my third week on the Caminho da Fé: crying in front of cowboys

Tomorrow morning marks the end of my third week on the Caminho da Fé. I started at kilometer marker 571 in Sertãozinho, and I’m now at kilometer marker 133 in Paraisopolis.

The Brazil 135 (without the plus sign) ultramarathon ends right about here. The Brazil 135+ ultramarathon goes quite a bit farther… and much of that farther is up. The 22km tomorrow are hilly, but the ~20km after that are straight up a rather imposing mountain range.

The trail has been getting quite a bit tougher here toward the end, with each day including the crossing of at least one small mountain.


I briefly met another pilgrim on foot back between Inconfidentes and Borda da Mata. He is a beer salesman from Curitiba who had just decided on a whim to spend his two-week vacation hiking the Caminho da Fé from Aguas da Prata to Aparecida, about 320km. He’s quite athletic, but he wasn’t accustomed to repeated days of hiking on steep, often rough trails. Already, he was limping from blisters that were greatly slowing him down on descents. I stayed with him to Borda da Mata and stretched my Portuguese to its limit to advise him on blister treatment and prevention. When we stopped for the night, I gave him nearly all of my bandages and other blister kit, since by this point I am pretty well armored up with calluses.

We stayed at different hotels, and he had indicated that he intended to start earlier than I did in the morning, so I thought that I might catch him on the trail. But in the morning I couldn’t find his tracks in the dirt on the trail, so I presumed that he did the wise thing and stayed put in Borda da Mata for an extra day to let his blisters heal.

I’m seeing a lot more pilgrims on bicycles, though, like these two puffing up a hill before Estiva:

I suppose I’m a bit smug and inappropriately judgy, but doing this trail on a bicycle seems less contemplative than doing it on foot. Then again, I need to recognize how stupendously fortunate I am to have the time to do it on foot. 

Doing the trail on horseback somehow seems to fit the spirit more, but I haven’t seen any pilgrims on horseback. All of the people on horses have been using them for work or routine transportation.

From Sertãozinho to Estiva, anywhere from 1% to 5% of the traffic that I saw was on horseback or in horse-drawn carts. From Estiva to Paraisopolis, it was more like 25%. This is cowboy country. Horses are everywhere.

Horses can be scary. Imagine being on foot on a one-lane icy road with barbed wire fences on either side, and you see an out-of-control car spinning at high speed toward you. Now replace the ice with powdery dirt and replace the car with a horse ridden by an inexperienced teenager.

I am surprisingly fast at getting over a barbed wire fence.

Bulls can be scary, too. I’m going through a lot of open range land, meaning that cows and bulls can be—and often are—on the trail. More than once, a bull has made it clear that he didn’t like me and wanted me to leave, immediately. Usually, though, they are pretty chill about the tiny biped wandering through.

I think that my worst experience in cowboy country is that I keep crying in front of the cowboys.

I’m not quite as quick to cry as some people who live in my house, but I would say that I cry somewhat readily at emotionally moving material. Especially when exhausted. Especially at altitude (Yeah, weird, right? Except it’s not). Well, I’ve been listening to some emotionally moving material on the trail, including Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect. As luck would have it, each time I would start to cry at some emotionally powerful part of this terrific story, a cowboy would appear—either charging across the trail in front of me after a rogue calf or just standing at his fence as I rounded a corner. I’m sure that they had more important things on their minds than whether my face was really sweaty or something else, but still… something juvenile in me was especially embarrassed at crying in front of real cowboys.

I would have been more comfortable being weepy a town or so back, in Inconfidentes, where the local industry is proudly all about crocheting and knitting:

Yes, that is a tree wrapped in doilies. Other people have done a better job than me at capturing this lovely silliness.

I mentioned in my previous post that I am pleased and not really surprised at how much support there is out here for pilgrims. It’s 20km or more between villages, and that’s often up and over a mountain. This is the tropics, so trudging up a mountain is hot, dehydrating effort. This makes it awfully nice when someone has left an entire building with potable water, chairs, shade, fishing poles, a toilet, toilet paper (!), and a working laundry machine (!!!) at the top of a mountain with a sign that says that it’s for pilgrims to rest:

Giant thanks to the Xavier family!

This specific example is grand, but there are countless smaller examples, often in the form of potable water under a little shrine to A Nossa Senhora Aparecida:

This past year or so has been tough. A lot of us are disillusioned and pessimistic about how many of our fellow humans truly care about helping one another, versus only caring about helping oneself or one’s very small circle. I decided to take this trip to break out of that pessimism, to put myself in a situation where I would need to rely on the kindness of others toward strangers. And I’m finding that the kindness is coming in not only personal interactions—which I had expected—but in great quantities in these odd bits of… infrastructure… these fountains and buildings and things that people built and maintain explicitly for traveling strangers.

That’s not to say that everyone is nice. A bartender a few days ago was intent on picking a fight with the gringo, but even that ended well when the guy next to me bought me a beer for holding my own in the argument and actually knowing some Brazilian history. Truth be told: I was elated that my language and history knowledge had stood up to an aggressive test.

I’m off to get some real food, after a day of Gatorade and peanut butter. Then to bed, to rest up for the push over the big mountain in a couple of days. Almost done.

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