I had a few weeks’ time to fill in May, so I decided that I would hike the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain. My husband Chris had done it two years ago, and he said it was great, I’d love it, after our Nepal hike it would be a breeze. So I flew to Madrid and took a bus to Burgos and got started.
The Camino can be started at almost any point in Europe- some paths start from Germany, France, or even Rome- although generally peregrinos start it in St Jean Pied de Port, at the border of France and Spain. From there it is 800 kilometers to Santiago de Campostela, and it takes around 5 weeks. This year approximately 22,000 pilgrims are estimated to hike the trail.
I only had three weeks to spend hiking, so I decided to start in Burgos and hike 500 km to Santiago. I was issued my credencial, a passport-like booklet, and told to get at least one stamp a day, and two stamps a day in the last 100 km. The only requirement to get a certificate at the end is that you walk the last 100 km, so the Camino can get quite busy with people doing that final stretch.
The first few days went pretty well. I made some friends along the way, I listened to the birds chirp in the mornings, and the weather was nice- crisp in the mornings, warm in the afternoons. I had Spanish ham at almost every stop, wine or beer in the evenings, and creamy cafe leches every morning. Since we stay in alburgues with restaurants each night, there’s no need to pack a tent or cook your own food. And since we’re hiking four to seven hours a day, we can pretty much eat whatever we want and still burn those calories. It’s a win-win situation!
On the third day I developed a blister on each foot, and a sore knee. Blisters are the most common peregrino problem, so I wasn’t too worried. I bought some blister care, and a knee brace at a pilgrim store (they have everything a hiker needs, and there’s one in every so-many towns). Life was good again. Then a couple of days later, I developed a second set of blisters, and ankle pain. When I stopped after a particularly long day (29 km), my ankle was super swollen.
I made it to Leon- I had hiked 170 km in a week- and took a rest day. I saw a physiotherapist, who massaged it, taped it, and recommended that I take it easy for a few days.
I wanted to finish in the three week time frame I had given myself, and I wanted to try to mostly stay with a group of friends I had made that would all be finishing around June 5 as well. Finally, with a heavy heart, I bought a bus ticket that would speed me 40 km up the road. From there, I’d hike a few half days, and then hopefully be strong enough to get back on schedule and finish.
I felt like such a failure taking the bus that day. I had set out to walk 500 km on the Camino, and after only 170 km I was facing the choice of dropping out completely, or having to skip sections in order to finish.
After the bus dropped me off in Astorga, I walked just 10 km to Santa Catalina de Somoza. I walked slowly, mindfully. No music, no podcasts. I thought about the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James. After Jesus’ death, his disciple James came to Spain, and preached the Gospel in the province of Galicia. He died and was buried here, and in the 9th century, a shepherd had a dream and discovered the bones of James. A cathedral was built, and pilgrims came from across Europe to receive a blessing, pay penitence for a sin, or to show their righteousness. The thing is, it is said that in the time James preached in northern Spain, he only converted eight people. Which made me wonder, did James consider his endeavor a failure, or did he call it a success for getting it started in the first place?
In fact, many of the people I knew on the Camino felt like we “failed” in our own way, by having to take a bus, having to fly home for a family emergency, or getting ill and having to radically change plans. I choose to think that James, with his eight converts, and all of us with our grand plans and less-grand results, are a success. It is better than not trying at all. I may not have been able to do the whole Camino, but I was able to do My Camino. And that’s all any of us can do.
Here’s the run-down from our two weeks of trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal (if you want to read about our trip to Nepal as a whole then click here).
After securing our TIMS (Trekker Information Management System- in case you disappear and they need to go look for you -2000 rupees/ $17) and our ACAP permits (Annapurna Conservation Area Project- 3000 rupees / $25) in Kathmandu, we stocked up on a bit of gear in Thamel, the tourist zone in Kathmandu. On every street corner are stalls selling both real and counterfeit North Face, Jack Wolfskin, Quechua, and Columbia, all at a fraction of the cost in the US. It’s all too easy to pick up an extra puffy coat or a sleeping bag here for perhaps $15-20 USD.
