Few transitions are quite as dramatic as the one that takes place while driving west through South Dakota in the winter. After eight dull hours of looking at flat, barren, wind-whipped land from which the only thing one finds refuge in is the nearly inexhaustible Wall Drug signs staked into it, the scenery suddenly collapses into the canyons of the Badlands and then rises inexplicably into the smoothed mountaintops of the Black Hills. Clearly, someone up top had mixed up blueprints while laying out designs for the area we thought, as the memories of the long and uneventful drive that had brought us there quickly turned to excitement for the days ahead.
With this being our first trip since Covid-19 broke out nearly a year ago, we were a little worried about what traveling would look like amid a pandemic and whether or not we would be able to stay safe during our time in the state. The answer to the first question would be that it’d look a whole heck of a lot like it did pre-pandemic and the answer to the second would be most definitely not, at least in public spaces anyway; the reason behind both of those troubling answers being, well, the fact that we were in South Dakota.
As it turns out, along with the aforementioned geographical transformation that took place during our drive across the state, there was also an ideological one. The Black Lives Matter signs of Minneapolis dissipated the further west we drove, giving way to an outdoor museum of Trump paraphernalia. In one memorable moment, we passed a lawn lined with over twenty (or maybe thirty, we lost count) Trump flags waving ostentatiously in the wind. Yes, we were deep in Trump country, and that meant that mask-wearing was very much not a thing. So, like Puritans shuttering at the sight of a bikini, we winced away from the surplus of maskless faces bustling around us, choosing instead to spend our time exploring the inexhaustible scenery of the Black Hills, which is where you’ll find us in the photos below.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
We pull off the road and leave our car behind to slip between two boulders and step over the threshold of the trail.
A downy blanket embraces the forest, a ribbon of untouched beauty winds ahead, inviting us in.
All around us a hush echoes, rays of frigid sun shine off marbled ponderosa bark, illuminating tiny tracks left by a mink, perhaps on a trip to the icy stream we walk along.
Leaving the path, we climb up a craggy hill to perch on a rock and gaze out at the world of trees below us.
Patches of snow and fallen logs reveal themselves as we peer between the trees.
We climb down, taking a new route. Descending, a doorway in the mountain appears, fiercely swirling snow into the gray sky it has nothing to cling to— around or behind.
The door looks to be a portal to a mysterious realm. It is alluring as it beckons us forward. As we step through, we realize we’ve been walking in that realm the entire time, experiencing first hand how real the magic is.
The day began like any other. We gingerly made our way out of our sleep sacks, exposing our bodies bit by bit to the frigid albergue air much like a toe to cold water. After layering on clothes that felt as if they had just been plucked from the freezer, we warmed up with a hot breakfast, loaded up our belongings, secured our rain gear (for it was sure to be another rainy Galician day), and headed out the door. While the day’s destination seemed to resemble all the others we had visited, with it’s impractically long and syllable-packed name whose very utterance seemed to suggest antiquity (we had already passed the likes of Castilblanco de los Arroyos, Villafranca de los Barros, Embalse de Alcántara, Calzada de Valdunciel, and Fuenterroble de la Salvatierra), it was different. Unlike the aforementioned, amnesia-inducing towns that had left us pulling out our guide books every 30 minutes to check their names over and over, this one was impossible to forget as it had been on our minds for almost fifty days: Santiago de Compostela. Despite knowing that our Camino would end that day, it didn’t feel real until, in the very ordinary moment of gazing around our surroundings to try and find a yellow arrow to make sure we were on the right path, we had the very unordinary experience of seeing the cathedral steeples rising like a triumphant finish line in the distance.
Like a dog who spends every waking hour trying to devise a way to escape over the fence, only to finally do it and then realize that she has no idea what to do with her newfound freedom, so did we arrive atPlaza del Obradoiro in front of the cathedral, the destination of every pilgrim on El Camino. We had walked for the better part of two months to arrive at that point, but once we were there, we weren’t quite sure what to do or how to feel. At least we had company. All around us pilgrims entered the plaza to the fanfare of their own internal rejoicing, their unbreaking smiles evidence of a journey completed. Amidst the echo of lively bagpipe music throughout the plaza, bottles of wine were opened, strangers hugged and high-fived each other, and loads both literal and figurative were unburdened as their bearers gazed in wonder at the front of the cathedral that had been a focus of joy for centuries. As we looked around at these scenes, we knew exactly what was to be done, which was, quite simply, to enjoy our hard-earned accomplishment. So, we sat down on the cool surface of the cobbled plaza, under the uncharacteristically blue Galician skies, and took everything in for we knew that the second we strapped on our backpacks and left the plaza, we would be crossing the far too thin and sudden line from pilgrim to tourist, and that was something we just weren’t, nor ever really would be, ready for.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
goes the satchel
as it sinks down
into the dirt,
the mud from that morning’s
The pilgrim follows,
crossing his feet,
one leather shoe
over the other,
a hole worn through
the heel, exposing
his skin to the elements.
