The Camino del Norte: Markina to Gernika-Lumo, 25km
Every day on the Norte I’ve been presented with new obstacles. Today was no different. This portion of the trail is not very well marked. Several times I’d had to retrace my steps and search for subtle clues; a toppled marker, more foot steps going down one path then another, or an overused, well worn gate leading into a pasture. For several kilometers the trail follwed a small stream through heavy brush and swamp land. My feet were soon wet and covered in layers of mud. I stopped often to remove the weight of the mud, poking at my shoes with my treking poles. The worst part of the trail was when the stream spilled down a heavily wooded hillside with thick vines blocking the path. The water had cut a narrow gorge through the muddy hillside. Standing on the edge of the bank, the water and the rocks were ten feet below me. The footsteps from past pilgrims went in a hundred different directions through the woods. I could picture all their efforts to negoiate the maze, compressing time down to an imagine of pilgrims crowding through the trees, the mud, and along the stream. I added another set of footprints, precariously choosing to walk along the edge of the small revine where there were fewer trees to block my way. There were places where I actually had to stow my treking poles and use my hands to climb down the steep hill. At one point, I made just a slight miscalculation and lost my balance. Without my trekking poles to catch myself, I started falling backwards into the revine. At the last instant I spotted a sapling, not even an inch in diameter, and grabbed for it. It held. That would have really hurt! My backpack wouldn’t have been able to cushion me from that kind of a fall.
There was a German women on the trail that I’d seen over the last couple days. She was somewhere behind me. She was using my navigation skills to help guide her. God help her. She seemed to be a bit shy, staying quite a ways back. When I finally got to the bottom of the hill I looked back up to see if she was behind me. No one was there. I worried about her negoiating the terrain I’d just struggled through. She was about my age, a bit overweight and I’d noticed that she wears here backback very loosely, allowing all the weight to sit on her shoulders as it swayed back and forth. That’s got to be painful. Maybe she found another route, a better route.
I walked on for another hour before walking into a small town. I stopped for a mid-morning snack at a cafe. I refused to step inside, I was too muddy. I called from the door to the women behind the bar and ordered a coffee and a slice of potato omlet that I saw sitting on the counter. Then I sat down at an umbrella covered table just outside the door and watched the world go by. About five minutes later the German women came walking down the street. She was going at her natual stride, appearing to have survived just fine. As she passed me she just waved and walked on. I then saw the back of her legs, her butt, her backpack. They were all covered in mud. She’d fallen, and from the looks of it, she’d done a bit of sliding as well.
Halfway through my mid-morning snack another pilgrim, a Frenchman, came and sat down at the table next to me. We exchanged greetings in Spanish but assumed we didn’t speak each others language. Soon after, Mary came walking through. She came over and sat down for a few minutes as I finished my meal. “Mary, that has got to have been the worst terrain I’ve ever negoiatiated on the Camino, ever!” She looked at me questioningly. “What do you mean? It was almost all paved road, it was kind of boring”. I opened up the small map I had stored on my cellphone and studied it. Apparently, Mary had taken a wrong turn at one of the trail intersections and simply followed the country road into town. I told her, “I think you have to go back and do it the right way.” She looked down at my shoes and pant legs covered in mud. “Yeah, right!”
I payed my bill, said “goodbye” to Mary, “avoir” to the Frenchman and moved on. The trail soon put me back along the stream, now running through pastures and farmland. It was still muddy, but much easier to negoiatiate. Morning turned into afternoon and it was hot. My feet were burning and I was close to being finished. As the stream started to breakout into another small town there was a low, concrete foot bridge. Low enough to sit on and soak aching feet in the ice cold water. I dropped my pack, pulled off my shoes and socks and started soaking. Again, along came the Frenchman and Mary, they were having a conversation, he spoke English! He shook his head as he passed, saying something but I didn’t quite understand. Mary stopped, “He said that getting your feet wet wasn’t good, it softens them too much. And, the water has lots of bacteria from running through the pastures, you could get an infection.” I didn’t care, it felt great and was exactly what I needed.
Mary and I walked into Gernika and started our search for lodging. There were no pilgrims albergues, just several hostels to choose from. The Frenchman had told Mary where he was staying. It had private rooms and was reasonably priced so we went in search of it. Stopping at the Tourist Information Center we asked for directions. Her reaction was quite strong, the receptionist was actually angry.
“Oh! We’ve been having trouble with thoses people! You don’t want to go there!”
“Why?” I asked.
“They are not clean and I can only provide you with information for the “approved” pensions.”
“You mean if I come in here and ask you for directions to a specific address, you won’t provide them to me?”
She pretended not to understand my question and just shrugged her shoulders as she returned to her desk. We’d been dismissed. This women’s over the top reaction and her use of the word “approved” made it quite clear in my mind. There was a bit of corruption going on here. I pictured the owners of the “approved” pensions handing money to some city official so he can get on the list. Luckly, the address’ for the two approved pensions were right next to the address for the one we were interested in. We thanked the women for her generous information and left. All three places were only half a block from the Information Center.
The Pension was wonderful; clean, full kitchen, private rooms, living room, washer and dryer. It was also cheaper. I loaded some clothes into the washer and headed out to explore.