On the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails there are trail angels who, in the driest stretches, leave bottled water caches for through-hikers. Or set up a barbecue at a common hitching spot and provide a hearty meal. Or a leave out a cooler with cold soda. Trail angels are volunteers who self-select to be of service.
In Spain, there are Camino angels. Although not nearly as deliberate or organized, they are everywhere. Sometimes they are locals, doing a kind turn to the pilgrim — from a friendly wave, or donativo snacks, to foot care and massage. Sometimes they’re fellow pilgrims, helping one another as they collectively struggle toward Santiago — lending a hand, dispensing ibuprofeno, or a kind word at just the right moment.
If you pay close attention (and that’s key), you will find yourself benefiting from a Camino angel at some point on your journey. When I was grumpy or self-absorbed I missed them. As I walked, my capacity for gratitude increased and even the simplest gestures from unexpected sources touched me.
Angels in Logroño
Waking up in Logroño wasn’t pretty. During the night’s intense cacophony of snoring, I retreated to the lobby’s leather couch. But I slept fitfully, fearful of getting caught or in trouble (was I allowed to sleep there?).
Around 5:30am, I heard the rustle of the early-rising cyclists and I bolted upright, feeling sheepish. I got up, limping and still footsore from the previous day’s walk.
I tried not to worry about my feet. My plan was to go first thing to the sports shop in Logroño for reinforcements: new shoe inserts and walking sticks. Katrin and I got out relatively early, with plans to meet up with Muriel at the sporting goods store.
And — just like that — angels appeared everywhere.
First we hit the grocery store for breakfast and lunch supplies. Guess who we encountered there — Marisela! After two days of separation and missing her — here she was! I felt so happy!
Next, we met up with Muriel at Planeta Agua a small, local sporting goods store (that also specializes in fishing gear) where we met more angels. The two guys in the store helped Muriel with some gear. While they didn’t have shoe inserts I wanted, I got a set of Leki walking sticks that I adore (and still use).
The store attendant gave Muriel a fleece headband as a gift — and she had only recently wished that she had brought one. They also gave me a little pocket knife as a thank you. I already had a great knife with me, but I was reminded that the Universe gives us what we need. Especially when, two days later, I lost my own knife/utility tool. This new gift would fill in the gap.
These guys had no cause to be this kind to us, and yet they were. So I send the kindness back: if you’re in Logroño (or Viana or Zubiri) and need gear, look them up. You’ll be glad you did.
To the farmacia
Next, we stopped at a pharmacy in the hopes they would have shoe inserts. The farmacias’ green, neon plus signs are more prevalent throughout Spanish cities than the Starbucks’ mermaid is in the US.
Due to the vast assortment of cosmetics and girly stuff on the counters, I felt out of place in this tiny store, but the attendant behind the counter couldn’t have been more accommodating.
She was my next Camino angel.
When I described in halting Spanish what was going on with my feet, she said reassuringly, “We understand. We know a lot about the pains and problems that pilgrims have. Come look at these and see which ones you like.”
Leading me to a full display of foot care items, I marveled at my options.
“Puedo tratarlos?” I asked, tentatively.
To my astonishment, she took each insert out of its display box and allowed me to put each one in my dusty, salty pilgrim shoes. What service. What kindness. They would never let you do this in a pharmacy in the States.
Tears of relief leaked out as I tried one after the other, feeling my feet take new shape and get the support they’d been needing. I might actually make it.
In the end, I chose two — a full-length gel insert and a 3/4 length Dr. Scholls insert with a really, really good arch support. Later, I inspected the inserts I’d purchased at home only to discover that it was their design that caused my heel pain.
Meeting my friends outside, I felt like a new woman with new feet. Four angels in one morning. Reunited with dear friends. I felt ready to meet the day with a full heart.
On the move at last
Now a rounded-out four-some, Katrin, Muriel, Marisela, and I headed out of Logroño and into the day, now well-begun.
La Rioja’s ubiquitous grapevines appeared everywhere. Row after row of gnarled old trunks with small tufts of bright green receded into the distance. The dirt was a deep rust color and on the horizon were flat-topped hills as far as the eye could see. Beyond them, the unseasonably cold weather brought snow to the mountains for two consecutive days. Breathtaking beauty.
