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 the snaking two-lane road had been replaced by a six-lane autopista that cuts through a mountain below Villafranca and then continues on, towering over the valley floor, on viaducts and leaving the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.