Traipsing around a glory hallelujah landscape

Traipsing around a glory hallelujah landscape

Day 24, Tuesday, April 30: Santibáñez de Valdeiglesia a Santa Catalina de Somoza (23 km, 14.3 miles)

Sharing a few bits of good news:

  • Ginny very carefully walked 12 or 13 kilometers today, stopping often to rest, stretch, massage, and–the great part: enjoy some beautiful paths. She’s looking forward to busing on to Sarria and tackling the last 100 kilometers of the Camino at the pace her body calls for. She’s so grateful for the huge fan club supporting her in our thoughts and prayers
  • Barb knocked off the Camino yesterday morning ans will enjoy a full-day of sightseeing (or just sitting in the Retiro Park? or sleeping in?) in Madrid tomorrow before her flight home on May 2. Way to go, Barb! Oh, this just now in: she already did the Retiro and the Botanical Garden today; tomorrow will be the Prado Museum.
  • After last night’s singing and dancing, my roommates and I were steady, relatively quiet sleepers last night. All the better for getting an early start today. Oh, but that’s the story for the next section. Keep on reading!

Glory Hallelujah, Part 1 (7:00 am to 10:30-ish am)

Out the albergue door by just a few minutes after 7:00 this morning. “A la izquierda y entonces siga todo recto, recto, recto,” the cook and general overseer told me this morning. And so off I went, to the left and straight, straight, straight. Straight up. Not so steep, actually, but the general trend was up. I was so happy that I had waited until morning for this next stretch, that I had not moved on yesterday after discovering that the town was as dead as they come. The day had been gradually heating up, and it would not have been fun to do the uphill paths/roads in the afternoon heat.

Instead, I did them this morning, decked out in the usual “cool weather” clothing (including winter jacket) with which I have begun almost every day on this trip, knowing that, like I did yesterday, I would be shedding and/or switching layers as the day progressed.

My early departure this morning–earliest of the trip by a good 10 minutes–was due to my hopes of catching a pretty sunrise. While it wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, it was very pleasant. I was rewarded, as well, with the town’s roosters crowing (along with the call of that darned you-know-what who still accuses my endeavors of being crazy ones. Let him keep it up; I’m turning a deaf ear.

The climbing was stunning, and I felt like I had the views all to myself. For one thing, the trail curved quite a bit so I wasn’t always seeing far in front or behind me. For another, two of my roommates were off before I was this morning, and Takeshi was getting a slow start. (Yes, there had been a second hostel in town and it had a good dozen or more people. But take my word for it, the solitude was both real and delightful.)

