Walking Man

Barbara “Bo” Jensen

Walking Man passed me on the Camino again, suddenly strolling by out of nowhere with his long legs, easy stride, browned bare chest, and pale blue turban to keep what I suspected was a bald head covered from the sun. Tall and lean, his sinewy arms and legs were built for trekking. He moved swiftly, efficiently. Walking Man never said a word except “hello” each time he passed, or each time I passed him as he sat drinking coffee at a café. Or when he passed me again within an hour.

Almost three weeks ago, I had set off on the Camino Norte from Irun, at the very northern tip of Spain’s border with France, by the sea. This northern route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela took me up steep mountain trails and down to beaches, straight up and straight down, day after day. Reasonably fit from hiking back home in Colorado, I had learned my first Camino lesson in humility on my very first day: there are no familiar switchbacks on this trail.

Instead, I learned to take breathers, rest breaks. And as I did so, I crossed paths with many other peregrinos, pilgrims from all different countries walking “The Way of Saint James.” We’d talk as we drank water, shared snacks, walking together for a bit or walking on alone, meeting up again at albergues in the evening, pilgrim hostels, hoping for a bed and a shower.

Solitary on the trail, Walking Man carried an altogether different air than any of the peregrinos I had met. So when I came upon him sitting on a rock in a tree-shaded patch of trail, I said “hello”—and this time, I stopped. Walking Man was taking a break; holding out a small bag in the palm of his hand, he offered me pistachios.

His name was Jan. He was Dutch but told me he lived in the Caribbean, where he grew up. At age four, his parents put him in a baby seat and biked all over Europe with him. He had truly been traveling the world his entire life. I looked forward to talking more, hearing how all this travel had shaped him, who he had become now as a result. But the day was heating up, so I left him in the shade, confident he would pass me again later.

The heat was stifling, the humid air crackling like electricity on my upper lip and burning at my nostrils. Inspired by Jan, I wrapped my long, gauzy, cotton scarf over my head, not like a turban, but like a hood. Feeling very Lawrence of Arabia as I pulled it forward to shade my forehead, I continued on. It was so much cooler, I smiled. Air flowed under my scarf and around my head, like walking within a shimmering oasis, and my neck and shoulders instantly relaxed. The afternoon heat continued relentlessly, but I was able to enjoy hiking along beside local apple orchards.

Around 2:30 p.m., I walked past the fenced courtyard of a modest home. Within, a large family gathered for lunch at outdoor tables under tall trees. Suddenly, a barrage of voices hailed me to enter the gate. As the mother opened it, smiling, she asked kindly, “Agua? Agua?” I gave her my nearly-empty water bottles.

Meanwhile, I was invited to the tables with aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings, where the father offered, “Sidra?” And so, turning himself almost horizontal, he poured the regional apple cider from as high as his hand could reach, down into a cider glass in his lower hand, a waterfall of crisp, delicious bubbles. I sat and asked how old the chubby, dark-haired babies were, tickling them under their fat chins until they giggled. I drank my sidra and chatted in my simple Spanish; soon, the mother returned with my water bottles, filled with water—and ice. Now it was my turn to shout my delight. Everyone laughed. Completely refreshed, I bid them all muchas gracias and adios as they called buen camino and buen viaje.

Soon after, Jan caught up to me. I happily told him how the family had invited me in for cider, had given me ice water. He smiled indulgently, and I felt like the novice I was, just getting my feet wet in the wide world. “Buen Camino,” he said kindly and strode away.

At a small village before Pola, two white-haired grannies walking together on the road let me take their photo. They scolded me that Oviedo was too far to walk in this heat, and I should stop in Pola. But Pola was a rundown, depressing industrial town, and not a soul smiled as I walked through. I pushed on.

By 5:00 p.m., I reached Oviedo. It had its rundown areas, too, some so sketchy I was glad it was still daylight as I was walking through. Up, up, up a hill, arriba alto, to the catedral, the locals told me. My legs slowly climbed the paved sidewalks, still radiating heat. My water was nearly gone again; I drank twice my average two liters to make that day’s hike under the intense Asturian sun. I silently thanked the family again.

I stopped for a traffic light at a busy intersection, looking for Camino arrows or scallop shells, the symbols found on signs or the corners of buildings to point me toward the albergue. Three peregrinos stood beside me, talking in accented English about the same thing. I asked if they knew where the albergue was, and they said yes, I could follow them.

We walked up narrow, steep streets into the old city, and around a dark corner, we found ourselves on the plaza in front of the cathedral. I waited as they took photos. Then the younger man said he would show me the way. As we climbed more winding avenues, we both became confused as to where we were. We stopped at a bar and asked the barman for directions.

“Just down that street, you can’t miss it,” the man said in English, pointing slightly downhill. We thanked him and set off again. Within a minute, we knew we had been given Spanish Directions: it is apparently socially awkward to be caught unable to direct someone to where they need to go, so some Spaniards have a tendency to bluff, giving very clear but completely wrong directions. We turned around.

“Don’t believe when you’re told the next stop is two kilometers, either,” I told the young man. “It’s miraculously, always, exactly two kilometers.” We laughed as we huffed up another steep sidewalk.

By the time we recognized the street names near the albergue, my legs were exhausted from the long day’s extreme heat and hills. The young man offered me his walking stick when I struggled to climb a long series of steps to our destination. Grateful, I thanked him and accepted. That was smart; I immediately found my feet again, and we located the gate to the albergue within minutes.

I gave him back his stick, and he wished me “Buen Camino,” turning to leave.

“Aren’t you coming in?” I asked.

“No, we have a hotel room,” he smiled.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry! I thought you were trying to find the albergue, too,” I apologized.

“Buen Camino, peregrina,” he smiled again. And away he went, disappearing down the hills, and out of my life.

There are no switchbacks along this trail. I was learning to stop and meet people with gratitude; yet, I wished I had talked less sometimes and asked them more, about their lives, about their ideas about life in general. Too soon, they walked away, without my realizing the crossing of our paths was over like the family who refreshed my spirit with sidra and with joy. Like Jan, the Walking Man, offering me a sketch of his story as we sipped water and crunched pistachios together under the shade of a tree. I never saw him again. One day, I hope to become a wiser, white-haired version of myself, walking quietly, arm-in-arm with a dear friend, gently chiding younger people for their hurry through these, our only days with each other. Holy days, in truth.

BIO: Barbara “Bo” Jensen is a writer who goes off-grid. When not hiking the wilderness, their work is featured on National Parks Traveler.

Photo by: Kevin Cheeseman

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