A Million Steps to Santiago

February 9, 2017

A Million Steps to Santiago

A Journey of Enlightenment and Discovery

 

I’m preparing for a journey unlike any I have undertaken in the past. It really isn’t unique in a worldly sense. Millions of pilgrims have made this trek since the Middle Ages. From St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela, 500 miles, I am going to walk the Camino.  - I will become a peregrine.

 

The Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way, is an ancient pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle and friend of Jesus, Saint James the Great. It has many routes and many reasons to be walked, each varying from pilgrim to pilgrim. Some walk for the personal challenge, some for a recreational experience, and others, for spiritual reasons. In reality, the list of reasons is as varied as the thousands of participants who endeavor to make the journey on an annual basis.  - The Camino is different things to different people.

 

My reason, you ask? I have not settled on an answer to this question. Religious would be my intent at the moment. I am expecting a spiritual enlightenment as I rediscover myself after dealing with a variety of life’s curveballs. Will there be self-doubt or rediscovery of a part of my spirit that maybe I misplaced long ago? Or both? I guess I won’t know until the journey is complete.  - But, can the Camino ever be complete?

 

Many who have walked The Way of St. James continue to make the pilgrimage year after year. Will I become one of these Camino-devoted travelers? Will it become my passion? Is the Camino over, or has it just begun? Many questions are being raised during this planning process that remain to be answered, and probably many more to be advanced in the weeks to come. And how about the questions which will arise along The Way?   - Will I lose myself or find answers? Does one lead to another? Are they the same?

 

I know it is a long, long walk. I have been battling plantar fasciitis in both feet for the past year or so, and a couple months ago spent six hours in the emergency room with chest pains. After a stress test, the doc told me that if I moved forward with my plans to walk the Camino, I would die in Spain. No joke. After another test, the same doc told me not to worry. I guess that is a 50/50 thing, hell, it is the VA, what do they know? I’m moving forward. In life, you just have to weigh out the risk and the return. If his original diagnosis is indeed accurate, my choice is to depart this world doing something of this magnitude rather than checking out while sitting on a couch with a bag of Cheetos in my hands. Don’t be that guy.  - And, isn’t life made of choices?

 

I fully expect pain, weariness, laughs and tears. I expect solitude and communion. There will be bone-chilling days, rainy days, hot and humid days, and days that seem like they will never end. I will make acquaintances that may be for a few minutes, a day, or a lifetime. However, no matter what our personal differences may be, we will be forever joined by a spiritual thread in the solidarity of The Way.    - You are never alone.

 

There are numerous people with whom I have, in casual conversation, discussed my upcoming pilgrimage. Many have never heard of the Camino. I have shared my thoughts and plans with them, and also suggested they watch the Martin Sheen movie, “The Way.” Some get it, some don’t. I guess it is a “to each their own” purposefulness in life. Sometimes I perceive their self-imprisonment. I do recognize some people just have a reluctance to dive into the unknown.   - On the other hand, I appreciate having faith in oneself.

 

I have met very few people who have actually walked The Way. I was able to garner a bit of information, but nothing really of more depth than I have researched. As I mentioned, it is different things to different people. There are some I have spoken to who are encouraging and remark that they have considered it, but haven’t found the time or the determination to begin what maybe a life-altering event for them. As with everything in life, we must take strides to fulfill our aspirations.  - As it is said, every journey, whether physical or spiritual, starts with one step. 

 

There are thousands of kilometers to walk on different tracks, all converging on five main routes which end in Santiago de Compostela. In the Middle Ages, the pilgrims started from their homes in distant lands and made their way to the more heavily traveled routes in Spain for safety’s sake. I have chosen the route known as the Camino Francés (the French Way). It begins in France at St. Jean Pied-du-Port and crosses the Pyrenees Mountains where it meanders westerly across Spain about 60 miles south of the northern coast and drops into the gently rolling fields and woods of Galicia. It is about 500 miles in length and winds its way through Pamplona, León, and numerous small hamlets and ancient villages which are relatively close in proximity. The landscape is exquisitely varied. The villages are comprised of some of the most impressive architecture in the world. Each of these destinations has a time-honored commerce based on generations upon generations that have hosted pilgrims on their journey.  - The villagers are welcoming of those who pursue The Way.

 

I’ve read a dozen books and blogs regarding the Camino. I’ve spent numerous nights going over my packing list in my head. I’ve been breaking in my boots at 2 – 8 miles a day. I know it must sound like I’m putting a lot of thought into this trip and detailed planning has always been my strong point. However, I am expecting this adventure to be a bit more spontaneous. And I hope it is as I don’t want to ruin the magic by over-planning. What I am anticipating and what the reality is may be two different things; in fact, I am sure it will be. I foresee a journey of 6 weeks, but could be longer depending on who I meet, where I go, and of course, rest days. So basically, I have to average 12 miles per day. That is doable.   - The reality of a trip of this magnitude is it takes what it takes.

 

I know some of you are asking, “What about Arthur?” Arthur will remain in France with my sister. It is just not worth the risk of taking him and having to chain him up outside of one of the albergues that may not be aware of laws regarding service dogs in Spain. I’m very sure my sister and her family will make him feel at home.   - Time to move forward.

 

 I am departing for France tomorrow and Spain in late April and will return sometime in July. I will try and post something on Facebook once in a while, but not planning on putting much effort into it as part of getting away is getting away. As with any journey you look forward, but must also occasionally look back to see where you came from.

 

And so now, both the spiritual and physical journeys begin.

 

Senlis, France

 

Today the spiritual portion of my journey began. In Senlis, France, I received my pilgrim’s blessing in front of the congregation of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis during the Sunday Mass. It was a wonderful way to start this entire experience. I had expected just a brief visit with the priest to receive his blessing, but it actually turned out to be a community affair with many in attendance and so many coming up to wish we good luck afterwards even though I am not a French speaker.

 

 I cannot begin to describe the emotions felt while in this cathedral, completed in 1191, with the bells ringing and the choir singing, my journey has begun to take shape. I am so lucky and fortunate that things are starting this way for me. I wish you could have shared the experience, as the electricity is so hard to explain.

 

 Tomorrow I must repack my rucksack and crosscheck my loading list.

 

 Tuesday, the physical portion of the Camino begins.

 

The Beginning:

"Father God we pray for Diggs, a pilgrim who is soon to leave these shores to travel to the Tomb of Saint James the Great in Santiago de Compostela. In doing so he will honor Saint James, Apostle, friend of Jesus and martyr for his faith. That faith has a long tradition of pilgrimages, of the faithful travelling to holy places for religious reasons. The very word “pilgrim” comes from the Latin “peregrine” which means “foreigner” or “wanderer”; someone who travels in faith to another place in a journey set apart from their normal lives. For this reason Abraham is recognized as the first pilgrim described in scripture because he was called to journey to the land chosen by God. Centuries later, Abraham’s descendants embarked on their pilgrimage to the Promised Land from Egypt. The birth of Jesus himself is marked by the pilgrimage of the Magi, the three kings who followed the star to pay homage to the Messiah and it is recorded that Jesus himself traveled on pilgrimage many times to Jerusalem. We pray that Diggs is inspired by these examples of pilgrimage described in Sacred Scripture.

 

And to bless Diggs, may he travel safely and enjoy days of happy and prayerful companionship and nights of restful sleep until they reach their journey’s end.

 

Together we now say the Pilgrims’ Prayer:

St James, Apostle, chosen among the first,

you were the first to drink the Cup of the Master and you are the great protector of pilgrims.

Make us strong in faith and happy in hope on our pilgrim journey,

following the path of Christian life, and sustain us so that we may finally reach the glory of God the Father. Amen.

 

Diggs, as you go from this place to begin your final preparations, leave with the love and fond good wishes of all who know you.

 

Bow your heads as we pray for God’s blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back."

 

 

Paris to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Day 0

 

Well, what was supposed to start as an easy day of travel got a bit complicated. A plane ride from Paris to Bayonne goes just fine. However, upon arrival at noon in Bayonne, things get a bit tricky as the transportation employees decided to have a national train strike. There is a bus to take in lieu of the train and it leaves at 6:30 PM for an hour long ride to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. I manage to find five other pilgrims (they are easy to spot) and we all pile into a cab, our packs on our laps, and make it to SJPP at 1:30 PM. My traveling companions are three Germans and two Americans.

 

Wandering about SJPP, it is obvious who the pilgrims are. There is laughter in the air, small talk, wine, and for some, a bit of numbing anticipation of what lies ahead. We have all read the travel books, watched the movies, and formed these romantic thoughts of what is yet to come from the comfort of our homes, and now, here we are. Most are decked out in their hiking attire, including myself. It is all we have. There are greetings of “Buen Camino,” and small talk about expectations. There is a positive vibe, almost electric, in the air.

 

There are all types of pilgrims here at different levels of preparation for the grueling days that lie ahead. I have to believe that there are a few who idealistically think this is going to be a walk in the park, and those are the ones I worry about.

 

I meet a German girl who just arrived after two months of walking from Germany. She has a great attitude and is excited to continue her journey tomorrow. I have an Irish girl, a Swedish girl, a German guy, and a Canadian couple with whom I am having dinner later.

