THE WAY OF THE SANDS
Today starts with a jag through the outskirts of Vila do Conde. We walk upstream, against mothers and grandmothers hand walking their kids to school. Children yawning and dawdling while adults scurry them along happens everywhere. They smile, “Buen Camino!” and show no impatience with us as we cross their paths and slow Their Way. Emily and I trade stories about getting our own kids off to school- their reluctance or their independence; how their commutes changed as they grew. Our own memories are reflected back at us in these streets as we walk miles and years later among mothers and kids.
We stop to light candles in a church. Emily ducks into a barber shop “banho” for an urgent pee. We pause to admire an otherworldly cemetery as we reach the edge of town. This is where The Coastal Way truly begins. There is a plaque at the door of a little chapel that describes the history of the coastal route. Today, we diverge from the central Portuguese Camino and “follow The Way of The Sands, always with a sea sight, north up to Esposende.”
We do follow the sands- on boardwalks for the first half of the day until The Way jags inland around an expansive golf course. Then we spend much of the afternoon winding through a bamboo forest. I am surprised by the diversity. Already, on day two, we have walked on wood, on sand, on cobbles, on concrete and on dirt trails.
The first song on my afternoon sound track today is, The Wailin’ Jennys, “Imagine you’re a girl on ten mile stilts. You travel round the world, taking it all in. You’ll never touch the ground… Got a heart that rests on treetop leaves… will you shine it up to me and set this freedom free.”
Solo journey. That is not what the word really means. But it’s the meaning I choose as it sweeps into my mind and calls me away from the route toward the surf. I text Emily that I’ll be going slow for a while and will catch up with her later. The deep sand sucks at my feet and the fifteen or sixteen pounds on my back suddenly feels like forty. I can see the sand is packed slick closer to the water and I make an awkward beeline for it. I stop for a second when I realize that my shoes will get wet. Wet shoes lead to blisters- which quite honestly, are my biggest fear out here. Fuck it. The rush of waves and the expanse of solitude are irresistible.
Solitude can be super small. But here it is super-sized. I can see the silhouettes of some locals hunched over, up high on the beach, searching for things in the sand. But down near the rocky surf, the sky is big and I am alone. I trudge along until I find a craggy mess of rocks that quiet the waves and I pause to be for a bit. A jumble of thoughts do their thing and then quiet in my mind- like the waves.
I have grown up alongside bodies of water. I am accustomed to the sensory experience of being alone along the edges of the sound or the sea. I have always found that great sorrow and great joy sit side by side at the ocean. Today, maybe because I have a readiness for it, I let the sadness that always comes, move through me in a rush. I feel my heart hollow out as my aloneness slips out toward the horizon. And only a big, huge sense of joy is left. Sometimes, solitude becomes big enough to include everyone. And everything. And all time.
Thankfully, the camera function on my new Apple watch is one of a few I’ve taken the time to figure out how to use. I capture a few sojourn shots before I trudge back up through thick sand to rejoin my friend.
I find Emily at a little cafe, finishing her afternoon shot of caffeine. We regroup and continue along the boardwalk. At some point, the surf gets smooth. It is free of edgy rocks and we pass some surfers livin’ their dreams in the ocean froth. OMG. We have to go in. We both have the same thought at the same moment. And then the same fear at the same time. But our feet! Pilgrims, like horses, rely on healthy, happy feet. The tiniest grain of sand in the wrong place can derail you for days. We’ve not seen any other pilgrims go anywhere near the water. We look at each other and I say, “I’m doin’ it.” (In case you’re thinking I’m more of a badass than I am, I don’t mean I’m doin’ it- surfing. I mean I’m doin’ it- wading.) Life is short. The time is now and we have all day to pick sand from between our toes and put our shoes safely back on. After two days of walking, the sand feels euphoric. I sink my feet as deep into the sand as they’ll go. I think about so many choices I make in my life based on practical risk aversion and efficiency of time. Or by measuring what others are doing or not doing. I weigh, in my mind, whether something “will be worth the work.” Happily, we both play around in the surf a bit and then take a nice, long time to de-sand before we put our shoes back on and go on Our Way.
The afternoon grows hot as sand turns to cement and we get closer to Esposende. We stop at a little church thirty minutes or so after we leave the sea. There is a lovely series of gardens in the back. And wouldn’t you know it, a big sign proclaims one of them to be The Garden of Eden. And there it is- an orange tree with ripe fruit hanging temptingly over a little pool. Whaaa! Who can resist the opportunity to pick forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden?? Certainly not me. Happy Hour. Shhhh…
OK. Pain comes at the end of the day. We’ve been blissfully free from thinking about time all day but when we hit the suburbs of Esposende and the cobbles turn to concrete, Math makes its move. Suddenly, our brains start fishing around for some certainty- when will the aching, chaffing, and boredom come to an end? It’s weird how time can be stretched out like taffy along The Way when things get hard. Emily counts steps under her breath in eights and I check my watch incessantly for mileage updates. I can feel all my “Achilles heels”. My right hip, the ball of my left foot, a little hotspot on my left heel as well as a grumpy spot in my brain all get to bitching.
But what an entrance! Esposende is on the banks of an estuary. It has a breezy, sporty energy that helps keep us going as we pass rowers and bikers and birds, all celebrating the sea air. Like sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure can, indeed sit side by side. Later, over dinner, we nurse our aches and pains. We share whiskey and stories with our Danish and Scottish comrades in a hotel that I can best describe as being right out of The Great Gatsby. Did I say there was a Slog?