Day 22: Calzadilla de la Cueza to Sahagun

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 was nothing new to wake up in pain by this point on the Camino, so when my legs were swollen and stiff on the morning of Day 22, I shrugged it off, gave myself a quick calf massage, popped an Ibuprofen, and joined the other pilgrims in packing to leave. The mood and energy level in the dorm seemed rather low, overall. No one was really hustling to get out, and there were groans from those pilgrims who realized their boots hadn’t dried out completely overnight. I was proud of myself for having worn sandals the day before, so that my feet could be warm and toasty this morning. Once again, I realized that it’s the tiniest details that make or break a day. Even though my legs were really hurting, warm feet on a chilly morning improved my mood greatly.

IMG_7469

Hobbit houses!

 

The other thing that really made my morning was seeing hobbit houses! Somehow, I’d missed the memo about the bodegas in Moratinos, so seeing these perfect doors cut into the hillside was a wonderful shock. The bodegas are underground structures, primarily used for wine storage (or perhaps general storage) by families in the municipality, but they look exactly like something out of Hobbiton. I was told that they are also sometimes used as drinking dens / man caves, but didn’t get to see this for myself first hand. Instead, I had to be content with visiting Bodega Restaurante El Castillo de Moratinos, a bar and restaurant set up in an old bodega. We had a quick snack, and walked on, making it to Sahagun shortly after lunchtime.

IMG_7485

This made me laugh.

 

Since we were both so beat from the day before, it was decided that we’d stop early, get beds in a nice albergue, and just relax. The reviews for Albergue Viatoris were excellent, so deciding to stay there was a simple choice. From the extensiveness of the grounds, was pretty obvious that the place was its own bustling city center at the height of pilgrimage season, but when we arrived, it was a ghost town. Despite the proverbial tumbleweeds blowing through, things were looking up when the hospitalero led us to a nicely appointed room with only six beds – only half were bunks! – and showed us a kingly private bathroom down the hall with a lovely shower. We each took a non-bunk bed, and drew straws to see who’d shower first. Jakob won. He was only gone for a few minutes before coming back, looking cleaner, but not too enthusiastic about it. It turns out that our posh digs had no hot water. We mutually decided to move on with life instead of complaining, so I took my own icy cold dip, then we headed out to find food.

IMG_7483

Very special chicharrones 🙂

What happened next was one of my favorite dining experiences on the entire Camino – an Irish pub with Spanish beer and Italian food. I don’t know if it was the sheer relief of not having to exercise anymore, or if it was just the simple economics of pouring more alcohol in, but the rest of the afternoon was exceedingly pleasant. Jakob and I sat and bullshitted for awhile in the bar, enjoying beer and each other’s company. We had chicharrones at the bar, as well, and I was surprised to find out that he had never tried pork rinds or cracklins before. It made me weirdly proud to have been present for the first try, especially since he liked them.

Afterwards, we decided to pick up some snacks for dinner so we wouldn’t have to leave the albergue again that day. On the way to finding a grocery store, we ended up wandering into an Asian general store. There’s at least one of these in every slightly large town. These stores are a cheap one-stop-shop, with strange and varied wares, and I loved to visit them all along the Camino to see what kind of random stuff I could find. In Sahagun, I found cheap Halloween decor, masks, and sparkly top hats. I was too pleased with the hats, and ended up wearing one for a few minutes. I was brushing glitter out of my hair for a couple of days.

At the grocery store, I got to experience another first for Jakob – his first packet of Double Stuffed Oreos. It turns out that he loves Oreos, but they didn’t have the double creme version in Germany. He was pretty much overjoyed to see the packet in the cookie aisle, and I realized that he got just as excited about food as I do. Along with the typical wine, cheese, bread, and sausage, that packet of Oreos had to come back home with us.

The rest of the day was very laid back. We did some preliminary reading for the next day’s walk, then caught up on posting photos to Facebook and getting in touch with family who were waiting to hear from us. Once it was apparent that no other pilgrims would be joining us in the room, we spread out a little. I actually ended up feeling weirdly exposed to not have a bunk above my head, so I moved down to sleep in the bottom of one of the two bunks in the room. Lights were out early, and I fell asleep quickly. Since it was just the two of us, I didn’t bother with my ear plugs.

Around one or two in the morning, I woke up to a strange rustling sound that took a moment for my brain to interpret…until I heard a crunch, crunch, crunch. It was the middle of the night, and two beds away, my new friend had woken up to eat Oreos in bed. I couldn’t have loved anyone more in that moment. I laid awake, listening to him eat a couple more cookies, then roll the bag shut and put it aside. I fell asleep smiling. As I recall, he had a stomach ache the next morning.

Day 21 (Part 2): Villarmentero de Campos to Calzadilla de la Cueza

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.

All beautiful moments must come to an end, and soon enough, it was time to pack up and leave the garden at Albergue Amanecer. Buoyed by our little break and the lovely surroundings, my moodiness from the morning disappeared as we hit the road again. The weather had cleared up over the course of the morning, and once again we had blue skies and puffy clouds.

As we walked, Jakob and I discussed who we were and why we had each decided to walk the Camino. Despite our easy friendship, our lives had been extremely different. I was an only child, raised in a rural area by a lower income family.  I moved a thousand miles away at 17 and never looked back. At nearly 34, I had three college degrees and dozens of seemingly random jobs under my belt. My dreams of singing and writing hadn’t even gotten off of the ground, and I’d bounced around from idea to idea all of my life. I was pretty good at most things that I tried, and job transitions weren’t too difficult, but I’d yet to find a job about which I could be passionate. I was introverted, introspective, and struggling with depression. I was walking to find answers to questions I didn’t know yet. Though I enjoyed the religious architecture along the route, my only connection to Catholicism was my slight obsession with St. Francis, and I found him more in nature than in the built environment.

By contrast, my new friend grew up in a close-knit family, in conditions that many would call comfortable (both of his parents are professionals, and his father is well-known in his field). His family had lived in the same area of Bavaria for many generations – longer than my family had been in America. At 30, Jakob had only recently finished his law degree after many years of school. His dream was to become a judge, and he was almost there. His Camino had long been planned to span the bridge between graduation and job placement, and as we walked, he was keeping track of his job application process as it rolled along back home. I was surprised to learn that in Germany, there is no requirement to practice as a lawyer before becoming a judge. We discussed what the job meant to him, and the nuances of job hunting for a judgeship near his home in Munich. He was driven, optimistic, and given his patience and open-mindedness, I couldn’t help but marvel that he’d be great at his chosen profession. He was also religious, and for him, the Camino was a way to connect with his name saint, James the Apostle (called Jakob in German tradition, from the Latin Iacobus).

I was surprised, given how much I liked my new friend, that he was also highly active in his college fraternity. It took me awhile to wrap my head around how different it was to be in a frat in Germany vs. the U.S. He showed me a photo of their old-fashioned uniforms (complete with funny hats and military braids). Involvement seemed strict, and academics and conduct were of the utmost importance. Connections lasted a lifetime, and older members made sure that the college-age brothers didn’t stray off the path and embarrass the organization. But like the American frats with which I had more experience, beer was also a key ingredient. How could it not be, in the beer capital of Germany?

