DAY 22: Slowly I turned… step by step – inch by inch!
The Saturday morning sunlight was just peaking its way atop the hills overlooking Villaviciosa as we left our hostel. We started out early today, deciding to take the more direct route of this section of the Camino del Norte. This would follow the N-632, and cut an arduous 8 km off our journey. Even so, the day would be one of constantly ascending and descending the ridges and valleys of the rich Asturian countryside, ending at our accommodation for the night, a deluxe caravan park on the outskirts of Gijon.
It was just before we started the steep ascent out of Villaviciosa that the horrible realisation hit me! I had left my precious box of orange and lime flavoured icy poles back in the freezer of our Hostel. How could I have done that? This sad realisation came just as I thought of today’s looming 22 kilometre (13.6 Miles) hike. We had walked less than a kilometre, but the roasting heat of the daily sun started to take its place in the sky and I could feel my morale lowering with every step I took.
While we were cutting a good eight kilometres off our journey for the day, the fact that we were walking on the N-632 was draining me a good deal faster than the now regular winding hilly walking tracks of the Camino. This is something we had noticed the previous two or three times we chose the road to walk on. I was wondering what exactly it was that had this effect. It was as if the bitumen had some sort of mystical energetic property that sapped our strength and resolve at double the pace of any hiking track.
The first 6 kilometres seemed to be a never-ending ascent of steep hills and slowly I turned…step by step…inch by inch I made my way around the Asturian mountainside. The curves on the road were so sharp in places that they left the hairs standing up on my skin, as cars whizzed past us at obnoxiously high speeds. At times, the searing gush of wind that hit me as the car passed made me feel as if it had just missed my elbow by a few millimetres. With the oppressive weight of our backpacks a constant unwanted companion, we continued on in what seemed to be the never-ending, ever-ascending, black bitumen road. Even though the views were stunning looking out onto the Asturian valleys below, every step drained my imagination further, to the point where my entertainment was trying to avoid stepping on the endless cracks in the damaged road.
We were at the first breaking point of the day; the road, the unrelenting sun and the suffocating heat had created that recognisable imaginary wall that we had to push through. You’d think that I’d have been used to it by now, that a mental toughness would have built up, but what I noticed about the Camino was, that the more you walked on, that it would only take the smallest of things to launch you into the abyss of a self-created despair, psychologically speaking that is. Something like realising you walked 200 metres in the wrong direction, or that instead of 20 minutes to get to your lunch stop you still had 22 minutes to go, was just enough to have everything collapse on you like a raging avalanche. At that point, the niggling little pain in your back that you didn’t really feel, becomes a red hot poker cutting through you, and the weight of your feet make you feel as if you have concrete blocks for shoes, while the heat of the day feels as if you are taking a walk on the sun itself, all of which immediately and utterly mentally decompose you to a wobbly piece of slobbering jelly.
I pulled myself together and tried to concentrate on the beauty around us. I noticed the vibrant native birds, flying through the trees, one soft grey rabbit lounging on the grass and a herd of milky white goats staring curiously and bleating at us from behind barbed wire fences. The charming allure of flora that surrounded us for a moment neutralised the draining power of the bitumen and kept us marvelling in a peaceful silence.
Slowly I turned…step by step…inch by inch, and as I walked on, I noticed that we were coming to what appeared to be the outskirts of a town, which offered some friendly leafy branched trees, giving us momentary shade from the burning light. Finally I sighed with relief, as my bright red ears began to cool down. I started to bug Dad about stopping as I noticed we were coming to a T intersection in the road (where the N-632 meets the AS-256), which also seemed to have a restaurant or two and a tavern on either corner. Interestingly, I got no objection from him and even though we were a good 300 metres away, we all started imagining and discussing what we would eat…hot chips, Tortilla Española, even the leftovers from last night’s dinner sounded good. It was not yet lunch time, but at this point, we all felt that some sustenance and a good rest was just what we needed to recoup our strength, both physical and mental.