 

As all do, I go to the pilgrim’s office for a weather forecast and it appears that I am going to have a chilly, but doable walk to Roncesvalles 24km (15 miles), 7 to 9 hours, over the Napoleon Route.

Also at the pilgrim’s office I receive my first stamp in my credencial de peregrine, my passport which will document my travel to Santiago and is necessary in order to receive the compostela, the certificate of completion.  Every stop along The Way must be documented with a stamp in the credencial.

 

The Napoleon Route is for most the hardest day of the Camino. There is an elevation change of a precipitous 4,000 feet as you summit the Pyrenees at 4,500 feet above sea level. This, plus a steep descent to Roncesvalles and carrying a loaded backpack, can take its toll. I am fortunate that I have been training and living in Colorado. I am very aware after climbing Kilimanjaro how painful a precipitous descent can be on knees and quads.

 

So, tonight, I am repacking, contemplating and preparing for the journey to begin. I am staying in a hotel, which is a luxury as many of the following nights will be in the Spanish equivalent of a hostel, an albergue.

 

In the morning, as the sun begins to rise, I will begin my journey.

 

 

Day 1  / May 27   Ma foi.

St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles.  25 km.  17 miles.  8 hours.

 

Looking at the clock, damn, only 3:00! Should I start now? Stay in bed a bit longer? Up early, after a night of little sleep. The anticipation of the journey had me tossing and turning in my bed all night. Back to sleep, up at 5:00, breakfast at 6:30. Cereal, toast, yogurt, café con leche, juice.

 

7:15 AM. The cobbled street, rue de la Citadel, takes me past Notre Dame du Bout du Pont, the church where I stop and say a prayer as thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pilgrims have before me. Then, through an archway and across the River Nive. Following the yellow arrows, I am now officially on my journey. Next stop Roncesvalles, 17 miles and a mountain summit away.

 

This route I am following was used by Napoleon when his army crossed into Spain following the old Roman road the Via Triana. It was also used as a route through the Pyrenees by Emperor Charlemagne.

There is an easier route through the valley, but it does not intrigue me as this one does.

 

It is a strenuous walk, indeed. Twelve miles uphill with an elevation gain of 4,000 feet. And, even more arduous, a very steep decent of five miles to Roncesvalles, the Valley of Thorns.

First, prior to the summit, what strikes me is a statue of the Virgen d' Orisson brought here all the way from Lourdes by shepherds centuries ago. The statue is bedecked with flowers and trinkets placed there by both locals and pilgrims alike.

 

Secondly, if anyone tells you this walk is a piece of cake and you do not need to train, they are wrong. Today is a killer. I would call it a “gut check” and wonder how many people dropped out. I know several got taxis to take them into Roncesvalles. My feet are absolutely killing me. I have to use the All-American solution, duct tape, to patch my right foot back into one piece after a massive blister formed.

 

At the summit, there is a stunning view at Col de Lepoeder. A panorama of the Pyrenees rewards those who have chosen this most difficult route to begin their Camino. It is here that for centuries, pilgrims have stopped and prayed to the Apostle for a safe journey.

 

I meet some of my fellow pilgrims, of all nationalities, along the way. A few are “racing” their way through their Camino. I don’t quite grasp that concept, but to each his own. We all exchange pleasantries and small talk regarding home and such. At this point, we are all fresh and just meeting each other. In a few days, we will be like old friends, maybe not knowing names, but knowing faces and nationalities. I walk alone for the first two hours and then link up with Nanette from Denmark. She and I walk for about an hour.  After she moves on, I meet Jorak from Hungary. He is the spitting image of Yost from the movie “The Way.” I walk for about five hours with David from Bristol. Cool guy. Very much into the technicalities of his Camino with all weights of all gear broken down into grams. I pass people I met last night and we all say cordial “hellos.”

 

The winds are fierce and howling on occasion. The morning starts out warm, but overcast, giving way to the winds near the summit which force all to put jackets back on. Only as the walk ends does the sun come out. There is a cross set beside the trail where a pilgrim died a few years back. There are two small monuments to hikers who fell by the wayside and did not go home.

 

Crossing the border into Spain, if you fail to pay attention, you will miss it. Four more miles of uphill, passing snowbanks, and you then begin the downhill trek through a thick beech forest and on to Roncesvalles. A very steep and trying trail.

 

I am finally in the province of Navarra, the fiercely independent Spanish Basque region.

At an elevation of just over 5,000 feet and a population of 30, Roncesvalles is famous in history and legend for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of Roland in 778. It is also the first stop for pilgrims crossing from St. Jean Pied du Port. Roncesvalles has been receiving “all pilgrims – sick and well, Catholics, Jews, pagans, heretics and vagabonds” since the 12th century. The town consists of the albergue, two hotels, and a church.

 

I check into my hotel, the last “for sure” room I have on this trip. Boots off, feet swollen, laundry washed in the sink. The ancient bells in the church are ringing just outside my window.

 

Dinner and then sleep will come easily.

 

 

Day 2    mi determinación

Roncesvalles to Larrasona.  28 km.  17 miles.  7 hours.

 

Another early start. The idea is to leave early, arrive at your next destination ahead of the crowd, settle in and then explore. The public/municipal albergues do not open until 1:00 PM, so if that is where you wish to stay, you must queue up and wait. You may or may not get a bed, depending on when you arrive.

 

Today’s walk is 17 miles and a loss of 1500 feet in elevation, although there are many steep hills in between.

 

David, my English friend, walks with me off and on again today. We hook up with Cindy, an American ex-pat who resides in Australia. We are the three amigos. Dave and Cindy walk together most of the time.  Over the course of the day, we separate and catch back up together.

 

The weather is clear and starts out very chilly but warms up by the afternoon.

 

This morning, David and I decide to walk out of Roncesvalles and hit the next town of Burgete for a quick bite at a tiny restaurant/bar. For three euros each, we have a cup of café con leche and a patat (quiche-like product of egg and potato, about two inches thick).

 

Leaving Roncevalles and passing a cross, the Cruz de los Peregrinos, erected in 1880, we enter the Oakwood of the Witches where in the 16th century, a coven of witches occupied the woods. Some were discovered and burnt at the stake. This beech forest extends for two miles and leads to Burguete.

 

Just prior to reaching the first small hamlet of Burguete, there is another cross, the Cruz Blanca, which was placed to protect the inhabitants from the witches.

 

There is the old town square where the witches were burned, a piano with Hemingway’s signature, and breakfast! The town is full of white-washed homes dating back to the 18th century. There are cafés, hotels, a bakery, a bank and a pharmacy, muchly anticipated to the chagrin of some of my new compadres who are experiencing blisters. Of course, as things go, by the end of the day, I have the mother of all blisters on my right heel.

 

Just prior to entering Zubiri, you must cross a bridge, Puente de la Rabia. The legend is that if you have a rabid animal, you circle it around the central arch three times, and it will be cured. It is also the site of a former leper colony. The nearby church is named after St. Lazarus. Dave has introduced me to a new thirst quencher, cerveza con lemon, beer with lemonade. They go down easily and do the job.

Zubiri is an industrial town of about 400 people. It is crowded and since we are feeling pretty good, we opt to travel on to Larrazona about 3 miles down the road.

 

To reach Larrazona, you have to cross another bridge, el Punte de los Bandidos, the Bridge of Bandits. The Rio Arga meanders throughout this portion of the journey and must be crossed multiple times.

 

The trails today are, for the most part, hard-packed ancient trails, at the maximum, eight feet across, and at the least, three feet. We pass between farmer’s fields, beautiful herds of horses, flocks of sheep, and under the canopy of ancient trees. I wonder for how many pilgrims these trees have provided shade over the centuries?

 

Day 3    Mi viaje

Larrasoaña to Pamplona.  21 km.  13 miles.  6 hours.

 

Up early, again. Today is a relatively short walk and welcome in being short. Thirteen miles to Pamplona.

 

Over the river and through a pine forest to a path lined with orchids. Birds are the only thing you hear this early, well, that and the click/clack of trekking poles as you near fellow pilgrims.

 

Two miles down the road, crossing another ancient bridge and the Rio Ulzama, I arrive at the hamlet of Trinidad de Arre. Behind the Basilica de la Sanctisima Trinidad de Arre, which is the white building as you cross the bridge, there are a number of bakeries and other places to eat.

 

Cafe con leche is now my new favorite caffeinated drink and the fresh pastries are to die for.

 

There is no time to waste as many of my fellow pilgrims are anxious to make it to Pamplona. A bit more modern and populated than the places where we have been staying. Famous for the running of the bulls, Hemingway, and festivals. The population is around 200,000. There is traffic, noise, crowds.

 

Pamplona is an ancient city which is entered by crossing yet another bridge and entering the medieval part of town. It has been in existence for centuries and was originally a Basque village until it was conquered by Roman General Pompeyo Magno who, being a very humble man, proceeded to name the town after himself in 74 BC. Later occupants included the Visigoths and the Moors.