Speaking of imbibing, we found great kinship in discussing the party reputations of our respective hometowns during their two biggest festivals – Oktoberfest for him, and Mardi Gras for me. We shared funny stories of various debauchery we’d witnessed, and popular misconceptions of what these giant, world-renowned parties were actually all about. We each issued unconditional invitations for a festival exchange program – one day I still plan to make it to Oktoberfest.

IMG_7436

Bocadillo, Aquarius, Coca Cola – who could ask for more?

In early afternoon, we reached Carrion de los Condes, and sat down to have lunch at a little cafe. I had no idea, but this was about to be one of those life changing moments. We posted up at our table, me with an absolutely giant sandwich. I pulled out my phone to peruse the WisePilgrim app, and he pulled out his yellow guidebook (then only published in German – the English version came out a few months later), looking up our options. We were about to hit the longest stretch of the Camino with no opportunities to stop, and if we chose to keep walking, we’d have to really commit. No bathrooms, no water, no cafe con leche, nowhere to rest our weary feet! It would be hours before we’d make it to a stopping point, and it was already afternoon. Was it crazy? Should we do it, or just stop here for the night? Once again, I got this feeling that the Universe had put us together as some sort of challenge, to keep each other encouraged.

As we ate and mulled over the choice, it was also in the back of my mind that we must be reaching the end of our time together soon. It seemed natural to me that we would walk in each other’s company for a few days or so, then split up. Easy. No pressure. I was on track to find Natalie again, and also practicing a kind of detachment. Despite how much fun I was having, at some level I was letting things wash over me without getting too involved. Perhaps I was guarding my heart? I don’t know what I was thinking.

But then, over that jamón y queso bocadillo muy grande, somehow the conversation turned to books and TV, and I mentioned that I really loved the miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Weirdly enough, the show was my introduction to the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, and it was a series that I rewatch yearly to remind myself of determination, grit, bravery, and goodness. Jakob immediately geeked out, and gushed that the show was one of his favorites, too. In fact, he’d watched it multiple times in German and English, to make sure not to miss any nuances in the dialogue. I told him that years before, when I was training to run the Chicago Marathon, I’d spurred myself on in difficult moments with Easy Company’s battle cry, “Currahee!” He said he’d often done the same. With that simple exchange, something shifted. No more conversation was necessary – we were all in. We could keep walking. We could do this. That was also the moment that I realized I’d been handed a new Camino family without even trying.

The next albergue was 18k away, in Calzadilla de la Cueza, which meant at least another 4 hours walking at our current pace. We’d be very lucky to arrive before dark, and there were storm clouds on the horizon, so we’d probably be walking through crappy weather. It was a stupid decision, made out of false bravado, and one which had terrible consequences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On our way out of town, we stopped to purchase two cheap ponchos. I had a raincoat and a pack cover, but had found that my pack was still getting wet inside when I walked too long in the rain. Luckily, I’d packed all of my clothing inside a big space saver Ziploc bag, so my clothes stayed dry, but I still didn’t like the moisture in the pack. Additionally, wearing the raincoat made me feel like I was in a walking sauna. I thought maybe the poncho would do the trick if we encountered heavy rain, and soon, I got a chance to test out the theory.

IMG_7445

Within about an hour after leaving Carion de los Condes, the sky went from somewhat cloudy to absolutely treacherous. The wind whipped up into a frenzy, and we were hit with heavy bursts of rain. I changed out of my trail runners as soon as the weather shifted, to attempt to keep them dry. Instead, I switched to my Teva Tirras, worn with socks. My feet were cold and damp, but didn’t chafe – and I knew I could count on dry shoes the next day. Underneath the socks was the typical layer of moleskin on all of my “danger zones” known for chafing, plus a thin coat of Unpetroleum Jelly (made by Alba). The rain was so relentless that in the end, I ended up wearing the raincoat and the poncho together.

Between the insane crackling of the poncho and the wind whistling across the open Meseta over the Camino, there was little conversation. We marched on, wet and miserable, all afternoon. From time to time, the rain would let up a bit, and one of us would point out something funny or weird to examine along the road, from old boots left behind, to road markers. From time to time, I’d begin to despair that we would see civilization again. The road stretched on forever in those moments. Inevitably, though, as my spirits sank, Jakob would draw my attention to some small wonder at the side of the road. For awhile, we both put in our headphones, and realized we could walk “together” but separately, singing along to our own tunes. Singing is always a spirit lifter for me, and this worked out perfectly. Towards sunset, we stood and admired the clouds racing along the horizon. There was power in the land, and prayer in the walking. We were discovering something important together. It was still an incredible relief to see the first rooftops of Calzadilla de la Cueza appear on the horizon.

IMG_7451

IMG_7455

It was dusk when we walked into town. Luckily for two completely exhausted peregrinos, the Calzadilla de la Cueza Albergue Municipal was on the left, immediately as you walk into town. I don’t know if either of us could have walked another step. As it turned out, the facilities were cheap and pretty nice. The bathrooms seemed newly refurbished and very clean, and the beds were comfy. There were maybe 10 other pilgrims there that night, including Tom, the older American guy I’d met with British Mark a couple of weeks before. I said hi, and he not only acted like he didn’t remember me, but was also a little rude about it. I was too tired to care much, but Jakob later told me that he saw the interaction and was taken aback on my behalf. As we started to unpack our things, I heard Jakob start laughing, and looked over to see that he was peering at me through a giant rip in his poncho. I’d already decided I couldn’t stand the way mine crinkled as I walked, so I told him he was welcome to have mine as a replacement. My pack would just have to get wet now and then.


After a hot shower and putting on some dry, warm clothes, I felt slightly more human. However, my legs were killing me, and my face was chafed from the wind and sun. It was obvious that the day’s activity had taken its toll on my already tired body. I massaged my legs with Volaren, popped an Ibuprofen, and donned compression socks, but even with that, I could tell I’d done some serious damage to my legs and feet. We’d walked around 34K over the course of the day – over 21 miles, almost a marathon. Even with all of the walking I’d done up until now, it was a huge leap in distance, and I knew I’d pay a price. Leaving the albergue in search of food was out of the question, since I could barely walk. I ate a few random choices from the vending machine while checking my Facebook messages in the break room, and went to bed before the dorm lights were out.

Day 21 (Part 1): Fromista to Villarmentero de Campos

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.

IMG_7406

Moon and stars carved into the bathroom door at Albergue Amanecer.

The day started out damp and gloomy. A fine mist was falling, and the sky was gray, as we struggled back out of the door of the inhospitable albergue and trudged back out to the Camino. I don’t know how Jakob slept, but I slept like a rock. That was great, because as it would turn out, I’d need all the energy I could get for the day ahead. Still, I was dragging as the day started. My mood was as dumpy as the weather.

The town still seemed to be asleep, but just up the road was a little cafe/bar that catered to the all night crowd. Most of the patrons were a little rough around the edges, guys who seemed to have just gotten off of the night shift, peppered with a few who had probably been drinking for hours. A pinball machine in the corner had a crowd of guys around it, bantering back and forth, cheering now and then. Several older men were perched at the bar, beers in hand. I mentally pegged them as off-duty truck drivers, and for some reason that cheered me up a little.

