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Camino de Santiago Pilgrim Story #4: : Greta, age 33, from Oregon, USA

 

This week’s Camino story features Greta, aged 33, from Oregon in the U.S.A.

 

How many times have you walked a Camino? And which one?

 

Once – Camino Frances

 

When did you walk?

 

Spring 2013

 

Camino Story: Greta and Mama

Greta and Mama

 

What caused you to decide to walk the Camino?

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but it was the movie The Way.  I saw it at a little arty theatre in my hometown of Port Townsend, WA over Thanksgiving in 2011 with my family. I had never heard of the Camino before that.  I knew halfway into the film that not only would I walk it, I would walk it with my mama. After it was over, I turned to tell her just that and she beat me to the punch before I had even opened my mouth. It took us two years to plan, but we got there.

 

Following are Greta’s stories taken from her journal.  Her stories are full of rich advice, humor and insight.

 

On the first day:

 

During our roughly 6-7 hours of walking, we encountered torrential rain, gale force winds, below freezing temperatures, impenetrable fog, deep snow, mud, ice, slush, slippery rocks and over 4,000 feet of elevation gain (and then descent).  When we arrived at Roncesvalles, we felt like Amazons.  Sore, limping Amazons.  In my adult life, it´s difficult to think of an accomplishment that I´ve been prouder of.  We walked directly to the bar and sat on the floor until it opened over an hour later.

 

On trail friends and happy meetings:

 

Mama and I have both noticed that there are certain people who we keep running into over and over again.  We’re taking stock in the Camino throwing the right people in our (literal) path. Two of my favorites are an Austrian couple named Reinhold and Elizabet. They just celebrated their 38th anniversary two days ago. Reinhold is actually CARRYING Elizabet on a handmade cart with a harness and bicycle wheels all the way to Santiago. He joked (I think) that he’s promised to carry her 15kms for every girlfriend he´s had since they’ve been married.  They’re unendingly cheerful and always a pleasure to run into – we greet each other like long-lost family each time we meet.  The trail engenders a very real sense of camaraderie almost instantly. Travelers shout, wave and meet with embraces more often than not. Reinhold calls us his “trail angels”.

 

On mama and mindset:

Mama and Me

Mama and Me

 

Mama has been a truly marvelous walking companion – patient, accommodating, fun and badass. We chat for most of our days. Even in our most challenging moments, we’re keeping each other smiling and in high spirits.  I think our unofficial trail mantra is “Laugh it off”.  Which we do.

 

All-in-all, I´m enjoying the walking much more than I anticipated. Every day comes with a great sense of accomplishment. I hadn’t (and I was fully aware of this) quite wrapped my head around what it would be like to actually DO this, and I find, surprisingly, that I seem to be very well suited for it.  I do miss home and I’m sure that there are many adventures ahead before I make it back, but I’m happy to take them on.  I’m happy, period.

 

On food schedules:

 

Cities and towns here have a very different schedule in terms of eating. Typically, breakfast places don’t open until 9 or 10 (even coffee shops), which is a good 2-3 hours after we wake up. This isn’t a problem in the Refugios, as they usually kick you out by 8, to ready themselves for the next influx of walkers, but make sure you have coffee and desayunos (from vending machines, at the very least) before you leave.  Dinner starts at 9 or 10 in the evening for locals. Last night our desire to eat earlier worked in our favor. We had met up with a lovely British woman named Wendy (who looked just like the queen, only 20 years younger) and decided to eat together around 8. We managed to find a restaurant up a very tall set of stairs, which professed to be open, but was entirely dark when we walked in. The chef was the only person there, as none of the wait staff had arrived yet. He opened the place for us, selected out menu and acted as our server. We had our best meal so far there – my favorite was an appetizer of Navarre white asparagus, which have the reputation of being the best in the world (quite deservedly, in my opinion). Also, can I say how much I love ordering vino tinto and getting a bottle instead of a glass? Included in my meal price? The quality and inexpensiveness of wine alone is worth making a trip to Spain. If you´re me, or most of my friends, at least.

 

On mental setbacks #1:

 

I woke up feeling a little sad and homesick and slightly overwhelmed, for the first time, about the journey still ahead of us. I need to hammer into my head to never, ever look at a map of the entire route (maybe when we´re done). The Camino has a multitude of lessons to offer, but the most prevalent for me thus far has been “one day at a time”.  I’m still working on it.

