(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 19, 2005
Day 20: Santa Catalina to Molinaseca, 42 km/26.5 m

When Simon and I, the two lone guests at the Santa Catalina refuge, awakened, Simon happily announced that he’d had four dreams during the night. It was exciting news given the fact that we’d all been sleeping so hard it made remembering dreams difficult. Having one felt like an event, but four of them was a galactic supernova from the netherworld.

Santa Catalina was smack dab in the middle of nowhere—meaning mostly that it would be a long walk for food. It did, amazingly, have an outdated, coin-operated computer in the refuge, however. I’d poked around on it the night before but didn’t manage to access my account. I tried again in the morning, to no avail. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if I had to live without email for a while but I had grown accustomed to it. And getting error messages seemed odd.

I headed out with my companion Simon, undeterred, knowing that after a few flat, boring miles, much of the day would be spent walking uphill. And if we thought the day before seemed desolate, today’s journey appeared as if World War II had swept through and only the ruins remained. There would be a bar and restaurant, with beautiful wood and tile inside, surrounded by nothing but rubble. El Ganso was the first of the hauntingly abandoned villages with their crumbled piles of stone, and then after a few signs of life in Rabanal del Camino, we came to Foncebadón. Once a thriving farming community, the exodus came in the 60s and 70s, and the few holdouts remaining relied on pilgrims for their sustenance.

It was Saturday. Forecast called for rain Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. I was bracing myself, enjoying the day’s trek in my light wind layer. And although I felt strong, I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would log my longest travel day yet. It was a marathon. Literally. Over 26 miles—26 of the hardest and yet most beautiful miles of the Camino so far. We climbed up to the highest point on the entire route, 1505 meters (like Denver, a mile high), to an iron cross and a mound of mementos.

I had read about this spot before I left. The Cruz de Ferro is an iron cross mounted on a pole that towers above a pile of stones. For centuries, pilgrims have been carrying stones with them to leave behind as a symbol of their journey and a gift to the Camino. I’d selected a small stone from home that I carried with me, infusing my energy and a bit of my struggle. I, too, wanted to leave a little piece of myself other than just my footsteps. Unfortunately, others had left ID cards, notes, shoes, insoles, coins—most of which were eventually cleaned up and thrown into the nearby dumpster.

It was windy and cold at the top of the Camino but the landscape of green rolling hills seemed to stretch on forever. Simon and I sat down to enjoy the view, rest a little and record some of our thoughts into our journals.

The route down was a rough path that took strength and focus. And the walk was made more difficult by the view. Instead of wanting to watch where I was stepping, I only wanted to marvel at the breathtaking landscape.

We wound through valleys, groves of trees, streams, and miles later we were deposited in the most astonishing village of Molinaseca.

We wound through a maze of stone walls that led to the converted chapel on the far edge of town only to discover that the refuge was filled with smiling, familiar faces. Tanya arrived, just back from the hospital. She’d twisted her ankle, badly, and wanted to make sure it was okay. She was sore but smiling. I listened to a roomful of laughter as I tried to access my email account. I was still getting error messages that I couldn’t figure out. I put on water to boil for a mound of spaghetti that would be my dinner. I vowed to give up once the water was ready. My frustrations began to boil with it. But once I scanned the room, I knew it was time to be present with what was around me. These were the people with whom I was supposed to communicate.

I hobbled toward the communal kitchen. I was more sore than I’d ever been. Everything hurt, especially my feet but there was no getting around not using those. We laughed at each other as we watched our fellow pilgrims try to negotiate the stairs. Going up was easier—they could be mounted on all fours. But going down was an amazing challenge. Even bracing the railing proved difficult.

I filled up on pasta and conversation. And the lights went out early on a Saturday night.