In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
For awhile after I left Burgos, I didn’t pass a single person, not even a local out for a morning jog. It was early, but not so early that I shouldn’t have seen at least another pilgrim or two on the way out of town, so I worried that perhaps I was headed the wrong way. But the road markers told me I was going in the right direction. My optimistic side told me that maybe there was a reason I was leaving the city alone. If this was the start of Part 2 of my Camino, then perhaps it needed to mirror the start of Part 1. I resolved to enjoy my status as a once-again solitary peregrina.
In stark contrast with earlier days, I had no set goal in mind. As I started out, I resolved to walk as far as I wanted to, and stop when I was ready. I briefly checked over the map to see what was out there, and how much distance there would be between towns, but otherwise I kept my thoughts as light as I wished my backpack could be, and got a move on. The day was crisp and cool, a proper fall day, with just a few pretty clouds in the sky. Taking those two days off had done me good, and my body felt revved up and ready to go. I practically bounced down the trail.
As I walked, I enjoyed the little signs and symbols left behind by those who had walked before. There was one amazing work of rock art that reminded me my birthday would soon be here, and I felt flush with pleasure as I realized that I was alive and in a really great place to be enjoying that fact. I also saw another solitary poppy – my second of the trip – a reminder that St. Francis was there with me. Later, I looked back that that photo of that late-season poppy and realized that it was also a sign of a very special day. I couldn’t have known that when the flower first appeared, of course.
The first obstacle of the day was hitting a construction area that had destroyed the path markings and greatly confused the area. It looked like a crew was in the process of building a new road and overpasses, but the site was abandoned. Conflicting signs pointed two different directions for the Camino, and I wandered around for a few minutes, getting my bearings and looking out for notes and signs left behind by other pilgrims to mark the way. Some helpful soul had made a Camino arrow out of larger rocks, something that I’d seen before down the trail. This was the first time that it was amazingly helpful, instead of just one more thing to walk by.
After successfully navigating the construction zone, I put my headphones in, and sang along to The Edgar Winters Band at top volume, since I was pretty sure there wasn’t another soul around for miles. Then I rounded a curve and saw a trio of Spanish teenagers out for a walk, giggling. I froze for a second, then laughed along with them. It was pretty silly, after all. They wished me a Buen Camino as we passed.
It wasn’t long after they disappeared from view that I heard the gunshots. I quickly took off my headphones and froze there, listening.
I’ve lived in New Orleans since I was 17, and though I’ve been lucky to never witness gun violence, it certainly does happen here. I am always cautious of who might have a gun, who looks angry or is raising their voice, who might have a reason to make a bad decision and hurt those around them. To make things a little murkier, I also grew up in rural North Carolina, where everyone has a gun or two (or ten) in the house. Even though I was taught how to safely handle firearms as a child, and then taught to shoot as a teenager, I have never liked guns. I don’t like the look or feel of them. I hate the sound of them. I don’t like seeing them in a hand or on a wall, whether modern or antique. I understand that they’re useful in some cases, but that doesn’t make me dislike them any less. Even so, a lifetime of hearing them go off has given me a certain pragmatism, I guess. My initial fear at the sound of a lone gunshot eased off as I heard a few more. I could tell that whoever was shooting, it was a rifle. It was a gorgeous fall morning, on the weekend, and I could see there were woods just up the hill. I quickly decided that someone must be hunting. There were a few more gunshots, nothing, then a few more as I got closer to the patch of woods. I wasn’t worried about gun violence by that point, but I was worried that someone might mistakenly shoot out of the woods and hit the lone hiker. I was happy to be wearing a bright pink jacket, so at least I’d be visible if I went down.
All at once, a big, shaggy labrador retriever bounded out of the woods, then another, both wet and muddy up to their underbellies. The dogs were soon followed by a group of rugged, handsome men with their rifles broken and dead ducks slung over shoulders and carried on strings. A few more dogs trotted along. One big, golden dog had a duck clamped firmly in his jaws, and practically danced along next to his owner, his eyes so full of joy that I couldn’t help but want to congratulate him for being a good dog. The whole thing looked like a scene out of an Eddie Bauer catalog. I was simultaneously saddened by the carnage and oddly attracted to the conquering heroes. There was a certain pastoral romance to the scene. The men walked down the trail ahead of me for awhile, until they reached their parking lot. I walked on, trying to wrap my head around it all. After all, duck is one of my favorite dishes.
