Monday, June 4, 2018

Hiker Asking For Advice On Facebook Doesn’t Actually Want Advice

Mike objected to "people on their couches" suggesting
that his homemade bleach water treatment helmet
was the "dumbest and possibly most dangerous"
thing they'd ever seen.

When inexperienced hiker Mike Smith recently went online and asked for advice regarding his hiking plan, he thought it was pretty clear that he didn’t actually want advice.

“Totally not what I expected or wanted.  I went on this Facebook group and outlined the plan I came up with without knowing what I was doing and asked what everyone thought,” said Mike, who goes by the trailname Samsonite.  “The last thing I wanted was experienced people being negative by politely suggesting that what I wanted to do might not be the best idea.  I mean, it's not like I'm going to change my plan.  Jerks.”

“All I did,” said 2-Time Thru-hiker Rachel "DUCK" Hecht, “was point out that carrying all of his gear in a hard-sided Valor 2-Piece Luggage Set seemed like a bad idea.  Even if they do have wheels.  I think I said something like, ‘what’s wrong with a backpack?’  And then he and a bunch of other people in the group attacked me for being negative, so I didn’t even get into all of the other stuff he was planning on doing.”

Samsonite, who got on the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain on January 1st, had no previous backpacking experience.  But he did read a lot of crowd sourced information from people he didn’t know who were possibly marginally less clueless than him.  Or not.  “I decided to use a 40-degree bag, go no-cook, and not bring rain gear.  I really needed to get my baseweight down so I could be the first person to carry a cello on a Thru-Hike,” said Samsonite, “and then some jerk told me I’d be the second person to think he was going to carry a cello on a Thru-hike, and also the second person to quit while carrying a cello on a Thru-hike.”

“Yeah, that was me,” said Triple Crowner Katie "Wing-It" Howe.  “I mean, I didn’t really go into the possibility of him freezing to death in his 40-degree bag in January.  But I probably implied it when I said that once he regained feeling in his hands he could play Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 for the SAR guys after they pulled him off Blood Mountain.  And then a whole bunch of people said I was being mean-spirited.  And complimented me on my musical taste.”

“I just don’t understand why experienced hikers can’t just say ‘you got this.’  THAT’S what I’m on Facebook for.  Why can’t they be like all of the people who were super-supportive of my decision to keep hiking with severe tendonitis?” asked Samsonite, who ended up quitting the trail due to severe tendonitis.  

“It was all, you should rest it, you should take a couple of days off, blah, blah, blah, blah blah.  Fortunately I found a Facebook group for hikers called, ‘You Got This! (For Hikers Asking For Advice Who Don't Really Want Advice)’.  No negativity.  Zero criticism.  And very little common sense.  Just a bunch of people you don’t know typing ‘GO FOR IT!’ even if it’ll lead to you seriously injuring yourself and getting off trail.  Because they understand that I’m there for the positivity, and they also understand that bad advice has no consequences for them.”

Some people prefer to get backpacking advice exclusively from cheerleaders.

What’s next for Mike?  He says he feels he’s “conquered the AT” after his ten days on trail, and now he’s ready to move on to the CDT.  “I’m going to carry two live chickens for eggs and a folding bicycle so I don’t have to hitch,” says Samsonite, who has apparently not learned anything.  “I’m gonna go SOBO this time, starting in April.  And nobody suggesting the trail is gonna be under twelve feet of snow is gonna stop me.  Haters.”

As usual with these things, the quotes are fake but the names are real.  Thanks to the people who let me use their names, and thanks to all of the folks who inspired this post.  Sort of.

Monday, April 2, 2018

"Any Complaints?" (Appalachian Trail Edition)

This probably won't be the most enjoyable short film for the "your worst day on trail is better than your best day at work" crowd, but I think it's important, particularly for folks new to long distance hiking, to realize that you don't HAVE to be happy all the time. It's an unrealistic expectation that sets you up for failure.

You'll occasionally be miserable, and that's fine. And then a year (or two or three) later you'll forget all of the crappy parts and tell yourself it was all amazing, and that's when you'll plan another hike.

If you enjoyed this short, you can watch the Pacific Crest Trail version, HERE.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Hikers Note Dramatic Increase Of Crusty Old Dudes Who Want To Tell Everyone Trail Used To Be Better

"If you're not carrying enough weight
to cause long-term damage, are
you really even hiking?"
Current-year Appalachian Trail hikers have reported a stunning increase in the number of old dudes who want everyone within earshot to know that the trail “used to be so much better than today.”  Whether it’s reminiscing fondly about objectively awful aspects of hiking twenty years ago, or waxing nostalgic for a time that didn’t really exist, large numbers of old dudes are on trail complaining that the trail experience now is easier/more crowded/less meaningful/full of people younger than them.