 

Today we ascended over Alto de Perdon, which is a high divide between the mountainous regions we’ve just crossed through and the fertile plains (where, it should be noted, the rain in Spain does NOT stay mainly) that lead us into the next stage of our walk. My little black cloud of feeling lonely could not withstand the mildness of the more Mediterranean climate any more than my doubts about the journey could hold on while ambling through vineyards, bright yellow mustard fields and groves of olive and almond trees. I’m sure it will resurface at points, but luckily for me, walking is the best therapy.

 

Mom and I stopped often along the way to smell the lilacs and honeysuckle or peer at tiny wild orchids and bright red poppies that were splashed along ditches and hillsides. We found a patch of wild lemon thyme and rubbed all over ourselves like perfume.

 

We´re now settled in Albergue Jakue, on the outskirts of town, next to a small river. We very much hope to track down stamps later this evening, as I still need to mail all of the postcards I wrote on the first day of the trail. So much for not carrying anything extra.

 

On lessons:

 

Things that I’ve learned in Spain, Volume 1:

– Bathroom lights are on timers. Pee fast, or be prepared to trip.

– Bartenders are not on timers. They will not bring you your check until you ask for it, no matter how much they may want to kick you out.

– Pig flavored potato chips are actually pretty good.

– A ham sandwich here is ham and bread. No mayo, no butter and certainly no veggies. If it’s not listed on the menu, it’s not in the sandwich. Also, ham is prosciutto.

 

On mental setbacks #2:

Wounds and Wellness

Wounds and Wellness

 

We’re closing in on our first 100 miles and it’s becoming more apparent to folks what their limits are. We’ve seen emotional breakdowns, tears, fights, people packing up and leaving the trail – calling cabs, catching buses and sending their packs to the next town by taxi. Joint braces, tape, band-aids and compeed are coming out in force. I’ve been taking very good care of my feet, but I’ve had three blisters so far (not many at all, by the count of most on the trail). Luckily only one of them has caused me discomfort – it’s slowly creeping its way under my little toenail. All in all, I think we’re doing very well in terms of self-care, both emotionally and physically. Granted, we still have a long way to go, but the “one day at a time” mantra helps hugely if I start to get overwhelmed.

 

The flip side of folks leaving the trail is the huge percentage of those who seem to be storming through as fast as they can go. There’s where mom and I are lucky to not have a time limit – it seems such a shame to have to beat yourself up into missing the magic of this place in order to make it to a finish line. Then again, the Camino has different lessons for everyone and endurance is always going to be a part of that. I’m very grateful that the version I’m experiencing allows me to literally stop and smell the wildflowers.

 

On weather and conditions:

 

It rained very steadily for most of the day and what seemed like a large part of the trek (but was in actuality probably more like 2 miles) was thick red clay mud. Our guidebook warned that it “clings to you like leeches”, which is true if leeches add two extra pounds to each foot and attempt to drag you under every time you try to take a step. It was a little bit hysterical. I made a lot of Neverending Story jokes.

 

I’ve been attempting to take some pictures, but they never really do the landscape any justice. I’ve also realized that my photos are all of the ideal wide, flat, undulating Camino that you see in the guidebooks – which doesn’t show the half of what the trail is really like. I guess I’m less inspired to take pictures when I’m sliding down a narrow, rocky trail in the mud. Oh well. I’ll certainly never forget those moments, even if they aren’t captured.

 

On language:

 

My Spanish is improving daily. It’s still terrible, but I’m not too intimidated to use it anymore, which is a marked step forward. College vocabulary is slowly leaking its way back into my consciousness, but I’ll have to study for a lot longer to remember my conjugations. It’s a bit of a cold comfort to think that at least I knew them ONCE. Right now my communication sounds something like: “Hello. Good day. I walk … long ways. All the ways. Walking the Camino. My knee, they are …. Very big. Big, large knee. I am hoping for medicine as for help to shrinking my big knee. Yes? Sick, big knee. Thank you very much.”

 

It’s a wonder I don’t get laughed out of the country. Of course, they always answer in perfect English. Oh well. I try.

