It’s hard to explain to people who’ve never done it what it’s like to walk 20 or 30 or so kilometres a day.
So one day, when walking from Castilblanco de los Arroyos and Almedén de la Plata on the Vía de la Plata, I took almost-constant notes. This post is based on those notes (though I have to admit I estimated a few of the times). I wanted to be able to provide a blow-by-blow description of a walking day.
I should point out that this was not a typical day on the Camino, insofar as there is such a thing. It was one of my two most difficult days on the Vía de la Plata. I’d only been walking for two days, so I was most definitely not in shape, and I had to walk 29 kilometres—a distance you would never absolutely have to walk on, say, the Camino Francés.
So, to any potential pilgrims out there, please don’t let this deter you!
I wake up because everyone else in the Castilblanco de los Arroyos albergue is awake and quietly making noise. I get up, get dressed, and eat fruit and yogurt I bought at a little grocery store the night before.
I talk with a middle-aged woman. I think she’s German. (It’s a relatively safe assumption. Almost everyone, at this stage, is German.) She and her husband have just discovered their bikes were stolen.
Me: But what are you going to do?
Her: I don’t know.
Me: I’m sorry.
Her: Buen camino!
I chat with a Norwegian man, one of a group of six from Norway. They’re skipping the 16-kilometre highway portion of today’s walk by taking a car to the nature reserve entrance. I think of the taxi driver who came to the albergue yesterday and said the highway was “peligroso“—dangerous.
I plan to walk the whole way anyway. Possibly I am crazy. But if so, I’m in good company.
I’m the last person out of the albergue, except for the stolen-bike maybe-Germans. I start walking.
I realize I took the wrong street and am walking seriously uphill. But I think I’m going in the right direction (never mind that I have no sense of direction), so I keep walking.
This can’t be wrong since there’s a shell and an arrow, but I’ve never been here before. But my water bottles are empty since they were too tall to fill in sink at the albergue, and I really need the fuente I thought I would pass on the way to the Vía de la Plata route.
This is not a promising start to a 30-kilometre day. I keep walking in the hopes that the fuente will show up.
I stop to tighten my laces and as I keep going think about the act of walking.
I am a plodder, I decide. Only that implies slow and steady, and I’m only slow. The best metaphor I can come up with is a drugged—or maybe dying—butterfly. I dart slowly (can one dart slowly?) from place to place and take far too many photos.
There’s the church! I think the fuente‘s just down the hill.
It is! I fill my three bottles.
I start plodding again. Everyone must be ahead of me and I am slow. The three litres of water I just added have made my pack ridiculously heavy.
It’s going to be a long day.
I start to drink water in a desperate attempt to lose weight.
It’s a beautiful walk through town. There are birds singing, and the flowers smell wonderful, and two people have already wished me buenos días.
I feel happy and wonderful and my pack isn’t so bad, really.
I officially leave Castilblanco and find myself walking on the narrow shoulder of an almost traffic-less highway. It’s quite rural, with roosters crowing, and this early in the day there’s still lots of shade.
I start climbing the first hill of the highway. It’s graded for cars—no problem.
A young German pilgrim passes while I’m standing around scribbling notes.
Me: (Look confused.)
Him: It means hey. (Big smile, cheerful wave, keeps walking.)
Him: See you in the next village. (Quickly disappears into the distance.)
The sun is seriously up now, so there’s no more morning chill. Roosters continue to crow. The occasional dog barks.
I walk along thinking about what I’m doing. How does writing down my every move alter the journey?
Then I refine my walking metaphor and decide I walk more like a drunken butterfly. Which sounds almost like a Tai Chi pose.
I realize I forgot to apply sunscreen and do it.
It’s beautiful. I’m happy to be walking. And it’s not exactly peligroso—there is maybe a car every ten minutes, if that.
I convince myself that I’ve left vital things behind, and stop to make sure I have a) credential and b) toiletries. I do. I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t, but it’s good to know they’re there.
I walk past a sign: “Disputacion de Sevilla, 15km.” Fifteen kilometres to where? I wonder.
The hills aren’t so bad, but as soon as one ends, there’s another.