  • Three highlights as I passed through terrain in which farm fields (some) alternated a bit unevenly with lands marked as private hunting preserves (the vast majority of the land):
    The first: Catching sight of a deer on the trail. The trail has gone through a lot of land signed for hunting, but this was the first “wildlife” I had seen. Who doesn’t love to see deer? (Don’t answer that Bloomington friends whose gardens are being destroyed by them….). In addition to that one sighting, there was a lot of scat on the trail/road. I had to wonder what other beasties might have me in their sights….
    The second: I met David at his very unique Casa de los Dioses cantina in the middle of nowhere. His story begs to be told, so bear with me and I’ll do my best to tell it (in one long paragraph because that’s the only way to maintain this numbered list…). I really dawdled at this stop because I found David absolutely fascinating. I walked up to his not-so-little complex where, in addition to some pleasant landscaping and some ramshackle (sort of) buildings, David had set up five or six hammocks, a self-service covered counter with muesli (my choice; hadn’t had breakfast yet), soy, rice, and regular milk, coffee, juices, sugar, cinnamon, chocolate, nuts…, and, on the side, big baskets of fruit: apples, bananas, kiwi, oranges. David yelled out from behind a wall where he was washing dishes and silverware, heating water for coffee, and squeezing more oranges for a drink: “Help yourself! It’s a gift! Enjoy!” He later came round with a clean spoon for me. Sandrina, the Romanian from last night, was at the stop when I arrived, so David was using English as the common language. When Sandrina moved on, however, we switched to Spanish and I learned a lot more about this very sincere–but enigmatic–dreamer who has been giving gifts of food to pilgrims at this site for the past 10 years. “I am moving on,” he told me. “I know now that I am supposed to just take off and walk and walk.” He explained that just a week or so ago he had returned to his “cantina” after wandering for six months (three of them barefoot), but that now he had discovered that it was time for him to leave for good. “I have to live my values. Now I live in contradiction with my values. Look at this fruit I give to pilgrims. It takes trucks and planes to get some of this fruit here. Too many resources. And for what? The pilgrims today aren’t seeking spiritual enlightenment like they were when I started here. They don’t even know why they are doing the Camino. They do it with such little thought, just because they heard about it, heard that they should do it. They are all materialistic. I need to get away from materialism. Look. See. I don’t wear a watch. I don’t have a phone. I don’t even have money. But I am not a beggar. No. I don’t beg.” “Do you depend on the good will of others, then?” I asked. “No, not on good will. I depend on their nature, their opening to the god-force within them.” We sat and talked for a good half hour. Mostly, I listened. There was no reason for me to challenge him, or for me to ask him details about how he could actually survive for any length of time without money. For one thing, he seems to have already been doing it for quite some time. Do you kind of get the picture? A little bit? It was maybe somewhat like visiting the Desert Fathers from the 3rd century, seeking their wisdom. I asked him if he had read any of Carlos Casteneda’s books. (He had, but not too impressed.) Me? No, I am not ready to imitate this (just) 44-year-old from who-knows-where (native speaker of Spanish, but I didn’t press for his personal info; it seemed more prudent to just listen, assenting when I could honestly do so, merely listening and pondering most of the time). Most of the pilgrims passed by or perhaps grabbed a piece of fruit, asking only where they should put their donativo [donation]. “No, it’s a gift. You don’t need to give anything. I do it for love. But if you feel like giving a gift in return, there is a box over there.” Those passing quickly had no idea that David plans to leave his operation in a few days “to walk and walk and walk,” giving others a chance to bring out their divine nature as they interact with him. “I just don’t believe in the Camino anymore, in what it has become. And I know now that I cannot change other people. I have to be my most authentic self.” I certainly couldn’t disagree with him that materialism and the “creation of need” defines our culture and our lives…. Lots to think about.
    Third morning hightlight: Shortly after getting David’s thought-provoking life lessons, I was treated to spotting a caterpillar “train.” The name is of my invention, but seems like a logical one for this phenomenon. I believe I may have mentioned it before and perhaps posted a photo and/or video. Worth doing so again. I’m not shooting for total accuracy here, as I have no time to do research, but, in a few words: this particular kind of caterpillar is likely to link up with seemingly identical caterpillars, the group forming one long line as they/it make their/its way “down the camino.” Or across it. It’s impressive to see, but what I saw today demands a more powerful word than impressive. “Strength in numbers”? Easy to agree with. “United we stand (or crawl/propel ourselves,” as the case might be). I think we’d all agree. But get this: the caterpillar chain I came upon this morning was an amazing 72 insects strong! (Yes, I got down on my hands and knees in the red-dust road to count them. I later heard that they eject poison and it really stings the skin. Who knew?). Did I photograph them? You’d better believe it. Still and video both. I was quite delighted that I happened to notice them out on parade. I’ll have to do a bit of research at some point. Do you suppose the parents send them out to play and tell the oldest to keep an eye on her siblings? “Don’t let your brothers and sisters out of your sight!” And I wonder where they were headed or what happens when the lead caterpillar decides to turn around. Lots of wondering.

Yep, a glory hallelujah kind of morning. The kind we might all wish to have each and every day.

In between the Glories and the Hallelujahs, or: Get me out of the city! It’s too much for me! (10:30-ish am to 1:30 pm)

I arrived in the old city center of Astorga about 10:45. I saw that the first old church I happened into had a noon mass and, liking the name of the church (“Socorro Perpetua” / Perpetual Help) and thinking the acoustics would be good, I decided to stay in the area and attend. I went to a nearby park, ate an orange I had picked up when I stopped at David’s complex and a couple of hard-boiled eggs I’d been carrying around for too long, and enjoyed the vista of the distant mountains. I also observed this: almost all the natives who passed by my bench and noticed me eating called out “Buen provecho” (“Enjoy your meal”); I suppose it means as little to them as our saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes means to us, but nonetheless I found it a rather sweet way of them acknowledging that I existed. One older woman stopped to chat a bit longer. I then proceeded to read about this town in my guidebook, realizing that I probably should have done my research ahead of time.

With time left before heading over to the noon mass, I did a bit of exploring on my own. Oh my! It was market day! “Every Tuesday,” I learned. But this was way over the top! Way over! Not a food market (although I did see a bit of food down one side street). This was block after block on several parallel streets of “stuff.” “New stuff” as far as I could tell, but … “stuff.” Factory-produced “stuff”: underwear, shirts, jackets, scarves, socks. Lots of people milling around, bumping into me, making me a bit nervous about my pack knocking buyers over as I made my way through the crowd. Perhaps it was my natural aversion to crowds or to shopping, or perhaps, as well, my recent conversation with David. At any rate, I just wanted out.

