Tongariro National Park

View towards Mangatepopo

the first national park established in New Zealand, Tongariro is also one of the oldest national parks in the world. the first parcel of land was set aside in 1887 under the protection of the paramount Maori chief in the area (Te Heuheu Tukino IV, also known as Horonuku) in order to protect sacred Maori land from being sold to European settlers. his family descended from the earliest settlers of Aotearoa (New Zealand), and identified with Ngatoroirangi, the man who navigated the vessel that brought the first people to the island and (according to myth) brought fire to Tongariro. once the land was under his protection, Horonuku gifted the land back to the state for preservation as a national park. while the initial parcel was considered too small to establish a   proper national park (with the example of Yellowstone as comparison), subsequent government actions set aside larger and larger parcels of land for that purpose. in 1894, Parliament passed the Tongariro National Park Act, which comprised some 252 square kilometers (not all of which they had yet acquired). several updates to the Act over the 20th century brought the park to its current size encompassing nearly 800 square kilometers.

Descending from Red Crater

the three main peaks located in the park – Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu – are tapu to the local Maori and development would have destroyed the mana of the sites. the Maori still have territorial rights over the mountains and when the Te Maari crater on Tongariro erupted in 2012, they declared a protective restriction (rahui) over the area to protect both the mana of the site and to ensure the safety of trampers moving through the area. because of its importance to Maori culture and its natural characteristics, the national park was designated a dual (cultural-natural) World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, after previously receiving status for natural heritage in 1990.

although technically established in 1894, it took some decades before transportation caught up enough to bring significant numbers of people to visit the park. the first permanent park ranger began working in 1931, two years after the completion of Chateau Tongariro at the ski resort of Whakapapa. a road to Whakapapa was completed in the 1920s, making the journey much easier than the previous overland trek by horseback or foot. according to our lodge hosts, the park is far more popular for skiing during the winter than for tramping or biking in the summer.

Emerald Lakes

until 2007 the track from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi was known as the “Tongariro Crossing.” however, the difficulty of the terrain and changeability of the weather found many trampers unprepared and the name was changed to include “Alpine” to better convey the reality of the track. we felt well-prepared setting out on the hike – both physically and in relation to gear – and I was still surprised by how much the climate changed on our hike – the limited visibility, bitter the wind and biting the precipitation through the South Crater, up the saddle beside the Red Crater, and past Blue Lake. not all trampers were as well prepared for the trek as we and the view from the trailhead might not prepare you for what was in store. moreover, in addition to the weather-related dangers were legitimate (though distant) volcanic risks. all three peaks in the park have been active in the last century with Te Maari in 2012 the most recent. when we stopped for lunch at the Ketetahi Hut, you could see active vents on the side of the mountain and the damage done by debris during the 2012 eruption. fortunately, that eruption occurred near midnight in August so the hut was not in use, but it remains closed to through-hikers due to its location in the active volcanic zone. in spite of the danger (volcanic and otherwise) some 80,000 people undertake the hike each year, with numbers growing.

finding the Dingle Way

first day on the trail brought us lots to see and lots to photograph. the path follows a towpath out of Tralee and into the village of Blennerville, whose claim to fame is a functioning windmill that also serves as point of tourist interest, thanks to the Tralee Urban Council, who procured it in 1981.

after passing through Blennerville — and the last shop (for procuring useful goods such as sports drink, chocolate, or peanuts) we saw for several days — we headed up onto the shoulder of the Slieve Mish Mountains. one of the peaks we passed, Caherconree, is named for a stone ring fort found two-thirds up the peak and overlooking the “road of stones.” myth claims the Cú Roí mac Dáire, a one-time king in Muenster rumored to possess magical powers, was able to raise the stones of the for up at night and spin it around so that enemies could not find the entrance. in another myth, a woman held captive in the fort by Cú Roí signaled her rescuer by pouring milk into a stream. that stream that originates near the ring fort is now known as the Finglas, a name derived from a word meaning “the white stream.”

the day stayed cloudy enough to be pleasant without a hint of rain (as it remained throughout the entire hike). the guide pages upon which we relied routinely cautioned how mucky various parts of the track could become given a bit of rain, and it was easy to identify those sections and give thanks that we hadn’t faced that challenge. we saw an assortment of all the livestock we’d see elsewhere along the hike — cows, sheep, horses — though some of the terrain was restricted from grazing. at one point we encountered a herd of brown and black cows grazing directly on top of a crossroads through which we were directed to proceed. we opted to tramp off over the boggy ground rather than get too close to an unknown herd of mothers and their calves. once past the mucky bit we had our first encounter with the biting flies and humid closeness of hedgerows we’d come to know so well. then down over the Finglas river and up into Camp for a much anticipated sit.