There were a few peregrinos already seated, eating the customary breakfast of toast, zumo, and cafe con leche. I took one look at their plates and decided I just couldn’t handle another morning of carb loading. I asked the bartender if she had tortilla, and she shook her head no. Eggs? No. OK, what about chorizo? Si! So I did have toast for breakfast, bolstered with a chewy hunk of sausage for protein, and a hot cocoa, just to get my endorphins going and pull me out of the funk. We sat near the other peregrinos, and ever-friendly Jakob made conversation while I ate and nodded along now and then. They were British women, in their late 50’s or early 60’s. In what I would learn was a pretty usual occurrence, they found my companion to be exceedingly charming, and one giggled like a schoolgirl while they talked.

IMG_7404

Eventually, there was a break in the rain, and the trio of women struggled away with packs and ponchos. I hadn’t quite finished my breakfast, so we sat a few minutes longer, and while we sat, it started to rain harder. Neither of us had the energy to budge until it cleared, so it was about 30 minutes later that we finally got our day started and got out of Fromista. Despite my breakfast and my new friend, I felt grayer than the day.

Before the Camino, walking was a means to get from one place to another. Walking just WAS. There was no emotion associated with it. There was no specific benefit to be gleaned from it. I put one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, until I reached a destination. That was that. I didn’t know before the Camino, and to be honest, I didn’t really realize while on the Camino, just what joy there was to be had through walking. I couldn’t see how drastically it could impact me, to my very core. This day stands as one of the first days that I got just a glimmer of an idea that putting one foot in front of the next could change EVERYTHING for me, starting with my mood.

As Jakob and I walked, I loosened up just a bit. I still felt emotionally low, but talking with my new friend gave me some mental space. The real turning point in the day was just up the road, about 9km away, at a place called Albergue Amanecer.

In my primary research for the Camino, I’d read that at some point around the Meseta, there was an albergue that had a friendly donkey and a tipi. I’m not sure when it became absolutely necessary for me to visit the albergue with the donkey and the tipi, but at some point, I’d decided that it was one of my Camino “musts.” I was hoping to stay the night in the tipi, should the opportunity present itself. The night before, while drinking wine and eating our grocery store dinner at the albergue, we’d researched the next day’s walk a little, and discovered that we were an hour and a half’s walk from Albergue Amanacer, home of tipi and donkey. I was disappointed to not be able to stay the night, but figured we could at least stop and take a look.

IMG_7418

Geese and a tipi! I never did get to chat with the donkey, though.

By the time we reached the tiny municipality of Villarmentero de Campos, it was already late morning. We were very behind schedule for the day, and the Albergue Amanecer’s front gate was closed. But beyond the gate was visible a large, verdant lawn, outdoor tables, and in the distance, the tipi and several old fashioned wooden structures that reminded me of Romani vardos that had been taken off of their wheels. The entire picture was so wholesome and pleasant that it increased my resolve to get in and explore. Jakob tried the gate, and it opened easily. Once in the front yard, it was obvious that it had been closed to prevent the yard’s various fowl – chickens, ducks, and geese – from wandering out. The birds wandered around and past us as we made our way to the little cafe on the side of the building. Inside, one of the owners made cafe con leches and invited us to hang out while we rested our feet.

As soon as we’d taken a seat outside in the garden, a couple of locals showed up. With them came their dogs, who scampered around, played with each other, chased chickens, and generally just amused the hell out of all of us. At one point, one of the chickens flew up to the roof to escape a dog, and we all clapped in amazement as the chunky bird clumsily cleared the roof’s edge by what seemed like millimeters. As we enjoyed the scene, a young hospitalera told us about how she had recently moved to Spain, soon after walking the Camino for the first time. On her first walk, she’d rescued Camina, one of the young dogs now playing out in the yard in front of us. She felt so at peace on her journey that soon after returning to her own country, she called up the albergue’s owners, asked if they’d hire her on, then packed up her belongings and moved to Spain.

I was aware that it was getting late, but was really enjoying the moment, and didn’t feel like leaving yet. Part of me felt anxious – was I inconveniencing my new friend? Would he need to walk on to meet his schedule? Was it pissing him off that I was wasting time here in this beautiful garden? But when I surreptitiously glanced over and took stock of his attitude, I saw that he was relaxed, just taking in the moment with a zen-like demeanor that made me a little jealous, but mostly just made me relieved. I knew that I was being given a big gift, whether or not Jakob realized it. To be able to move at my own pace without judgement was still a very foreign concept. I decided to sit back and soak in this taste of freedom that had presented itself, here in this perfect little slice of nature.

Day 20: Hontanas to Fromista

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.

IMG_7350

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.

IMG_7358

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.

 

Anna’s Camino: Day 19 – Burgos to Hontanas

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.

IMG_7326

There’s some surprisingly awesome graffiti all along the Camino Francés, but this simple piece was one of my favorites.

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.

IMG_7327IMG_7329IMG_7332IMG_7333IMG_7334IMG_7335IMG_7336IMG_7337IMG_7340IMG_7341

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.

IMG_7344

The hermitage of St. Bridget, Hontanas.

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.

IMG_7347

Talk about a pilgrim tan!

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.

IMG_7348

Didn’t take a single photo of El Puntido or my new friends, but I did take this snapshot of the recycling pile out behind the albergue. With the way our night went, I’d say this was about a week’s worth of bottles, lol.

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.

My Camino Playlist (2015 Edition)

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.

there-are-two-means-of-refuge-from-the-miseries-of-life-music-cats

Considering all the cats I petted on the Camino, I have to think that Mr. Schweitzer was on to something…

There are many controversial subjects among pilgrims and prospective pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago: raincoat or poncho, backpack weight, shoe type, best bedbug prevention, pants or skirt, and the list goes on. If you’ve ever asked yourself “is XYZ a good idea?” chances are that there are a few forum threads on XYZ, and equal numbers of people saying “Of course!” and “Hell no!” We humans are a difficult bunch.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from walking the Camino started to get drilled in before I’d even boarded the plane to Paris, through reading tons of Camino journals, blog posts, and forum comments. Pretty early on, it became obvious to me that this journey was mine to make, and mine alone. It’s one thing to pay attention to advice, but it’s up to the individual to decide what’s useful and proper in their situation, and what is merely interference (no matter how well-meant). Just because someone else insists that their way is the only right way – especially when they’re knit-picking you about things that aren’t life or death – doesn’t mean they’re right. In fact, it seems to me that when people try to bully you into accepting their inconsequential choices as your own habits, it’s usually out of fear, and the subconscious belief that having others conform to their whims will somehow validate their life path. In other words, don’t believe everything you read. Make your own decisions. Walk your own damn road!

When you know yourself and your proclivities, sometimes there are choices to be made to ensure comfort and happiness that will go against the grain. Have the courage to do things your way (but don’t be too proud to admit when your way kind of sucks in the end). Deciding to do things my way meant that I wore sneakers instead of boots, despite some strong advice against it. I went with my gut, knowing how miserable I get when my feet are hot. It worked out splendidly, and I’ll do it again. I also wore thin, dual-layered socks, rather than two pairs of thick socks – another fantastic choice that I have continued on later hiking trips. I wore leggings instead of pants. I used a poncho and a raincoat, and threw them both away (insert mad laughter here)! Another thing that I knew I’d be doing from the outset, despite the naysayers, is listening to music. I just don’t operate without it.