Turns out the mass was a mistake. Acoustics were not good and, because of the delay, I found that I really didn’t have time to see anything in Astorga. I had read about some wonderful museums, including quite an amazing and fanciful Gaudí building housing four floors of displays plus a garden area designed a la Gaudí. I knew I shouldn’t take the time to see it, but I went inside anyway… only to learn that it would close between 2:00 and 4:00, so I would have only 45 minutes to tour. No tickets for a “garden only” tour. No, I realized, I don’t want to rush through this thing, and I really don’t want to carry my pack any longer than necessary…. Astorga, with its rich Roman history, was something that I just wasn’t going to experience. Nor was I going to be able to sample the dish for which it is very well known–the very filling meat-and-vegetable stew known as cocido maragato. (Bought some “famous” pastries, though: mantecadas.)

On the one hand, it was disappointing to be missing the highlights of yet another Spanish city; on the other hand: I was already longing to be back in the countryside. Let’s get out of here! Enough!

Glory Hallelujah, Part 2, or: Just who was she anyway? (1:30 pm to 9:30 pm)

I’m not going to wax poetic about the journey from Astorga to Santa Catalina. It was getting hot. Only in the 70s, but there was no shade to be had and my backpack seemed to be getting heavier by the minute. It might have been pretty. The most welcome sight, however, was of a cafe where I took an internet break and met up with a few pilgrims I’d befriended before.

I was getting a bit nervous as I had heard quite a few people say that they were heading for Santa Catalina. This wasn’t in my plans. The small town of just under 50 residents has no grocery stores; its church has mass one Sunday a month; the village is located in the middle of a Camino “stage”. For those reasons, I had thought that there would be no problem finding a room. When I got closer to the village, a Korean pilgrim caught up with me. I think we had slept in the same room a few hostels back. He remembered talking with me, knew I was almost 70 (and so about 7 years older than he). He said he was so very happy to see me. I, however, wasn’t so very happy to learn that his group of about 20–all Catholics from Korea, most with very limited English–were all staying in Santa Catalina. They would be taking up most bunks in one of the albergues.

Long story short: when I arrived, neither of the albergues had a bunk bed for me. They had a couple of actual rooms left. Well, hard for me to pay 30 euros when the “bed only” price was 5, and I did let the proprietor know that I would share my bed with any single woman who found herself without a place to sleep. But here I am, luxuriating in my own double bed, my own private bathroom, my own balcony overlooking the main drag, towels, a door that locks…. No automatic lights off. No creeping around in the dark with a flashlight hoping I can find the bunk’s ladder, wondering where to set my glasses. Pretty nice, indeed! I just had better not get used to it.

Here’s the thing I really want to tell you: after a quick check of my room, down to the bar area again for my first beer in 2019 and perhaps the best one in my life! And then! Then: I went for a walk around town. Now when the town has 47 residents plus two hostels, it doesn’t really take too long to walk it. But there’s always the countryside. I’d come in from one direction and would leave by the opposite, but that still left two directions to check out, north and south if I was reading the sun correctly. There seem to be paths everywhere in Spain, and I’m a sucker for following them. The rejoicing began. There I was wearing that grin again. “Just a little bit further,” I’d tell myself. “Just to that tree/post/sign down there,” but then I’d see another temptation and on I’d go.

Obviously, the sun was no longer so intense. A few welcome clouds had moved in, and it was around 6:00 pm, so more pleasant for sure. When I reached an intersection where five sandy roads met, I knew I’d better turn around before I confused one path for another. I concluded my return trip with checking out a street in town down which I hadn’t previously walked. I saw an elderly woman sitting out in the sun and by her, the cutest little dog who actually really liked me and whom I enjoyed petting. Now that is something! The old woman had her work cut out for her to hang on to Puscas who desired nothing more than for me to hang around petting her/him.

I tell you, I just couldn’t get enough of this sleepy little town and its environs. Gorgeous clouds, sensational old stone buildings. Santa Catalina would make an ideal movie set for the right script. Seeing it without toting my pack was ideal. I wrote home asking if anyone wanted to set up housekeeping here. (No response from Ken on that one.)

Little wonder that I wanted to read something about this saint after whom the town was named. What? Who? I wouldn’t think that people would just make up a name because they liked the sounds of it, but darn if I can find out anything about her. Google only knows that Santa Catalina de Somoza is the name of a town in Spain. Hmmm….

Final act

By 7:30 I had had my shower and I headed downstairs to find some food. I don’t know when I’ve had to “work so hard” for my food. I suggested to a couple waiting for a table that we sit together. Ah… but Bernard and Kati–who did not come to Santa Catalina, as had I, because they liked the name of the town–were French-only speakers. Okay, Katy, dig deep, very deep. You’ve had some practice lately. Let’s have a pleasant meal together. We did! The waiter was so grateful for my help translating and making sure everyone got what he/she wanted. Bernard never stopped smiling. The two of them were very fresh, today having been their first day (this year) on the trail. They have been doing the Camino in stages for the past six years, a little here, a little there; today they started their last section and plan for Santiago or bust with this go round. I’m recalling more and more French, but I’m also getting better at being humiliated as I know I am murdering the language. Happy to say that I have not felt any “snobbishness” directed at me. The French people I have spoken with have been pleased that I could handle their language at all.

