Like it was all a dream

I’m back! In more ways than one: back with another blog post, and back home in the US.

Back home, already? I was gone for 7 weeks- I did a whirlwind few days through Bath and London and Paris before spending three weeks at La Muse in southern France, then two and a half weeks in Spain, and then a week in Scotland. Before I left for my trip, I was overwhelmed with everything I had planned, with all the different parts, and I worried that it was too much. And when I started the Camino and then got sick, I still worried that it was too much. “Why am I going to Scotland?” I asked myself. “Why did I decide to do so much?”

But in the end, I have to say, I’m glad I decided to do it all. And the traveling and the unpacking and repacking of bags, the different bed every night, the connections and the directions and all the different towns and cities… by the time I got to Scotland it didn’t feel too difficult or too hard. In fact, I sort of felt like I knew what I was doing, even though I had never been to Scotland before. I felt like, maybe just a bit, I’d gotten rather good at this traveling thing.

That being said, it’s good to be home. In the last few days of my trip, I kept thinking to myself, “I only have to do this two more times. I only have to do this one more time.” “This” referred to showering in cramped and not-so-clean hostel bathrooms, to waking up in the morning and trying to be super quiet while packing up my stuff, to having to dry myself with my incredibly small travel towel that I should have upgraded to a larger size two years ago.

But it’s also strange to be home. Nothing has changed here, and I wouldn’t have expected anything to, and yet, when you’re away from home for a long time and have seen and done so much, you return and expect that the changes are at home, too. That everything should look a little different, should sound a little different and taste a little different. But my apartment is my apartment- a bit musty and cobweb covered but everything is in the exact place where I left it. My mailman waved to me yesterday and said, “Welcome back”, at Trader Joe’s the shelves are reassuringly stocked with the same familiar products, the sounds of cicadas come in through the screen door and it’s like background noise that has always been there.

I fell asleep on my couch last night around 7:30; I was trying to stay up as late as I could to beat jet lag, but I decided to close my eyes for a just a few minutes and of course that sent me into a quick and deep sleep. I awoke with a jolt about 40 minutes later and blinked my eyes and looked, confused, around the room. Where was I? Home? Why am I here? It was the strangest feeling, I struggled to understand that I was in a familiar place, and for a split second, it felt like all of my traveling had been a dream. Like I had been on that couch all along, and had only dreamed of the writing in France, the trekking through Spain and Scotland, the different lands, the new friends, the sunrises, the green mountains.

My next post should be back to the Camino, to finish telling you about that journey, and then I’m anxious to write about Scotland and my experiences there. I tried to write a bit in the last week of my travels but I never got very far. The faulty keyboard made it difficult, and to be honest, most evenings, I didn’t feel like writing. I sat in bars with a glass of wine and a hearty meal and watched what was going on around me and sometimes chatted with the locals, or other travelers. I just wanted to absorb where I was. One night, I set up my keyboard and iPad in the hostel in Glen Nevis and started writing a post but then a Londoner named Tony started talking to me and then so did a woman from Minnesota and then a man from Norway and so I folded up my keyboard and put it away.

But my keyboard is open again, and I’m so happy to return to writing, to telling these little stories, to processing my experiences and then looking forward to my next projects. It was good to be away, and now it’s good- in different ways- to be back home. Thank you all for following along, for your comments and emails, for any time you took to read what I had to say. I hope you’ll keep reading.

An Adventure All My Own; Day 7 on the Camino del Norte, Gontan to Baamonde, 40km

I’ve been having some slight technical difficulties over here; my trusty keyboard that a good friend gifted me before my first Camino has been malfunctioning. Sometimes it seems as though certain keys don’t work at all; just now I had to wait for awhile and fiddle with it and tap and tap on each key until everything started working. There’s a lag in my typing, the ‘m’ key never seems to register and I always have to go back through and add the ‘m’s’ back in. But right now it looks like things are in (somewhat) working order so I can finally get around to writing another post.

I’m days behind. In fact, in “real time”, I arrived in Santiago today! (by bus, I just didn’t quite have enough time to make it all the way by foot). And tomorrow morning I’m off to Scotland, and it seems surreal. This was a fast, fast Camino- just 15 days of walking which is half of my usual time out here. And the first five days were a totally separate Camino from the Norte, and awfully isolated, and then I was sick for nearly a week, and it wasn’t until 5 or 6 days ago that I finally felt like I was “in” a Camino.

It’s been disjointed, but as I’m sitting here in a bar I know and love, drinking a glass of vino tinto, listening to the happy sounds of pilgrims on the street, I feel great. The end of my Camino was amazing and unexpected, in only the way that a Camino can be. 

I’m going to eventually write about it all and who knows, maybe I can keep churning out posts, but some of these recaps will probably be delayed. I have no idea what my trek through Scotland will be like- if I’ll have extra time, if I’ll have time to myself, if I’ll be able to write- and it might remove me too much from what I’m experiencing to be writing about Spain while I’m off in a different place. 

A tiny plate of tapas was just delivered to my table- a wedge of tortilla and two croquettas. I’m going to miss Spain. Just as I was getting my footing back, finding my joy again, remembering all the things I love about doing a Camino in this country… it’s time to leave. The overwhelming feeling of the past few days has been that I want just a bit more time here.

But the last three days were so great, each in a very different way. So lets go back to where I left off, back to Day 7, the day after I felt like I was flying through the mountains.

I was planning on a 40km day. I’d already done one a few days before (and really, the day through Ribadeo registered at around 4o as well, with the extra city walking), so I wasn’t too concerned about taking on too much. But as I well know from past Caminos, no good feeling lasts forever. I’d had such a strong, strong walk the day before, but now my body was asking for a little rest, or at least an easier day. And I said, “Sorry… I have big plans.”

I think I knew pretty early on in the day that my feet were tired and that my legs weren’t moving quite as quickly. I wasn’t in a hurry- my destination was Baamonde, the site of one of the largest albergues on the Norte (I think about 96 beds?)- so I knew that even if I arrived in the evening, I would have a place to sleep. So when I realized that I was tired, I took my time. 

And sometimes, even with fatigue, days like this are fun. I kept thinking of it like one big adventure- planning a long, epic day of walking, pouring over my guidebook to plan my breaks, thinking about what food I would buy when I passed a grocery store, wondering how I would feel when I reached 20km, when I reached 30km. 

I barely saw other pilgrims on the walk either, and this added to the ‘adventure’. Just me and the road- lots and lots of road.

I crossed into Galicia two days before, but on this day I really felt like I was in it. If I had the time or the memory to give some background on this region of Spain I would do it now, but I have neither. What I do know is that there are strong Celtic influences in this region, and that some parts of the area have a very mystical feel. I can’t think of a better word than mystical, though I’m not sure that’s quite right. In any case, whenever the trail passes through the woods, it’s a different kind of wood- the trees are large and knarled and twisted in a way that I don’t see at other points on the Camino. Everything seems to be covered with a thick layer of moss- the heavy tree trunks, the crumbling stone walls. If I conjure up an image of Galicia in my mind, it is always darker here, more confined, quiet, almost a little spooky. 

