The Loneliness of a Long-distance Walker

By the time I was rousted awake by my alarm on a Sunday morning, the sixth day on the Camino Invierno, I had been alone since the start of this long walk, the previous Tuesday. Alone, in this case, means not having any genuine interaction with another human being except for my daily mid-afternoon phone calls home to speak with Nancy. I had briefly seen a total of three other pilgrims on the trail, but they were either some distance in front or behind me and we never interacted. Yes, I had very brief contacts with a few locals – bar tenders, hotel desk clerks (in several cases these were the same person), the lovely innkeeper couple in A Rua and the “hillside pundit” I wrote about in the prior post. But the language barrier and the transactional nature of these contacts diminished their significance to the point of being almost non-existent. I mention this only to explain how the early-morning anticipation of another day on the Camino without meaningful human contact suddenly depressed me. I’d never given this much thought, but it’s difficult to feel motivated when you realize that you’ll go through this day without human interaction. The author Margaret Atwood writes about this condition in her latest dystopian novel, The Testaments: “You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others.” I had known during the planning of this walk that it was also called the “Camino Solitario” but exactly how solitary it would be, and how I’d react to that extended time completely alone, were still unknowns. In my spartan hotel room above a bar, in Quiroga, on a quiet Sunday morning these unknowns were now clear realities and I didn’t like my response.

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The other reality, unrelated to my poor frame of mind that morning, was that this day would be a very challenging 15 miles of undulating elevation through lonesome woodlands with no services save for a single fountain which I wouldn’t reach until late-afternoon. To make it that far on a hot late-summer day I added a 2-liter bottle of water to my standard supply, thereby increasing my pack weight considerably. After a quick “Cafe con Leche” and two slices of toast, I was finally on my way. Having dawdled through my self-pity it was now nearly 9am, at least an hour later than I had expected to be on the trail.   

As usual at that hour in a Spanish town, especially on a weekend, the streets were deserted, but already the sky was brilliantly blue and the morning temperature was plenty warm.  Over coffee I had seen on a TV weather forecast that my small corner of Spain was one of the few sunny spots while much of the country was experiencing heavy rains. There are always reasons to count one’s blessings. On the way out I’m delighted by the vibrancy of at least one distinctive home and the presence in a small garden of a “horreo,” an iconic Galician symbol, a traditional storage shed for seed grains. As you travel through this region, you’ll find “horreos,” both functional and decorative, in every agricultural community.

Soon I cross the Rio Sil again and begin a gradual ascent into the wooded hillside. For most of the journey so far, I’ve been tracking the meandering river, walking along the hills that form its valley, but now, after Quiroga, the river flows westward to join the Rio Mino which forms the border between northern Portugal and Spain. But the Invierno trail veers slightly northward, away from the river, toward the Camino’s destination, Santiago de Compostela. The grade of today’s climb is fairly gradual, but the walking surfaces change from loose slate to gravel to rough asphalt to soft pine needles. The trail cuts through an occasional cluster of structures a few of which appear to be inhabited – though I see no live residents – while others are decaying. The sun is relentless with the ever-rising temperature climbing through the 80s and into the low 90s. Despite the forested terrain, there are few shady spots large enough to offer real shelter from the sun, especially when I want to throw off my pack and stretch out for a sustained rest, better yet a short nap. And then finding both shade and sufficient cell coverage to allow an afternoon call home is an even greater challenge. The heat and the steady climbing call for frequent sips, sometimes gulps, of water, and by early afternoon I’ve already transferred the content of the added bottle into my hydration pack from which I can drink via a tube and mouthpiece. A few hours later I can sense that I’m running low, but I’ve not yet come to the promised fountain. Now there’s another small cluster of hillside homes, from one of which I can hear excited chatter. I briefly contemplate ringing the doorbell to ask for “agua” but decide against it.  And then, there it is, a red painted sign pointing to a nearby fountain from which there’s a generous flow of cool, fresh mountain water.  I decide to record the joy of refilling my pack by setting up the camera on the small tripod I’ve been carrying.  But now it’s 5pm and I’m still a long way from today’s destination, Salcedo, a tiny mountainside village.  At least, though, I’ve got plenty of water to carry me through, especially since the temperature would be dropping.

Now the trail descends fairly steeply, eventually crossing a small stream by way an exceptionally attractive Roman bridge, partially covered by vines. The paving is perfect Calzada Romana. Again, there are remnants of a small village, including an intact church, after which the road begins another climb. Soon I’m confronted by a Y in the trail. On the left, heading uphill I see the familiar Camino marker. I know it points to Pobra do Brollon, the suggested endpoint for today’s stage. But my reserved lodging for the night is in Salcedo, a village above the larger town, and to get there I need to leave the marked trail and go right. I stick with my plan, heartened that it looks flatter here, but aware that it wouldn’t stay that way. Indeed it didn’t, it ascended steeply and relentlessly, ever deeper into a dense forest. Now it’s starting to get darker and cooler, quickly. I look at my “maps.me” app and see that I’m still two miles from the day’s end. At my current rate of climbing, resting briefly, and climbing some more, I estimate a 9pm arrival, 45 minutes after darkness sets in. I send a message to the inn to let them know, but I hear nothing back, so I don’t know if its gone through or if my attempt at Spanish was understood.  