Sign: 14 kilometres. That means I can walk five kilometres per hour, including over the steepest hill yet. Very exciting.
I stop along the highway for a break. There’s a bit of garbage around, but it’s not too bad.
I don’t think I’ve seen arrow for while. Should I be worried?
Never mind. There’s one.
I stumble off the side of the highway onto gravel. I might’ve sprained ankle if it wasn’t for my boots.
The bottoms of my feet ache a bit, but they’re fine really. And the breeze is nice.
I adjust my pack straps so shoulders don’t hurt. My feet are sweaty and a bit sore, but okay.
My next landmark is the entrance to the nature reserve, 15 kilometres from where I started. I just want to get to that turnoff so I know I’m actually making progress. I know I must be—it only stands to reason—but it would be nice to have some confirmation.
What if the arrows just take me along highway—augh! That would mean no shade, and no beautiful nature. Just cows and cork trees and never-ending highway.
Surely I must be nearly at the turnoff.
I distract myself by thinking about the Romans who travelled the Vía de la Plata so long ago. Their milestones would’ve been rather like the kilometre signs I’m passing now. Only they’d have known what their stones were for. If I make it to kilometre one, I have no idea what I’ll find.
I keep myself busy taking photos, measuring how fast I walk between kilometre signs (three to five kilometres, depending on such variables as terrain and how many photos I take) and eating trail mix. The hills have started to get rather steeper.
I should stop for a break but there’s no shade. I walk on the gravel for a while. It’s not as hard on my now-sore feet, but it’s uneven and walking is slower.
I have reached kilometre eight. If I reach kilometre five and there’s still no turnoff, I may panic.
I start to sing Ultreia, a French pilgrim song, to keep up my spirits, but only make it through the first verse. I don’t remember the words, after that.
There’s a middle-aged guy in a van at the side of the road. I’m not seriously worried, but I do feel cautious. We are, after all, the only people in the area and there’s virtually no traffic.
He starts talking to me in Spanish. I speak fluently, but only because I’m expressing basic thoughts. He’s in the van to start with, but comes out as we talk.
Him: You’re off to Santiago?
Him: And where did you start?
Me: In Sevilla.
Him: And how long will it take you?
Me: It’ll be a little less than two months.
Him: Two months! And are you enjoying the countryside?
Me: Yes, it’s very beautiful.
Him: You should be careful in the sun. And you’re walking all the way? You’re not going by car at all?
Me: No, no car.
Him: Que te vayas bien. (“May you go well.” Touches my shoulder.)
And I set off again.
He passes me in his van and waves.
I realize I should’ve asked him about the nature reserve, which I’m starting to think is a figment of someone’s imagination—maybe a mass hallucination that for some reason I’m not allowed to share.
I make some calculations in my head. I really might not have walked the 15 kilometres to the nature reserve yet—but surely it’s going to appear quite soon?
I adjust pack straps again. My shoulders are happier.
I drop my pack by the side of the road and visit some bushes. On the way back I can’t see my pack for a moment. For one crazy second I almost don’t care if it’s gone—it’s too hot to keep walking anyway.
I stop to get out chocolate and look at my guidebook. With the sun overhead now, there’s no real shade. It turns out it’s 16 kilometres to the nature reserve, one kilometre more than I’d thought. This makes me feel weirdly better about not having reached it yet.
I find a bit of shade and stop to eat chocolate. There’s a nice breeze. I fantasize about sleeping here until the heat’s gone away.
But I’d feel much better if I found the park first.
This is the highway that never ends…. Shouldn’t there at least be a park sign somewhere?
I’ve reached the five kilometre sign, which means I’ve walked ten kilometres in the last three hours, including rests. And photos. But still, it seems depressingly slow.
I can keep up my desperate trudging, on and off the tarmac, because I’m fuelled by chocolate. I am very glad to have three litres of water—I only had two yesterday.
The joints of my big toes hurt—an injury I’ve never experienced before.
I hate that group of Norwegians. I realize this is entirely irrational since walking here was, after all, my choice.
There’s a noisy construction crew by the side of the road. We exchange holas as I walk past.
There’s a sign ahead. Could it be the park?
* * *
You can keep reading in Part 2.