Click here for my first essay about walking the Camino.
My first week along the famed Camino de Santiago was not a pleasant experience. Endless muddy mile followed endless muddy mile, snow, rain, wind my only companions. The week ended with a seven-hour hike from Estella to Los Arcos through one bedraggled onion or grape field after another as the sleet fell sideways. As soon as I reached my destination?the magnificent spires of a cathedral rising above the foggy fields like a vision?the damned sun came out.
I imagine the forest pathways and gently winding country roads along this stretch of the Camino would be quite lovely, even beautiful, under normal weather conditions. But many local relics and ruins and other points of interest ? like a world-famous fountain that spouts only red wine ? were closed due to the inclement weather. What happened to my life-changing experience? Where was the great spiritual insight? Yes, I felt very sorry for myself indeed. Bah, humbug.
The hostels, or albergues, were quite crowded: 2010 was a Holy Year on the Roman Catholic calendar, when the birthday of St. James, patron of the Camino, falls on a Sunday in the month of July. Many more thousands of religious pilgrims were making the trek as a result. The albergues are essentially barracks. Some of them are maintained by the local government with a staff of volunteers and cost a few euros per night; others are privately owned and can run up to 10 or 15 euros.
The albergues are a integral component of the tradition of the Camino de Santiago; many Spaniards who choose to live along the route consider it an honor to serve those who are traveling on the road to enlightenment. It is within the albergues that you have a chance to mingle with fellow peregrinos from around the world, if you wish, and form bonds that will sustain you throughout your journey.
That being said, many pilgrims today opt for a hotel, or a case de rural (essentially a bed and breakfast) if their budget allows for it, and if there are facilities available. There are those who believe the true pilgrim must endure some deprivation and sacrifice; others feel that a full day's hike is hard enough and that a soft bed, hot shower and a continental breakfast is just what they need to keep going, day after day.
Although no one expects four-star accommodations at an albergue, the quality varies widely depending on who is currently running it. I occasionally found myself in a cozy room with only a few bunkmates?such as a former monastery in Carrion de los Condes, reportedly haunted, where I kept waking up during the night because I felt as if my feet were being tickled or massaged?usually the sleeping quarters consist of bunk beds crammed into a room, as many as can fit, or mattresses lined up on the floor along the far wall.
There are often inadequate shower and laundry facilities, and I eventually fell into a routine of showering every three days. Otherwise, at night, I would brush my teeth and do a quick wash in the sink when a spot opened up. After all, the Camino isn't a runway at Fashion Week.
Although the pilgrims I encountered were generally respectful, the crowded conditions could be trying. And the snoring! My god! The Camino guidebooks proffer doleful warnings about the snoring. Pilgrims, or peregrinos, would swap tales of horror about how they lay in their bunk at night struggling to sleep amid a cacophony of rock-grinding misery.
My meager travel budget allowed for only the occasional indulgence of a hotel room for a bit of peace and quiet. Therefore, in the albergues, I struggled to keep my personal bodily symphony under control. But others, such as Our Man from Romania, as I called him, threw such courtesy to the four winds. He annoyingly kept pace with me that entire first week and would inevitably end up in the bunk next to mine at night, when he would rip off farts in his sleep that rolled like thunder across the verdant hills of Navarre.
That first week, I had a lot of time to think about the varied and insistent ways I make life harder for myself. This is a lesson that continues to unfold. Long-distance hiking quickly becomes a lesson in efficiency. Every night I winnowed down the contents of my backpack so I would have less weight to shoulder the next day, and I quickly learned to even up my strides to prevent my right foot from erupting with painful blisters.
Beyond the here-and-now, I inevitably pondered everything I did on a daily basis to make my life harder. I had my first breakdown of the Camino on the road to Uterga, one day beyond Pamplona, just a few days into my six-week journey. I had spent hours slogging through muddy trails to the top of Alto de Perdon, where a famed Pilgrim?s Monument can be found. The rain and wind was relentless; it was impossible to enjoy the striking sight of Pamplona in the distance, shrouded in clouds and mist. I spent just a few minutes snapping a few photographs and bracing myself against the frigid wind, then set off down the far side of the mountain, a steep hill strewn with rocks the size of bowling balls.
My feet throbbed so painfully when I finally reached the bottom, I could only inch along the path. Not for the first time, I wondered what the hell I was doing so far away from home. And I broke down. I cried. I swore. I cursed my life and everyone in it and all the saints in the heavens, starting with St. James himself. And just like that, around the next bend, the town of Uterga appeared with a big damn sign pointing right to the pilgrim hostel.
I was immediately ashamed of my temper tantrum (and then I was angry at feeling ashamed). Just a few more steps around the bend and relief was at hand. But in the midst of my breakdown, nothing else mattered but my own pain. Something primal within my chest had bubbled up and out and it was not going to be denied.
To be continued?
Photos and text ? Benjamin Scuglia. His memoir -- Moving: Breaking Down and Growing Up on the Camino de Santiago -- is forthcoming. Find him on Twitter: @500Turtles.