(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 21, 2005
Day 22: Villafranca to O’Cebreiro, 32.9 km/20.4 m

I’d walked for three straight weeks, averaging nearly 20 miles a day. When my bag and I had crossed the threshold of the Villafranca refuge, we’d ambled 401.5 miles together. Otherwise, I’d carried pain, questions, boredom, songs, joy, bliss, disbelief, wonderment and more than a few men.

It’s possible that Day 22 was the turning point. Of course I didn’t think about that at the time. Maybe I didn’t even know it until years later, sitting down to write about it. But on Day 22 I discovered something else about myself—something else I hadn’t known before.

It seems that I have untapped reserves of determination.

You see, the route to O’Cebreiro wasn’t just the steepest ascent of the Camino—a grueling 5-mile climb along a forested dirt path—it was the steepest ascent of the Camino in the rain. And to be clear, it wasn’t just rain; it was driving rain that would ultimately become a bombardment of hail in swirling gale-force winds.

It began gloriously enough. The drizzle that carried me along the highway out of Villafranca singed the surrounding mountainside with a dewy glow. Patches of green earth rolled out across the landscape in a visual masterpiece. I took it all in, but I was well aware of the forecast. I knew the weather would tire me, and I didn’t feel as though I could afford a long day. So I figured that as long as I felt strong, I would run.

I ran the 4-mile hill that traversed the highway and found pavement for the steep 3-mile descent that followed.

I caught my breath and aired out at a truck stop where I wolfed down a lot of French fries with my burger, before darting off into the enshrouding fog for mile after endless mile. The drizzle gave over to rain as I hit the dirt path at the base of the mountain, and with every step, I felt less sheltered. The mud was trailing down around me in rivulets, creating grooves in the path and exposing rocks and stumps. I knew that I couldn’t afford an injury, so head down, trekking poles stabbing the soft earth, I slowed my pace. Still, I was passing people as if they were standing still. There was no conversation on this day; it was a battle against time and the elements.

I marched forward feeling as though I’d entered some kind of Indiana Jones journey into the belly of the beast where the closer I got to my destination, the harder the forces worked against me. As I scrambled up the mountain, the sky opened up in an uncontrollable rage, and I was at its mercy, defenseless.

At some point, it all just became absurd. And I mean it was absurdly absurd. I was being pelted by hail, pushed by the wind, pulled by the river of mud and grabbed by roots and rocks. The wind alone was so crazy that small children would have certainly been carried away if they weren’t tied down. If I hadn’t had my trekking poles I would have fallen over many times. Once again, they were carrying me. I’d remembered reading that the path followed along an old Roman route, and I was humbled by history. But that hill, oh, it was so long. It was also incredibly beautiful. I noticed little yellow flowers growing out of the rocks. Beautiful blue slate stone. Even more, I noticed that the worse the conditions became, the more I smiled. I kept squinting toward the heavens and laughing. I even stopped, raised my poles and screamed, “Really? Is this all you’ve got!?” Otherwise, it was head down, trudging forward in a slow, steady progress that felt like I was summiting Everest.

And as summits are, this one was beautiful. Or perhaps it was merely getting to the top that was beautiful since this one was fogged in and pierced by hail. I rounded the side of the mountain not quite knowing how far I had to go, and I was mercifully met by the small, lovely, Swiss-like village of O’Cebreiro. The first structure I came to was the church, whose welcoming doors were open and a beautiful, alluring chant emanated from inside, calling to me.

I nearly fell into its open arms, so happy to have arrived. It was, for me, truly a refuge, a shelter from the storm. I was alone in the calming, sacred space, and I lay down on the hard, stone floors absolutely spent. I thought, if these floors weren’t stone, I’d sleep here. I listened to the chanting from the speakers inside along with the angry, howling wind outside, and I smiled at the thought that I’d just battled through the elements only to be embraced by song and sacredness and stillness.

It was all I could do to pull myself from the hard floor but I wanted to find my space for the night. And one that had a bathtub. So instead of going to the refuge, I went instead to the hostel adjoining the church. It had a tub but it was a half tub. Regardless, I sat with my knees drawn into myself in the warm, warm water.

After a long, steaming soak, I enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner and opened my friend Brenda’s fourth envelope. It contained three postcards accompanied by quotes from various people written on the back in her beautiful scrawl.

When you know that all is light, then you are enlightened.

It’s a journey with purpose. What’s the purpose? To understand the nature of light. In all our hearts, even in the heart of the universe itself, we detect a divine echo that, in verbal form, might well coincide with Einstein’s statement: For the rest of my life, I’ll be trying to understand the meaning of light.

Discovery may not be at the end, but within the journey itself… You need to come equipped with a heart capable of understanding rather than a brain capable of comprehending… so the invitation is to search for the light. If we can risk all, and trust the process, then the chances are we’ll arrive at the truth, because the mystery we move within is fundamentally benign and benevolent.

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

“It is not my rational consciousness that brought me to an understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe.”

“The most beautiful experience we can have is mysterious.”

“Small is the number of them that see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.”

When I finished consuming my sustenance, in all its forms, I returned to the church and lit two candles, one for my body and one for my spirit. I sat for a long time, watching their flames dance in the wind.

Then I leaned up against the wall, and in the light, I wrote in my journal:

It was nearly a marathon run to get up here. I feel so blessed. The weather today, oh, some would say ugly. I say perfect. The wind was so fierce. Crazy. Add rain to that, at times a sprinkle, at times a stream, driving at me and turning to hail. Up, up, up the mountain, a 700 km climb over mud and rocks and dirt trail. But I just kept smiling, marveling at my strength and determination. There was even a guy from Madrid who stopped me in the hostel lobby and said, “Oh my God, you are so fast, you are so strong.” I am. I feel it. And I really loved the impossible, harsh conditions. I’m so happy this weather waited for me on the hardest day. What can’t I do!? I made it up this hill, 20 miles in just over 6 hours. I have walked more than 400 miles without stopping. But this last week, oh the last week to come, I need to burrow, to go inward. I have been grateful to not have email as a reminder that sometimes the communication is inside. And now, even more, I feel a need to go inward, perhaps even to not stay in refuges if possible. They are filling up and I am needing to be more solitary. I would like to have a solitary experience on this last drive toward Santiago.

Oh, God.

Mother Mary is here in this church. It is so divine. I am watching the candles burn, and my eyes fill with tears. I feel safe. I always have shelter from the storms. I love the storm today. The clouds are blowing so quickly across the sky now. It has nearly stopped raining. Outside, the gorgeous rolling hills, the fast moving clouds, the Gaelic music trumpeting through the thatched rooftops. There is so much to see in this tiniest of villages. There are so many gifts I would love to buy. But I can’t carry them.

I can’t believe that there is less than a week left. Have I come to a new place in myself? Have I given up what I have? There is a week left. Who am I? Why have I come?

Oh, God.