I learned to ride a bike when I was 12. Until I was about 16, I still had nervous fits about biking through traffic in downtown Toronto, where I live. Right after my 18th birthday, I decided to bike across Spain, certainly not as part of any natural progression, nor an advisable choice. I suspect I must have carried a suicidal impulse at the time; certainly, that sensible part of my mind that speaks up against stupid ideas had fluttered off. But stupid as it was, I did bike across Spain, the famous 700 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago, damning myself the whole way.
In the winter of 2008, I was lounging around Barcelona, thinking how sophisticated I was – studying Spanish, drinking absinthe, and smoking cheap tobacco. It was really wonderful, in that uniquely self-indulgent way that only people taking a year off can appreciate. But part of me felt guilty. So I decided to do something difficult. I told my Spanish teacher that I was going to bike from Barcelona to Seville – about 1,000 kilometres. He laughed at me, sending me back to the planning stages. A bit of research later, I found out about the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage route roughly 700 kilometres long, extending from Roncesvalles in France to Santiago in northwestern Spain.
I’ve never been one to go to the gym, nor to attempt to stay in shape – in fact, staying on my feet has usually been enough for me. So I started running along the beach in Barcelona to get fit, working myself up 10 kilometres at a time. Unfortunately, this attempt at fitness was short-lived. When my girlfriend came to visit in the two weeks before Christmas, I lost my form in a flurry of wine, sleep, and cured Spanish ham.
Though distraction had claimed my physical shape, it had left my resolve intact. The day she left, I bought a bike – a horrible city-road hybrid with thick tires from a run-of-the-mill sporting goods store. And on Christmas Eve, I left Barcelona with the bike and my huge Mountain Equipment Co-op knapsack. I had bought a pair of black synthetic parachute pants to ride in comfortably; these, along with my yellow plastic raincoat and a pair of tattered blue Vans, was to be my uniform for the next three weeks.
Jack McGuire, in a recent issue of The Daily, wrote an article in the Culture section about his time on the Appalachian Trail. He called his desire to hike the trail, “an incomparable dream.” I would call my desire to bike the Camino de Santiago something more like a “misbegotten dream.” Who was I to think I could take my shitty, 150-dollar bike across this enormous, mountainous country without more than a couple of weeks of exercise and no serious cycling experience?
Nevertheless, I took to the road on Boxing Day, setting out from Pamplona, a big town about 40 kilometres west of the classic starting point at Roncesvalles. It was snowing. I remember the first hill I laboured up, just outside of town; for a couple of seconds I thought of turning back, as my heart and lungs struggled to click into gear and sweat flooded my raincoat. But for some reason – I’ll call it Providence, since the Camino is a Catholic pilgrimage – the pain subsided and a kind of resigned peace ran through me. Three more weeks of abject suffering, I thought: no problem.
The first stretch of the route goes through Navarre, a province of the Basque country, which houses the foothills that build up into the Pyrenees. I spent a lot of time in the gear 1-1, going forward only so I didn’t start rolling back. With the cold, I also spent a lot of time blowing my nose. In order to keep moving, I would plug one nostril with the yellow calfskin mittens my girlfriend had given me during her visit and blow. Usually a pale strand of mucus would linger and, subverting the sense of dignity the Spanish are reputed to feel so strongly, I would shake my head until the culprit fell to the road, then wipe my messy face with the cold leather mitten.
The Navarrese countryside in December is steep and cold, but also incredibly barren: empty in a chilling, haunted sort of way, like a battlefield from the first World War. Fogs would roll in before I woke up, and thicken throughout the day, so biking along the highway I could often barely see five feet in front of me. A convergence of all these factors makes the early part of the trip vivid for me, in a way that is usually reserved for nightmares.
From Navarre, the Camino flattens out into a vast tableland called la meseta. This stretch begins roughly at the medieval city of Burgos, the headquarters of Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War. The number of plump, fur coat-wearing citizens of Burgos suggests many miss those good old days. The next town I stopped at, Castrojeriz, had none of that right-wing grandeur. It was lodged into a big hill, and I remember everything in it being precariously slanted as a result. Or maybe it was just the disorienting night I spent getting drunk and eating chocolate with a middle-aged Irish anti-Semite with one painted fingernail, the bearded and virulently nun-hating Paco, the manager of the hostel, and an Austrian vegan who looked like Sinead O’Connor and told me she thought people could learn a lot about life from studying trees.
I was told by experienced Camino walkers – and the route is more traditionally for walking than for cycling – that the next 300 kilometres or so of wheatfields and sky can be incredibly boring. Some people even hop a bus and fast-forward to the more exciting bits. But I was just grateful to not have to climb all day, to not have my every muscle rebel against this insane project I had taken on. Alas, my muscles would not be quiet for long.
Galicia is the final, western-most province of the Camino. It is also the most beautiful. Unfortunately for me, its beauty is derived from its mountains – massive, sudden, steep mountains matted in trees. Twice I had to spend almost 10 kilometres climbing their near-sheer faces. I thought of all kinds of ways to distract myself from the pain – the most effective one, ultimately, consisted of inventing my own lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”
The one benefit to scaling these behemoths was going down the other side. Usually, after an eight-K climb, there would be about 20 kilometres downhill, and I would just fly. It’s a miracle I didn’t fall over my handlebars, or skid off the side of the mountain – the roads were full of holes and my bag, full of heavy books and thick sweaters, made me uniquely unbalanced on a bike. But it was on one of these fast rides down a mountain that I barreled into Santiago de Compostela: the end of the road, a pilgrim’s destination for a millennium. I was stunned to have made it the whole way in one piece; I almost wept. As I rolled past the sign saying “Bienvenido a Santiago,” I tried to let out a triumphant howl. Instead, with the ocean wind blowing into my face, all I could manage was a tiny croak. I did the Camino, all right – but I never said I did it in style.