Thursday, August 8, 2013

When you don't follow the yellow brick road

And by "yellow brick road" I mean "yellow arrows" of course. There are times when following the yellow arrows I felt like we were in the Wizard of Oz - and if we had to assign characters, Kayla is Dorothy, Leah is the Tin Man, and I am the Scarecrow. The Wizard of Oz sets the scene for a perfect place of adventure. 

But it's not always perfect. When you realize you're lost, you feel a heavy weight in your stomach slowly sinking. When you realize you're lost, you're responsible for the group, and you've lost the other members of your group who neither speak the language nor have a cell phone, the heavy weight becomes a sinking cannonball that drops immediately to the floor. 
That's basically how I felt the (first) time we got lost on the trail. As it happened, we got a free book at the albergue in San Sebastián that gave us some information about the stages for each day of the walk, but I wouldn't call them "maps" per se. (You can check it out for yourself, since we discovered two days before the end of our trip that there's a free PDF version as well.) With this book, we knew approximate distances between towns, approximately where the next albergue was, approximately where the next supermarket was. As a "trail guide" it was practically useless - it didn't tell us which turns we needed to take, which sections of trail were confusing, and when the trail intersected with other trail sections. Good thing the trail was always marked with yellow arrows like this: 




Leah and I both had Spanish cell phones (Leah's even had 3G connection most of the time), but Kayla did not. I have a good knowledge of conversational Spanish, Leah knows a few words, and Kayla doesn't know much at all. I walk the fastest, with Leah in second and Kayla being the slowest. I'm sure you're already getting an idea for a possible failure mode. 


After lunch (menu del día of course) in Deba we agreed that we'd walk and most likely not make it to the next albergue (all the way in Markina, 18km away, definitely a stretch goal), so we'd sleep in the tent tonight. Because for the last few days we'd noticed that we split up when we walk that I (as the walker in front) would stop every 1.5-hours-ish and wait for Leah and Kayla to catch up, to make sure we all stopped together at a reasonable time. This plan was foolproof. 

4pm: Set out together from our last regrouping.5pm: Leah and I were walking together. We had found some trees with shade and a good place to sit, so we stop to eat a granola bar and keep discussing whatever we had been discussing before.5:30pm: Time-check, no Kayla. "We've walked an hour and waited half an hour. Something must be up. Let's wait another 15 minutes and re-evaluate."6pm: Start asking everyone we see on the trail if they've seen Kayla. Walk back and forth along the trail and ask the few local farmers along the way if they have seen Kayla. Run briefly along almost all possible side trails to see if maybe she went the wrong way. Fail. Walk all the way back to the last place we had seen her at 4pm. No Kayla. Fail.

At this point there are all kinds of things running through our minds - could she have turned around back to the town? Could she have gotten a ride from a biker somewhere? Could she have snuck off to pee in the woods and failed to get back on the trail? 


In either case, we thought that if something would happen, Kayla would call us - there were enough people on the trail (and even off the trail - there were always workers in the fields and orchards everywhere we walked through) that she could ask to use someone's phone and call one of me or Leah. We hadn't heard anything, so we started to assume the worst. 

6:30pm: Sit and ponder our failure. Have a conversation with a few lost bikers about where exactly the Camino is. Send them off with a message that if they see a single female hiker in a blue shirt and a red backpack that she should call us.6:32pm: Realize we're idiots. 

This whole time, we had not been sitting along the Camino! I quickly realized why we were confused - there is a parallel trail that runs through the Basque Country marked by red-white blazes rather than yellow arrows. At one point on the trail, there was this cryptic sign: 


that we had completely missed in the midst of our discussion. The yellow arrows in this section had been painted black, including the ones on the trail, so they blended into the rocks and the trail they were painted over. Thing to note for the future: don't assume you can always see the trail. 