On the various Camino forums I frequented prior to leaving on my walk, there were some hot debates about music or no music. Some people argued that it was unsafe to walk around with headphones in, blocking out the noise of oncoming traffic. That’s valid enough, and you should always be aware of your surroundings when listening to headphones, no matter where you are. But I found that a stronger contingent of the “no music” crowd argued against it for spiritual reasons, with the idea that doing anything besides walking and listening to the sounds of nature around you would interfere with the pilgrimage. At first glance, this seems like an OK point. However, for some reason, this thought was seldom shared as a kind suggestion, but rather as a bold insistence that if you weren’t walking in silence, you were doing it wrong. Needless to say, that’s one concept that got pitched out of my window early on. While I often did walk with nature as my only soundtrack, and I also spent a lot of time getting to know my Camino friends as we walked, I also had times when my music was the only thing that pulled me through. Singing is one of my preferred forms of healing and meditation, and I had some beautiful moments out there, singing along to Petula Clark and Neko Case, barely managing to put one foot in front of the other. Some days I knew that the notes had helped pull me along to my destination.

I have a Camino playlist on my Spotify account, and it’s been growing since 2015. Before it gets too big for me to remember what the list originally contained, I wanted to write it down here. Aside from this playlist, I also listened some albums that were already on my iPhone, including a Petula Clark greatest hits album, a Spotify playlist that my boyfriend made me when we first started dating (including several songs by my all-time favorite band, Dry the River, who as it turns out, broke up around the same time I walked into Santiago de Compostela *argh*), a couple of albums by Miranda Lambert, a few songs by Fela Kuti, “Aguas de Marco” as performed by Elis Regina, Ween’s White Pepper album, and Chicago II. The following list was my official Camino playlist, though. Most of the songs therein were chosen for their messages, and all were chosen for the fact that I like to sing along. This will give you a little taste of how eclectic my tastes run (though this isn’t the half of it – I also love nerdcore rap, speed metal, Brazilian pop, Afrobeat, 40’s jazz, 60’s pop, 80’s English ska, and bluegrass).

  • Price Tag – Jessie J, B.o.B.
  • America – Simon & Garfunkel
  • Scenic World – Beirut
  • Graduate – Third Eye Blind
  • Free Ride – The Edgar Winter Group
  • Spice Up Your Life – Spice Girls
  • Saint Simon – The Shins
  • Voce Abusou – Maria Cruza
  • Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) – Shakira, Freshlyground
  • Show Your Colors – Genevieve
  • Go Places – The New Pornographers
  • We Owned the Night – Lady Antebellum
  • Some Days I’m Golden All Night – Josh Rouse
  • I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) – The Proclaimers
  • Millennium – Robbie Williams
  • Flowing – 311
  • Dancing Song – Little Comets
  • Cool Change – Little River Band
  • Brave – Sara Bareilles
  • Show Me Love – Robyn
  • Takin’ It to the Streets  – The Doobie Brothers
  • Front the Least – MC Frontalot
  • Gypsy – Shakira

The list has since grown to include a number of other just right (to me, at least) songs that say “this is the way” to me. Thus far, these include:

  • God Gave Rock and Roll to You – Argent
  • Try Everything – Shakira
  • Wise Up – Aimee Mann
  • Solsbury Hill – Peter Gabriel
  • Je Joue De La Guitare – Jean Leloup
  • Kyrie – Mr. Mister
  • Give A Little Bit – Supertramp
  • Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In – The 5th Dimension
  • The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Gordon Lightfoot
  • Dreams – The Cranberries
  • Ramble On – Led Zeppelin
  • Spirit in the Sky – Norman Greenbaum
  • I Go to Extremes – Billy Joel
  • Serenity – Godsmack
  • All This Time – Jonathan Coulton

Anna’s Camino: Day 18 – Burgos

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.

IMG_7292

When I woke up in Burgos on the second day of my mini “vacation” from the Camino, I very nearly strapped my pack back on and left town. Even though my legs and feet were still hurting, and I wanted to take some R&R, the urge to keep moving was intense. It felt lazy to just sit around for the day, even if I wasn’t exactly going to be sitting. I laid there in bed and did some mental accounting, weighing up the pros and cons of cutting my stay short, and eventually decided to keep the pack where it was for just one more day.

IMG_7275

Instead, I packed up my little travel purse with a few things that I’d need for a day of exploring the city, and headed out to see what there was to see. I knew nothing at all about Burgos, so I just went where I felt on a whim. I found a t-shirt shop that had a Rolling Stones-type logo on a shirt, and texted it to my English friend Mark, with a note to hurry up and get to Burgos so I could buy him a pint for his birthday. He responded that he was taking a break, so I wouldn’t be seeing him in Burgos any time soon. I do wish I’d have gotten to see him just one more time, as he passed away in 2016. I wrote about that here.

My explorations led me to a seminary campus a little ways out of the downtown area. The front gardens were beautifully landscaped, and boasted several beautiful little rose bushes. I spent some time carefully inspecting all of the flowers still in bloom, and taking photos here and there. There was an order to the gardens of Burgos that I found highly pleasing, as well as reminiscent of the royal gardens from Alice in Wonderland.

As I was just wrapping up with taking photos of the flowers, and wondering what I should do next, a tall, handsome man strode down the sidewalk. He had bronze skin and high cheek bones, which made me wonder if he was part Native American. Though he was dressed in street clothes, his haircut and bearing made him look every inch like a military man or undercover cop. He carried nothing – no camera or bags. He wasn’t a tourist, or if he was, he had planned his route ahead of time. He made a beeline back to the city gates, and I didn’t think twice – I waited until he was about a block away, then began to follow him, trying not to look suspicious. That, children, is how I ended up pretending that I was on a secret mission with MI6, and tailed a stranger for half an hour through the streets of Burgos. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and there’s honestly not much of the story to tell, other than the fact that I kept myself amused for far longer than one would expect. I lost him about a block away from the Military Museum of Burgos; he turned a corner and was gone. I amused myself by thinking that he must have been on to me, but eventually I came to the conclusion that perhaps he was just on his way to visit the museum, and made it through the front doors before I came into view.

IMG_7266

IMG_7264

IMG_7267

IMG_7269

IMG_7272

IMG_7284

IMG_7285

Spy adventure over, I wandered around town for the rest of the afternoon. I walked over to the municipal albergue to get a new credencial, since the one I’d brought from home was already full of stamps. At the albergue, I once again struggled with being on my own here. I was acutely jealous of the incoming peregrinos, and briefly considered leaving the hotel and coming to stay at the albergue for the night. I reminded myself that the first part of my Camino was over, and it was now time to pen the second volume. It made me feel slightly better, but I still missed being nestled in with all of the other pilgrims at night. After picking up the credencial, I hiked up the hill to see the castle, but it was closed for the afternoon. I took some photos out over the town, then hiked back down. At some point in the afternoon, I also got a FB message from Terry, who was in town. Once again, I mused that it was completely pointless telling anyone goodbye on the Camino. We’d already said goodbye forever twice now, and here we were, making plans for dinner.

