warm and lively.  We strolled its bustling streets, lined with newly constructed buildings, and sat outside for a beer in a leafy plaza packed with families and children.  Back at the hostel, I led a big group in a mini outdoor yoga session, making everyone giggle with my highly questionable Spanish instructions, particularly my repeated instructions to “expire,” which means not to exhale, but to die…    

Day 6: Gernika to Bilbao

  • Distance: 30.4 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 923 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Bilbao: Ganbara Hostel (my rating: 5 stars, such a cool place!)

Breakfast was bittersweet, as I knew it might be the last time I saw some of the guys, since I had decided to run all the way to Bilbao that day.  Even though we had only spent a few days together, they were poignant.  We had formed a true Camino family, and it was sad to say goodbye. 

The first 15 kilometers of the run were gorgeous, hilly and green, winding through picturesque Basque villages.  I was feeling great when I stopped for a coffee and a chat with a familiar pilgrim in a village bar. 

I looked forward to every sunrise.

Almost immediately afterwards, however, the Camino joined a busy road.  It was the first time since I’d started that I was running alongside traffic on a busy road (though it was at least on a nice pedestrian sidewalk), and it was a bit of a shock.  The temperature started to rise and my surroundings became more and more industrial.  I found myself running way faster than usual, wanting to get through the ugliness and up the last big mountain into Bilbao.  

A bit of a change…

To my chagrin, the long climb up the mountain was all on asphalt (though at least the roads were fairly quiet).  But I had two pleasant surprises at the top.  First, I bumped into Peter (the Dutch fellow of earplug fame), who seemed as happy as I was to see a friend.  We agreed we’d stay at the same hostel and explore the city together later.  Then I caught my first glimpse of Bilbao from above.  It was just beautiful, with its cathedral spires rising above hilly, winding streets extending down to the river below.  

Bilbao, you are beautiful.

I ran down, down, down into the city, and was ever so grateful to arrive at Hostel Ganbara.  It was definitely the hippest, chillest hostel I stayed in on the entire Camino, its vibe matching the rest of the city.  I almost cried with joy over the air conditioned, four-person room with fresh, white sheets and free towels…. 

I basically stayed in the same state of bliss for the rest of the day, which included a trip with Peter to a gluten free restaurant with endless vegetarian tapas, a cheeky foam-rolling session on the floor of Decathlon, the most relaxing and appreciated massage in my life to date, an unexpected visit from our friend Andres (who cooked us a beautiful vegetarian dinner), and the midnight arrival of my friend David, who’d come all the way from Paris to join me on the next phase of my adventure. 

Camino del Norte: Cantabria

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like when David arrived.  I felt like I had been through so much already, and David hadn’t anticipated (though nor had I) that I would still be running every day.  Fortunately, as soon as we hugged I knew everything was going to be just fine.  He was incredibly supportive of me running (of course, given that he’s the most accomplished runner I know) and he immediately integrated into the pilgrim world.  

The next phase of the Camino moved away from the deep, tranquil mountains of Basque Country and onto the roads of Cantabria, where I would build a very different Camino family, have a whole lot of fun, and encounter a new set of adventures.  

Day 7: Bilbao to Pobeña 

  • Distance: 21.2 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 227 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Pobeña: Albergue de Peregrinos (my rating: 3 stars; open and noisy, few showers)

I decided to start the day off walking out of Bilbao with David, wanting to take in more colorful streets and quirky Guggenheim sculptures before beginning what I knew would be an entirely paved run to the next town.  The first part of the run was as expected, following the river through industrial wasteland.  But it was flat, and I put in my headphones for the first time and happily cruised along. 

Yes!

When I reached the famous Puente Colgante, I was tickled to take the hovering glass cable car to the other side of the river and run up the escalated sidewalks of Portugalete.  Leaving the city, the Camino followed an elevated bike path that led down to a lively beach town.  

Floating across the river.

Within a matter of hours, I would meet two people who (though I never would have known it then) would come to shape the rest of my Camino experience.  The first was Lars, a quiet Danish guy I seemed to pass every day, but had never spoken to.  When I ran past him this time, he suddenly began to run alongside me, keeping up for a couple kilometers despite his huge backpack.  He was a cyclist, he told me, not a runner, but he wanted to see what it was like.  When he’d had enough, I waved goodbye, but something told me he’d be back.  

After winding my way along the beach boardwalk, I reached a tiny bridge leading to Pobeña, our next stop.  At the foot of the bridge was a familiar face, the effusive Italian Giorgio, chatting away in Spanish with a skinny, tattoo-covered Valencian with animated eyes—Fausto. 

I decided to call it a day right there, following Fausto and Giorgio across the bridge into Pobeña.  The tiny town was in the midst of celebrating a local fiesta, complete with music, dance, and costumed livestock.  We grabbed a beer and meandered the bustling streets, accidentally finding ourselves at the front of a procession.  Fausto spoke Spanish endlessly and a mile a minute.  My head happily spun with the life buzzing around me as I held on to every other word.  

It wasn’t long before David had arrived and befriended everyone in the albergue.  We wandered barefoot along the beach with ice cream and planned our next day.  I had to push a little further every day than most people were planning to go in this phase if I was going to make it to Santiago by July 27th, which I knew would occasionally mean staying in smaller towns with fewer resources. 

Fausto, Lars, and another new friend—warm and smiling Vicky from Barcelona—agreed to walk with David to El Pontarron, a town I’d reach about eight kilometers past the usual pilgrim stop.  We had become a team already. 

David, Fausto, Lars, and Vicky. #caminoinfluencers

Day 8: Pobeña to Liendo

  • Distance: 33.1 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 690 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Liendo: Albergue de Peregrinos (my rating: 4 stars; clean, kitchen)

Today was the first, but not the last, time our plans fell apart.  The morning started fantastically, with a climb up to a long dirt path winding right along the cliffs overlooking the sea.  Soon, however, the path turned into a road, which led to a long stretch of highway.  And I mean a proper highway, with hardly a shoulder to run on, much less a pedestrian footpath.  As the cars and trucks sped past me for kilometer after kilometer, I found myself running too fast, just wanting it to be over. 

Yes, this is the Camino…

After a long, winding downhill with a few dangerous hairpin turns and honking horns, I finally reached a beach and a proper trail again.  I was so relieved as I ran into the lovely town where most pilgrims would be finishing the day’s journey that I stopped and walked along the boardwalk for a bit with two pilgrims I seemed to pass every day, but had never spoken with before—Rand (from Canada) and Ainoha (from Mexico).  Little did I know, this would end up turning into a favorite daily tradition.   

Feeling refreshed, I continued on, leaving the town and enjoying a few more kilometers of trails before I hit the highway… again.  Reminding myself it was only five more kilometers to El Pontarron, I pushed ahead, the shoulder of the road growing smaller and smaller.  When I was almost there, my phone rang.  It was David, telling me that the albergue in El Pontarron—the only accommodation there—was closed for renovations.  That meant either turning around or continuing almost 10 kilometers to reach the next town. 

Such fun!