After that, we took a bus to Besisahar (7 hours), the starting point of the trek (which can range anywhere from 100-200 miles, depending on how much actual trail one hikes and how much of the fairly-recently-built dirt road one walks). These are my daily updates from our hike:
Besisahar to Bathundanda. We saw water buffalos, bamboo stands, and rhododendron forests today. Warm weather- almost hot but not quite. The villagers all greet us with “namaste” as they scythe their rice crop or transport it on mule caravans up the steep mountain paths. The ladies all wear brightly colored headscarfs and gold earrings and nose rings. Most people still have a mark on their forehead from last weeks Dashain celebration. My Fitbit says 36,000 steps and 15 miles. A really tough day- hoping day two is a little easier. Many people actually take a Jeep for part of today’s walk now that there is a (unfinished) road but we walked the mountain paths. We stayed the night at the Mountain View Teahouse in Bathundanda for 300 rupees for our double room, plus we had breakfast and dinner there. We enjoyed a chat with the owner, whose family had owned the property for four generations. He had to rebuild after the 2015 earthquake. His place used to be full every night, but now with more people taking jeeps and skipping this section, he only has a handful each night in high season (October/November- no rain, no snow).
Terraced Rice Fields
A mule caravan of goods
Our first of many bridges
Another seven hour hiking day, but only 28,000 steps over 13 miles. We went steeply down 200 meters to a river, crossed it, and then spent the rest of the day ascending 200 meters plus another 75. The trail crossed the dirt road three times. Some trekkers just took the road, as the grade is more gentle, but then there’s road dust and less things to see like the troop of 20 monkeys we saw and the field of butterflies we walked through!! We stayed the night at Chyamche, at a mid-sized teahouse named Lhasa Hotel. They had propane-heated water so I got to take a shower!
Deah at a bridge with prayer flags
The village we’ll stay in tonight
Still in the warm part of the trek
Today was some ups and some downs, but definitely more ups, ending the day with an 800 meter elevation gain. The prettiest part of today was the village of Tal, set in a flat broad river valley. I was ready to set down my bags and stay there forever. They had a small school- I could teach there! Beautifully colored teahouses all with gardens and soft grass. Lovely. We spent the night between Bagarchap and Danaqyu at the Royal Mountain Cottage. Free room, and about $20 for dinner and $12 for breakfast (for two). Some hot water there, but the (common) toilet was across the street from the hotel- not so convenient at 3 am in the cold night!
At least the graffiti here is peace signs
Dry lake bed/ blessedly flat ground
The colorful village of Tal
Chris at a kani- a decorative arch at the edge of a village
Fifteen miles today, with a total elevation gain of 680 meters. We saw villagers cleaning intestines at the village well, a woman winnowing wheat from chaff, and a man husking corn. Imagine the work that goes into preparing every meal. The people up here are really more Tibetan than Nepalese, in dress, custom, and physical features. Every lunch and dinner spot advertises WiFi but no one actually has it during most of the day. Tonight we slept in a dorm at the brand new hotel in Bratang but no one else was here so we got double blankets, which is good because it’s COLD!! This dorm was 800 rupees for each of us, which is an absolute fortune ($7 each) on the Annapurna, but it was the only place in town and too far to go to the next town. Probably should have stopped back in Chame with the rest of our hiking bubble but we weren’t tired yet so we pressed on a few more miles.
Villagers washing out intestines
Looking further up the river valley
Buddhist texts on a rock outside of town
Chris at our dorm room in Bratang
Days Five and Six:
An elevation gain of 700 meters. As we hiked up to the village of Manang, we passed through a blue pine forest with prayer flags wrapped everywhere. We passed a huge monolithic slab called Paungda Danda which rises straight up 1500 meters, unbroken. Later we saw a 3 sided snow bowl, higher up in the Himalayas. It’s all very beautiful. But cold. Okay for a hoodie during the sunny day but at night we sleep with all our clothes on plus a puffy jacket and heavy yak-hair blankets in unheated rooms- last night it got down below 30 and our water froze.