There was a heavy wind while I walked, it whipped through the tree branches and blew dust up over my legs. When I entered into a dark tunnel of heavy trees, I saw the first pilgrim in many kilometers. He was standing in the middle of the path and he seemed to be waiting. I had a slight feeling of trepidation- I knew that everything was fine, but the wind and the dark green moss and the wild tree branches all made me feel a little uneasy. But when I reached the pilgrim, he only asked if I could take his photo. And then the took one of me. 

On this walk I began to feel like the towns and villages I passed through were more conscious of the presence of pilgrims, they took note of us and respected the path we were on. Just when I was craving a piece of fruit, I passed a house that had a table set up outside, filled with baskets of peaches and nectarines and melons and plates of cheese. There was a hose that poured out fresh water, and a small bowl that asked for donations. I pulled some coins from my pocket and picked out a round peach and just as I was walking away, a woman opened the window of her home and waved to me with a great smile. “Buen Camino!” she called out, waving her hand furiously. 

I walked and I walked and I walked and I stopped for tortilla and orange juice, I stopped for an icy cold coke, I stopped in a town with a big grocery store, I stopped to set up a picnic lunch on a patch of grass between a chapel and a small cemetery.

And then I kept walking, and walking. Forty kilometers is a big day, but this one seemed to last forever. The trail kept passing over the highway, and while I appreciated that it often wound away from the big road, I knew that it was snaking and curving and adding on extra kilometers. I’d pass signs that said, “Baamonde 7km” and then I’d walk what felt like 3km and I’d cross the road again and see another sign and it said, “Baamonde 7km”.

The day was sunny, and hot. By 4pm I just wanted to be out of the sun but there was no shade on the path and it was inescapable. I pulled out all the stops- my ballcap to cover my face, my buff to cover the back of my neck, but man, the sun was strong. (I’m attempting to post a video- one of the only videos I took on this trip. This is what the end of a long day looks like!)


(Side note: I’m still in this bar in Santiago, writing, and I asked for a second glass of wine. With the wine came another plate of tapas and a small bowl of potato chips. I love Spain!!)

I finally arrived in Baamonde and it was after 6pm and it was probably one of my latest Camino walking days. The albergue was large and clean, the space was really beautiful (and I regret not taking photos). But I walked in and felt like a stranger. I didn’t know anyone or recognize anyone, and people were sprawled out and settled in and sitting in groups and laughing together. I knew it was more my own feeling of shyness than anything else, but it felt really difficult to walk up to a group and start a conversation. And I didn’t even feel like I was in an albergue on the Camino, it just sort of felt like a nice youth hostel where a bunch of people were there for different reasons. It’s possible that I had just spent too much time alone that day, that I’d been spending too much time alone on the Camino in general- but whatever the reason, I retreated from the groups of people and spent the rest of the evening in much the same way as I had the evening before- in a bar around the corner, doing some writing. 

And when I woke up the next morning, I told myself that it was all okay. “It’s a quiet Camino,” I thought. “This one’s just not about other people, this one is about you.” I thought I had things figured out, but it turns out that the the Camino had other plans for me. Isn’t that always the way? Just when you think you know how something is going to go, you realize you don’t know anything at all. So stayed tuned for what turned out to be a day on the Camino that was the last thing I expected, but exactly what I needed.

Small Connections in Galicia; Tapia to (some small place whose name I forget) 34km

The previous day I had taken a slightly alternate route to get to the albergue in Tapia, the one with the million dollar views. Well, I’m not sure if it was an alternate route or not- the guidebook says it was, but in the meantime it seems as though official Camino markers have been placed all along the path. In any case, I was taking the E-9, which runs more closely along the coast (and is an option at other points on the Norte as well). I continued to follow the E-9 out of Tapia, hoping that I would have more coastal views, but mostly it ran through endless corn fields (which, incidentally, I loved).


But then the path wound down to a small beach and I happily walked on the sand for 10 minutes; this was the last day that the Norte would be along the coast, the last moments, actually. As soon as I reached Ribadeo, which I would in about 8km, the Camino would move away from the water and into the mountains. 

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I returned to the Norte this year; I remember that last year I was a little sad to veer off onto the Primitivo, and regretful that I would miss more coastal walking. But since coming back to the Norte, views of the coast have been slim, and the official Camino path stays frustratingly far from the water. Really it had just been this one day- the night at the “albergue with a view”, and the morning’s walked that dipped down to the beach (and, I suppose, that day that offered a couple close coastal views). 

I wished I could have had more coast time, but I soaked up what I had. There was a bar that overlooked the water and I stopped here for a good long cafe con leche break. Once again, I was feeling strong that day, and even stronger after the coffee and toast. 

I crossed a long bridge into Ribadeo, and as soon as I reached the city I met a couple from New Zealand, who must have been in their 70’s. We walked together for about 10 minutes until they found the bus station- they were frustrated with never being able to find free beds in albergues, and were giving up on the Norte. As we said goodbye they shook my hand. The man gave me a long look and said, “I wish we had met you before this.” 

I continued into the city and promptly got confused. The Camino markers completely disappeared, and I complicated things by making a few turns to find a grocery store and an ATM. I think I started to walk in circles but then found another pilgrim and we walked together for awhile until she turned off to get a coffee. I finally found the tourism office, asked for a map, and was given good directions to get out of the city. On the way, I saw a pilgrim far behind me who had been at the albergue in Tapia. He looked confused, so I waved my arms over my head for a minute until he saw me, and then pointed to the path I was on. Either I helped him, or he thought I was crazy. Maybe a little of both.

Once out of the city the fuel came back into my legs and I powered on. I walked for a little bit with Roman, from Luxembourg; he had brought a hamock and was spending most nights in a bed strung between the trees. “It’s better this way,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about the stress I see in all these other pilgrims, who are searching for a bed.”

All of these interactions were good for me. I think I expected to come back to the Norte and instantly be surrounded by a pilgrim communiity- maybe I could even find the one I left behind last year. But it takes time, and I needed to settle back into this, or maybe I just needed to find my footing again and get out from under the cloud of sickness, to have these kinds of interactions. 

When I crossed the bridge into Ribadeo, the Camino left Asturias and entered Galicia. And strangely, almost as soon as this happened, it seemed as though the crowds and the craziness disappeared. The route wound through the countryside, and there were several albergues scattered along the way. I poked my head into each one, the first two were empty. I had planned to stay at the second but there was another only 2km away so I decided to continue on in hopes of finding more people. 

