Camino Primitivo After Action Report, Part 1

The compostela stamp
My Compostela stamp of completion from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago.

Back in May, I posted this preliminary itinerary where, to quote that noted fool Phil of the Past, this was the optimum “everything goes as planned” schedule. It did not go as planned. We finished, we did the Camino Primitivo, we got our Compostela, but the itinerary went out the window on Day 2. This is because Fr. Gabriel and I were (are) old, out of shape, and have had mostly desk jobs for 20 years…but we did it. There’s a lot that happened and I’ll never be able to cover it all here if I want to hit “publish” ever. Definitely not as some grand thesis. So, brace for Memory Chunks that revolve around a thought or two.

But if I want to point at one central thing of the experience is that, mostly, it gave me a feeling of peace and solitude that took me right back to standing outside at the Geographic South Pole, during the long night, staring up at the green river of the Aurora Australis. It was exhausting and there was often no room for thought beyond “I am here and I am going to fucking get there.” I have really missed that feeling and it was nice, for a few days, to have it back again. And because there is no off switch in my safety brain, there’s the side thought of “Is Fr. Gabriel still alive? Gotta make sure he makes it too.” This is a much kinder thought than “Am I gonna have to yell at more French and American tourists for being assholes and keep them from walking through a mass in progress?” which came up a lot while we were in Israel and Jordan.

The question I kept getting asked during the planning stages and all the way through while walking the Camino was “Why? And why with a priest?” The answer to the first question is rather unsatisfying to people: I have simply always wanted to take a long walk. The temptation to just open the front door and go [gestures wildly] thataway until you don’t want to anymore. I’d say that temptation started sometime in high school, but the whole Responsible Adult thing seriously gets in the way of such things if you aren’t independently wealthy and subject to the minimal vacation time of an American. Then COVID happened. I couldn’t really take a vacation for two years so hours piled up to the point that, yes, I could take a month off and go for a walk. As to the second part, that’s because, well, I happen to have a friend who is a priest. I am his personal atheist, which is actually nice for him as he doesn’t have to minister to me, he can just be. In fact, for a change, there’s someone being responsible for him. And, as a friend who is knowledgeable of such things, I am very happy to help Fr. Gabriel get all the Catholic honors, awards, prestige classes, and achievements that I can. That is, after all, why I went with him on the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher pilgrimage.

I got my long walk. He got Catholic bling and to see the land of a good chunk of his ancestors. Everyone wins!

Important vocabulary words:

Camino(s) de Santiago – one of the many trails with a terminus in Santiago de Compostela
Peregrino – a pilgrim walking one of the Caminos
Compostela – the certification of completion of a Camino from the office in Santiago. This is done by collecting stamps in your credential from the places you stay, various churches, and often cafes/bars. As a hiker, you must get one stamp per day until the last 100km, after which you need to get two per day.
Alburgues – dedicated pilgrim bunkhouses, sometimes with food, sometimes run by the local municipality. Hostels are a level nicer and privately run.

Travelling broadens the mind, teaches you about yourself and by going other places provides more context to your own home. Going to the north of Spain and Madrid taught me many lessons that made my knowledge of Rome, California, conquistadors, and above all Florida make more sense. Walking for that many weeks in a place gives you some time to think and put some puzzle pieces together.



We ran into a guy in his late 50s who was on Day 81 of walking of this session, in the process of his third walk of the Primitivo that year and he’d kinda lost count of how many total Caminos he’d done at this point. His trick was to get his 90 day tourist visa, walk for 87 days, make sure he was in a city with an airport by day 88 for a stay in a hotel, fly somewhere else on day 89, fart around for a bit and repair/replace gear, then come back to Spain (sometimes on foot) and start walking again. He was well into his second year of doing this. In addition to being someone that reminded me of the existence of The Family for the first time in years (as half of his family had been members of The Family), he started late in the day every day, passed us every day, smoked horrid rollups while walking and was waiting in the next town having his second beer and a smoke by the time we finally arrived. After having run into him a couple of times, we had an exchange that went a bit like this:

Him: So, is this your first Camino?
Me: Yep. We know we’re old and out of shape.
Him: With those packs?
Me: I know they’re way too big, but mine is the pack I’ve had for 20 years. And Fr. Gabriel is carrying his Portable Mass Kit in his pack.
Him: And you chose the Camino Primitivo?
Me: We wanted the original trail Alphonso II did. More importantly, we wanted the pretty one with less people.
Him: Well, I’m not sure any of the other Caminos are gonna have much to offer you after this. You chose the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camino.