“Yeah, I mean, I guess they’ve always been out here,” says Chris “AT Bozo” Kounkel, “but I used to maybe bump into one once a week.  Now every day there’s someone in a shelter pointing out that if you wanted tuna back then you had to carry cans of it, and how he once set a picnic table on fire when his over-pressurized Whisperlite International exploded.”

“Fishn’GaMe” from Connecticut, a current year hiker, agrees. “Yep.  Old dudes are out there in droves, all complaining about how crowded the trail is.  The weird thing to me is how none of them seem to make the connection between the 80-pound packs they brag about carrying in the ‘90s, and the stress fractures in both feet they complain about having in the ‘90s.”

"Even the damn privies are overcrowded."
One of the contentious issues for old dudes is cell phones and connectivity. “I can appreciate the idea of disconnecting and immersing yourself in nature,” says David “Sarcasm The Elf” Vitti, “but one old dude described having to wait in line back in the day at the pay phone in Damascus to make a two minute call home, with people behind him in line grumbling for him to hurry it up.  To me that sounds like fantasy camp for people who like prison, but whatever.  Later that night he made a 45 minute call to his grandkids with his flip phone on speaker.”

"Even the damn weather is worse than it used to be."

“And feeds, man, don’t get them started on feeds,” says “Breeze” from Florida.  “I rolled up on one with a hiker named ODB and had to listen to him harangue everyone for ten minutes about how much better it was when nobody did nice things for anyone.  There was something about self-sufficiency in there at the end, but it was hard to understand with all of the hot dogs he had crammed in his face.”

"And these damn kids won't get off of my lawn."
Regardless of what old dudes are comparing, one thing is clear: the trail used to be much, much better.  “Yeah, I’ve been told the trail was awesome at some vaguely defined period in the past, and now it apparently kind of sucks,” says newcomer “Walkingstick” of Crossville, TN.  “Which is sort of irrelevant to me, because I have no basis for comparison.  But when every story about the abundance of shuttles ruining the necessity of hitching includes the phrase, ‘I didn’t realize how drunk he was until I was in the car,‘ well, it makes me kind of happy I’m hiking now.”

Note: this is, of course, satire, and I have taken liberty with the facts.  In reality, all of the old dudes who want to tell everyone that the trail used to be much better are online rather than on trail.  

Sunday, February 25, 2018

My Favorite Trail Warning Signs

I love signs.  I have no idea why.  I know that there are many hikers who don’t like signs littering up the landscape, and there’s certainly such a thing as too many signs.  On the other hand, when you’ve been lost for an entire day and you finally come across a sign that points you in the right direction, you literally hug that sign.  And ask it what it’s doing for dinner later.

Of all the signs I love, though, the signs I love most are warning signs.  Sure, directional signs are nice.  They tell you where you are and where you’re going.  But warning signs tell you about the things that will kill you while you’re on your way there, which is pretty exciting.  Some of them are helpful, some of them are terrifying, some of them are hilarious.  And some of them are all three.

Below are my favorite warning signs I’ve come across while hiking, with explanatory notes.  At this point it feels like the way to end this intro thematically would be to do it by issuing a comical warning, but “WARNING: POSSIBLE HILARITY AHEAD” is dorkier than I’d like, and “WARNING: LIABILITY-RELATED HUMOR AHEAD” seems like it would make everyone except insurance adjusters stop reading.  So I’m going to just launch right into it with:

 Lassen Volcanic National Park

Some of these signs are favorites not just due to the signs themselves, but the circumstances under which I saw them.  As you might be able to tell from the photo, I night hiked through Lassen.  I saw this sign as I was leaving the Park, and here’s the thing: I didn’t recall being on any boardwalks the entire time I was in the Park.  Which is terrifying.  Was I supposed to be on boardwalks?  Had I been off-trail, unknowingly wandering around a volcanic death trap?  Maybe the PCT part of the park didn’t involve any boardwalks?  Who knows?  Ideally, warning signs happen before the danger, and I probably missed the one on the other end in the dark.  But there’s something very odd about the unnecessary fear that hits you after you unwittingly survive something.  Like when you find out the next day that just after you left the bar, karaoke started.