But even that third albergue was quiet, with only 3 other people there when I arrived (it filled in a bit, but was never close to full). Nearly everyone else there was German, so my evening was quiet- the restaurant in the village was closed because of a fiesta that night, so I cooked up some pasta and ate outside, listening to conversations I couldn’t understand. It’s funny how a little time and experience can change things; last year, this would have been frustrating to me. But now, I was just happy that I had a bed and a meal and was around other pilgrims. 

The fiesta was less than a kilometer away- up a small hill and in the middle of an open, empty countryside. The festivities didn’t start until 10:30- past my bedtime- but I could hear the music until late into the night. 3am, maybe even later. It didn’t keep me up, not really- instead I think it entered my dreams, a Spanish soundtrack to my Camino sleep.

No Stones in My Pack: Day 4 on the Camino del Norte (Luarca to Tapia, 42 km)

Just before Beatrice left our hotel room in the morning (Day 4), she said, “I hope it doesn’t feel like there’s a stone in my backpack today.”

I understood exactly what she meant- on the Camino, sometimes your pack feels perfect. It’s not too heavy, everything is sitting perfectly, it’s just like an extension of your back. But on other days, and sometimes inexplicably, the pack is heavy. It pulls away from you, it feels like it hangs low, there is an extra, very heavy stone inside.

When I left Luarca that morning, a little after Beatrice, I began walking up the steep pavement that led out of the city. Up and up it climbs, and for the very first time since coming to Spain, it felt like I did not have a stone in my backpack. And that’s when I realized that not only had it felt like I’d been carrying a stone, it felt like I’d been carrying a great big bag of rocks for the past week. Suddenly, the weight had lifted, it was gone. I powered up the hill, it felt easy. Then the path flattened out and I walked away from town with the sun rising aginst my back, the light of the sky pale and soft in front of me, and I felt the Camino. I remembered what it was like to walk with the rising sun, what it was like to walk and not think of how difficult it was to walk… to walk and just be. 


I marveled at how good I felt. And before too long, I passed my first group of pilgrims, the first time I’ve done that on this trip. I didn’t know how long this feeling would last, but it felt good to be back. So good.

I flew across Spain that day, and I wanted to dance down the trail. I didn’t feel one hundred percent better, but man, was this an improvement. Everything looked more beautiful, too- the light was gorgeous, the fields seemed to glow. Even the barking dogs sounded friendly, and not menacing.

I stopped for a cafe con leche and orange juice and tortilla and sat outside a bar amongst other pilgrims. I still didn’t really know anyone, but I felt a little less alone, just being surrounded by pilgrims. And as the day continued, I began saying more than hi- I asked where people were from, when they started, where they were going. Basic Camino language, but for the past week it was almost like I’d forgotten how to speak it.

After a stop in a grocery store to buy a few lunch supplies, I sat outside on a bench with an American girl and German guy. They reported that the Norte was very full, and that they were reserving ahead whenever possible. We split a bag of Doritos Roulette (one in every 7, or something, is hot and spicy), and I thought about what they had said about reservations. Nothing has really changed about this for me- I still don’t like calling ahead to reserve a bed on the Camino. I think that part of what I love so much about walking a Camino is the ability to just be in the moment, to not have to plan, to follow your feelings. I knew that I’d already run into some trouble and couldn’t stay in the albergues I’d planned to, but I was going to continue to trust that if I showed up to a town and really needed a bed, something would come through. Or that I would figure something out.

I ended up walking 42 kilometers that day (I can just hear you all now: “Nadine!” you’re saying. “Didn’t you just drag your sick self through a 15km day??”) But I have to say, I felt good for all of those 42 kilometers, though my feet were a bit sore at the end. I wouldn’t have gone so far if I hadn’t been feeling so good, and in the end, my destination was more than worth it. It was, hands down, the best albergue I’ve ever stayed in. The actual albergue was only so-so; not very new, two floors of rather rusty bunks, a “kitchen” that was a microwave and a few dishes (no knife, grr). But the view, oh, the view. The building was smack up against a wooden barrier that overlooked the water. We were right on the coast, we were practically on a cliff.


There were three beds left when I arrived at 5:00, and before I could do anything, Beatrice was ushering me into town to find the tourism office so that we could get our keys for the albergue (things at albergues have been a bit weird, I’ve yet to see a hospitalero on sight when I’ve arrived, and at this place you sign in and then go find a key, which we never ended up needing, so who knows). As we were walking there I ducked into an ice cream place for a few scoops, and in the grocery store picked up a coke and chips, along with salad stuff to share with Beatrice. This is significant only because it really meant that my appetite was coming back- the first ice cream of the trip! (Still no vino tinto since I’ve been sick though- is it really a Camino if I don’t have a glass- or 2 or 3- of vino tinto? I don’t have an answer to that yet…)

And once back at the albergue I barely budged from my spot overlooking the water. The wind was cool so Beatrice and I sat against the stone wall that had been warmed all day by the sun, and we ate our salad and later drank from mugs of tea, all the while listening to the sound of the waves. I recognized a few people in the albergue- a Spanish girl and guy who walk fast with their clacking poles, Yoko from the albergue in Cadavedo, the young girl from Madrid who’d been at the same albergue.


I didn’t feel like such a stranger on the Camino anymore. I felt like I was back, that the Camino was back- though really it had never left. I had just needed to find it again. 

The Last Bad Day; Day 3 on the Camino Del Norte (Cadavedo to Luarca, 15km)

I’m now several days behind on posting, so because I know what happens in the next few days and you don’t, yet, I’ll give you just this little preview: things get better. I say that because this is going to be another sort of downer of a post. And before anyone starts thinking that I’m having a no-good, horrible, unfortunate Camino, have no fear. Things start looking up, and soon.

But lets go back to Day 3 of the Norte. In the comments of my last post (thank you, by the way; your words of understanding and encouragement were such a needed booster), a few Camino friends urged me to stop in Luarca. A charming port town only fifteen kilometers from Cadavedo, it would make for an easy day giving me plenty of time to rest and explore and eat ice cream.

Oh, Camino.

The day started out overcast, and a light rain began to fall around 9am. It was just enough to be a nuicance, but by the time I got to Luarca it was falling heavier and I was a wet pilgrim mess when I entered a warm and cozy looking bar. But, no matter: the walk still hadn’t felt easy (my pack continued to feel heavy and my legs like lead, my sickness was zapping all my energy), but it hadn’t been long. I ordered a cafe con leche and orange juice and settled into a table. It was eleven thirty, the albergue would open at noon, I was in no hurry. The day’s walk was done.

But then I heard the urgent tone of a frantic pilgrim. “The albergue is already full. People have called ahead and reserved.” He was talking to two pilgrims at another table, and they, too, had looks of panic on their faces. “And everything else is booked in this town,” he continued. “You can try the albergue and see if they have suggestions, or maybe the information center in town.”

