I never said I was the brightest bulb in the package.
I’m not stupid, I know this. I’ve managed some education and some fairly mentally taxing work and accomplishments in my day, but this has mostly been due to bullheaded persistence and hard work. And while I’ve been around a few people in my life that made me feel rather brainy, I’ve also been around a few brilliant people that made me feel as if I have all the mental wherewithal of a turnip.
Despite this rather self-deprecating attitude, I am pretty confident in some of my abilities, one of which is research. I’m able to wield my Google Fu with enough skill that if I spend the necessary time cruising around various forums, webpages, and Facebook pages, I can get the answers I want. After the heady rush of booking my airline tickets to Spain the reality of the monumental enterprise I had set for myself came rushing to the surface like champagne bubbles of panic. Or maybe I should say, the bends of panic. Because walking hundreds of miles along the Camino de Santiago does seem like it could be lethal, even if in fact the chances of croaking are pretty small for a moderately healthy if not exactly young and spry person such as myself.
So, anyhow, I set to researching various sites that provide advice and information on the Camino, the most valuable of which so far has been the American Pilgrims on the Camino, which has a helpful website, local chapters, and an active and encouraging Facebook page. I’ll undoubtedly join the organization at some point, especially since one can take a special hospitalero training that allows you and, if you wish, your non-walking spouse to volunteer as an albergue (hostel/dorm for pilgrims) host in Spain.
I spent several evenings combing through the various posts getting an idea of how I should prepare for this trip. The two most important items seem to be backpacks and shoes.
Former Camino walkers strongly recommend that you spend freely to obtain quality gear. After all, you don’t want to find yourself in rural Spain with faulty equipment and no way to buy replacement gear. The Camino does pass through some moderately big cities, but it also passes through many, many humble villages where you would be lucky to find a bite to eat much less high-end specialty backpacks and the latest laser-rigged, titanium-steel-threaded trail runners. Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration about the trail runners.
Discussions about backpacks are fairly low-key and mainly centered around the size thereof. Since you’ll likely be staying in the albergues along the route, there’s no need to carry cooking gear and tents. Traveling light is key here, and for that you don’t need a huge pack. Many people recommend one with a capacity of around 30-40 liters. Packs should be fitted for your body type — and you be aware that they are different for men and women. Osprey seems like a well-respected, although hardly cheap, brand. I ended up purchasing a dark pink Osprey Kyte that’s 36 liters of utter and complete gorgeousness. I love it from the top of its satiny pink head to the bottom of its sturdy gray buckles. We’ll be getting lots of rooms together soon, wink wink.
Shoes, however, are another matter entirely. First there’s the debate between boots or trail runners. In a less spiritually-minded bunch the passionate debate this fosters fists would fly and noses would be bloodied over. Having done a fair amount of 3-5 mile hikes in my local area, I favor the trail runners because they have good traction and are light and comfortable, unlike my experience with boots, which make my feet feel like they are duct-taped to bricks.
Now, boots have their place in hiking, definitely, but the Camino is more of a dirt path than bramble-choked wilderness, so I’m not seeing the need for them here. Cute-as-a-button Lindsey Cowie whose Camino YouTube videos are quite helpful also recommends walking sandals. Most people seem to bring one good pair of shoes and one pair of flip flops for the shower, but Lindsey gave me the idea of bringing the gorgeous Keen Women’s Whisper Sandals as a second pair so that’s what I’m planning on. That way if my main trail runners wear out, get struck by lightning, or are pilfered by Gypsies, I’ll still be able to walk.
Numerous people counseled to “Get your shoes 1/2 to 1 size bigger than your regular shoe size.” The idea behind this advice is that your feet will swell with hour after hour of pounding the metaphorical pavement. Huh. Well, that seemed to make sense.
I hied myself on down to REI where a fresh-faced young salesman measured my feet and pronounced me a size 7.5. Obligingly, he trotted back and forth from the storeroom to me as I tried on several pairs of shoes. April is supposed to be fairly rainy so I chose waterproof Saloman something-or-another trail runner’s in size 8.5.
Back at home, I jammed 15 pounds of split peas and rice, extra clothes, and a blanket into the backpack to simulate my load, laced up my shoes, and took off on a demanding hike. The load weighed me down, definitely, but by the end of the hike I was a happy, if somewhat sweaty woman.
I can do this! I thought jubilantly.
The next day I took another hike. Except that now I noticed that my feet hurt. I probably just wasn’t used to the load and the shoes and hiking day after day. My tootsies would feel better soon.
I fretted and moaned to my husband after coercing him into rubbing my aching tendons. They felt a bit better in the morning. Again I repeated a training hike of around 3 miles. And again there was pain in the evening and night.
After a few more days of this, I began to fear that it would be a way of life for the next few months. And I hadn’t even set one foot on the Camino yet!
I must confess, there was some sniffling and weeping when this realization set in. Here I thought I could do the Camino. God knows what unrelenting agony I would find there instead. Because there was no way I was backing out now. I tried to make things better by lightening the load in my backpack. It didn’t help.
I was doomed! DOOMED!
“Nah, you’ll be fine,” commented my husband Dave. “It must be your shoes.”
“But the Internet said I should get them one or two sizes bigger than normal!”
He looked at me, trying to school his facial features sympathetically. The man hasn’t been married almost three decades without learning a thing or two about how to talk to me without later being savaged for being snide. “The Internet is wrong.”
“But these people have been on the Camino. They must know something I don’t.”
“Well, did your feet hurt like this before, on all your other hikes?”
“Um … no,” I admitted, realization slowly dawning.
“Then they’re wrong.”
Well, that did kind of make sense.
So, off I went to return my shoes and get them in the proper size for my feet. You do recall what I said in the first sentence of this post, don’t you?
My nice, comfy feet salute you.
Until my next blog post about the Camino, farewell.