He’s not wrong. The Primitivo is exactly what I wanted in terms of gorgeous natural beauty, small towns, great food, and few people. While the Camino Primitivo is a mere 320km compared to the much longer Del Norte or Frances, this comes with some much more serious topography and trickier trails wandering through the hills of Asturias and Galicia with much fewer amenities. This is part of the reason so few people walk it. When we arrived in Santiago, ~14000 people completing the Camino Frances had checked in that day on the tally board; that’s the same number that had completed the Primitivo the entire previous year. There was a pretty consistent cohort of 6-12 people walking any given segment of the trail, which we would see when they passed as we slowly plodded along. For the most part Fr. Gabriel and I were alone in the countryside for most of our time walking, but that wasn’t all the advice he had for us.

Him: It all changes when you hit Melide and the trail joins up with the Camino Frances.
Me: How so?
Him: A lot of people walk the last 100km into Santiago to celebrate graduations, hen parties, divorces, a long weekend, you know…whatever. Just because.
Me: How many we talking here?
Him: There are regularly groups of 30-100 walking like a rolling party with blasting bluetooth speakers, or with musical instruments and everyone singing.
Me: That…that’s a lot different than the peace and quiet of the last week and change. Surprised there isn’t someone pushing a grill or something for food.
Him: [contemplates] I haven’t seen that yet but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. There are totally people with ice chest packs full of beer and wine. It’s just like that when the Frances people show up.

Again, he wasn’t wrong. It was a lot like the return to Christchurch from Pole where I’d been used to seeing the same 58 people for the last nine months and now, suddenly, I was seeing more new faces than that every minute. Suddenly, there were cafes, trailside stands, and alburgues/hostels/campsites and above all people everywhere. As we also discovered, there was a musical festival happening in Santiago for a little extra hooting among the people on the trail. While I can’t speak for Fr. Gabriel, I certainly was missing my peace and solitude.


Big Cider Cask
The Celebratory Cider Cask in Oviedo with the Festival Start Countdown Clock

We started the Camino Primitivo in Oviedo after a flight from San Francisco to Madrid, a cab to Atocha station, and the high(ish) speed rail trip. A proper planes, trains and automobiles beginning before weeks of walking. Well, we did get a good night of sleep in Oviedo first before heading out on trail in the morning. Well, eventually, we did. First we had to go to the cathedral to see about getting a quick mass in for Fr. Gabriel and to see if we could get a replacement stamp passport for him somewhere in town (ANSWER: you can get them for 2€ right at the cathedral). It just wouldn’t be a trip without forgetting something important at home and for Fr. Gabriel it was his credential to collect all the stamps to show you were moving on down the trail, two per day. Because we had STRENGTH OF CHARACTER, we decided not to abandon this whole Camino thing and stay in Oviedo for the cider festival that was going to begin in a mere four days. Still not certain if we made the right choice or not because I would like to have the Asturias vs. West Country cider off. The Wurzels will be the soundtrack, obviously.

At the outset I made it very clear to Fr. Gabriel that, as a safety professional, Failure Was An Option. I did not have the highest of faith in our physical abilities relative to the challenge ahead of us. Fr. Gabriel, lapsed Marine that he is, was not going to accept that POV off the bat but would take it under advisement. I remain shocked to report that I made it through the entire hike without so much as a blister or sunburn. Fr. Gabriel was not so lucky. His misspent youth playing soccer, doing ROTC, and above all his Habsburg genetics betrayed him and past injuries came back with a vengeance. He spent most of his Camino focused on ignoring the pain and continuing to move. The body maintenance efforts at the start and end of each day got more involved as time went on.

But what did happen as the days went on is that we got stronger and more fit. The first day hiking from the city center of Oviedo to the nearby town of Escamplero 12km away, because we wanted a short first day to “warm up”, was absolute misery. We were getting winded and needed a break walking downhill. Admittedly, it was a steep downhill path that took some concentration to not trip and fall over but still it was downhill and kind compared to some of the descents that awaited us on later days. It was also a chance to become familiar with the trail markings in Asturias, and in the city of Oviedo in particular, being subtle. Keeping a keen eye for yellow arrows of varying sizes on utility poles, hydrants, trees, the backs of traffic signs, trash cans, etc. to supplement the pilgrim shells was its own game. By the time we got to Lugo on day twelve, where we took a day of rest in the old Roman walled city, we were powering up grades that would have required many rest breaks on the first few days. Oh how we laughed and our weakness from day one when thinking about going up and over the peak of Pola de Allande, down the slope of broken rocks that had the temerity to call itself a  “trail” to Berducedo, then up, down and up again for the dam of Granadas de Salime. We referred to those as “staircase days” where we did things like descend 1.3km over 5km. By the time we got to Santiago and dropped packs at 0.0km, the rather steep streets in parts of the old city were effortless, didn’t break a sweat, didn’t even breathe particularly hard.