Humphreys Peak

another interesting ancillary fact about the site of the Tusayan ruins is its location on a slope coming down from the rim of the Grand Canyon, which allows a clear view of the highest peak in Arizona, Humphreys Peak (reaching an elevation of 12,637 feet above sea level). Humphreys Peak was (re)named in 1911 for a Union General who served a a civil engineer prior to and throughout the Civil War. following the war, he served as chief of the Army Corps of Engineers until his retirement in 1879. he was also one of the men who incorporated the National Academy of Sciences.

known in Hopi as Aaloosaktukwi, it is part of an extinct volcano chain that last erupted some two million years ago. the peaks, now known as the San Francisco Peaks and within the Kachina Peaks Wilderness, are sacred to over a dozen tribes, including the Havasupai, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni. the peaks are said to contain abalone inside and be secured to the ground by a sunbeam. Humphrey’s Peak is associated with the Aalooska deity of the Two-Horn Society, which was based in the Hopi village in which the Spanish established a mission.

while native peoples have inhabited and worshiped on the land around the peaks for millennia, the first Europeans arrived in the mid-16th century and began building settlements in the 17th century. in 1629, a group of Spanish friars established a mission in at Awatovi (one of the largest Hopi villages and center of the Two-Horn Society); in the following century their successors named that mission in honor of St. Francis. in the 1870s, a follower of Brigham Young claimed land around the only reliable spring in the area, on the western side of the peaks and built a stockade to house workers toiling on the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad.

the area first became protected federal land (as a forest reserve) by direction of President McKinley at the behest of Gifford Pinchot. local reaction was hostile but had no impact on the protection status of the land; further developments on the peaks during the last century have sparked further protest and debate. today, those debates center around the varied development plans of recreational venues throughout the peaks.

O Cebreiro

our arrival in O Cebreiro presaged much for the duration of our Camino and gave us an early glimpse of how distinct Galician culture would prove. the town sits astride a pass some 1,239 meters up that divides León and Galicia; it was immediately evident, looking down the western slope, to see how much differently the weather would be as we crossed through Galicia and finally entered Santiago. while the sun shone brightly as we entered town a thunderstorm swept through during our typical mid-afternoon nap, leaving the air significantly cooler and the cobblestones slick as we made our way from the room in our casa rural back to the pub from whence we’d retrieved our key.

a Roman way station guarded the pass into Galicia during their rule over Spain, but evidence points to even earlier habitation and settlement. the village is known for a large selection of well-preserved palloza structures — circular buildings with conical, thatched roofs that share similarities to the round houses of Iron Age Britain, as well as with those found virtually wherever archaeologists have uncovered Celtic settlements (e.g. Ireland, Brittany, Scotland, Morocco and, at least in fiction, the Gaul of Asterix fame). Galician culture shares much with Celtic traditions of Ireland as is evident throughout O’Cebreiro, and anyone who’s visited both can attest to the similarities in climate. some of the earliest people to inhabit Galicia were of Celtic descent and known as Gallaeci and had according to Roman records, had a particularly warlike spirit that repulsed the more pervasive efforts of the Romans to assimilate them into Roman culture.

in recent years O’Cebreiro has become something of a tourist destination; in addition to the well-preserved pallozas, there’s a museum dedicated to the ethnographic heritage of the region with traditional tools on display. the village is also known for a miracle involving the Holy Grail that reputedly took place in the local church. as my cultural guidebook puts it, in the 14th century the “Grail”, an incredulous priest, and a snowstorm resulted in a miracle; basically, when a local peasant arrived in the midst of a snowstorm to hear mass and the priest berated him for his foolhardiness, the wine and bread he was holding turned into actual flesh and blood. in 1487, Pope Innocent VIII certified the veracity of the miracle and this, in addition to an 1486 visit visit by the Catholic monarchs as they made their way to Santiago de Compostela, did wonders for the prosperity of the village. (the royals donated two “large gold nuggets” and asked the Pope to transfer a degree of authority and autonomy church officials closer to the village and, presumably, more aware of the needs of the inhabitants and peregrinos.)

