Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.

Henry David Thoreau–On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

My hiking shoes finally gave out on the snowy final trek into Burgos, my 12th day of walking. 

Issues with my shoes had been building from the very start. My first walking buddy, Raymond, had alerted me to a problem as we trudged into Pamplona on the third day. Walking behind me, he noticed that the outer heels of both shoes were wearing off, meaning that my feet were tipping outward with each step. I looked them over when we arrived in the city and noted that not only were they worn to the outside, parts of the sole were starting to peel off. These shoes, not that old by my reckoning, were comfortable and familiar trekking companions. We had done some great hikes together, from the Swiss Alps to the Scottish Isles, from the coast of Ireland, to the Appalachian Trail near my home, from coastal walks in Maine to coastal walks in California. Walking around Pamplona, I looked at shoes in some sporting goods stores and reluctantly began to think about replacing them. Passing through Santo Domingo a few days after that, I even stopped to try some on, but found nothing quite to my liking. I would look more when I arrived in Burgos, where I had planned a rest day.

Squishing through a lot of mud was my reality for the first two weeks of the Camino. A very wet, snowy and cold winter in northern Spain, combined with thousands of pilgrim’s feet, made for a messy, muddy churn along the dirt paths. The weather had turned cold and wet ever since leaving Grañon, with intermittent rain and fog. The climb over the Montes de Oca was the worst: nothing but mud, kilometer after kilometer. Nine hundred years ago, the area had been rife with bandits, terrifying medieval peregrinos until San Juan de Ortega2 had cut this new, safer road through the thick stands of oak and pine in the 13th century. There were no bandits about as I crossed over; the only thing concerning me was slipping in the endless mud.

I passed through the town of Ages and stopped overnight in Atapuerca, a small village about 20 kilometers from Burgos. Atapuerca is famous—the earliest human remains on earth have been found in caves nearby—but I was tired the afternoon I arrived and it was Sunday. Even if the museum had been open I would not have wanted to walk to it that day. All afternoon there were occasional breaks in the weather, patches of blue sky alternating with brief rain showers, but the weather forecast for the next day was for continued precipitation—and cold. It might snow.

I registered at the new and very clean albergue El Peregrino. I shared a room with some pilgrims that I met for the first time, including Fred, a seasoned Camino walker, aged 72, one of my Camino mentors. He was walking the Camino Frances for the fifth year in a row and he could walk far and fast. He had some principles, as I did, and one of them was that he never had a cup of coffee until he had walked at least five kilometers; another was that he always walked in shorts. He reasoned that bare legs dry more easily than a pair of pants. Even so, I wondered how he would fare the next day in the cold rain and snow.

Monday morning I began my pre-dawn walk into Burgos in a drizzly, dreary fog. The temperature hovered around freezing and the Way climbed upward into a broad ridge called the Matagrande Plain, part of the limestone Atapuerca Massif. The drizzle turned to rain and then to snow as I gained elevation; the dirt road wore down to rough rock, which with the precipitation, became slippery. The weather would hover between cold rain and snow for the next 36 hours.

Matagrande Plain

It took a great deal of concentration to keep on the track, which meandered between white, fenced pastureland and woods. Fred, who had left an hour before me, told me later that he had gotten lost that morning, taking a side trail that abruptly ended in the thick forest. My guidebook had told me that there was an overlook where I could appreciate “great views of the city of Burgos” just ahead, but with the fog/snow mix there was no view of anything that day, nor was it even on my mind. All I could do was concentrate on keeping my footing on the wet, rocky path (my poles came in handy again) and keeping my eye on the trail, my focus solely on getting down the other side of the ridge safely and finding a place to warm up. I was thankful that before too long the trail descended and hit a blacktop road, the snow turning back to rain. My pants and shoes were now soaked. 

I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but with that descent I had arrived on the far-eastern edge of the Meseta, the broad Spanish Plain that I would be crossing for the next ten or more days.

After two more kilometers, or 25 minutes of walking, I came upon my first stop in the village of Cardenuela Riopico. I stepped into the first café, already crowded with other pilgrims trying to warm up and dry out. Glancing around as I shed my pack and propped my poles in a corner, I saw lots of familiar faces.

Eyeing an empty spot at a table, I peeled off my raincoat, which was drenched on the outside from rain and on the inside from sweat. Next came my damp fleece. I squeezed my way alongside a long table, draping my layers over a vacant plastic chair. My spot secured, I headed back to the queue at the bar, ordered a café con leche, some orange juice, a slice of Spanish tortilla and a sugary pastry. I grabbed a banana off the counter and added it to my bill.