After heading back to the hotel room to clean up and get ready to meet up with Terry, I walked down to the cathedral square. I wanted to get a stamp in my new credencial before the cathedral museum closed, and take some pictures of this really interesting bronze statue of a naked pilgrim sitting on a park bench, just past the center of the square.

As I headed towards the cathedral, another interesting person caught my eye. This man was still somewhat far away, and wasn’t carrying a pack, but something about his gait and posture (plus the fact that he was obviously there to see the cathedral) told me that he was a pilgrim. He shuffled across the square in flip flops, khakis, and a plaid shirt. He carried something in front of him with deference – a credencial? A camera? He didn’t pick up his feet as he walked – I think that might be what first caught my eye, because his steps were awkward, like he might pitch forward at any minute, but the rest of his movements implied confidence and openness, and a body that normally had a much surer stride. It was obvious that his feet were killing him, and maybe that he wasn’t used to wearing flip flops. From a distance, I couldn’t quite make out his face, but from the preppy outfit and what I thought from a distance was graying hair, I pegged him to be older, about 40. It struck me that he had an old/young look to him, like an elf. I watched him shuffle across to a park bench, then my gaze was caught by an older couple and their toddler grandson. By the time I turned back, the man was gone. My mind fell off of him completely, and I went about getting my credencial stamped before Terry showed up. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d just caught my first glimpse of one of the most important people of my Camino, Jakob, my German shepherd. It wasn’t until I was already off of the Camino that I put two and two together, and realized who I’d seen there in the square at Burgos. I’ve been keeping it secret ever since, since he’s always bugging me to hurry up and get to the part where we meet. Surprise! (I guess it’s kind of creepy in retrospect, though…oh well.)

Maybe ten minutes later, Terry came along, and we went off in search of dinner – no easy feat at 6pm in Spain. Most places weren’t open yet, or were open and only serving drinks and tapas. After an hour of wandering around, chatting and looking in doorways, Terry eventually strode into a cafe that was open for drinks only, and pleaded a combination of age and pilgrim status to the manager. He took pity on the poor, starving peregrinas and served us a pilgrim menu with no choices. We sat, he brought us what he had, and we ate. I loved that dinner, as it was always a treat to get to spend time with Terry, and also it tickled both of us, I think, to be given pity, but only so much. Also, as I remember, the dessert was excellent.

I walked Terry back to her hotel (which, unlike mine, was both modern and cushy), and headed back home to pack. I’d sent my laundry out to be washed by the hotel that morning, taking a cue from The Way, and wanted to spend some time cleaning out my pack and repacking it a little better before it was time to hit the hay. On my way home, I stopped in at a bookstore and bought an English copy of the maps-only edition of Brierley’s Camino Frances book. It was a fantastic find, one which I wished I’d known about prior to beginning my Camino. I much preferred the advice of the Wise Pilgrim app to anything I read in the full version of Brierley’s work, but it was handy to have paper maps on hand on occasion.

I don’t remember falling asleep that night, but I do remember waking up an hour early the next morning, willing time to move faster so I could get a move on, already. Eventually I gave up and started walking before sunrise. I couldn’t wait to get back on the road, even if it meant giving up my chance at having chocolate and churros for breakfast.

Click here to read about Day 19. 

Anna’s Camino: Day 17 – Burgos

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.

IMG_7128

One of my favorite interior details from The Cathedral of St. Mary of Burgos.

It was still dark the next morning when Natalie, Ruth, and I left the albergue to begin the day’s trek. We started the day with the routine pitiful breakfast that was the norm across the length of the Camino – toast, juice, coffee – and between the vague irritation from not enough protein, the biting cold morning, and being generally exhausted, starting the day’s walk was quite difficult. There was also the not-so-little issue that this would be my last day with Natalie for some time. I greedily soaked up every second of our walk together, endeavoring to regulate my pace so I could cling to her side for the few hours it took to walk from tiny hamlet of Cardenuela Riopico to the big city of Burgos.

IMG_7071

Breakfast. The ham and cheese in the background are from Natalie’s pack – bringing your own protein is absolutely essential if you want to fuel your body properly first thing.

No matter which way one enters any large city, you’ll still find yourself humping it through the ‘burbs for quite some time before reaching city center. In Burgos, it’s no different. The “industrial area” – office parks, some scrapyard areas, a place that felt like the disused back lot of a small airport – that you’d drive through in less than five minutes takes more than an hour to conquer on foot. It’s not pretty, it gets monotonous, but if pilgrimage is life in a microcosm, I don’t think I need to spell out for you why it might be helpful to endure the boring, ugly bits. That’s up to the individual, though – every pilgrim walks her own road. My lessons are not yours. I found a strange joy, even in the not-so-great stretches, something I think has its roots in a childhood spent playing on the railroad tracks and in abandoned houses. I’ve always loved the overgrown and forgotten, the underdog places. They suit my soul.

Two days before, at dinner with Natalie and Terry in Villafranca Montes de Oca, we had spent some time discussing the pros and cons of the route into Burgos. Terry had very strong views on the subject, having done it before. She’d found the route spiritually deflating on her last trip, and advised against walking there. That’s part of why she’d taken the bus from Villafranca. Natalie, who’d also walked this portion of the route before, had heard that there was an alternate way to get into Burgos that was much prettier, and had resolved to find it. I was happy to tag along on the search. As it turns out, the way was quite interesting, in turns ugly and beautiful. There were still industrial areas to slog through, but then the route took us through a beautiful natural area that turned into a city park, first with nature trails, then bike trails and foot paths.

IMG_7072

The park route into Burgos.

All morning long, we saw Ruth, then lost her, then saw her again. Finally, about 30 minutes before reaching city center, Natalie and I plopped down on a park bench to eat a snack, and Ruth came along just as we were finishing up. It was nice to join up and walk the final stretch together; I took the opportunity to ask Ruth about the many hiking badges on her backpack. She had at least 10 patches, maybe more, denoting the various places she’d hiked. I loved the idea, and still do.

Our path through the park followed a small river, and as we got further into town, there were more and more foot bridges crossing the river. We could have crossed a bridge and left the park at any time, but kept moving along, scanning the sky for the spires of Burgos Cathedral. Twice we stopped to ask directions, but both locals told us to keep walking, not to cross any bridges yet. The last gentleman we talked to was so emphatic that we HAD to stay in the park for awhile, so we were careful not to stray. At first it seemed like he’d been afraid we’d get lost, but once we got into town proper, we realized that he’d had a different purpose in mind. Though we could have followed the river on either side of the city, entering city center from the path we were currently on gave us an absolutely breathtaking view of the gates of the old town, the spires of the cathedral just beyond. We’d lucked into asking a proud local for directions, and he pointed us in the precise direction required to fall in love with the city the way he had. It was the first time, but not the last, that I’d find myself close to tears over the sheer beauty of a place. I don’t think that I could have had quite the same experience had I not walked so far to get there. It was a triumph unlike anything I’d yet felt on the Camino, thus in my life.

