Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Day 8: "The Death March"

You know there's going to be some kind of story when the title of this post is "The Death March." I guess there's not really as much of a story as there is hurt feet. 


Portugalete - Castro-Urdiales (31km)

My getting to Portugalete early the day before meant that I had time to buy groceries for breakfast, which of course included cereal and milk (yep, the kind of milk they have in Europe that is UHT, or "ultra-heat treated," popular in hot countries like Spain as an alternative to having to refrigerate milk). I as always wanted to push onward, hard and fast. After a terrible walk the day before through the industrial wasteland that was suburban Bilbao, I wanted to get going. The chocolate cereal and milk that morning was supposed to be another data point in our test - so far, it seemed that if we ate chocolate cereal with milk in the mornings, we would go at least 30km that day. It started out a nice day - slightly overcast, so not too hot, with the promise of slightly cooler than the previous days.

A common feature of Camino paths is that there are many options - this time, there was the option of taking a "shorter shortcut" path to the small town of Pobeña, or walking along the coast starting at La Arena (a town who's name means "the beach" in Spanish). Naturally, we wanted to walk along the coast, since that was part of the reason for choosing the northern route in the first place. 

Our of Portugalete the Camino went along a very unique suburban bike path - it was an elevated bridge that circled around huge highways, through parks, and around all the clutter of the highways below. It was an elevated walkway that connected Portugalete all the way to the beach at La Arena, 10km away. I saw many people running, biking, jogging, walking, strolling, and just enjoying the day. A few other Camino-goers were about, but mostly there were elderly couples, older groups of women, and older single men getting their exercise on this mostly-flat bike path. At the point where the path diverged between Pobeña and La Arena, I stopped to look at my map and wait a bit for Leah / Kayla. A very helpful gentleman came up to tell me the way to find the Camino along the beach at La Arena, advising me that the way through Pobeña was ugly and industrial. Good, I wasn't planning on going that way anyway =).

As I got closer to La Arena around 11am, the clouds looked ominous and it started to rain. I hid in a cafe right next to the beach to use the wifi, get a coffee, and wait. Leah and Kayla joined me, so we figured we'd just have lunch there and get rid of some of the weight we were carrying. Using the intelligence I picked up from miscellaneous-stranger-on-the-bike-path, we walked along the beach to find the Camino on the other side. Kayla, as always, wanted to go swimming, but because it looked like it was going to rain and we had a long way to go today, she settled for just walking in the sand to meet us at the footbridge on the other side. The beach was gorgeous - long, sandy, with precipitous cliffs on either side. This is the view from the cafe:



Another feature of walking in a country with 15 regional languages is that the towns usually have two names - this gets especially confusing when your guide shows towns in two provinces on the same page. Do you write the name in Basque? In Gallego? In Castellano? In English? Spanglish? You get the point. One such town was the town of El Haya. I mean Kobaron. I mean Cobáron. Whatever - at some point after this town, the province of Cantabria started! This means we had walked through TWO provinces! Only 3 more to go....

Walking onward past the town of Ontón, we had the option of maybe walking along the highway to cut down on some time. It really sucks to walk along the highway, so we decided to not go that route. It was still early, it was warm, we had a tent, it would be fine. The signs were easy to follow (you never know when you enter a new province exactly how the signage was going to be), and there was a 2km-long chunk of straight uphill switchbacks. Leah and I were walking together, having gone ahead of Kayla about an hour before. We were on the hunt for a supermarket - our pamphlet said there would be one in Ontón or Baltezana (we saw none in either), so we sat in the shade to wait for Kayla and munch on some granola bars. I was hungry, so I ate 4 bars and ended up with no more in my pocket. We were going to have to find food or a supermarket soon, because we all know what happens when MICHELE HUNGRY. Waiting for an hour while reading our books, we decide that we should press on (remember, Kayla still doesn't have a phone at this point), else our hunger get the best of us. At 4pm we leave, thinking we have about 10km more to go to Castro-Urdiales (for those who are counting, this should take about 3 hours walking at a reasonable pace). I hadn't eaten all that much and we were taking long breaks after periods of intense walking on more paved roads than usual. A dull remember-we're-here pain started to develop in my feet. After taking my weight off them for a few minutes at a time it would go away, but 5 minutes of walking later would just re-ignite the dull fires. 