 

As you cross the bridge, you will notice carved into a pillar standing sentinel over the bridge, “Santiago Peregrino”. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pilgrims have entered through this gate over the centuries. It certainly lends itself to putting your life in perspective. “Not a human on a spiritual journey, but a spirit on a human journey.”

 

As you know, I am having a problem with a horrendous blister. I made it to the local pharmacy and picked up a few items. I think it will be okay in a day or two. After last night’s zero hours of sleep due to sharing a room with Darth Vader, he must have been in the bunk right above me, and Vlad the Inhaler in the next bunk, I’m thinking of calling it an early night.

 

I wander about town and see a few things, but am not really going to make a lot of effort to see Pamplona.

 

Camino Day 4    Mi creencia

Pamplona to Puente la Reina.  24 km.  15 miles.  7 ½ hours.

 

Up early, as every day. Today’s trek is 15 miles with the initial three being hard pavement as I exit Pamplona, which is just a killer on the feet. A lot of my fellow pilgrims are slow to get started but warm up as the journey begins. I get a good head start on most since I finally had a good night’s sleep.

 

It rained hard last night and continues to toy with us most of today. Only get a few sprinkles, but it seems every time the rains threatens, my fellow pilgrims put on their ponchos, only to take them off a few minutes later. I ask God a favor, not to rain on me today, my feet hurt. He has mercy.

 

At this point, we are leaving the fertile foothills of the Pyrenees and entering into the more arid wine regions of Navarra and La Rioja.

 

This morning, we pass through blooming rapeseed fields and immature wheat fields for the most part. I somehow get hooked up with a Scandinavian guy named Arrion. He is a bit obnoxious and not very good with directions. I manage to lose him when he stops for café con leche in one of the villages, which is my intent.

 

Moving on.

 

About six miles in distance and a bit of elevation gain, a village comes into view, Zariquiegui. Zariquiegui is also known for its famous fountain, el Fuente Reniega, the Fountain of Renouncement. The legend goes that a pilgrim travelling the Camino, thirsty and exhausted, is confronted by another pilgrim who happens to be the Devil in disguise. The Devil offers to show the pilgrim a source of water but only on the condition that he renounces God. The pilgrim refuses to do so and faces certain death. St James, also disguised as a pilgrim, appears and leads the devoted man to the fountain. Using a scallop shell (the sign of a pilgrim), he provides the wayfarer with water and thus saves his mortal life and his afterlife. The water is supposed to have healing properties; I drink my fill and move on.

 

Our stone-littered path takes us up a steep uphill grade of 1,500 feet in elevation change to a site, if you remember the movie scene in “The Way” where there are wind turbines and wrought iron silhouettes of medieval pilgrims making their way westward. “Where the way of the wind crosses the way of the stars.” There is a good reason the turbines are there…windy! After posing for pictures, it is time to descend. Treacherous. Rocks varying in size of golf balls to softballs comprise the steep trail that takes me about an hour to make my way down. 

 

From the summit and just prior to the steep descent, the Arga Valley comes into view and opens up. The tiny villages we will pass through line the route westward. Scrubland, vineyards, almond orchards on either side of the path. Beehives abound.

 

Entering Puente de la Reina, there is an albergue on the left and a church on the right. The church is named Iglesia del Crucifiio and was built in the 12th century by the Knights Templar. German pilgrims hand carried the Y- shaped crucifix to this location in the 14th century and donated it to the church.

 

David, my English friend, catches me just as I enter the city. He got a late start, but I knew he would catch up eventually. He is a fast mover.

 

The beauty of today is walking alone for four hours with nothing but the beautiful scenery, the birds, and my thoughts. A great time to evaluate your life, where you are, and where you want to go.

The Hotel Rural Bidean is home for tonight. I don’t relish sleeping in rooms with others. This is affordable at 40 Euro. The room is tiny, but clean, and it is mine alone. Will hit the town later and report back, maybe.

 

Now, after all this travel guide talk, I want to throw into the mix that the Camino is painful. It is not the blissful state you witnessed in the movies or read in the books. Your shins are going to ache. There are bed bugs. Blisters…have I mentioned blisters? There are people who are inconsiderate. That being said, there are also wonderful things to experience and gracious people around you. It is what you make of it. You will have all day to think about it your experience and interactions as you plod along.  What you decide to think about is your choice.

 

And, as for me, I do feel the beginning of a spiritual awakening, or something to that effect, which I am sure will grow as the trek continues.

 

Camino Day 5   Mi convicción

Puente la Reina to Estella.  22km.  14 miles.  7 hours.

 

Leaving Puente la Reina on a Sunday and walking down the deserted streets at 7:00 AM gives one the opportunity to hear many things. It is only two blocks to get out of town by crossing the ancient bridge, and during this brief stroll, the sparrows dominate the still of the brisk morning. Over the bridge and into the woods, there comes an orchestra of wild birds calling to one another. I am the only one on the road at the moment; the silence punctuated with bird calls is magical.

 

The direction of travel is now due west after days of a southwesterly movement. The sun rises at my back and when not obscured by clouds, I cast a long shadow which I keep pace with, and which, by the end of the day, I pass.

 

A chance of rain. Dark clouds are chasing and reaching out like a hand to grasp me. I keep an heightened pace to outrun them and looking back, I can deduce that those who decided to stay in bed a bit longer are dealing with a heavy downpour.

 

Into the vast panorama. Footstep after footstep. Breath after breath.

Green wheat fields gently waving in the breeze.  Clouds racing overhead, changing the hues and casting patterns as they pass.

 

Today’s walk is 14 miles and passes through many tiny hamlets of architecture from the 12th – 18th centuries. I cross gently rolling hills, vineyards, farmland and, for a portion, walk an ancient Roman road. The route is mostly trails which offer little shade from the blistering sun. There is about a 1,000 foot elevation gain and the traversing of three hilltops.

 

The villages all have tiny, winding streets, balconies, crosses, and fountains. Some of the streets are too narrow for cars to pass through and I bet neighbors can reach across from their windows to shake hands if so inclined. The path I follow takes me straight through the villages via winding streets. The village square is typically where you will find the main water source for the community. Of course, they all have pilgrim hostels and ancient churches. It is hard to fathom just how many pilgrims have walked this same route before me, and how many more are to come.

 

Just so you know, it is difficult, but not impossible, to get lost. Yellow arrows painted  on most anything point the direction of travel, most of these put in place by pilgrims knowing that the blue and yellow scallop emblems can sometimes be misleading or difficult to interpret. I save a French lady who goes zipping by me but turns wrong and is a few hundred feet in front, headed east instead of west at one point.  I call out to her and point to a yellow arrow painted on a guardrail.  She is ever so grateful.

 

The small villages we cross are all located on hilltops, with the church being at the highest point in the town. Of course, this is where the Compostela leads as the pilgrims took food and shelter at the churches, but you do have to climb a hill to get there? Maybe that is part of the retribution for sinning?

 

Near the ancient hilltop village of Cirauqui runs the Rio Salado, Salt River. Crossing over it using a Roman built bridge, one is reminded of the epic pilgrim guide entry by Aymeric Picaud, published in the 12th century, which warns not to allow your horse or self to drink the waters least death awaits. I do not fill my water bottle here.

 

Finally, reached Estella. Again, quoting Picaud, "Estella is a city of good bread, excellent wine, much meat and fish and all kinds of pleasures." I am convinced, it is time to take a rest day, do laundry, eat, and reflect on the journey so far. I am going to attempt to attend Mass either tonight or tomorrow.

 

Estella (Star) is surrounded by forest-covered hills. The town was founded by King Sancho Ramírez in 1090 and the architecture is impressive and Romanesque in design. Fascinating.

 

So, the end of the day is upon me, I must reflect upon the journey so far, and do laundry, of course.

 

I have met and interacted with a number of pilgrims. A motley bunch, undeniably. Some are seeking spiritual enlightenment, while others are racing through the opportunity to evaluate their lives and maybe this is how they subsist back at home, never stopping to experience the world around them.

 

The walkers come and go. “Buen Camino,” is the greeting passed from one to the next. Just as in life, there are some you wish would walk on ahead, or behind, and some with whom you could spend literally days engrossed in conversation. They pass in and out of your life like a flickering flame. “See you down the road,” knowing you never will. We travel together, and yet walk alone.

 

Meals are much the same. You are seated with fellow journeymen and the discussions vary on a wide scale. Again, you may or may not ever see these folks again, but for a brief moment, you are entwined in conversation and enlightenment. The pleasantries of sharing a meal and wine.

 

I am fortunate that today I find a surprisingly modern albergue and have a modern four-bed room to myself! Yippee! Sleeping in a bunkhouse-type environment leaves something to be desired. Forty or more pilgrims in bunk beds. Many need to bathe and wash their clothes. Sharing snores, farts, flashlight beams in the middle of the night. The inconsiderate who have to pack and disturb others in the very early morning before we awake, instead of prepacking. There is an awareness of others that should be universal, but unfortunately, it is not. Awareness should be paramount, it is all part of the experience. Awareness brings change, consciousness brings awakening.

 

My awareness. Thoughts of my loved ones. Gratitude for my friends, both old and new. A profound experience. Breathing. My feet beating out a rhythm on the trails. Acknowledging a higher power.