It was early, cool, and I had energy left, despite having lost all patience with running along the N-634.  Unfortunately, that patience would continue to be tested, as the best way to get to the next town was simply to keep following the highway… (There is a non-highway Camino variant, but it is almost twice as long).  With 31 kilometers covered and all the Spanish curse words in my arsenal well practiced, I finally arrived exhausted to the tiny town of Liendo. 

David, Vicky, Lars, and Fausto ended up taking a taxi for the final 10 kilometers (for which I envied them greatly…).  The other guests at the quiet albergue might not have initially appreciated Fausto’s lively, vocal nature (otherwise known as his big mouth), but soon he and David had them charmed.  We were all so relieved to have made it that we just enjoyed ourselves, probably taking too many pictures and drinking too many beers, happily meandering around the town and cooking a big dinner together.  It poured rain that night, and I slept hard.      

Day 9: Liendo to Noja

  • Distance: 15.5 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 165 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Noja: Albergue Noja Aventura (my rating: 4 stars; rather dirty, but great outdoors space and close to the beach)

Today was one of my favorites.  After the previous day’s harrowing experience, I was thrilled to find that today’s run mostly involved running along beaches, as well as a second ferry.  It was short and sweet, ending with a tough climb up and around a rocky cliff, followed by a long stretch of sand to the beach town of Noja.  I’d never quite seen a beach like it before, the calm, shallow water stretching out endlessly, littered with crumbling rock formations.  

The beautiful beach of Noja.

After a nap in the sun and endless handstands and cartwheels along the beach, we made our way to a completely random American-themed bar. 

Complete with American automobile.

Our moods were light and silly as we sat in the sun watching classic rock music videos and sampling individualized cocktails decked out with an assortment of colorful fruit and candy.  We watched the sun set on the beach and I was struck with the warm feeling of being at home. 

Day 10:  Noja to Santander

  • Distance: 28.2 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 410 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Santander:  None (Private airbnb) 

After a day of fun, it was time to rack up some more kilometers and push on to Santander.  The Camino followed roads for much of the way, but most of the time they were quiet and small, and I enjoyed running past the farms and fields (baaing at all the sheep, of course).  It started to heat up quickly, though, and I was relieved when I ran into a pilgrim who told me it was only five kilometers to the ferry into Santander.  Seven kilometers later, however, after climbing up and down the cliffs along the coast, neither the ferry nor any shade was anywhere in sight. 

Where are you, ferry?

I was thrilled with the views but starting to get hot and tired.  The trail finally descended to a beach and I ran alongside the water, dodging sunbathers and surfers as I continued on.  To my delight, ahead of me I saw Rand and Ainoha.  It didn’t take much convincing on their part for me to stop and take off my running shoes, finishing the last kilometer with my toes in the sand.  We all got ice cream and waited for the ferry, which carried us into gorgeous Santander.  

How could I not take off my running shoes?

David, Fausto, Lars, Vicky, and I had decided to go all out on accommodation, the five of us sharing an Airbnb in the center of town.  I initially felt a bit out of place entering the white marble building and taking the elevator up to our spacious, airy apartment.  I soon made myself at home, though, in heaven with a big shower, a fluffy towel, and Season 3 of Stranger Things… 

Our little slice of heaven.

When the others arrived, we climbed up to the top of the city for some amazing views before eating tapas outside by the water.  While we had planned to make the most of the city, since it was Vicky’s last night on the Camino before she headed back to her family, we were all exhausted.  I ended the night happily curled up on the couch, practicing my Spanish with Fausto.

Day 11:  Santander to Santillana del Mar

  • Distance: 30.8 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 465 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Santillana del Mar: Albergue El Convento (my rating: 5 stars; exceptionally lovely)

Today really started in the middle of the night, when I woke up feeling truly awful.  Something in the vegetarian tapas must have been off, because I was siiick.  I managed to get a couple hours of sleep and drink as much water as I could.  While I thought about walking, I knew that the road out of Santander was paved and ugly, and I knew it was going to get hot.  I figured I’d rather get to the next town quickly, if I could. 

Leaving Santander.

The first 15 kilometers really weren’t so bad.  The road was far from pretty, but at least it wasn’t dangerous.  The route then required taking a train for two stops across a river (unless you fancied going six kilometers out of the way).  While I was waiting for the train to arrive, I started to feel a bit tired.  By the time I got to the other side of the river, it was warming up.  Five kilometers later and I was not feeling so hot at all.  I called my boyfriend in London and told him I needed a pep talk.  He told me what I needed was some sugar, ASAP.  I stumbled into a cafe and thought I might have been hallucinating, because standing there were David and Fausto (who had cheekily decided to take the train all the way from Santander).  They made me drink some juice and kept me company until I felt a little better.  

Trying to find the silver lining, I was thrilled to see my favorite mimosa tree.

Given the heat, I decided I still wanted to try to run the remaining 10 kilometers, or at least try—one hour in the sun sounded so much better than three.  I reluctantly said goodbye and dragged myself off, feeling better but still not a happy camper, especially as the Camino continued along a congested road with no shade.  After a big hill, though, everything quieted down and opened up to green fields and blue skies.  Never on the Camino was I so happy to reach my destination, where I promptly crawled into bed until my friends arrived.  

Only my stomach was complaining…

Santillana del Mar is a stunning medieval town, and I would love to return to fully enjoy it one day. I did feel better after a long nap, managing to eat some rice, wander around the cobbled streets, and lead a mini-yoga session in the peaceful garden of our hostel. The hostel was one of my favorites, an old convent that had been converted into a tranquil, light-filled home for pilgrims.  All the rooms were doubles, ours with a window opening into the leafy branches of fruit trees that filled the garden. There was a big communal dinner on long wooden tables in the hall, but I realized I was not quite up to being particularly social.  I snuck away for an early night, hoping a good night’s sleep would lead me running onward the next day. 

Day 12:  Santillana del Mar to Playa de Oyambre

  • Distance: 20.5 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 466 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Playa de Oyambre: Pension Oyambre (my rating: 5 stars; private 4-bedroom apartment with kitchen and incredible views)

I awoke feeling replenished.  Good thing, too, as today brought yet another adventure.  We had decided to go to Comillas, another little beach town, but over breakfast I discovered that it was fiesta time there, meaning all the accommodation had booked up days before.  My guidebook told me there was still a public albergue, though, so I figured I wouldn’t have any trouble being the first person there to get us some beds.  That’s when my Ludite ways got the best of me…

After a lovely run over quiet hills and through tiny towns, I arrived in Comillas to discover that the public albergue was in fact permanently closed.  Fortunately, David, miracle-worker that he is, managed to get the four of us a private (and cheap) two bedroom apartment seven kilometers up the road.  Though I was feeling a lot better, I just couldn’t stomach the idea of pushing any further.  Instead, I waited for the others and we hopped in a taxi to paradise.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

Never have I slept anywhere with views so beautiful.  We spent the afternoon basking in the sand on what amounted to our own private beach.  Later, we walked to a beachside restaurant, where I discovered cider sangria and ate the biggest egg and cheese sandwich I have ever seen (fortunately my appetite had finally returned in full force). 