He looks up
at the stone and wood shrine
in front of him.
He made it.
Murmuring a prayer
and sorting through thoughts,
knowing when he picks himself up,
a journey has ended.
So it goes
for a millennia,
sole after soul
arriving to a place
physically transformed through centuries,
yet as a symbol remains
as solid and unbreaking
as a scallop shell.
sounds the Osprey
as it makes contact
the puddle from the rainstorm
one North Face shoe
over the other,
the rubber soles wearing down.
Soon I’ll need
to buy another pair.
I look up
at the mammoth structure of stone
towering above the plaza. I’m here.
I begin to whisper a prayer
but my breath falters,
not able to find words.
when I leave, I will no longer be a pilgrim,
a chapter will end.
In a country that salivates at the sight of a skinless pig leg (or 20) hanging from a restaurant window, there isn’t much hope for a vegan. And so went our time in Spain walking on El Camino. Having lived in the country before, we knew they had an affinity for animal products, but had completely forgotten the extent to which they took their devotion. On a typical evening at the beginning of our walk, we would wander the streets of whatever town we were in, examining restaurant menus for vegan-friendly options. Clashing with our naïveté was the realization that most of them, apart from perhaps an order of fries, were entirely off limits to us. So, rather quickly, we learned to stop wasting our time perusing the content of menus and instead replaced it with that of store shelves, looking for ingredients to cook with. Below you can find an account of how we were able to remain vegan for the duration of our fifty days on El Camino.
The most common way to dine out in Spain is participating in a menú del día (menu of the day). For a set price, diners can choose from an array of options for each part of their meal: starter, entree and dessert. These menus, despite their abundance of options, will always be off limits to vegans. Going to a restaurant in Spain as a vegan then requires a stubborn adherence to creativity, patience, and persistence for the thought of someone not eating meat and dairy is beyond treasonous, it’s not even in the realm of understanding of most people. In one example, we went to a restaurant for dinner after finding out that all of the town’s stores were closed. Our first mistake was going at 6:30 P.M. which caused an uproar in and of itself as the manager became visibly (and audibly) upset that we were requesting food at such an hour (more on that here). Our second was telling them that we were vegan and asking if they had any options for us. After wading through the initial waves of confusion, we finally settled on a salad.
Now, in Spain, it should be noted that the idea of a salad seems to have been inspired by the Surrealism of Magritte: This is not a salad. No, while there are some leaves on the plates, their efforts for modesty are eradicated by heaping portions of eggs, cheese, tuna and the like. Despite having made it very clear that we did not eat eggs or cheese, our salad nonetheless came out buried under a layer of the two. At least they left off the tuna!
Because of the lack of options for vegans at restaurants and the struggle to create options for ourselves, we only ate out about four or five times, the bill for the two of us averaging 12.45€ each meal.
On Your Own
The one downside to cooking in the albergues was that, after a long day’s walk, the last thing anyone wants to do is go for a grocery run and prepare a meal. Once you get into the habit of doing it though, it becomes just as routine as the walk itself and offers far more benefits, in our opinion anyway, than going out in terms of the overall experience one gets out of their Camino. One of the most striking differences between the two is the price. On average, a meal for the two of us prepared in an albergue cost 3.90€, nearly 10€ cheaper than going out and, as an added incentive, we could often get an entire bottle of wine for the price of two glasses at a restaurant.
Apart from the lure of frugality, eating in also gave us the chance to connect with our fellow pilgrims in a way that we weren’t able to on the road or even at a restaurant. While we didn’t always share a common tongue with those we were staying with, the language of food was more than capable of bridging the gap. After sharing knives, stoves, pots, and cutting boards over the course of many nights, basking in the aromas of each other’s cooking, and all under the veil of silence, a simple bon apetit orqueaproveche was all that was needed to bring everyone together into a feeling of community.
