“It’s YOUR Camino” is a constant refrain suggesting that no two experiences on The Way are the same. I reminded myself of that on Day Two as a combination of over aggressive planning and a wrong turn or two combined to make it the most challenging day yet on both my first and now this second Camino. It wasn’t well executed but it was “MY Camino.” I was totally responsible for it, and though it wasn’t a classic Camino day it was certainly memorable.
My roommates at the hostel in Villa Franca were eager to start early, I wasn’t as I was the last to arrive, so I rolled over while they prepped to leave, and then I finally pulled myself together to start as well. As a side note: “your Camino” also means no one tells you when to start, where to go, and when to end each day and where. It’s all on you. Getting out of town and back on the path was easy, passing the distinctive tile covered public market (the mostly blue “azulejo” tiles are practically a trademark of Portugal), and using a railroad overpass back onto the greenbelt that doubles as the Camino here. Soon I’m passing a charming little park, thinking “ this’ll be an OK day, better than Day 1.” That doesn’t last long as the path soon turn to a hideous dirt track, and already I can see where this is leading, the massive cooling towers of a power generation plant. It stays the focus of the next hour or two of walking, until the whole – ugly – plant is finally behind me. Then it’s a long uninteresting slog, and finally I hit a major highway that also doubles as the Camino.
It’s 1pm, I’m uninspired and a bit hungry, so I stop for lunch in what appears to be a truck stop restaurant. Unlike US truck stops, there’s really no parking; they’re lined up along the side of the busy highway for hundreds of meters in each direction. Most appear to be agricultural haulers. After a sandwich, I’m looking for a way marker and think it can’t possibly be along this highway. So, using an app that tracks me even off-line, I look for a walking path to take me to Azambuja. It happens not to be the recommended Camino path. My path take me up a steep hill and into a forested area, all the while keeping the highway and the town along it to my right, down below. The app (maps.me) guides me onward, but increasingly the paths turn narrower and feel terribly remote. If I couldn’t see civilization below, I’d now start to panic. Instead, at 3:30 I decide to take a 30 minute nap on a bed of pine needles.
Feeling rested, it’s time to take a downward path toward Azambuja, an agricultural commercial center. Along the way I pass suburban hillside homes and mini-farms, and finally end up in town. It’s a suggested end-point for this stage of the Camino, but it’s MY Camino, so I had previously planned to go on to Valada. After a quick bite to eat in town, and importantly a replenishment of my water supply, I head off to my destination for the night. I pass a large tomato processing plant. I could tell by the acidic aroma of the fruit and a row of large trucks loaded above the brim with the red beauties.
Soon I’m back on the marked Camino path from Azambuja, but I didn’t realize that all of it was along narrow farm roads with little function than to allow the movement of equipment and trucks out to the fields. But that’s where I was, and one rule of walking is you never go backwards, always forwards. Soon dusk turned to darkness around 8:30, and I clearly had further to go.
I’m walking through tomato fields in all stages of ripening, harvesting or just harvested and further evidence is the traffic of trucks and harvesters that ply the road, kicking up dust and spraying tomato juice. My backpack has a flashing taillight and my headlamp is on, full bright, but every time I hear a truck, I stop and step off the road. It’s now total darkness except for the 10 meters of illuminated road in front of me. Where in the hell is Valada? My app says it’s just a bit further ahead. I see lights and think, Thank God, I’m there. But it’s just a huge farm, not Valada. Can’t stop now, regardless of exhaustion or fear. Then I finally see a row of lights that MUST be the town, and indeed it is. I had booked a room at a Quinta, a farmhouse. When I activate my cellular data for just a moment to figure out where it is, I see a new text message from my host. He’s not there, but had to go to Lisbon (his girlfriend’s father passed away), but to pick up the key at the bar in town. I can do that, but the village is dark and there is no bar in sight. To my left is the town, to the right is a long dike, presumably protecting the village from flooding. There are some steps to the top of the dike, so despite 23 endless miles and having been on my feet for 15 hours, I climb those damn steps for a higher vantage point, and now I see the bar on the bank of the river, 30 meters back in the other direction. The barkeep handed me the key but when I asked where the Quinta was he just shrugged his shoulders. Instead he made a call and handed the phone to me. It was Nona, my host. Unbelievably he said I had to walk another 1.7 km ( about a mile) to get to the place. I was beyond angry, but since there was WiFi and power, I called Nancy to let her know she wasn’t a widow yet. She wasn’t happy with me, and in retrospect I can’t blame her. Neither of us was perfectly happy at that moment.
Now I’m off for that last lonely, totally dark mile at 10:15. Quintas are hidden from view by 8ft. walls and heavy steel gates, but they’re marked by distinct tile name plates. Sooner than I had expected, there is the nameplate I’m looking for, “Casal das Areias,” home. One key opens the man-sized door through the huge gate, and now I’m inside. I take a moment to get my new bearings, and I see nothing but another road. Nothing to do but keep walking along this road, perpendicular to the one I’d been on. Then, ahead, four eyes reflecting the light from my headlamp. “#%^”, what now? As I move forward, I see it’s two sheep and they make way for me. Then a dog starts barking but now there’s a fenced off equipment area to my right, and the dog is on the inside and I’m outside. I walk a bit further and finally see a house about 50 meters ahead. Once inside, I’m the only person there. This day that started in a tiny room, 23 miles back, with three roommates, ends up in a huge strange farmhouse to myself in the middle of nowhere. A shower and sleep never felt so good. Indeed, today was MY Camino.