(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 26, 2005
Day 27: Arca to Santiago, 20.7 km/12.9 m

I woke up in my beautiful haven in Arca do Pino to hear rain pounding the pavement outside. Rain. I pulled back the curtain, and sure enough, the sky was seething. I gathered up my waterproof gear and wondered whether I should start building an ark.

My last day on the trail would prove to be just as challenging as my first. I had started my journey by slogging through thigh-high snow, and I was ending it by traversing a monsoon.

The first few miles took me through forested land that was simply magical through the veil of rainwater and foggy mist. I could hear only the patter of the rain, a symphony, along with my feet, slurping with each step as rivers of mud rushed to fill the indent of my footprints. It was beautiful, soulful music to accompany my quietude.

under the bridge
What began as a patter soon grew to drumbeats, and just when I thought the rain couldn’t pound any harder, it did. It was downright Biblical, making my trek to Portomarin look like arid terrain. And, truth be told, as the hours passed, this Spanish water torture was starting to get to me. At just under 13 miles, this was one of my shortest travel days, but the road seemed so endless and arduous in the unyielding flood. I kept telling myself that I was almost there. I kept coaxing my feet to carry me forward, which they did, under duress. They were so ready for rest. So ready.
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(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 25, 2005
Day 26: Melide to Arca, 34.5 km/21.4 m

fountainIn the morning, I found myself waiting by the fountain for Martin. Of course I’d be waiting for Martin—I only half believed that he’d really show. I decided I would spare 15 minutes, and I struggled through every second trying not to be angry for not getting an earlier start.

When it began to sprinkle, I abandoned my post and went in search of coffee, all the while questioning why I had agreed to walk another day with Martin and Nick. Was it because the day goes faster and there’s more laughter? Was it the security blanket of men and language? I liked Martin, very much, but I suspected that our moment had passed. We were certainly not going to have conversations of any real depth with Nick around, and I felt the growing need to enter Santiago on my own. Martin was undoubtedly going to grow into a caring, thoughtful, soulful man. For now, there was still a boy in him, and that boy exhibited very age-appropriate behavior.

With a cup of steaming brew in hand, I decided to pass by the refuge before heading out of town. I shouldn’t have. It would have been a far more fitting end to our journey had I ventured off on my own and left Martin to come to his senses without my judgmental eye. But no, there he was, heaped into a ball in the grass. I called to him and he stirred, harried and ragged. He explained that he’d been locked out of the refuge and had gone clubbing all night. He got in at 6 AM, slept through his alarm and awakened to an angry huéspeda kicking him out. His energy was just as offensive as his appearance. I would have preferred that he sleep off his hangover in the bushes, but he slung his bag over his shoulder and wobbled next to me, spewing all the way out of town.

melide
I let him ramble and complain for an hour, envisioning his tirade bouncing off the force field I’d projected around myself. I didn’t love him any less; I simply no longer wanted to be consumed by his energy. When he suggested we stop in Boente for breakfast, I told him that I needed to walk the rest of the way to Santiago alone. It didn’t surprise him. His eyes softened, and I looked into them for the last time. I knew that I would cherish him always.

I continued alone on the Camino and turned back a couple minutes later. He was standing where I’d left him, watching me. We waved a sweet goodbye.
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(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 24, 2005
Day 25: Hospital de la Cruz to Melide, 29.7 km/18.5 m

There’s really no good sleeping in a full refuge. People and their night noises kept me on edge. So at the first signs of morning, I was packed and on the move. Of course, I didn’t have a crumb of food and nothing was open yet so I decided to make a three-hour beeline to Palas del Rei for breakfast. About halfway there in the tiny village of Eirexe, a sleepy Martin appeared outside the refuge talking with a few other pilgrims. He grinned when he saw me, opened his arms and said, “I’ll take that kiss now.”

I don’t know, something about the look on his face, the cockiness, the performance in front of his friends or, quite simply, my own fear of him made my defense shields go up. I turned my head as he approached and gave him a hug.

He said he wanted to walk with me, which I was open to, but he wanted me to wait for him to shower, pack his bag and get ready. I still had more than an hour’s walk to my next meal, so I told him I’d walk slowly and he could catch up. When he did, he was jovial but distant, which was more than likely my fault. I listened to him talk about nothing for a very long time. Then I finally asked if we could address the emails, and we sunk into a real conversation. I was able to tell him that for the first two days of my time with him he was sensitive and adorable, but the more attracted to me he became, the more possessive he was. I felt claimed by him, and he got aggressive in his behavior. I was no longer able to be open with him. He listened intently and compassionately. Then he copped to it all and apologized. He agreed that the more attracted to me he became, the more his behavior changed. He said he didn’t know what to do with his feelings, that he knew he was being rude at times but couldn’t stop himself. His teasing was an attempt to deflect his fears—feelings for me he didn’t know what to do with. I liked his honesty and defenselessness. He was able to express how much he’d thought about me and his behavior toward me, and how frightened he’d been of me. It was all very beautiful.