One last sunset together.

Everything around me felt soft and bathed in sunlight.  We were all being a little sweeter with each other.  Our little family was dwindling further: Fausto, suffering from tendinitis and tiredness, had decided to head back to Valencia the next day.  We sat together in the tall grass and watched the sun disappear into the ocean while the moon looked on behind us and thousands of stars came out to say farewell.

Camino del Norte: Asturias

Asturias marked a quieter, more contemplative stage of the Camino for me.  The difference from Cantabria was immediately visible—the Camino spent more time on trails or village roads, winding through small towns until it reached Villaviciosa, where pilgrims can continue on the Norte or make their way to the Primitivo in Oviedo.

Day 13: Playa de Oyambre to La Franca

  • Distance: 25.61 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 522 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in La Franca: Albergue Triskel (5 stars; super cute, clean, great service)

I knew everything was about to change again.  I flew through the morning mist, up and down hills, away from our day of paradise and into the next town, where I met everyone for breakfast (they’d left, walking, at the crack of dawn).  We watched the last day of the San Fermin running of the bulls over coffee and croissants, which had become a favorite morning tradition of ours (despite my constant incredulity at the bull runners’ desire to subject themselves to random and uncontrollable violence).  After a reluctant goodbye to Fausto, David, Lars, and I continued on uphill, away from the ocean.  

Farewell.

I just didn’t feel like running.  Instead, I decided to finally spend a day doing the Camino properly.  The three of us wound along quiet country roads, crossing fields and railroad tracks, sometimes reminiscing, sometimes in silence.  Everything was different than running—the talking when we talked, the pure silence (without the sound of my backpack shifting or water sloshing) when we didn’t, the walking muscles in my legs, the sheer amount of time passing.  I enjoyed exploring this new pace, but I already felt the itch to run in solitude again. 

Around lunchtime, we arrived in a bustling little town that appeared to be in full celebration mode.  The central square was flooded with food and crafts stalls, including, to my delight, one selling vegetarian empanadas.  Smiling, empanadas and beers in hand, we sat under a tree watching and listening as the square filled with music, colors, and laughter. 

No, it doesn’t get much better than this.

It was only a few more kilometers to our destination, a tiny in-between albergue run by a friendly woman who lived next door with her two, very small, yet very vocal dogs.  We felt spoiled, as she provided both dinner and breakfast at the albergue, leaving us plenty of time to relax in peace, though everything felt a bit muted without Fausto.  

After a siesta, David and I found a local bar and shared a beer.  Maybe it was a day without pushing myself; maybe it was a response to change, no matter how inevitable; but somehow a deeply buried bubble of grief floated up to the surface.  Feelings I’d spent the last year willing myself to be strong about, but had never really allowed myself to feel. I let myself cry on David’s shoulder, thankful for his patience and gentle hand on my hair.

Up until today the Camino had still been largely about proving that I was strong, that I could rely on myself to do more than I had ever imagined.  But now it also became about allowing myself to be vulnerable—and to share that vulnerability and lean on the love of the people I am fortunate enough to call friends.

Day 14:  La Franca to Llanes

  • Distance: 20.6 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 370 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in La Franca: Albergue La Estación (my rating: 3 stars; rather dirty and gloomy, though there is a kitchen)

I woke up feeling a mix of relief, exhaustion, and hope.  I left early, floating along as the morning fog turned to soft afternoon sun and the country roads gave way to dirt paths winding through the woods and finally back out along the coast. 

Back to the coast.

I felt light, as if I’d surrendered to everything just as it was, even in all its complexity and uncertainty.  I delighted in the strain of my hamstrings as I pushed up the hills, and in feeling of the breeze on my face as I careened down them.  

View before the fall.

Eventually the trail emerged from its wild solitude to track high along a cliffside golf course.  The path turned from dirt to fresh gravel, big rocks that shifted under my feet.  After stopping at the highest point to admire views of the ocean, my next few steps sent me airborne… I was flying face first towards the gravel.  

I had tripped, then tripped again as I tried to catch myself.  I landed hard on my left side.  Somewhat in shock, I picked myself up to assess the damage.  My left hand and knee were bleeding, and my entire left thigh and side were dirty and throbbing.  I had hit the left side of my head slightly, but it wasn’t bleeding. 

It could be worse.

As far as I could tell, I was bruised and scraped up, but nothing was broken or seriously injured.  That meant I could keep running.  I knew I was only five or so kilometers from the next town, so off I went, talking and singing encouraging tunes to myself to distract my mind from my stinging hand and throbbing left side.

I rolled up to the albergue to a look of incredulity from the host.  Even though they didn’t open for a couple of hours, I was allowed inside for a shower.  I did look a bit of a mess, covered in dirt and dried blood. 

The tanlines are really the worst part.

But I managed to clean off well enough, headed to a pharmacy for some antibiotic ointment, then parked myself at an outdoor cafe to wait for David and Lars. When they finally strolled up, I was happy to see that they had made new friends, a group of Spanish guys and a lovely fellow ultrarunner and vegetarian nutritionist from Barcelona: Carla.  We were over the moon to find a delicious pizza restaurant, and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering along a raised trail overlooking the ocean and climbing trees (I know). 

No, I didn’t learn my lesson.

After eating a most welcomed vegetarian meal a la Carla, we walked up to an overlook to watch the sunset. 

What a way to end the day.

David and Carla impressed us all with some beautiful salsa dancing, and Carla gave the rest of us an impromptu lesson.  I’ll pretend I got the hang of it…       

Day 15:  Llanes to Piñeres del Pria

  • Distance: 19.4 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 334 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Piñeres del Pria: Albergue Casa Rectoral (my rating: 5 stars; remote, but adorable little house with outdoor kitchen)

After my little accident, David decided to keep me company on today’s run, sending his heavy backpack ahead to our next stop.  It was so much fun to have a running buddy.  We took an alternative trail that kept to the coastline as long as we could (getting lost in a cow pasture somewhere along the way), then wound our way through sleepy rural towns until we reached the sleepiest of them all. 

Running buddies.

There we were welcomed into an albergue that consisted of our own tiny house, equipped with a garden, outdoor kitchen, a few very vocal roosters, and a kitten.  We were pleased to discover that the other beds in the house were occupied by familiar faces—Ainoha (though she had lost Rand) and Anne, from Ireland.  We enjoyed the peace and quiet after our busy day in Llanes, lounging in the grass, doing yoga, and cooking a meal together.  Ainoha twisted my hair into a long braid and I played endlessly with my newfound kitten friend.

David, Ainoha, Lars, and Anne (kitten not pictured).

After my fall, I was still sore and stinging during the run, but what I noticed most of all was a pain around my left ribs, especially when I took deep breaths, laughed, or tried to sleep on that side.  I decided to keep a close eye on it, but figured that, at best, I had pulled a muscle, and at worst, I had bruised or cracked a rib.  Either way, I knew there was nothing to do but take it easy, and the worst thing that could happen was just more pain.  Tying my backpack straps tighter around my chest seemed to help a little bit while I was running (probably creating stability and keeping my pack from banging against me too much), so I stuck to that.  