 

The sun is upon my face. A glass of rosé wine beckons me. It has been a fine day, indeed.

 

Dinner is a “pilgrim’s meal” at the albergue. Salad, bread, fish, cheesecake and wine for 11 euros ($13). The two Korean girls at the table think I look like Bruce Willis and want photos. The Brazilian girls think Kevin Costner, but that I sound like Keanu Reeves. I don’t guess they see many movies in either country.

 

Estella update.

 

I think I am going to have a room to myself tonight. However, packs of rain-drenched pilgrims started showing up at the albergue about an hour ago. I now have three roommates. Three non-English- speaking French ladies. Two bunk beds. I'm on bottom, so not all bad.

 

They all have blisters and I help them with the draining and patching. Of course, none of their blisters are like the MOAB (Mother of all blisters) on my heel. When I show it to them, one of the ladies lets out an audible gasp. Of course, they all have to take pictures of it. It is looking quite disgusting these days.

 

Later, as I try to sleep, I am serenaded by the siren’s song of three snorers, sometimes as a chorus and sometimes in solo. Every once in a while, there is a toot from the horn section. I, being the gentleman that I am, wear a handy elastic chin support so I do not become part of the nightly sing-along.

 

 

Camino Day 6   Mi verdad

Estella to Los Arcos.  22 km.  14 miles.  8 hours.

 

So, here we are, almost a week into the journey. I think I am getting this sequence down. You sleep in a room full of quirky pilgrims, use the communal bathroom, walk punishing distances, eat meals, pop blisters, converse with said quirky pilgrims, take a shower, sleep, start again.

 

Today starts at 7:15. It takes about 45 minutes to get out of Estella. The highlight is reaching the Bodegas Irache Vineyard on the outskirts of town.

The vineyard offers an alternative to water for consumption- wine. Since 1891, the Bodegas Irache Vineyard has sponsored the Fuente de Vino, a most famous fountain just on the outskirts of Estella. And as pilgrims go, "Wine is the blood of Christ to fortify the spirit, and water is the living of the Christian Way." The wine is being offered with no expectation of payment in return. “Peregrino, si quieres llegar a Santiago con fuerza y vitalidad de este gran vino echa un trago y brinda por la felicidad”. (“Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and raise a toast to happiness.”) It is there to quench and enlighten your spirit. Such is The Way. I drink my wine, as many have, from the scallop shell I carry, others opt to purchase a plastic cup from the dispenser for 1 euro.

 

Today is a perfect day for the walk. The sky is blue, the temperature is a bit brisk, and a breeze offers a reprieve from the heat.

 

Natural paths through holm oak and pines which line the way for the initial few miles of the journey today. The shade and solitude of the path offers a break from the sun, which is welcome today. You plod along, surrounded by a canopy of green, when suddenly you find yourself bursting out of the thick trees and into a brilliant yellow field of rapeseed plants and a climb of about 2,200 feet ahead.

 

Walking through wheat fields and olive groves, a deserted castle appears on a distant hilltop, the remains of el Castillo de San Esteban de Deyo. It is visible from a distance as it stands alone on a solitary pinnacle. The closer you get, the more impressive it becomes. I would have hated to have been stationed there- the climb up and down would have been unbearable.

 

To the north, there are beautiful white cliffs in the distance. They stretch as far as the eye can see over the green wheat fields. The blue sky above them makes for a nice balance in color.

 

Today’s route is clearly marked with the traditional yellow arrows and the paths meander through fields and scarce woodland. It is flat and lacking shade. Water is not as available as one would like, so great that I filled up with both wine and water! In the middle of the trek is a food truck strategically stationed at an intersection. They offer fresh-squeezed orange juice, which I partake in. Just the right drink at the right place.

 

The green wheat fields stretch into the distance. The breeze, depending on which way it decides to take, causes this sea of green to have white caps, or, at other times, have dark-green creatures swimming just below the surface. Amazing what you can see if you let your mind wander.

 

Birds abound, a donkey bays in the distance, the gravel beneath your feet crunches, and the scallop shell on my backpack gently clinks against a carabiner, letting me know I am keeping a consistent pace.

Miles down the trail, I eventually reach the town of Los Arcos and here I decide to stay tonight as a lot of my fellow pilgrims are dropping out here to head back to their jobs, only to come back and do another section next year.

 

I am beginning to appreciate just how immense the world can be when you are walking. We take for granted in our mechanized world of planes, trains, and automobiles just how far our destinations actually are. One can drive the Camino Francés in eight hours. Today's walk was eight hours.

 

Update

 

Tonight's room is shared with six strangers. These folks are all new faces. I am guessing today is their first day on the Camino. There is zero interaction. I go to the pilgrim's mass tonight and when I get back to the room, I ask if any attended. "I've seen enough masses in my life," is the reply from the California girl. Geesh! I am going to strike out of here at an early hour to get away from this group.

 

 

Camino Day 7    Mi estado de ser

Los Arcos to Logroño.  28 km.  17 miles.  8.5 hours.

 

Holy crap! 17 miles!

 

Before I go too far into today’s journey, there are a couple of thoughts I want to touch upon.

 

First, I am writing these updates in an expedient manner and apologize for any misrepresentations, misunderstandings, or misinterpretations. I know I said prior to day one that I wasn’t going to write much, and I hope I am not boring you, but I do wish to keep a journal of my journey and might as well share it with you. If I am not responding to your inquiries, it is because I am trying to keep internet time to a minimum.  Also, I am writing on an iPad and the frickin’ autocorrect is just killing me. You have probably seen examples.

 

Second, the pilgrims I am meeting are from all walks of life, all ages, and from many different countries. Some are prepared spiritually and/or physically, some not so much.

 

There are individuals carrying large packs and some having their packs transported from town to town. Some take taxis or buses due to exhaustion, feeling the need to rush ahead to get a more favorable spot to sleep, or have just given up on the idea of a spiritual walk of transformation, but need to tell their friends they completed the Camino. I think for these people, their ultimate transformation will be to tourist. There are believers in God and atheists. I have met a couple of people who think they will meet the loves of their lives on the Camino, sort of like a long drawn-out dating service. Singles, couples, students, widows, divorcées, they are all walking for their own reasons. All are welcome in my cordial world of one step at a time.

 

Sometimes when people meet me on the trail, they will chat for a bit and eventually say something to the effect of, “You are the happy guy I’ve heard about, always smiling!” Or, “You are the guy with the huge blister!” Either way, it is a conversation piece and it seems more and more people just want to chat, no matter what the topic. I believe some may be uncomfortable with their reasons for walking, not really knowing if there is a reason or just an impulse, or possibly, not able to channel their inner self.

 

We do walk in packs, depending on which day you started. I have met people who have either caught up to my pack or are lagging behind theirs. The packs stretch for miles. In reality, we are all walking in our own time and space, we just happen to overlap on occasion.

 

Now, here it is.  Today is a very early departure for me. As I mentioned in another post, I had the pleasure of sharing a tiny, unheated room with six other people. One Italian gentleman, who was very quiet in his demeanor, one obnoxious gal from California, and four Canadians. The Canadians chat aloud until 11:00 PM, although everyone else is trying to sleep. One wakes up at 4:00 AM and starts texting on her phone, pinging and ringing away with each message. The Italian guy gets out of bed at 5:00, turns on his bright thermonuclear flashlight and starts packing, leaving at 5:45. The Californian goes into an outrageous coughing fit at 6:00, the Canadian guy, built much like a stork, comes crashing into my bed on the way to the bathroom at 6:05. Twitter girl states that since everyone is up, “Let's turn on the lights!” Lights on, I’m out as fast as I can pack and put as much distance between me and this gaggle.

 

With such an early start, it is just the beginning of nautical twilight, and the first rays of the morning are just beginning to appear around the steeple. I am surprised to see how many are up so early and beginning their trek.

 

Leaving Los Arcos, there is a cemetery with a moss-covered stone wall of five feet or so and dilapidated iron gate. To the left of the gate is a sign that translates,  “I, who once was what you are, you will be what I am.” A deep thought to get things started right as you begin a long day of walking through vineyards and farm land over natural trails and ground stone paths. Is the chill from the cemetery with its archaic headstones leaning one way or another, or the northern breeze that keeps things a bit nippy?

 

Today the sky is clear, with only contrails crisscrossing above and a thunderhead peering over the distant mountains. Little water is available, even less shade, although you cross seven rivers on this jaunt and, of course, cross seven ancient bridges. And it goes without saying, there are multiple steep hills to negotiate, making the distance covered today even a bit more challenging.

 

Well established vineyards, with their grapevines in early stage of budding, line either side of the road. They are gradually taking over the landscape from the wheat fields.

 

The towns I pass through today included: Sansol, Torres del Rio (Towers of the River, mentioned in the movie “The Way”), and Viana.

 

The original plan is to do a forced march of 17 miles today and stay at Logrono, but the heavily fortified town of Viana catches my eye and since I am not in a hurry, I spend a bit of the day there. A population of about 4,000 and 15th-century buildings make this town cozy and welcoming. The people tip their heads in recognition of your passing through. I go to the church, Inglesa Santa Maria, to have my pilgrim passport stamped, and pick up a Twix bar and off I go, knowing that if I sit too long, I will probably not get up.