I sat back in my seat, feeling rather defeated. The last thing I wanted to do was scramble all over town, trying to find a place to sleep. The next albergue listed in the guidebook had closed, and the albergue after that was… far. And it was raining.

(A note on the shortage of beds: the best I can guess is that this is a bad stretch of the Norte for albergues. I’d run into this problem once last year, aroud Llanes, and had to stay in a pension. From what I’ve heard, there are currently a lot of pilgrims on the Norte, and to make matters worse, this is high tourist season, so it’s difficult to find a free bed in a hotel or pension. And when you do, often the prices are a lot highter than they’d normally be).

So I went over to the pilgrims to talk over what I had just heard, but didn’t come up with any solutions (one of the pilgrims had injured his foot and proclaimed this to be “the worst day ever”). I went back to my table, and finished my drinks. For some reason- maybe I was just tired of things not working out- I wasn’t too worried. Because for as much as things didn’t seem to be working out well, I had a feeling that I’d figure out a plan. I was in a large town, I wasn’t isolated. I could always just take a bus or a train… somewhere. Further ahead on the Norte, or maybe just all the way to Finisterre where I could find a room and stay for a week and recuperate and write. That plan was starting to sound better and better.

I weaved my arms through the wet sleeves of my raincoat, hoisted my drippping pack onto my back, and headed back out. I made my way over to the albergue to see what the scene was like, and the only one around was a female pilgrim in a long, draping skirt. She called to me from across the street, “Albergue is full! But come over here, we’ll figure something out.”

Enter: my Camino angel. Beatrice, from Sweden. 

She has more energy than nearly every other person I’ve ever met, and I would find out later that she averages at least 40 km days on the Camino, always. She did the San Salvador in 3 days, the Primitivo in 8, the Frances in 23. Her “not walking” energy is high, too. We ducked into a hotel across the street, found out it was full, but used the shelter of their lobby to look for other options. She whipped through her guidebook, called a number, and in muddled Spanish managed to secure us a double room for 60 euros, coming out to 30 a piece. I’ve been spending a lot on this Camino with all the unexpected private rooms, but standing there in Luarca, all I could feel was relieved that I had a place to spend the night.

We spent the rest of the day together- luxurating under the powerful water pressure of our shower, wandering through town in the rain to find a place to eat, holing up in a cafe for tea and pastries. I was happy to have some long overdue company, but I was also exhausted, and it was hard to keep up with Beatrice. I should have just told her that I wanted to go back to the hotel and take a nap, but this was the first sustained human contact I’d had in awhile, and besides, I also needed to eat, and find a grocery store (and on the plus side of things, I realized that my appetite was slowly starting to return. I was craving a plate of calamari, and it felt good to be craving something other than orange juice or Sunny D or Fanta).


But I coughed all through the afternoon and the evening, and for as much as I wanted to be attentive to Beatrice and participate in the conversation, I knew I was only half there. It didn’t seem to matter though, and I was relieved for that, too. Beatrice just kept talking and telling me stories, and even though I was essentially sharing this day and this hotel room with a stranger, the Camino makes things like this easier. 

But I went to bed thinking that this Camino wasn’t much fun, not much fun at all. And the question that had been lingering for the past few days continued to burn through my thoughts: Should I stop doing this? Should I just stop walking?

Somewhere in Spain, Walking and Coughing; the first 2 days on the Camino Del Norte (Salinas to Cadavedo)

I’m sipping a cup of tea in the little kitchen of the albergue in Cadavedo right now; this albergue is old and worn, small and basic. The kitchen is a sink and some plates and utensils, but there’s also one of those things that heats up water, and several boxes of leftover tea. Perfect for me with this lingering cough. And with a long wooden table filling the room, the perfect space to catch up on some writing.

  

I’m two days into the Norte now (two walking days that is), so lets backtrack to where I was yesterday morning. I woke up in my hotel room in Oviedo, and I felt… still not great. But I didn’t want to sit still any longer and I figured I’d try to walk, just to see how it would go. There’s no way I have enough time to make it to Santiago- I did the San Salvador in 5 days and not 4, like I originally thought I would, and I lost a day due to being sick (plus I’m going to have an extra day in Scotland because of flight logistics, which took off yet another day off of my Camino-ing). So basically this means that I need to do some trimming, and I thought that the best place to begin would be at the beginning. My guidebook has this to say about the link between Oviedo and Aviles: “… this is not the most pleasant of walks- you’ve only just passed the industrial outskirts of Oviedo before joining the highway into Aviles…”. So yesterday morning I took a bus from Oviedo to Salinas, a small town about 7km past Aviles, and began walking from there. But before I could start walking, I was instantly stopped by two young Germans, sitting on a bench. “Do you speak English?” the girl asked me. She and her friend had gotten off track, and worried that they had lost the Camino.

I had just stepped off the bus and hadn’t quite figured out where I was yet, myself, but together we figured out the route. I let them walk ahead of me because almost right away, I could feel that walking was going to be a strain. Not as bad as the day into Oviedo, but I wasn’t feeling as good as I hoped. The day was sunny and bright- thank goodness no rain!- and while I knew I wasn’t far from the coast, unfortunately this day’s route didn’t allow for even a glimpse of the water. The day felt uneventful and long, though that was probably because I still wasn’t feeling well. Mostly I just wanted to arrive at my destination. I toyed with the idea of trying to find my own room again, knowing that getting good rest was still so important, plus I didn’t want to bother anyone with my coughing. But in the last few kilometers I didn’t really care if I had my own room or if I was in an albergue; once again, I just wanted to arrive.

And when I did arrive, to El Pito, where my guidebook promised there’d be an albergue and a couple pensiones, there was “no room at the inn”. The woman running the “albergue” (I’m not sure what it was, more like a hostal and it wasn’t just for pilgrims I don’t think, and it took reservations and it was sort of expensive), she wasn’t very helpful. She just sort of looked at me and said,  “sorry” and told me that I could just keep walking to the next town with an albergue, which was 12 kilometers away. At this point it was already after 4:00 and I wasn’t feeling well and the thought of another 12 kilometers just made me want to sit down. There was another pilgrim there- who had made a reservation- who tried to help me, and I was so grateful for it. She sort of bounded over to me, stuck out her hand and said, “I’m Marcia Jane, from Germany” and then we sat on the ground and looked through her phone for ideas of where I could stay. It was good to be in the company of another woman, and someone who was kind. 

We didn’t find much, though both Marcia Jane and the owner of the hostal thought that I could give the camping sites a try. And I started to walk towards them- in the opposite direction of the Camino, under a still burning sun- I walked and walked and then thought, “What in the world am I doing? I don’t feel well, and I don’t even have a tent. I don’t want to do this.”