What happens when Katy has a private room? She stays up until 1:00 am! For shame!

Short walk tomorrow to Rabanal where I expect to find a bed in the Benedictine monastery San Salvador del Monte Irago. A two-night stay. Why do I think I might just have to take one or more naps there? Unless, of course, the surrounding countryside calls to me as it did today. Then all bets are off.


Shedding the clothing

Shedding the clothing

Day 23, Monday, April 29: Villar de Mazarife to Santibáñez de Valdeiglesia (20.5 km, 12.7 miles)

Setting the stage

I have some catching up to do, as Saturday’s post is still lingering in my head instead of on the page. And today’s, as well. My plan is to attack them both. Thought I’d share where this siege is taking place. Some of you will be jealous and some will say: “better you than me.” Which are you?

I am in the courtyard of the parochial albergue of this small town. I know it is small because I missed a yellow arrow and walked to the end of the town where there were arrows pointing in the direction from which I had come. Apparently I am not the first one to miss the turn!

Here’s what I can tell you about the town. It seems it’s too small for the guidebook to bother giving its population. It doesn’t have a grocery store. I’d say it doesn’t really have any stores. Probably very few people and they would all be elderly. My guess, anyway. I arrived at siesta time and so, obviously, the sidewalks were rolled up. However, I’ve seen no reason to return to the post-siesta streets as the patio in which I am sitting is delightful.

Takeshi (male), my Japanese roommate, is sleeping on a mat which he has spread out on the grass. Sandrina, a Romanian woman, is out here as well, catching up on her email and her journaling. Charlie, a third roommate, from England, left us a while ago after doing a bit of serenading on his guitar. Also joining us is an English-speaker (American?) who has shared his peanuts but not yet his name. He is staying in the albergue across the street but has found the innkeeper rude and so he doesn’t want to spend any money there. He will be joining my roommates and me for the pilgrim dinner here at 6:30. For now, he is enjoying a beer with his peanuts and cursing his email which doesn’t seem to be working. (Frankly, I preferred Charlie’s strumming on the guitar, but this guy’s ok, I think.  I’ve certainly been know to let four-letter words fly when my email or internet isn’t cooperating….)

When I saw how tiny the town was and how lacking in services, I contemplated going against my better thinking, heading on down the trail–I mean up the trail, for there are hills and more “páramo” awaiting us. I did not want to go to the next big town, though, and the town 10 kilometers away has only one small hostel and I couldn’t find out about availability (they wouldn’t answer the phone). I didn’t want to take the chance, so I was forced to follow my better judgment and stop. There is a reason for my being here (and it isn’t because the bedroom is toasty warm, that’s for sure).

I was greeted at this albergue by two young Brazilian volunteers, emphasis on the word “young.” One was busy plucking facial hairs that didn’t suit her; the other occupied herself with her cell phone (at least assuring me that the Wifi worked on the patio). Typical teenagers (sorry, do I offend?), bored, realizing that this volunteer business was not exactly the ideal escape from the watchful eyes of their parents, on the other side of the ocean, as they had hoped it would be. Instead, it was work which, of course, is a bore! Oh, I am being hard on them. Sorry. They got me registered, showed me my room, sighed with frustration that I had trouble understanding their Portuguese when one of them was trying to explain to me that the shower in the indoor bathroom should not be used but that the indoor toilet could be used, but only in the middle of the night. Otherwise, we are to use the showers and the bathrooms outside. Why did I have trouble understanding the bit about the shower in the patio?

Fortunately, a quick check in the patio proved that the showers were not exactly outside, just in a building on one side of the patio, complete with roof and door (not that it locked, but for the 5 euros I was paying, what did I expect?).

Also in the patio: a clothesline that makes about a 260-degree loop through trees (yes, trees!), thus more than enough space for four of us to hang the few clothes we were willing to wash in the outdoor sink’s cold water. The groundskeeper was busy mowing the small lawn. He was already working on it when I arrived, and still working on it while I took my shower, washed and hung up clothes, and settled in to write. The machine must have sputtered and stopped a hundred times if it did it once.

“They need to get you a new lawnmower, don’t they?” I asked him. “Yes, but it’s not likely to happen.” This man, a Spanish volunteer, assured me that the plentiful bees were not to be feared. Even more, that the occasional bee sting is good for a person as long as said person doesn’t have an allergy to bee stings. No allergy here, but I’ll take a pass on the healthy sting.