Day 16: Piñeres del Pria to Caravia

  • Distance: 23.0 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 491 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Caravia: La Pumarada Bar Restaurante Albergue (my rating: 4 stars; a bit random over a bar/restaurant, but it was clean and the owner was nice)

Not only did David run with me again today, but Lars also joined for the first few kilometers.  It was a beautiful run, meandering through fields and forests, past colorful hillside towns overlooking the ocean.  David and I took it easy—my left side was much sorer today than the day before—stopping for coffee and plenty of pictures along the way.  

We couldn’t help it.

A few kilometers from our destination, we were breezing down a hill when I felt a sharp pain in my left armpit.  Looking down, I saw the culprit—a huge wasp.  Just my luck.  (But did it really have to be my left side?).  I hadn’t been stung by a wasp in years, and I forgot just how long it keeps hurting.  In any event, once again there was really nothing I could do except keep running.  

After a long climb up one of the first big paved roads I’d seen in a while, we finally arrived in Caravia, a small town perched high above the coast.  I momentarily forgot about my stinging left side when a local restaurant agreed to cook me a special vegetable pasta for lunch, and afterwards when we walked down to the seaside.  It would be my very last beach.  The next day would take us to Villaviciosa, my final stop on the Camino del Norte before I’d turn inland for the mountains of the Camino Primitivo. 

Last views of the coastline.

The waves gave me a proper sendoff—just as I was trying to take a picture of all our feet in the sand, a massive wave crashed into a rock behind us, sending a blast of water to soak my entire back.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  It was warm and sunny, and I was happy (if a little wet and sore) in the company of friends.

Day 17: Caravia to Villaviciosa / Oviedo

  • Distance: 29.4 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 581 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Oviedo: Albergue de Peregrinos El Salvador de Oviedo (my rating: 4 stars; big, perfectly nice)

It happened a lot on the Camino—one day really felt like two.  The first day was my long run, alone, taking in everything around me, monitoring my body, carefully watching every step, and occasionally getting caught by waves of emotion—unexpected bursts of gratitude or awe, bubbles of past disappointment or loneliness.  The second day was after my arrival, spending the afternoon and evening with my friends, all too tired to ask much of each other beyond stories and company.

Today was the most poignant example of a two-day day.  As usual, I left later than everyone else, chatting with the albergue owner over my cafe con leche and croissant while hoping the rain would subside.  It didn’t, but I didn’t really mind.  I’m not really one for rain gear, especially since over 30 kilometers I knew I’d get soaked no matter what.  The first few kilometers were nice and easy downhill, through fields of tall grass along the coast. 

Completely unexpectedly, I bumped into Josean, one of my original Spanish teacher friends from the start of the Camino.  He had ended up taking a bus through Santander to somehow catch up.  We were so happy to see each other, even though we had to say goodbye again a few minutes later (as he was continuing along the Norte and I was off to the Primitivo).  I couldn’t imagine a better book-end to my Norte experience.  

Buoyed on by good energy, I hardly noticed as the path curved away from the coast and started to climb a mountain, getting more misty and rugged all the time.  It was only when I came to crossroads that I realized I hadn’t seen a yellow arrow, or another pilgrim, for quite a while.  I decided to take the fork that looked the most traveled for a bit (sorry, Robert Frost), just to see if I would find an arrow.  Instead, I found a giant electricity tower—the reason the path (which was definitely not the Camino) existed.  Retracing my steps to discover that the real Camino kept flat along the coastline, I realized my little mountain detour had added almost 5k to my already 25k day.  At least it had been beautiful up there in the fog. 

Getting lost isn’t always so bad.

And at least I was feeling strong and relaxed.  My ribs were still sore, but I had begun to grow used to the dull pain.  I enjoyed the rain as it slowed from heavy to light to misty.  Much of the path was on asphalt, but the roads were largely empty.  Time passed quickly.  I wasn’t unhappy to see Villaviciosa stretching out in front of me, though.  I was starting to get a bit chilly as I walked into the first cafe I could find.  After a comical changing routine in the tiniest of bathrooms, in which I dried my dripping self off using single pieces of tissue, I waited for David and Lars over hot coffee and frittata.  

Once the boys arrived, we found the bus station and headed towards Oviedo.  While I had admittedly been a bit disappointed about the decision not to run from Villaviciosa to Oviedo, looking out the window on the bus made me confident that it had been the right one.  The “Camino” here (which really isn’t part of any official route at all, with the Norte continuing along the coast and the Primitivo starting in Oviedo) consisted solely of some yellow arrows along the same highway our bus was driving on.  This included some truly dangerous mountain curves with no shoulder in sight.  I did not regret for a second not running what would have been a harrowing 40 kilometers.  

One last beer.

I was also very happy to have a whole evening to spend in Oviedo, which was a beautiful city.  After visiting the cathedral, where the Primitivo, the oldest of the Camino pilgrimage routes, began, David, Lars, and I managed to find a vegetarian restaurant with craft beer.  There were even vegan croquetas.  Yes, I was in heaven.  

But once again, everything was tinged with bittersweetness, as this was David’s last night on the Camino.  We mostly pretended it wouldn’t mean much—I would see him again in a couple of months, anyway.  But both Lars and I knew the Primitivo would be a very different experience on our own.  We couldn’t possibly charm every single albergue manager, restaurant owner, waiter, and pilgrim along the way, like David could.  Nor could we exude the unique sense of warmth, care, and laughter that had brought all of our friends so close together over the last ten days.  But we were happy just to spend one last night all together, before what promised to be another new adventure.              

Camino Primitivo

I am so glad that I decided to do the Camino Primitivo, which was just as beautiful and rugged as I’d hoped.  It was immediately obvious that there were far fewer pilgrims on the trail, and those who were seemed somehow quieter, more reflective.  The towns I stayed in were tiny, often remote, surrounded by mountains as far as the eye could see.  My runs up and along those windmill-lined mountaintops were among the most breathtaking of my journey.  

Day 18: Oviedo to San Juan de Villapanada

  • Distance: 24.3 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 475 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in San Juan de Villapanada: Albergue de Peregrinos (my rating: 4 stars; remote, beautiful views, kitchen, crazy hospitalero)

After one last hug from David in front of the Oviedo cathedral, I headed out on the Primitivo.  Once I got out of the city, it immediately became clear that this trail had been the right choice.  There were already fewer pilgrims, less asphalt, more wildness.  It was a beautiful day, and I sped along.  The true mountains wouldn’t start until tomorrow, and that was ok with me. 

Oviedo Cathedral – the Primitivo begins.

I had also decided that, given that my ribs were still painful and I would be increasing my daily kilometers and elevation gain, I would try sending my backpack ahead and running only with a tiny backpack of water and food.  I felt light and free as I ran through fields and across rivers.  I had gotten so used to running at a slower pace that it felt amazing to get my regular stride back for at least one day.   

And it kept getting more beautiful.