We stopped for breakfast and sat across from each other a little like old lovers. What had transpired between us was over for me but still, the reconnection was warming and welcoming.

Martin
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(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.
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(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 22, 2005
Day 23: O’Cebreiro to Sarria, 47.7 km/29.6 m

I awoke to the early morning beauty of O’Cebreiro and a stunning river of fog that trickled through the mountains. The town had marked my entrance into Galicia, and it was clear that it shared the Gaelic traditions of Ireland and Scotland. Despite being surrounded by the cutest round, stone houses with their straw rooftops and the endless shop windows advertising delightful wares, I was eager to hit the road and take advantage of what promised to be a dry day. I had a quick and nearly flat 6-mile jaunt that rose slightly to the second highest peak on the Camino, and then it was all downhill for another 20 miles or so.

RiverOfFog
My body had once again miraculously repaired itself during my 10 hours of deadened, uninterrupted sleep. I certainly hadn’t expected to put in another long day after the beating of yesterday, but the views that floated along with the river were so amazing that I couldn’t stop myself from ambling across the uncluttered countryside. The biting, bitter cold pressed into me, aided by a ferocious wind, but the absence of rain felt like a blessing. I burrowed into my coat but kept my head up, delighted.

pilgrim
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(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.


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(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.

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(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.


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(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 18, 2005
Day 19: Hospital del Orbigo to Santa Catalina, 28.9 km/18 m

Simon and I were up and ready with the sun. As I was making breakfast, Manfred joined us, his hair askew, his eyes slanted from sleep. He was still hobbling, and he thrust himself into the chair as if the music had stopped and he didn’t want to be caught standing. He admitted that he had attempted too much, and he was going to take the day off, hang back, rest, travel more slowly to Compostela. He hung his head in shame as he spoke, which made me sad. Walking the Camino is not a competition. Perhaps that was the realization he had come to. Or would come to.

I said goodbye to Manfred, knowing I would not see him again, and Simon and I left together. We walked through the woods in silence, and when we came to the old Roman bridge at the edge of town, we found the note that Manfred and I had left for Simon the night before. Although he’d not seen it, he had decided to stay at the remote refuge anyway. It was kismet that kept bringing him to me, I thought.

Out of Hospital del Orbigo, the landscape began to roll again with gentle hills, and we moved up and down through the sparse landscape toward Astorga. The sun arrived and the temperature climbed to 70 degrees. For the first time, my jackets were both stuffed into my pack, and my sleeves were rolled up.


Simon, with his careful eye and expert camera, logged our journey on film while I wrote down scattered thoughts in my journal.

The villages in Spain are dying. Old people with sad eyes and so little. The Camino can’t sustain them. I see why it is moving closer to the roads; there may be no refuges to support the pilgrims at some point.

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(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 17, 2005
Day 18: Leon to Hospital del Orbiga, 33.3 km/20.7 m

Leon was the biggest city on the Camino, which meant it was also the best shopping opportunity, and I spent part of the night searching for good insoles to replace the ones in Simon’s shoes that were blistering his feet. To no avail.


If I was in the US, I could have gone into any drugstore and spent 15 minutes in front of an entire rack of insoles trying to make a decision on which to get. But in Spain, hours went by, and shop after shop, with not one pair in my midst. It was the biggest difference between me and my fellow pilgrims: gear. I had spent real time and money making very specific gear choices before I left, and so I was prone to noticing what others had selected. “Waterproof” was the word that might have been the first real differentiator, followed by “weight.” For instance, my pack, made by GoLite, was made of parachute material that was both light and (largely) waterproof. The amount of handy pockets on the outside as well as the netting and straps and loops on which to hang things were all clearly added by people who’d gone before me—not necessarily on the Camino, just out in the wilds where small details become godsends in an instant. I seemed to be among the very few with such thoughtful godsends.

GoreTex was another favorite word of mine. Along with SealSkinz—socks and gloves. But CamelBak was like a revolutionary invention to those who saw mine. Imagine: a pliable bladder filled with water attached to a suck tube—it meant no fumbling with bottles. Ever. Mine was the only one I saw for the entire 335 miles to date. (And since I’d spent the night adding up all the mileage numbers I’d scrawled in the margins of my guidebook, I knew the current distance).

It shouldn’t have surprised me that insoles were not to be found. I did spot a nice pair of orange socks, however, and I stood longingly contemplating them. One of my outer sock layers (the black Pearl Izumi’s) was reaching retirement (the heels were threadbare). I certainly could have gotten more mileage out of them, and I wasn’t looking for their replacement, but when I saw the orange socks, the official color of my Camino, the black ones were doomed. The orange socks seemed to be the perfect size and thickness. And they were crazy cheap. As soon as I got them, I sat outside the shop, pulled off my GoreTex boots, ripped off the Pearl Izumis and bid them farewell. The next 200 miles were going to be traversed in orange socks!

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