When is the best time of the year, or of your life, to make the 500 mile walk? Opinions vary. Many believe one should do it as a youth; others hold that it is best to do it later in life, when it has more meaning. But who’s to tell whether it has more or less meaning according to one’s age? I met people walking the Camino of all ages, from a 70 something German woman who was an hospitalera in Astorga to a seventeen year old Korean young man. It seemed to me that everyone had a good reason for walking and everyone seemed to be doing it exactly at the right time in his or her life. I know that I made it at the right time in my life, as I contemplate entering the tercera edad, the third age. Or, in my way of counting my life passages, the eighth stage—my life has been divided into segments of 8 years–I turned 64 while walking the Camino.
The Camino calls you when you are ready. I had made several attempts–the most recent had been during the previous Año Jacobeo (the year when the feast of Santiago falls on a Sunday, as it did in 2010), but Elvia had sprained her ankle in Madrid before we even got to France. So we took a train to Santiago instead, and we spent 3 weeks attending the daily Misa del Peregrino at the Cathedral, and harboring dreams of walking someday. I had imagined I would make it in 2010. Alas, due to my teaching duties and many commitments, I was unable to make it, but I did begin walking in December 2010. I am inclined to agree with the woman in Santiago who told me, it should count as if we had walked it during the Año Jacobeo because we walked in the winter.
Even if I had wanted to walk in the October or in May, the months everyone agrees are the best, I had little choice. The decision to make the trek during the winter months did not come easy, but once I decided, there was no turning back. My friend and traveling companion had walked the Camino during the winter break from teaching and recommended that we do it at that time. According to her and many others, there are benefits that outweigh the drawbacks. But, being friolenta, or as some say, friolera, I was not sure it was the best for me–why, I wear a heavy coat if the weather dips to 60 degrees! I attribute my intolerance to cold to my being raised in South Texas where it rarely gets really cold. When I was living in Santa Barbara, I realized that I did not want to live where I could not wear sandals year round.
I’ve lived in various places where I have had to contend with cold climates–Nebraska and Washington, DC–and visited numerous places where I, unprepared for the cold, had to make impromptu purchases. One summer, I went to an Amnesty International Conference in San Francisco and had to dash into a thrift store and buy a coat! Mark Twain said that the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco, at least that was the apocryphal story people told me as I shivered and with chattering teeth, sought refuge and warmth indoors. On another occasion, I showed up in New York at an MLA committee meeting wearing sandals; I had to buy heavy wool socks to wear with my Birckenstocks! One January, at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, I realized I couldn’t walk in the snow with my regular loafers. I had to buy boots–WalMart had the best deal for what I deemed would be disposable snow boots! One October I left San Antonio to attend the American Folklore Society meeting in Alaska WITHOUT a coat! Luckily, there is a Land’s End store in the airport in Minneappolis–I bought a grey and blue parka that has served me well. In Lincoln, Nebraska, during my graduate studies, I was never warm enough, never did get used to the cold, although everyone assured me that one does. Somehow I weathered the blizzards and chilly summer evenings.
But I knew walking the Camino would be different. I had never spent more than a few minutes out in the cold; even when I walked to class in Lincoln, I didn’t walk longer than 30 minutes; during the Camino, I would be walking 6 to 10 hours a day, often in the snow and rain. Or so my friend warned me. There would be snow in the Pyrenees, freezing winds as we crossed the Meseta, and rain and sleet as we walked through Galicia. Was I ready? During my daily walks in San Antonio’s crisp fall mornings, I would imagine what it would be to like, but frankly I was not successful at imagining the cold; I was not really prepared for the reality of bitter cold winds, sleet, and snow of the early days of our walk.