O’Cebreiro

Monday, May 19

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It snowed here not thirty minutes ago. This is O’Cebreiro, a name that conjures up images of an imposing stone town at the peak of an isolated mountain, with an ominous ring of clouds overhead. The town is indeed stone, but it’s charming rather than frightening. Even now in the cold and fog, though it’s difficult to explore, it’s far less menacing than the image I held in my imagination.

The road today was a long one at 30 kilometers, with two separate and challenging climbs. We were told it would be cold and rainy, but it was neither. After breakfast we left Villafranca del Bierzo by the steep route to Alto Pradela, 400 meters up. Alejandro, Miguel, and I charged ahead while the others took a more reasonable stride. The beginning was steep; a reminder of the initial trial-by-fire that was the Pyrenees, except that this route was lined with trees. Later it became more graceful, with the path winding broadly across the mountainside and offering wide views of the valley below.

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I found myself thinking of those who’d chosen the route that runs along the highway. For some it’s a matter of health, but others choose the easier route solely because it is easier.

To each their own Camino, they say. But for me, to choose the easy way is to choose a road paved with regret. It’s strange to say, but regret is a central motivator in my life. Or rather, avoiding regret. If I walked the easy road I’d doubt the choice with every step. So I couldn’t possibly go that way.

Regret is the worst pain of all. When someone leaves our lives, we mourn the loss. But worse than the pain of loss is the pain of things left unsaid. The proper goodbye that never happened. And so it goes with everything else. The regret when you wanted to say, “I love you,” but didn’t. The regret of not standing up for yourself when someone wronged you. The regret of not apologizing when you wronged another.

Why am I on the Camino? Why now? Because I could have pushed it off for all eternity. There would always have been something in my career or in my life that would have taken precedence over the Camino. But I can’t stand the notion that I might find myself living my last moments of old age with this regret on my lips: “I never went on the Camino. I wish I’d made time for that.”

So I took the hard way.

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It was rewarding. There are two kinds of joy I’ve experienced today and yesterday. Once in VIllafranca del Bierzo, sitting outside the bar while one friend played with the barkeep’s dogs, and another sang her favorite songs in a voice as beautiful and elegant as a lily. A drink in my hand; the blue sky overhead; nowhere to go.

The other was the joy of reaching the top of the mountain after a difficult climb with 23 pounds of equipment weighing me down.

I ended up on a detour through the small town of Pradela, because the yellow arrows pointed that way even though it wasn’t necessary. Unless you need to visit the bar, you can hug left at the fork instead of right and carry on. Still, the small valley the town overlooks was beautiful in the sunlight. Great fields and meadows and farmers tending the soil.

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I reunited with Alejandro there, and then with the rest of the group soon after. We descended and began the long trek through a valley carved by the Rio Valcarce along a road. We passed through several lovely pueblos before beginning the steep climb to O’Cebreiro. The rough stone path through the forest, leading first to La Faba, reminded me of the ascent to Upper Yosemite Falls. Which is to say, it was pretty brutal. We all reunited at La Faba and then carried on, separating again as our paces varied. Here the path rose more gradually, gently riding the curvature of the mountains and passing into Galicia. A few kilometers later we reached O’Cebreiro as the sky turned darker and the air colder.

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As the fog rolled in and the air chilled we ran to the nearest restaurant to eat. Caldo Gallego for me, and also a Galician stew. Another simple but deep joy — warm soup on a cold day after a hard walk. All totaled I think we climbed some 1100 meters today, broken down between the first peak and the second.

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So much of the road here reminds me of California. And I know that I’m only a week from Santiago, and a few days more until Finisterre. It begins to feel like I’m walking towards home. I wonder what it will be like to return to Los Angeles. What will it be like when the Camino is over, and I’m left to digest it all in my mind? People like to say that although this Camino ends, the Camino of your life goes on. I appreciate the poetry but I find it too convenient — it seems like a mantra we use to protect ourselves from a difficult thought.

An older Spaniard in Ponferrada told me that the truth of how the Camino continues is more concrete and less poetic; When I return, I’ll have all these experiences swirling in my mind and in my heart. In time it will settle into something. I don’t know what.

-Daniel

Villafranca del Bierzo

Sunday, May 18

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Today was simple but hot. I spent a good chunk of the walk talking with Larissa about all that’s swimming in her mind on the Camino, and it’s quite a bit. She’s hard on herself, I think. But who am I to talk?