IMG_7081

Me and my banana, about to storm the front gate of Burgos. I’m not sure why I look so serious. The banana certainly looks to be having a lovely time of things.

We arrived early enough in the day for the other two ladies to get to tour the cathedral and grab food before leaving town. Since I was checking into a hotel, I offered my room for baggage storage, so everyone could change shoes and walk around Burgos without packs. The Meson del Cid is a fine, old hotel that fit my needs. It wasn’t the most modern or cushy, but I had my own room with a giant bed, no snoring neighbors, and a fabulous bathroom all to myself. Even better, the hotel is directly beside the cathedral, which is situated in the city’s main square, so I was right in the middle of all the action. When your feet and legs are screaming with every step, not having to walk too far is worth its weight in comfortable walking shoes. We all took a second to admire the generous accommodations, then headed out to take a peek at the town.

First stop was a walk around the cathedral and surrounding neighborhood, where we happened across the most adorable little cafe any of us had yet seen. It was a tea/cocktail shop that was decorated in a very feminine motif, pastels and floral patterns, with beautifully appointed china. Even the barista had a sweet smile and very welcoming demeanor, fitting the overall spirit of the place; the entire experience was enchanting. They also had one of the best slices of tortilla of my entire Camino, with a thin layer of ham baked in between a thick layer of egg/potato, and a thinner layer of egg/cheese.

IMG_7089

After a cafe con leche and a little snack, it was time to tackle the cathedral. There are no words to properly explain the awe I experienced, so I’ll just give you photos…

IMG_7098IMG_7106IMG_7107IMG_7108IMG_7111IMG_7113IMG_7114IMG_7117IMG_7136IMG_7142IMG_7145IMG_7155IMG_7163IMG_7168IMG_7169IMG_7172IMG_7173IMG_7174IMG_7178IMG_7179IMG_7183IMG_7186IMG_7188IMG_7190IMG_7195IMG_7196IMG_7201IMG_7205IMG_7212IMG_7216IMG_7219IMG_7225IMG_7232

I quickly lost the other two peregrinas, as I soaked in every tiny detail and read every available scrap of info that I could find. By the time I finished the self-guided tour through the church, Natalie and Ruth were long-finished and sitting, waiting for me near the exit. I could tell they were a little impatient to get back on the road again, but they were also both so forgiving and kind in their manner that I felt guilty and forgave myself in almost the same moment. We went in search of kebabs, as one of the two ladies had heard there was a really good kebab shop right around the cathedral. The one that we found was OK, but nothing to write home about. After lunch, it was time for them to walk on. It was already mid-afternoon, and they had a long walk to get out of the city. We went back to my room to get their bags and have an emotional goodbye. I promised to catch back up with Natalie in a day or two. Maybe I believed at the time that that was a possibility; I don’t know.

IMG_7233

That night after dark, I walked around the city center, exploring on my own for the first time. One thing that struck me about Burgos, and many of the smaller towns I walked through that had even a smidgen of night life at town center, was how families were out together en masse. In a U.S. city at night, you’ll see couples out together, or maybe groups of people if they’re headed out to eat or to a club. You might even see a family or two, or a single mom/dad with kid or kids. And the same was true here, of course – except that there were many children present, and kids were normally accompanied by both parents, or two grandparents, or parents AND grandparents. The kids were always dressed so nicely, and it was rare to see any little ones acting up (at least in public). The whole scene was completely alien to me, but heartwarming, too.

IMG_7241

The fountain in the square outside of the Meson del Cid.

I went looking for a place to eat dinner, but felt so out of my element without a friend. I wandered down a bustling strip and through a couple of squares, admiring various menus and shyly standing around, getting a feel for how fancy the establishments might be. Several restaurants had ads for chocolate and churros, which I craved to try. In the end, though, I was just too out of my element to force myself into dining alone in a foreign language. I walked around until I found a little grocery store that was still open, and bought a selection of junk food to eat in my hotel room. I took a long, luxurious bath, then curled up in bed and ate chips and a chocolate bar, letting the crumbs fall as they pleased with no one there to judge me.

It felt strange to be so solitary. For the first time in a long time, being alone, something that I enjoyed in my “real life” back at home, filled me with an acute sense of loneliness. Looking back on that memory brings to mind the old spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” I was hurting on the inside that night. I never did get to try chocolate and churros. I also didn’t sleep at a hotel again on my Camino, and even now, I tend to stay in hostels, where I can meet new people. Seventeen days in, and my way of encountering the world was changing.

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 4) – Reaching Cardeñuela Riopico

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.

IMG_7064

By the time Cardeñuela Riopico came into view, I was ready to drop from exhaustion. As I shuffled down the main street, I began to feel the melancholy seeping in through my aching spots. I’d managed to push it away all day, but now it was obvious I’d gone as far as I could, both mentally and physically. Whether or not I found the only friend I had left in this new Camino world, this would be my stopping point for the day.

The town was pretty small, and there were only three options for albergues, but I had no clue which one Natalie had chosen. By now it was bordering on late afternoon, and I wasn’t even sure if she had stopped in this town. I had no idea how far ahead of me she’d been. What if her plans had changed, and she’d called it quits in Atapuerca? What if she’d felt energized, and kept walking to Burgos? I knew that no matter what, I was done walking until tomorrow. My legs were in rough shape. I told myself that I would be OK if I couldn’t find my friend, but I didn’t believe it. I wasn’t ready to give her up just yet.

 

I walked all the way through town, and saw a few faces, but not one pilgrim. It occurred to me that perhaps Natalie had tried to send me a Facebook message with her location, so I stopped in at a local bar to use the wifi. Being my normal awkward self, I didn’t feel comfortable asking the bartender for the wifi password, so I ordered a beer and tried not to look conspicuous while glancing around for a sign with wifi password. Finally the bartender took pity on me and asked if I needed help. I took my chance, and in broken Spanish explained that I was looking for my friend, a girl wearing orange pants. Never had I been so happy that my high school Spanish teacher had taught us how to go clothes shopping en español. The bartender said she hadn’t seen anyone in orange pants, but picked up the phone and started to call around town for me to see if anyone else had. After a couple of calls, she let out a hoot – the girl in the orange pants had been spotted, and was staying at the first albergue in town! Now that I’m retelling this story, I realize that since I’ve returned from the Camino and started my new career in hospitality, I’ve held this woman in mind as a paragon of kindness and hospitality. She really saved me that night, just by making a few phone calls, even though she didn’t have to. Wherever she is now, I wish her many blessings, across the miles.

Shoelaces tightened, pack back on, poles in hands, feet one in front of the other, back through town, every step its own form of torture. Natalie was waiting at the front door for me, clearly relieved that I’d showed up in one piece, long overdue. She helped me get checked in with the hospitalera, who showed me my bunk and instructed me on the rules for where to take off shoes and what doors to keep locked, etc. The water wasn’t that hot in the bathrooms, but the shower pressure was good, the rooms were well-appointed, and even better, the albergue was nearly deserted. Ruth (the Anglican priest that had been in our room the night before) was here, and turned out to be a sweet, friendly person. We chatted for awhile, did laundry and hung it out on the line in the waning sunlight, then Nat and I went to see if the town church was open. It wasn’t, but we wandered around anyway, and I took some of my favorite photos of the entire trip. The sunlight was just so beautiful that afternoon. It put a cap on things. I knew it was our last day together, but instead of feeling sad or angry or lonely, I started to get excited for what was to come.

