(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 20, 2005
Day 21: Molinaseca to Villafranca, 32.9 km/20.5 m

Like every morning, I awakened having slept amazingly hard and deep. My body had shut down to repair itself through the night and my legs, once so fragile and sore, were somehow ready for another day. I didn’t really want to leave the magical oasis of this particular refuge. The people had filled me up so fully. But of course, I said my goodbyes and set off on my own. Simon was hanging back. There were a couple of German guys his age that he’d spent the night in the refuge connecting with. It was time for each of us to have our own experiences again.

The next big town on the Camino, Ponferrada, was only a few miles away. When I arrived, I stopped for coffee at a café outside both the castle and the Basilica. It was Palm Sunday, but since there were no palm trees, and therefore no palms, people were carrying branches of all kinds. It was magically beautiful. A procession formed in the town square—people walking purposefully toward mass.

Simon arrived with his friends. They stood watching the procession, and I could hear their laughter ringing through the town square. It was comforting to me knowing that he was having such a full and varied experience. So many people were filling him. I loved knowing that, and I loved being a part of it even more.

As I sat watching the festivities, Karen Carpenter’s voice came on the café’s radio—Rainy Days and Mondays. Her voice filled me with the comfort of home. And suddenly I missed home. It felt so far away.

Talking to myself and feeling old
Sometimes I’d like to quit
Nothing ever seems to fit
Hanging around, nothing to do but frown
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down

I sat smiling—not feeling old and certainly not down—rather, totally caught up in memories of childhood where I would lay on the floor with my head next to the record player and stare at the album cover of Karen Carpenter and her oversized smile. I’d sing along doing my best to blend my voice with hers. I loved that she played the drums. I loved that she was a bit awkward in dresses and that it was hard for her to be the center of attention. These were things I could identify with in her.

It seemed that so much of my childhood was spent lying in front of that record player. I sang along to Barry Manilow, Bobby Sherman, the Osmonds, even Elvis, my father’s favorite. And I listened to more than just music; I also borrowed comedy albums from the library. Lily Tomlin was my favorite. I memorized all of her routines and did my best to mimic her many voices. I desperately wanted to grow up to be the sort of person to whom people would listen, though I wasn’t yet sure how my voice would define itself.

I sat there in that café sipping coffee as home movies played in my mind. And I was so comforted by the nostalgia. You see, it was more than just Palm Sunday; it was also my mother’s birthday, which propelled my thoughts of home even more. I wished I could call but I didn’t have a phone card, and I also didn’t understand how the phones worked. I decided I would figure it out when I got to Santiago. Until then, I would hope for email communication to return.

I was facing only a 20-mile day, which at this point felt like a break. Even better, the rain that was on its way had not yet arrived. As I finished my coffee, the procession had made its way to the Basilica, and at the end of the train was a robed man carrying an enormous wooden cross and wearing a crown of thorns. I shook my head. The Christian story was not one that moved me. But by the size of the crowds moving toward mass, I seemed to be alone in my dismay.

I was happy to be leaving the festivities and heading back to the silence of the Camino. I moved toward the yellow arrow on the building across the square, and I began the first of ten flat, easy miles, most of which I spent singing Karen Carpenter songs and thinking of home—reliving both my memories of childhood and my favorite moments with my mother.

The last four miles of my day were a climb into Villafranca, and the rain was starting. Some of the journey was along a stretch of highway with amazing views that reached out across rolling green hills in all directions. The ever-handsome Jaime, whom I’d met in Leon, had told me to be sure to visit Villafranca. I arrived by dirt roads traversing vineyards. The sky was a dramatic display of rain clouds that were holding back torrents and releasing only dribbles. The torrents, however, were certainly on their way.

The town was small and quaint. I wound through the streets not wanting to investigate, opting instead to get out of the drizzle, put my feet up and pour myself a hearty glass of wine. But sadly, I didn’t run into an open tienda that might fulfill my desire for imbibement.

The refuge was hidden in the hills and seemed very much like a tumbledown shack stuffed with bunk beds. But it was teeming with pilgrims who were already carrying on as if the place was a local watering hole, home to a gathering of familiar faces. And, in keeping with the theme, there was a selection of wine for sale by the warden. As I checked in, I eyed something I had yet to see on the Camino—a coin-operated washing machine. I smiled knowing I wouldn’t have to do laundry by hand, and instead I’d get to put my sore feet up and pour that hearty glass of wine.

I claimed a bed and stripped down to essentials, stuffing everything else from my bag into the washer. Simon and his guys arrived just as I was settling in for dinner. My mood was already heightened by the flow of exuberant conversation but the evening got brighter with Simon’s presence. And he’d arrived bringing the downpour with him. Rain pummeled the tin roof like herds of buffalo hooves on the ceiling, and we all huddled together for available shelter. There would be no drying my clothes on the line this evening, but the warden assured me there was a dryer available. I awaited further instruction but none came. So when the washing machine had finished its cycle, I piled my clean, wet clothes onto a drying rack just inside the roofline where it was only partially sheltered, and I joined the laughter back inside the refuge.

Bush’s Iraq war was nearly two years old but none of my vehemence against it had faded. I’d protested against it heartily only to discover that Bush and his cronies never had any intentions of listening—their minds had been made up long before. As a result, I’d been pushed over the line; instead of feeling pride for my country, I had often felt ashamed. Whenever people asked me where I was from, I had a standard answer prepared in Spanish—I’m from the United States, and on behalf of my country, I apologize for the war in Iraq. Simon had heard me recite this line by rote but when I said it this time, one of his friends chimed in with—You don’t have to apologize for your country and its government; we’re from Germany. I smiled thoughtfully. It was the last time I issued my repentance.

I stayed up far later than I imagined I could but any attempt at retiring early seemed ludicrous in the face of both the rainstorm outside and the shower of conversation inside. When I did finally drag myself to bed, I worried about my clothes, still piled up without a chance of drying. I was anxious about having something to wear in the days ahead, days I knew that held very little sunshine, if any.

I woke up during the night to the drumbeat of a continual downpour, and I agonized over my decision to launder all of my clothing. I remembered that someone in my travels had told me that if you slept with damp clothing in your sleeping bag, your body heat would dry them. So I got up in the darkness and crept outside to retrieve my pants, undergarments and a shirt.

Perhaps “damp” was the operative word, because my clothes seemed just as wet in the light of day, and now the clothes I’d slept in were wet along with them. I hovered over a cup of coffee and stared out at the rivers of mud careening down the mountainsides. I felt wholly defeated. Finally, the warden dragged out what appeared to be an enormous lottery drum, and we threw all our clothes inside it. Then he fired up a mildly safer version of a blowtorch, and we all stood around eating breakfast with our eyes transfixed as he spun the drum in front of the blazing heat. Within minutes, we were sorting steaming dry clothes and packing our bags. Apparently, the evening of worry was for naught.