success of the village in the modern era, as well as many notable improvements to the Camino for peregrinos who traverse it today, stems largely from the work of one parish priest, Elías Valiña Sampedro. he wrote two books on the Camino (and introduced the concept of placing explanatory text on one page with a map facing) and is credited for implementing the ubiquitous (and ever reassuring) yellow arrows to mark the path. he also played a role in collecting and preserving artifacts of rural Galician culture as can now be seen in the museum. he’s memorialized with a bust in the square beside the church; we stopped for a look when we realized we couldn’t go look around the church as interrupting mass wouldn’t go over well.

the second big hill

what I most remember about the day from Villafranca del Bierzo to O’Cebreiro was it being hot and sweaty. to be sure, we had our share of hot, sweaty, sunny, cloudless, thirsty, (sometimes) miserable days over the course of the Camino and more than a few of those words could apply to the day on which we ascended to O’Cebreiro and crossed into Galicia.

despite our departure before dawn (and well before the hotel began offering breakfast), we didn’t arrive at our destination until well into the afternoon. from the outset, the hike climbed gradually up the foothills and into the Cordillera Cantábrica that divides León from Galicia. it was an interesting walk, following what used to be the primary highway into Galicia as we left Villafranca. at some point, in an attempt to better protect the flow of peregrinos braving the oncoming traffic, the government erected a cement barrier to enclose the left-hand shoulder as a dedicated pedestrian lane. with all the hairpin twists and turns in the road, I was thankful for the barrier on more than one occasion, even though the flow of traffic wasn’t that heavy. the snaking two-lane road had been replaced by a six-lane autopista that cuts through a mountain below Villafranca and then continues on, towering over the valley floor, on viaducts and leaving the peregrinos slightly safer as they hike along the road. there were instances, however, when two highways intersected and the Camino took us across the highway through traffic and into tiny villages nestled on the other side of the road. sometimes there was a purpose to this crossing of the road (a cafe or fountain or albergue), but just as often we made our way through the town only to discover we had to re-cross the highway at the other side. as our guidebook pompously observed, the autopista dramatically altered village live for all the towns now bypassed by the “improved” means of transportation. for the most part, the Camino kept most of the villages alive though one has to wonder how the vagaries of tourism (and the status of the Spanish economy) might affect them in years to come. in one town several homes had remodeled basements or built additions to offer cafes or shops to cater to peregrinos; we stopped and had ice cream bars at one that had a stream running behind it. if only I knew then how much farther uphill we had yet to go!
generally, the diversion of road traffic afforded a more pleasant hiking experience. the villages felt older, more rural, more similar to all the small farming towns I’ve known living in south central Wisconsin. I enjoyed seeing a lot more cows grazing along this stretch, too, after weeks of hiking through primarily cultivated fields rather than grazing fields. these butterscotch-colored ones were my favorite.

the last, long, uphill stretch prompted a rather unnecessarily self-imposed challenge; just as we began the final ascent, we encountered a group of young people who had much fresher legs than us, were carrying less weight, and generally had less a sense of what ascending this mountain might mean. turns out they were students from the University of Minnesota traveling the Camino as part of a mini-term course they’d taken. (I found the blog chronicling their trip here: Hiking through History.) as I now know from reading their post about that day, their day started in Astorga — four days of hiking away for us — and only included 8 kilometers of hiking (albeit straight up the hill). it might come as no surprise that this group of twentysomethings just starting their day’s hiking had a bit more energy than us and took the uphill pace a bit faster than we did. or we should have, I should say. normally I’d been quite good about staying hydrated, usually drinking all of my water pack and then some in the course of a day, but as I adapted my pace to the collegians I burned through my water (and energy) faster than normal. we stopped to rest at a bar three or four kilometers from the peak (in La Lagua, if I recall correctly), just before a gaggle of the collegians arrived, for some much needed Aquarius to rehydrate. I felt badly for the proprietor of the bar/alberuge who had to deal with fifteen or twenty American students, most of whom didn’t buy anything but many of whom wanted to fill up water bottles and sit for a bit. I needed the second bottle of Aquarius we bought, thirsty and weary as I was, but even if I hadn’t I might have purchased a second one anyway to make up for any time I ever proved less-than-gracious to a proprietor during the travels of my younger years. that break proved useful in more ways than one; I got rehydrated, realized I’d been trying to keep pace with these collegians when I didn’t have the energy for it, and let some distance fall between us and them so I wouldn’t be tempted to keep up as we finished our climb.

despite the challenges, though, the sunny, spectacular view back towards León from whence we’d come proved worth the challenges and the view forward over Galicia promised new and different challenges. and a bit more rain.

heather-coated mountains

the view from the Rabanal pass was spectacular — heather coated mountains for miles under mostly clear blue skies. I was inclined to day that the stretch from Astorga to O’Cebriero was one of the more picturesque of our Camino but, really, every day brought an impressive sight of one type or another.

