WALKING: IT’S LIKE RIDING A BIKE
A Memoir & Guidebook to the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage
by Dylan Romero
After a disastrous year in which I was laid off, underwent knee surgery, and lost my father, I escaped to Spain to embark on a 500-mile pilgrimage known as El Camino de Santiago – walking the entire route (almost) barefoot.
Throughout my journey I rely on laughter to keep me sane, enhanced by a strange cast of fellow pilgrims and plenty of wine.
Walking: It’s Like Riding a Bike is a (work-in-progress) travel memoir and guidebook about my Camino experience. For more information, including a query letter and full book proposal, please contact me at email@example.com.
A sample chapter from the book is included below.
September 19, 2009 – Santo Domingo to Belorado (24 km)
Surprise! It’s sunny again. The weather has been about as schizophrenic as my mood the last few days. Every day of walking takes me through the full spectrum of moods: hopeful, bored, hungry, confused, hungry, calm, frustrated, ecstatic, hungry (hungry is definitely a mood on the Camino). In my defense, the occasional flesh-rent-from-bone incident is an excuse worthy of feeling a little blue about. But I’m in no pain now, and I consider the empty spot where my foot muscle used to be a symbolic blank slate. A new, less painful Camino starts here. Pretty please.
At our first pit stop another group of pilgrims made the connection between my footwear and the faux-barefoot footprints they saw in the mud yesterday.
“So it was you,” says one middle aged French woman. “We thought someone had gone crazy and ran barefoot through the mud.”
The idea of my personal tracks being distinct and long-lasting enough for others to bear witness to their existence seems somehow important to me. Everyone wants to be remembered – immortality through memory is how heroes and legends are born. If trilobites were alive today, I imagine they’d be pleasantly surprised by the ubiquity of knowledge and interest in their fossils.
Since I’m far from legendary by any measure, I think the impermanence of my wannabe fossil-prints fits my station in life – as does the relatively small sample size of my archeological followers on the Camino.
Still, I’m becoming Camino famous, and that’s something. It isn’t hard to become Camino famous. I’ve heard stories of pilgrims – seemingly too outlandish to be true – only to have a Bigfoot-like encounter with the person behind the tale, gleaning just enough information from the sighting to pass the legend on.
One such story involved a tiny, middle-aged lady with a big voice and even bigger sunglasses. She flew out from New York City to test her mettle on the Camino. The only problem? She doesn’t wear backpacks. They hurt her back; and besides, she has far too many shoes and cosmetics and electronic devices to fit everything in a meager pack. Instead she’s strolling toward Santiago with rollaway luggage in tow. She drags her rollaway up hills and down, over rocky terrain and through the mud.
“It isn’t plausible,” I tell my source. “The wheels would fall off. Rollaway luggage isn’t meant for cross-country, off-road travel.”
But a second source comes forward. “I’ve seen her too.”
“She looks like she got lost on the way to the airport,” adds Source Number One.
“But why doesn’t she send her bag ahead to the next town?” I ask.
My sources shrug. I hope to find the lady from New York with the huge sunglasses and ask her myself. Maybe she’ll thank me for the idea.
Rumors and news travel up and down the Camino as fast as a high school hallway. Remember when you knew everything about everyone in your high school, even if you had never talked to them? The Camino acts as a powerful conduit for gossip, shooting it forward to Santiago and bouncing it back to the Pyrenees.
Sure, some of the gossip is false. People exaggerate, they spread vicious lies (such as telling other pilgrims I’m a hippy because I wear weird shoes) – but if Rollaway Luggage Lady is any indication, the stranger rumors usually contain some level of truth (I do recycle occasionally, and trees are pretty neat).
As for whether I believe in the complete story of Rollaway Luggage Lady? I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve gathered more evidence – or at least until I’ve had a chance to perform stress testing on various rollaway luggage brands.
Speaking of rumors, we heard there’s a private albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) in Belorado with a pool. The idea of floating weightlessly in water all but makes my feet and joints sing with anticipation. With the sun shining and temperatures nearing 70 degrees Fahrenheit, I’m feeling lucky.
We pick up our walking pace. I want to make sure any other pilgrims who have a similar idea don’t take all the available bunks before we arrive. My math ability extends beyond temperature conversion, and I’m becoming a compulsive measurer of our progress and estimator of future arrivals. If we keep up out current clip of 6 km per hour, and add in two pit stops for food and rest, we should arrive around 12:30pm – about two to three hours earlier than the average pilgrim.
When the town comes into view it’s 12:15pm. Damn I’m good. What I neglected to calculate, however, was that pushing the pace all day would take a brutal toll on our bodies.
We stumble into town like spent marathon runners across a finish line. My muscles ache, and the albergue with the pool is among the first buildings we reach. By far, it’s the most touristy albergue I’ve seen. Flags of a dozen different nationalities line the trail leading up to the main building, and a cheesy cartoon cutout of a pilgrim greets us at the entrance. Stephanie doesn’t really like the place. But I don’t care about these things. I don’t want to walk any farther, and there’s a pool.
We pay the disinterested host and locate our room and bunks. The albergue looks brand new. I point this out to Steph, but she still doesn’t like it. She also doesn’t like the flies gathering on our packs and shoes, especially my gradually ripening FiveFingers.
We’re the third and fourth person to arrive. A row of bunks remains open, and this is just one room of many. So much for needing to push the pace. After dropping off our packs, Stephanie takes a shower while I scope out the pool. The wind has started to pick up and the water slides from blue to grey as clouds move in and cover the sun. I dip my toe in and shiver. One of the early arriving pilgrims is lying out on a lawn chair and finding it difficult to read as the pages of her book flap in the wind. I decide to take a hot shower instead.
Back in the room, I notice there are a few more flies than when we left. I try reading, but their constant buzzing and propensity for landing on my face drives me out into the elements, where the chilling wind drives me to the kitchen. Unfortunately, our room is merely an outlying suburb of the Kingdom of the Flies, and the kitchen is their thriving metropolis. I’ve never seen so many flies.
In the evening the flies become too much to handle, so we head outside. The ruins of a castle peer down on us from a hill above the town. We reach the heart of Belorado, the Plaza Mayor. Dense trees surround a squat platform at its center. Children weave between the trees on scooters, cafés open from their siestas, and John and Janet are staring up at the cathedral.
We sit and drink café con leche outside of a bar. John and Janet are staying in a private room in an attic near the plaza. It’s not new, and it doesn’t have a pool, but the flies don’t outnumber them 100 to 1.
We head back to the albergue as daylight fails. Our room is dark with sleeping pilgrims when we arrive, and I can only hear the occasional buzz of a passing fly. Before I succumb to the sleep that falls easily over a tired pilgrim, flies or no flies, one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes moments pops into my head.
Calvin: “Bugs fly in such crazy loops and zigzags. I wonder why they don’t get dizzy and barf.”
Hobbes: “Maybe they do!”
Calvin: “Eww, gross! Ha ha ha! Then why would they keep flying that way?”
Hobbes: “Maybe bugs LIKE to barf!”
Calvin: “EWWW! They WOULD! Ha ha ha ha! BLAUGH!”
Calvin: “I tell you Hobbes. It’s great to have a friend who appreciates an earnest discussion of ideas!”
Great. Now I’m worried about flies barfing on me in my sleep. I should’ve listened to Stephanie. I officially bequeath all albergue choosing duties over to her.