We took a break from the heat at a tiny bar along the highway, where Brazilian music played as we entered. The barkeep told us there were only three kilometers to go, which was welcome news.

But as the road stretched on seemingly without end Larissa didn’t feel very well. A truck approached from behind — Protección Civil. They offered her a ride to the municipal albergue in Villafranca del Bierzo, where I am now.

It’s a beautiful building, like a cheaper version of a casa rural, with a view of the long pueblo stretching out ahead, dominated by huge church on a hill. After showering and washing my clothes I went down towards the pueblo and came across the others at a bar. We had the menú del día and were joined by a girl named Virginia from Granada, along with two dogs who wanted nothing more from life than food and belly rubs.

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The iglesia that sits atop Villafranca del Bierzo

After lunch I went down into the town to use the ATM, and on the way back met Jonathan. He described parting with Sarah this morning and we talked a bit before I moved on.

Tomorrow I make the climb to O Cebreiro, in the rain and wind and cold.

-Daniel

Foncebadon, Cruz de Ferro, Ponferrada

Saturday, May 17

I arrived at the Cruz de Ferro before the first glint of sunlight reached it. Sarah and Jonathan walked together behind me. I set my pack down against a fence and took some photos in the pale morning glow, and from the other side to see the burnt orange and pale blue as sunlight started to bend our way. In my cargo pocket I could feel the two rocks I had brought with me, one from Astorga and the other from Rabanal del Camino.

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I’d passed through Rabanal alone the day before on the way to Foncebadon, the ruined pueblo that is now experiencing a small rebirth as the Camino grows in popularity. My traveling companions, the two Brazilians and one Spaniard, had stopped for a rest earlier on and I’d decided to continue alone before the sun was too high and hot in the sky.

There were two ponies at the entrance of Rabanal. I’ve heard rumors of a pilgrim doing the trail on a pony, and I wonder if those were his or hers. I probably won’t ever know. I stroked the muzzle of one before moving on, passing the pilgrims stopped for lunch or ending their day there. It’s a pretty town with one long main street running from beginning to end uphill, flanked on both sides by tiendas, albergues, and bars. And one strange lean-to with the word “Voluntad” and a table full of little odds and ends you could take, leaving a donation in the box nearby.

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I saw a rock there with something written on it I hadn’t expected, and I took it and put some money in the box. As I walked on I heard a voice call “Gracias” from the park to my right, and I could barely make out the figure of a man behind the vines growing on the fence between us. I thanked him and left.

The flat lands were behind me now, and along my left the horizon was blocked by snow-capped peaks. The path was rocky and passed sometimes through dense foliage with flowers in white and purple and yellow, waving in the wind.

Eventually I arrived in the Foncebadon and saw that it was truly a ruin, abandoned except for those who worked there doing business on the Camino. I saw familiar faces and realized the albergues were filling fast, so I hurried to get my bed, hoping my friends weren’t too far behind.

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Sarah and Jonathan arrived and found all albergues full, and we sat for a while drinking beers while the hospitalero of one tried to phone ahead to the small encampment beyond the Cruz de Ferro. No answer. He offered them his own bed and said he’d sleep on the couch.

My troupe arrived from the opposite direction I’d expected — I had missed them when they entered the town, and now they were checked in at the parochial albergue up the street, where they would have the communal dinner and breakfast. I booked my dinner with Sarah and Jonathan at their albergue, and we talked about rising early to reach the Cruz de Ferro before sunrise.

Now I was there, having left while there were still stars in the sky. I walked carefully up the mound of rocks, careful not to step on anyone else’s dreams and wishes and dedications, placed my simple rock from Astorga in no particular spot, and left the other (the one from Rabanal) closer to the great wooden post that supports the cross.

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I put some distance between me and the cross, and sat in the grass facing the rising sun. I whispered the Shema, and then the only prayer I allow myself to say. I sat quietly for a few moments before standing again.

I continued taking photos of the cross as the light changed, and taking photos for others with their cell phones. Sarah and Jonathan huddled nearby in the cold. After a while she walked up to me in silence and gave me a hug, and handed me a postcard with a note on the back. I read it and tucked it away in my guide book. eventually they gathered their things and asked me if I wanted to walk on, but I chose to wait for the others.

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Not long after, they came towards the cross. The sunlight behind them made them difficult to recognize. They placed their rocks, we all took photos, and we carried on to Ponferrada.