Every half hour, at 25 minutes after the hour and 5 minutes before, the church bells across the street peel out. I’ve been telling myself that I should have my microphone ready to capture them. Kind of a contrast to the croaking of the frogs that I recorded yesterday (and, I admit, again this morning).

This is also quite a contrast to the atmosphere I had while writing last night: by the time I finished there must have been some twenty or more noisy locals in the albergue’s bar, laughing, drinking, sharing tales, cheering for the soccer game on the TV. Katy, oblivious to it all. Concentrating.

But now: the sun is still streaming into this courtyard, the clothes are likely about dry, and I’ll get in on a communal meal in just under an hour, a meal where we’ll all learn a bit more about one another. Since the English speakers don’t know any Romanian or Japanese, we’ll be muddling through with English. Should be fun.

But on to today’s walk.

A tale of many stops

It was really tempting this morning, as I was heading out of Villar, to do that Huerta loop I had walked yesterday afternoon. I started in that direction, and then I made my first good decision of the day. Turned around. My back was feeling particularly sensitive to the weight on it: extra clothing (for the first time on the entire trip, I was wearing neither the long underwear nor the wind/rain pants, thus they added to the bulk and weight of the pack, extra water, extra food for what I thought would be “wilderness.”

Not really. There were numerous small towns. I stopped in a park on the outskirts of one town, more as an excuse to take the pack off for a while. Take an orange out of the pack; put winter jacket and gloves into it. Fair trade. Next town: buy some yogurt, a banana, a bag of peanuts, and some cookies in a grocery store. Find a bench at which to consume some of the purchased food. Remove neck gaiter and cap; dig out sun hat; hook the remaining food on the pack. The following town: eat the second cookie with the café con leche purchased at the bar; swap heavy Smartwool shirt for lightweight one, hang fleece vest from S-hook on the pack. One more town: and here I stay for the night. I did remove more clothes, but fear not! I replaced them with other, cleaner garments.

As for my pack: it’s going to remain too heavy. One thing about our new-and-much-improved weather: extra water is a must.

Human highlights of the day

  • I met a local woman on the paved road that led out of Villar de Mazarife and we shared an exchange. In her 60s, probably. Late 60s? My age? She used a cane (well heck, wasn’t I using two hiking poles?) and was out on her daily constitutional. “Por lo menos 8 kilómetros cada día.” Bravo! I remain amazed at how many locals get in that daily walk. They are out with their canes and their walkers. They are being pushed in their wheelchairs. I guess I might add how many are using the handles of their grandchildren’s buggies to possibly steady themselves (grandchildren in tow, of course). The point: they love to be out getting fresh air, possibly chatting with friends, possibly alone, knowing instinctively how very healthy it is for them and just wanting to do it. I think the fact they have very small houses encourages them to get outside, if only to get out from under one another’s feet. And also: since the houses are small, they can keep them clean more easily and thus have more time to get out. Am I proselytizing? At any rate, I love seeing people enjoying the outdoors.
  • Walked and talked for a while with Kristof, a German fellow with a good command of English. He wondered if one couldn’t do something sort of similar to the Camino in the US. You know, prepare an itinerary, walk from village to village. Even if one were doing the Appalachian Trail. Come off the trail each night and stay in a village. Wishful thinking. He doesn’t understand, does he? We don’t begin to have the infrastructure for that sort of thing. Not even close. I did tell him about my friend Eleanor–are you reading, Eleanor?–who did a 500-mile (?) walk from KY/TN to Virginia to duplicate the route Mary Ingles had done when she escaped Indian captivity back in the 1700s. (He wanted to know if she escaped alone, and I had to tell him that she escaped with a German woman who was more than half crazy…. Hope he wasn’t offended by a finger being pointed at a compatriot.)
  • I saw Miguel, the young Spanish fellow whom I encountered yesterday as he completed the challenge of walking 5 km barefoot. “How are the feet today?” “They hurt a bit,” he replied. No kidding!
  • There was the young Japanese man who asked me to take his photo by a famous bridge (and who now happens to be one of my roommates tonight); the four Irishmen trekking together; the lovely British couple (she Indian-born) with whom I had a lengthy conversation. Barbara and I had a lot in common it seemed; with her husband I had in common that we were both born in ’49
  • I came upon a threesome I had seen on Day #1 when we headed out from St. Jean Pied-de-Port. We had not spoken before, but I recognized them due to the moose each carried on her pack, and the excess weight each carried on her body. Frankly, I was really surprised to see that they had made it this far. Very surprised. They got a kick out of being recognized for the moose (I didn’t let them in on the other factor that helped me identify them). I’m so happy they’ve been doing well. It made me wonder about some others who started with us, especially red-haired Silvia from Argentina. I met someone today who brought up an Argentinian woman he’d met yesterday. “A red head, by chance?” I asked. “Yes!” But not a bright red-head. Not Silvia.