 

On packing:

 

Today marks our one month anniversary of arriving in Spain. I think we’re a little over three weeks on the trail now, although time is very fluid on this journey, so I’m not quite sure. Distance-wise I’m not sure where we are, but I feel like about 1/3 of the trail is behind us. Someone told us early on that the first third of the trail tests you physically, the second third tests you mentally and the final third is where you do your spiritual growth. I’m wondering if I’ll get the mental and ecclesiastical manifestations of my current chest cold when I finish up with the later stages. I’m interested to see what a spiritual cough feels like. I think mama will be going out to do a bit more exploring today, but it’s pretty bitterly cold right now (the oft-repeated echo of the current pilgrim: “But we’re in SPAIN!”), so we’re both ensconced in our warm room, enjoying the absolute luxury of a private radiator (it warms you up AND dries your socks!).  It is damn hard to get warm after a deep chill when you have no control over the heating system. Many folks have either no sleeping bags or just thin covers that look like large stuff sacks, but I am very thankful for my cozy “big purple”. All in all, mom and I both feel pleased with and proud of our packing choices. Ninety-eight percent of the people out here have way bigger bags than we do. We’re hearing a lot of stories about people sending boxes of superfluous things home. Mama and I are very comfortable, weight-wise and have even added a few treat items to our packs (nightgowns, conditioner). We can also easily take consumables – usually fruit, nuts, salami, chocolate and water – without making ourselves uncomfortable. If the weather ever warms up I’d like to buy a pair of shorts as I am currently sporting a truly amazing farmer’s tan on my face, neck and forearms. Of course, I walk with knee braces, so that will be a rather fun addition to the lines. If all goes well, I’ll come home polka-dotted, assuring people that, no really, it’s all the rage in Spain.

 

On appreciation:

The Road

The Road

 

The truly awful municipal albergue tonight was made up for by our wonderful signora, who poured two tall glasses of cold orange juice as we hobbled our way in the door of her hotel (which was full, darn it, but was where we went to check in, pay for our bunks and eat). She made us lovely home-cooked dinner – big tureens of sopa de castellana and platters of salad, vegetables and huge savory meatballs. Bread and vino are always served all-you-can-eat and we topped things off with home-jarred melocotones (peaches) and snifters of coffee liquor. We then headed back to our cramped, smelly, freezing cold albergue in high spirits. The trail is all about loving and appreciating the gifts and dealing with slight hardships or inconveniences in stride. If you make it a point to pay attention, the former always outnumber the latter. But you really do have to pay attention.

 

On progress:

 

We’re officially over halfway and over one month on the trail. I’m still fairly taken with the meseta and I’m enormously glad that we didn’t skip it, but – and I never thought I’d say this – I’m ready for some more hills. My blistered heel, though much better, has had the unfortunate side effect of making me favor my right foot, which has thrown my hips out of whack. This has resulted in a couple of long days on which I weave all over the place, attempting to regain my ability to walk like a human. Glad this didn’t occur while I was on mountainsides. All things considered, I’m proud to have gotten from one place to the next regardless of discomfort or looking even sillier than usual. Although my trail name is now probably “that drunk American”, which I don’t particularly mind, but I’d like to have EARNED it.

 

Mama has been summarily whacked on the head by the mucus fairy and is a sick puppy (but an amazing trouper). We’re in Leon today and will be staying through tomorrow so she can rest up. I’m currently quite enamored with myself, as I’ve been out exploring and have managed to buy stamps at the tobacconist, a scarf for mama at a clothing store, postcards at the cathedral and a glass of wine at the bar – all in acceptable Spanish and all without getting lost. This is progress.

 

On booze:

 

Best sangria: ice, sparkling lemonade, 1 bottle of Rioja, 1 each sliced orange and lemon, 1 shot each contreau and vodka, sugar to taste.  Make in a big pitcher. Yummy.

 

On bringing home with you:

 

Thinking about the centuries of pilgrims who have followed this trail before me puts me in mind of history and ancestry and of all of those people who have played such important roles in my little life. I came in thinking that I get to walk this WITH my Mama, but I was walking it FOR myself. Which is true, but also not a complete statement. My dear, strong, adventurous Granny has been with me every step, making sure I take my time to observe and appreciate and giggle. My best papa has shared Hemingway’s favorite trout with me, marveled at landscapes and laughed at donkeys. My brave sister has given me the guts and the nerve to start conversations in Spanish and to develop friendships that would never have otherwise started. Brie is walking the trail once again, at my heels or two steps ahead, whispering “Don’t miss this!” and “Look here!” And my fabulous, silly and utterly irreplaceable Portland friends – they’re rubbing my shoulders, holding my knee in place, pouring me wine and supporting me for those last few steps, when I’m sure I’ve had enough. I really, truly thought that my biggest lesson on the trail would be the ability to get over and work through homesickness. It’s not.

 

The lesson is that home is with me, wherever I go. I’m walking for all of us.