The “official” first stop on the Primitivo is Grado, a cute little town surrounded by mountains. But because I had to get to Santiago by the 27th, we had to make up time wherever we could.  There was a remote albergue about 5 kilometers outside Grado that Lars and I thought would do the trick.  There was no way of getting food at the albergue, though, so we decided to meet for lunch in town, then carry some groceries up the mountain together.  Fortunately, we also met our old friend Anne (who had decided to do the Primitivo too, but at a normal pace), enjoying her company for one last meal.  

Lars and I decided we might as well enjoy our post-run beer on our walk up to the albergue, and it made the trip a good one.  We followed a steep path about halfway up the mountain, before turning off for our destination.  The albergue looked out at the mountains and the valley below, competing with our apartment in Playa de Oyambre for the most breathtaking views.  

View from the front porch.

It was far from as relaxing an experience, though…. In the middle of a nap, I was awoken by the shouts of the hospitalero, who was demanding to see everyone’s sleeping bag, apparently a requirement for staying there.  The poor guy who hadn’t brought one had to go all the way back into the town.  I spent most of the evening talking to the decidedly eclectic mix of pilgrims who also preferred staying off the beaten path.  Then I spent most of the night awake wondering why the dog next door never seemed to get tired of barking.        

Day 19: San Juan de Villapanada to La Espina

  • Distance: 27.6 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 998 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in La Espina: A tragedy, but I can’t find it anywhere!

Today was more like three days in one.  Through the morning fog I continued up the mountain running.  I had forgotten that the Primitivo pilgrims were new—they hadn’t gotten used to seeing me run past every day.  I got lots of looks and scoffs of incredulity.  I was hoping they weren’t right, that these mountains weren’t more than I could handle.  But I was surprised at how good I felt when I got to the top of the first climb.  It was the first time I’d realized how much stronger my legs had gotten over the past 2.5 weeks. 

The bruises on my left leg were at the peak multi-colored point in the healing process, and I was cheeky enough to snap a picture during a water break.  Stupid. 

And I thought that hurt…

A few kilometers later, I was happily bounding along a dirt path in the forest when my foot caught a rock and I went flying.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  The fall hurt so much more this time, and I had to hold back tears of pain and disappointment as I picked myself up. 

I had torn my hand open again, the wounds deeper and bigger than before, and packed with dirt.  I had caught the fronts of both elbows, too (fortunately protecting my ribs).  And the scabs on my left knee had opened up to bleed down my leg.  But I was mostly worried about my left hip bone and my right knee, both of which had hit rocks, hard.  The bone underneath my right knee was already swollen and protruding.  But I could move, and I had to keep going.  It was 8 kilometers to the next town, 15 kilometers to my destination, and I had nothing in my bag but electrolyte-filled water and some snacks.  

Using the singing/talking method to convince myself everything was going to be ok, I was more than slightly embarrassed when I ran into two pilgrims on the path ahead of me.  They seemed more than a slightly surprised to see me—a madwoman covered in dirt and blood, running and singing to herself.  But I was glad to see them.  They were German and didn’t speak a lot of English, but they let me pour some of their water on my hands and use their last wet wipe.  I turned down bandages, since I knew I still had a lot of cleaning up to do before they would do any good.  I was hoping I could talk a pharmacist in the next town into taking a look at me and telling me what I needed.  

I made it there, slowly.  Everything hurt and stung, but I was fairly certain no serious damage had been done.  The pharmacy was bright and immaculately clean, with white tile floors.  I was ashamed to set foot in there, and the pharmacist gave me a disapproving look before examining my hands and knees.  She suggested iodine and antibiotic cream, and confirmed my intuition that if I could run, there was probably nothing seriously wrong.  

I just had one more mountain to climb.  It was a big one, but the trail wasn’t so steep that I couldn’t keep running the whole way up.  The forest and views were beautiful.  I was thrilled when I got to the top, knowing a hostel and a shower were nearby.  I practically hugged the hostel manager when I discovered I had the whole place to myself, and that there was air conditioning.  I blasted music and took a long, hot shower with the door open, savoring the heat, the cool, and the solitude.  

My body looked like a complete disaster, but I had never appreciated it more.  I started the Camino dedicated to listening to it, respecting it, not pushing it too far.  Had I finally done that?  Was it my ego pushing me on, rather than the joy of running and my belief in my body’s abilities?  As beat up as I seemed, I didn’t believe that story—I knew I had to be more careful on the downhills, but I also knew that I hadn’t fallen because I was tired, but instead because I was graceless and perhaps a little too carefree.  And I knew that, structurally, I was still sound—my legs had never felt stronger and my injuries were mostly skin deep.

All the swells…

Lars gave me a hard time when he finally arrived (mostly complaining about how I would never stop staring at my torn-up hands now), but I could tell he was glad I was ok.  I felt even better after I ate an entire pizza and discovered we’d be sharing our hostel room with Adolpho, a friendly Spanish man we’d met the night before.  Adolpho was concerned about my hand, though, which, despite a lot of painful scrubbing, was still packed with dirt and looking more swollen and red by the minute. 

Before.

After I failed at napping because of the throbbing, I knew I had to get everything out of there.  I also knew it wasn’t going to be fun, and it wasn’t.  Using my tweezers, it took a good hour of digging and picking and scraping (and maybe a little bit of whining) before it was finally clean.  It immediately felt better, though, and I was glad I had listened to Adolpho.  I once developed lockjaw because I ignored an infected wisdom tooth, and I wasn’t eager to repeat that experience.

After. Much better!

Later that night, Adolpho, Lars, and I shared our favorite songs with each other.  I chose one with a single line that has come back to me many times over the years.  The words reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Lars a few days before, when he’d asked me if there was one place I really felt was home.  I had explained that home, to me, was something I felt in many places, with many people I have come to know and love over the years. 

Sometimes, running on the Camino, I felt overwhelmed by the random and beautiful fortune of having all these families and homes, knowing that, in those very moments, I was building new ones.  In “Chocolate,” Snow Patrol puts it this way:  “This could be the very moment I’m aware I’m alive.  All these places feel like home.”                               

Day 20: La Espina to Borres

  • Distance: 24.9 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 659 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Borres: Albergue de Peregrinos (my rating: 3 stars; crowded and dirty, but I would still stay there again, as the people at the bar were very nice and the food was good)

Getting out of bed was a bit of a struggle, but my hand was feeling better and the promise of fresh coffee and croissants was luring me on.  Today’s run was also supposed to be beautiful, with less elevation gain than the day before.  It didn’t disappoint.  Recent rain meant that the trails were muddy, but at least that slowed me down and kept my attention on my feet.  I was running alone for most of the morning, enjoying the solitude.  In addition to the mud, the rain had brought out the most colorful and oddly shaped mushrooms, which I kept stopping to grin at.  

Silly mushrooms…

In the middle of a particularly lush bit of forest, I came across another pilgrim doing the same thing.  It was a woman I hadn’t seen before.  She had a calm, open presence, and it felt natural to begin a conversation with her.  We spoke in French for awhile (with me quickly realizing how hard it was to switch over from Spanish) until I learned that her mother had grown up in Texas and taught her perfect English.  For some reason I began to uncharacteristically open up about myself.  