Homicidal Trees (All Over The Place)
When I was hiking through Colorado, one of my partners had what seemed like an unreasonable fear of trees.  And then we started seeing warning signs about trees, and he used them to justify his paranoia.  But while I think it’s a good idea to be aware that pretty much everything in nature generally is trying to kill me, the warning signs I often see in this regard have to do with specific trees.  I mean, how many times does it have to kill to be called a “Tree of Death”?  When I see a specific tree marked as a Killer Tree, I move past it quickly as if it was going to grab me (I really do), but even when I do get past that tree, I AM STILL SURROUNDED BY TREES.  Which, honestly, is the truly terrifying thing if you let it be terrifying -- people really do get killed by trees, but unlike the statistical unlikelihood of even seeing mountain lions or grizzlies or wolves, I am surrounded by trees ALL THE TIME.  And I also feel like they have good reasons to hate us.

PCT, Day 1
 If you don’t speak Spanish, this sign roughly translates as “don’t expose your life to the elements -- it’s not worth it.”  Admittedly this sign is really directed at people coming across the border, but it’s still pretty depressing to have a sign tell you, on day one, that the thing you’re planning on doing for the next five months isn’t worth it.

But this sign does get across the valuable message that EVERYTHING IN THE DESERT IS TRYING TO KILL YOU.  EVERYTHING.  And against all expectations, you might even drown.  How weird would that be?  But I think if we’re honest what we really need to worry about is the guy who shot the crap out of that sign.

The Grand Canyon

Have I mentioned that EVERYTHING IN THE DESERT IS TRYING TO KILL YOU?  I love everything about this sign.  How sunburned the guy got despite having a shirt.  The realistic splashy vomiting.  The cargo pockets on his jean shorts.  This guy looks absolutely miserable, and the joke here is that he hasn’t even started down yet.  The only way I could like this better is if there were a couple of Clif Bars sticking out of his pack and the sign was sponsored by Lara Bars.

Tuckerman Ravine

A sign so big it takes three photos to capture it all.
While there’s definitely something to be said for realistic splashy vomiting, I love it when  someone manages to make a stick figure look terrified.  The bottom panel of the ice fall warning sign near Pinkham Notch Visitors Center is fantastic.  Stick figures running for their little stick figure lives, about to be crushed by giant ice boulders.  I walked past this sign in August and it gave me the heebie jeebies.  Then it made me laugh.  Then it gave me the heebie jeebies again.

Jefferson Rock

 A stick figure warning sign done wrong.  I like this sign because I enjoy seeing signs with  very specific weirdly-shaped objects on them, because it’s super obvious that it’s a custom job and that a photo eventually had to be sent.  “Yeah.  Jefferson Rock.  Well, it's like a rock, but it’s not on the ground.  It’s resting on these four pillar things.  If you have clip art of a dog silhouette you could just use that and cut the head and tail off.  You know what?  That sounds awful.  I better send a photo.”

The problem with this sign is that it’s not scary.  That stick figure honestly looks like he’s having fun.  The only way you could make that look more fun to me is if you added sound effects.

Explosives (Way More Places Than I'm Confortable With)

Usually found either where they use howitzers for avalanche control or where the 10th Mountain Division used to train.  The idea that there may be unexploded military shells lying around is frightening, but the reason I like this sign is that it begs the question: is anyone who is dumb enough to want to touch unexploded shells smart enough to pay attention to warning signs?

In any case, I feel like the directions on this sign should read,

“If you find an unexploded shell or explosive:
1. Get the hell out of there.”

Mount San Jacinto State Park

This isn’t really a warning sign, but it filled me with a vague sense of existential dread that increased to a mild panic, and I spent the next couple of miles with my brain spinning trying to figure out what I was responsible for knowing.
“I don’t know what it is.  Is it math?  Is there math involved?  I’m terrible at math.  Maybe it’s not math.  Do I have to know how to navigate?  Start a fire without a lighter?  Fight mountain lions?  Treat hypothermia?  Is it avalanche safety?  Holy crap, it’s avalanche safety, isn’t it?  MY GOD SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT I’M RESPONSIBLE FOR KNOWING.”

The point here is probably that it’s pretty easy to make me freak out.

Plague Warning, Idyllwild, California
 As with the explosives sign: who the hell is touching dead animals?  Why would you have to tell people not to do that?  But let’s put that to the side for a minute while we mull over the fact that The Plague is still a thing.  Not like when you’re feeling cruddy from being sick and tell everyone, “ugh, I have the plague.”  The actual Plague.  That killed 60% of Europe.  I guess I always thought the Plague just died out somehow, but it turns out that the Plague is a lot like the band Sugar Ray -- you think it’s something horrible from the past that disappeared forever, but really it’s quietly humming “Someday” to itself and plotting a comeback.