We found what was a rather unusual boutique tea house for this area, with an alfresco Zen-like garden, shaded by large green beach umbrellas at each table. Its neatly arranged outdoor essence invited us in. Of course, they had our usual of Tortilla Española, but also a range of freshly squeezed juices and a rather extensive selection of teas of the world, which was unusual for this part of the countryside. In fact, the whole place was rather a contradiction to the typical Spanish cafes on our route, which were very traditional with their offerings. It was perhaps this contradiction that drew us in. We decided to sit down, take off our shoes and just recuperate. The one thing that was missing, however, was the hot chips, and before my respite, I went on an expedition for my brother Lalika to the tavern across the road to procure chips. This seemed to take an age, but I was finally rewarded by bringing home dos raciones de patatas bravas, that is, two servings of piping hot potato wedges, served with the traditional hot tomato bravas-salsa. We ravenously consumed these as we daintily sipped the sweet potion of orange and hibiscus tea that was in the pot on our table.
We sat there for over an hour, none of us really wanting to mentally entertain the fact that we still had a good portion of our walk to go. Slowly I turned…step by step…inch by inch, and we were back on the road. In the distance, sticking out from behind an imposingly tall and regal dusty red beech tree, was a luminous white road sign displaying the number of kilometres we still had to go. Again, I was apprehensive about the accuracy. My awareness of inaccurate signs that cruelly raises your hopes with a false tally of kilometres, then dashes them against the jagged rocks of the Camino was still at the forefront of my mind. This time, however, I was determined to take a leap of faith, and place my trust in the glow-in-the-dark markers. The feeling of slowly turning…step by step…inch by inch, started to melt away with the day’s ebbing heat. I continued on with a renewed zeal that was fuelled by the energy bursts that came along with small sips of the sugary orange juice we were carrying.
“14 Kilometres to go!” Lalika cheered as we passed under a cluster of silver birch trees that began to sparkle under a pool of light.
“Only 13k left!” Dad hollered as a calico coloured horse ran alongside the fence with us, nodding its head up and down in good-natured gestures.
“12 kilometres until we are at our end destination!” Mum called as she led us along a criss-crossed path of wild neon yellow flowers bobbing in the wind, while cars honked in a congratulatory melody, urging us on.
“11k until the end of the day!” I sang out as we passed by a station of apple cider bars all dripping with the sticky sweet ‘Sidra’ that is famous in the Asturias.
At 10k we stopped by the side of the road to consume the last of the sweet orange juice and stretch out. We pushed on!
7 km. The kilometres were fading away!
5 km. I think I can actually see where we will end up in the distance!
2 km This is the last town just on the outskirts of our accommodation!
The numbers wound down like a clock counting until take off, only for us when the imaginary digital clock of our minds reached zero, we would finally be at our long awaited destination. At kilometre 64 on the N-632, we arrived at a popular family campground about 5 km outside the colossal city of Gijon, a citadel that rivalled Bilbao in length and Santander in width. Entering a world filled with the holiday camper, as well as the fleet of foot pilgrims, we dropped our packs in front of a shared bungalow room, ignoring the dead spiders that lay on the sagging mattresses and declared ourselves home!
That night in the campground’s overcrowded restaurant where three children’s birthday parties raged on and kids went berserk from the excess of sugar and red food colouring in their drinks, the four of us sat eating dinner reflecting somewhat inwardly, as this ruckus of the uncivilised realm raged around us. It was only a matter of time before we let the music distract us. We enjoyed a family reflection of our day’s adventure, lost in the swirling world of loud music around us, amplified by the blue waters of the pool next to us. For me the transformation from the first half of our day to our powering up and down the hills of the last fourteen kilometres was almost that of a Lazarus effect. I took a moment to marvel at our resilience and determination to see this journey through. We finally got up and Slowly I turned…Step by Step…Inch by Inch, and started hobbling, back to our bungalow. We, scraped the dead bugs aside, happily crawled under our sleeping bags and gave ourselves up to the soothing slumber of sleep, knowing that tomorrow another adventure to test us would await!