It’s so much easier to tell a neatly packaged story than the sprawling, unworked-through truth.  As a lawyer, I specialize in building compelling, tightly-knit narratives.  And I’ve built a lot to satisfy the many different people I encounter every day.  But I told the French pilgrim with a Texas twang the messy reality.  About my decision to quit my high-paying, high-status corporate law job; about my year of semi-directionless floating; about the feeling of simultaneous certainty and uncertainty. 

I told her about the thesis I was about to begin at Oxford, on the societal perception and legal treatment of children in gangs.  How it had grown out of feeling powerless in being unable to stop the deportation of a former client—a 17-year-old boy who had been recruited by MS-13 when he was just 12, and now had no future but to kill and be killed.  And how part of me wished I was back in the United States representing more children like him, rather than just writing about it.  

The woman listened intently and naturally.  When I had finished, she gave me a warm smile, as if to tell me that I was not confused or lost, but on just the right path.  This was living, she said—facing and exploring that raw, unworked-through truth, knowing that every day brings and teaches something new.  There are no neatly packaged stories, no easy answers.  Just like every day on the Camino, there is beauty and there is pain, and all we can do is keep walking with our eyes open, taking it all in.

Eventually I realized I was starting to cool down from our walk through the dark woods.  I said farewell and thank you.  I wish I remembered her name, but I never saw her again.  

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere.” – Jack Kerouac

When I arrived at our next stop—another tiny albergue off the beaten path—I was in for another surprise.  As the woman at the local bar who ran the albergue checked me in, she told me I wasn’t the only runner there.  Hadn’t I met the Russians?  There were three of them, and they were running too, though they didn’t speak much English or Spanish.  Making my way into the albergue (possibly the most humble of the trip, and certainly the only one offering a three-tiered bunkbed that almost touched the ceiling!) I spotted them immediately. 

We were all a little apprehensive at first, but as soon as they learned that I spoke Russian and was also a runner, a vegetarian, and obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien, they brought out their tea and cookies and we settled in.  Soon, they had invited me to their tiny town in Siberia to run an ultra and lead a yoga workshop.  I felt so much at home with them, immediately enveloped in the warm intensity that has painted all of my experiences in Russia.  We talked about our favorite kinds of kasha, our preferred trail shoes, and our respective crazy ultra-running dreams until Lars pulled me out of my time-warp to remind me it was time for dinner.

I realized how much I appreciated Lars that day—I always seemed to be locked in conversation with someone, usually in another language, so excited about everything going on around me that I often forgot the practical.  But he was infinitely patient, always waiting for me and reminding me to eat or nap or go to sleep.  I know I drove him crazy sometimes, staring incessantly at my hand or being late to everything, but I also knew he was with me to the bitter end. 

There every step of the way.

And though he spent more time looking after me than I him, I nonetheless felt like a big sister, always encouraging him to try new things, to challenge himself, to be open to all the experiences life had to offer.  To be honest, I saw some of my younger self in him—bright and driven, he would have no trouble with “success.”  But those of us who excel at jumping through hoops seldom stop to think where they  ultimately lead.  To do all that is expected of you is one thing; to discover what you expect of yourself and have the courage to pursue it is another entirely.  Of course, each person’s path is their own to build and follow, but I hope I encouraged Lars to think big with the same care with which he inspired me to set two alarms every morning.  

Day 21: Borres to Vistalegre

  • Distance: 38.6 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 1,335 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Vistalegre: Hotel Las Grandas (my rating: 5 stars; absolutely gorgeous, good food) 

Today promised to be the most spectacular, but also the most challenging, of the entire Camino, and in truth, I was a bit nervous.  It began by climbing 600 meters up, then descending, a remote, rocky mountainside, with no water or food for 16 kilometers.  Most people chose to stop another 6 or 7 kilometers afterwards, but we had decided to push on to the next stage, which required another steep ascent and long descent and put the day’s total distance at 38 kilometers.  

When I woke up, everything was enveloped in mist.  Already partway up the mountain, I realized we were surrounded by clouds.  The mist intensified as I began the climb, and I could barely see a few meters in front of me as I carefully picked my way up sharp rocks the color of the fog. 

Into the clouds…

As I climbed higher, the temperature dropped sharply and the wind began to howl.  I realized I must have been running on top of a ridgeline.  Knowing I was far ahead of any other person, and entirely alone, I felt a twinge of fear, and of exhilaration.  Suddenly, the narrow path widened and ahead of me I saw a field covered with wild horses.

At the top.

I ran through and onward, until at last the mist began to thin.  When it broke apart, I found myself gazing across glassy clear ponds and yellow ochre wildflowers into endless mountains stretching ahead. 

Breaking through.

Then began the descent.  With zero desire to get any closer to the sharp rocks that littered the path, I took it very slowly.  Eventually, rock turned to dirt as the path entered the trees, then dirt gave way to pavement as I entered a tiny town. 

Coming down.

I enjoyed the quiet downhill roads for several more kilometers, while the multi-colored butterflies swishing around me compelled me to start singing The Last Unicorn.  Soon I reached the valley where most people would end the day, La Mesa, home to a lovely albergue with a swimming pool.  I eyed it longingly, especially as the sun had started to bear down in full force.

Only 10 kilometers left.  I thought about the pool even more as I looked up at the road ahead of me, which rose steeply, curving out of sight.  Up I went again, until I reached the top and smiled with relief as I saw the path descending into dark woods.  It seemed to go on forever, zigzagging back and forth down the mountain until it opened to an otherworldly sight: a massive blue-black reservoir looming over a spectacular dam and ancient power station reminiscent of the mines of Moria. 

Old Salime.

White stone houses peaked out of the mountain across the dam, but I knew they had long been empty.  What had once been the small city of Salime had been entirely abandoned and flooded when the dam was brought to the valley in 1954.  I ran across the huge structure and began one final climb—to my destination, a tiny hotel overlooking the reservoir, the only hint of civilization for kilometers.

I was overwhelmingly happy to arrive, and overwhelmed by the breathtaking views stretching out from the tall windows of the hotel.  The chef was kind enough to make me an off-menu mushroom omelette, and as I rested my legs on the terrace overlooking the reservoir and waited for Lars to arrive, I met more fascinating people. 

First was a Lithuanian family: parents traveling with their 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son.  They had started walking the Camino in Paris eight summers ago, during their children’s summer vacations, and had returned every year until this one, when they would finally reach Santiago, just before their daughter departed for university.  They were incredibly warm to me, and so proud, they said.  They kept telling me that I was an inspiration, but I felt it was I who should be telling them the same thing.  

I was just about to doze off in the sun when I heard tinkling voices: a little girl and boy were avidly trying to get the attention of a similarly snoozing dog behind a gate by the terrace.  Soon they came to enlist my help. 

Tom and the reservoir.

