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.
It’s a strange thing, waking up alone after so many mornings spent in close company. I didn’t know what to do with myself that morning in Hontanas. Of course, I knew the basics – get up, get dressed, get packed, get the hell out of the albergue before they kick you out at 8am – but I was so used to the little morning intricacies that come from walking with other people. Waking up alone in Burgos hadn’t affected me quite so much as this, probably because there’s such a stark difference between waking up alone in a quiet hotel room, and waking up alone in an albergue full of people. While everyone else bustled along on their normal morning routines, I felt like I was only going through the motions of mine. It didn’t feel real. How do you leave an albergue without friends in tow? I wasn’t sure. In the end, I dragged my heels and waited around for the albergue to empty out. Even though I walked away alone, I didn’t feel quite so lonely with other pilgrims in my general area.
Leaving Hontanas, I followed a loop in the Camino that led out into the hills, and gave a gorgeous vantage point to enjoy the morning. The day was clear, and I soaked up the tiny details – the crunch of soil under my boots, the dew that still clung to wildflowers along the way. After awhile, I could see that the track I was following ran somewhat parallel to the main road, and would eventually be joining back up with it. Many of the pilgrims from the albergue were hiking alongside the road. Even from rather far away, I could make out the German pilgrim, Jakob, at the back of the pack. I could tell from the hitch in his gait that he was experiencing some pain, either in his hip or his lower back. It was a feeling with which I was deeply accustomed, after throwing out my back a few years earlier. I’d been in almost constant pain for about five years before a mix of chiropractors, physical therapists, and a great personal trainer helped me overcome it. As I watched the German limping away in the distance, I felt a flash of annoyance at his situation, and picked up my pace to catch up with him across the field.
My behavior at that junction was completely out of character, much like plopping down at the table with strangers the night before. I don’t know exactly what happened. Even though we knew each other slightly from dinner the previous evening, I’d spent most of the meal chatting with Nestor and Dena, and only briefly engaged in any conversation with Jakob. I had no attachment to him, and could very easily have watched him limp away and have gone about my day. As I’m writing this, I keep thinking that maybe, looking across the field, I subconsciously recognized him from Burgos, and there was some sort of kinship already brewing on that account. At the time, though, there was only one basic emotion occurring – irritation. For no good reason, I was completely annoyed at this stranger for not taking better care of himself, and I felt an overwhelming need to be bossy and make him do better. Definitely not my proudest mental moment on the Camino!
I caught up with him within a kilometer or two, and didn’t bother to waste time. I merely matched his pace, quizzed him on what hurt, and asked where he was carrying most of the weight in his pack. It felt like someone had taken over my body for a moment – my normal self watched in shock as this new, pushy version of me informed Jakob he was doing it all wrong, told him what he needed to do to stop hurting himself, and promised to teach him some stretches to help keep from seriously injuring himself once we got to the next coffee break. Then I picked my pace back up and walked on, simultaneously horrified at my behavior and strangely confident that I’d done exactly the right thing. It was very weird. What’s weirder is that soon after, Jakob and I all stopped at the same cafe, where he immediately sat down to rearrange his pack weight. We had coffee, chatted politely, I showed him stretches, and he was gracious enough not to tell me off for being a know-it-all. After our break, I again walked on alone. Even though I had no reason to think that I’d forged a lasting relationship in a few moments over coffee, still I relaxed into the knowledge that I’d found a kindred spirit, and was no longer walking completely alone.
The first time this occurred to me in force was just a little up the road, at the ruins of St. Antonio de Abad, a beautiful old monastery. I had been eager to examine the building, but as I got closer, I saw that it was shuttered up tight. However, there was a van parked beside what had been the main gate to the compound, and a little old man sold crude, handcrafted wooden pendants out of the back of the vehicle. As I approached, I felt misapprehension, but the knowledge of my German friend on the road behind me gave me comfort. One or two pilgrims passed by as I examined the woodcrafter’s wares, and I eventually bought a wooden bird to take home.
The day stretched on. We had now entered Palencia. Though I chatted with other pilgrims as we walked, no one’s pace quite matched my own, and I remained mostly solo. I still had it in mind to push on and catch up with Natalie, and to do so, I tried cutting back on my usually numerous coffee breaks, stopping only when I felt it was most necessary. By the time I reached Itero de la Vega in the early afternoon, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. No coffee meant no tortilla, and no tortilla meant that I was famished! Everything in my body screamed for me to stop right here and call it a day.