Later in the day, I ran into Terry again (of course). We walked together for maybe an hour, talking about her time in Africa in the Peace Corps. It turned out we both really like Afrobeat music, so she told me about a couple of concerts that she’d been to in years past. Along the way, we picked up a third hiker, Annie (not her actual name) a young woman in her 20’s who had been struggling to keep up with two other pilgrims. The other couple kept up their speed and were out of sight before long. Annie walked on with Terry and me, and when Terry got to Hornillos, her intended destination, Annie and I kept walking together for a nice part of the afternoon. I wish I could remember her real name, because we had a great talk. I really liked her. She was in the process of moving to another country for a job, and was walking the Camino, then going home to pack up the rest of her stuff and make the final trip to her new life. I loved how practical and driven she was, and remember wishing that I had a little touch of that in my scattered life.
Before long, we got to the little hamlet where Annie’s two friends had told her they’d bed down for the night, so I walked with her to the albergue where they were waiting. They invited me to stay with them, but it didn’t feel quite right. I had the energy to keep going, and I thought of how nice it would be to meet back up with Natalie, if I could only work a little harder at it. So I grabbed an Aquarius and sat with them for awhile, enjoying their albergue’s little garden seating area, and took a look at my maps. There was a town not too much farther down the road: Hontanas. Something about it sounded right to me as I rolled the name over my tongue – Hontanas, like Bananas, like Anna Banana, like me. It was just right. It’s weird thinking about it now, since I certainly didn’t understand it then, but I had a very strong gut feeling about Hontanas. I needed to be there. Mind made up, I traded out my sneakers for Tevas to revive my tired feet, strapped my pack back on, gave my trio of new friends hugs goodbye, and kept on keeping on.
By the time I reached Hontanas, I was absolutely battered. Every step was a monumental effort. Even with sunblock on, all of my exposed skin was a couple of shades darker. It was taking everything I had just to not drop my pack and sleep right where I was. It would be sunset in an hour or so, so I fervently hoped that this was where my gut had been insisting I go. Luckily, the sign that I was supposed to be here was loud and clear. Right there at the edge of town is a Tau, the pilgrim’s cross, the symbol of St. Francis. As soon as I saw it, I knew I’d find whatever it was that I was looking for just down the street.
I don’t remember if I went looking for Albergue El Puntido, or if I found it by accident, but if it was the latter, it was the luckiest of accidents to have. The albergue has a restaurant and bar, ample outdoor seating, and even a little general store for basic needs. I went in and bought a bed from one of the hospitaleras who was manning the bar, and went about getting tidied up from the day. I showered, got my bed set up as quietly as possible, since there was already a guy sleeping on the bottom bunk, and pulled everything out of my bag that I wanted to have laundered. It was a little late in the day, but the hospitalera was still willing to wash things for me.
All of the major things taken care of, it was now time for the best part of my afternoon – a beer. Taking a cue from English Mark, I asked for the largest mug they offered, then took my ice cold treat out to the front of the bar, where a gaggle of pilgrims was already congregating, drinking and talking. As soon as I came out of the front door, I realized that Nestor, whom I’d met in Pamplona, was sitting alone at a little table opposite the door, writing in his journal. We’d only barely met, but there was something so familiar about him that seeing his face made my heart leap. I softly called out hello, not wanting to disturb him too much, then headed over to the larger group of pilgrims. Out of the din of conversation, one thread rang above the rest – a woman, speaking English with a southern accent, her voice dancing with friendly, playful notes. Well, whatdaya know, an American! I took a plunge that is completely out of character with my personality, and just pulled up a chair at her table without asking if I could join. It was a “What the hell, let’s try it!” moment that paid off in a few ways.