First we passed through the tiny refugio Manjarin, isolated and very hippie-inspired. People who stay there overnight go without electricity or plumbing, but they can see the stars.

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The other side of the mountains may as well have been Los Angeles. The ground was the same dirt and rock of the Santa Monica mountains, surrounded by scrub brush with the city in the distance, ringed beyond by more mountains (though these were snowcapped). For the first time I found myself feeling homesick.

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We stopped for lunch at no place in particular, and Sarah and Jonathan caught up again. We said we’d meet again on the trail or in Ponferrada, but as it turned out we wouldn’t.

In Ponferrada we stayed at the municipal albergue, and didn’t venture out into the city. The albergue has a beautiful courtyard, though the rest is very minimal. But it’s donativo, so you can only be grateful. We ate dinner with some Italians who whipped up pasta in tomato sauce while Alejandro cooked a tortilla that ended up as scrambled eggs and potatos, though still very tasty.

Tomorrow, Villafranca del Bierzo.

-Daniel

Astorga and the Man in White

Thursday, May 15

We arrived in Astorga today, after a peaceful walk through the foothills of the mountains that we’ll begin to climb tomorrow.  We passed through a small pueblo where music was being broadcast on loudspeakers from atop the church. Songs of prayer and also songs about the Camino. “Soy peregrino, soy vagabundo…”  And as we began our descent from a hill into Astorga, a man with a guitar sang a simple but oddly catchy tune about pilgrims. When he learned I was from California he added a verse for me, and also asked me if I had any souvenirs from California on me that I might give him. But I have none, so I could only offer euros.

After checking in at the municipal albergue and eating lunch, Larissa, Miguel, and I lost sight of Alejandro. We walked towards the Cathedral expecting that we might find him there.

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But we never made it that far. We were stopped on the street by an old man, dressed all in white with a white hat and white beard. He wore enormous metal rings on his fingers. When he saw us his eyes lit up and he called out, “Peregrinos!” There is a supermarket nearby, he told us hurriedly, where the floor is glass and you can see down into Roman ruins — Astorga is built on an ancient Roman city.

Like any sensible pilgrim would, we followed the strange man quickly through the streets to the supermarket. Farther and farther back into the store, where I was very sure we’d find a meat locker full of other pilgrims. But no, instead we came to a portion of the market where the floor is glass, and below it lies an ancient Roman rain-catching system now in ruin.

The tour wasn’t done yet. He whisked us around the city. He pointed out the distant mountains where there had been gold mines. He brought us to a convent where there was a statue of a pregnant Mary, and a unique sculpture of a woman on the cross. He showed us a ruined Roman amphitheater and gave us rocks he claims are from the construction 2000 years ago. Here, a house where a poet lived. There, a building were Dalí and other artists and poets stayed together. An ancient church, the Cathedral, and a palace designed by Gaudí. A private albergue that was once a jail for women. A plant which grows there and has iodine-rich sap, good for blisters. Often he’d stop every few feet, whirl around to face us, finger outstretched towards small lights embedded in the sidewalk. “Luces! Para peregrinos!”

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He rattled off so much information in so little time that our heads were ready to burst and our feet ready to surrender from the endless walking. I asked him his name — he said his name is Amador. He who loves. Everyone we passed knew him and called to him.

We offered to pay him for his time and he declined, but he accepted our invitation to join us for a beer. He’s lived here all his life, being born just outside of the city near a pueblo we passed. He works in art and antiquities, when he’s not escorting pilgrims around town out of the goodness of his heart and his love of his city. We drank together and he told perhaps a thousand Spanish jokes, many of which went right over my head. Finally we said goodbye, and the most surreal experience of the Camino to date came to an end.

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What were the chances? How fortunate that we should be there, on that corner, at that moment. Any later and he would’ve been long gone, and we would’ve been none the wiser. Perhaps other pilgrims would’ve been less trusting of the strange man in white, and missed the entire experience.

The Camino is full of such bizarre serendipity.

Pilgrims reading this — if you’re wandering in Astorga and a strange man in white calls to you to follow him, consider saying yes.

Tomorrow we aim for Foncebadon.

-Daniel

Calzadilla, León, Hospital de Órbigo. The accidental 37 kilometers.

