lost on the last day of the Camino

 each day at noon, mass is celebrated in the Cathedral in Santiago. while all manner of tourists attend, it’s designed for the weary peregrinos who’ve stumbled into town during the preceding day or so. we allowed nearly two full days for Santiago and could easily have waited to attend mass on the second day. but what kind of joyful, celebratory arrival would that be? instead, we set the alarm for 4:45 a.m., got into bed while the sky was still light and endeavored to temper the jubilant anticipation and get some sleep. the beds were a great help — some of the more comfortable ones of the Camino — once I got to sleep, but it’s hard to convince your mind to rest after a relatively easy 22 kilometer hike the night before you reach the destination you’ve been challenging yourself to reach for over a month. my journal entry from that night waxes a lot more philosophical than many of the others, which were largely contained to observations of the day, hike, meals, fellow peregrinos, and the like.

but arise at 4:45 a.m. we did. and promptly got lost for the first time on the Camino. I blame our initial misdirection on the circuitous route by which we approached town; I thought heading one way would shorten our route out of town … but instead it took us back to the east, something that would have been easy to rectify had the sun been up yet. fortunately, there were plenty of other peregrinos out to set us to right.

hiking through eucalyptus groves by the light of headlamps is a singular experience; both unsettling and serene. we weren’t in the trees very long, though, and when we emerged the horizon had just begun to lighten. despite the people we’d seen leaving Arca, there didn’t see any on the other side of the grove and reverted to following the usual trail markings … which ultimately proved somewhat problematic.

along the Camino, the route periodically joined with recreational trails with their own unique and regionally distinct markings. we’d never seen these recreational trails diverge from the Camino, as it was usually the best-groomed trail in the area, and got used to those directional signs accompanying the ubiquitous yellow arrow or walking peregrino sign. and on our last day on the Camino, we followed signs for the recreational trail as it diverged from the route we wanted. instead of heading down into the valley through Amenal we headed up and to the right, following a forestry road that eventually ended. without any indication of where the recreational trail might go from there. our map was woefully inadequate as to provide anything resembling assistance in determining how far off the path we’d gone and we were reluctant to use our mobile device to try and access a map that probably wouldn’t have a realistic pedestrian solution to our quandary.

fortunately, we had a pair of nice big landmarks to work with — the convergence of two major highways (N-547 and N-634) and an airport. we could hear the autopista from our misdirected location and worked our way towards it. the Camino crossed the road at the roundabout where we emerged and so, without any notable delay in our progress towards Santiago, we got ourselves unlost.

real ice cream in Arca

last stop before Santiago. day thirty-three. our soggiest day by far, with a steady drizzle through the first half of the morning. it was an uneventful hike, though there was the now-common influx of shorter-trek peregrinos. all the cafes we passed were packed with the weary and foot-sore; more Spaniards than earlier on the Camino though just as many Germans. met up with a young American college graduate who’d just concluded a year of teaching and working in Galicia. she was hiking the Galician leg of the Camino to wrap up her experience before (she hoped) moving on to teach in Andalusia. she was quite chatty and I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps it was refreshing to speak with native English-speakers or Americans. maybe I’m projecting; even with a compatible companion there comes a point when alternative conversational partners are a treat.

the path crossed the busy N-547 numerous times, more frequently and more dangerously than on any other day. it’s one of the major highways leading into Santiago — not unlike walking across US 14 when it shifts back into two lanes when driving south from Madison. the peregrino paths were well maintained but not always cordoned off from vehicular traffic. though at one point there was a pretty nifty pedestrian tunnel with large stones planted mortared into the walls that went under a hidden bend in the road and down into a cluster of farming houses and outbuildings.

Arca was an interesting place; the path spilled us out next to a sport complex and had us double back towards the highway. the whole town, it seems, is devoted entirely to the service of peregrinos to even greater extent than any of our previous stops. the first two places we sought lodging were filled for the evening — despite our early arrival. our third stop proved more successful, even if it sat on the busy highway in the middle of town. the guy working the desk seemed somewhat chagrined that the only remaining room didn’t have an en suite but for the price and the time of day we were thrilled. once we got up to the room and plopped down for our standard afternoon naps, we were even more pleased — memory foam bed and extra, fluffy pillows! once I finally got to sleep, it was a glorious sleep.

after the standard shower/catnap we headed out for an underwhelming lunch … and the first real ice cream since leaving Wisconsin! we’d had plenty of tasty ice cream bars and sandwiches along the Camino, particularly after the hot, sweaty days trekking across Castilla and León but this … this was real ice cream sundaes with whipped cream, a combination of tasty flavors, and (most intriguingly) hot chocolate to top them off. as a died-in-the-wool Wisconsinite, I’ve had my share of fantastic ice cream but what we had in Arca stands high on the list.

a mere 21 kilometers to go — a now laughably-paltry distance. that change in perspective was one of the more remarkable things about the last days of the Camino; what had only a few weeks earlier seemed like a insane challenge now seemed not only feasible but downright leisurely (which it wasn’t, but more about that shortly)!