 

IMG_7061

Natalie

There were only four of us in attendance at dinner that evening: Natalie, myself, Ruth, and a fourth person whom I can’t seem to place. I had so much fun asking Ruth questions. I’d never met a female Christian religious leader. I’d met women with strong religious beliefs, and I’d met preacher’s wives, and I’m sure I must have seen a nun or two in passing, but I’ve never met a female preacher, and until then, definitely never a female priest. I had so many questions. Of course, since she was British, I also had all sorts of TV questions about the obvious things – like, had she watched Vicar of Dibley or Father Brown, for instance (the answer was yes to both, of course). I regret not having more time to get to know Ruth. It must be difficult to go on vacation as a spiritual servant, especially on something as personal as a pilgrimage. How can you ever really escape your job when the world is your work? I wish I could have asked her how she felt about that, and whether it was a burden or a joy, or a little of both.

IMG_7050

Self portrait with fluffy eyebrows.

After dinner, I enjoyed luxuriating in the albergue bar in my most fetching ensemble of elephant pajamas, neon green compression socks, and hiking sandals, drinking pacharan with Natalie and Ruth while we chatted and caught up on our online posts via cell phone. We discussed our plans for the next day, and somewhere in there, I made my announcement.

I’d spent the entire day feeling anxious and frightened that my only walking companion would leave me, when in actuality, it was the opposite. That afternoon, it came to me that I would be the one doing the leaving – at least metaphorically speaking. I’d decided to take time off in Burgos. We’d been walking for over two weeks now, and I knew it was time for a real break, an actual bed in a private room, time for my legs to recover, and some time to explore a city I’d heard was quite beautiful.

As I was describing my intention, the tiny, scared part of me hoped that Natalie would want to stay, but the braver part of me knew that it was time to part ways. She had somewhere to be, even if I didn’t yet know the full story. Our time was up for now. Though this meant that the Claire/Natalie/Anna sisterhood was officially dissolved, the timing felt right. So I skimmed through the various Burgos hotels on the Wise Pilgrim app – truly indispensable as it is – and stumbled across Meson Del Cid, where I could get a private room for around 50 euros a night. That was far more expensive than any albergue, but also much more luxurious than anything I’d get for that price in the U.S.

Visions of bubble baths danced through my dreams that night. Burgos or bust!

Click here to read about Day 17.

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 3) – San Juan de Ortega to Cardeñuela Riopico

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.

IMG_6987

Before leaving the States, when I was still just doing my own lazy version of researching the Camino Frances, I had discovered that there were quite a few labyrinths along the way. One of my goals was to visit as many as possible, so it probably won’t surprise you to find that I managed to miss all of them but two, both of which I found by serendipity alone on Day 16.

Natalie and I walked along in the woods outside of San Juan de Ortega, sharing anecdotes as we walked down the trail. I remember that she was telling me a story she had heard long ago in the Yukon, and I was completely engrossed – so much so that we were nearly on top of the bull before either of us saw him. There in the woods, in what we believed to be the middle of nowhere, was a GIGANTIC bull – nose ring and all – having a quiet snack in the undergrowth beneath the trees. It was a complete shock. We’d seen plenty of animals so far along the Camino, but had never run into anything this large without the comfort of a fence between us and it. I don’t know Natalie’s experience with cows, but I was terrified for a moment. We both stopped talking, and walked around the creature with great care. I expected him to run us down at any moment, but he was having a lovely afternoon in the woods, doing his own thing. He barely even registered our presence.

IMG_6973

Soon, we were out of the woods, into a light-flooded clearing. We could see for miles over the rolling hills. The sky was so blue, the grass so green, the trail so inviting…and there were cows everywhere. This portion of the Camino wound directly through the pasture land, no fences, just a well-worn dirt path, and lazy cattle lounging about, enjoying a beautiful day. My original terror at seeing the bull was pushed aside, overwhelmed by a sense of wonder. I love animals, and cows are no exception. It felt a unique privilege to get to share space with them. I’d change my mind about cows a couple of weeks later, but for today, I was in heaven.

IMG_6978IMG_6980IMG_6981

The first labyrinth was a tiny thing, up on a rise. There was already a pilgrim there, walking the old spiral, as we approached. I waited until he’d finished to take my own place there, and as I followed the radiating path, Natalie walked on along the Camino. I felt a twinge of panic as I watched her figure retreat into the distance, but forced myself to do the thing I needed to do, rather than follow my fear. It’s funny how you can learn and relearn a lesson. Mine has been – and continues to be – the art of letting go. This time I got it right. So many other times I fall short of the prize.

IMG_6988

Labyrinth walk completed, I finally walked on. The old town of Agés wasn’t too far down the road, and I was sure that I’d find Natalie in a cafe there, just like before. Even though there had been plenty of pilgrims on the road during the course of the afternoon, Agés seemed curiously empty. The first place I thought to stop for a coffee was shuttered tight. I consoled myself with the fact that it was getting on into the afternoon, and it must be siesta by now, but the fact is, the town was dead. What used to be a bustling place in the Middle Ages had failed. There were less than a hundred inhabitants, many of them elderly.

With the failing Spanish economy, the tiny towns all across the country are dying. The younger population move away to the cities for work, and fun, and culture, leaving their tiny towns behind to fall into ruin. I felt a strong affinity with Agés, because it has much in common with my tiny hometown in rural North Carolina. I, too, had betrayed my home for the promise of a better life – a life that allows me the luxury of traveling to other countries. How could I ever begrudge the young of a tiny, dying town their need to see a bigger world? How could I see the similarities between my tiny hometown and this lovely place, and still feel no tug to hurry back to the place I’d left behind to die in my absence?

The town is pretty small, so I walked up and down the main strip, made a detour to the town church (locked and looking somewhat decrepit), and finally crossed someone’s backyard to head back to the only cafe that seemed to be open. There were a couple of pilgrims sitting outside, one of whom was a younger guy from California – let’s call him Dude – that I’d run into before, and was not excited to see again. He wasn’t a bad kid, just not too bright, and not at all shy about saying whatever came to mind. I’d overheard Dude criticizing various Spanish customs in that special, uncultured, particularly demeaning way that only we Americans seem to grasp with aplomb. I had no wish to be associated with that kind of behavior. If I’m going to be a stupid tourist, let me do it on my own steam, thanks. Today he was being generally loud and dumb near the front door, so I ducked inside to see if there was a spot out of hearing range at the bar.