Wednesday, May 14

The road out of Calzadilla was quiet. I walked for a time with Lawrence and Pamel, but eventually at my pace we separated. It was a long way, little but wheat and dirt and canals for 24 kilometers, when I came to Mansilla de las Mulas. It was still early, so after a quick bocadillo and a little cerveza I left the town. I intended to stop at Puente Villarente, but the way the busy highway passed noisily through the town didn’t appeal to me. As I was walking I met again with Matthieu, an eminently fashionable Frenchman never seen without scarf and beret, and his new friend Tamie from Brazil. They also intended to continue past the town, but stayed a while by the river to rest.

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Five kilometers later I came to Acahueja, a sleepy pueblo like most with just one albergue. Since the center of León was more than 10 kilometers away, I was happy to stop there. A 34km day in total seemed like plenty. When Matthieu and Tamie arrived, I sat on the patio with them and with Nina from Slovenia. We enjoyed a basic pilgrim’s dinner during which Matthieu often remarked half-jokingly about the superiority of French wines over all others, and listened to the stories of two British men who have been doing the Camino in chunks together.

Night time was a chorus of snoring, and morning came at 4:45 when most of the room’s inhabitants decided to wake up and put on a light show with their headlamps and flashlights. I set out in the cold air and dim light knowing that León would be my stop for the day, only a little more than 10km away.

The town was buzzing even in the morning in the plaza in front of the Gaudí house. An important political figure, I think the regional president of the province, had been killed the day before. The details are a bit lost on me but it seems like it was done by an angry former employee.

I walked towards the Cathedral and came across Tamie and Matthieu, who would not be stopping in León that day. We had breakfast together — for me, café con leche and chocolate con churros, apparently a specialty in the city. I took their photos and we said our goodbyes. They walked away hand in hand. Ahh, Camino romance.

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Unfortunately I know almost nothing about Tamie, other than that she is a vegetarian. I only met her briefly and she’s very quiet. Matthieu lives in Paris and formerly worked for a company that manages how advertisements are targeted online. So that when you go searching for shoes online and then later visit your favorite news aggregator, you see advertisements in the sidebar for shoes.

This fails to explain why Facebook is so very sure that I should sign up for Christian singles websites.

I booked a bed at the albergue San Fernando de Asís, where I found that my roommate was a Texan father I’d met earlier on the trail. He took a bus ahead of his family to rest his feet, which were in a lot of pain.

I thought I’d go see the cathedral interior, so I began walking there, but I was stopped by Alejandro, a Spaniard who lives in Barcelona but isn’t himself Catalan. We’d first me in Teradillo de Templarios. He’s on his way to the end of the route, having begun along the Camino del Norte before swinging down to join the Francés.

He was having breakfast with a Brazilian girl named Larissa, a Brazilian guy named Miguel, and a Korean I’d met before named John.

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John is always bubbling with emotion, usually happy but sometimes sentimental. After dealing with an illness he quit his work and began traveling. He studied martial arts and meditation. He’s attended a lecture by the Dalai Lama in Nepal. He’s lived in India, and a host of countries in southeast Asia. Here on the Camino he has many names — Juanito to the Spanish and Brazilians, Giovanni to the Italians, John to English speakers, Jong-gu to Koreans. He speaks to everyone, knows everyone, and delights everyone. We joke that he’s a legend. La Leyenda de Juanito, Alegría del Camino.

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When I told the group I intended to stay in León for a day of rest, all but Alejandro decided to stay as well. I showed them to the albergue I’d found. After some laundry we went out for lunch with the intention of continuing to see the cathedral interior. But the funeral services for the fallen politician were beginning. After speaking with a group of Frenchmen for a time, we went down to a different plaza to meet with Sarah, Jonathan, Antonio, and Kristie.

Sarah and Jonathan have been traveling together for a few days, and the night before they had woken and left their albergue at 2am to walk at night and see the stars. We spoke for a bit before my friends and I left to find the worst dinner we’ve had on the Camino. There’s a restaurant with a sign that says Cafeteria over it near the Cathedral — I can’t recommend it.

We left early the next morning to reunite with Alejandro in the next down. The camino had a fork today, as it has once or twice before, with a choice between walking along the highway or out through the fields. I always choose the fields. We walked the 22km to Mazarife, but it was still early. We walked 10km more to Villavante, and the albergue was full. I tended to two blisters I’d gained through a sloppy taping job on one toe, and we walked another 5km to Hospital de Órbigo. To clarify, that’s the name of the city. I’m not actually in a hospital. And so we accidentally walked 37km today. Oops.