So I just decided to keep following the Camino. My guidebook said there was a hotel in another 2 kilometers, and when I arrived there, lo and behold I found an available room. Hurray!! This place was in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing else around, but I had a room and it had a bed and much like the day when I walked into Oviedo, I took a shower, washed my clothes, and then fell alseep.

Middle of Nowhere to Cadavedo

As I slept in that big hotel room in the middle of nowhere, Spain, I had strange dreams. Or maybe they weren’t so strange- I dreamt that I was back at my apartment, then back at my parents’ house for a few days. It was a little reprieve from the Camino, just a little time to rest up and figure out what to do. It’s what I had fallen asleep thinking about- if I continue to feel sick, if I continue to be isolated, do I want to keep going? And if not, where do I go, and what do I do?

I woke up this morning feeling as though something had shifted. I definitely wasn’t totally better, but I felt like I had a bit more energy, and that was definitely true as I walked. Not my normal Camino energy by any means, but I didn’t feel like I was dragging myself along quite as much. 

It was a long day, 34 kilometers, but there weren’t many (or any!) options on places to stay until I arrived in Cadavedo. The walk was bookended by brillance- I walked just at the edge of gorgeous, secluded beaches, a sprinkling of sunlight falling through the tree branches, just enough to make everything feel like it was glowing.



But in between? It felt like 30 of the day’s kilometers were under a gray sky, on a narrow track that was advertised as the coastal route, but which stayed too far from the coast, and always up up up and then down down down. Then repeat. And repeat. And repeat. There’s beauty around me, I know there is, but it’s been harder for me to see it. Everything feels a little harder than it used to be. 


This Camino feels different. I’m not even sure what I’m comparing it too- I wonder if it has anything to do with just starting in the middle, feeling as though I’ve been plucked down into something totally foreign and strange. Or that I haven’t figured out how to belong here yet, but since I’m here I have to just go, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I see a few clusters of pilgrims throughout the day, and everyone smiles and greets each other, but I’m not part of anything or anyone. I don’t know these people, not yet. Many of them already know each other. Or maybe I’m still in the mindset of the San Salvador, where there were no other pilgrims, it was just me and the path and that was different, but ultimately, it was good.

In any case, when I arrived to Cadavedo, I was worried that the albergue would be full. It had taken me the full day to walk, and I arrived at 4:30 (which is a bit late in the day, especially when there are lots of pilgrims on the path). When I rounded the corner, following a sign for the albergue, the only building I saw looked old and faded and my first thought was, “Oh no, this albergue has closed.” Turns out, it’s just an old building. There were some young Spanish guys sitting out in the back and a woman washing her clothing in the yard, and when I went upstairs I saw a sign posted that the hospitalera would be back at 6:30, and to take a bed in the meantime.

There were several beds open (and the albergue never filled up) but despite being around other pilgrims, it was still a very quiet night. The Spanish guys kept to theselves, and there were only a few others. I chatted with Yoko, from Japan, and later with a girl from Madrid, but everyone mostly did their own thing. 

Was it like this for me last year? I’m trying so hard to remember. Somehow this feels very different to me, but last year, there were definitely evenings when I felt rather alone, or when I shared an albergue with people I didn’t know. And besides, I’m not feeling well! Of course that throws everything off- the walking, the eating, my connections with others. 

So, everyone, that’s the recap on the last two days. Definitely a different sort of Camino experience for me- one that’s more challenging, not quite as fun, not quite as carefree. At least for now. But you know, as I was walking today, I asked myself, “Would I rather be home?” And I think of the dreams I had last night, of how nice home would be, just for a few days. But only a few days, and then I would be restless, knowing that I had more of summer to be off exploring and having adventures.

These days are adventures- maybe not the sunny, laughing kind (fingers crossed those come soon), but they’re important adventures to me all the same. 

Sick in Spain; Day 5 on the Camino de San Salvador (Pola de Lena to Oviedo, 34km)

My fifth and final day on the Camino de San Salvador was, in a word, miserable. 

I was going to try to gloss over the hard parts or put a positive spin on it (and, well, I probably will find something positive from it), but I don’t want to be misleading about what this day was like for me. It was pretty miserable.

In my last post I was writing from the morning of Day 5, in that warm cafe, sitting at a table with a faded pink tablecoth, watching a woman bring trays full of croissants and pastries from an oven in the back kitchen, listening to the rain strike against the pavement. I knew that I wanted to stay in that cafe for awhile and so I did. When I finally set out, the conditions were actually pretty good for walking: only the lightest mist of rain against my cheeks, and a perfectly cool temperature.

The first 7km were on a flat, paved road that ran somewhat adjacent to a main highway. It was often bordered by trees but you could always hear the roar of traffic. At times there was that very light mist, at times it was totally dry. I kept my rain jacket on and walked, and walked, my stick clacking against the road with every step. 


(this is actually a photo of me from later in the day, sitting against a stone wall and staring at my shoes and trying to will myself to keep going)

I was dragging myself along. Those 7km seemed to last longer than entire days on the Camino, and that worried me. These were the first 7km of a 34km day, and while the first part of the day was flat, I would have some ascents and descents ahead. But I kept walking, my pace slowing down, and I did my best to focus on my destination- a town with a bar- where I could sit down and order some orange juice. 

And I did just that when I arrived in Uri, and the tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice was one of the best things I’d ever tasted. But sitting in the bar, I could feel how drained my body was. Every single part of me was tired, but it was more than that. I was sick, an unignorable kind of sick, and probably not the “push through anyway and walk 34 kilometers through chilly, damp weather” kind.

I left the bar knowing that in another 8km or so, I’d arrive in another town with another bar, and if I needed to, I could stop there. I told myself that I could stop whenever I needed to, that it didn’t matter when I arrived in Oviedo. So I started walking again, and I started worrying again. Then the rain started to come down a little harder, and I pulled the hood up over my head. As I walked, I passed a train station, and I paused for a long time, uncertain of what I should do. “It’s right there!” I said to myself. “All you have to do is go over there and buy a ticket to Oviedo and the trip will probably take twenty minutes.” I took a few steps, I stopped again. I took a few steps back, stopped, but then continued walking. The same thing happened a little later, when I passed another small station. 

I think I may have learned a lesson in here, somewhere. I never got on a train, I walked all the way to Oviedo. And I never stopped again for a rest, either. As I continued along, I just found a steady, persistent rhythm, and as I passed through each town, I told myself that I would just stop in the next one. But mostly I just wanted the walking to be over, I wanted to be in Oviedo. 


I should have taken the train. There was some stupid stubborness in me that wanted to walk the entire San Salvador route. It reminded me of my time on the Camino Frances, how serious I was about walking every step. But that time, nothing really challenged me like it was challenging me now. What was I trying to prove, anyway, by walking every step? What did it matter? It’s like I had this plan in my head and I couldn’t let go of it. Of course I was going to walk to Oviedo! That was the entire idea!

