A shout out to the creators of Birkenstock: you are wonderful, and I am eternally grateful. I will buy Birkenstocks forever. I love you.
Today I passed the 100-mile mark of walking in my Birks (thank you, Mom, for convincing me to bring them.) I'm really hoping to not trek my boots, tied to the sides of my pack, all the way to Santiago, but as of yet I have not been able to put them back on. I take that back: I can put them on, but when I attempt to walk in them I look like I'm 80 years old and the native Spanish snails start passing me. In my Birks, on the other hand, I am starting to feel fantastic. The weariness and pain of the first two weeks is wearing off and I can feel myself getting stronger, and my endurance building. I'm sort of like a steam train: it takes me a long time to get up to speed, and when I start the local people sitting nearby start laughing, but after a few minutes I'm off and going. Slowing down and stopping is also difficult, but I think it's safe to say we are all getting addicted to walking, or at least reconciling ourselves to the fact that we are doing this for the next month.
Today Sanne/Dutchie sighed, looked pensively at us, and very seriously said, "I love everything about the Camino. Except the walking."
Walking ... it's a killer.
Yesterday we were walking on a long, dirt road (you become very clear with your definitions of what kind of road/trail/path you are walking on when you do this) when we were passed by two men, walking extremely fast. One of them whizzed past Mary and I -- with absolutely flawless, perfect form. His backpack was completely symmetrical, the straps pulled tight, every pocket perfect filled out. Even his seashell, signifying his participation in the Camino, was hanging directly down the center of his backpack, which was also positioned perfectly on his shoulders. His hat didn't have a single wrinkle in its wide brim; his clothes were wrinkle free; his sunglasses had no smears on them. His feet made a perfect "swoosh, swoosh" sound as they passed in perfect rhythm over the dirt, each step even, arms moving in perfect synchronized order. With his perfect form he whizzed past us, up the hill, where we witnessed his ascent from behind, where we could see him gaining on Rachel and Sanne. Rachel's bright blue pack was gaping, one pocket was open, it was lopsided, something was hanging off of it, and it was covered in dirt. She was limping, and there was dirt all over the backs of her legs. Sanne's walking sticks were shooting out at weird angles, and her pack was also rumply. We may not be professional -- but we're getting there!
After our "rest day," we headed out early (in the dark) the next morning, and had just headed out of town when we saw the sky light up in a large flash followed by a loud boom. Marie/Norway jumped a mile and said in her perfect British English, "This is quite murdery!" Lightning, far away on a far hill -- but still, very not good. Several minutes later two things became apparent: that the storm was heading our way and that the lightning was striking the ground. But right at the moment we were beginning to seriously think, "Oh, no!" we saw just before us a church with a large covered stone awning on exactly the correct side of the building. We ran under and set up camp where we were soon joined by two Polish men, a Chinese woman, and two Spaniards. Now that we were safe, the storm was marvelous -- and actually didn't cross our path, but blew right on by. It was like a firework show from the distance; a 5 AM show of nature's glory.
For two days we walked 30k days, crossing over as much country as we could in the early mornings, taking our own "siesta" in the hot afternoons, and continuing on when it began to get slightly cooler. The first day we walked for hours through unshaded hay fields until we finally took refuge under a tree in a vineyard. Though many people are walking the Camino, we're more spread out now, and we had seen no one else for hours. Sanne, catching up, came dancing into our oasis, headphones on, singing loudly, "Donde esta Jose?" ("Where is Jose?") This is essentially the only lyric to this catchy Spanish song that she was rocking out to, which has become a favorite of our group. We played it as we sat under this tree, laughing at its sheer ridiculousness, when a pilgrim -- maybe the fourth person we had seen all day -- walked past, 10 meters away on the road. "Buen Camino!" As he walked away, I jokingly yelled, "It's Jose!"
The man turned, waved, and began walking toward us. We motioned, "No no, Buen Camino! Perdon!"