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.

on the way to San Martin

we opted for the less scenic route from León to our next destination — off our guidebook’s preferred path –of San Martin del Camino. while probably “less scenic” as it followed more of the highway-hugging sendas, this alternative route provided more amenities and a shorter step count. I guess I should qualify that following the sendas made the trip shorter on balance; we actually walked farther the day after León than our book suggested on the “scenic” route but we had fresh legs and the day after San Martin, to Astorga, was shorter. rather than a 22km day followed by a 31km we had a 24km day followed by another 24km day. no brainer!

our route took us through a series of small towns, most of which had a distinctly different character from small towns we’d walked through prior to León. as towns on the US-highway and/or Interstate system all across America can attest, proximity to a major highway and the national autopista system definitely affects the viability and character of your town. in lots of ways the highway adjacent were the same as the ones at a distance from the highway — quiet with any number of abandoned structures or windows shuttered to keep out early morning sunlight or allow for afternoon napping. it’s quite odd, though, to have a major two-lane highway — one down which lorries come barreling without much warning — bisect your town. maybe you get used to watching for and dodging highway-speed trucks and traffic on your way to get a pack of smokes at the shop across the street. as a peregrino, though, it was nerve-wracking.

in Villadangos del Paramo (the last town of the day before arriving San Martin), we encountered a disoriented Brazilian peregrino in search of a bus stop to catch a ride to San Martin. though we hadn’t any idea, we walked with him towards the “center” of town — really, just an arbitrary distance mid-way through town on the highway — in search of a cafe for answers (and nosh for us). by his estimation, he hadn’t eaten a good enough breakfast in preparation for the day and decided that busing the last 4km to San Martin might be a better idea. sometimes your body makes decisions for you. he had a smoke and got something to snack on while he waited for the bus outside a cafe; we ate our bocadillo and headed onward.

there were several albergue options in San Martin, including the municipal one “directly under the watertower.” we opted for a private one on the road into town and snagged a private two-bed room with access to some chilly showers. it’s one of the only places I remember seeing crucifixes on the walls… we had a tasty communal menu del peregrino, sharing our table with some Quebecois and an Australian couple. dinner conversation ranged all over the place, from housing crises in our respective countries (and Spain), to politics, to our respective Camino experiences. at the end of the meal the proprietor brought out three bottles of liquor as after-dinner drinks, something we’d never encountered before but which our companions had enjoyed occasionally at albergues before. in addition to brandy, we tasted muscatel and a boysenberry non-alcoholic drink that, I have on reliable authority, tasted like jell-o. all the chat and drink kept us later than normal and meant we started out later to Astorga, but it was a good time and I certainly enjoyed the company of our Australian companions. we saw them several more times before the end of the Camino — and if we hadn’t taken that extra day in León we’d never have met them!

on the road to Carrión de los Condes

the walk to Carrión de los Condes was our first experience with what our guide derisively called peregrino autopistas (pilgrim highways). in truth, while these paths ran along not-necessarily-busy two-lane highways, they were well groomed, nice and wide, and clearly marked to enhance visibility and separate peregrinos from speeding cars. I don’t have any pictures from this day’s walk as we hadn’t yet solved the cracked-phone-screen dilemma, but it was a day of rather memorable peregrino snapshots.

the middle section of the Camino introduced us to many new peregrinos — some starting later than Roncesvalles because of time restrictions, completing one in a series of trips to hike the Camino, just interested in hiking one particular segment, whatever — and this day brought us a group of Brits with … interesting hiking habits. they were all pretty young — around our age — which set them apart from many of those we’d encountered earlier on. they also had an odd assortment of Camino gear and … other items we hadn’t seen others carrying; I can’t recall what stood out to me precisely, though I have a vague recollection of something reflective and perhaps a full-size umbrella. (but  I could be confusing that with the reflective full-size umbrella we later saw a middle-aged guy strap to his between his pack and back to provide more complete shade-cover.) despite the peregrino autopista, set apart from the highway for safety, one of the women in the group preferred to walk in the roadway. in the wrong direction. (perhaps something about being used to cars driving on the opposite side confused her and prompted her to doubly-endanger herself?) and to everyone’s bemusement she further endangered herself by having a full-scale dance party as she walked down the wrong side of the highway, her back to traffic as she strutted and moved about unpredictably. were drugs involved? I certainly wouldn’t discount it…

around the half-way mark of today’s hike we took a breather and the Brits left us in their pedestrian-equivalent-of-rearview in a town called Villalcázar de Sirga. as we headed out of town after chatting with an American-Canadian couple we’d met leaving Castrojeriz, we found ourselves overtaken by a group of middle schoolers who were, apparently, walking several kilometers back to school from their field trip. something you’d neeeeeever see in the States — but if you’ve got a nice, safe path to make your kids get some exercise after the excitement of a field trip why not use it? they behaved themselves remarkably, though one straggler at the end got some “encouragement” from one of the teachers for lagging too far behind. and a few kilometers out from Carrión one of the younger, slightly-chubbier kids (who looked a little green about the gills) was escorted across the road to a waiting car (presumably driven by his mother). the group held up as he was tended to and, as we continued on, an ambulance passed us heading back in the class’ direction. it didn’t come back in our direction so perhaps it wasn’t for the kid, or he wasn’t in such a state as to require more emergent attention.