Yellowstone Warning Signs

Let’s start by acknowledging that holy crap Yellowstone is dangerous.  There are so many things that can kill you in Yellowstone that it’s pretty amazing they just let people walk around unchaperoned.  In the backcountry, there really aren’t a lot of warning signs or boardwalks or roped off areas.  You’re free to be as stupid as you want to be.  The front country, on the other hand?  Warning signs everywhere about all sorts of things, although to be honest the one they really need is about how that bag of M&Ms costs four bucks.

But the signs they do have are terrific.  Look at that guy being tossed around by a buffalo!  It hit him so hard you can’t even figure out where the selfie stick went.  That dude is going to land three signs over on the one about not stringing a clothesline (Because of elk potentially rampaging through the campground)(Seriously).  And this sign is in a bathroom, where you think you’d be safe from that sort of thing.  But if you’re thinking that, WHAT PART OF “UNPREDICTABLE” DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?

And it’s not just the animals.  If you don’t stay on the boardwalk in the Upper Geyser Basin, the ground will apparently swallow you up and burn you alive, traumatizing your sister as your blissfully unaware dad continues strolling down the boardwalk lost in admiration for his Ted Baker London Bengal Leather Satchel.  And while most of the time it's fun to traumatize your sister, in this case IT IS DEFINITELY NOT WORTH IT, BARRY.

With thanks to Heather Anderson and Daniel Wilkerson!

As noted above, I love signs.  You can look at sign slideshows I put together from the PCT HERE and HERE.  I also have slideshows of signs from the CDT and the Appalachian Trail.  Or you can just check out everything on the YouTube Channel via the link below.  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Gifts For Night Hikers To Mars

Shopping does too.
Sooner or later every backpacking blog has a post about the best Christmas gifts for hikers.  But if you’re like me (and honestly I feel terrible for you if you are), you just realized that Christmas is in a few days.  That seems impossible, doesn’t it?  I mean, geez.  Today is the first day of winter.  How can Christmas be that close to the beginning of winter?!?  And what are you going to get for the hiker in your life?

No worries!  Just because you just discovered that it’s almost Christmas, it doesn’t mean your hiking loved one has to go without.  Because there are perfectly good hiker Christmas presents just lying around your house waiting to be given to the sort of person who claims they’re “really way more into experiences than things.”  In this article, I’m going to highlight some of the things that are perfect for people who don’t want more things.  Bonus: you get to get rid of some things.

The Classic Hiker Wallet
You know, there’s some really sweet and expensive silnylon wallet action going on in the woods.  But 9 out of 10 long distance hikers agree that nothing beats a Ziploc wallet, and frankly, they’re all making fun of the 10th guy’s sweet silnylon wallet behind his back.  Because what’s not to like about a Ziploc wallet?  It’s light.  It’s waterproof.  It doesn’t have a zipper that can break.  AND it’s transparent, so you can see how much money you saved by not buying an actual wallet.  For the hiker in your life, it’s the perfect gift for storing their license, debit card, cash, Do Not Resuscitate Order, and the credit card they’re going to max out when it turns out that random guy on the internet was wrong about being able to hike the entire trail on $1200.

Note: Does not come with any of the contents shown.

Ultra Lightweight Multi-tool
Maybe “multi” is the wrong word here, but this tool is definitely dual purpose.  At least.  One end of it makes fire, which can be used as a heat source AND a light source. If you’re one of the 0.0000007% of people who actually ends up using a paracord survival bracelet instead of just wearing it, it’s good both for sealing the ends of paracord and accidentally burning your fingertip while sealing the ends of paracord.  That second one is probably just me.

You can also use it to light a stove if you’re not one of those No Cook savages.

But even if you ARE one of those No Cook savages, the other end of it can be used to open beer bottles.  Unless you’re one of those No Beer savages.  If that’s the case, I’ve got nothing.  At least you can enjoy the fact that it says “The Hooters” on it.

Ultra Lightweight Signaling Mirror
There’s really no more thrilling way to quit a hike than via a Search And Rescue helicopter ride.  Whether you’ve gone hypothermic, fallen down a ravine and broken a leg, or accidentally hit the panic button on a SPOT device while putting it in your pack, a helicopter ride can be either lifesaving or incredibly embarrassing or both.

But it can’t happen if they can’t find you.  This signaling mirror is compact, lightweight, has a hole in the center for easily directing reflected sunlight at a helicopter pilot, and features 13 hot, hot, hot Shakira songs, on the off chance there’s a CD player in the helicopter.
It’s the most danceable Ultra Lightweight Signaling Mirror on the market, assuming you haven’t fallen down a ravine and broken your leg.