Although my feet were still tender, my mood was remarkably improved from the previous day. I felt glad to be reunited with my little Camino family, now with the lovely addition of Muriel.
Walking and talking, we skirted a lake in the center of a scenic park full of trees from all over the world. I loved seeing the swans and watching the swallows dip and dive over the water. Although it was windy and cool, the park setting was a refreshing contrast to the city noise and confusion.
When we paused to look at a map of the park, Muriel misinterpreted the description of a restaurante natural to mean ‘clothing optional’ rather than one in a natural setting. She is such a sincere soul, it delighted me to see her crack up laughing at the double entendre. The mirth continued when, on entering the very restaurant, we discovered signage on the door that read “no shirt, no service.” There would be absolutely no naked dining today!
After we arrived in Navarette, it started to pour. Although we stayed in different albergues, the plan was for the four of us to meet up for dinner, but we never connected with Marisela and Muriel. Had we been successful, I might not have gotten to meet the next Camino angels of the day — or become one myself.
Instead, Katrin and I ended up at a restaurant that served the single best meal I had on the Camino. Our waitress was hilarious. When Katrin ordered the ensalada mixta as her first course, the waitress (who may also have been the owner) made a face, rolled her eyes, and said, “Ensalada? So boring!” So I changed my order to the house special, sopa de ajo (garlic soup) and was treated to an approving smile — and later, a bubbling cauldron of steaming, fragrant broth. It was unbelievably delicious.
Also delicious was my “boring” chicken, homemade French fries, and the dessert — remembering it still makes my mouth water! (kisses fingertips!) Dessert was a generous slice of almond Santiago cake soaked in muscatel liquor. The wine served with dinner, though lacking a label, was good enough that we almost finished a bottle between us two lightweights. The food, plus the great atmosphere created by the owner made it outstanding.
Also serendipitous was meeting Meg from England, who was seated at the table next to us. The way our tables were situated, we didn’t get to talk much that night, but she would become an important friend and Camino angel to me as we walked out to Finisterre together. That’s six angels in one day, if you’re keeping count.
Becoming a Camino angel
Back at the albergue, I ran into some pilgrims in the hallway I recognized and while we were catching up, a side door opened. Who popped out but Lies, the delightful young woman from Belgium we’d met back in Roncesvalles! I was ready to hug her, but she didn’t look so good. Her eyes were puffy, her short, blonde hair was all matted, and she was wearing rumpled-looking pajamas.
“Can you get me a thermometer?” she croaked. “Ask the hospitalero, please.” Then she returned to her room and closed the door.
I couldn’t have been more shocked!
Her request initiated a surprising sequence of events that included a doctor’s house call, Otter pops, and some scary moments. The thermometer confirmed her suspicions — her fever was very close to dangerous (39.7C/103F). She was so scared and vulnerable with no one to look after her and her family far away. A doctor and two assistants arrived and administered a fever reducer by needle into her butt, plus an antibiotic for possible pneumonia.
The albergue owners spoke little English so I did my best to translate between them, Lies, and the doctors as they discussed how to treat her. I was touched by how much the hospitaleros cared about her well-being. When I’d mentioned to the wife that Lies had been craving tomatoes, she returned with two of them, freshly-washed on a plate.
After Lies’ fever came down later, she was more like her funny, quirky self. But the tears that had come before her injection were real and I held her hand in encouragement and empathy.
Katrin was great too. With her medical background, she answered Lies’ questions about her health — especially her sincerest one: “If I take care of myself, do everything right, and start to feel better, do you think I can go back on the Camino?” She wanted it so much. Katrin gave her a conditional yes and her best Austrian-nurse lecture about taking ALL of her antibiotics. It was very sweet and Camino-esque.
We would discover later on how it all turned out.
Such a day
This might very well be my longest post (thanks for your patience, dear reader), but it was the day when things began to turn around after the hardest stretch of my Camino. I was feeling more trusting of the process and it helped that I was surrounded by so many kind souls who aided my journey.
What a lesson to take back to my life: When times are hard, remember to look for angels, and (better yet) seek out opportunities to be one.