Cruz de Ferro

the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) marks the highest elevation on the Camino at just over 1,500 meters. it was one of the more iconic images to strike me when watching “The Way” — a cross perched atop a pole above a mound of stones, left behind one by one by peregrinos. as a symbol of the spiritual foundation of the Camino, the potential profundity of our approach to the Cruz was undercut by one of the largest groups of cyclists we’d yet seen.

while the precise origins of the Cruz de Ferro remain unknown, they might lie in the traditions of any number of inhabitants or visitors, many of whom used stones as markers. the pre-Roman Celts marked passes with cairns; Romans did the same in honor of Mercury, patron saint of travelers. as my book puts it — the hermit Gaucelmo (who built a church in Foncebadón in the 12th century and put the cross on top of the existing cairn) “essentially Christianized a pagan monument.” another theory posits that Galicians traveling eastward to work on farms during the growing season would deposit a stone to mark crossing over the Monte Irago in each direction.

whatever the origins, however, peregrinos have taken up the tradition of leaving behind stones or other mementos. we’d first encountered the mound in the film, but more than a few people mentioned it early on the Camino; some people bring items with them (there were a couple of printed sheets memorializing individuals, some flags, and other unique items), some people pick up pebbles or rocks along the way. for some these mementos symbolize the sins the hope to absolve by completing the Camino; for some they represent the person for whom they are undertaking the Camino; for some its an acknowledgement of the physical task to which they’ve set themselves. from atop the mound you can see the mountains of Galicia — still another full day’s walk away.

as I mentioned above, the Cruz de Ferro was one of the more solemn places on the Camino; approaching from a distance after hiking for 25 days and hundreds of miles, anticipating it for weeks and finally seeing it against the clear blue sky… it lends itself to reflection. we arrived along with about 20 cyclists who were quite boisterous and clearly aiming for (and having) a different experience. they certainly weren’t rude or disrespectful, per se, just having a very different experience than most of the peregrinos that arrived on foot. as we entered the final week of the Camino, the differences between cyclist peregrinos and pedestrian peregrinos became more apparent. perhaps it had something to do with knowing that the people you saw today, all kitted out in their spandex with panniers, will reach Santiago in three our four days whereas on foot it will take twice as long or more. and the Camino makes different physical demands on the cyclist versus the pedestrian. there was a woman who arrived on foot a few minutes behind us who was quite upset that the cyclists were taking photos and chatting, generally more boisterous and vocal; she wanted a more somber experience, in addition to a more solemn one, and didn’t take it well that not everyone at the monument a the time felt the same way. but as someone observed, everyone does the Camino in their own way; everyone has their own experience and everyone has their own expectations for what they’ll get out of it. sometimes it’s good to just let the experience wash over you and accept what happens — especially on the Camino. there was almost always an expansive blue sky to bring you back to yourself.

out-of-the-ordinary on the way to Rabanal del Camino

heading out of Astorga, the terrain grew dramatically more interesting if commensurately challenging. hills! and trees! and still more fields though these were marked into smaller parcels by short, stacked-stone walls (that reminded me somewhat of Ireland). this terrain is better for grazing rather than planting and we saw more, though not many, grazing animals.

the second town we passed through out of Astorga had a distinctly remote and timeless quality to it. the houses were stout, the windows small, and some of the roofs thatched. little existed beyond the main street, which hosted three cafes and two or three casa rurales or albergues. the only water fountain was hidden behind some buildings and could only be accessed down a narrow pathway between the two. we stopped to peel an orange on a bench beside what might have been someone’s front door and saw more than a couple people pass the passage and double back when they realized their overshoot.

one of the more interesting sites on this stretch was a cafe (and possibly albergue) in the tiny town of El Ganso. unlike the previous town, it had an odd mix of modern/rustic — maintained but aging homes, presumably inhabited by aging owners without flashy young money to install the latest conveniences, and an assortment of homes being completely gutted and remodeled and re-roofed to satisfy the preferences for city-living, weekend-visiting younger owners. my cultural book indicates its one of the best places to view traditional Maragato architecture and that the main road wasn’t paved until the 1990s.

