A stone marker for the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Little Scraps of Paper

After I had been on the el Camino for a couple of weeks in fall 2014, I had gone through so many Spanish villages that I began to get confused with the names. I also would lose track of the kilometers I walked from place to place. I would stop and dig out my guide book, but this became a significant effort, especially in bad weather. By the time I had walked 35 kilometers or more, I would never remember even the name of the albergue I was headed for that night!

Lately, I developed an evening routine of studying my guide book, which helped me the next day. I would rip out a small strip of a blank page from my journal, then write down all the towns I would pass through the next day, the distance between them, and where my destination would be at the end of the day. I would stick this paper in my pants pocket, then take it out and look at it when I entered each town. My little piece of paper would be crinkled, faded, and ripped by the end of the day, but it would help me through the mileage each day. When I passed a Camino trail marker, such as the one in my photo at the top of this blog post, I knew how many kilometers I had walked, and my piece of paper spared me from taking out my guidebook each time—or just not bothering at all after a while.

Sometimes my pilgrim friends would be walking with me along the way and ask me where I was headed for the night. I would dig out the strip of paper and show them the name of the village. We would all laugh in understanding of what we were going through together. Smart phones could not be depended upon in places where there were no towers, and when walking, it is best to go light, carrying as little as possible.

View near O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

View near O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given.

Keeping track of where I was going was motivating, especially when I would take out my shred of paper and knock off another village or hamlet: Barbadelo, Rente, Mercado, Peruscallo, Cortiñas, Morgade, Ferreiros, 9 km; Mirallos, Rozas, Moimentos, Cotareio, Portomarin, 9 more kilometers, or 18 kilometers total now walked, and here was an albergue with 160 beds (in case of an emergency, you see, I could stop here, but on that paper I had more names); on to Gonzar, where there were 20 beds but no food, for another 7.5 km more that I had walked, or 23.5 kilometers total; Castromaior, Hospital de la Cruz, 29 kilometers total, to my resting place with 22 beds. I also tried to remember what I had read the night before, so I could prepare for making a long walk with no place to stop for water, ascending up high climbs, and going through a forest. The strips of paper kept my mind straight, motivating me each time I knocked off another village, and the kilometers added up.

Everyone I knew had a treasured guide book on the el Camino. One night, after I had spent the day climbing up the steep O Cebreiro, in the rain, on a muddy trail, I stayed in the small safe haven of a private albergue. I came in, wet and tired, and met Mark, a man from Quebec. Like the rest of us, he was tired, too. But on top of everything else, he had lost his guidebook somewhere that day. Things like this happen—perhaps it could have fallen out when he opened his pack to take something out, such as a rain jacket. I let him borrow my guidebook and ripped out a blank page from my journal. He sat and wrote down notes to get him through the next couple of days.

There are some things that are important on long pilgrimages or hiking trails. For me, a trail book and these little scraps of paper were convenient methods to use while walking. This was a reminder of my long, four-month hike on the Appalachian Trail; without my trail book, I would not have survived a day. On the el Camino, a trail book is a necessity for places to stay, distances, elevation, and information on each section of the trail. You know, for memory’s sake, I still have those little scraps of paper tucked in between the pages of my journal.

(posted May 5, 2015)