Ultra Lightweight Pot Scraper
“How do you clean out your pot?” is a commonly asked question online.  Some people say, “I use this sponge that I’ve used for months and is full of lord knows what.  And to deal with the bacterial diseases in the sponge, I use my immune system.  Hopefully.”  Other people say, “I just throw some sand or leaves or a squirrel in there and swirl it around,” which works unless, like me, you burn the shit out of your food on a regular basis.  Still others say, “people clean out their pots?” and then go on to explain that since they boil water in their pot every night, they don’t need to clean it.
Which is probably true, but definitely disgusting.

The Ultra Lightweight Pot Scraper is the perfect tool for cleaning your pot.  Use the long edge for the sides of your pot and the short edge for scraping burned food off the bottom.  The pot scraper won’t end up being a festering colony of bacteria like a sponge will, and unlike people who use a squirrel, you aren’t potentially exposing yourself to Rabies or the Plague.  And if you’re on an AT Thru-hike and you go into DC from Harpers Ferry, there’s something like seven or eight bucks loaded on this pot scraper you can use to ride The Metro.

Sam Adams Winter Lager Cardboard Box Full Of A Completely Disorganized Collection Of Maps
While everyone probably already has one of these, that’s no reason not to mail it to someone.  Because who doesn’t love maps?  They’re terrific for navigating.  They bring back wonderful memories of previous hikes.  They make great gift wrap -- in fact, you could make an origami box out of one and put all of the other gifts on this list into it.
Hmmm.  What else?  Wallpaper?  Why not?  Because you don’t own any walls?  Fair enough.  But you could decoupage the entire interior of that van you’re living in.  Really, though, the best place for the box of maps is the floor of your gear closet.  And every time you’re getting ready for a trip you can pull it out, look at it, shove it back in the gear closet and think, “when I get back from this trip I’m going to get these maps in some sort of order.”
And even though that won’t ever be true, isn't it nice to think that some future version of you will be an organized version of you?
I bet that version of you won’t wait until December 21st to start thinking about Christmas gifts either.

Merry Christmas to all from the Night Hiking To Mars Blog!

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Camino For American Long Distance Hikers, Part 4: La Mezcolanza

Previous articles in the Night Hiking To Mars Camino Series have covered general information, the
things Peregrinos carry (and don’t carry), and what one might experience in Camino towns.  So they’ve been focused on specific subjects.  In this final article, NHTM will cover a whole range of topics and bits of advice, so I anticipate it being a somewhat of a mess.  But I think we should concentrate not on how much of a train wreck this article will probably be, but rather celebrate that it was written at all.

Because it seems to me that previous “Series” on the Night Hiking To Mars blog have either been inarguably mythical (“Ask A Thru-Hiker”), abandoned in mid-series when the author was distracted by Bear Selfies and Apple Cake (“Wild” Debates About PCT Overcrowding), or the sort of thing you think would happen annually, but doesn’t (Night Hiking To Mars Best Of 2015).

Even this intro is all over the place, isn’t it?  But there’s still a ton of hopefully interesting Camino-related stuff to talk about, so I’ll skip trying to come up with a transition that makes sense and just get right to it.

Flora & Fauna
. . . are not two locals I met on the Camino.  Unfortunately.

The plants and animals you’ll see on the Camino are not very much like what you see on an American Long Distance Trail.  Every once in a while, when you’re in a more mountainous region surrounded by fog and heather and cats, you might say, “this feels like the Grayson Highlands, except for all of these cats.”  But for much of the time you’re walking through agricultural areas, and the lack of natural forests shouldn’t be all that surprising when you think of how many trees it takes to build entire Armadas of wooden ships for the English to sink.

But this isn’t to say that the flora and fauna aren’t interesting, or that it doesn’t change throughout the trip.  For example, below is my description, written in Burgos, of the trip up to that point.

“The Walk Thus Far:

Cows and sheep.


Cows and horses.

Horses and donkeys.

Olives and grapes.





Pine cones,

It’s like poetry, but without any of the qualities inherent in good poetry.  Honestly, though, I’ve never seen anything that’s quite like a sunrise over fields of sunflowers as far as the eye can see.  It’s beautiful.

As for animals, larger native Spanish animals like Cantabrian brown bears, Iberian wolves and Iberian lynxes exist.  But you’re unlikely to see any, not only because they’re all endangered, but also because they tend not to be welcome in vineyards.  Hell, you’re barely welcome in vineyards.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t animals, and if you’ve hiked the Continental Divide Trail the volume of cow poop you’ll encounter should be comfortingly familiar.

You will most likely encounter:

Seriously.  There are a lot of cats.  If you’re a cat person, you will love the Camino. 

Some Other Things (Besides Cats) That, If You Like Them, Will Probably Mean You’ll Like Walking In Spain

Speaking of statues, there’s also this:

But even if you love cats, crosses, bridges, statues, wine, bacon, and depictions of horses stomping the shit out of people, there are things that might make you not like the Camino.