There weren’t many places to stop and grab a bite, but Bar Tachu was on the main drag and seemed to still have a few people inside, so I entered. It had a rock-and-roll vibe to it, and I imagined that a Friday night at Bar Tachu had to be the experience, indeed. The first thing that I saw upon entering was Jakob, ordering a burger at the bar. I didn’t know how he and walking buddy had managed to pass me, but at some point in the day we had leapfrogged. They looked a lot better than I felt, and I felt another stab of guilt-not-guilt at being bossy that morning. They invited me to come and sit with them, and we all took off our shoes and ate bar grub at the rock-and-roll bar in the middle of nowhere. It was wonderful.
While we ate, the three of us discussed how much time was left in the day, and where we each thought we could make it to before it was time to quit for the afternoon. The general consensus was that it would be prudent to aim for Castrojeriz. We ended up leaving Bar Tachu together, and walking on together until Boadilla del Camino, about 8km away. We talked and laughed most of the way. Jakob’s friend wanted to go to a particular albergue somewhere between Itero de la Vega and Boadilla del Camino, but when we got there, it turned out to already be closed for the season. By the time we reached Boadilla del Camino, it was getting on into the afternoon, and the clouds were looming overhead. The friend announced that he was definitely stopping here for the night, so we shuffled into the first cafe to take off our packs and have one last coffee together while we all made up our minds about lodging for the night.
It was around 3pm, and the sky was gray. It was raining – heavy enough to be annoying, but light enough to not put a major wrench in the day. My feet hurt, but I still had energy. More than that, I still had the drive to catch up with Natalie. The three of us sat at our table, surrounded by food, drinks, and guidebooks. What was the next step? After consulting my maps, I made the call to keep walking. If I could keep up the pace, I could easily be in Fromista by late afternoon – it was only 6 more kilometers. Jakob’s friend decided to stay the night in the municipal albergue, and had figured out how to get there from here. I expected Jakob to also stay behind in Boadilla del Camino, but had a strange moment of pleasant un-surprise when he announced that he was going to walk on to Fromista with me. That might not make sense, exactly, but if you’ve ever picked up the phone without looking at caller ID, and still known exactly who it was, you might know the feeling I’m talking about. It’s more of a feeling of having absolutely no idea something is going to happen, followed by a feeling of absolute certainty that was obviously always going to happen. Maybe I’ll be able to more accurately describe it in some later draft. At the time, I was relieved not to have to walk on alone in the waning light, and pleased that it seemed like I’d found a solid companion.
The rest of the afternoon’s walk was spent swapping stories about our respective cities – New Orleans and Munich, and how, though they were extremely different, they still had some shocking similarities. We talked about Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest, and our favorite local foods, and showed each other pictures of our partners. Jakob was over-the-moon in love with his girlfriend, which made me more comfortable with him, since I also had a boyfriend back home, and wasn’t interested in any of tension and awkwardness I’d seen several times thus far on the Camino. It was becoming clear to me that some people go off on pilgrimage with their eye more on hooking up than on finding themselves, and I didn’t have the mental room for any misunderstandings with men. It was a major relief to not have to fend off advances, or explain my intentions to anyone that I met on the road.
We arrived in Fromista very late in the day, around 5pm or so. It was hours later than I’d typically walked before, and every inch of my body cried defeat. We consulted Jakob’s yellow Camino guide and my Wise Pilgrim app for a suitable albergue, and agreed on Albergue Estrella Del Camino, which turned out to be my least favorite spot to sleep on the entire Camino. It was the least hospitable albergue, by far. We had beds and showers, so that was nice, but we were the only pilgrims in the place, and largely ignored. The only nearby food option was a tiny market, where we bought a mishmash of food and wine to share, and went back to the albergue to eat in the common room.
Before bed, I called my parents to tell them about my travels, and chatted with my dad about the fact that we’d be visiting a Templar castle in a few days. That night, we were the only people in the dorm, and we chose beds like strangers choose seats on a train – leaving a few spots open in between, for privacy’s sake. If only the hospitalera had cared to have us, the experience would have felt luxurious. As it was, we were both happy to leave in the morning.