This morning as we walked Larissa described to me why she’s here on the Camino. She’d been working in a office job, like so many of us, and decided she had enough. She felt it wasn’t achieving anything that was important to her, and she wants some time to reconsider what it is she’d like to do. She seems to feel that she doesn’t know what her particular gift or calling is. I think perhaps she hopes to find it here on the Camino.

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Once Miguel learned about my former job and that I’d worked on Life of Pi, he spoke to me for a while about how to interpret the story. Was it a boy in a boat with a tiger? Or is the boy the tiger? I explained the interpretations I’d come to know and shared what seems to me to be the moral of the tale — when in doubt about the truth and in either case the core of it all remains the same, choose the better story. The one you prefer.

Alejandro overheard and we talked also for a time about a book he’s reading, about a wealthy businessman who, after a heart attack, decides to sell everything and learn from monks. It’s a story about the importance of willpower and controlling your mind rather than having it control you and paralyze you. I tried to will away the blisters I could feel forming on my toe, but I think that’s probably a bit literal.

So tonight we’re in Hospital de Órbigo. In León, Sarah said that the shortness of her remaining time on the Camino was becoming something clear and imminent for her. She seems to want me to reunite with her and Jonathan one more time as they travel to the Cruz de Ferro. All that is honestly a bit surreal after the events of last week.

Very hungry, and very much looking forward to a proper pilgrim’s menu tonight.

-Daniel

In the Middle

Sunday, May 11

I’m more than half way to Santiago now.

Chiara and Lidia shared with me a saying about the Camino. In the beginning, you forget the world you left behind. In the middle, you die. And in the end you’re reborn.

These past days have surely been the part where I died.

I’ve traveled from Boadilla to Carrión de los Condes, taking the river route when it was available. Then from Carrión to Terradillos de Templarios. And today I’m writing from Calzadilla de los Hermanillos.

There were physical challenges on this route, mostly to do with the heat. My feet have their first blisters, and my knees ache, and my pack is heavy again.

But the majority of the difficulty was emotional. I fundamentally misunderstood the nature of my new Camino family. I’m choosing not to go into detail. Some people want to travel with the people they meet. Some people want to travel alone in the same direction as the other people they meet. Both enjoy interacting with their fellow pilgrims, but some seek a connection that grows with intent, while others prefer to leave it to fate.

I prefer the connection that grows by choice instead of chance. When people enter my life and we have the beginnings of a friendship that could be deep and lasting, but we know that time is short and soon we’ll say goodbye, perhaps for forever, then I choose to make the most of that time with those people. To enjoy their presence and thoughts and jokes and laughter to the fullest before the universe takes it away. To coordinate with them to maximize our time together. It was chance and fate enough for me that we met at all; people from all around the world on one road for a brief time, randomly together in one corner of a tiny ball of dirt hurtling through the cosmos. That’s enough serendipity — the rest is on us, I think, to gain as much from each other as we can in the time we have.

I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the idea of passing in and out of each other’s paths by chance. But it ain’t for me.

Now, enough of all that. That’s probably not what you came to this blog for. Let’s talk about today: from Terradillos to Calzadilla.

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I woke early and set out as the sun was rising. My knees ached more than usual, and my pace was slow. I didn’t break until Sahagún, where I had coffee and pan con chocolate, which has become my usual pilgrim breakfast when I have one. I sat with a woman I’ve met many times on the trail, who lives in Mammoth in California. Embarrassingly I long ago forgot her name. I’ll have to own up to it and ask her when I see her next.

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As I ate, Sarah and Jonathan came over to my table to say hello and to find out what route I’d be taking today. After Sahagún, the Camino forks. One route, by far the most popular, runs along the highway through a few cities towards El Burgo Ranero. The other route passes through Calzada de Coto and joins an ancient Roman road.

If you know me, you know which I chose.

When the path split, every pilgrim I could see in front of me stayed on the popular route. I entered Calzada de Coto alone, no pilgrims in any direction. Spanish pueblos are usually eerily quiet when we’re passing through. Sometimes because it’s too early, other times because we’re walking during siesta, and other times because the pueblo only has a population of 80 or so. This pueblo was no different, and I walked through it slowly to avoid missing any yellow arrows. Eventually the main street ended and the Roman road began, passing over fields and farms. The day was blessedly overcast as there were little to no trees large enough to provide shade.