They were 8 and 7, I learned, brother and sister.  Their parents were from Korea and Taiwan, but they had moved to Barcelona last year, and spoke a dizzying array of languages to each other (Korean), me (English), and the dog (Spanish).  They told me about all the different animals they had encountered on their adventures so far, including a lizard that the little boy had finally been able to catch and hold that day after years of trying.  I happily listened to their stories and helped them pursue big Tom the dog, until their parents coaxed them away for a siesta and I thought I’d do the same thing.                                

Day 22: Vistalegre to A Fonsagrada

  • Distance: 30.4 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 1,121 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in A Fonsagrada: Albergue-Pension Cantabrico (5 stars; though we stayed in a double, which was very nice, there are classic albergue-style beds as well, and a big kitchen)

In case I hadn’t gotten enough climbing in the day before, the first 10 kilometers of the trail today made sure I was satisfied.  The morning mist blanketed the road that ascended steeply up from the dam and reservoir.  Then the path turned off the road and rose to another ridge line–topped, I only realized as I broke out of the clouds, with enormous white wind turbines.  Their presence was oddly comforting, bovine-like, their blades spinning lazily, gently humming. 

Windmills in the clouds.

I had been entirely alone all morning, but as I approached the highest point of the mountain I found a group of new faces, all paused to rest and take in the views surrounding us.  A rare American, from my neighboring state of Virginia, shared some chocolate with me (along with his view as a fellow runner that I was certifiably insane).  An effusively kind older Chinese couple hugged me and took a picture of all of us together.  I set off again smiling, following the flat ridge line into the final Spanish region of my journey, Galicia.

The rest of the run was beautiful: in Galicia, even when the Camino followed the road, it tended to do on a separate, parallel trail, making for a more peaceful journey.  Right before the next city, however, which was perched on the slopes of a wide mountain, the trail curved away from the gently winding road and climbed straight up into town.  Hot, gasping, legs finally dead, I was happy to arrive.

Could never get enough of these Primitivo views.

The town, which felt as though it was built entirely out of concrete, had little to offer besides a couple of bars and a grocery store.  After another tortilla lunch, I was glad to cook some vegetable stir fry with Lars for dinner.  The American man I had met earlier was staying in the same hostel, along with a large group of his friends.  They seemed to have taken over the entire kitchen, and as Lars and I quietly cooked and chatted, they knocked back several bottles of wine and reminded me why my countrymen have a reputation for speaking volume.              

Day 23: A Fonsagrada to Cadavo Baleira

  • Distance: 24.2 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 748 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Cadavo Baleira: Albergue San Mateo (rating: 4 stars, perfectly adequate)

I woke to an amazing surprise—for 5 euros, we could have an all-you-can eat breakfast, including homemade pancakes.  I didn’t want to stuff myself too full before the day’s run, but I couldn’t help but having two servings—they were so beautiful!  

Breakfast of champions.

On a sugar high, I jetted off for a morning of pure mountain running, smiling across stone and dirt, ridges and forests, more windmills lining the way.  

The next town was little more than a single street, but it greeted me with another welcome food surprise—a tiny store selling vegan pizza and empanadas. 

Such a good food day.

We had a quiet afternoon and evening chatting with a few familiar pilgrims, relaxing before what promised to be a big next day—we’d be pushing to Lugo, a stunning Galician city with the longest stretch of Roman wall still remaining in the world.  Right outside of town we would also reach the sign marking 100 kilometers to Santiago.

Day 24: Cadavo Baleira to Lugo

  • Distance: 30.7 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 546 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Lugo: Pension San Roque (my rating: 3 stars; private room, not very nice, would explore other options)

The promise of a big day didn’t disappoint.  The morning was lovely and quiet, the mountains fading into thinly forested hills. 

Leaving the mountains.

Just as I had crested one of them and was letting myself be carried down the other side, a tiny bar appeared on my left.  Outside were sitting a group of pilgrims and locals, who suddenly started clapping and cheering as I passed by.  Grinning sheepishly, I ran on. 

Later, I passed and hugged the kind Chinese couple.  Then came the Lithuanian family, where a smiling mom stuffed half a Snickers bar into my mouth and told me to keep going strong.  As I ran up the spiraling streets into Lugo, the first proper city I’d seen since Oviedo, I passed the 100 kilometer mark with equal parts glee and the sinking realization that this piece of life, too, would be coming to an end.

Welcome to Lugo.

Once Lars arrived, we immediately set off to explore the historic city center, encircled by massive stone Roman walls.  Wonderful friend that he was, Lars had scouted out a vegetarian restaurant, where I basked in the deliciousness of leafy greens, lentils, and coconut ice cream. 

Then it was time to see the Lugo Cathedral, an architectural ode to human development, built in pieces over the course of 500 years in Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassicist styles.  A maze of columns, apses, and facades, from rough-hewn stone to remarkably detailed gold work, it was dizzying.  I stared with fascination at a fourth century stone altarpiece that read “Aurun vile tipi est, argenti pondera cendant, plus est quod propria felicitate nites”—“Gold is vile to you, even more so is silver; you shine with your own happiness.”  

Sunset on the Lugo Cathedral.

Shifting to more corporeal concerns, Lars and I had decided to take advantage of being in a larger city to get a much-needed massage.  My left quad had been feeling oddly tight, something I had never experienced before and wasn’t sure what to make of, but I wanted to do all I could to mitigate any damage I had done before my final push to Santiago.  I certainly got what I bargained for.  Half running to the massage studio to avoid being late for my appointment after struggling to find an ATM, I was looking forward to cool air-conditioning and relaxing spa music.  

To my surprise, I found myself in a brightly-lit, two-room office so hot my sweating only increased.  My massage therapist, a thickset, middle-aged Spanish woman who seemed to be sole owner and proprietor, motioned me into the inner room, where a single massage table stood, covered only with a strip of thin paper. 

“Get undressed,” she barked, muscled arms crossed.  She didn’t seem as though she were about to step out or turn down the florescent overhead light, so I swallowed and jumped into the unknown, stripping down and lying completely exposed on the table.  “What have you done to yourself?!,” the woman kept exclaiming in Spanish, gesticulating wildly, in between answering the phone and shouting or answering the door and shouting some more.  While I can’t say she knew much about ambiance, she was undeniably an expert.  After an hour of being thrown around, scolded, and somehow released in all the places I was most sore, I was ready to keep running.

I dozed off on the couch in the waiting room while Lars got his own massage to remember.  Then we strolled along the top of the Roman wall for sunset, relaxed and content as we watched the pinks, yellows, and violets light up the sky behind a silhouetted cathedral.  

Day 25: Lugo to As Seixas

  • Distance: 30.1 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 755 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in As Seixas: Albergue de Peregrinos (my rating: 4 stars; lovely and clean, but cold and remote)

I woke up sad.  Outside, the city was shrouded in mist, and I ran alone down solitary cobblestone streets until I was back in the damp forest.  

Grey skies.

Until this point, I had been so focused on the details of every day—from not tripping on the rocks beneath my feet, to watching the sunrise on the mountains, to making sure I consumed enough water, to hungrily talking to every new pilgrim I met—that I had all but forgotten about my destination. 