It was also interesting to see what other people from around the world ate and how we could learn from them. Kati, a German pilgrim we walked with for about two weeks, taught us to be on the lookout for wild berries that grew alongside the path and could be picked for a mid-walk treat. Pací, a Spaniard, was adept at identifying mushrooms and gathering handfuls to prepare for meals later. And Flora and Enzo, an Italian couple, informed us that inside the urchin-like shells that were falling by the hundreds from trees along the way, were chestnuts that could be boiled and enjoyed just as much as if they had been roasted over an open fire. One of our favorite days on El Camino involved us picking wild berries and apples to snack on along the way and then enjoying a communal dinner with hors d’oeuvres of chestnuts and a main course of mushroom risotto made from foraged mushrooms accompanied by a potato stew prepared by us. The day would have been completely different had we eaten at restaurants for the entirety of our Camino.
Along with a willingness to cook, we discovered a few other things to be invaluable when deciding to prepare our own meals: basic cooking utensils, a reusable cup, and spices. Before leaving Sevilla, we bought a carrot peeler and knife, which was great for lunch on the road or when knives at the albergues were too dull or non-existent. In addition, we also had a glass that we bought as a souvenir, but it rescued us many times over when overcoming the challenge of meal planning with no dishes. We also collected an arsenal of spices, often sharing them with others in the kitchen. They added flavor and a lot more enjoyment to our meals. In our “spice cabinet” (plastic bag), we had oregano, black pepper, bay leaves, cayenne, and cinnamon. We always bought them in plastic containers weighing almost nothing. In the beginning we never would have dreamed of taking spices with us, knowing every ounce counted, but we began to realize just how much they added to our meal, and just how little they added to our weight.
Lunch was often easy to plan. If we had a long walk the next day we bought supplies the night before, carried them with us, and enjoyed a picnic on the road. If we had a shorter walk, we waited until we were in town to purchase our ingredients. For the first half of Vía de la Plata, we encountered quite a few chain grocery stores that carried hummus cups, so our lunch consisted of hummus and a veggie (usually a red pepper or zucchini). We also ate a lot of pisto, which can best be described as a cross between marinara and chunky salsa, that we would dip veggies or bread into (though, we ended up eating so much of this that we eventually had to stop as Kate was becoming physically ill when she saw it in the supermarket!). During the second half of El Camino we became big fans of garlic and tomato sandwiches topped with black pepper and oregano. Another favorite were house olives found at most alimentación shops (small, local grocery stores), marinated in garlic, spice, or just traditional. In addition to our main course of dip or a sandwich, we often added something crunchy and salty (chips, bruschetta, corn nut mix) and a piece of fruit. Leftover muesli from breakfast made a great dessert!
There were a couple of factors that determined how we could cook supper: what facilities an albergue had and what the shops in town carried. For ease of reading, the supper section is divided into three parts: full kitchen, microwave only, and no kitchen or microwave.
Amenities in a full kitchen included pots, pans, stirring spoons, knives, dishes, and silverware, as well as basic ingredients such as oil, vinegar, and salt (oftentimes there were also partial bags of dry pasta). This leaves a pilgrim with a myriad of cooking options. Below are the dishes we made most often.
Pasta: Whole wheat pasta was difficult to find, so we usually used tri-color veggie pasta and cut up peppers, onion, and garlic to add to the marinara. Of course, using our mobile spice cabinet, we added oregano and black pepper.
Potato fry: We cubed potatoes, chopped peppers, onions, broccoli, and garlic and then sautéed them together with either black pepper and bay leaves or cayenne. The leftovers made for a great breakfast, especially paired with orange juice for an added “breakfast flair.”
Tacos: It was a pleasant surprise that tortillas were fairly common in supermarkets. Sautéing pepper, onions, garlic, and beans (chickpeas, black, or kidney) with oregano, cayenne, and cinnamon, we rolled the filling into tortillas and had a nice meal.
Pilgrim stew: This was hands down our favorite meal (we’ve even taken it back to the US and make it regularly post-Camino), and was especially hearty and welcoming during the rainy Galician days. We chopped potatoes, pepper, onion, and garlic and sautéed them with chickpeas or kidney beans, bay leaves and black pepper. Then we added about a liter of water and leftover uncooked pasta from the albergue.
Our first experience with only a microwave came as a surprise. We walked into the albergue’s kitchen, performed our usual reconnaissance, and realized there was only a microwave at our disposal. Fortunately, there were also dishes and silverware. Even if an albergue only had a microwave, nearly everyone had basic dishes for pilgrims. Below are two recipes (one main and one dessert) that we made often in a microwave.
Lentil tacos: Cans of lentil beans were staples in big and small supermarkets. We bought a can of lentils, mashed them, and heated them in the microwave. Then we chopped our usual trio—peppers, onions, and garlic—and added them, either raw or zapped, to the beans along with cayenne. Then we added the filling to tortillas or ate the mixture plain if there were no tortillas.