Our hunger overtakes us in Santullán. We see no grocery stores but see a bar - jumping at this opportunity, we get coffee and Leah's first tortilla española (in English the word "tortilla" is the flat bread we use to make wraps with, but in Castellano, tortilla española is an omlette with cheese, milk, onions, and potatoes), an incredibly filling first dinner. I even forgot about my aching feet, glad for the chance to sit down.

Asking an older man we see outside the bar for the supermarket, he points us in the direction we think Castro-Urdiales is, saying "the closest one is 2km there, in Castro." My feet were killing me. We thought we had another 4km or so along the Camino, but this man was telling us 2km to Castro. Leah's ankles were starting to hurt too, so we jumped on the chance - it was likely that the Camino didn't go past the three giant supermarkets this man was promising us. This "road" he pointed us to turned out to be CA-250 - a provincial highway between the towns. Good thing provincial highway in this part of Spain just meant one-lane road with more-than-the-occasional car on it. It did mean no sidewalks, and it did mean pavement. 

My. Feet. Hurt. It hurt to walk, and I needed my poles to make any progress at all. They had never hurt this bad before, and they both hurt equally. As I walked I did a quick mental assessment: I hadn't tripped or twisted any ankles, I hadn't stepped on anything pointy, I hadn't gotten bitten by some kind of animal. They hurt equally, which meant that the most likely candidate was just exhaustion from walking, not eating enough that day, the heat, not drinking enough water, or a combination of all of the above. I concluded I was in no immediate danger and should just press onward until the next break would come. Every few steps I would let out a grunt of exertion, and I could hear Leah behind me in a similar state. Clearly we needed to get to Castro - if it was that close - and rest. 

We passed the as-promised enormous supermarkets and made quite the show of hobbling through the aisles (Leah could walk better, so she took most of the groceries. I needed my poles so tried hard not to knock anything over while I stumbled around). We hadn't seen or heard from Kayla all day, but made sure to buy dinner and breakfast for her too, assuming we'd see her in Castro-Urdiales. 

The beach, port, and marina came soon enough - we were in the city, so we knew we would be OK. Stopping frequently along the boardwalk (but still going faster than the elderly couples going for a stroll!), we got to a tourist information booth around 7pm. The man was friendly - he gave us a map, told us a bit about Castro, and in a very nice voice explained to us that the albergue was not only 1km out of town, but it was also filled to capacity. He showed us some pensiones on the map (and the campground about 1km away). Leah and I made a show of trying to decide what was better - spending 40 euros for one night in a pensión or saving a few bucks to sleep at the campground. After hobbling in the town for a few blocks we quickly realized what the answer was - we were in no mental or physical state to walk another 1km to the campground (and a shower is always nice), so we walked to the nearest pensión and asked for a room. They were full. Next one. Also full. Damnit, we only have 3 more options! This time we call them, finally finding the last one we called (the one farthest away from us, of course) to have space. We walk there, check in, eat dinner, and hunker down to wait for Kayla. We spent 45 euros that night for the two of us to sleep in a bed, have a private shower, and not get woken up at 6am when all the other peregrinos leave. It was totally worth it, and my poor tired feet appreciated it. (Little did we know that we would walk by the albergue the next day to see that we could have just set up our tent on their lawn for free. Oh well.). 

After dinner in Castro, still not having heard from Kayla, we decided to go to sleep after getting some concession-frozen-yogurt right next to the pensión

The hot shower helped my feet, but most of all the sleep and elevation helped them get better overnight. The next morning I woke up feeling completely rejuvenated - the death march of the day before completely forgotten. No other day on the Camino felt as bad as this one did for my feet - after consulting with other peregrinos along the way, we all concluded that the hardest day is Day 8. Not only are you walking on pavement more than you are used to, but your body is weary, drained, and ready to give up. The only way you make it is if you work through the pain to keep going, onward, westward, towards Santiago.