(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 5, 2005
Day 6: Irache to Torres del Rio, 27.5 km/ 17 m

When I awakened, I felt more rested than I had in a week. I threw open the curtains and looked out the window. And I shook my head in disbelief. It was snowing. Like a blizzard! A foot of snow had already accumulated, the tree branches were wrapped in ice and a thick fog hovered. I did the only thing I could think of—I took another bath and prayed for better weather!

All my clothes had dried, thankfully, and they smelled fresh and clean. Same meager provisions, but an entirely new week ahead.

The restaurant opened for breakfast at 7:30. I wasn’t expecting much because the Spanish don’t really do breakfast. But I was hoping for something, anything, that would get me through the morning. I was famished, and I had no idea how far away the next town was and what I might find to eat there. I entered the restaurant promptly at 7:30. No one was there. I sat down at a table anyway and studied my guidebook. Ten minutes passed.

I heard noises in the kitchen so I poked my head in and inquired, in terrible Spanish, if breakfast started at 7:30. “Si, si,” the young man responded, smiling. I sat back down at the table and waited. No one came to tend to me.

I went back up to my room, packed up, put on my snow gear and checked out. By the time I returned to the restaurant, a woman was just arriving, tying a smock around her waist. She quickly set a mound of fresh fruit in front of me followed by small packages of bread and muffins. I was delighted. I inhaled most of the fruit and put everything else in my pack as I headed out.

The cold hit me like a slap. But the snow, huge flakes wafting down all around me, took my breath away. It’s impossible to be disappointed in the face of beauty. The fog blended with snow to create a veil, and step-by-step, I moved through it.

Should I have been surprised to find the footprints of my Italian Shepherd leading the way? I laughed. And then my eyes filled with tears. He just kept guiding me. And his presence, at a distance, was such comfort to me. I recognized his boot prints immediately. His gait. Where he liked to walk on the pathway. His prints were fresh. I felt like an animal tracking an animal. And then I thought of that story of footprints in the sand. God was laying down a trail for me—not that I couldn’t find the trail, it’s so well marked—but his prints guiding me were just so beautiful to me. With every step, I felt overcome with forgiveness for men—the men in my life.

My left shoulder began hurting, and I decided not to carry the pack on my left side at all. I would release the feminine burdens that had saddled me for so long. It seemed all related. Perhaps my left shoulder has been carrying this weight my whole life, I thought. And my right side must bear the burden for a while. Everything is a negotiation, and pain takes too much energy. I slung my bag over my right shoulder.

I followed the footsteps of my shepherd, and I felt myself opening. To people. All people. I had always thought of myself as a rugged individualist. I had always felt like a loner, I had always relied solely upon myself for protection and I had always felt separate from others. But I was suddenly feeling profoundly a part of something—I was a part of the Camino. I was a pilgrim. A walker. A seeker. People did this, I thought. Tears began streaming down my face. People created this trail, they built these refuges, and they are here to be of service to other people. Everyone is so accommodating despite the fact that I can’t speak the language. They smile, and they’re helpful and no one is really making a lot of money off of this. I didn’t want to be cynical but I thought that if the Camino was in the United States, it wouldn’t be as pure and innocent and unencumbered as it is in Spain. It wouldn’t be as remote. It wouldn’t be as barren. It wouldn’t be as special. Much as I marveled at the efficiency and convenience of my country, I found the simplicity of Spain, of this particular part of Spain, astonishing. The countryside. The silence. The emptiness. The snow. With every step, I felt myself moving away from the rugged individualist and opening to the part of me who needs people, who relies on people and who wants to be a part of something bigger than myself.

I noted that along the path were all these churches, and near them was some story about a battle that had occurred. I recognized that the theme of my journey was solidifying: don’t fight what is coming, don’t fight what has arrived, don’t do battle with what you have already experienced. I thought about the rabbi again and how I had told him, in jest, that I was going to remove the curse. I realized that the curse is ME, it is in me, it is my own call to arms, my need to defend and fight off what comes to me. I felt myself so profoundly not needing to do that anymore. And I wondered if my shoulder was somehow symbolic of that. I was being so tender with my left shoulder; it was so tired and weak. Has it been carrying me and now I must carry it? Across 500 miles. I spent the night asking for the pain to be gone but perhaps that was not necessary. Perhaps 500 miles was the stretch of time where I would carry it, and as a result, I would usher myself through to a new place. And just as I had that thought, somewhere off in the distance church bells were singing.

It didn’t take long for me to catch up with my Italian Shepherd. Was I following him or was he luring me? He was waiting under an awning watching the snow. I saw him first and considered shielding myself from view but I reminded myself to not do battle with what was coming to me. It was an effort because as soon as I was in his proximity, my energy shifted. He smiled, a big, embracing smile, and he let me pass him by. When I turned back, he was following me by about ten paces. And there he would remain, mile after mile after mile. It was a struggle. Again. He was all I could think about. I was imprisoned by his desire for me. I prayed for peace.