Today we take a rest day to acclimatize to our elevation at 3450 meters. This village has a bakery and even a “cinema” (basically a TV with a DVD player) playing “Into Thin Air”, “Everest”, and “Seven Years in Tibet”. And we need to do some laundry once the water thaws! We stayed one night here at the Ghala Guest House, which was okay but a bit basic (we arrived into town rather late so Manang was largely full) and then the second night we switched to the Royal Manang Hotel (500 rupees for a double room, plus eating breakfast and dinner there). We also attended a Himalayan Rescue Association free talk on Acute Mountain Sickness, HAPE, and HACE (high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema) so we can be alert for signs of any illness as we finish our ascent the next few days.
Inside a teahouse common room. That stove keeps us warm!
The Paungda Dunda monolith- a huge, unbroken rock rising straight up 1500 m
Apple slices drying. Annapurna is often called the “Apple Pie” route
Inside a teahouse kitchen
Today we gained 700 meters up to Letdar. I had my blood-oxygen level checked yesterday and it was 89%, so I’ve started taking Diamox for altitude acclimatization. It makes you breathe faster, which increases your oxygen in your bloodstream, and it gets your kidneys going, separating your waste fluid out and making your blood more concentrated with red blood cells. And so now I have to pee every hour. Which is really fun when hiking or when the squat toilet is outside and it’s 15 degrees at night. Last night the bucket of water by the toilet froze over! Tomorrow we will hike the final 600 meters to high camp, sleep there till 5 am, and then head over the pass. Hopefully. All the places in Letdar were full so we wound up staying at a very small teahouse with a super nice family just outside of town. They prepared delicious dhal baht for us and we chatted with the nephew, Karma, who spoke some English. We had a yak-dung fire and the blankets smelled like yaks but we were cold so you do what you have to do!
Yak Cheese- delicious
That’s a yak.
Today we woke up at six am to ascend the extremely steep 650 meters to high camp. They only have 150 beds there and I am a slow hiker so we had to get moving to beat the crowd. Yesterday we were above the tree line, with juniper bushes and flocks of blue sheep. Today there’s not even scrub brush, just Himalayan griffins and lammergeyers circling in the air around us. It was a tough push to get here, but we have 18 hours to acclimate to our 4850 meters (15,852 feet) before we go over the high pass tomorrow and start back down. The daytime temp is 25 degrees, it will be 10 degrees when we start in the morning. My pack weighs next to nothing because I’m wearing all my clothes (yes we carried our own packs- no porters for us!). We’re staying at a dorm in high camp because all the private rooms were full (people with guides have them call up to reserve ahead of them). The dorm is 100 rupees each. There’s water all around the common toilet, which is frozen over, or else it’s frozen urine- I don’t want to know which. Mainly I’m just happy that I don’t have a headache or nausea like I did when I reached this height on Kilimanjaro.
Up and Over: we woke at 4 am to start the final ascent over the high pass, called Thorong La. We slept in all our clothes plus jackets (suuuuuuuper cold) so we just had to put on our shoes and packs. Most of the other people in our 16-bed dorm were getting ready too.
The first two hours were cold but not windy, just the light of the super brilliant stars and the moon to guide us up the steep path. An hour in we stopped for a hot sugary black tea at a cold and lonely teahouse, and at 6 am the stars winked out and the sun started to rise.
After dozens of false summits, suddenly at 7 am we rounded a hill and there was the high pass, covered with prayer flags. Packs were dropped, cameras retrieved, a few tears (from me), someone fainted (not me). It didn’t feel real that we had hiked 650 meters up in 3 hours and we were now standing at 5,416 meters (17,769 feet- over 3.3 miles above sea level).
It took another five hours to get down 1600 meters to the next town (with a lot of rest breaks and a lunch stop). Hopefully the rest of the way down won’t be so steep– it’s hell on the knees. We stopped for the day around noon in Muktinath at the Path of Dreams Hotel, which thankfully had hot water and I was abe to take a shower- my first in a week.
An amazing day- one I certainly wasn’t sure I’d be able to achieve, but together we did it!
