Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Where Have All The Pilgrims Gone?

Walking out of Pamplona and Puente la Reina, I saw a Camino that was thronged with pilgrims, well over a hundred each morning. But today, heading off for a longish 18-mile jaunt from Los Arcos to Logrono under threatening skies, there seemed barely a handful. Given, it was a little later in the morning. But pilgrim density tends to regress toward a mean from a broad distribution of departure times – early starters reward themselves with breaks for coffee and snacks; late starters are more likely to stay head down, slogging forward to get to there at a reasonable hour. So everybody pretty much ends up crowding the same bars for a lunchtime bocadillo (sandwich).
What could cause such a falloff in the pilgrim hordes? Well, the shoes seen just outside Sansol this morning, only three or four miles into the day’s hike, may provide one explanation. Carefully placed next to the path, they testify that some suffering pilgrim concluded they just weren’t doing the job, even with the toeboxes razored away. Blisters are indeed the pilgrim’s curse. Muscle aches and general fatigue can be ignored with gritted teeth. But a burning, growing blister. There are lots of sovereign remedies, ranging from silicon dust to duct tape. But until the blisters are brought under control, walking can be agony. Of course, there are lots of other problems that can knock a pilgrim off the path, at least for a few days. Bad backs. Fickle stomachs. And so forth.

What becomes of pilgrims so afflicted? Here the fact that both the Camino and modern roads follow the same ancient routes comes in handy. There’s almost always a comfortable bus going to the same destination as the Camino on a given day. Here, as on so many points, feelings run strong. One camp maintains this is a vacation, not a death march. If a day off and a bus ride seem an attractive option, why not? Others insist that sort of attitude has no place on the Camino. Pilgrims are supposed to suffer, to walk every meter, and so forth. It’s a moral matter, or at the very least a matter of self-respect.
I tend toward the latter view, although not with frothing passion. But I begin to believe I may be in a minority. None of those buses going by seem to have a lot of empty seats.