But man, sometimes, you’ve just got to take a break. At some point during the walk, I made the decision to rest in Oviedo. To not go to the albergue, to not try to walk again the next day. I was going to find my own little room somewhere and hole up for two nights and sleep as much as I wanted and try and try to get better. 

I think the last few hours of walking were a practice in visualization. I just kept picturing a small hotel room, a bed, I pictured a shower and told myself that before I knew it, I would be cleaning the day off of me. At this point it was raining rather steadily; just a light rain, but it was enough to wet my clothing, my hair, my hands. A bit outside of the city the path wound up a hillside; I’d been walking on pavement for practically the entire day but as soon as the Camino moved to a trail, it was a narrow one that was once again overgrown. More thorns, brambles, wet leaves and branches but at least I was wearing long pants this time. Sometimes the trail was dirt-packed, at other points it was an old medieval road… which was cool, until I realized that it was mostly a bunch of really smooth, slick-from-the-rain stones that were extremely slippery to walk over. My already slow, slow pace grew a whole lot slower as I struggled not to fall.

I made it to Oviedo. After a few tries, I found a perfectly small and inexpensive hotel room not far from the cathedral. I took a shower and crawled into bed and even though I intended to go out and find some food, I never did. I slept for a long, long time.


My rest day in Oviedo was my birthday, and thank goodness I made the decision not to walk. It would have been a 30km slog into a large, industrial town, and I didn’t want another miserable day. So instead I slept in and had a birthday cafe con leche along with some freshly squeezed orange juice. I went to the pharmacy for medicine, then took a tour of the cathedral and knelt before the statue of San Salvador. “Thank you for helping me get this far,” I prayed. “Please help me make it further.”


The really sad thing about being sick in Spain is that I don’t have much of an appetite. I’ve been forcing myself to eat, but not much tastes very good. The cafe con leches, the vino tintos… they just don’t seem that appealing. But the freshly squeezed orange juice? In the past, I’ve seen other pilgrims order this day after day. And for some reason, I never did on my past Caminos- all I needed was my cafe con leche. But now? I’m a convert. 


Oviedo is a beautiful city and the perfect place for a rest. I wandered a bit, I spent time in my tiny room, I slept as much as I could. And then it was time for a return to the Camino Del Norte… but this time there were a lot of questions. After losing a few days, I knew I couldn’t make it to Santiago in my time frame. Which part would I cut out? And would I be feeling well enough to walk the next day?


Walking each other home; Day 4 on the Camino de San Salvador (Pajares to Pola de Lena, 28ish km)

I’m writing this from a warm cafe on the morning of Day 5, my last day on the Camino de San Salvador. It was raining all night long and rain is in the forecast for today, too. It’s only spritzing a bit right now so I suppose I should get a move on, but I couldn’t resist a nice and hot cafe con leche. 

It’s going to be a long day into Oviedo- 34km- and that’s going to be made to feel a lot worse in the rain. Yesterday wasn’t exactly a stellar Camino day for me, either. I wasn’t feeling great (as in, I think I’m getting sick), and I was moving slow after only a few hours, dragging myself up hills that were barely hills (that being said, yesterday did involve quite a lot of ups and downs). The weather was gray and cloudy and a little humid; while most people prefer not walking under the heat of the sun, gray weather tends to drag me down a bit. 

I was looking forward to another beautiful day, my guidebook raved: “It’s hard to think of any day of more beautiful Camino walking” and “It (the path) is well marked and very well cleared”. I should have remembered that this guide was put together back in 2009, so what was “well cleared” 7 years ago might not exactly be well cleared now. 

And it wasn’t. Remember my post from La Muse when my legs got all scratched up from the ‘field of thorns’? Well this was sort of a repeat. Not nearly as bad, but guess who wasn’t wearing her long pants? Just as the old scratches had finally faded, I’ve added a fresh set of new ones (just baby ones, luckily). The path was overgrown, it was wet, the gray skies obscured the promised glorious views. In fact, I was wondering where those views were- the track through the forest was so thick with trees that I couldn’t see out to the mountains. 

And when the path did open up, I could see that there would be stunning views if not for the clouds. And to add insult to injury, I reached an area where this was painted on a rock:

  

It’s like the person going along marking the Camino decided that a yellow arrow just wouldn’t do. I looked out at the impressive view and knew that a lot of it was obscured. 

But this is how it goes: my first day on the Camino two years ago, through the Pyrenees, was perfect- clear and cool and sunny. When I walked the Hospitales route on the Primitivo last year, clouds covered everything. Two days ago was another perfect day, yesterday not as much. 

The highlight of my walk, however, was the dog friend that I picked up (we’ll call him Salvador, thanks to my sister for the name suggestion). I’d stopped by a fountain in a small village to rest and have some water, when I heard growling and barking. There was a small pack of dogs in the street, they seemed to be ganging up on one guy, a light gray fluffy dog who was trembling in the corner. The bully dogs moved away, and when Salvador spotted me, he ran over and jumped up on the wall where I was sitting, burying his face into my chest. Then he backed up and looked at me and I swear he was saying, “Save me.”

“Don’t worry buddy.” I hefted up my pack and grabbed my stick. “I’ve got you.”

We moved out of the village together, Salvador taking quick and nervous looks around, while I brandished my stick at any dog who dared to come close. Once we were well clear, Salvador ran ahead joyously, then would double back to make sure I was still following. He’d come at me in a fast gallop, his tongue sticking out of his mouth, and when he reached me he would jump in the air and wriggle his body and try to lick my face. Then, as quick as anything, he’d tear on ahead again. This continued for about 45 minutes, and I was reminded so much of my walks with Homer, at La Muse, of how nice it felt to have a dog along for company, to lead the way, to check on me and make sure I was coming along. But after awhile I started to get a bit nervous- how far would Salvador walk with me? Where did he belong? What if he never left? And then, because I was all alone, I worried that I would never want him to leave. But how could I stroll into a city, much less walk through Spain, with a dog at my heels?

I didn’t have to worry. Eventually, Salvador ran off down a sloping hill towards a building, and he never came back. I assume that he found his way home.

I found my way home, too- home for the night anyway. It was something between 25-30 kilometers to Pola de Lena, a small, gray-looking sort of town. I found the albergue, it was locked, and when I rang the bell no one responded. By now I knew the drill; I had seen a pay phone on my walk through town and so I doubled back to call the number that was posted on the albergue door. This time, all I had to say was, “Hola, soy peregrina” and the voice on the other end of the line said he’d be there in 5 minutes. 

