Camino del Norte

Day 7: Markina to Monasterio de Zenarruza

I wasn’t supposed to walk.

Everyone I talked to warned me to tend to my feet or my blisters could become infected which could threaten my completing the Camino. When I woke up in the morning, I settled into a cafe across from the Albergue and looked for a hostel in Markena to stay. Realizing there wasn’t an option available, I stared out the window at the passing buses and wondered if I should get on the next one headed for Bilbao. I could be in the city by noon, but something felt wrong about the deviation. The monastery was within reach and my heart was screaming to be there. Getting on the bus meant missing a piece of something that already brought me this far.

The truth is, I feel I’ve been missing the spiritual side of this journey. Like a piece of the Camino has been missing for me. When I found out the monastery was along the way and welcomed Pilgrims, I knew I would find a piece of spirituality there. Being in the presence of monks always brings a sense of serenity for me—no matter the religious denomination.

The longer I stared at the buses, the more I realized I needed to continue. I had just overcome one of the most (if not THE most) difficult stretches of the Norte. If I could survive 25 grueling kilometers in exposed sun and feet so painful they made me cry with each step, I could manage another 8km at a self-regulated mellow pace. The sun was rising higher and higher in the sky. Leaving mid-day is a trekking death sentence, but there were two small towns before reaching the Monastery. If the sun became too much, I could linger until the worst was over and continue on from there.

I sat on the corner of the street bandaging my feet. Locals stopped to see what I was doing, visibly concerned by my belongings sprawled on the sidewalk. I assured them, Está bien, as I smothered my toes in Vaseline and slowly inched my socks over the most tender places. The last thing I wanted to do was put on my boots, but there was a climb in elevation ahead of me and I still wasn’t comfortable doing it in my Tevas. I promised myself I would take it slow and listen to my feet long before they started screaming.

The trail out of Markina followed a river and into the trees. Fortunately, the climb was gradual and I was able to appreciate the sounds of the water rushing past me in unison with the song of the birds. The shifting of rocks beneath my boots was the familiar crunching I had come to know; my walking sticks making hollow clicks against the faces of exposed rocks. In no time, I was back in the rhythm of walking and smiling from ear to ear.

About 4km in, I arrived in the small village of Iruzubieta. Two women I could tell were fellow Pilgrims but I hadn’t yet encountered sat under the shade of an umbrella outside of the only bar. I waved hello and continued forward, but something was telling me to go back. The trail seemed to be more exposed and I could feel the heat in my boots. I returned to the bar just as the women were leaving and took their seat in the shade. I ordered a beer and patatas bravas for my afternoon delight and stripped my boots so my feet could breathe in some fresh air.

Thirty minutes into my being there and an empty plate, four men—Pilgrims on bicycles—arrived. Speaking only Spanish, they asked if they could join me in the shade. I’m not one to turn away kind company and I could tell by the exhaustion in their eyes they needed a beer as badly as I did.

Part of the fun of being here is finding ways to communicate despite not knowing the other’s language. It is always a challenge, but it was becoming easier to do. This was no different. We mimed and laughed and used the small vocabulary to explain our origins, talk about our families, and find our common interests. These men were twice my age but treated me as an equal. Though age is always asked for the sake of pleasantries, it’s never used against the person. I felt like one of their relatives rather than a stranger and enjoyed their company as the sun rose a little higher in the sky.

Through our continued miming, I found out one of the men had injured a tendon in his knee from carrying his bike over stretches of yesterday’s terrain. Fortunately, I had found some kinesiology tape in San Sebastian and was using it for my knees and the pain from the impact on each descent. I only had a few strips left, but we bandaged up his leg before he resumed his momentum on the bike. His friends laughed at the old man being bandaged by la guapa novicia, but we were all glad for the wonderful encounter.

The timing of our being together is a curious thing. How perfect it was for me to turn back after seeing those ladies under the shade and for him to end up here when their group should be halfway to Bilbao by now. I’m starting to think these mysterious alignments aren’t so mysterious at all. They’re too perfect to be a coincidence.

It turns out, I didn’t need to reach the Monastery to find a bit of magic from the universe.

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