 

On legends:

 

Tonight we’re at Hospital de Orbigo, which is a village that is led into by one of the longest existing medieval (originally Roman) bridges in Europe. There’s a great history involving a knight deciding he needed to stand guard over it to defend his unrequited love’s honor in the 1400s. People came from all over Europe to challenge him, but he stood firm and broke 300 lances before packing it in and heading to Santiago, the lady’s honor intact (inasmuch as these things can be judged by running large sticks at one another). We realized that we passed the 300-mile mark a few days ago. It’s funny – the time it took us to get to Burgos seemed SO LONG, but we’ve gone once again that far since then and it’s just flown by. I guess the last third will tell the tale.

 

On The Weird:

 

Mom just got haunted by a Camino ghost. We had just finished with dinner and we were sitting and chatting. All of a sudden she made a face and whispered “Whew! That guy really needs a shower.”  I looked at her like she was crazy, because we were sitting in an open restaurant that I had a full view of – she had her back against a solid stone wall and no one had come close to her. I said as much and was about to make a comment about it being me, but then I saw the expression on her face. She said that, no, a tall man had just walked behind her – and (although it seemed so ordinary that she forgotten for a moment where she was sitting) directly into the stone wall behind her. I think it’s pretty neat, although I didn’t have to smell the guy. Still, stinky pilgrim ghosts. Pretty appropriate.

 

A couple other odd Camino occurrences: My hair had always, always (unless swayed by aqua net in the early 90s) parted naturally on the left. Here, it parts in the right. I can’t fight it.

 

Also – the whistle. When mom and I first arrived in Madrid, jet-lagged and exhausted, our cab driver kept repeating this very simple whistling refrain as we were driving. The closest I can describe it is like the Woody Woodpecker first notes: dododo DO do. About that short, but with a slightly different tune. He wasn’t doing it at us or for our benefit – it was almost like he didn’t realize he was doing it at all. We both commented on it later. Then, in San Sebastian on a crowded city bus, we heard the same whistle coming from somewhere in the back. Then it came from nowhere when I was taking a shower in Roncesvalles, the day we walked over the Pyrenees. Again in Alto de Perdon at the pilgrim statue. Again in a cathedral in Navarette. Again in an albergue courtyard. Again. Again. The thing is, aside from the cab driver, we never see who’s doing it and we can never remember how it goes until we hear it again. We may be on a very long candid camera sketch.

 

On trail angels:

 

Bit of an unfortunate setback to our new badass pace/mileage system in the form of another knee dislocation on a steep decline. We sat for a while and I was mentally steeling myself to make it down the rest of the mountain (I would have considered rolling if it wasn’t for the pack) when some people came up behind us. The trail had been pretty empty as there were three possible options to get to tonight’s town and most people had taken the lower main road route (we opted for the more challenging, isolated option. Whoops.)  Anyway, this troupe of six people showed up. In terms of trail angels, they had fully three strikes against their likelihood of being at all helpful in that 1) they were American, 2) they were boys and 3) they were teenagers (a rare breed out here). However, once they asked what was wrong, they refused – flat out REFUSED – to leave us without helping. We protested that we would be fine, but they were having none of it. One shouldered my pack and two more literally hoisted me up between them and carried me to the next drivable road. They were set to walk to the next town and send a cab back for us, but they were able to flag down a passing van. I was immensely thankful and honestly flabbergasted. Six recently graduated 18-year-old boys from California just saved my ass. INSISTED on saving my ass. They even tried to tip 20 euro to the van that pulled over for us (who declined). Gives me hope for both teenagers and Americans.

 

On the best day:

The Iron Cross

The Iron Cross

 

We have officially (as of today, in my mind) found our way into the mountains of Stage Three. I did indeed catch the mental version of a chest cold for the two days previous to this. Intense bouts of homesickness and emotional exhaustion had me feeling very sorry for myself for a while there. Which was added to by the embarrassment and guilt of feeling sorry for myself While On Vacation In Spain. Last night seemed as if (in my doom and gloom mentality) all was conspiring against us. We had either a very short or very long day ahead of us for today. We had decided on the longer option, but that we would send our packs and get a private room reservation. Out hospitaliero had a huge row with his father and disappeared, so we were unable to get him to call for us. That coupled with a very stormy forecast (while walking over the highest peak on the Camino) made us change our mind in favor of the shorter day.

