Driving west, the dry landscape lifted and then flattened. I recognized the terrain, and then the familiar towns, posted on road signs: Belorado, Burgos, Castrojeriz, Frómista, Carrión de los Condes, Sahagún. De-facto dumped us in the dusty town on the outskirts of León and drove away as we checked into our hotel, his bike strapped to the rack on the back of the car. He drove 45 clicks toward the sunset, to Astorga, where he parked the car and rode his bike back to us, arriving in time for dinner. That bike would spend three days in the basement of the hotel while De-Facto, Short-pants, Buddy-roo and I walked the Camino de Santiago together, as a family.
This was his birthday request, to give him and the girls a chance to see what it’s like to be on a the Camino. I divided what would have been not quite two days of walking on my own into three pieces, or roughly 15 kilometers each day, suitable, I hoped, for the legs and stamina of an 11 and a nearly 9-year-old. Even though I’d learned to trust the road and end up wherever you end up, with the girls in tow I thought it’d be smarter to map out our stops and reserve beds in advance. I even found an albergue that had small rooms with four beds, so they could experience the community feeling of the Camino but without the snoring and lack of privacy that is part of staying in a dormitory with 20+ beds. I also booked a night in an upmarket B&B, so we could have a little luxurious charm on our walk, too.
That first morning, sitting on the bed, I leaned over to tie my boots: Hello, old friends. I lifted my pack onto the table, turned and slipped my arms under the straps, content to have all the essentials close, on my back. I’d packed lighter than ever; we’d be walking only a few days and I needed to make room for the girls’ clothes. They had smaller daypacks – less than half the weight of what they carry to school in their cartables – to carry their own water, snacks, sandals and K-ways, in case of rain. Tucked in the side pocket of my pack were four pilgrim passports, three of them blank but ready for stamps.
Short-pants, whom we had to cajole and persuade through tears to join us for a 9k hike on my birthday weekend, turned out to be a most confident pilgrim. She often walked ahead of us, happy to be on her own. She insisted upon carrying her book – I’d limited her to only one – and occasionally tried to read it while she was walking. She never complained and wouldn’t tell me how sore her feet were until I asked. Even then, I think her feet hurt far more than she let us know.
The week before, we’d watched The Way, a movie about walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. In the film, each of the featured characters reveals a reason for being on the Camino, the objective they want to accomplish along the way. It was during the second day of our walk that Short-pants volunteered, during a moment she and I were alone, ahead of De-Facto and Buddy-roo, that she had two goals for the Camino.
“I want to stop picking my nose in public,” she announced, “and I want to stop yelling at my sister.”
Part of the Camino is the contemplation that comes from solitude and slowing down. Another part is the camaraderie and the exchanges with other pilgrims along the way. While Short-pants followed her instinct for self-reflection, Buddy-roo was busy making friends. At every stop, she’d strike up a conversation with fellow pilgrims. If we didn’t see them again, she’d speak of her new friends longingly, aching for another sighting. When we did happen to encounter familiar faces, she’d run up and greet them with full-bodied hugs. We hiked for an hour one morning with a Canadian man who was suffering multiple aches and pains from walking. The next day we met him again, at a roadside cantine at the end of a long, steep climb. She bolted over to him and threw her arms around his waist. He was startled at first, but when he realized it was Buddy-roo he surrendered fully to her healing affection. I bet that hug did more for him than the Advil, the sunblock or the pieces of sausage we’d shared with him the day before.
July is not an optimal month to be on the Camino. Afternoon temperatures soar, making it advisable to get up by sunrise and get on the trail early to walk in the cooler morning hours. On our final day – we actually walked 17k but didn’t tell the girls how long it was until we’d finished – we agreed to start off before dawn. When the alarm went off at 5:15, De-Facto went across the hall to wake the girls and found Short-pants, who’d set her own alarm, already up and getting dressed. Buddy-roo was harder to rally and she was grumpy about walking in the dark for the first half hour when we had to follow the yellow arrows by flashlight.
Two kilometers later, as the sky grew light enough to turn off the torch, we heard the sounds of a pulsing bass beat, like a discotheque in the distance. Could there be a late night club somewhere near? This would explain the pack of drunken boys we saw coming in to town when we’d started out. The music grew more audible as we entered the next little village, really just a hamlet, and as the Camino snaked into the center of town we stumbled into a full-on outdoor dance party, the annual village fiesta that had been raging all night. A pack of young revelers cheered and raised their drinks at us as we stepped around the flashing spotlights with our backpacks and walking sticks.
I suppose we could have kept our heads down, pushed through the dancing crowd and continued on our way. But that would have been humorless, and besides, the song that was playing was one of my favorites from the fiesta in Pamplona. I couldn’t help but dance. I looked over at De-facto, he was dancing too. Short-pants was even shaking her hips. Buddy-roo, whom you’d expect to dive into this kind of a social situation, disappeared behind a truck parked in the street. When De-Facto danced back a few steps to check on her, she came running into his arms in tears.
“It’s not right,” she screamed. “We’re supposed to be walking.”
Buddy-roo was unconsolable. I suppose you could argue her point: I’d easily have danced there for a half an hour or more, using up energy reserves that I’d need later to cover the distance when the sun was high and hot. Despite pleas from the partiers for us to stay, we collected our children and started to walk again, heading the wrong way until one of the locals, drink in hand, redirected us toward the yellow arrow and the road leading out of town.
As we left the little fiesta behind, Buddy-roo scolded us. “The Camino is for walking,” she said, officiously, “you’re not supposed to dance at a party that’s happening in the middle of it.”
“Sometimes things happen that you don’t expect,” I said, “the Camino gives you little gifts.”
The more we talked about it, the more convoluted her justification for being angry. When pressed, her reasoning deteriorated, and as it became less logical, her voice grew more authoritative. This is the thing she does that drives her sister berserk. Short-pants gets enraged at Buddy-roo for being a know-it-all when she’s obviously making-it-up-as-she-goes-along. She’ll yell and scream at her little sister and stomp off. I’ve tried to coach her to ignore Buddy-roo and just walk away when she starts to talk nonsense. Short-pants has never been able to let it roll off her back.
Buddy-roo babbled on about how the Camino is supposed to be and I braced myself for the blow-up. Instead, I heard Short-pants murmur something under her breath, loud enough for me to hear, but her sister missed it.
“Whatever you say, smarty-pants.”
Then she slowed her pace, dropping back several meters to take a little distance from her grumpy sister. A little quiet sarcasm, a giant step for Short-pants.
There’s such a surge in confidence when you achieve a goal. The kilometer count was daunting to both girls, but especially to Buddy-roo, the pokiest of our foursome. I’d slow down to walk with her, distracting her with stories to keep her from thinking about how much further we had to go. She did not suffer silently like her sister, but she never gave up. And at the end of each day’s walk she was always the proudest of the distance we’d covered. On the last leg of our little walking tour, only a few hours after her angry rant about the fiesta, it was Buddy-roo who was skipping and rocking her head happily from side to side, leading the way up a serious hill, thirty meters ahead of De-facto. I brought up the rear, watching my family spread out single file along the trail, everybody in their Camino zone, exercising legs and mind and spirit, each one on their own, but all of us together.