"Did you call me?" he asked in Spanish, looking completely confused at each of our faces, trying to figure out which one of us he knew. No one.
"Je suis Jose!" he said in French, trying another language to our confused situation.
"YOU'RE JOSE?!" Rachel yelled.
"I am Jose! You call?"
Indeed, God has a sense of humor, because we found Jose. Jose is Portuguese living in France, speaks no English, is a deeply spiritual Catholic walking on to Fatima after Santiago and has a marvelous sense of humor. He laughed hysterically when we played him his song. He had become our new favorite pilgrim, and our mascot of hope.
We later took a siesta in a quaint little town also having a fiesta -- our second festival in two days. We napped in a park until we reached a consensus to continue on one more town --- our first time that we have walked in the evening.
Before we left, we played our new pump up song: "Donde Esta Jose?" No sooner had we hit play, but Jose popped out from behind a festival tent, walking toward us.
"Jose!!!!" we yelled.
"Filles!" ("girls") Jose yelled in French.
We have a beautiful friendship.
We finally arrived to the top of a very large hill, not to another historic Camino town like we are accustomed to, but to a modern town that came straight out of a M. Night Shyamalan movie. Empty modern buildings stood everywhere with "For Sale" signs in every window. Playgrounds stood empty. Locals went in and out of a local golf club and gathered at the pool, but the town was otherwise eerily quiet, empty and untouched. We walked through this until we came to an Albergue, where our host laughed when we asked him where the market was. No market. No dinner. But there were beds, which we fell into, slept immediately, and rose again at 4 to begin again.
And again, we walked and walked. Up and down, through fields, across fields, past fields, above fields, and around fields. We pushed ourselves, encouraged one another, and drank copious amounts of water in the hot sun. We laughed, sang every Disney song we could think of at the top of our lungs, sang "Row Row Row Your Boat" in rounds in three different languages, intermixed with spreading out and spending time walking by ourselves.
Rachel and I ran into churches, as we could, for moments of quiet prayer. We offered up our blisters and prayed for those who asked our prayers.
On several occasions we ate ice cream bars before 7:30 AM.
At the end of this road we pushed through to one final town, largely because it awarded us today a late-morning hill climb (that we would have hit either at 5 AM, in the dark, or 3 PM, in the heat). More sweaty than I have possibly ever been in my life, we climbed a small hill to the first albergue, and were rewarded at the top by running nearly smack into Julia/Germany, our long lost friend! Robert sat nearby, impressing some pilgrims with his yoga skills.
Reunited, and it feels so good!
Rachel and I headed to Mass after showering, where we got a half an hour of quiet prayer time before. But about ten minutes after we sat down, my feet began roaring. There is no other way to describe this feeling. They were ON FIRE. All through Mass I couldn't hold still (or concentrate) because of this burning pain! Rachel was experiencing the same problem -- often it is worse right when you stop, and this was no exception. Each time we stood up, it burned; sitting hurt; kneeling was okay, but very brief. The priest gave us a blessing afterward and laughed when we walked up -- and imitated what we looked like. A man from the church said, "Bailar!" and imitated the dance it looked like we were doing during Mass. Lo siento!
So this morning we began again -- 4 AM wake up call; dysfunctional packing process; slightly delayed communal departure; group of 7. We climbed today, starting with a glorious sunrise, passing through a quiet and beautiful herd of milk cows, through a magical forest that reminded me greatly of the Pacific Northwest. Today felt short comparatively, and we arrived in our new town in early afternoon, where we gathered in the courtyard outside our albergue and ate enormous salad, aimed squirt guns at each other, and talked about our feet.
Tomorrow we end the beginning of the mountain and hill stage as we walk into Burgos -- the last day before we begin the Maseta, the high, flat Spanish plateau, with no shade and the same scenery for days. This, in the words of Marie, is "where most people see Jesus -- maybe because they're hallucinating, but either way, it's intense."