But today I realized that I didn’t really care anymore about whether I could run all the way to Santiago.  Of course I could—I had made it this far.  What mattered was the people and the places and the ideas that I had been encountering every day.  And the thought of leaving that behind, of returning to the world of long-term planning and the huge decisions I knew were facing me after the 27th, devastated me.

I decided to let myself feel this one, though.  To try not to brush past the sadness to be strong or to get to the silver lining, though I knew it was there.  I stopped to lean up against the wooden fence lining a horse pasture, looking down over tall yellow grass into a dark forest beyond.  I let the tears come when they welled up, and let them spill onto my cheeks.  I sat for a long time at a tiny bar in the middle of nowhere, nursing a Coke Zero and humming along to the random but appreciated American 90s pop music playing in the background.  There’s nothing like N’Sync on a grey day.

As the sky grew darker and darker, I finally willed myself to cover the last five kilometers to the albergue, though I knew it wasn’t open yet.  I was hoping perhaps someone would be there to let me in early, but alas I was greeted only by a field full of sheep. 

Baaa.

I sat outside, shivering and warily watching the sky until the albergue manager finally arrived to open the doors.  It was an old stone structure, with tall glass windows looking out onto the deserted fields surrounding us.  The wind and rain that suddenly blew in from all directions felt like they were inside, and after a warm shower I curled up in my thin sleeping bag liner to wait for Lars. 

I was praying he had gotten my message asking him to bring food, as it turned out there was none to be found nearby, the restaurant mentioned in my guidebook long since closed.  Fortunately he arrived, having run the final kilometers through the rain, with a still-hot egg and veggie sandwich in his bag.  I devoured it greedily and gratefully before returning to my bed to wait out the storm.

Eventually it stopped raining and my mood lifted a bit too.  I could hear familiar voices downstairs, and they were discussing a rumor that food trucks would stop by around dinnertime for us hungry pilgrims.  I descended to join them, and spent the next couple hours in the middle of a half-Spanish, half-English conversation with a bit of French thrown in as I sat with a Spaniard, an American, and a French Canadian.  Lars was happily practicing his German with some girls at the next table, making me smile. 

As promised, soon two trucks pulled up on the gravel road outside the albergue, one selling empanadas and croissants, the other a random assortment of cheese, fruit, and meat.  Between that and a random vending machine that sold beer and chips, we were happy campers, settling in to our isolated house of stone for a chilly night.       

Day 26: As Seixas to Arzúa

  • Distance: 25.8 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 547 meters
  • Albergue/Hostel in Arzúa: Albergue Ultreia (my rating: 5 stars; very nice, clean, kitchen, excellent restaurant)

I knew that the first 15 kilometers of today would be my last real taste of the beautiful solitude of the Primitivo, as it joined the popular Camino Francés in Melide and then the Norte in Arzúa, three streams coming together to rush towards Santiago.  I awoke with the feeling of having passed through the center of the storm cloud to finally reach that silver lining, grateful for every remaining moment of this experience.  

I ran alone along rock-strewn paths and through a foggy, dense Mirkwood-esque forest until I saw them—huge groups of people walking, more than I could count.  I weaved and picked my way past them, eliciting confused stares and eventually growing too tired to say hello to every bunch. 

Before the crowds.

Eventually I came across Lars, a welcome sight amongst the sea.  He gamely agreed to run with me as long as he could, and we breezed through almost 10 kilometers before reaching a tourist-packed town where he suggested we stop for churros.  I was proud of him, seeing how much further and faster he’d been able to run today than the day he first met me.  And I was happy for strength in numbers as we dodged school groups by the dozen. 

Happily reunited.

After my decadent mid-run snack, I set off on my own again (a bit slower now), and noticed that the tightness in my left quad had come back, leading to some pinching around my knee.  I tried to shrug it off, too excited about the prospect of seeing some old friends in Arzúa—both Carla, the salsa-dancing vegetarian, and Rand, the PCT-hiking Canadian, were arriving from the Norte, and I couldn’t wait to hear their stories.

We had a lovely evening in the weird pilgrim town, which seemed to consist entirely of hostels and souvenir shops.  After a home-cooked vegetarian meal and endless catching up, I collapsed, exhausted and hardly thinking about the 38 kilometer run that stood between me and Santiago.     

Day 27: Arzúa to Santiago de Compostella

  • Distance: 38.1 kilometers
  • Elevation Gain: 707 meters

It was raining out, and promised to keep raining all day, but I didn’t mind.  I set off gleefully, pausing to hug and take pictures with every pilgrim I had gotten to know along the way.  My left quad was still hurting, but I told myself it was only 38 kilometers—after all this way it seemed like nothing, just one more day to enjoy.  After passing everyone I knew, I settled in, trying to enjoy the wooded paths as I dodged endless hoards of Camino Francés pilgrims. 

Almost there.

My quad was feeling worse and worse as I pushed myself up what promised to be the last big climb of my journey, waving through gritted teeth to mountain bikers struggling along beside me.  By the time I reached the top, however, I could barely lift my left leg—pain was shooting from my hip to my knee, and I knew I had finally overdone it.  I limped along slowly for another kilometer or so before I had to admit it to myself: there was no way I could keep running.  

Unfortunately, it was still pouring rain and freezing, and I had almost nothing with me.  I knew there had to be a bar or cafe close by, as we were only 12 kilometers from Santiago and pilgrim traffic was heavy.  Very slowly, I made my way forward, wincing with every step.  Eventually, I found a warm cafe and collapsed on a stool inside, pulling out my phone to text Lars, Carla, and Rand, with the hopes that one of them was nearby.  Carla was immediately to the rescue, running ahead to find me and bringing me a warm jacket.  I hugged her gratefully, and we decided we’d wait for Lars and Rand so we could all finish together.  

Carla to the rescue.

Those last 12 kilometers took longer than the first 26, as I limped along, leaning on Lars and smiling as the sun came through the clouds.  By the time we were approaching the city, it was a beautiful day.  I was happy to be in the company of friends as we made our way through the streets of Santiago, following the last of the yellow arrows and shells into the square in front of the famous cathedral.  We collapsed on the ground and basked in the presence of the cathedral, hugging and taking pictures until we realized we were starving.  

Santiago.

Just one more adventure in store.  Since my flight was at 11pm, I was hoping to shower and have a nap at Lars and Rand’s hostel before heading out.  I paid for the shower, but the hostel manager told me I couldn’t stick around.  I didn’t exactly listen, sneaking upstairs to the boys’ room and collapsing on Rand’s bed, figuring I could sneak out again in an hour or two. 

Neither the hostel manager nor I were pleased when she opened the door twenty minutes later.  She stood silently, hands on hips, glaring at me until I’d gathered my things.  Then she promptly escorted me to the exit and slammed the door behind me.  Not exactly the send-off I’d imagined after running 700 kilometers, but it gave me an excuse to stand in line to collect my official Camino certificate before having one last meal with my friends. 

I tried not to think about what was coming after I got off the plane in London, or about all that happened over the past 27 days.  Just as I learned to do every day of the Camino, I enjoyed every last moment in the company of friends.

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