Deah and Chris at Thorang La High Pass
5414 meters- the highest I’ve ever been
Chris working his way down the high pass
Still pretty muscle-sore from the high pass and descent yesterday, we got a late start. We started in Muktinath, a sacred pilgrimage sight to both Hindus and Buddhists. There is a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu with 108 waterspouts, from which holy water pours. There is also a fire gumpa, where a natural gas eternal flame is considered a sacred site.We decided to hike the trail from Muktinath to Jomsom, rather than take the road via Kagbeni. The trail took us up another 200 meters to a fantastic viewpoint, and a flock of blue sheep with their tinkling little bells. Then we descended over 1,000 meters down a very steep path, past some wild horses, to a small village named Lupra. We had lunch, then followed the river bed to Jomsom. We had to cross the river three times and in the third crossing, I fell in the water. That sucked- it was really cold.
But now we’re at Jomsom, trying some local apple brandy and apple pie for my birthday, and our elevation is only 2720 meters (8704 feet) so while it’s still cold at night, it’s not bitterly freezing. Yay!!
Great, we have to go up in order to go down today.
Blue Sheep. Yes, they’re a thing.
Buddhist statue in Muktinath
Jomsom to Kalopani. What I thought was going to be an easy downhill day turned into a 19.3 mile slog up and down various hills, trying to avoid the dusty road with its incessant honking of mopeds, jeeps, and busses.
We ate lunch at the old village of Marpha, famous for its apple brandy. Then we hiked through five out-of-the-way villages that are slowly dying, as the road has bypassed them and the Tibetan salt trade that was once their lifeblood has been replaced by cheaper salt from India (which adds iodine to their salt, solving several health problems of the people who have lived here for centuries). This area, the Kali Gandaki river valley, holds four of the 12 passes to Tibet, and was once the crossroads of goods coming from India and Nepal trading with goods from Tibet and China.
We stayed the night in Kalopani, at the nicest place we’ve stayed in so far- the Kalopani Guesthouse- a beautiful double room for 1000 rupees, ($8.50) with a private toilet, hot water and wonderfully comfortable beds, plus delicous food and coffee next door. I wanted to stay there forever.
Sun sets on the snow atop Annapurna
Snow atop the Dhaulagiri mountains
Watching the wind up the river valley we need to walk down
Landslides on the trail forced to take the road today. Which sucked. In the end, we said to hell with this and took the bus 15 miles down the road (which took two hours so you can imagine the state of the ‘road’) to the town of Tatopani, home of Nepalese hot springs and giant lemon trees. We stayed in the Old Kamala Hotel, again for 1000 rupees, but not as nice as last night. The hot springs had a dead, skinned goat lying next to it, which wasn’t so nice to look at- but I suppose that’s how we get our food! We are undecided on whether to hike tomorrow or take a bus (you can probably guess which one I want and which one Chris wants).
Tatopani Hot Springs
A decision to make today. Continue down the trail- which at this point goes back up to 3000 meters and climbs Poon Hill (which is supposed to be lovely views), or take the bus to the finishing point. My feet hurt and I feel like I’m done with this hike so I’m calling it done and Chris doesn’t argue. We take the bus. It is literally the scariest bus ride I’ve ever taken, as we careen down the steepest and narrowest part of the Kali Gandeki River valley in a microbus loaded to the gills. It’s only 100 kilometers to the lakeside village of Pokhara, but it takes a full 8 hours to travel. In the end, this one day of bus riding saves us three days of hiking and so our Annapurna Circuit trek is done. We arrive in Pokhara and look forward to relaxing a bit.
A few stats: my fitbit says we hiked 170 miles, the official Annapurna road map says we hiked 120 miles. We did some alternative treks on a few days so that figures in some of the difference (plus you get some mileage even on rest days, etc). We spent an average of $40 each day (rough approximate) for a place to stay and food for two people. The trail is well marked with red and white blazes- we didn’t feel like we needed a guide. We often hiked alone, but we also ran in to the same people again and again. On one day when we signed in at a TIMS/ACAP checkpoint, we were the 231st and 232nd people to check in that day. Now that there is a road that almost (not the top four days) reaches the whole Annapurna route, some people like the route more (as it is more accessible) while others like it less (because the road is yuck and it takes a lot of side trekking to avoid it). Villagers who live along the road like it, as it reduces costs for food and supplies for them, but they also lament the loss of trekkers who have gone in search of other hikes that are more rural.