After paying, I turned back to the table and I realized that I was not going to dry off much, nor warm up much. With the door constantly swinging open from the stream of pilgrims entering and exiting, the floors and tables puddled from the wet and dripping crowd, it became apparent that the best I could hope for was a simple rest and some food. Warming up and drying out was going to have to wait for Burgos, still another nine kilometers away. Looking down at my shoes, I did not like what I saw: they were soaked, as were my feet. I had been pretty sure before I had left for the Camino that my shoes were not waterproof and now I was convinced of it. Fumbling through my pack, I found a pair of dry socks and gloves and pulled them on. I finished my food and even though my fleece and raincoat were still damp, I put them on as well, swung my pack onto my back, grabbed my poles and headed out into the gray damp air. 

For the next three hours, I walked completely on auto-pilot: one foot in front of the other, not thinking of much more than my next landmark. I reached the airport on the outskirts of the city after an hour of walking, and by then the rain had turned into snow: quarter-sized, wet flakes coming down so thick they limited visibility beyond a few hundred meters. I had to admit that I was not enjoying myself. At this point, my pilgrimage was simple endurance; it was the first time on the Camino that I felt this way.

The airport in Burgos is where the Way forks; a slightly shorter option goes through industrial areas, while a scenic route runs along the river. I met up with other familiar pilgrims, Iago from Brazil and Donald from Dublin and together we chose the “scenic route” though with the heavy snow we really couldn’t see anything. After another half hour we found ourselves in the suburbs and stopped for a hot café con leche. Briefly warming, but wanting to push on to our destination, we headed out through more mud, the River Arlanzon now on our right. By this point I was soaked inside (from the sweat) and out. The hood of my raincoat drooped over my eyes, keeping me from seeing anything more than the path directly ahead. Yet another chilled and wet 45 minutes squished by and we finally found pavement and the bridge into the center of the city, where my hotel awaited.

The night before, seeing snow forecast for the coming days, several of us around the dinner table decided to book hotel rooms in Burgos. Already planning a rest day, I jumped at it; and when I arrived shortly after noon at the Hotel Norte y Londres, I was even more glad. A friendly desk clerk, seeing my cold and wet condition, booked me early into a room on the second floor. I climbed the stairs and headed down the hallway to my room, my frozen hands fumbling to turn the key in the lock. I entered and within seconds dropped my pack and poles, peeled off my wet raincoat and fleece, removed my other layers and sank into a steaming bath. I felt instant relief, drawing the heat into my frozen bones, and dozed off in the tub for an hour. Finally warmed, I emerged from the bath and put on dry clothes, washed out my muddy pants and draped the rest of my wet things over the radiator. I wrapped myself up in blankets and dropped onto the bed for a long nap.

When I awakened in mid-afternoon, I took stock of my gear. My old shoes would dry out, but they were pretty well shot. I decided that my mission for the rest of the afternoon was to buy a new pair of shoes, preferably waterproof. A pilgrim told me earlier that day about an enormous sporting goods store, Decathlon, a few kilometers from the center of town. I headed downstairs where the same helpful desk clerk showed me where to catch a free bus that could take me there. On the street I came across my friends from California, Paul and Lauri and another friend, Patrick, from England, and the four of us headed out there together.3 I tried on several pairs of hiking shoes, finally settling on a pair of waterproof Columbias. I also picked up a pair of rain pants, just in case.4 

Returning to the center of town, the four of us met another friend, William, from Scotland and we headed out for supper and a farewell, since Patrick was heading home and William, Paul and Lauri were continuing the next morning. I would stay in touch with those three for the rest of our journey, though I never caught up to them.

I felt out of place sleeping alone in my hotel room that night, but I needed a restful night to be able to sleep as long as I wanted to. When I awoke, it felt uncharacteristic not to head out for another day walking, even though I appreciated the rest. I spent several hours in a warm, dry café, sipping espresso, eating pastries and fruit, writing postcards, letters and emails and updating my journal. I found the post office as I was walking the city, mailed the postcards and my letter to Jane (nearly two weeks in the writing) and bought more postage stamps. I toured the gorgeous and enormous cathedral, but was slightly overwhelmed by the number of golden chapels. 

The snow continued until the afternoon, though strangely, it never stuck. I took more naps. I tested my new shoes and they felt good; best of all they were dry. In the evening I joined a group of pilgrims in a restaurant for some tapas. Itching to get going and a bit apprehensive of the long walk the next day, I went to bed early.

I knew that breaking in the new shoes would be tricky; I would alternate new and old shoes over the next three days, finally parting with my old amigos at the parochial albergue in Carrion de Los Condes. They had served me well, but when it came time to leave them, they looked forlorn on the shoe rack; I felt awkward abandoning them there, but I left them with a prayer that someone else might find them useful.

This is taken from chapter 8 of my book, The Walk of a Lifetime. A signed copy is available for direct purchase here.