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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.