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When I step out onto a Roman road, I feel the immensity of that connection through time. I can envision the great network of roads that spanned the Western world in a time when such a thing was an engineering marvel. I imagine the scuffing of the boots of Roman Legionnaires and medieval pilgrims alike, and the creak of wagon wheels and clink of merchants’ goods. Just as when I stood on the Via Appia south of Rome, here I could feel some sense of my position in the universe and the history of civilization; the domino of cause and effect that eventually led to me, here, on an ancient road of dirt and stone on the Iberian peninsula.

In time other pilgrims caught up with me. David, an Australian I’d met the night before with a camera around his neck. Kasumi, the Japanese girl in the bottom bunk below mine who is learning Spanish. A new face,  Bob from Connecticut, who had switched careers and become ordained.

The road was easy and quick and we arrived early in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos. The others went to a private albergue near the entrance. Kasumi rushed along to the municipal albergue, a very small former school with just 22 beds. I went there also. Shower, laundry, and here I am typing. A typical pilgrim route for me now, though the typing part was tough on the very long days.

Tonight if I have time I’m going to upload a post with only pictures, since some of the most recent posts were lacking.

-Daniel

The Long and Flat of It.

Written three nights ago (May 8):

Today and yesterday are a bit murky in my mind.

We left Burgos late, after breakfast and a visit to see the cathedral in the morning light. After some walking, and breakfast I think, Sarah went off on her own for some alone walking as she likes to do.

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Eventually at my pace I caught up to her and a man named Jonathan, a French Canadian who lives in Vermont. He runs a farm where people with special needs can live and work, and has three children. He’s a deep thinker and a generous soul with a happy disposition, despite some difficult times he’s faced recently. He’s walked with us since.

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He and Sarah both stopped in a glen thick with trees and shade. I continued, and walked up and out onto the meseta. The grassy plains stretched out before me and the sky was a great dome unbroken in every direction. Trees were few to none, and the sun hot. I walked on to Hornillos del Camino where I stopped for lunch. I didn’t know, after eating, if Sarah and Jonathan were in front of me or behind. So I went on alone into the heat.

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I took some brief shade beneath the one and only large tree on the path.

As I passed a small albergue in the middle of nowhere, Sarah texted me that she’d booked us beds in Hontanas and that she had only just left Hornillos. I carried on. Five kilometers to Hontanas, a sign read. The sun baked the air around me. Onward.

Hontanas, two kilometers.

One kilometer.

Town.

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I found the albergue Sarah had reserved, checked in, ordered a beer, and spent time chatting with other pilgrims. I became a bit concerned when Sarah didn’t follow quickly — she’s usually so much faster than me. She eventually texted me that she was at the small albergue I’d passed. With things out of my hands I showered, and prepared my laundry. Eventually she and Jonathan arrived. They’d stopped in the albergue to use the swimming pool with two others, Karla and Marco, who I met later when they arrived. Karla’s knee was in pain and Marco suffered from shin splints. Both had blisters.

Jonathan and I had the pilgrim’s dinner that night while Sarah cooked for herself, Karla, and Marco. Later we all shared beers.

Before sleeping I went out to the tiny chapel at the entrance of town. Like many towns in this region, Hontanas sits nestled below the plains in a valley. The ermita was at the entrance, high enough to feel the cold wind in the night. My flashlight led the way. Inside there was a small wooden bench, a statue of the virgin, and decorative paint along the walls. I went back to the albergue to sleep.

Today Jonathan left first, not planning to go as far as us. Karla had a blister that was in bad shape and I helped her treat it. Sarah left; we’d meet in the next town or before. I’m no medic but I tried to keep a reassuring presence as I helped Karla. Marco dubbed me “The Doctor.”

I began my walk.

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I met up with Sarah and Jonathan after the ruins of an old convent, San Anton. They were exploring a small ruined home on the side of the rode. From there we walked together to Castrojeriz, marveling at the castle on the hill above and the beauty of the church just outside the town. We ate breakfast and then Sarah took her alone time again, so Jonathan and I walked.

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The road took us out and up a tall hill, Alto de Mostelares, where we had an broad view of the path we’d walked and the distant castle-topped hill. Clouds rolled over the valley but kept well clear of the peak we climbed. Sarah and I sat a bit taking in the view, then she went off to do some yoga and walk on her own.

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My pace was quick as I felt very good, though later I’d discover blisters on my left foot. I passed Sarah eventually, then waited up for her and Jonathan near a river crossing. We all entered town and had a picnic style lunch with some of our camino friends, and then carried on.