 

Six more miles of woodland, rolling terrain, and vineyards and I finally reach Logroño. It is a large city of 150,000 and the capital of the La Rioja regions. There is a university and, much to my delight, is the center of region's wine industry. Superb wines, I might add.

 

I have decided not to share any rooms for a while and find a nice hotel just north of the city center. I am exhausted, resting my weary head tonight.

 

Day 8   Mi cuerpo

Logroño to Najera.  29 km.  19 miles.  7.5 hours.

 

Sleep was easy last night, and much needed, although I wake up at 3:30 AM to answer emails and to take extra care in patching my foot as today is a killer walk. 19 miles, uphill!

 

Today I start early, 6:00 AM. The first mile is through town and the streets are dimly lit, making the yellow arrows hard to locate. I am making great time and am passing a park where an older gentleman is doing his Tai Chi in the predawn light. He suddenly calls out to me in Spanish, none which I could make out, except Camino. He comes over and from what I gather, tells me I am off the trail. Unable to communicate, he is kind enough to lead me for seven blocks to where I should have been walking. What a great guy! He is like the angel in "It’s a Wonderful Life!" He earned his wings by saving me a lot of confusion and time. As we part ways, he wishes me “Buen Camino.” This is the typical greeting, a wish-you- well and an acknowledgment that you are sharing the Camino. For some, as myself, it is a prayer for a day full of graces and safe travels. Thank you, Lord, for putting this man at the right place at the right time.

 

As for the walk today, it is less romantic than the others, only passing through two villages and not much to see in the arena of scenery. As you journey along The Way, there are numerous steeples in the distance, each bearing a resemblance to a crooked finger pointed to the heavens, a reminder to the pilgrims of why they are on their journey. I can imagine the early pilgrims without maps or internet to inform them of what lies ahead, rejoicing in seeing a steeple and getting comfort from the knowledge that ahead lie civilization and security.

 

The dark-red clay paths and surrounding area lend to the major industry in the area, pottery. The area is also famous for Rioja wine, especially the rosé. I cross through many vineyards today, all of them just budding in preparation for the new season. As rocky as the ground is, a sturdy grapevine is probably all that can be harvested here. Make use of what you have.

 

Today’s final resting place is Najera. It is a beautiful and quaint town whose name in Arabic means “between rocks.” As the name implies, it is situated between red rocky crags. The town is historically important as it had been the base for many of the Navarran kings during medieval times after King Garcia Sanchez chose it as his base.

 

A thought crosses my mind earlier today. I am only a few days into this and the people I am meeting are so varied in their appearance and demeanor. Brits, Frenchies, Koreans, Americans (of course), and even Irish. We chat about purpose and intent. I don’t really know if anyone is listening or just wishing to express his feelings.

 

On a lighter note, the Irish are starting to look like boiled lobsters, no matter how much sunscreen they are applying.  These poor guys!

 

So I arrive, check into a hotel, will bathe, and then take a quick walk around town so I can post some photos.

 

Karen, a gal from Colorado I have walked with off and on for the past couple of days, asks if she could share my room since nothing is available in the albergue.  Having two beds, I oblige.

 

 

 

Day 9    Mi respirar

Najera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.  22 km.  13 miles.  4 hours.

 

One of the things I am becoming more and more appreciative of as the miles pass underfoot is the spiritual dimension of this journey, and I do use the term journey a lot in my writing as it is a discovery of many magnitudes of feelings and emotions. It is an opportunity to take stock of oneself and find answers to your innermost suspicions.

Life, love, faith, relationships, grit, existence.

 

I have found that my fellow pilgrims are open to conversation and many of these conversations become intimate as we pass through this portal of historical significance and distance. Our concerns and questions regarding our existence are quite human, and I would dare say, common to us all. I don’t know if this intimacy is because we are solely sharing a commonality, or if in sharing that camaraderie, we know we will not see each other afterwards, thus making the expression of our innermost uncertainties easy? Are we seeking answers from our fellow travelers, or just expressing our innermost reservations aloud?

 

I am positive that for many of the peregrinos, they will have their life forever influenced by the Camino. The Way is life.

 

 

 

Day 10    Mi espíritu

Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Villafranca.  34 km.  20 miles.  8 hours.

 

This morning starts with a bang, literally! Your 5:00 AM wake up call.  A drummer walking down the street beating out a rhythm, directly below my window, followed by a police car with its lights on.

 

So, here is the story. Saint Domingo, who founded the town 1100 years ago, is rejected from becoming a monk. He is not wise enough for the brothers. He wants badly to help the pilgrims so he builds a hospital were the current city would eventually develop. The area at the time was heavily wooded, so he would beat on a drum to direct the pilgrims to his location. Every year, May 1 - 14th, they celebrate Saint Domingo by beating the drum down the streets at 5:00 AM and 6:00 PM.

 

I am not ready for the morning wake up, but it gets me out of bed and on the road by 6:00. We had rain last night and the deserted stone streets have reflective pools of water across them. The swallows are chirping away in the darkness and their calls echo though the acoustic streets. Just I and the birds, them chirping and my trekking poles click-clacking along.

 

The clouds are hanging low and it is difficult to locate the faded yellow arrows which point out the way. A couple of times, I have to pull out my flashlight to make sure I am headed in the right direction. The first four miles are on a gravel path that cut through wheat fields. In the distance, I hear the birds calling one another and also see headlights of the large trucks zipping down the main highway a mile or so away. Except for that distraction, I am pretty much alone for two hours.

 

I stop for breakfast at a café in an intimate village. Fresh orange juice, a cup of café con leche, a patat (the potato omelet) and a glass of mineral water. By this time, pilgrims are beginning to catch up and of course, we all recognize each other and walk together off and on.

 

The wheat fields with their stone paths turn into rolling hills and a route much closer to the busy highway. Sometimes you feel the breeze from the trucks as they roar past, which isn’t really a bad thing, as it helps to relieve the oppressive humidity for a brief moment. It is actually welcomed.

 

Up and down the hills. Speed up, slow down. Don’t step on the snails. Frogs croaking in the drainage ditches. Trucks speeding by. Cross this Indianapolis-like highway multiple times, taking your life in your hands.

 

There are small villages to pass through, and I do mean small, maybe a dozen inhabitants. The homes that have stood for hundreds of years are either kept up, or falling into ruin. There is not much future in these hamlets. The yellow arrows point the way in and out.

I reach Belorado, my original goal in four hours. That is fourteen miles covered. The only problem is the albergues do not open their doors until 1:00 PM, and that means hanging around for three hours. I opt to continue on to Villafranca, another six miles down the road.

 

The storm clouds which I have been outrunning are beginning to catch me and about two miles out, a sprinkle begins. Having been through this before, I opt to continue on instead of putting on the poncho. My intuition is correct and the sprinkle remains just that.

 

Having decided to move on, I have left many of the “pack” behind, but am sure they will eventually catch up on another day. I have yet to take a rest day.

 

At this point, I am walking in solitude and away from the distraction of the highway. I should use the next three hours to ponder life or something to that effect, but since I am out of water and the sun is beating down on me, all I can think about is how nice an ice-cold Coca Cola would be, no kidding.

 

I come dragging into Villafranca around 2:00 PM, worn out, feet like hamburger meat, dehydrated, and sore all over. Of course, to get through town you have to walk up a steep hill, and that I do, barely.

 

There is a new hotel right on the Camino and it is the first place that makes itself available to me, so I walk into the lobby. Much to my surprise, there is Anne, my Australian friend, who has just booked a double room, but does not have a roommate. She asks, I say "yes". So here I am. Beat to pieces and just hoping she is not Vlad.

 

Day 11   Mi esencia

Villafranca to Cardeñuela Riopico.  24 km.  15 miles.  6 hours.

 

Today is a much-welcomed change from the near-death experiences of walking near a major highway. Much of the path is dirt and there is variation in the surrounding terrain. There is a climb of about 1,000 feet over Alto Mojapan. The way is lined at times with hedge row and at altitude, there are pines and oak.

 

The other major difference is that the rain finally catches up to me. My start at 7:00 AM is in a cool drizzle which escalates to a full-blown rainstorm two hours later.

 

The initial slog, right out the door of the hotel, is up a very steep, narrow, and muddy trail. I have my poncho on and even with that, I am still wet from the condensation underneath. The gray clouds are low and though I have already climbed several hundred feet, they linger above and below me. The drizzle eventually turns to rain and as the trail widens and levels out, pools of water are accumulating and footing becomes slick.

 

Seven miles down the road, the rain abates and the sun comes out. What a wonderful reprieve. In a quaint village names Ages, I am able to relieve myself of the poncho and rain pants and about the same time, Anne, my Australian friend, catches up to me and we walk the rest of the way into Cardeñuela Riopico. Of course, there is a steep hill between us and our final destination with an incredibly rocky trail to transverse of two or more miles, and then an open plain of three miles. Arriving in Cardeñuela, the rains begin again.