Other highlights of the day

And I’ll try to make these quick as the pilgrim meal will be served in about 15 minutes and I am more than ready!

  • Found my bed last night; very little snoring!
  • Beautiful sunrise! One of these days I’d like to be out on the trail at sunrise. Hope I can make that happen!
  • Walked 6 kilometers on a paved road this morning without seeing one car!
  • Another chorus of frogs near an irrigation ditch
  • The cuckoo is starting to believe that I’m not so crazy after all; he had very little to say today
  • When it works out, I enjoy a stop in the early afternoon at a cafe or bar where I can connect with the Indiana family members who are just rising, drowsy but able to exchange a few pleasantries with me before I head on down the road. It seems that even the smallest of bars has WiFi with its password prominently displayed. It’s one (of many ways) you can distinguish the natives from the pilgrims; the latter are often seriously connecting with their cell phones instead of with one another (plenty of time for that on the trail).
  • Seen on the trail today: cattle for perhaps the first time; tractors in some fields; farmers with hand tools in other fields; the land ready to receive the seed; mountains ahead, to the right, and over my right shoulder, a display of hills in at least 180 degrees
  • In three villages I witnessed the same bread truck as he made home deliveries. (Well, I only saw him twice, but I heard him three times.). He pulls in front of a house and toots his horn about 7 or 8 times, then waits for the lady of the house to come down and choose her bread. Wow!
  • Speaking of bread, in the store where I bought the yogurt, banana, etc, I noticed the pricing of bread. A relatively large round loaf was .4 of a euro. Seemed like a bargain to me. Alas, too big and too heavy to carry…
  • One of the most impressive sites today was not a natural phenomenon but a human-made one: the puente [bridge] of Órtigo. I’ll quote from my guidebook: “one of the longest and best preserved medieval bridges in Spain dating from the 13th century and built over an earlier Roman bridge which formed one of the great historical landmarks on the camino.” There are celebrations connected with a famous month-long jousting tournament held on the bridge in 1434 during which a certain knight, for love of a certain woman, managed to win her hand by braking 300 lances of knights from all over Europe. And this at a town of just over 1,000 inhabitants. Picture a bridge with 12 or 13 arches. For that matter, you don’t have to picture it as there’s a photo of it that just might get posted below…. Very impressive!
  • Heard on the trail (in addition to the aforementioned–I think!–frogs, cuckoo bird, church bells, and bread man’s honking): pretty songbirds

Possibly the best evening yet!

And so it is that after having made some rather disparaging remarks above about this hostel, and having expected the worst from the “communal meal” (my, would it be prepared by the sullen Brazilian teens?), much to my surprise it turned out to be one of the most memorable meals/evenings to date. For one thing, there is a retired Spaniard, a volunteer, who stays at this albergue several months/year, and he is the one in charge of the cooking. I had a delicious big bowl of hot green beans and sliced potatoes. Like three of the others, I chose baked chicken for my second course and it, too, was excellent. The other three, however, were jealous of the Romanian woman who was served a whole trout (head and all). We all took photos of Sandrina’s plate. Good fellowship, with English as the key that kept us going, with Takeshi and Sandrina seeming to follow quite well.

But then… then Charlie got out his guitar again, and before long, the dancing began. Yes, even me! For a good long while. We joined Charlie when we knew the lyrics–and sometimes when we didn’t. No language barrier stood in the way of adults being 20-somethings again. Very fun. It wasn’t long before the Brazilian teens who had served us the dinner were peering through the door with their cameras and iPads, filming the dancing and singing some of the music as well. I think perhaps it was the most entertainment they had seen since they began their volunteer gig here.

The moral is one we have all heard often: “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and be open to the fact that first impressions are not always accurate.

The cook left the dining room a while ago, having tired of his solitaire game. My roommates are long in bed. The promised Saturday-in-Leon post has not been written. Tomorrow, fortunately, is another day. I’m heading for the town of Santa Catalina de Somoza just because I can, because who among you would not want to spend some time in a town bearing your name? Maybe there will be less excitement tomorrow night and I’ll get caught up.

In the meantime, I have sent some photos to “the folks at home.” Regina has been doing a great job of incorporating them into the posts and putting some on Facebook. I have found that I just don’t have the time to mess with Instagram, easy as it is. Thanks, Regina.

And if you must know: I pushed the wrong button and lost a good bit of my original post. I have recreated it… but… it was better the first time around. Oh well…

Grinning from ear to ear!

Grinning from ear to ear!

Day 22, Sunday, April 28: León to Villar de Mazarife (23 km, 14.3 miles)

How do I even begin to describe this magnificent day?