 

It was drizzly when we left in the morning, but no wind and no mud made for fine walking conditions. There were some newbies (who started in Leon) complaining about the wet, which made us feel fairly badass, as we were completely unfazed and even pleased, knowing firsthand how very much worse it could get. As we began our ascent, the mountains started to unfold around us. Snow-capped peaks that were tiny smudges on a distant horizon just a week ago were suddenly our neighbors. What’s more, we were PASSING THEM BY. We found ourselves walking through riots of color -acres of purple and pink heather and white and yellow scotch broom rose above and below us. When we arrived at our intended destination (a mere six miles in), neither of us were close to ready to be finished. We stopped for a bowl of hot potato and broccoli soup (hot lunch is very rare in small walk-through towns and this was homegrown, homemade and delicious).

 

Only about a mile later, we reached the iron cross – Cruz de Ferro – where centuries of pilgrims have left a stone that they’ve carried with them from their home. It originally began as a symbolic ridding of sins, but as a more secular mindset has taken hold, it is now more commonly seen as a release of burdens (appropriately, as you’ve just walked over 350 miles, carrying a rock ON PURPOSE).  I brought two – in Portland I hadn’t decided on which one to bring with me and I told Jody and Curry that I wanted to symbolically place their burdens as well. I intended to use one for all three of us, but (me not having specified which of the two I was taking) they each chose a different one to spend a little meditation time with. Luckily, Jody told me before I left one behind. Of course, I had to bring them both.

 

When we arrived, we were initially a little put off. Yes, the cross was towering and yes the mountain of stones was formidable, but there was a tourist bus idling nearby and honestly, it looked a little junky. We shed our packs and ponchos in the shelter, grabbed our rocks and headed in. As I began traversing the loose stones to the top though, I started to become overwhelmed. My feet were slipping on a literal century’s worth of offerings. I won’t describe the details of the talismans, tokens and remembrances there, as words are inadequate and I will remember it always in my heart. The spirits of my two best girls were warm in each hand as I began, rather uncontrollably, to cry. I turned to mama, who has tears in her eyes as well. We embraced on the mountain of stones, wept and then found a place – next to a rock shaped like a heart – to lay our burdens. After wanting to reach this particular destination and lose this weight for so long, mom and I were both hit with the feeling that we didn’t want to part with them. I guess it’s not so easy to let even burdens go. We did though, and continued walking, smiling and talking, finishing at our longest mileage so far, with packs, over the mountains. By definition, that’s our hardest day yet. For me, it was the easiest.

 

On advice:

 

In Santiago!

In Santiago!

 

I was thinking today that if a friend came to me with intentions of walking the Camino, I’d be thrilled, cheer them on and do whatever I could to help, but I’d never actually recommend it to someone without it being their idea first. Not because it’s not absolutely phenomenal – it is. But it’s such an intensely personal experience that I couldn’t with confidence suggest that it would be a good idea for someone, no matter how well I knew them. The resolution is something you’ve got to come to on your own – that’s what gets you where you need to go. Mom and I estimate the dropout rate from our trail is about 50% – and I’ve got to give those folks proper credit. Making the decision to want to keep going each day is hard. Making the decision to stop, I would think, has to be even more difficult. Brie told me before I left that this was MY Camino, my road, and that I needed to listen and pay attention to how my instincts were telling me to proceed. Luckily, my camino and mom’s camino seem to be happily in tandem, but it could just as easily have been otherwise. At this point it seems like our roads will both take us on to the end. I’ve learned that a lot can happen in four days though, so I’ll continue to listen.

 

Beautiful sun breaking through the fog this early morning. We’re breakfasting on coffee and fresh squeezed OJ before we head out. Love to all. Talk to you on the other side.

 

On the end:

 

Hi everyone,

We did it. We made it. We’re here.

I have an incredibly pressing list of priorities at the moment, with a shot of tequila and a bath (yes, in that order) heading up the list.  I love you all. Thanks for journeying with me.

-Greta

 

Thank you Greta for sharing so many tips and insights about your Camino.  Greta is a talented designer living in Portland, Oregon.  Her website is: www.thrivedesigns.net

 

Last Steps of the Camino

Mother and Daughter share the last steps of the Camino.

 

3 Comments

  1. Great – what a wonderful description of your time on the camino. I laughed and cried as I went with you.
    Thank you for your honesty and sense of humor.

    Cecelia- been there too – and again:)
    PS. Thanks Laura for making this available to your readers

    • My pleasure. I love reading the submissions myself. I’m hoping for more Cecelia! hint hint!

    • Thank you Cecelia. 🙂 I can’t wait to go back. Buen Camino!

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