After much heat and sweat and sunburn we arrived in Boadilla as a group. We checked in at the albergue, which looked unimpressive from the outside but on the inside had a nice courtyard. The pool wasn’t open. Qué pena. I tended to my blisters with the help of a group of younger people I hadn’t met before, had dinner, sat with Jonathan and Sarah and friends, and came here to write. Soon I’ll sleep.

Emotionally I’m a bit tossed around. I had some impressions about how these days after the Italians would go, and those don’t seem to have been right. Walking is different now than it was before. I’m looking at it as a chance to learn, even if I’m relearning something life has tried to teach me over and over.

I realize that’s all a bit cryptic. But I need time to process, so bear with me.

The Camino goes on. I’m still a long, long way from Finisterra.

-Daniel

Villafranca Montes de Oca and Burgos

Two nights ago. I still owe you photos. We’ve been traveling larger than usual distances each day and that’s left me a bit too drained for photo transfer, selection, and editing.

Dinner in Grañon was as great as I expected. We all worked together to set out tables and dishes and chairs, and enjoyed a raucous meal in a many languages. Then we formed assembly lines to clean the dishes and clear the room.

Afterwards we went into the choir of the church for a prayer. We all sat in the wooden seats against the walls, tea candles on each arm rest. One of the hospitaleras lit a candle and explained that we should think or say a prayer or wish or whatever comes to our minds. She encouraged us to say it aloud but it wasn’t a requirement.

When the candle reached me I stared at it for what seemed like forever until finally I spoke. I confessed aloud for the first time that since the winter I’ve only allowed myself a single prayer, which is for the safety my niece and her family, excepting myself. It’s hardly rational, but I guess I have a notion that if I don’t allow myself any other pleas, this one becomes more powerful. (My scientific mind scoffs and my heart tells it to shush.)

I also expressed thanks for the company I’ve had on the trip, meeting eyes with the Italians as I did so.

After this a woman told me she would pray for my niece and sister too. I got a bit teary, I admit.

In the morning Danilo left early. We hugged and said we’d see each other again. I packed my things and said my goodbyes to Michele, Lidia, and Chiara. Fierce hugs and watery eyes. I told them “Ci vediamo,” and set out.

As I left town the church bell chimed seven. The sun was barely beginning to light the sky. I made my way out into the hills, alone for the first time. As the sun rose the ground was orange and my shadow in front of me long and blue.

I passed Viloria, where Sarah had stayed the night before. Assuming she’d left by now I continued to Tosantos. She caught up with me shortly after, announcing herself with a playful surprise pounce. Having walked alone for the morning I was very happy to see her. We traveled together to Villafranca Montes de Oca, a tiny hamlet with no apparent place for anyone to actually live. Just a market, church, the municipal albergue, and a grand looking hotel/albergue up on a hill that sported a well-manicured lawn.

We went there at first, surprised a bit when a peacock met us at the door. She was just leaving as we came in. Disculpe.

Discovering that the albergue had no real kitchen, we went to the municipal instead. Sarah had been carrying lentils for somewhere around 100 years and was eager to finally cook them. First we had tea out back and then grabbed some beers and went to the hotel’s big fancy lawn to enjoy the sun and talk.

We described our homes to each other, in New Zealand for her and LA/Florida for me. And we talked about places we’d gone and what we’d seen. And why we are here on this Camino. For her, the Camino is one etapa as a part of her stay in Spain, learning the language and working at an NGO and meeting with friends all being other etapas in that collection.

For me… well, I mostly discussed with her the same things I wrote in my previous blog entry. Adventure yes but also happiness and ambition and contributing something of meaning and value to the world. All the thoughts swirling in my head these past two or three days.

Dinner was awesome. She’s a great cook. We shared a bottle of rioja and received consejos from and older Spaniard we often see walking and talk to. He and she actually found themselves in a lengthy and deep conversation to do with suffering and choice. She’s well beyond competent with Spanish so I had to focus carefully to follow.

This morning we took off early for Burgos, 37ish kilometers away. We passed over the hills easily and decided we could do it. After a break for breakfast I gave her a head start — from time to time she likes to walk alone at her own pace, which can be break-neck or meandering, depending.

I walked with Sue, who I had not seen for many days. We talked about her family and the Camino and stopped for Coke in Atapuerca, where Sarah passed us. Sue didn’t want to end the day but she was a bit anxious about crossing over the hills when she’d already walked a bit. She asked me to walk with her to distract her, which I was very happy to do. She’s a joy. On the other side we said goodbye near her albergue, and I continued on.