Within about an hour of my arrival, the 4 Spanish men showed up, and then another younger Spanish man. The younger guy had walked from Poladura (where I had started the day before), and he brought me reports on other pilgrims on the trail. “There aren’t many,” he said. “Last night there were only three of us in Poladura. I heard that you were the only one the night before, and the night before that, there was no one!” But he also told me that last week there were 18 people staying in La Robla one night. 18! I can’t even imagine it after the quiet days and nights I’ve had out here.

The Spanish guy and I went out for dinner together- he was very intent on finding the best food in town, and I think he succeeded. We went to a small place that specialized in homemade dishes, and when our waiter found out we were pilgrims, he offered us a ‘pilgrim’s menu’ that we hadn’t realized we could get. I chose the Fabada bean stew to start, a specialty of the region, and then we shared a plate of some sort of fish- chipirones- and I’m not even sure what it could possibly translate to in English. When the waiter put the dish down I was slightly alarmed, but each bite was smooth and silky, with the most mild and delicate flavor. My only regret was that I wasn’t feeling that welll and despite all the walking, I didn’t have much of an appetite. But the food was so good I ate a lot anyway, and polished off my entire bowl of arroz con leche (rice pudding, but you’ve never had rice pudding quite like this!). There was a bottle of La Rioja wine, too, which is some of the best wine in Spain, if not the world. 

Throughout dinner I was reminded of how sometimes, the Camino can feel a lot like dating. I was sitting across from a man in a cozy little restaurant eating a good meal, and we hadn’t known each other before that afternoon. But I guess the nice thing about the Camino is how easily stuff like this happens, how little pressure there is. It’s natural for pilgrims to connect with each other, to gather together in the evenings, to come together for a day and then separate. There’s none of the pressure and stress that I tend to put on myself, either. I wasn’t thinking, “What am I going to wear? Do I look good enough? What will we talk about?” I mean, besides my hiking clothes I have one other outfit, I’m not carrying make-up or beauty supplies, my eyes were a bit puffy and my nose a bit raw from the cold that was descending on me, and it just didn’t matter. I’d walked all day, and I wanted dinner. 

But throughout dinner, my desires changed. All I wanted to do was go back to the albergue and get into bed. I was starting to feel worse and worse, and my companion talked and talked. Sometimes I would try to say something, and he would kind of pause to give me room to speak, but then jump right back into whatever else he wanted to say. He kept trying to convince me to switch my plans and walk the Primitivo, saying that the part of the Norte I was going to do was the worst part. “It’s really awful,” he said. “You walk on the road all the time and people don’t have the Camino spirit.” And at one point I even started thinking- “Maybe I should do the Primitivo instead…” but then I snapped out of it. The thing is, everyone has an opinion about the ‘best way’: how things should be done, how you should walk, what you should carry, how you should act (true in life, as well…). I’ve already walked the Primitivo, and I’ve never done this section of the Norte. Maybe I’ll love it or maybe I’ll hate it, but this is my Camino. I need to walk it how I need and want to walk it. I’ve learned that already.

So after a day slugging uphill on an overgrown and brambly path, befriending a dog and eating a darn good pilgrim’s meal, I sank into bed and wished I could stay there for a long, long time. But the trail beckons, and it’s just 34 km into Oviedo, where the Camino de San Salvador ends. Time to carry on. 

The only peregrina on the trail; (Poladura to Pajares, 15 km)

It’s the end of day 3 and I’m in my own sweet room above a bar in the town of Pajares. My double doors open to a small French balcony that overlooks the spire of the church, and beyond that, to the rugged peaks of the mountains. Mountains that I passed through earlier today. 

I’ve been tucked up in this room for quite awhile; aside from lunch downstairs at 3 (the standard three courses with wine and bread; the food wasn’t exceptional but it was just what I needed), I’ve been up in bed, staring out at my view, taking advantage of the wi-fi. This is the town where the albergue is closed, and even though I arrived early, I took my chances with the room above the bar. I’m glad I did. 

I think I might be battling another small cold- this has not been the healthiest summer for me! It’s not enough to stop me from walking, but just enough to make me feel drained by the end of the walking day… more drained than usual. So maybe it’s a good thing that this is truly a sola Camino, that I can stay alone in albergues and private rooms and try my best to rest up and recuperate.

I was, indeed, alone last night. I had the fleeting thought that it might be a bit scary to to be all alone in a big and empty building, but I was too tired to worry much. I went over to the inn to pick up my dinner, which was all packaged up for me to take back to the albergue. An appetizer of chicken wrapped in puff pastry, a first course of salad, a second course of paella, fruit, wine, bread (8 euros!! Gotta love Spain). For all my worries about not having enough food, I’ve been totally fine. There was even a coffee machine in the albergue so I could have my shot of caffeine before leaving this morning- perfecto.

Today’s walk was splendid. This is what I came to this Camino for. I left Poladura and immediately began to climb into the mountains, and for the next 10 km, I went up and down and around, on wide tracks and small dirt trails, though meadows of high grass and wildflowers every color of the rainbow. These evenings may have felt just a bit lonely, but to have the path all to myself during the day? I feel lucky, grateful, blessed. As ever, I think to myself, “How did I manage to get my life to this point? To be walking precisely here? Amid this beauty? To have it all to myself?” 




The guide I have says not to underestimate the challenge of the first 10 kilometers out of Poladura; the trail is remote and rugged and it took the authors just shy of 6 hours to walk the 10 km. Me? It took me about 3. But the weather was perfect and once I got going I didn’t want to stop. My pack didn’t feel as heavy today- maybe I’m getting used to the weight- or maybe I was too awed to notice my fatigue.

I slowed a bit towards the end, during the last 5 km descent into Pajares. One moment I was standing above the clouds, and in the next, I was moving down towards them… then into them, through them. The path wove through a forest and it was dark, eerie, and with the sun now gone there was a chill on my skin. 

And the weather has mostly stayed like this- when I look out my doors I can see the mountain peaks framing the village, but they are hazy. I’ve hung my laundry up to dry, but I think my socks will still be damp in the morning. 

That’s all for now; a quiet night following a spectacular day. I’ll take it. 

(One extra note: I actually wasn’t the only pilgrim on the trail. 4 Spanish hikers, men probably in their 50’s/60’s were also staying at the bar. And since writing this post I’ve heard of a few others behind me, all guys. But maybe it’s safe to say that I’m the only peregrina- female pilgrim- on the trail for now.)

The things we carry; Day Two on the Camino de San Salvador, (La Robla to Poladura; 25km)

My thoughts, at the moment: My pack is heavy. I’m alone in the albergue. My forehead hurts because I was stung by a bee.

But lets go back to last night. Turns out I wasn’t alone after all; a Spanish biker showed up, then a Spanish walker, then two more Spanish bikers. The guy who walked could speak English, but otherwise I was just gesturing and smiling at the others. And I didn’t spend much time with them; I had just started cooking dinner when the first arrived, and had finished by the time the others showed up. One by one they all left to head into town to find something to eat, and I was in bed, asleep, whenever they made it back.

