My first challenge of the journey was trying to find a pair of comfortable hiking boots.
I went to I don't know how many sporting-goods stores and tried on I don't know how many pairs of top-of-the-line hiking boots that made me feel like I was dragging klunky concrete blocks on my feet as I scaled the mini-inclined planes that the REI-type stores have you try out your boots on while their salesfolk assure you that the boots will feel just fine once you break them in.
It was at Dick's Sporting Goods that I finally found the boots of my dreams when a young, sincere, solidly-built salesgirl with a long braid who was dressed in cargo shorts and a tee-shirt fixed me up with the same hiking boots she was wearing at the time,
"Just be sure you lace them correctly," she advised me, showing me how it was done. "Make sure you tighten them."
The boots were a little big. They were a size 11 and I take a 10-and-a half, but since that size appears not to exist - women's shoes stop the half-sizes after 9-and-a half, I suppose the theory being that if your foot is that big any old thing will do you - I generally end up with a slightly too-big size 11. But once I put some orthotic inserts into the boots and put on a pair of wool socks the boots were comfy enough.
Until I started training on the steep hills of Clear Creek Park in Lancaster, Ohio. I was fine going up the hills but on the way down my toes slammed against the tops of my boots so that at the end of each hike I had sore toes that took a few days to heal.
Except that on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the trail I'd be hiking in Spain, there'd be no recovery time. I'd be hiking up and down hills and mountains all day every day for weeks.
I tried stuffing lamb's wool into my boots. Then I tried wrapping up my toes in moleskin. And band-aids. And lotion. I tried an extra pair of socks. All those things helped a little on my toe-banging down-hill treks. But not enough. The nails of the first two toes on each foot were turning a disturbing shade of red, white, and blue. And they didn't feel great.
Someone suggested trying sock liners, so I went to Gander Mountain and told the salesman, a young, rugged and outdoorsy-looking guy with a long beard, about my shoe problem. I asked him if he thought some sock-liners would help or if I needed a bigger size.
He sold me the sock liners but suggested I not give up on my boots yet. "Make sure they're laced tight enough," he said, demonstrating how I should lace them. "But not so tight that they cut off your circulation," he added.
From then on I began to fear lacing up my boots so tight that I'd cut off my circulation, so I kept them a little on the loose side, which I thought might help if my boots were in fact too small.
Meanwhile I was getting closer to our departure date and my toes were getting worse with each practice hike.
I went to Clintonville Outfitters and told the sales guy there about my foot problem. He said that the problem was probably my boots, as he considered Merill Moabs a cheap, unsuitable product and recommended one of the varieties of super-expensive concrete-blocks I'd already given the boot to.
I checked the Camino de Santiago guide book. It said make sure your footwear fits snugly. But this advice didn't help me at all, as my footwear was obviously fitting me too snugly. Why else would my toes be hitting the tops of my boots every time I went downhill?
With only a few weeks left before we were to leave I returned to Dick's Sporting Goods to seek out my original hiking boot muse, the sturdy hiker girl with the long braid and the Merill Moab boots.
She wasn' there. In her place was a slim, perky-looking girl with a layered hair cut wearing tennis shoes. She didn't know who the girl with the long braid was. I told her about my boots. She gave me a blank look. I asked her if she had a bigger size. She looked over the contents of the rack of women's Merill Boots and said it appeared that size 11 was the biggest they carried. I asked her if I should try a men's size. She didn't know. I asked her if she could give me any advice on my hiking boot problem. She said, with a sympathetic smile, that she was sorry, but she was a tennis player.
That night I went online and looked over the selection of hiking boots. There were hundreds of them. I even found a company that made women's boots in a size 12. My hand hovered over the keyboard as I considered buying the bigger boot.
But I knew I couldn't possibly need a size 12. It was that the boots I had just weren't a good fit.
I wondered if I took the leap of faith and bought a pair of the concrete-block boots they'd feel better after I wore them a while.
But what if I bought a $300 pair of boots and they were no better than ones I already had?
What if they turned out to be even worse?
It was then, sitting at my kitchen table on a Saturday night that I was overcome by the sinking, disheartening feeling that I was never going to hike the Camino de Santiago de Compostela for want of a pair of boots.
I swear the voice came from out of the blue. It was the combined voices of my long-braided Dick's hiker girl, my Gander Mountain man, and my Camino guide book, and it spoke directly to my brain: Put on your boots, the voice said, then lean the back of each boot down against the floor, toe facing upward so that your heel slides against the back of the boot. Then tighten your boots!"
Very early the next morning, Sunday morning, I once again put on my Merill Moabs,
I swore I heard bells ringing and birds singing on that downhill hike (though I actually might have; it was, after all, a Sunday morning in suburbia), my feet felt so very fine. Planting my heel against the back of my boot then tightly lacing the boot kept my foot from sliding forward and mashing my toes into the front of my boot on the downhill walk.
Needless to say, I became a fanatical boot-tightener, never again heading down a hill or mountain without stopping to tighten or re-tighten my boots.
"Tighten your boots!" became my motto, my mantra, my words of wisdom to my fellow pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela who suffered bruised and bloody toes from the repetitive downhill slamming of their toes against their boots.
"Your boots aren't too small," I'd tell them, "they're too loose! Tighten your boots!"
Some of them heard me. Some of them didn't.