All in all, though, you take the good with the bad.  If I said hiking the Appalachian Trail was horrible because of all of the chafing, I’d be both correct and in a considerable amount of pain.  But if I said that meant the AT wasn’t worth doing, I’d be wrong.  And in a considerable amount of pain.  Basically I’m saying I hate chafing.  Also: my Mom hates blisters.

But blisters apparently love her.

I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but if there was ever a situation where a cutesy “Solvitur Ambulando: It Is Solved By Walking” Meme was inappropriate, this was it.  I suspect the blistering was mainly a function of heat and roadwalks, and was eventually solved with wine, epsom salts, and some timely shoe re-lacing advice from my friend Felicity.  But mainly wine.

Three Bottles Deep Into Foot Therapy

I guess the point here is that yes, the Camino is “easy” in some ways compared to American Long Distance Trails.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.  There’s a reason this used to be done as a form of Penance.

I Promise I'm Almost Finished.  Just a Couple More Things.

The People In Front Of You

The people walking in front of you at 7am chatting away to one another are most likely NOT paying attention to the Flechas, and if you follow them you are just as likely to end up in Salamanca as Santiago.  So don't trust people walking side by side.  On the other hand, even in big cities all of the locals know where the Camino is, know what you’re doing, and will happily correct your missteps, unlike in America where we would probably enjoy watching you wander around aimlessly before intentionally pointing you in the wrong direction.

Not paying attention.

Eat Everything
I’ve previously mentioned eating octopus, but I highly recommend eating every regional dish you can wrap your mouth around.  Whether it’s Garlic Soup, La Morcilla de Burgos, Caldo gallego, or Percebes (barnacles), go ahead and give everything a try.  I think enjoying all of the foods as you literally walk across a country is an amazing way to experience the cultures of different regions, and there’s nothing like paying what seems like way too much money for something that someone recently scraped off a boat.

Pausing on the Caldo Gallego to eat what
is either a barnacle or a baby Velociraptor toe.

The Botafumeiro
No article or series of articles about the Camino is complete without mentioning the Botafumeiro, the gigantic censer in the Santiago de Compostela cathedral.  I think it's some sort of contractual obligation.  So here we go.

For non-Catholics: a censer (or thurible) is a container in which incense is burned, suspended by a rope or chain, and typically swung to blow smoke in your face during some masses by a priest intent on punishing you for showing up to Mass with a hangover.

When you complete your walk at the Cathedral in Santiago, you may decide to go to Mass -- there’s a Pilgrim’s Mass every day at Noon.  But if you time things right and arrive on a Friday, you can go to the 7:30pm mass and see them swing the Botafumeiro, a massive 5-foot tall censer that weighs over a hundred pounds.  It takes eight guys (called tiraboleiros) to swing it from a pulley system attached to the ceiling.  It arcs through the air in the Cathedral right above the heads of Pilgrims at 40 miles per hour, and as you watch it you are either filled with a deep sense of spiritual purification, or alternately you are desperately hoping the rope doesn’t break and send a 100+ pound flaming hunk of precious metals into the congregation.

Objects above and behind my Mom are much
larger than they appear.

The current Botafumeiro dates to 1851, but this incense ritual was going on for hundreds of years before that.  So even if you’re not religious, in seeing the Botafumeiro swing you feel a a rich connection to the past, a past where the people arriving in Santiago smelled at least as bad as you do, and probably worse.  Looking back through time, I imagine the censer starting out normal and getting larger and larger and larger:

“Nope.  We can still smell ‘em.  Make a bigger one.”

Summing Up
The Camino de Santiago is not a wilderness trail.  In that sense it probably has more in common with, say, the Appalachian Trail than the Continental Divide Trail.

But on all of my long hikes the people I’ve met along the way and the sharing of experiences with them has always been one of the most valuable rewards I’ve walked away with.  And if that’s something you value about Long Distance Hiking, you will LOVE the Camino de Santiago almost all of the time, except when that French woman clocks a snoring woman below her with a fanny pack from an upper bunk while you’re trying to sleep, or when that guy who’s walked the Camino 14 times won’t get the hell out of your photo at the Cruz de Ferro.

Hopefully this series of articles has given you an idea of what life on the Camino de Santiago is like, and, expectations properly set, you’ll enjoy an incredibly fulfilling once-in-a-lifetime journey -- right up until, like my Mom, you decide you really, really want to walk the Camino again.

Until next time . . .

For those who have not read previous entries in the NHTM Camino For American Long Distance Hikers Series, you can start HERE!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Camino For American Long Distance Hikers, Part 3: ¡Cada día es un día en la ciudad!