So I’m not counting on being alone in this albergue, it’s very possible that other bikers will show up, and maybe the guy from yesterday (who seemed quite surprised that I had walked so fast- even though yesterday didn’t feel very fast to me). And there may be others- two men just walked up, they look like pilgrims and at the very least are hikers, and I can hear them sitting outside and talking to a few villagers but it’s all in Spanish, of course, so I can’t understand a thing.

The next two days are going to have some hard hiking, but I have to say, the most difficult thing about this Camino is not being able to speak Spanish. I sort of felt that on the Norte, a bit, and that was mostly because villagers wanted to talk to me as I passed through, and it was frustrating to not be able to have a conversation. But there were always other pilgrims who spoke English so it never felt too isolating.

I actually don’t mind how isolated this Camino is, but the Spanish I really need is the kind that can communicate some basic needs. I’ve managed to understand what I need to, but it just makes things a bit complicated. Like, yesterday, the hospitalero told me that if I wanted to eat dinner in the only place that sold food in Poladura (where I am now), I’d have to call in the morning the next day to let them know I was coming. 

That’s well and good, but I don’t speak the language and even if I did it wouldn’t matter, my phone doesn’t have international calling. So I strategized, and in the only town I passed through today that had any facilities, I tracked down a pay phone, and attempted to call. A woman answered, I asked if she spoke English, she said, “No.” So then I did my best to throw out enough Spanish words that might make sense… like “pilgrim”, “dinner”, “reservation”, “tonight”. She spoke back, real fast, and I didn’t understand a thing. So I just sort of repeated myself a few times and then I heard some clicking on the phone and the line cut off and I didn’t have any more change.

Unsure if I had actually communicated that I hoped to have dinner tonight, I walked around Pola de Gordon in search of a supermarket, figuring that even though I was carrying food with me, I could buy a couple more things in case I didn’t have any dinner options. I found two supermarkets, both were closed. I didn’t want to wait around until they opened- who knows when they would open- so I went into a bar that had a line of the biggest, airiest croissants I had ever seen. I asked for one to take with me, and then the man disappeared into the back for awhile. When he finally reappeared, he set down an utterly pretty package: the croissant was on a gold plate and then two cardboard arcs crisscrossed over it so that the paper wouldn’t press against the sugar on top and it was all wrapped up in brown string. 

My backpack was filled to the gills; I’d had to get creative about how to string clothing off the back so that I could fit my extra water bottle inside. There was no way I was going to be able to find a spot for the croissant, so that meant that the pretty package dangled from my hand as I walked up a mountain.

  

The last ten kilometers of the day were stunning. I’ve now moved into the mountains and there was a stretch when I stopped about every minute to take another photo. The climb wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t awful either. I can feel how strong my legs are from all that hiking in France, but my heavy pack and the hot sun threatened to do me in. But I just took it slow and it didn’t seem to take so long to reach the top (where I had my victory croissant). 

  
  
  

Then a not-so steep descent, and then a path that wound gently around a mountainside. Despite the heat and some soreness in my feet, I was feeling happy and energized- I stopped to take a photo and heard a buzzing around my head, and when I moved I must have hit the bee (or whatever it was), because all of a sudden he swooped down and stung me on the forehead. What a way to end the day, it felt like someone jabbed a very sharp needle straight into my head, which needless to say is not a welcome feeling.

But despite bee stings and croissants and loaded packs, I made it. The walk today was about 25 kilometers, and it was just enough. I arrived in Poladura, a small village of houses, a church, this albergue, and a small inn (which is where I hoped to find food). A tractor rolled through the streets, a black dog jumped to put his front paws on the fountain so he could take a drink, a kid rode a bike down an alley. Otherwise it was totally quiet, but the albergue door was open, so I went inside. I did my best to read all the signs, I took off my shoes and left them downstairs, then I put my things on a bed and took a shower. 

  

The normal Camino routines, but it feels strange to do them in a place where I haven’t checked in with anyone, haven’t spoken to anyone. But before too long a woman and man showed up, with two kids on bikes. The woman was Maria, the hospitalera, and she spoke a bit of English. I realized then how relieved I was to be able to confirm things with someone, to ask about whether I could get dinner or not (she called to the inn and it turns out that I had communicated well enough that they were prepared to cook for me). She had the keys to the church and she said she has to open it once a day, because it gets so musty inside. I walked in with her- the chapels and churches along the Camino are nearly always locked, so it’s rare to be able to go inside one- and her 6-year old neice, Celia, trailed along behind me, staying close and giggling because I couldn’t speak any Spanish. I think she thought it was both the strangest thing, and the best thing ever. 

I also confirmed with Maria about a sign I’d seen on the door to the albergue… that the albergue in the next town I’d planned to stop in was closed (as of today, of course, it’s having “some problems”). This is the most remote area of the San Salvador so there aren’t many villages or places to stay, but I still have two options: turn my planned 15 kilometer day (not much but it’s a very challenging 15km!) into a 30km day, or stay in a room above the bar in Pajares, the village with the closed albergue. Maria didn’t seem to have much information about it but I figure I’ll try for the room at the bar, or at least see what the situation is like. If not, then I keep walking… One way or another, and even if it’s not easy, I’m sure I’ll find a place to sleep.

In these last two days I’ve mostly just felt like I was hiking through Spain, and not on a Camino. But then there are these moments that remind me of the particular nature of the trail I’m on, that there is so much significance and history of this route. Every once in awhile I’ll pass a small altar, usually set up in the branches of a tree. There is always a bench or a chair underneath and I’ve been stopping and taking a rest, welcoming the comfort and feeling like I’ve found something special. 

  

And then yesterday, I passed by a little pilgrim oasis. I was about 18km out of Leon and the last 10 of those kilometers had been climbing up and down an often rocky path, and whenever I was in the shade small flies would swarm around my head. I didn’t have my back up water supply yet and I was just at the point where I was trying to conserve the water I did have but wishing I weren’t because I was awfully thirsty, when the oasis appeared. It was set to the side of the trail under a small grove of trees. There was a wide picnic table, a trash can, a metal container that held a pilgrim registry and a basket full of blister-healing supplies, and- the best yet- a fountain pouring out fresh, cold water.

  

And today, just when I entered the last village before heading into the mountains, two men passed me. “Una peragrina!” one said to the other, sounding excited. I turned and tried to answer his questions, and soon switched to French when I realized that he knew some. “It’s a beautiful day to be in the mountains,” he said. I smiled and then he wished me a Buen Camino and my smile became wider. Every time I hear it, it’s like I have an extra charge in my steps. “Have a good way,” they’re saying, and it’s said with such genuine care that I believe it, every time.