(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!

I went to the cathedral. It was big and cavernous and dark and filled with iconic religious images, of course. Worth finding, yes. As cathedrals go.

Then I went back to the convent. The refuge was huge. Like a warehouse of metal bunk beds. And just that much character. It had a get-em-in-get-em-out kind of feel to it. I worried about how the noise of a hundred snoring elephants would echo through the cinder blocks. It seemed likely that I’d be sleeping with earplugs all the way to Compestela.

The night was uneventful, though earplugs were a requirement.

In the morning, a dozen pilgrims shuffled to the breakfast table, bleary-eyed, ready for coffee. We sat quietly contemplating the walk of the day—how far we would go, how our bodies would fare, what might hurt the most—when one of the Frenchmen broke the silence. “We must be bad pilgrims,” he said. “I heard that 15 pilgrims showed up at the Benediction the day before we arrived, but among our group there was only one last night.”

No one responded.

I didn’t have any idea what “the Benediction” was, or where, and I certainly wasn’t going to inquire. But the Frenchman was looking right at me as if he expected something. So I said, “I sent that one as our representative.”

No one laughed. I hoped it was the language barrier because I certainly thought it was funny.

It was 8 AM, and I was tired. I’d walked less than 100 steps to the kitchen, but already I felt fatigued. Was it ending the day before by eating only a salad? Was it the short walk into Leon and the long afternoon that lulled my body into an extended state of relaxation? Or was it merely the accumulating effects of over 300 miles? Regardless, I didn’t know how far I’d be able to travel for the day—which really made it no different from any other day.

As I left the convent, I heard footsteps behind me that seemed to want to catch up. I turned back, and a tall, thin, dark-haired man came toddling (and I don’t use that word lightly) toward me. He introduced himself as Manfred and asked if he could walk with me. He had kind eyes and an embracing smile. We fell in step together. He was German—another German—but this one, 38 years old. He wore Army green fatigue-like pants and solid leather boots. But the toddling, I would discover, was an ongoing pain. He was struggling with his Camino. His body was not carrying him as well as mine was. I slowed to match his pace. I could sense that he didn’t want to be alone. And yet, he didn’t talk much. Perhaps he was concentrating all his energy on propelling his body forward. It felt at times as though we were moving in slow motion. It was certainly the slowest I’d walked for 18 days, but he seemed to need the company, if for nothing else than for encouragement. Or medical help. I stayed with him, concerned.

He smoked. One cigarette every hour or so. I moved myself around him so I wasn’t downwind. And I tried my best not to judge. Over the course of the slow day, he said that he worked at an aluminum factory. He didn’t love the work but the money was good—more than he was making as a roofer. He spoke of his family—his mom, dad, two brothers and a sister. He didn’t seem like the typical Camino walker to me, and for that reason alone, I liked him.

Every time we’d near a town with a refuge, I’d suggest that he stop for the night. But when I said that I was going to continue on, he’d jump to his feet and proclaim that he was ready. When I finally told him that it didn’t seem good for him to walk so much, that his body clearly needed a rest, he said that he was a man, and that he would not be shown up by me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this, my slowest day, was even too fast for him. And so I waited.

There were times when we would sit at the side of the road as he gathered himself. He only needed a minute, he’d say, but when I grew impatient, he’d beg for a bit more.

Despite the pace, somehow Manfred’s presence kept the day from becoming too tedious. Most of the path was along the roadway, which made the landscape loud, somewhat noxious and made to feel even longer than it was. Cars whizzed by and kicked up their dust. At times, the speed of them made it seem as if we were moving backward. With every step, however, I was becoming more worried about Manfred. He didn’t look good—his face was red, his steps were heavy and sometimes unsteady, he let out breaths of fatigue and struggle. I worried that he would pass out at any moment. He was becoming a burden, even as another perfect day on the Camino unfolded. The cloud cover shielded us from most of the harsh sun while still giving way to some heat. For me, it was ideal walking weather, and since I hadn’t had enough of that, all I wanted to do was walk.

We’d come to another town and then another, and Manfred would ask hopefully if I felt like stopping for the day. I kept telling him to rest, but he was intent on going as far as I was going. I told him I was thinking about spending the night in Hospital del Orbigo, which was another 5 miles away. I thought the distance would discourage him, but he nodded, and we continued on—he on increasingly shaky legs.

I missed Simon. I wondered if he was feeling as strong as I was and if he’d put in another 20-mile day.