Approaching town!  Again!
American Long Distance Hikers are probably familiar with the excitement of “Town Day.”  You’ve
probably been talking for at least the previous 24 hours about what you’re going to eat first, how long a shower you’re going to take, and how little walking you’re planning on doing once you get there (I once actually hitched to a place I could point at in Gorham, NH).  Sure, there are always chores to attend to, but town is also a place to enjoy things you’ve been missing, like flush toilets, chairs with backs, and large pizzas you have absolutely no intention of sharing with anyone.

On the Camino Frances, however, you won’t have very long to miss those things, because you’ll most likely start and end every day in town -- and many days you’ll hit a few along the way as well.

Leaving Pamplona at 6am.  Breakfast is at a cafe 11km away.

Our day usually started with packing up and getting out of town early, as we tried to get in our miles for the day before it got so hot that the whole Siesta thing started to make sense.  Some albergues offer breakfast, but we were rarely around for it.  Instead we were on the Camino by 6am, looking for yellow arrows in the dark, anticipating yet another beautiful sunrise, and listening for the first rooster of the day, whose crowing is the signal to all other roosters that it’s time to start annoying everyone and, despite what you might think, keep doing so for the rest of the day.  Also despite what you might think: somehow this is true whether you’re in the middle of nowhere or the middle of downtown Burgos.
Just in case I haven't made it clear: I'm not a big fan of roosters.
After a couple of hours of walking we’d stop in the first town of the day for breakfast. Towards the end of the Camino we discovered that orange juice in cafes in Spain is fresh squeezed to order and one of the best things in the world ever, but usually we’d just have some coffee and a pastry and move on.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner in town.
In this case breakfast involved the smallest muffin in the world.

Sometimes the fuente is
disguised as an elaborate
More walking, and then another town (and sometimes two) before ending up at our end point for the day, which, by now it should go without saying, was also a town.  And while each town definitely had its own character, there seemed to be a pattern to the towns we passed through during the day:

“There's the edge of town!

There's the fuente.

There's the pelota court.

There's the albergue that has a cafe and a store.

There's the bar.

There's the Church.

There's the plaza next to the Church with another fuente and the cafe.

There's another albergue.

There's the tienda.

There's the edge of town.

(Ten minutes later)

There's the cemetery.”

Eventually you’ll reach your destination for the day and the first thing you’ll notice is that everything is in Spanish, because it turns out that you are in Spain.  Unless you’re at the very beginning of the hike in France, or just a few days on trail (in which case there might be some Basque), or at the end (where you’ll also see Galician).  The one guarantee I can offer you about the language is that by the time you figure out what word to use for “bathroom,” you will have walked to where the word for that is completely different.  In any case, it’s good to know some Spanish before you get on the Camino.  You don’t have to be able to tell your life story -- my Mom knew enough to order red wine and decaffeinated coffee.  And I knew enough to make hotel reservations over the phone (but not quite enough to guarantee that the person on the other end of the phone agreed that’s what I was doing).  At the very least, learn enough to avoid accidentally ordering cheese-flavored ice cream.

I wasn't kidding about the cheese-flavored ice cream.  I think.

The second thing you’ll notice upon arriving is that it’s getting unbearably hot, which will either make you want to have an ice cold beer (me) or lapse into something like a coma (my Mom).  But first you need to get some chores out of the way.

The Municipal: big, cheap, and loud.
 First you need a place to stay, and the obvious and sometimes only choice is an Albergue, which is essentially a hostel.  But the larger the town the more options there are -- everything from an Albergue Municipal, which is cheap and large and jam packed with snorers, farters, and way more Canadians than you were expecting, to an actual hotel -- which is more expensive but does have one English-language TV channel that only ever seems to be running an Alaskan Bush People marathon.  The main downside to hotels, aside from the fact that the only English-language TV channel is running an Alaskan Bush People marathon, is that you don’t get to hang out much with other peregrinos.  We stayed in hotels about once a week, but mainly chose the middle path of smaller Private or Association Albergues.  Eventually we figured out that many have non-bunkhouse private rooms (with their own bathroom!), which I highly recommend if you are a fan of sleeping.
One of my favorite and least pronounceable Albergues.
Maralotx?  Really?

Once you’ve secured a bunk or room: unpacking whatever bedding you have, journal & guidebook, first aid kit, clothes bag.  Next: shower & change clothes.  Then: rinse out hiking clothes and hang to dry.  And finally (for now): relax, because it’s Siesta and if you try to accomplish anything else you’re just going to end up all hot and bothered.  And not in a good way.