Questions about the Annapurna Circuit? Drop them here and I’ll give you an answer as best as I can!
“Maine: The Way Life Ought To Be”. Also, really freaking hard. The Maine section of the AT is filled with ups, downs, rocks, roots, mud, and moose poop. Like literally every step is either a rock or a root (or both; somehow these trees manage to grow on rocks), or it’s a muddy bog, or there’s just piles and piles of moose droppings at every turn. There must be more moose in Maine than people. And in case you’re wondering how I know, yes, I do hike a mile or two with Chris in the mornings when I drop him off or in the afternoon when I pick him up.
The trail towns in Maine are Andover, with it’s cute little library and the Pine Ellis Hostel and their cabin down by the covered bridge; Rangeley, with it’s beautiful lakes and the awesome Rangeley Farmhouse Inn (hello Stacey and Shane, you guys were the best!!); Stratton, home of the Stratton Motel and the Wolf Den Bar and their infamous and slightly gross Wolf Burger; Caratunk, home of the Kennebec River ferry, and finally Monson, the site of The Lakeshore Lodge and Rebekah “Double Zero”, so named because so many people stop at her lodge and take two days in a row off the trail to recover from the last 2000 miles and prepare for the final push: the 100 Mile Wilderness.
While Chris started the 100 Mile Wilderness, I hung out with some travelers taking a zero, such as Trip and Sisyphus, and we went on a boat ride on Moosehead Lake (a three hour tour!!). Very nice lake filled with some 134 islands, many of which have a fishing cabin on the island or even in some cases a lake home. A lovely region- if you are ever in Maine, I truly hope you are able to get over to the lake side and not just the coastal region. Although I’m sure the coastline is amazing too. We’re going to check that side out on the way home.
While Chris was in the wilderness, I drove to the end at Millinocket and saw some old trail friends that we hadn’t seen in a while. Yay, for seeing Tittycakes, Geared Up, and DaVinci after they summited the peak!
Finally Chris came out of the 100 Mile Wilderness (it took him 5 days), and I was anxiously awaiting at Abol Bridge Campground. We had dinner together and went to sleep early, as we were summiting Katahdin Mountain the next day. I drove to the base of the mountain, getting a head start on Chris, who had to hike the final 10 miles to the mountain AND do the climb while I just started the climb. It’s five miles to the top, which is at an elevation of 5, 260 feet. It took me five hours to get to the top. It was the scariest climbing I’ve ever done (well, I’ve never really done any rock climbing, which is why my arms, shoulders, and back are still hurting like hell today, three days later). It was so hard!! I cannot emphasize this enough. For a beginner like me, it was definitely the wrong mountain to try for my first attempt. For Chris and the other AT hikers, they did concur that it was the hardest mountain they had hiked/climbed on the AT. But finally, after five hours, I made it to the top (Chris caught up to me even with his extra 10 miles to get there). We saw fellow hikers Lunch, Haiku, and Hiker Monkey up there. We all posed for the requisite photos, rested a bit, and then we had to do the descent…. which was even more terrifying!! Seriously!! Chris had to fireman carry/bear hug me down one tricky bit- I completely froze up and couldn’t move. But finally (after another five hours), we made it down. And so, the Appalachian Trail is completed. It took Chris 134 days, 3 hours, and 34 minutes to complete. Officially he was #186 to finish for the year. Although, that number is a bit inflated, because not everyone who hikes in to Baxter State Park and says they are a thru hiker really is one. But close enough. It’s done, and now we can go on to our Around The World Trip. We’ll be heading to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island in Canada, then back to DC for a quick stopover, then it’s off to Australia and new adventures!
While Chris hiked the 90 miles of the Trail that are in Massachusetts, I drove back to the DC area and got our house ready for our new renters. And then the day arrived: the packers came and put our stuff in a moving van, and now we are homeless. After one last book club with my lady friends, I was off to join Chris in Vermont, for the last 500 miles of the trail. And when I say “join him”, I mean “drive the car around and see stuff while he hikes, and arrange food and lodging and sightseeing for the days/nights he’s not on the trail”.