Baked apples: While walking El Camino in the fall, we were craving a seasonal treat. First, we cut off the top of the apple and set it aside. Then, we cut out the core, being careful not to pierce through the apple. We added a generous helping of cinnamon inside the fruit, put the top back on to retain moisture, and microwaved them for approximately four minutes.
No Kitchen or Microwave
We were bewildered when we happened upon this obstacle for the first time. We asked each other, “What are we going to do? What will we eat?” For most pilgrims, the answer is obvious, “We’ll go to a café and order off of the menú.” For vegans, it’s not so simple; however, we took on the challenge and let our creativity shine, with one example of this being that we learned to buy products in cardboard boxes as they could be fashioned into cutting boards and plates. Below are “recipes” for creating a cold, but tasty, supper.
Tacos: Have you noticed a theme here? Tacos resolve most of life’s problems. After our first experiment with making them sans kitchen, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we could still eat one of our staples cold. To make the meal more enjoyable, we also bought rice cups, which could often be found in large, chain supermarkets. Sold in sets of two, they are single-serving pre-cooked rice (or quinoa) that you don’t need a microwave for, although the original intention is to heat them. Using the cardboard from the rice cups as plates and the plastic tortilla bag as a cutting board, we were able to make the tacos fairly easily. Adding a dash of cayenne and cinnamon, the tacos were enjoyable and something we could look forward to at the end of a day.
Gazpacho: Gazpacho is a Spanish staple on menus during the hotter months, but can be bought year-round in grocery stores in cardboard cartons. It is a cold soup made of puréed vegetables and tomatoes. This is where our souvenir glass helped immensely. When we bought gazpacho, we were able to pour it into the glass and either drink it or use it to dip baguette or bruschetta pieces into.
Tomato sandwiches: This was a sad option as it usually meant we were repeating our lunch. It’s a supper that isn’t much to look forward to so we would usually get ourselves a treat (i.e. beer or chips) to make it a little more enjoyable. Just as I mentioned in the lunch section, it’s a baguette topped with tomato, garlic, oregano, and black pepper. The most pitiful supper experience we had was when we ate these sandwiches in a window-less sitting area off of a plastic bag for a plate. While it was sad in the moment, it is a funny memory now!
While cooking required a significant amount planning and creativity, the experiences added a lot to our Camino with some of our favorite memories coming from our time spent in the kitchens and supermarkets of the different albergues and towns we stopped in. Once we fell into the routine of preparing our meals every day, it became a personal competition to see how little we could rely on restaurants for our daily sustenance. The answer, as we found out rather quickly, was that we didn’t need to at all.
Oh yeah, and alcohol is vegan too!
Lunch: almuerzo (Ahl-MWAYR-tho)
Supper: cena (THAY-nah)
Small, local grocery store: alimentacion (ah-lee-mehn-TAH-theohn)
Walk along any of El Camino’s numerous routes and you’re bound to come across one at some point or another. No, not a cross or a church or any other number of the religious paraphernalia one would expect to encounter on a pilgrimage, though there are plenty of those to be sure, but rather, a scallop shell. Adorning everything from T-shirts to buildings to the human body (tattoos of the shell were common), one could argue that the symbol has become nearly as inseparable from the popular pilgrimage as the saint who inspired it. Despite its omnipresence though, we never really grew tired of seeing depictions of the shell for each one was a reminder that we were not only on the right path, but following in the footsteps of countless other pilgrims that had walked down that same path before us. And it is this interpretation of the scallop, as a symbol of the many roads one takes while walking on El Camino, that it draws its most significance. For, just as the many lines on the shell travel across it only to eventually converge at its base, so do the many routes and pilgrims of El Camino travel across Europe only to eventually become one in Santiago.
Below, a sampling of some of the many shells we came across during our time on El Camino.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
like inverted sun rays
at the calcified cathedral.
everyone of them.
Tracing the indentations,
each bump and groove
is a hill, rock, river traversed,
beer, blister, dinner shared.
Not to the ocean
or the rush
of circulating blood,
but to the stories
centuries of pilgrims are telling.
When walking El Camino, the variety of people one comes across can be just as numerous as the beds they’ve slept in or landscapes traversed.
In our experience, we have come across pilgrims that trek an upwards of sixty kilometers a day in an adrenaline-fueled test of their bodies endurance; or else a race towards a departing flight. And, on the less crazy end of the spectrum, those like Kate and I who are content with walking a fraction of that distance each day, teetering on the fine line of walking just enough to feel accomplished but not so much as to willingly bring chronic bodily ailments upon ourselves.
