Days 192-227 – 9 Sept-14 Oct, 2015
Just follow the yellow arrows. They will show you The Way. They might be painted on the street or the side of a building, on a tree or the back of a road sign, but they are always there.
Wake up about 6:30, either by hearing other pilgrims rustling around in their stash of plastic bags or else listening to Maria’s alarm go off for the second time before she hits snooze again. Sleeping bags stored, teeth brushed, sunscreen applied, water bottles filled, and feet strategically protected with sports tape and arnica cream before heading out the door around 7:30. We stop for breakfast, usually toast and coffee, and greet others from our pack to compare the day’s itinerary. We walk for an hour or so and then stop for second breakfast, my favorite meal of Spanish tortilla and more coffee. Walk another couple hours, more coffee, more walking. After about 25 km, we reach our destination by early afternoon. We find an available albergue, perform necessary foot surgery, shower, do laundry, and unload the gear. Now it’s time for tapas, wine, reading, more wine, pilgrims menu (a 3 course meal including wine), lots of heartfelt discussions with our friends, followed by a 10:00 curfew. And repeat the next day…and the next…and the next.
If I’ve learned nothing else from my first 7 months on the road, it’s that I need my pace to be slow and having a routine was comforting in a way I could not have expected. You never heard anyone say that they didn’t feel like walking today – it was just something we did, as natural as getting up every morning. Even those who were injured or in pain, they still walked. That kind of resolve is rare and special and powerful.
In this blog, I won’t describe each day’s events. It would become redundant and boring for you, as the reader. Only someone who walks can truly embrace the monotony and love it BECAUSE it’s monotonous. But what I will write is a collection of a few of my favorite memories:
Day 198 – 15 Sept, 2015
Discovering the wine fountain in Irache, proving that we are in fact in La Rioja, the best wine region in Spain.
Day 199 – 16 Sept, 2015
Maria had walked ahead of me when I stopped to take photos and we had become separated sometime in the morning. This was only a problem because we had packed a picnic lunch and each had some portion of the goods. I stopped in a town for coffee, trying to decide if she was still ahead of me or if I may have passed her when she took a coffee break. This is when I met Tony. A retired banker from Idaho was walking the Camino with his friend, Jay, from Kentucky, who had recently turned over his company to his son. We chatted for only a few minutes before Maria turned up but as you seem to see the same people day after day, both Tony and Jay were to become good friends of ours in the weeks to come.
Arriving in Viana, just one town shy of Logroño, there was a lot of activity in the streets, people rushing around and many of them dressed in red and white. This struck me as unusual because often we would walk through a town and it appeared deserted. On this particular day, it seemed there was a bull run and we had walked through at exactly the right moment to watch. The store fronts were crowded with onlookers, safely behind big metal gates. Maria and I secured a place close to the fence to watch professionals and amateurs (namely, our fellow pilgrims) run back and forth in the street with about 4-6 bulls each time. It struck me as a bit comical and almost didn’t seem real. This kind of thing really happens? Yes, yes it does.
Day 200 – 17 Sept, 2015
I refuse to make reservations for an albergue. I do realize I’m going against the grain and perhaps shooting myself in the foot for this, but the Camino was supposed to be a reprieve from planning ahead. I would find an albergue when it was time to stop for the day. The problem being that most people DO make reservations so sometimes it didn’t matter how early you arrived, you might have to try a couple of places before you can find an available bed. Not an ideal situation when you’ve walked all day and are tired, especially when it’s raining. In Najera, we had to try 5 different albergues….in the rain…..before we found a room. Seemingly the last room in town, Maria and I paid 30 Euros for a private room, but on our meager budgets, this felt like a big splurge. Nevertheless, crisis averted.
Day 201 – 18 Sept, 2015
Usually stopping for lunch is easy – we passed through 3-5 towns nearly every day. Between Najera to Santo Domingo, our options were limited. We passed a golf course in the deserted town of Ciruena with signs directing us to their “pilgrim lunch specials.” Now, I grew up in country clubs and I know that our pilgrim attire and dirty backpacks were not appropriate for this type of establishment so even though we were hungry, Maria and I walked further. When we reached the edge of town, the last town for awhile, we realized there were no other options. Jay passed us and said everyone else was eating at the golf course so we turned back. We shyly went in and tried not to act like heathens (I was mortified to see other pilgrims with their shoes and shirts removed, lounging in the sun) and soon realized we were the golf course’s only customers. This community had been built during the housing crisis, but had since failed. The boarded up condominiums and vacant (yet new) buildings spoke volumes.
