Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret. ~ Bill Bryson
A nice, long walk on any given day can be about lots of things. Some days I want to burn calories and just enjoy a good sweat. Other days I feel so bogged down in minutia it’s the only way the cobwebs will clear. I just want to go out and have a long talk with myself – solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.
More often than not, my long walks are about inspiration. Finding it, more specifically. Contrary to popular belief inspiration rarely falls into your lap. Inspiration owes you nothing. You must seek it out, and purpose toward its elusive hideaway.
Barbara Kreisel and I met just as she was experiencing new inspirations of her own about walking. We’d crossed paths on occasion but never spent much quality time with one another until an overnight in Terradillos, just short of the Camino’s halfway point. Forking over an extra euro for a lower bunk was the deal of the day, and we shared a room that night with Marie Celton, a Reunion Island native, who’d already tallied more than 1,200 solo miles. Marie and I were captivated with Barbara’s story from just a few nights before when she’d encountered an experience every pilgrim fears. Chinches. As she spoke, she showed us a half-dozen moderate to severe bedbug bites, the red, swollen marks along her arm, ears and neck now insufferably itchy and a constant painful distraction.
The next morning Barbara shared a more significant story as we walked together.
Nearing her sixtieth birthday, she’d experienced a series of illnesses in recent years that resulted in a complete energy depletion. Doctors told her she had about 10 percent the energy of an average person her age. Determined for a remedy, she traveled from her home in Germany to Sri Lanka for promising non-traditional treatments that, in fact, restored her to new energy levels, near 70 percent. It was enough, she thought, to challenge herself on Camino pilgrimage, and when we met, she’d already walked more than 250 miles.
She’d come to the Camino with a simple goal. Just move. That was it. The idea that she’d taken the initiative and put herself in such a radically challenging situation was satisfying enough early on, but not any more. Her thoughts now turned to more transcendent notions. Alas, attempting the hard thing, and the courage in that decision to try just wasn’t enough.
“It was just about the moving in the beginning, and it was so very difficult crossing the Pyrenees. It took a few more days than I thought to recover, but over time I became more serious about the walking. Now, I’ve gone beyond even that, and my number of days here is limited, but I’ve begun to let myself think about arriving,” she said.
She’d gone from a goal of moving, to a new goal of walking, now, to new purpose – arriving. It’s that certain look a person gets in her eyes when a cause is planted in her heart. Barbara decided she had the wherewithal to finish. I loved seeing that look in her eyes and hearing that tone in her voice. And I love that she finished. Ultimately, Barbara arrived.
Move. Walk. Arrive.
There’s good reason to walk, and Barbara was really on to something. A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found 90 minutes of walking regularly, especially in non-urban areas, reduces tendencies toward depression and mental illness. Scientists could actually see this at work in people’s brains. Another study used a test group to prove that backpacking and disconnecting from technology boosted creative thinking and problem solving by as much as 50 percent. I know it’s true.
It’s pretty amazing to think just how much putting on a pair of walking shoes can actually change your life – if you actually walk in them, that is. No, the shoes won’t walk for you. That much is up to you.
If you pay attention to guidebook elevation charts as I do, you have time to mentally prepare for the days that really push your legs. Not only were Naomi, Aida and I uncertain about the physical challenges ahead the day we set out to climb O Cebriero, there was now much trail talk of a substantial snow storm ahead, and we needed to beat the weather to the top. A change in conditions loomed, and you could feel it in the air. It was time to push. We’d deal with whatever hand the weather dealt when we arrived. As Barbara learned many kilometers back, there’s power in your arrival.
The walk from Villafranca to O Cebriero begins with an extended two-hour hike down into a beautiful valley just east of the Galician border. It’s daunting, because you know for every step you take down into that magnificent lowland, the tide will turn to a radical upward ascent. Sure enough, you bottom out in the small village of Vega de Valcarce, and get your first glance at the winding, skyward footpath that lie ahead. You know right there your legs will start talking to you soon.
As the climb ensued, we adopted a pattern that lasted much of our remaining Camino. Aida, packed light and with the frame of a runway model, gradually pulled ahead as Naomi and I lagged behind. Naomi preferred a slow walk, taking things in. My hemorrhaging shin demanded slow. I lost count of the times Aida pulled ahead, then respectfully waited on us to catch up through the sierra.
It was reminiscent of the daylong trek through the Pyrenees, hopefully but incorrectly thinking the summit lie around every blind corner and every false plateau. Eventually, our team slowly disintegrated into three individuals, each on his own, now testing their metal one slow step at a time to the top.
Seven hours later and now 4,000 feet higher we rounded a corner leading to the locally famous marquee signaling our official arrival in the Galician territory. We took photos, slapped high fives and absorbed a sublime expanse of countryside most people never see. The further you walk through Galicia, the more striking these vistas become. The final leg of our journey was now officially under way, and the end of our day just a few short kilometers ahead.
O Cebriero is distinctive in every way. The Galician people are descended from Spain’s second wave of Celtic invaders who migrated across the Pyrenees. At the fall of the Roman Empire the region fell under the authority of several Germanic tribes, followed by the Visogoths and the Moors. The architecture is uniquely slate-based, the food rich and hearty, the people, hard-working, private and proud.
The winds of O Cebriero. Little did we know this was the calm before the storm.
After a celebratory beer in a local pub, our threesome considered its options for the night. Our decisions had greater ramifications now. If the snow talk was real, tomorrow was a complete unknown. An albergue would have us out the door by 8 a.m., whether we wanted to go or not. We needed a Plan B.
A local tavern with several private habitaciones was the answer. Naomi and Aida split a room, and I took my own private quarters across the street. Hot showers, privacy, the steady aroma of roasted pork and bubbling caldo gallego from the downstairs kitchen, and an antsy, high-energy pilgrim family – all citizens of the world – made for a divine early evening environment. It was home for a night.
Anxious about the forecast and our next day’s prospect for hiking downward to Triacastela, I walked outside several times during the evening. Three hours after our arrival, and as the sky went dark, a misty rain set in, and the wind blew.
I’ve never been in a colder, stronger, wetter wind. It howled with a mocking, obnoxious fury.
All you could do was go to bed for now, and see what lie outside the frosty windows tomorrow.
But at least, we’d arrived.