 

Our stop for the day will work out well, as tomorrow we are making our way to Burgos, a major city, and will spend time there. Anne has swelling ankles and I have terrible blisters, as you know. I haven’t taken a day off yet, so the short walks will make that foot failure a bit more bearable.

 

Cardeñuela Riopico - a tiny, tiny hamlet- is populated by 20 people whose sole purpose in life is to take care of pilgrims and this is where we are staying tonight.

 

Laundry time, mud on everything.

 

An interesting conversation tonight over dinner. Typically, there will be a pilgrim's meal where all those walking the Camino will dine together. The meal is reasonably priced, say 12 euros (14 dollars), for a starter, main course, dessert, wine and water.

 

Tonight, I am the only American at a table of an Australian, two French, one German, and one Serbian. We all communicate the best we can. After dinner, the German tells me his story. Born and raised in Communist East Germany, he did not know God, and is doing the Camino in an effort to find his soul. Wow!

 

There are all sorts of stories like this. The pilgrim meal and the communion of spending time walking many, many miles are all part of the experience and the enlightenment that will follow.

 

God bless this man and his mission.

 

Day 12    Mi principio

Cardeñuela Riopico to Burgos.  15 km.  9 miles.  3 hours.

 

Anne and I sleep in late this morning, 7:00! Both of us need a rest and today’s walk will only take about three hours so we will have another rest day before tomorrow’s trek in the rain. Breakfast is café con leche, fresh OJ, toast and jam. Not much, but enough to get one going.

 

Today is all road walking, except in Burgos where a sidewalk is available. The morning air is crisp and the threat of rain, very real. The low-hanging clouds and strong breeze promise a drenching if we don’t hurry along. I leave at 7:30 AM and Anne at 8:00. The wind at my back tells me I have to make great haste to beat the deluge that lies in wait for the laggers.

 

There are only three villages to pass through before reaching Burgos, a large city of 180,000. This starts as a very pleasant walk along country roads of asphalt which later turn into lackluster flatlands and eventually parallel a highway. No trees, nada. Eventually, you have to walk six miles through an industrial part of the city to reach the city center. Being Sunday, everything is closed and there is no traffic. This is the ugliest portion of the Camino to date.

 

The uneventful walks give me opportunity to recall army cadences, and if the feeling arises, sing aloud with no one to critique it. A song that has been stuck in my mind, actually two of them, are both by Dan Fogelberg, “Another Old Lang Syne” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” I do not do Dan any justice, good thing no one is around. Maybe thinking of lost loves? With miles to walk in solace, you do tend to reminisce about many, many things in great depth. Friends, family, loves, rights, wrongs, life, death.

 

I have a wonderful experience this evening over dinner.

 

Anne and I walk about trying to decide where to dine. We finally settle on a restaurant that is tucked away near the gate into the walled section of town.

 

Finding our way to a table, the couple seated next to us turns out to be Gunter and Elise, the German couple I had gathered up on the first day to take a cab to Saint Jean since there was a train strike.

We have a wonderful conversation regarding their Camino, which is ending tomorrow as they fly back to Munich, only to return to finish next year. They both freely speak of the spiritual awakening they have had over the last 12 days. They also speak of their disappointment in not finishing this year.

 

Our conversation turns to recognizing successes and failures in life, that changes are possible in all cases, successes to continue, and paying forward as a philosophy. And even though it's a deep conversation, probably one that most people would not have over a meal, it is also an opportunity for them to evaluate their humanity and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

 

I make friends I will never meet again, and yet we will continue to share our experience and relationship.

 

Such is the Camino.

 

 

Camino Day 13    Mi conocimiento

Burgos to Hornillos del Camino.  22 km.  13 miles.  4 hours.

 

Today, as almost every day, is an early start. It had rained overnight and the morning air is brisk, to say the least. The streets are deserted and the birds are calling back and forth.

 

Anne and I kick off our walk just a bit before 7:00 AM. The weather forecast is 20% chance of rain until 9:00, when it rises to 60%. We have to get some mileage under us and keep our fingers crossed that we will walk under the hole in the clouds.

 

In order to exit Burgo, it takes a couple miles of urban walking, although we decide to cut through the grounds of a monastery just to add some color to the gray morning.  Dave, my friend from Bristol, catches us, or we catch him and we chat for a bit. Dave and Anne have a fast pace and soon they are out ahead of me. It will be a couple hours before I catch them in a small town at a coffee stop.

 

Dave finishes his café con leche and walks ahead, Anne wants to stay a bit longer, and I take off, knowing she will eventually catch me. This is the last town to pass through for three hours as we enter the great wide-open plains, the Meseta. Rolling hills, wheat fields as far as one can see, storm clouds ahead, and a hard-packed gravel path.

 

The fast-moving, dark clouds throwing patterns on the green wheat fields. Strong winds at my back. Spattering of rain. Hornillos just coming into eyesight.

 

Finally, into town before the rains hit, and Anne is just a few moments behind.

 

Our final destination for tonight was to be in Hornillos del Camino, but everything in the small village is full. Anne, being the brilliant thinker she is, has booked ahead a room at Casa Rural El Molino. It is far from the beaten path, but they do pick you up in Hornillos and will drop you back off in the morning.

 

After a high-speed, hair-raising taxi ride over windy roads, we arrive at Casa Rural El Molino. One house in the middle of nowhere. But something looks familiar….a few scenes from the movie “The Way,” were filmed here. Quaint doesn’t even begin to describe it.

 

So, here we are, surrounded by wheat fields, peacocks calling, wild duck wandering about, a stream running directly under the house.

 

What a blessing.

 

 

Day 14 – The Tough Mudder   Mi mente

Hornillos del Camino to Castrojeriz.  20 km.  13 miles.  7 hours.

 

A great dinner last night, a good night’s sleep, and getting to sleep in, makes today very upbeat and the anticipated walk ahead be more like a walk in the park. The big plus, in my mind, is butter! Lots of butter with dinner.

 

The taxi drops us off at our stop point from yesterday. We unload, gear up and take off.

 

Few and far between are abandoned homes. The air is heavy with humidity and the ground is saturated as a result of the last four days of rain. Birds of prey circle overhead, vigilant for field mice. At one point, I am beginning to wonder if they are vultures waiting on me to drop from the struggle with the mud?

 

So, here we are, the first hour of walking is on hard-packed gravel with a gentle incline of about 800 feet until we reach the high plains.

 

Flat, wet, muddy.

 

The next two hours are a struggle as the ground has been churned by farm implements and a thousand pilgrims. The gray clay-like mud has puddles the size of Lake Erie and the mud creates an ice rink-like texture to the journey. Without my trekking poles, I am sure I would have fallen at least twice and I see others drop into the murk as they slog along.

 

 

Day 15 - The Doddle   Mi corazón

Castrojeriz to Poblacion de Campos.  32 km.  20 miles.  6 hours.

 

Up and on the road by 7:30. Clouds hanging low, temperature a bit chilly, high humidity.

 

It rained last night and I am hoping that will be it for the next few hours as we doddle (an Aussie term) nearly 20 miles to Poblacion de Campos.

 

This route is pretty much barren and wheat fields, except the trees that line the river front which we follow for about four miles.

 

Today starts with a steep climb of a few hundred feet, a plateau, a steep drop, and then level ground. A Roman road makes for an interesting walk initially, and then, poof, it is gone. From the hilltop, the expansive valley below looks foreboding, but in reality, it is much more pleasant than the previous two days and part of the walk parallels a canal.

 

There is only a mile or so of mudflats to negotiate today, but that is plenty. As yesterday, it is slipping and sliding, thankful for trekking poles.

 

Once again, you cross a river, the Rio Piscuerga, on a beautiful eleven- arched bridge, the Puente de Itero. A stone marker at the opposite side of the bridge marks the border between Burgos and Palencia, it also marks the historic border with the kingdom of León.

 

This region was known by the Romans as their bread basket and the wheat fields seem to be endless. I wonder if the screenwriter of “Gladiator” had this in mind when he portrayed the Spanish villa of Maximus?  Literally, the wheat fields extend as far as you can see. Of course, this time of year, the wheat is still green and just beginning to show the wispy tops. The smell of fresh wheat is powerful and reminds me of growing up in Oklahoma.

 

Rain comes and goes throughout the walk. We don our ponchos and rain gear, only to remove it an hour or so later.

 

The sun plays hide and seek as the clouds race by in the high winds. The wind turbines lazily turn in the distance. There is not much to see in the vast emptiness, but it does give you time to either reflect or trudge onward, your choice.

 

One of the things I am noticing on these long, long days of walking in the vast void is a clearing of my mind. While I could look with dread down the barren path that seems to disappear into infinity, I can choose to experience the reality of the walk. The pace becomes almost hypnotic and my mind ceases to interfere with the experience. It is the present moment, not the judging of my life and the world around me. There is a calmness that overcomes my body, my soul. It is now. Interesting.

 

Eventually, you reach Formista. The Romans named it Frumentum, which is Latin for cereal. These wheat fields were the Romans' breadbasket. As in all of these villages, there are albergues and churches. All available rooms are full so Anne and I move on another three miles to Campos. This is a good call. Our journey tomorrow will be a short one.