Muscles, joints, ligaments, all quite happy. But lo and behold, chafing. For the first time on the whole trip, and it had to happen on the longest day. I passed through village after village and found them devoid of markets and pharmacies, so I plodded on very uncomfortably and painfully. After an eternity of highway and sidewalk I reached the outskirts of Burgos and found a market to buy some relief. Then I carried on into Burgos and arrived at Albergue Emaus, a parochial albergue where we’d enjoy some quiet compared to the municipal, along with a lovely mass and communal dinner. Our hospitalera, Marie Noëlle, is a wonderfully kind woman who has taken great care of us tonight. Sarah is quite lucky to be enjoying a private room, because the only other woman here tonight is married and has a room with her husband. I’m sharing a room with two Italians and a German, all quite friendly.

Earlier Sarah and I enjoyed beers and olives in the plaza where the Cathedral lies, after first touring it. All in all, Burgos has been lovely once I got passed the outskirts of town.

And now I lay me down to sleep.

-Daniel

Nájera

Sometimes I think I either don’t understand half of what’s going on, or it’s constantly changing and I’m not keeping up. I wish I really understood Italian.

This morning was a whirlwind. Last night I thought I was giving Michele a fierce “I’ll never see you again” hug. And this morning I was giving him my sleeping bag to add to his backpack before having it mailed ahead to Nájera. I thought he was going to stop in Ventosa, the town before this one, which would’ve offset our caminos, probably for the duration of the trip. But here we are in Nájera! We rushed out of the hotel to a nearby cafe, out of the cafe to the street, and started walking. Danilo walked faster than the rest of us and before long he was out of sight.

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The sun was mostly hidden behind clouds today, so the way which would otherwise have had a few nice vistas was a bit boring. There was a mild elevation gain, but nothing really challenging. The pain did come back in my ankle, but after stretching it and following some posture advice from a Spaniard, and taking care to make sure I always do a full heel-toe roll with each step to stretch the muscle, things seem fine now. The Spaniard’s advice was to keep your gaze farther into the distance rather than close in front.

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The new shell symbol now that we're in La Rioja

I’ve been concerned about what will come after the Chiara and Lidia leave. Sarah has contacted me by Whatsapp. She’s a speed demon though; racking up a ton of kilometers per day. We’ll see if she slows it down a bit so we can meet in Grañon tomorrow.

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Tonight has been restful. Everyone other than Danilo and I found today to be really tough, so they’re all tired and eager to relax.

We wandered through the town and discovered that today is medieval/renaissance festival. Archers, swordsmen, a tent full of falcons, merchants, more. All the people were out in the streets and the kids playing. Michele didn’t feel well, so Lidia, Chiara, Danilo and I went to a nearby restaurant for the pilgrim’s menu while he slept. Now here we are in the albergue again, winding down before an early morning tomorrow.

It’s a long way to Grañon.

-Daniel

Logroño — Too many despedidas

Written last night:

Today was bittersweet. The road was easy enough – mostly flat. We did enjoy the famous fuente de vino in Irache, though it was very early in the morning for wine.

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The pain of my injury only caught up with me on occasion. But at lunch we said farewell to Sarah, Merel, and Yanjic. I don’t like goodbyes. Nobody warns you on the forums that so many of the people you begin to care for are not walking to Santiago with you. They go to cities along the way as their vacation days allow. New faces appear and old ones disappear.

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I hope to meet Sarah again along the way. Merel and Yannick are done soon but Sarah continues on. Tonight they went past Logroño to Navarette, and that may mean that she’ll be ahead of me for the rest of the trip. Or perhaps she’ll meet us in Grañon. I hope so. She’s one of the only ones carrying on past Burgos, and I enjoy talking to her.

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Michele and Elena, who are also heading towards Santiago or maybe Finisterre, will take a short day tomorrow, which will offset them from my path, possibly permanently.

And soon Chiara and Lidia will take a bus to Burgos and I’ll be without them for the first time since the mountains.

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But tonight was beautiful. We walked through Logroño’s vibrant centro, Ivan leading the way, and we ate and drank at one bar and then the next and more, ending at one of those odd bars that plays so much music from the Caribbean that I feel like I’m back in my car listening to the radio. There was singing and dancing, a clarinetist in the street, happy conversation and as joyful a farewell as any. But how I’ll miss them. And I brace myself for the next goodbyes. No one warns you of this. They should.

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It’s late and I have to sleep.

-Daniel