I caught up to him in Rutland, VT: wow, what a green, fresh smelling state! We stealth-camped right by the trail in a beautiful setting by a brook up the side of a mountain. (Stealth camping is camping at spots along the AT that are not paying campgrounds or designated shelters. Just nice flat spots that you can pitch a tent. Free!). It got cold that night: Down in the 40’s. But luckily summer seemed to catch up with us over the next week and it was quite nice.
I followed/stalked Chris for all of Vermont and New Hampshire, sometimes hiking a mile or two in the mornings when I drop him off at the trailhead, sometimes camping with him on the trail, sometimes getting us hotels or hiker hostels, and sometimes getting myself a place to sleep alone while he overnighted in a stretch of the trail that had no road access for me to come get him. During the day I stopped at cool sites, shuttled other hiker friends around, had lunches and dinners with new trail friends, rented bikes, kayaks, etc. I loved the rolling hills and mountains of Vermont and the lovely farmlands and vistas.
New Hampshire has been brutal. They don’t call it the Granite State for nothing! It is often said that NH and Maine are the toughest states on the trail. In New Hampshire we encountered the White Mountains. Though lovely, they are a bitch to climb up and down, continually, day after day. The NoBo’s (northbounders, or what is left of them) are worn down, and we are just starting to see the first SoBo’s, starting down from Maine in early July and hoping to finish by Thanksgiving. Directly after the White Mountains were the Presidential Peaks, culminating in Mt Washington, the 2nd highest peak on the AT. It was a brutal 2 day climb, but luckily I was able to take the auto road to the top and pick up backpacks from Chris and his friends, so the could “slack pack” the descent with only a small day bag. They were much appreciative. A shout out to our trail friends: DaVinci, Mobius, Midnight Sparkle, Naked Ninja, Rosie, Dr Zoom, Grasshopper, Trip, and Geared Up. You all are doing GREAT!!
So. 13 states done. Next up: Maine!
A lovely drive through the southern Virginia countryside, with the mountains in the background. The trees down here are bursting with spring colors; white, yellow, pink, green, even red and purple blooms. And I love the random clusters of daffodils along the highway, reminding me of the bluebonnets in Texas.
I arrived in Hot Springs, North Carolina, around 2 pm. I knew Chris had camped the night before at mile 253, so he’d have to hike 20 miles to get to Hot Springs. I figured he’d get in around 5. So that gave me a couple of hours to walk around town, check out the Trailfest Weekend going on in town, and explore the crazy 170 year old inn we were staying at. It’s a beautiful house with crazy rooms, sweeping staircases, slanting floors, and wrap around porches on both floors. Owned by a 3-time thru-hiker, it’s $20 a night for hikers. What a deal.
The inn, built in 1840, was later used during World War I as a boarding house for wives of the German officers who were being held as prisoners of war across town (three blocks away) at the Mountain Park Hotel, next to the mineral springs. Later, the house was a boardinghouse for teachers who worked at the Dorland-Bell Institute, a school for Appalachian girls.
Chris came limping into town at 5:20 and after showering and changing, we walked through the town. He was so happy to grab a beer, some salad greens, and hot wings and sit on the patio of the Quarter House Tavern, overlooking the French Broad River. He told me about his hike- some rain, some wind, ice chunks and heavy frost, but no snow. One bear north of Clingmans Dome and some cool birds, two deer, and lots of hikers. In town we ran into Indiana, Rhode Island Red, and Admiral Caboose, all thru-hikers he had met on the trail in the past two weeks. After dinner a band played on the patio and it was a very relaxing evening.
On Sunday we walked around Hot Springs, had a yummy pancake breakfast with a bunch of hikers, and visited the Hot Springs spa. On the banks of the French Broad River, the spa has a dozen outdoor hot tubs, enclosed on 3 sides by a gazebo, fed by the hot mineral springs themselves. The open side looks out over the river and it was a lovely long soak and a pleasant way to spend an hour. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we went back the next day for another. After a “Hungry Hiker skillet” breakfast and a long soak, Chris got back on the AT to make his way 120 miles to Elk Park NC, where I will see him next Sunday.