IMG_7008

The bar was empty, except for the required contingent of elderly local farmers. The bartender/owner quickly came over, and we discussed food and drink options in pigeon Spanish and a smattering of sign language. He very sweetly asked me where I was from, where I was headed, and what I liked the most to eat, and when he found out that I was from New Orleans, he was all smiles – he’d visited my city before. I ordered my old standby – a beer and a slice of tortilla, which he happily informed me was freshly cooked. When my plate was delivered, I was surprised to find he’d included a heaping helping of something entirely new to me – Pimentos de Padrón. He insisted I eat the first gorgeously blistered Padrón pepper in front of him, then laughed as I practically melted in delight. Move over, tortilla – my new favorite dish had arrived!

While I was eating, Dude and his walking buddy came in to get another drink and generally annoy everyone in the room. It felt like something out of an old western; had I not been annoyed with him, myself, I would have laughed at how obvious all of the old locals were being about staring daggers at this total outsider. The radio was on, and tension was broken when The 5th Dimension came on, singing “Aquarius,” from Hair. By then, Dude, the other pilgrim guy, and I were all drinking cans of Aquarius, the ubiquitous sports beverage of the Camino. I couldn’t help but giggle at the coincidence. Dude started to sing along and do a little routine with his drink can. The innocence of the scene diffused the situation, and soon after, both pilgrim guys sauntered off, leaving the locals and me in peace. A couple of weeks later, I’d hear that Dude drank an entire water bottle full of unfiltered water he’d gathered from a stream somewhere, and had to spend a couple of days in hospital. Gossip travels on the Camino, and I heard the story a few times, from different people. No one seemed too surprised.

By the time I left the cafe, it was seriously late – going on 2pm, at least. Any other day, it would have been time to start wrapping things up and finding a place to bed down for the night, but I had plans to keep. Just outside of the bar, there was a sweet little cat napping on the sidewalk, so I bent down to pet him. When I straightened back up, who should I see but Terry, walking out of a door just a few feet down the block. It was a seriously wonderful surprise, since that morning it had been pretty obvious from our varied plans that our paths wouldn’t cross again this Camino. I hurried over to give her a hug, and before I knew it, I was tagging along to try to find an artist that she remembered from her last trip here. We wandered around, looking for this particular house she remembered, where an old man made perfect little miniatures of real architecture from the town.

As it turns out, we didn’t find the artist in question, but as we were walking down a particular street for the second time, in retrospect most likely looking completely lost, a door opened down the way. A wizened old woman walked out, pointed our way, and started to yell. At first, I thought she might be angry, but then I realized she was just slightly deaf and asking us a question. Terry spoke enough Spanish to understand, and yelled back an answer. The lady ducked back into her little house, then came out a minute later carrying a gigantic iron key – the thing was at least as long as my forearm. She started off down the road, beckoning us to follow her. Terry filled me in: the woman was the guardian of the town’s church key, and had offered to give us a tour. We followed along, feeling so blessed to be offered the opportunity to glimpse the interior of the town’s precious worship spot. It was plain, but beautiful in its stark interior.

Once we stepped inside the building, our guide started to chatter along happily. Her presence somehow brought the holy space to life, giving it color I wouldn’t have seen without her. She knew that we couldn’t understand much Spanish, and she didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop her from telling us everything there was to say about the church. Somehow, between Terry and I, we picked up enough words to fill each other in on the basics. Our guide had been baptized here, and married here, as had her children. She showed us the timeworn baptismal font, and a beautiful figure of the Virgin Mary. We left donations with her for the church’s upkeep, and she gave us each a blessing, hugging both of us and kissing our cheeks. It was a moment of such shining kindness. It happened beyond words, and escapes my explanation, even now. I felt like a real pilgrim in that moment.

When I left Terry behind in Agés, I refused to say goodbye. I knew that it was the last time I’d see her, but I’d also known that earlier in the morning, when we’d said goodbye the last time. So really, what could I know? Instead, I told her, “See you later.” All the better, since I’d actually see her a couple more times!

I’d heard that I should spend some serious time in Atapuerca, the famous archaeological site just outside of Agés. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s the home of some of the earliest human remains currently known. Before leaving for the Camino, I’d been positive that I’d spend a day there, so of course I didn’t spend any time there whatsoever. I walked through the town and right back out, even though I saw that several pilgrims I’d met over the last few days were sitting out in front of an albergue, boots kicked off, having the first lovely beers of the afternoon. I still had about 6km left, which meant more than an hour and a half of trudging along, maybe even two hours, given my current pace. I mentally kicked my own ass as I walked out of town. I didn’t want to walk any farther, so why was I pushing myself to keep up with this schedule?

IMG_7027

The walk over the hill at Atapuerca was grueling and a little creepy. The entire path was strewn with large rocks, making every step a chore. I spent a majority of the time I walked over the hill thinking about the many ways I could get hurt, and mentally rehearsing how I’d get in contact with emergency services if and when I broke a leg. After leaving town, I didn’t see another person for quite some time, and it seemed likely that I might not meet another pilgrim. Even so, I finally did, just around the time I saw my second labyrinth of the day.

The night before, in Villafranca Montes de Oca, I’d briefly run into a man and woman traveling together. In their early to mid-30’s, they had a strange intensity, moving as a solemn singular unit, not exactly inviting of outside interaction. Here they were again, despite not having seen them at all today. I was so relieved to see new faces that I instinctively just started babbling along at them, not really considering if either of them spoke English. Luckily, they both did. They were kind enough to walk with me for awhile, brightening my afternoon and giving me a love story to think on for years now. I wish I could remember their names – maybe Terry can remind me, because I know that she met them once, too – but we’ll call them Raul and Minka.

IMG_7026

Raul was a Spaniard, and Minka was from Eastern Europe, I think the Czech Republic. They’d met a year before, on the Camino. She spoke no English or Spanish, and he didn’t speak Czech. He said that he saw her from across the room, and fell for her instantly. He endeavored to speak to her each time they saw each other, and though she thought he was weird at first, she began to see the charm in the situation. Eventually they figured out how to communicate, and despite the language barrier, fell in love. She went back home to her country and started learning Spanish (and a smattering of English, evidently, since she told me some of their story while they walked, though he was the talker of the duo). He went back home and started learning Czech. He visited her, and she visited him. Even though it was difficult trying to figure out living situations, they were both sure that this was the right choice, that they’d found The One. They got married, and now they were on a second Camino to celebrate their honeymoon. Unfortunately, they were short on money, and only had the budget to stay at albergues donativo (donation-based hostels), which were few and far-between. They would be walking all the way to Burgos today, even if it meant walking in the dark. Eventually we parted ways, since they needed to pick up speed in order to reach the city.

After the hill at Atapuerca, there was another nearly abandoned town, Villalval, where I was shocked to see an abandoned church in ruins. I stopped and investigated the church for some time, walking all over the church grounds, attempting to look in windows, and wishing that I had the guts to try to break in. In case you didn’t know this about me, I’m a total goody-two-shoes, not because I want to be, as much as because I prefer to avoid unnecessary conflict. So no breaking in, just some photos, and then on my way again. Towards the edge of this tiny village, I started to feel someone watching me. I’m sure that more than one dark window had a lonely little old lady behind it, and I was marginally more exciting than whatever was on TV that afternoon. Still, I thought I heard someone call my name once, just one faint, “Anna!” floating across the rooftops. My imagination ran wild. Needless to say, the last couple of kilometers were completed at a trot.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 4).