We started again at this sign marker, going the right way this time. Kayla had gotten a head start on us by almost 2 hours, and there was no way we could walk at our normal speed and catch up to her. At this point, we still had two options: (1) the more likely one that Kayla was ahead of us and we should keep walking, and (2) she turned around and went back to the town. 


In short, we bolted our way to Olatz, the next town, in hopes that Kayla would have either stopped there or at least walked through there. I use the word "town" too loosely here - the cluster of houses surrounding a small church were home to maybe 50 people. Walking through the center, we were offered to pitch our tent on the church lawn and sleep there for the night (it was 7:15pm, a bit too early for us to stop without walking further, but we considered it, given that there was a cluster of people here). We asked everyone we saw in Olatz whether they had seen Kayla, but nobody had. This didn't help us - there were too many variables. Had she not passed by? Had she passed by too long ago? Did the locals not understand that I was looking for a girl walking alone wearing a blue shirt and a big red backpack? 


In this same stretch, a few elderly Basque men and women on an evening stroll chatted with us in a mixture of English and Spanish, taught us a few Basque words that we promptly forgot, and gave us a flower for good luck in finding our friend. 



7:30pm. We run out of Olatz and into the neighboring woods. We walk up one of the longest uphill stretches we'd had to walk through up to that point, and Leah had a brilliant idea. KAAAAYLAAAAAAA she screams, and then I join her. We walk a few minutes, stop, and scream. Then all of a sudden we hear a whistle. Leah dismisses it as a bird, but I think it must be man-made. We scream again, to be greeted by the return sound of the whistle. We run, turn the corner, and find Kayla, all of us shouting the happiest screams we'd heard all day and collapsing into a large group hug. 


Turns out, Kayla had stood by the piece-of-paper sign that Leah and I had missed for a while until another peregrino explained the story with the black paint: a few locals don't like peregrinos walking near their property, so they've engaged in a temporary signage war with the Association of St. James (the ones who maintain the yellow arrows) by painting over all their signs with black. For that one small stretch, what you have to do is follow the black arrows until the yellow ones reappear. She had gotten insider info about this, and when she didn't see us at the appropriate time she just kept walking, thinking we were much faster than she was. When she passed the town, she decided that she was definitely ahead of us and kept walking on the lookout for a good place to camp that night. 


The bikers we had seen hours ago had caught up with Kayla not too long after Olatz, and she instead of calling had emailed me (not Leah, who had the data plan) saying that she was ahead of us and would meet us on the trail. Of course, we didn't get this because I had no way of checking my email. By the time we had caught up to her, she had recently finished the long uphill climb and found a spot in the woods where we could pitch our tent (and hammock) for the night. 


After a stressful afternoon of thinking I had lost my friends in rural Spain, we ate our grocery store lunch we'd bought earlier that day, pitched our tent in the middle of the forest, and went to sleep. 



lessons learned

From this experience, I personally learned a few lessons I will always take with me when planning trips: 
  • Make sure the expectations among group members are made explicit. Who is responsible for setting the plan for the day? Who is responsible for the group?
  • If I am ever to be responsible for a group of people, there must be the requirement that everyone has a cell phone or everyone is in a group that always has a cell phone. 
  • Set a contingency "all else fails" plan - we had not done that. Leah and I had assumed that Kayla would call us if she was lost, but we had never all explicitly discussed this. 
  • Make sure all group members carry contingency supplies. Thank god we did this - we all had water, food, and shelter on us. This is a basic rule of backpacking, but it's important to be reminded of this once again. 
  • All members must carry a map of some kind. From this point forward, Kayla and Leah both took pictures of the book's pages with their phones for the day, in case we got split up. 
It was not a negative experience, and in retrospect there wasn't much that could actually go wrong. But every story gives you a lesson about group dynamics and group experience. Throughout this episode, I felt like I was responsible for the well-being of the group - of course, it was my idea to do the Camino in the first place. I was the one who spoke Spanish, I was the one who had the original copy of the map, I was the one making decisions. I learned that when I am responsible, I want a set of safety mechanisms in place, and now I know.