This is what you do during Siesta.  If you're smart.

I know some Americans get frustrated with Siesta.  You want to get things done so you can relax.  But Spaniards seem to have a different approach: relax all of the time.  And relax even more during Siesta.  All I’m saying is that no one is on your schedule.  Stores will be open later than you’re used to.  Dinner will be much later than you’re used to.  And if you’re worried about not getting something done in town today you have missed the entire point of this article: you’re in town again tomorrow.  So relax.

Don't worry.  It'll be open later.

You will know Siesta is over because the guy who runs the outfitter will unlock his shop and go back to the bar next door, at which point you can complete the rest of your tasks.  There will be a tienda where you can get tomorrow’s snacks.  If you need to replenish your med kit there will be a pharmacy (marked by a green arrow).  There will be a pharmacy on the next block over too.  And a pharmacy on the block after that, assuming there is a block after that.  Spanish towns have more pharmacies than Gatlinburg has ice cream shops.  And if the town is too small for a pharmacy, fret not: there will be a pharmacy vending machine.


The Pharmacy Vending Machine, on the
other hand, is never closed.

And that’s pretty much it for shopping, although I should add that from personal experience I can tell you a Ferretería is a hardware store and not a place to buy ferrets.  Apparently.

No ferrets.  But feel free to ask.  That should be hilarious.

Back at the Albergue, your clothes are most likely dry and possibly scattered all over the place because someone took the clothespins you were using.  Clothesline space is highly valued real estate, and becomes more so later in the walk -- unlike American trails that are more crowded at the beginning, the Camino is more crowded towards the end.  People with less time to walk hop on at places like Sarria, because everyone wants to end their walk in Santiago (and from Sarria to Santiago is the shortest distance that qualifies a person to get the Compostela -- the certificate of completion).
This beautiful Albergue has room for thirty, a full restaurant
and bar, and one tiny drying rack in the lower left.

Once a week, when we hit a large city, I wouldn’t have to worry about rinsing and drying clothes because I’d go to a laundromat.  The best thing about laundromats in Spain?  The machine puts the detergent in ALL. BY. ITSELF.  The second best thing?  They’re all across the street from a bar AND open during Siesta.  That’s really two things.  But I couldn’t choose and anyway they’re kind of related.
Sometimes the laundry facilities in smaller towns are, um, subpar.
But every Albergue has, at the least, a place to rinse your clothes.

 Housing secured and tasks completed, there’s not much to do until dinner, which at the earliest happens at 7:30pm and often much later.  But it’s worth the wait.  Some Albergues have communal dinners, but even in restaurants the meals are cheap, the portions are enormous, the food is often local, and dinner usually includes a bottle of wine.  Town food every night is the reason why the Camino is the only walk I’ve done where I think I actually gained weight.

I know a lot of long distance hikers who don’t eat meat.  I do, so I didn’t really pay much attention to how good the dining options are for vegetarians.  All I’ll say is that it wouldn’t surprise me if the Spanish word for “vegetarian option” also translates as “slightly less ham.”

I'm not going to tell you what this is.  But if you're offered
it after dinner, drink it.

One thing I should add about restaurants and cafes is that you have to ask for your check.  Nobody is going to bring it to you unasked, because that’s considered rude.  The restaurant and cafe culture doesn’t revolve around tipping and turnover, so when you sit at a table you have basically rented it out all night or until you feel like leaving.  Some Americans have somehow been convinced that it’s bad service if your server isn’t essentially asking you to get out.  It’s not.  Good service is letting you sit at your table in the Plaza Mayor after dinner, maybe with a bit more wine, chatting with your friends, enjoying the night air,  and wondering what all of these toddlers are doing running around the Plaza at 10pm.  Where are their parents?  How the hell are they still awake? I mean, geez.  I can barely keep my eyes open over here.
We finished dinner about an hour ago.  If we never ask for the
check they might let us sleep here.

Anyway.  When you want your check you just raise your hand in your server’s general direction and say, “La Cuenta?”  And then he or she brings you your check, you pay it, go back to the Albergue, possibly fall asleep, and do it all again tomorrow.

Because every day is Town Day.

If you missed the rest of the series so far, what's wrong with you?  Part 1 is HERE and Part 2 is HERE.  Don't let it happen again.

On a practical note, I highly recommend
"A Pilgrim's Guide To The Camino De Santiago," which has all of the information you need for planning and walking the Camino, including info on different housing options, facilities and services in towns, and handy maps.  You can find more info on it HERE.

In the next (and final) part of the Camino Series, entitled "La Mezcolanza," NHTM will cover all of the things I forgot to include in the previous parts, including flora & fauna and other odds & ends.