That night we had dinner at a fancy-ish restaurant with Tony and Jay and Louis from California. But first, we ran into Peter from Scotland, who bought us stiff drinks while we were in the queue for laundry. Somehow, I escaped with only one drink. Maria indulged in 2. Even though I know she was a bit lit before dinner, she hid it well. After all, she had a lovely black dress to wear!
Day 203 – 20 Sept, 2015
Walking in the woods, surrounded by trees and places to hide, Maria decides to relieve herself in a wide open space because she’s afraid of snakes lurking in the undergrowth. Snakes had never occurred to me, but now that she brings it up…I follow her example. Luckily, sometimes you have the Camino all to yourself for when you need to pee in the open.
By this time, we have made friends with a solid group of people. Hans (from Hamburg!), Kate from England, Jeremy from California, Lin from Denmark, Katerina from Germany, Eithne and Tom from Ireland, etc etc etc. Even people we have yet to meet have familiar faces on the Camino.
Day 204 – 21 Sept, 2015
We stayed an extra day in Burgos for sightseeing but had to move albergues for the second night. A group of 7 of us lined up early to confirm beds in the 16-bed convent. At the time of opening, we were ushered in to the chapel to be given a set of rules, including noone up before 6:30am and everyone must shower before going to bed. Then the beds were prioritized according to age (the oldest given priority), injury (those providing a doctor’s note), and if anyone had arrived to Burgos on foot that morning (none of us had). Fortunately, there were still beds for all 7 of us and we happily accepted the hospitality.
Day 206 – 23 Sept, 2015
As Maria and I prepared to leave Burgos, a bit later than the rest, not knowing that we would never see most of them again (because they gained a day on us), we met Emile from Tennessee and Evan from Canada. They had been one day behind us and were now taking a rest day in Burgos. We talked to them for only a few minutes but somehow we knew they would catch up to us in a few days so we exchanged contact details and began the slow march onward.
My water bladder begins to fail. The first surgery (of many) is performed.
Day 209 – 26 Sept, 2015
Carrion de los Condes was a unique stay. It’s famously (on the Camino anyway) known for its singing nuns. It was on this day that Emile, Evan, and a few of their friends, Emily, Tim and Dr. Dick caught up to us. Maria and I had a shorter day the day prior and had since lost the rest of our friends – they were all now a day ahead of us. In Carrion, the convent was a simple affair, same as the rest, with basic rooms of bunk beds with no sheets. But unlike the others, there was an itinerary of events that were optional but suggested to attend – a group sing along with the nuns, mass, a pilgrims blessing, and a communal dinner. I’m not Catholic and have never felt particularly comfortable at mass, but the part that I appreciated and respected most of all was how it brought everyone together, no matter their reasons for walking.
“Can I tell ya’ll a story?” Lights out, gentle breathing suggested that some were already asleep, yet Dr. Dick, Tim’s grandfather, interrupted the silence to tell a story to the other 15 people in the room. His “story” turned out to be a dirty joke and the room erupted into laughter, long after curfew…in a convent.
Day 211 – 28 Sept, 2015
I don’t think I can describe how much I hated The Meseta. The Meseta was not unlike hell, or at least what I would imagine anyway. Just after Sahagun, the Camino diverted 2 directions to rejoin near Mansilla de las Mulas. Neither way sounded very appealing, but it all depended on how far you were willing to walk before you found a place to sleep. My group chose the left route, through El Burgo Ranero, meaning we walked nearly 32km that day. Of course, this was the day I chose to walk alone. For the first time in 3 weeks, I left before Maria, leaving her to walk with Emile. Because of the diverted route, it divided all the pilgrims into 2 groups. Where once you would see pilgrims all the time on the Camino, now there were fewer people to see, just when I needed to see them most. The barren landscape was hypnotizing and eerie. Those 3 days of The Meseta were humbling, to say the least.
Day 213 – 30 Sept, 2015
Tony and Jay were staying at The Parador, hands down the fanciest hotel in Leon, and they invited Maria and I, among a few others, to join them for drinks and dinner. It was the first time I wished I had a pair of heels and some makeup (after all, Maria had a dress). With Tony and Jay, Kim and Joe from Australia, and Paddy from Ireland, we were almost the only people eating dinner at 7:30 at such an unacceptable Spanish hour. It mattered little – good conversation and good friends were enough.
Following dinner, Maria and I joined Emile, Emily, Evan, and Jeremy (reunited from Burgos!) for a few more drinks. We had a a rest day the next day after all! Leaving the bar, the streets were nearly empty save for Eithne and Tom who had just returned from an art gallery. We were all properly drunk on wine and good spirits and our voices echoed down every alleyway. The next morning, Jeremy made me breakfast in bed and Emily helped him mend his sock, all of us paying it forward every step of the way.