Instead what I got was rain. As we descended into lower elevations, the temperature increased but the precipitation remained. The path traversed remote farmland and vineyards dotted with olive trees. My guidebook said here would be no shade for 6 miles. In the heat of summer, I’m certain that meant that the dirt is hard and the sun is oppressive. For me, it meant that I’d be pummeled by driving rain and that the mud would accumulate on my boots adding weight to each leg. In fact, I’d never seen mud quite like it before. About every third step I’d try to shake it from my foot, but it would cling to me like life support. It was like walking in iron boots over rubber balls. It took every ounce of my focus and the hardy planting of my trekking poles to keep me upright. Mile after mile after mile. With the Italian ten paces behind. All of it was exhausting.

The IS followed me all the way to Los Arcos where I was ecstatic to find pavement. He pointed out the refuge as if he was asking me if it was where we’d be staying. I nodded and told him to check in. I said that I was going in search of a restaurant. I neglected to tell him that after the restaurant, I would be pushing on to the next town. It was still early, and yes, I was trying to ditch him.

I was hungry. The bread and muffins from Irache had only gone so far. I wanted a meal. A hot meal. I found a roadside shack on the far edge of town. It was filled with exuberant Spaniards and their clouds of smoke. I had no idea what I was ordering as I pointed to the menu. I was stared at, perhaps leered at, and I was conscious of being caught by the Italian. Miserable, I choked down something whose nutritional value had been fried out in sizzling, orange lard. I couldn’t quite get out of there fast enough.

The next town, Torres del Rio, was another five miles but it was small, and I wasn’t sure if the refuge would be open. If it wasn’t I’d have to walk another eight miles after that to Viana. It was a long way to go to ditch an Italian. But I decided to risk it.

The risk paid off. Torres del Rio was an oasis. The refuge would have been a comfort to me if I’d been the only one in it but as I stamped my passport and paid the warden, I could hear familiar voices. The Canadian ladies I’d met three days before in Cizur Menor were making dinner in the kitchen! It was like coming home. And even better, they’d gone down to the tienda and found VEGETABLES! I hadn’t seen vegetables since I’d entered the country. Wine bottles were open, pasta was boiling, sauce was being made with real tomatoes and spices, a salad was being tossed and the angels were dancing as far as I was concerned. After the hell I’d just walked through, it was like ascending into heaven. And heaven was filled with laughter, festive conversation and fantastic food.

The ladies, Carol and Jeanette, were instantly family. I had a comfort level with them that felt supported by years of familiarity. They’d planned that their Camino would take two and a half months or more, and they’d travel by bus, taxi, train and foot. They were meandering, reading up on the history of each place, taking time to discover the richness of the pilgrimage route, photographing it moment by moment. We were each choosing the experience we needed, and my experience of them was of pure delight.

We’d made too much food, and we were wondering what we’d do with the leftovers when Martin arrived, as if on cue. Martin, from Germany, seemed older than his 24 years. He was tall and thin and wrapped in dark rain gear, which he began peeling off quickly. His cheeks were dusted by the beginning of a beard that rimmed his expansive smile, and his sparkling blue eyes lit up the room with an immediate and palpable electricity. It was as if he was returning home to his wives after a long journey, and he came bearing gifts. He, too, had filled reservoirs with wine from the bodega in Irache, and he presented it just as we’d poured the last of ours.

We introduced ourselves.

“Ah, I’ve heard about you,” he said nodding. “I spent the night last night with a German guy named Simon. He told me about the American girl who’s staying in a hotel once a week.”

I laughed. “Busted.” His label for me made me seem half my age. I liked it.

Hours slipped by quickly. None of us wanted the evening to end, but we were crushed with exhaustion. The ladies led us through the unlit building to a small room on the second floor with two bunk beds. They’d already claimed the bottom tier. Neither Martin nor I wanted to climb up to sleep, but we did anyway.

“Where’s the bathroom?” I asked.

“Outside,” Carol responded.

Ugh. I grabbed my jacket and flashlight and went out to find it. It was snowing, of course. The toilets and showers were in an unheated, cinder block building behind the refuge. The toilet seats were stainless steel and undoubtedly ice cold. No part of me was going to make contact, that was certain.

When I finished, Jeanette had joined me.

“I had so much wine, I’m going to have to pee all night,” I told her. “And this is just going to be brutal.” I pointed to the cement stall.

“I’m not coming out here in the middle of the night.” She grinned and lifted a white, plastic pail. “This is our slop bucket.”

I laughed. “Well, there’s a first for everything.”

We were, thankfully, the only guests at the inn that night. Jeanette put the bucket inside a room filled with empty bunks, and we tucked ourselves in for the night.

The ladies fell asleep first. And one of them snored. Loudly. Martin started to laugh. We whispered for a while, and then Martin set out to find another room. The refuge was like an ancient mansion with long hallways of doors. He returned, told me to grab my sleeping bag and led me to what seemed like a secret bedroom with two twin beds all made up like it was waiting for us. He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. I threw my bag on top of one of them and crawled into it. He claimed the other. I wondered if at some point during the night I’d awaken to find him curled up into me. It was a very enticing thought.

I got up twice to find the slop bucket. Jeanette had put a roll of toilet paper next to it. It sure beat having to battle the cold. The whole night felt like a dream. There I was, in my castle, with a handsome prince by my side. Perhaps a horse-drawn carriage would await me in the morning.