My estimate was off by half an hour as I finally walk into the cluster of structures that is Salcedo at 9:30, it’s totally dark and foggy, but I’ve had my headlamp on for the past hour. The hamlet’s handful of pathways are organically random; there are no clear directions, and my eyes strain to see a sign for the inn – Hotel O Forno – but everything appears dark and uninviting. Now I’m beginning to panic, when I finally hear the loud barking of dogs, usually not a good sign in this part of the world, farmers use them as guardians oof their properties. Around the corner I can barely make out a pickup truck with a trailer in which an untold number of large-sounding dogs are confined. The trailer rocks back and forth as its slobbering inhabitants are clamoring to get at the stranger with the light on his head. Then I notice that the truck and trailer are parked directly in front of a gate that leads into a lighted courtyard, and beyond the courtyard is a small bar… the Hotel O Forno… HOME!  I need to squeeze around these obstacles and the wall surrounding the courtyard, and then I trudge toward the bar, outside of which a group of boisterous men are drinking and smoking while staring at the Cyclops (given my one-eyed looks from the headlamp) heading toward them. As it turns out they were hunters – wild boar is the preferred game in this region – and the dogs were theirs.

Since it was now close to 10pm and I was exhausted, I settled for an orange soda and a stack of Pringles as my dinner, and then finally to a shower and to bed. Tomorrow, I knew, had to be better. 

8 thoughts on “The Loneliness of a Long-distance Walker

  1. Another masterful rendition of your journey!
    You had me walking along side you, in the “movie in my head”!
    Also, your take in being “alone” is quite interesting. Wondering if you were ever conscious in the moment, of that “inner dialogue” that most of us have, but rarely take notice of.
    Here’s a question to ponder – when we DO take notice of it, do we “play both parts” of the conversation? For me, when I notice it, there’s always seemed a kind of separateness to one of “the voices” or the other.
    Perhaps I’m alone it that affliction, and I’m ok with that, as these conversations have orovided some rich fodder for some fiction I’ve been working on.
    Peace to to Brother Tony!🙏

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  2. Hey Tony, it’s Kara Taggart’s mom, Pat Boden. I have loved reading about your different Caminos. This one sounds too lonely for me. I’ve walked every year since 2016. This year coming up I’m walking on the Le Puy Chemin. I’ve done it twice but only two weeks at a time. In May/June of 2020 I’m walking the last part. And in October the Portuguese from Lisbon to Santiago. I always go with Spanish Steps. You’ll always have company. We all walk at different paces so you’re alone often but get together at dinner and breakfast. I also did the Camino Norte. I get your emails and look forward to them.

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  3. That is a long day! I went two days on Via Podiensa in France last year without seeing anyone (after Conques) until a German guy came into the gite late. Now I’ve decided to walk Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome next year and I’m sure there will be lots of alone time on that trail. Lately I’ve walked with friends, but this trail seemed to be calling me. Why is that?

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  4. It’s a chosen trip of falling into the rabbit hole to better know oneself? To prepare for one’s time ahead? The journey not so much for the thrill of adventure as much as possibly appreciation for what you return to with your love of family and friends -it must bring a certain gratitude to mind! An awareness of how life’s journey’s can change in a moment. And the mystery of the familiar , the longed for , the connection to a human be-ing not just doing…
    too heavy? You caught me at the end of reading Brene Brown and Rising Strong on this Sunday morning !
    So what is the lesson❓

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  5. Thanks so much, Tony, for creating this blog. Having recently completed this route (I have been back home for almost two weeks now), I am enjoying reading about your experiences and seeing your beautiful photos. Yes, it was a very quiet route: we had anticipated this and my husband and I met only a handful of other pilgrims while walking. However, it was memorable in many ways. Already we are planning our next Camino for the fall of 2020. I hope you will continue to add entries to your blog as I really have taken great pleasure in reading what you have posted thus far.

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  6. I am a moderator on the English language Camino Forum (Ivar’s forum, as it is sometimes known). I’ve taken the liberty of posting a link to your blog there, and am very appreciative that you have posted such an honest account. The Invierno addicts over on the forum (of which I am one) tend to wax very romantically and glowingly about it, and it is very good to hear about some of the more challenging experiences. Looking forward to hearing more! Buen camino, Laurie
    https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/threads/blog-from-a-september-invierno.65236/

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    1. Thank you. Yes, there were definitely challenging moments, even days, on this journey, but I had plenty of chuckles too, only no one with whom I could share them. If they don’t come through in my writing, it’s my shortcoming.

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  7. My husband and I walked a long solitary walk in the Hærvejen in Denmark two summers ago. Your descriptions of the Camino and the joys and difficulties of walking alone are so evocative of our experiences.

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