Today’s Miles: 16.1
Total Miles: 6,113.1
Near Lepe, Spain – May 20, 2017
The diesel engine rumbles to life as air hisses out of the pneumatic breaks and the bus’ big frame settles down over the wheels. The driver checks his mirrors and eases the bus back from its parking spot. Sunlight glints off the windows. I catch Daya’s silhouette in the glass. She’s a third of the way back, sitting by the window. She raises her hand one last time to wave goodbye.
The bus turns a corner and I run through the station to catch a last glimpse as it merges onto the highway. A moment later, it disappears around a bend. I stand still in the heat of the afternoon. I am alone again for the first time in fifteen hundred miles.
“Farewell, Sancho,” I say to the empty air around me.
I stole her nickname from Don Quixote’s loyal squire. They had their windmills to battle. We had the length of Spain and Portugal. Both are problems conjured from imagination. Both are things the rest of the world doesn’t understand. But we believed in them and that was enough for us. Daya was as great a companion as Sancho Panza ever was to Don Quixote.
I stare at the road where the bus disappeared, half expecting to see her running back with her rainbow hat and her blue backpack bouncing.
“I’ve got three days still before my visa expires,” she’d yell as she closed the distance. “We can make it to Seville!”
That’s how it was with us. First it was a walk to Santiago. Then Finisterre. Well what about Porto? Fatima seems interesting. Lisbon isn’t too far. The Rota Vicentina would be nice and the Algarve coast too. Well, we are so close to the end of Portugal that we might as well walk the last little bit together.
I stand in the heat. The road remains empty. She isn’t coming back.
We had a thousand inside jokes by the end. Did you know she couldn’t open doors? That’s how we first met, I was sitting outside the albergue in St. Jean and she was knocking on the door trying to get in, thinking it was locked.
“Just lift the latch,” I said. “It’s open.”
Somewhere in that first week we became friends. Somewhere in that first month we decided Santiago shouldn’t be goodbye.
“Maybe I can walk with you to Portugal,” she asked as Finisterre loomed on the horizon. “If you want company.”
We hugged Christina goodbye on a narrow street in Santiago. We watched Jorgelina and Amelie get on the bus in Finisterre. Then we walked south together. Five became four. Four became two. Now two becomes one.
I walk down the road toward the edge of town. I catch myself looking back to make sure she hasn’t missed a turn somewhere behind me. All she has for a map is the scrap of paper she copied from Amelie with a few lines and cities marked on it to show where the Camino goes in Portugal. It looks more like a constellation than a map. It’s almost useless, but every once in a while she’d ask me when we were reaching a particular city.
“It’s on my map,” she’d say and wave her little piece of paper around.
She’s not behind me. She didn’t miss a turn. She just isn’t there. I am alone, but habits are hard to break.
I reach a grocery store. It’s a Mercadona, our favorite Spanish chain because it has a particular ice cream flavor we love. I want to feel excited, but it feels empty without her, like a smile with no joy behind it, one that’s all muscle and pulled skin. It was our ice cream, not mine.
I think of the castles we climbed that no one else bothered with. I think of trudging uphill on the Dragonte Route to wander a path all our own for a day. We climbed mountains filled with ghosts and walked highways filled with cars. We slept in ruins, on rocks, and under trees. We went upstream as everyone else went down, ate ice cream by the bucket, and always found water when we were thirsty enough. We got lost once or twice, laughed at people who gave us odd looks, and got barked at by ten thousand dogs.
Mercadona’s aisles feel lonely without her. We’d alway peek into the other person’s cart to see what they were getting. She’d always buy salad by the bag, sometimes two bags at a time just in case the next town didn’t have any. And hummus. Mercadona always had good hummus. I walk the aisles for a bit then throw a tub of hummus in my cart.
And a salad.
Even after 4,500 miles alone, you can learn from someone.
I stare at the ice cream and decide to go with the Mercadona classic we loved, a liter of cookies and cream. I first found it in Burgos, Spain over a thousand miles ago. I bought it on a whim. Cookies and cream is a tricky flavor, like mint chocolate chip and strawberry, great when done well, a disaster when done badly. This one has a fudge layer on the bottom that makes it one of the best.
Normally, we’d split a liter somewhere around 60/40. With a box of bars it would end up closer to 50/50 depending on the box. We’d trade off buying and picking flavors. By the time we reached the end of Portugal we knew just about every ice cream sold in supermarkets across two countries.
Lidl has the best bars. The twelve pack mini-mix is especially good. Aldi can’t compete with it. They try to pass off a similar box for the same price, but they can’t fool us. It has smaller bars and they aren’t as good. Pingo Doce is not bad, especially if they have a sale on Magnums, same with Continente. Eroski has great liters in some of their stores, but it’s not consistent. Coviran often has freezer burn and should be avoided if possible. Intermarché is a garbage grocery store, pretentious and overpriced without being better, but they have some decent bars if they are the only option. Dia is Dia, boring, but not pretending to be anything else. Miniprecio is everything an Intermarché is without the attitude and the honestly makes it better. Mercadona’s cookies and cream is perfection in a liter tub and they never fail to have it in stock.
I pay, pack my bag, and take out my spork. The hot air outside melts the edges fast as I walk along scooping spoonfuls into my mouth. Daya always loved the melted edges and I liked the solid center. With ice cream, like a lot of things, our strengths fit the other’s weaknesses. I can’t quite keep up with the heat. The last third turns into a soup.
A half mile from the store I reach down for my hiking sticks and realize I left them leaning against a wall back in the grocery store. I stand in the road, shoulders slumping in the heat. I’ve had those sticks since the Pacific Crest Trail. This is not the day to lose old friends. I dump the melted ice cream in a trash can and turn to walk back the way I came.
“I wish you were here, Sancho,” I think.
Daya would have seen them. One of us always looked back to check. She would have noticed, but that isn’t why I miss her, not deep down. A half mile back is nothing. It’s ten minutes there, ten minutes back. I’ve walked farther for an ice cream bar.
I miss the laugh that would have come from it, her smile when I walked out of Mercadona with my sticks in hand, the shared relief. I miss feeling that I wasn’t alone, that someone understood me in a way that only a person who could stretch five hundred miles into fifteen hundred could, in that windmills are giants and who cares what the rest of the world thinks kind of way.
I return to the road, my sticks in one hand, and walk toward Seville until the sun drops away. The trail is empty, but I glance back again anyway to make sure she is not there and doesn’t miss a turn.
“Farewell, Sancho,” I think, “until our trails cross again.”
But I smile back tears and know that she is still with me, always, in all the little things that only we would understand.