(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 23, 2005
Day 24: Sarria to Hospital de la Cruz, 38.1 km/23.7 m

I was eager to hit the road early after a night of too many people. I’d grown accustomed to the desolation of the Camino, to a limited selection of familiar faces, to the nothingness of the trail and the idleness of thought upon it. So now, as the number of pilgrims swelled, I was resisting their intrusion. I judged the people around me as being drawn to the novelty of the Camino not the work of it, the weariness, the unending boredom. How could you truly experience the Camino—and come face to face with either the emptiness of yourself or the fullness—if you traveled like a touring group of hikers on a weekend camping excursion?

I judged them, yes, but I also recognized that we each get the Camino we need. I just wanted mine to be less crowded. I’d also wanted it to be warmer and drier, but as I dressed, I could already hear the rain pattering the rooftop.

Way2Porto
I started early enough to escape the masses, and I slipped back into the comfort of my solo trek. The rain was steady and growing ever more insistent but, coupled with the fog and the clouds and the mesmerizing rhythm of my footsteps sloshing through the rolling terrain, I was overcome with gratitude for the beauty of nature and all its many expressions. I hadn’t expected it to rain too hard or too long so I’d neglected to put on my waterproof socks. That was a mistake. Because soon enough, the rain came with such ferocity that I felt like I was walking under the nozzle of a firehose.

bootsAs the hours passed without a moment’s pause, the magic drowned, and once again it was a walk of endurance. The conditions were testing both my body and my gear. I worried that the “waterproof” label on my pack was a false promise so I found shelter under a canopy of trees and secured everything first in ziplock bags, then inside plastic. My shoes of course were soaked through, and my feet were sodden. And even though my pants and jacket were still managing to shield me, they clung to me with a penetrating clamminess that made me feel drenched regardless.

After four hours, I was, quite simply, miserable.

ponchosIn the distance, I could see multi-colored ponchos dotting the hillsides, and it brought some measure of solace knowing that at least I had some real protection. It occurred to me that I would end my Camino in the same place it had started—with weather testing me to my limits.

The path to Portomarin was a ten-mile uphill slog followed by four miles of steep descent. Fittingly, the town, which lies along the picturesque Mino river, had once been flooded when the river was dammed, and its buildings had to be rescued brick by brick.

porto
It was a feeling I could relate to as I entered the restaurant overlooking the old Roman bridge and laid out pieces of wet clothing along the radiator. I ordered a pizza and as I waited, I became aware of a shadow creeping across my table. Sure enough, the sun had appeared from behind the clouds holding the promise of a few hours respite. It was only 1:00, and I’d wanted to log more distance. I opened my guidebook and found what seemed to be a nice place about eight miles ahead, but the walk, of course, was all uphill, and I wasn’t sure how much more I could take.

So instead of making any plans, I opened my journal and composed a response to Martin.

Martin:

I’m glad that you were touched by my email and received it with all the love I intended. I took the night in Sarria and a very wet walk into Portomarin to think about my response. I’m drying out here but will probably get in a bit more road before nightfall.

I think that part of opening our hearts more and more means that we become increasingly attracted to a variety of people at the same time. I don’t think that attraction and romance need to always be linked. So you can have an attraction for me, or anyone passing you on the street, and not have it threaten your existing relationship. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, we ought to fall in love several times a day. I know I do. People excite me. All kinds of people. All the time. I have to decide if I will act on my feelings or just let them exist. It’s not often appropriate to express all our feelings romantically. It’s not even necessary. And so what I want for you, and for me, is for you to hold these feelings you have for me, let them move you as they will, and maybe even allow them to express themselves in your relationship with your girlfriend with whom you are reuniting. It doesn’t have to be confusing. It doesn’t have to be figured out. Part of having passion, I think, and part of allowing yourself a deeper, more full experience of life, is allowing all kinds of conflicting and confusing thoughts and feelings to all exist at the same time.

I will keep all the laughter and jokes and smiles we’ve shared across this amazing Spanish terrain, and I desire nothing else than for you to do the same. We can certainly meet in Santiago and share a bottle of wine, or perhaps even walk together to Finnesterre, but let’s keep our friendship in the same place it started—with a sweetness and innocence.

With love,

Tess

When I found an internet connection, I would send this note to Martin.

The barmaid brought me a gooey, steaming 12-inch pizza, but when I reached for my wallet, she waved me off and pointed to the big, burly Spaniard sitting at the bar. He’d been a fixture on the trail the last few days, someone I’d seen over and over again as we traded the lead. We’d always nodded in acknowledgment and smiled. And the truth is, he’d been sitting at the bar smoking when I came in. I was ever aware of him, and his annoying habit, as I sat waiting for my food and trying to write. But now, I held his eyes across the room, and I was warmed by both the sunshine outside and the generosity of spirit within. It was perfect. Just when I was beginning to resist all the pilgrims, they offered me comfort—all those blowing ponchos dripping in the rain with me. Just as I was building my resentment for this smoking man at the bar, he offered me a simple kindness, for no reason and with no return expected. How could I ever judge another person for their habits or their personality? I certainly could, and I probably would, but it would be misguided. Underneath it all, within each of us, there is such softness, such goodness, such kindness just waiting for the opportunity to show its face. The Spaniard held up his wine glass, and I nodded so slowly that what I really did was bow to him.

When I’d finished my pizza, I packed up and pushed on, hoping to take advantage of the sunshine. When I’d stopped for the day, I wrote this in my journal.

Today was my least favorite day. The ridiculous pouring rain for hours, then a hallucination of sun. Just an hour into my departure from Portomarin, the clouds came and the sky opened, and I was back to putting on rain gear. I pushed on another 13K to a small place called Hospital de la Cruz. I should have stopped at the charming pensione on the way, but I was determined to keep going. I shouldn’t have because this refuge is near capacity. And outside, the wind howls. I’m doing my best to give in to the experience. I’ve eaten the rest of my food and burrowed into my bag to write some thoughts in the comfort of my crowded corner, gratefully out of the rain. I’ve plotted my trek into Santiago. I must stick to bigger towns if I am to have a real night of sleep. I’ve looked ahead, and there are two cities with hotels. So tomorrow will be a “short” day, only 28K or so, to the next hotel. I will find a bathtub. And a bottle of wine. I will sing in the tub and forget that I had this long, brutal day.

The water here was hot though, and the shower, divine. I can hang with just about anything. For a while. For now, I am grateful to be inside. I have a bed, I am dry and warm, and tomorrow, a HOTEL!

Now, about the weather…