in El Ganso we stopped at a cafe called Meson Cowboy for our standard bocadilla. as we claimed a spot in the shade, we saw the Australian couple we’d dined with at the albergue in San Martin and said our hellos (we saw them again several more times though not with the consistency with which we saw the Koreans early on the Camino). at the bar we also encountered a herd of cats of various shapes, sizes, and temperaments — as well as some of the ruder German tourists we encountered on the Camino. it’s likely they were peregrinos, but they certainly behaved and carried themselves more like tourists disinclined to engage local culture. at least their presence spurred us to return to the day’s hike with a shorter-than-intended break. suppose it worked out in our favor somehow — helped us nab a room at a casa rural in Rabanal with a great view of the mountains where we chatted with a nice Canadian (?) couple at breakfast the following morning. a stark contrast and heartening reminder of all the reasons people decide to set out on the Camino.

Castillo de Villamayor de Monjardin

Sierra Urbasa to the north of the Camino

the castle of San Esteban de Deyo watches over the town of Villamayor du Monjardin, which was likely established by Sancho el Fuerte at the end of the 12th century. the base of the castle is likely Roman, though it’s been reconstructed many times over the centuries — and was host to some kind of construction work when we saw it — and was one of the last strongholds of the Banu Qasi Muslims in the region, who were ultimately defeated in the 10th century. one version of events contends that Sancho Garces (of whom there was a statue near where we stopped for our mid-morning snack) captured the castle and town from the Moors in 914; another (a propaganda vehicle for French interests in Iberia, apparently) holds that Charlemagne defeated a Navarran prince who was holed up in the castle before going on to Najera to fight Ferragut.

the area was under Moorish control towards the end of the first millennium and there’s a fountain and/or cistern just outside the town to whom the Moors are said to have constructed. it’s been rebuilt and is rather picturesque, if not entirely enticing as a source to refill one’s water pack.

Fuente de Moros outside Villamayor

there are a surprising number of “Villamayors” in Spain (we stayed in another 20 days after this segment) and so, to mitigate the understandable confusion, in 1908 the Spanish government amended the names of all the Villamayors — often with the name of a nearby geographical feature, such as the hill upon which the castillo sits here.

interestingly, after a steady decline throughout the twentieth century, in the last thirty years the town’s population has grown. granted, that growth took it from 113 inhabitants in 1981 to 139 inhabitants in 2011.

Roncevaux Pass — now with animals!

the hike over the Ronceveaux Pass was one of the most challenging of our trip. it’s not uncommon for people to stop the night in Orisson, which is only about 8km from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. it’s a strenuous climb to reach Orisson, which has the only albergue (and only amenities) before you reach Roncesvalles, and only gets more challenging as your continue on another 20km. (if you’ve ever seen Emilio Estevez’s “The Way”, his character perishes on this segment when he takes a wrong turn and gets lost in the mountain fog.)

once beyond Orisson, we saw lots of animals grazing in the high mountain fields; probably more herds of animals on this day than an other single day of our trek. some of the horses had bells around their necks, as did the sheep. we didn’t try to approach them, but they seemed wholly unfazed by our presence — suppose you’d have to grow accustomed to so many random humans wheezing their way through your breakfast chomp.

in 778, Charlemagne retreated from Spain, and destroyed the city walls of Pamplona as he did so despite assurances that he would not — perhaps to prevent Basque or other fighters from using the city’s considerable defenses in future rebellions. as the army crossed the Pyrenees, a group of Vascones (people native to this region of Spain at the time the Romans arrived) attacked the rear guard, generating mass confusion and leading to disarray and devastation in the French army. Roland was among those killed and, as  anyone who studied French for any length of time might recall, immortalized in the Chanson de Roland, a somewhat romanticized account of the battle. a stone commemorates the location in the pass where most historians believe he fell (which we walked past) and the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the village of Roncesvalles.

as challenging as this leg proved, the terrain was remarkable: lush green fields grazed by animals; imposing rock faces; dense forest with fallen leaves lying inches deep; stunning panoramas; even snow! though we ultimately found our guidebook more hyperbolic and unreliable than useful, the admonition to stay attentive on the descent that day was helpful. after straining under unaccustomed weight for an unaccustomed distance for hours uphill, it could have been easy to misstep on uneven terrain — and we even took the “easy” route down the mountain into Roncesvalles as the steeper, wooded route was too sloppy from rain in the preceding days. needless to say, we were both very happy to see the welcoming doors of the albergue run by the Real Collegieta de Roncesvalles.