Day 216 – 3 Oct, 2015
Their reputation preceding them, it was my first encounter with The Lithuanians. A group of 12 had walked all the way from Lithuania, carrying a cross over their heads and singing the whole way. I was duly impressed.
Day 217 – 4 Oct, 2015
A slow drizzle lasted for almost 2 whole days. Considering this was par for the course and we were lucky to not have more rain, it was cleansing and necessary.
Day 218 – 5 Oct, 2015
I reached Cruz del Ferro in the rain, alone. There is a lot of history concerning this cross and I was waiting for a jolt of emotion and excitement at having reached this point, but none of that came. I still had 10 days more to walk, the impressive pile of stones that people had left behind had somewhat been washed downhill in the rain, and I just wanted to keep moving. I didn’t feel compelled to spend more than a minute here.
That night, I pushed on to Ponferrada. Usually making plans with Maria in advance, we didn’t talk about it that morning. She stayed behind one town back in Molinaseca. It was the first time since we started in St Jean that she and I stayed in different towns. In fact, I didn’t see another soul that I recognized in the 174 -bed albergue. It was a bit bizarre to be all alone after so much time with friends. By the next day, she and I were back in sync but continued walking separately.
Leaving Villafranca, I had no idea what kind of a day was in store for me. Referencing my guidebook the night before, it said there was a hard way and an easy way. Let it be known that I ALWAYS choose the hard way. Stairs v elevator, its the stairs. Carry my bag v roll cart, I carry. Walk v taxi, you guessed it. This choice was mountain v flat and my answer was clear, but so was the terrain. Immediately outside of town, one path continued on the relatively flat road and the other ascended up a 60 degree angle for seemingly forever. The bright side? Some astonishing views and relative quiet from the highway.
Shortly after second breakfast, I caught up to Tony right before my second ascent of the day to O Cebreiro, another 650m in elevation. I was spent before I even started but there was nothing to do but keep walking. It was a 25km day, but it could have been twice that and I wouldn’t have questioned it. I was motivated by the desire to stow my pack for the day so Tony and I paced each other for the entire climb.
As previously mentioned, Tony and Jay were accustomed to staying in luxurious hotels along the Camino, but not in O Cebreiro. Due to a group of German tourists, all of the hotels had long been sold out. Looks like this was the night for these guys to sleep in an albergue. Most albergues are pretty basic. This one was not only basic, it had 56 beds in one room, the most of any other place we slept. The showers were the push kind, meaning you had to keep pushing a button to get water to come out (it was warm, though!). Paper sheets were provided and the room was an icebox. Tony came prepared with a sleeping bag and I think secretly (or not so secretly) relished the opportunity for one night with us commonfolk. Jay, on the other hand, had never intended to end up in one of these places so he had no sleeping bag or anything else in which to keep warm. He logically announced he would sleep in all of his clothes. That night, there was a chorus of snoring from one side of the room to the other and by morning, Jay had bolted as soon as was reasonably possible. He was fully dressed, after all, and also probably a bit traumatized by the albergue experience.
Day 221 – 8 Oct, 2015
Finally in Galicia, I had been looking forward to eating Galician-style octopus for weeks. One of my favorite foods, this introduction did not fail to disappoint. However, octopus is, not surprisingly, a very divisive food. Not everyone agreed with me!
Sarria was a big milestone. Anyone wishing to walk the Camino must start no later than Sarria and walk at least the final 100km in order to receive a Compostela. The vibe in Sarria was disheartening. There were so many new “pilgrims” that had just arrived, with new energy and new ambitions. Aside from the fact that many of us had already walked 700km and felt that somehow we had earned a right of passage that these newbies couldn’t comprehend, the new arrivals also made the path more crowded and louder and less authentic. The prices surged, the tourist shops were selling Camino memoribilia, and finding a quiet moment (when I needed it most) was nearly impossible.
Day 223 – 10 Oct, 2015
Not far outside of Sarria, I finally see it. The 100km landmark was very unassuming and simple, but I get emotional even now, thinking about seeing it for the first time. The previous month flashes before my eyes and I feel immense pride at this accomplishment. I’m not the first person to walk so far and certainly not the last, but knowing there are only 100 to go propels me onward. Counting down from 100 is much more rewarding than counting down from an obscure number, like 790 or 553 or 294. This is me, feeling strong, like anything is possible.