 

What limits distance now is availability of boarding. As I have stated, this is the great emptiness.

 

Day 16    Mi conciencia

Poblacion de Campos to Carrion de los Condes.  15 km.  9 miles.   4 hours.

 

The weather forecast for today is rain until 9:00 AM, a short reprieve, and then light showers. The weatherman got it right for the most part; there is a break in the rain for about an hour, but closer to 11:00.

 

Anne and I decide to wait until close to 9:00 AM to start, but our plan does not proceed as anticipated…it rains for the next hour.  Rain, drizzle, mist. Our original plan is to walk the scenic route by the canal, but the first glance at the path reveals deep mud and we choose to walk the gravel path that parallels the highway. Pretty much everyone else does also. The few who walk the canal path later tell us it was murder.

 

So, today we deal with high winds, rain, and a slog. It is “heads down, slog on”.

The clouds are low and dark. Had I been in Oklahoma, I would have guessed a tornado was on the way. The endless wheat fields wave in the wind and the various shades of green are accentuated by the gently rolling terrain. Rarely does the sun pop out and cast a shadow.

 

Finally, we reach Carrion de los Condes.

 

At one time, when the Moors controlled the area, they insisted that the locals give them 100 virgins annually. Of course, this did not go over well and eventually the Moors were routed. El Cid ruled the area for a period and he was not tolerant of the counts and their demands. A lot of history here. A lot of death.

 

Now, it is laundry time again, this time with a machine! We are sharing a three-bedroom apartment with two Italian girls, and Chris, who grew up in Fort Collins. Small Camino.

 

Day 17 - The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.   Mi realidad

Carrion de los Condes to Ledigos.  27 km.  16 miles.  5 hours.

 

Of course, it rained last night and this morning. The river just outside our habitacion is high over its banks and flowing extremely fast, an indicator that there is much precipitation to the west where the river originates. Unable to book a room in our final destination, Anne and I have opted to stay in Ledigos, a very simple village. Other than the albergue, I can’t tell you if there is anything to do. On the bright side, the albergue is clean, festive and a family-run business.

 

As for today’s journey, as mentioned, we are greeted with rain and brisk winds initially. About half of the distance covered today is on a deserted modern road and the other on an ancient Roman road. Flat and featureless terrain. Nothing except wheat fields and a gravel path overlaid on a Roman road.

 

There isn’t much solitary space as this is the only exit from town and the only path west on the Camino. The pilgrims are stacked up in some spots as many left at the same time, people being creatures of habit. Anne and I leave later than most, but soon overtake the majority and arrive first in Ledigos.

 

About seven miles out of Carrion, in the distance there appears a church steeple. It is the beacon of hope which is a welcome sight as the endless plains stretch out in every direction. Two more miles and you arrive at the village of Calzadilla de la Cueza, a one-street oasis in the middle of today’s trek. A bar, a hostel, a church. A seat, a meal. Pretty much everyone has stopped here. It is the only source for beverage or meal for some time.

 

Six more miles and the simple village of Ledigos is reached. I am seated in the bar/entry to the albergue and pilgrims have been arriving for the last hour or so. Three more just walked in with all their wet rain gear and muddy boots. It is beginning to get crowded, even more so than with the locals who hang here and discuss whatever it is gentlemen in a remote village discuss.

 

This is the halfway point of my journey. I’ve traveled 241 miles. I don't know whether to rejoice or despair at this milestone.

 

 

Day 18    Mi evangelio

Ledigos to Bercainos del Real Camino.  27 km.  16.5 miles.  6 hours.

 

Today offers a much better alternative to the last four days of endless Meseta (high plains). Beyond the slight change of scenery and the addition of rolling hills, there is no rain today and the temperature is so pleasant! The enthusiasm level is much higher.

 

Anne, if you haven’t guessed by now, is my traveling partner. We make great time today! I think it has a lot to do with your attitude from the moment you wake up. We are walking at 4.5 miles an hour, which is a tremendous pace, and stop a couple times for breakfast and lunch. Even get to take my boots off during the lunch break and repatch a couple blisters.

 

Breakfast – eggs and bacon (a rarity and not as we have them in America). Lunch- pastries and Coke.

 

The clouds are broken today, with very little sunlight making a difference. Winds calm, humidity high, but the cool temperatures keeps everything manageable.

 

We pass through a couple small towns prior to reaching Sahagún.

 

Sahagún derives its name from Saint San Facundo who was martyred here. It is also the site of a 9th century monastery, Abadia de San Benito el Real de Sahagún. We stop here for a pastry and a chance to rest our feet.

 

One town, where we have our breakfast, is the site of many bodegas. Bodegas are basically cellars dug into the earth.

 

Initially, this region was wine producing, during Roman times, and the bodegas served as production and storage space. Later, when the economy turned to wheat production, the bodegas were used for storing cool items. Interestingly enough, the bodegas were dug out during winter by the children as a way to keep them active and warm. I have been seeing these all along The Way, but never appreciated what their actual purpose was.

 

lso worth mentioning, as you know, there are memorials, and graves all along The Way marking where pilgrims have passed on to meet their maker, instead of seeing the remains of Saint James in Santiago. What I am beginning to notice is most of these markers are on an incline, which leads me to believe many are heart attacks, going uphill.

 

Rolling hills, wheat fields, villages, patches of windflowers of red, yellow, blue, purple, white lining The Way, the smell of wet wheat, birds singing, and vibrant colors to simulate your thoughts, all made up today.

 

Our final destination today is Bercainos deal Real Camino. It is pretty much a deserted town, as many we pass through are, with two places to dine, and three albergues. Anne and I have a room, I mean to tell you, a tiny room that is just big enough for two beds. That is it. Everything is on the floor between the beds. No closet, no dresser, no shelves, nothing. There is a small courtyard, a basin to wash clothes, and two minute showers. Our hosts are gracious, speak no English, and as far I as I can tell, are farmers. All is good, considering.

 

Pilgrims must suffer.

 

So, here we are in the León province. The soil is running redder and there is a bit more rolling terrain. We will once again be passing through small towns on a more regular basis. The remaining two weeks will include very long days of 20 miles or more.

 

 

 

Day 19   Mi constante

Bercianos del Real Camino to Mansilla de las Mulas.  27 km.  17miles.  7 hours.

 

Today we march like the Romans did 2,000 years ago. Straight from Bercianos to Mansilla on the remnants of a Roman road. The great news, no rain! Broken clouds overhead and the weather is cool and refreshing. As many of the last few days, there is little to see; however, we pass through a couple of small towns that offer a chance to rest our feet and take in refreshments.

 

Along these routes, you will sometimes find a food truck parked in a shaded area. We stop today for fresh-squeezed orange juice. This can become habit forming at basically two US dollars per glass.

 

Reaching Reliegos, population 200, we opt to bypass the bars/restaurants strategically placed at the village entrance and instead, head directly to the city center to Bar Elvis. Quirky, you can guess by the name alone, and the proprietor is straight out of a sitcom. We lunch there on ham and cheese sandwiches with the ham being carved directly off the shank on the bar. Highlight of the day.

 

Finally to Mansilla de las Mulas. The city was known for the making of saddles for mules back in the day. The center is surrounded by a wall. Will go take a look as soon as my feet recover.

 

“Better to die with memories instead of dreams.”

 

 

Day 20    Mi animo

Mansilla de las Mulas to León.  18 km.  11 miles.  4 hours.

 

Clear skies, brisk morning, birds everywhere. The trees are budding now and fields are filling with wild flowers of orange, red, yellow, blue, white, and purple. There is the smell of hay, flowers, and dirt. We are breaking out of our current pack of pilgrims and meeting new ones as we move forward. This will be our fourth pack. Many have slowed, or dropped out. Some have taken cabs and buses to get ahead. Anne and I are committed walking the entire route.

 

Crossing the bridge out of Mansilla de la Mulas, the first thing you see in the distance are the foothills of the snowcapped Cordillera Cantabrica mountain range. On the right are the ancient, and I do mean ancient, remains of a castle, Castro de Lancia. In 24 BC, the Romans captured it from the Celtic Asturians, thus ushering in the beginning of a period known as Pax Augusta, the Peace Time of Augusta.

 

Oh, the joy of traveling along the highway. I had read about it, and today I experience it up close and personal. Just past Villamoros de Mansilla there is the 200-meter-long, 20-arched Puente de Villarente bridge over the Rio Pormo. The bridge is narrow and extremely busy. A pedestrian bridge has been built to avoid it. Even so, you walk for a bit on the highway today and the roads are narrow. Sometimes, as the cars go whizzing past at close intervals, I get the feeling the drivers believe if they hit you, you will complete your pilgrimage much quicker, the only problem is you will be meeting St. Peter and not St. James.

 

Again, a walk paralleling a major highway, a couple hundred feet out of view, and then a stroll through neighborhoods as you enter León. From the crest of a hill, you can see the cathedral surrounded by the ancient city, which is in turn surrounded by the more modern city of León. The city is industrial and life is at a more hurried pace than I have seen so far.