We had accidentally achieved a fitness and also realized there was no way in hell to maintain this once we got home short of continuing to walk like we currently were. Doing laps from downtown Berkeley to the top of campus while carrying my survey bag doesn’t quite cut it, especially since I do eventually have to sit down and write up paperwork about things. The desk job reasserted itself. Within two months, it was all gone. I’m pretty sure that Fr. Gabriel didn’t abandon his duties to the St. Catherine’s Newman Center and become a wandering religious hermit in the Wasatch to maintain his fitness. Sigh. Stupid adult and organizational responsibilities.

Compared to the other Caminos, the Primitivo has comparatively little road walking. This is good because, damn, that gets boring and it hurts compared to nice soft trails. As I told the old hand, if I wanted to walk along the sides of roads, I could do that at home. Although, on reflection, roads were better than rocky scree slopes that unfit fit for goats much less hikers…which brings to mind the others we shared the trail with. The descent from Pola de Allande is the only place on the Camino Primitvo where bicyclists and people on horseback were diverted away to the road due to treachery. I learned to loathe the bicyclists on the often all too narrow and not meant to be shared with bikes trail. I’m choosing to blame them for all the ticks Fr. Gabriel got ducking off the trail into the weeds to get out of the way. I’m mainly annoyed by how many of there were in the middle of the Camino, waking up the entire room as they got their shit together. While we never saw a given group of bicyclists again, there were always more and, oddly, they were mostly Russian. Only saw one peregrino on horseback (horseygrino) and that was on day one. We spent a quite a few brain cells while drinking end of day muscle relaxant trying to figure out where a peregrino on horseback would even board their horses.

Unfortunately, the other thing the Camino Primitivo is a little short on is water, particularly in the latter half. At the beginning in Asturias, fuentes (translation: water fountains or taps) were plentiful with people seemingly happy to build extra water for peregrinos. In Galicia it got sparse and people had taken many fuentes out of service, so we learned to refill our water at every single opportunity. This was doubly important for Fr. Gabriel as the habit is a titch warm on the trail and very early on he bit through the nipple of his camelback, causing a slow leak. We did our best to seal it but he was still had a water demand a good 1L higher than me on any given day. The question of “Is this potable water or not?” is one guides are terrible at answering.

One of those questions that came up from the younger people on the Camino talking at the end of the day at alburgues and bars was “Why does the Camino’s trails go where they do?” Luckily, old people with brains full of trivia and understanding of the human condition were here to explain things, namely that it is very unlikely that ANY part of the trail we were walking was the original path of Alphonso II. Because a king goes where they like and they’re going to choose the easiest path, that easiest path is also likely one that has a gentle grade and isn’t broken ground, AKA the kind of place you put a road. Other than bridges built in places and ways that absolutely couldn’t have happened until the the 20th century, the original and even successor versions of Camino routes are now paved highways much like tradition says the M1 in England follows the old Roman via. I actually give some thanks for not being made to walk much on the side of highways with heavy traffic. Instead, we got diverted on to frontage roads, or off on to fire trails, or into pastures and then through small outlying neighborhoods before making our way into towns. There were definitely parts of the path where we were on the old horse or cart path made at some point in the last 1000 years and then abandoned with some remnant cobbles and also small bridges to cross creeks that were Roman in age.

Of course, the side effect of moving the path away from the easily graded roads is that you start to look at the horizon and realize exactly where you’re headed. Every damn time we saw wind turbines, it was a sure sign of “Fuck, I’m gonna have to climb up and over that ridge, aren’t I?” I also gained a whole new appreciation for Roman defensive city siting and civil engineering because fuck Roman “city on a hill” construction. They always built one or two nicely graded paths into down for the easy of trade and troop movements and giant Fuck Off hillsides or cliffs with walls in every other direction. It is a very rare soldier that sees defensive siting and construction like that and says “Hell yeah! I love scaling cliffs while carrying all my gear! LET’S FUCKING GO!!!” They are called pioneers, they have a particular set of skills and, above all, are rare. For those towns that have been in existence since the Iberian Conquest by Rome, the nicely graded paths are the ones that became main artery roads and highways; we never got the nice graded path into town, it was always up the steep approach from the side like at O Fonsagrada and Lugo for us. It’s a real treat to end a long day’s hike with a final brutal ascent into town. Grumble.

Now while I said hiking and scenery left a pleasantly vacant mind at the start, that isn’t entirely true. I had Thumpasaurus’ “Struttin'” in my head for a lot of the time. Sometimes after taking breaks, I made sure to give myself a good ass slap to get myself back in the game to get struttin’ on down the trail. Also, for the earlier stages when we were passing a lot of horses in their fields, “My Lovely Horse” and “Look At My Horse” got stuck in my head a lot. If you are unfamiliar with the superhit “Struttin'”, say no more:

We made it
Phil & Fr. Gabriel standing in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, June 15, 2023

And that’s it for Part 1. Considering this is almost Chernobyl posts in length, it’s good to make a break here.

Stay tuned for Camino After Action Report Part 2!!!