I eyed my traveling companion as he basically stumbled the last few miles into town, and it wasn’t just the cobblestones. I was literally watching him unravel, step by step. He looked like he was experiencing heat stroke and was clearly on the brink of collapse. When we got to town, he dropped his pack and nearly doubled over beside it, all the while insisting he was fine. He was angry with me, and my concern for him was only inflaming his anger. He doused his head under a water fountain. I told him I would go to the tienda and pick some things up for dinner.

The tienda was at the leading edge of an incredibly picturesque Roman bridge that spanned the river. I stood marveling at its beauty and history. When I looked back at Manfred, he sat with his back up against the stone wall and his head down. It’s possible that he was crying.

I loaded up on pasta, bread, fresh tomatoes, cheese, eggs and butter. Enough to feed the wounded warrior and even Simon, if he showed up. I was so hoping he would.

I found Manfred in the same place and condition as I’d left him. I offered to carry his pack for him, but of course, he was a man and wouldn’t allow it. As we crossed the bridge, I doubted if the man had the wherewithal to marvel at the ancient architecture and the sun dancing across the water below it.

We walked through town and when we got to the refuge, there was a sign posted: Closed. Manfred dropped to his knees. I pulled out my guidebook and informed him hopefully that there was another refuge—one that was open year round, according to my book. But, it was remotely located back across the bridge and nearly a mile into the woods. Manfred finally admitted he didn’t think he could make it, and he dropped his pack. I picked it up and started walking. “Come on,” I told him. “You’re fine.”

When we got to the other side of the bridge, I decided to leave a note for Simon just in case he’d come that far. I tore a page from my journal and wrote his name in big letters on one side of it. On the other, I wrote:

The refuge in town is closed. We’re staying at the one in the woods. I’m making dinner. There’s plenty. Please come.
–Tess and Manfred

I put the note at the edge of the bridge with a rock on top and hoped he see it.

Then I picked up Manfred’s pack and marched forward without looking back. I was over it. If he insisted on “being a man” then he could walk another mile in my footsteps.

The refuge in the forest was quite romantic and idyllic. And the door was open when we arrived, thankfully. I set Manfred’s pack down inside and disappeared to claim my bed. I didn’t care if he was on my heels or not.

In the kitchen, I decided to make tea. As the water boiled, I investigated the house. Next to the kitchen was a homey sitting room with a huge fireplace. Soon there would be a roaring fire, I’d have my feet up and another day would fall away in the warmth of the night.

I sat in the quiet of the room sipping my tea and feeling so happy. It was always so stunning to me how overcome with happiness I was, day after day. And then Simon arrived and suddenly the night was complete. As I made dinner, Simon went out to gather firewood. Since none of it was split, it was hard to get a good fire going but he was diligent, and soon it was the fire of my imaginings. Simon was in particularly good mood and we laughed a lot. Manfred sat near us projecting his anger and pain—none of which affected either of us. We watched the light seep through the trees as we ate. And the song Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka popped into my head.

If you want to view paradise,
simply look around and view it.
Anything you want,
just do it.
You want to change the world,
there’s nothing to it…

I hummed the song, stared into the fire and wrote in my journal:

Simon Firehawk has made a spectacular fire, and this moment I am having right now is the definition of heaven on earth.

Manfred and Simon

That night, I had the sort of dream I was expecting to have on the Camino.

I was with somebody on the beach; for some reason I thought I was with Kerry but I didn’t really know. I was with a guy, and the tide was coming in, and there was something dangerous about being in the water when the tide turned. We were walking along the sand when all this water started to rush toward us, but rather than get out of the water I started to run into it, and whoever was behind me began encouraging me as if he somehow knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. There was the overwhelming feeing that people didn’t do that sort of thing: they didn’t challenge the rushing water, they got out of it. So I was running and the water got incredibly fierce, and I had the idea that if I stopped at all, it would kill me, it would rush over me and pull me under. But if I didn’t stop, I could somehow run over the water or across the water. So I started running faster and faster and faster, and the voice behind me was yelling, “Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” It was an amazing sensation of swirling water, the power and immensity of it. There was a car in the water, and it was being swirled around as it tried to get out. And amidst the danger was this stunning, STUNNING beauty, and I was simply running through it—”Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” And I got to the other side, and there was some huge opening, a mysticism, a calm, a welcoming haven. I’d definitely crossed to the other side of something, and it was beautiful.

I woke up in the middle of the night, jarred back to consciousness and confused. I lay there for a long time trying to make sense of it, trying to find words for it. But there was only a feeling: it was the peace of the world, and I had slipped into it.