Let’s start with updates

Barb: She checked in this evening to let us know that she is 11 kilometers from Santiago! She will be at Camino’s end before noon tomorrow. This is an absolutely amazing achievement, and one attained by someone who (at least at first) had no intention to get anywhere close to Santiago! If I’m not mistaken, she will have walked for 24.5 days, finishing a trek about which most guidebooks would say “a well-prepared person who takes no rest days could aim to complete in 33 days.” I’ll remind you–hoping I’m not giving away any secrets–that Barb is just five months younger than I am. What does it take to complete the 500-mile “Camino francés”? Lots of training, fierce determination, and a tremendous amount of luck. To finish it in 25 days? The former things plus a whole bunch of heart, soul, and spirit. If you want to congratulate Barb, her email is:

Ginny: We were side by side in church this morning, in the chapel of the huge cathedral in León. At the handshake of peace, Ginny whispered in my ear: “I have a plan.” Because this is what was worrying me as I prepared to leave the city this morning. For all the searching we did for Airbnbs, for all the paging through the guidebooks and the studying of the maps, for all the options that were thrown out, there was no “plan.” And if it bothered me, I can only imagine the stress it was causing Ginny. Every couple of days figuring out how to move forward, where to go, knowing that in another few days it would be time to do it all over again….  Far from ideal!

Yes! The knee is improving. There was a breakthrough of sorts when Ginny got a fabulous massage a few days ago from an osteopath. After the visit with him during which he worked for a good 80 minutes trying to loosten some muscles–pardon my lack of the most accurate terms here–she found some real relief and definitely felt the best she had in a couple of weeks. Progress! Progress she has no interest in jeopardizing. But the desire to reach Santiago by foot burns deeply.

So… the plan that came to her in church was this: take a bus to O Cebreiro tomorrow (Monday) because she has a real desire to “experience” the place and has been told by many that she has no business attempting it to “conquer” it on her own power–O Cebreiro is said to be as high as and possibly more challenging than any climbs we did in the Pyrenees. On Wednesday she will bus forward to Sarria–about 100 kilometers from Santiago. From there, she’ll test out the waters, beginning to walk towards Santiago as slowly as necessary to avoid regressing. There are many hostels/albergues along the way, and she has until May 15th to reach Santiago.

I know you are cheering for Ginny. She has been the best of sports through this very challenging time and has endeared herself to so many. You should see the huge smiles and the hugs she receives from those who have crossed paths with her earlier and then come upon her again. Happened yesterday evening as we walked through some narrow streets and again as we sat having a glass of sangria in the plaza by the cathedral. Happened again this morning as we exited the cathedral. She will definitely bump into old friends and make new ones as she makes her way. I feel that we are bound to cross paths at some point “down the trail,” but I felt singularly alone as I bid farewell to her this morning. This “plan” definitely marks yet another departure from our modus operandi, yet one that promises less stress for both of us and greater possibilities for Ginny to achieve her goal.

We talk a lot about how the Camino has lessons for us to learn. We are trying to pay attention.

Me: I’m planning a few “detours” and perhaps some days at a slower pace. I’m trying to reach by telephone the Benedictine monastery in the town of Rabanal where I’ll arrive on Wednesday (could be Tuesday, but I’m thinking of slowing the pace so that I can manage an early arrival on Wednesday and thus take more advantage of the facility). Those wanting to stay at San Salvador del Monte Irago have to commit to at least two nights, the intention being to have a “silent retreat.” Only 10 spots at the monastery, so it remains to be seen if I’ll manage to be one of the 10.

Updates complete, let’s move on.

Grinning through the desert

Any chance I’m really a hermit at heart? It was late when I parted ways with Ginny. Almost 11:00. Thus, almost three hours later than my typical starting time. Still, I was determined to take both optional routes upon leaving León. Did I figure I’d have the trail more or less to myself? Yes, since very few do the options to begin with, and most would have headed out much earlier.

That’s kind of the thing about the Camino, though. One feels so safe! There is, especially in the big cities, some indifference to the pilgrims, but mostly what I have encountered is a respect for them rather than any resentment for the way in which they have kind of remade the human landscape.

It took almost two hours to really leave the big city behind. I did well with signs and arrows through the city (León did a much better job than Burgos in that regard), but when I reached the first option and read the notes saying that there were no markings (so I had to do “such and such” for .3 of a kilometer and “such and such” for another .3, and then go straight through the park and cross “such and such” streets…., all unmarked), I was relying not only on the guidebook which for the first time I carried in my hands, with poles tucked under my arm, but on the help of a few natives in the town of La Virgen Del Camino. If I didn’t do it “just right,” I would end up on the “usual route”–which would follow the highway–instead of the “alternative route” which promised to be much more scenic. So… I didn’t give myself the choice: I paid attention and did it “just right.”