 

León is the last major city before you reach Santiago and before you climb through the mountains of the Cordillera Cantabrica. It was established as a Roman fort in 68 AD to protect the roads leading to the gold mines at El Bierzo. The name is derived from the Legio Septima (7th Legion of the Imperial Roman army) which was stationed here.

 

I walk about for a bit and run into friends I have met along The Way. One, Phillip, a young German whom I helped get a cab to Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port, is here. He should have been long gone, but he was laid up for three days, sick in Los Arcos. He will be moving on today, says he will visit in Colorado. Another, Chris, I had met three days ago. He had marched on and is going home tomorrow. Small Camino.

 

Day 21   Mi búsqueda

León to Villar de Mazarife.  21.3 km.  13.2 miles.  5 hours.

 

Coffee, hmmmm. The Spanish serve their coffee with hot milk. Café con leche. The Spanish, and many of my fellow pilgrims, drink it all day long, including just before bed. That I cannot do, no matter how tired I am, but I will drink it up to noon and sometimes that is just what it takes to keep the day going. It is something I seek out along with a pastry, often several miles into the walk. These days, however, Anne and I have discovered that some of the breakfast joints actually serve fried eggs and either ham or bacon. Today is ham and potato chips, three miles out of León.

 

There are many distractions in León. With all the distractions that were certainly worth entertaining-the shops, the museums, the restaurants- I find myself drifting back in my mind to the hustle and bustle of the life I left back in Colorado, wondering about what was happening... or not.

 

Wondering about home certainly isn’t the intent of walking the Camino. Waking up early as I have been for the past three weeks, the temptation is to stay another day in the luxury of a clean bed, but the road is calling and we have a schedule to keep so Anne can fly home. In life, as most things, the path of least resistance is not always the best choice, so my bags packed last night, I hop into the hot shower and stand for a few minutes, savoring the moment and knowing that the next shower would be miles and miles down the road.

 

Departing León, we walk through a couple miles of industrial suburb. Not pleasant at all. Eventually, after we stop for breakfast, we have the choice of two paths.

 

There is an ancient Roman road that is considered the original Camino route and the “scenic” route. The Roman route parallels a highway, the scenic route is... scenic. Scenic it is.

 

So, the scenic route is uphill a few times, through two small villages, and plains lined by wild flowers for as far as you can see. The flowers are just now beginning to bloom. I imagine in a week or so there will be blankets of color to illuminate The Way.

 

Domestic bee hives are lined up in the distance, a clear indicator of the blossoms to come. There is mud from last week’s rain, birds calling back and forth, a few trees, and very little traffic for the times we must walk on pavement. Clear skies. Things warm up a bit in the afternoon; in fact, I cannot imagine walking this in the summer.

 

Just about two miles prior to reaching this afternoon’s destination, I begin coughing up blood and a nose bleed. Holy crap! Ebola! Where did that come from? Stop for a few minutes. Sitting down on a hay bale. Not sure what just happened, but everything is fine now. Freaky.

 

So, now settled in at the final destination for today, I am showered, clothes hanging on a line, Anne is taking a shower. On the patio where I am typing, there is a couple, guy with beard and “man-bun” and his girlfriend, a German guy chain-smoking, and another guy doing his laundry in the sink. The German’s feet are taped up more than mine, which is reassuring. The town is very tiny, with absolutely nothing going for it other than the albergues for those passing through. Wi-Fi is an issue. I will see what I can send in a bit.

 

Now for this thought - What I find refreshing every morning, depending on when you depart,is that you will most likely walk alone. Many sore pilgrims sleep in, stop for café con leche, or begin their daily trek with a sore hobble. Even if you have stretched out in the morning, it still takes a kilometer or two to get back into the rhythm of the walk. The beauty of the morning is the opportunity to reflect on the prior day’s experience. All is still, except maybe the occasional chatter of a bird or the murmured voices of your fellow pilgrims beginning their day. And in the reflection, you also look forward to what lies ahead.

 

After days of walking the endless mind-numbing plains, my enthusiasm for the Camino is returning.

 

 

Day 22    Mi resolución

Villar de Mazarife to Astorga.  30 km.  19 miles.  7.5 hours.

 

Well, this was a LONG, grueling walk.

 

Clear skies, pleasant temperatures. Birds calling, choruses of frogs along the route.

 

Initially, on today's route, there are ponds, trees, orange orchards. The terrain is level and progress to rolling without much elevation change. The first four miles are on the hard shoulder of the roadway and have to be followed due to all the waterways and irrigation canals which force you to cross bridges. After that, you can break out into the countryside, as Anne did, or follow the main highway, as I did.

 

I run into pilgrims I met days ago. My pilgrim family. They caught up or slowed down, depending on who they are, over the past few days. I’m told a few who are missing have dropped out after the long barren stretches or bussed ahead. Some have exhausted their vacation time and will continue the Camino another year. Injuries or illness take out others. I am fortunate that I can dedicate my time for the complete journey, and maybe even further.

 

About nine miles into today’s journey and after walking adjacent to a river, we cross the Rio Orbigo on a remarkable medieval bridge into the town of Hospital de Orbigo. There is a legend about a knight who, in the Holy Year of 1434, was so in love with a damsel who rejected him that he decided to fight numerous jousting matches, 300, on the bridge to free him from the bonds of this love and an iron collar he wore to symbolize his plight. Was this inspiration for the story of Don Quixote and Dulcinea? Sane madman or wise fool? There is a plaque on the bridge commemorating the knight and nine others who assisted him in his plight and fight. In the field below the bridge, a jousting run is set up, maybe for a celebration this year?

 

There are choices on the Camino, on many levels. Beyond the albergues and where to dine, routes come into play. Today is no exception. Eventually, I have the choice of the historical route which follows a main road or the scenic route to Astorga. As mentioned earlier, Anne takes the scenic route and I opt for the highway. Both routes converge at San Justo de la Vega and then continue into Astorga. The two routes meet up again. Of course, you have to walk up another hill to get to that point and at the summit, there is a cross, the Crucero de Santo Toribio. From this point, you can look down upon Astorga, where there are many things to see as it is an ancient Roman village and the crossroads of many important Roman thoroughfares.

 

Tomorrow is a short day, only 13 miles.

 

The last easy day.

 

 

Day 23   Mi aspiración

Astorga to Rabanal.   21 km.  13 miles.  4 hours.

 

Today is an uphill battle, literally. The entire route, uphill. Not really that steep, not really that stressful. The gravel and cinder path, once again, parallel an asphalt road, which much to my relief has little traffic, except for the occasional taxi or tourist bus.

 

The weather is a bit brisk, clear skies, and windy. A cuckoo bird is in the distance. Swallows flying about en masse. Oak trees and pines all along the way. Fields of red poppies blooming. Clouds looming in the distance over snowcapped peaks.

 

Another Camino route merges into the French Way at Astorga. Many more pilgrims in today’s traffic. I believe the days of not seeing anyone for miles are over. Many new faces and personalities. I am still seeing friends I have made along The Way. Phillip, my German friend, is here. He is days behind on his schedule due to illness. My four Canadian friends are here. I even saw “Steve from Iowa.”

 

“Steve from Iowa” made himself at home at the table where Anne and I were having breakfast yesterday. I mean to tell you, he just plopped himself down as we were dining al fresco. This was two hours into yesterday’s trek out of León. That was a haul through an industrial area and I can’t blame him for sitting, but he didn’t even ask. We chatted for a bit while and Anne and I enjoyed our breakfast. I mentioned we're going to have a short day today and then three or four very long hauls over the mountains.

 

Steve: “You shouldn’t be thinking ahead like that, you are going to ruin the spirit of the Camino!”

Me: “Well, that is our plan, a short day, and then really pushing forward, Anne has time constraints.”

Steve: “You are supposed to go with the flow. That is what the Camino is all about. Gotta go, I have to catch the bus, I’m not going to walk through this.”

 

I really disliked being lectured on what “my Camino” is supposed to be. It is something different for every individual who walks it. The experience cannot be dictated.

 

Pass through a tiny village, Murias de Rechivaldo. There is a huge stork’s nest located on the bell tower. We have breakfast there. Café con leche, eggs, bacon, and fresh squeezed OJ. The new pack of pilgrims has some characters. There is the Italian couple who stand beside our table smoking and arguing about something, the two French ladies seated behind us who are emptying their heads of buckets of mucus while we are trying to eat, and an assortment of unusually dressed trekkers passing by.

 

Back on the road, working our way through the new herd. As usual, we move faster than most and the single track, and sometimes double-track path, make the passing a timing issue. Anne calls out “Hola” when she is trying to pass and if the people do not respond by moving over, she calls it out again, a bit louder.  Eventually, they get the idea and move or she barrels through them.

 

The rickety old village of El Ganso is home to the Cowboy Bar. How can you pass that by? We don’t. “Cerveza, por favor!” Quirky. 

 

Miles down the road, we come across a falconer, dressed in medieval costume. Have photos made with him and he signs our credentials. Just past the falconer, there is a section of fencing that has crosses, made in a moment’s notice, woven into it. Probably a quarter mile of them.

 

As the early afternoon approaches, we finally reach the small village of Rabanal del Camino. Ann and I are staying on the outskirts in a nice estate. The town is full