There are pilgrims who perform minor surgery on their feet day after day in the form of blister care and others who perform minor miracles by having no foot problems whatsoever. There are 87-year-old Italian priests and twenty-something college students. There are bikers, walkers, and apparently, horseback riders, though we haven’t seen any of the latter yet. There are early risers, late departers, eat-iners and going-outers. There are Spaniards, Germans, Dutch, Canadians, Brazilians, Israelis, South Koreans, and Australians. There are the religious and those without any religious affiliation whatsoever, but in search of something outside of themselves all the same. And, while El Camino is traditionally a religious pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James, there is only one thing that unites all the different kinds of people, and it’s not Christianity, rather, the unwavering devotion to the all-knowing yellow arrows, or flechas amarillas.
Painted on rock faces, tree trunks, street curbs, and traffic signs, to name a few, the flechas are an ethereal lifeline of sorts, pointing each pilgrim in the right direction. While on El Camino, when we find ourselves lost along the way or unsure of whether or not we are moving in the right direction, we pray that a flecha reveals itself, giving us a sign that everything is okay. When we are in the dark or at a crossroads and there are no flechas to be found, we curse them for abandoning us. “How could such an omnipresent force of good be absent at such a time?” is a question that has often passed through our minds. Though, no matter how sparse their presence has been or how frustrated their absence has made us, whenever a flecha is spotted, we are thankful for it, for we are assured that we are moving in the right direction. And on El Camino, as in life itself, that’s all you can really ask for.
Since their inception over three decades ago, the flechas have become synonymous with the various routes to Santiago and for good reason. Despite being a pilgrimage route for over a millennia, by the 1970s, the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago had dwindled to the hundreds. Then, in the 1980s, a priest and El Camino scholar named Elías Valiña mapped out a route starting in the south of France and painted flechas along it every couple of kilometers or so to guide pilgrims towards Santiago. Elías chose to use yellow arrows because he had seen them guiding hikers through the mountains of France and took note not only of their visibility in the dull browns, grays, and greens of nature, but also of their durability to remain seen through variable weather and seasons. And so, the arrows were conceived and brought to life precisely at the time El Camino experienced a rebirth itself. The original route he mapped out, now popularly known as Camino Francés, attracts nearly 200,000 pilgrims every year and on countless other routes, including the one we have been walking on: La Via de la Plata, the arrows serve as a guiding hand, pointing pilgrims towards their destination, whatever or wherever that may be.
On your right—
On your left—
Only one way to go—
It´s a flecha fiesta—
We come to a fork:
Where are the flechas?
it´s time for siesta.
Lying in bed, half awake, half asleep, the alarm goes off. Never mind that the previous night’s sleep was fitful due to the bear-like snoring of the person in the bunk bed next to you or that the previous day was spent walking 18 miles through open fields under the glare of the Spanish sun, it is 6:00 A.M. and time to go. Any thought of hitting the snooze button is quickly put to rest as the other ten people sleeping in the room will be getting up shortly as well, eliminating any chance of having a dark and quiet refuge in which you could return to sleep. Contacts are placed in dry eyes, shoes on sore feet, and a backpack on a tired body. Another day of walking is ahead, this one a mere 15 miles!
So goes the morning of a pilgrim on El Camino, and if it sounds dreadful, I can assure you that it’s not. While the arrival of the alarm is never a harbinger of joy no matter the context, it is often accompanied by a much more welcome form of ringing, that of a bell in a village church, tolling six times in agreement with the hour shown on your phone. The place you woke up in could be anything from a centuries-old monastery in the middle of a lively city to a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of a quiet village. While you often have to share a room with others, you also get to share many more things with them, namely stories, meals, conversations, an occasional glass of wine, and above all, the camaraderie that comes with the shared hardship of traversing the world on foot day after day. And, though the body may protest the lacing of shoes and strapping on of a backpack, the mind is eager, for, while the day ahead is long, you will undoubtedly be walking under the stars, past a sunrise and through the effortless and inexhaustible beauty of the Spanish countryside. One could get quite used to waking up to that every day.
For us, a typical day on El Camino goes as follows:
“Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
‘Ride,’ Pleasure said;
‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”
One week into El Camino, there have certainly been some unpleasurable moments, but the overwhelming feeling of the last week and nearly 100 miles has been one of joy. Below you can find some pictures highlighting our first seven days on the road.