Dena was a charming, vivacious Tennessee native, currently in the process of leading the table of pilgrims in a game of 20 questions. I joined in, and began to make guesses towards the common goal – what did Dena do for a living? Another woman from Nashville, Cherrie, sat to my left. She stayed out of the game, since she and Dena were friends. Between my failed attempts to figure out Dena’s profession, Cherrie and I shared stories about our pets and all of the animals we had met so far on the Camino. The other two people at the table were both guys – Josh (not his real name) an American from California who’d hurt his leg, taxied ahead for a rest day, and was waiting for his parents and uncle to join up the next morning, and Jakob, a German law student. Eventually, we were joined by Alison, a serious, athletic young woman from Colorado, and Nestor, who had packed up his writing and come over to join the fun. We drank beers and talked and laughed until the sun went down. I finally had the courage to ask Nestor why he’d had a black eye when I met him, and it turned out that he’d been mugged for his watch in Barcelona before even starting his pilgrimage. When the group expressed dismay, he lightened up the mood by sharing another disastrous vacation story, about how he’d gone out hiking on a mountain without the proper clothing, and had almost frozen to death after misjudging the terrain. It was evident that Nestor’s special talent was finding the humor in almost any situation, and he kept the table laughing with his cheery retellings of vacation mishaps.
We sat around, soaking in the fellowship (and the beer) until someone mentioned that we should probably let the hospitaleras know if we were going to order dinner or not. I remember feeling total panic – of course I wanted food! What would I do if no one gave me a pilgrim meal? Ack! Chairs were quickly pushed from the table, and one by one we sought out the hospitaleras to obtain sustenance. Jakob and I were the last two at the table with Dena when she finally broke her silence and cleared up the mystery of her job. It had been at least an hour and a half, and way more than 20 questions, but no one had figured it out. I remember finding something so charming and genuine about her laughter as she informed us that she was a real estate agent. To this day I still have no clue how none of us figured that out.
While I had many wonderful meals with fellow peregrinos over the course of my walk through Spain, I can say with absolute certainty that nothing came close to beating dinner in Hontanas. Something brand new began to blossom in me at that table. There were layers to the magic, of course. We were all tired. We’d all been broken down a little by now, and I know that I was in a space where I felt more comfortable and unafraid of being my genuine self. Most of us were solo, except for Dena and Cherrie, who were walking together. Some of the other pilgrims had walked in with others, but no one else was part of a dedicated pair. We were all a little buzzed from afternoon beers, and feeling comfortable after hours of pleasant conversation. By the time we were seated at the albergue’s long farm table, plates of warm, delicious food in front of us, wine flowing, we were all old friends. Alison and I started talking about Game of Thrones, Nestor and Jakob jumped in, and we were off! Dena and I talked about pack weight, and what was and wasn’t necessary in our bags (she couldn’t live without her skincare routine, and I couldn’t live without my PJ pants). We emptied all of the wine, requested another bottle, then eventually Nestor bought us another one. Dinner was long done, the rest of the dining room empty and clean, by the time the last hospitalera on duty came over to suggest that we all go to bed soon. It was after 10pm, about two hours after my typical Camino bedtime. Oops 🙂
On the way up to bed, I realized I’d forgotten about my laundry. I discovered it in a basket at the bottom of the stairs to the dorm rooms, freshly washed, but still wet. I hadn’t realized that there wasn’t a dryer when I’d handed the things over to be laundered. Feeling like a total idiot, I went out to the back patio and draped my clothes across one of the available clothes racks. There was no way it would dry by morning, and I glumly reconciled myself to walking in cold, wet pants the next morning.
Alison and Jakob were staying in my dorm room, and we all finished up our nighttime routines as quietly as possible, while still shooting each other knowing looks and stifling giggles. It was like being part of some secret in-crowd. I went to bed feeling satisfied, and woke up feeling thirsty and slightly hungover. As expected, my pants were cold and clammy off of the clothesline. Still, I felt pretty good. As we were standing around, packing up and getting ready to head out, no one wanted to say goodbye. Josh waited out front of the albergue for his other family members to arrive, and he and I started to talk about funny t-shirts we’d seen. I told him about my favorite t-shirt from back home, and showed him a professional photo I’d had taken in the shirt. He was blown away – it turned out that one of his best friends owned the t-shirt company, Buy Me Brunch, that I’d gotten the shirt from. It was a smaller company, so it was a fun realization for both of us. I shared the photo with him to send to his friend, and soon after, walked on for the day on my own, for my second day as a solo peregrina.