And the grins began! Once I left behind La Virgen del Camino and the highways that pass close to it, I entered a type of ecosystem that the map calls a “páramo.” Kind of a desert, but not. Kind of treeless, but not. A high plain, but not exactly like the meseta. Is there such a word as “scrublands”? No time to look it up.

Anyway, it made me happy to be there. With the birds. The crickets. The low brush, nothing to obstruct the view of those seemingly ever-present snow-topped mountains (though I had to turn around to see them). Again: no farm houses, no barns, no… really, nothing but sky, a blue one with low clouds along the horizon, 360-degrees. Oh, and the cuckoo bird who is so persistent as he tries to imply I’m crazy to be doing what I’m doing. At least I have a bigger vocabulary than he does!

Ok, so there were a few towns. Two miles and the first. I had a café con leche, which was served with a cookie and a slice of bread topped with a little wedge of potato omelette. I didn’t know that would be the case when I ordered the bocadillo de chorizo y queso, so I wrapped up the latter and saved it for a picnic some three hours later.

Another two miles and a tiny town. The next one was 5.5 kilometers later. In between those two, with a great view of the trail both in front of me and behind me, the only humans I saw were three cycling pilgrims, who passed me as a group, and one car. Time to sing! Time to think! Time to pinch myself and ask: “Am I really so lucky as to have all this to myself?”

When I came to the third little town, I found all the action in the bar. Mostly pilgrims. I think they must have arrived hours earlier and had had plenty of chance to hit the beer hard on what was turning out to be a pretty warm day (and remember: no shade. Me? Feeling that maybe I had died and gone to heaven, lover of sunshine and warmth that I am). It struck me as kind of a “hippy” place. Ken will remember the atmosphere at Hot Springs (Montana?). I wasn’t interested in reliving the hippy days I never fit into anyway. For the first time on the Camino, I used a bar’s bathroom to get rid of my waters and to pick up some water without buying anything. I left wondering what albergue all those folks were going to be staying in and hoping that maybe I would be lucky enough to choose another. Truth be told, I had enjoyed my “private road” and had pictured it leadings to a town I would have practically to myself. Now I had to face the fact that some others had actually taken the alternate route.

In the final four kilometers leading to tonight’s stay in Villar de Mazarife, I passed by a few small groups of pilgrims (no more than 7) and a few more passed me when I stopped on the outskirts of town at a little service area with benches where I finally ate my sandwich.

The guidebook listed three albergues. I knew I wanted to avoid Tío Pepe’s because he’d left a bunch of brochures on signposts along the route, topped with stones to keep them from blowing away. I didn’t feel like supporting the “big guy.” Now I find myself in what is alternately called the Casa de Jesús, the Refugio de Jesús, and Paraíso de Jesús (Jesus’s Paradise).

Lovely place, with many tables in the outdoor patio, large outdoor sinks in which to wash clothes, ample line space in the sun. The beer seems to be selling well. And there are currently some sports fanatics sharing the room with me (bar area) watching a soccer game.

But feeling more hermit than cowboy here in the scrublands, I’m being a stick in the mud, writing about my day. I didn’t start the writing immediately upon my arrival however. First I checked out the albergue’s walls. You’re sure to see some photos of them if I’m able to get them sent. What you’ll see: that many pilgrims are quite artistic and have left their drawings, philosophies, and favorite sayings up and down and all around. “Wow,” I said to the hospitalera who showed me to my room, “I love the art work.” “There used to be a lot more,” she assured me. “Every surface was covered, so we repainted and they started it all over again.” I like the touch… A lot.

Having explored the albergue, I went off to explore the small town. My grins continued. Supposedly I was looking for the little grocery store that I was told would open between 6:00 and 7:00 pm. But I was drawn by the three active storks in the three nests on the church bell tower. And then I spied three old codgers walking down the street, one with two canes, one with one, the third more mobile than his companions. I just had to get their photo from behind, and so I followed them as unobtrusively as one can follow on noisy gravel streets. Ok, I had my photo, but then I thought: where are they going? What’s down that path? As if my 12 kilometers in the wilderness were not enough for me, I continued following them. At some point they turned around and so I told them I figured they knew the best places in town, and, please, what would I find if I continued along the gravel road down which we were headed? They told me it was all “Huerta” which I took to mean fruit-bearing trees and some cultivated gardens (though that wasn’t the case). They were heading just a little ways to the left where they would find a bench (“our friend has hip problems and can’t walk very far,” said the one with just the single cane). “So you will sit and solve the problems of the world, no?” I suggested. They laughed. I asked what I would find if I followed the road to the right, and I was informed that it would make a loop. “Ok, then, I’ll do that. If you are still seated on the bench when I come round, then I’ll let you know what I thought of the Huerta.”

Here’s what I thought of it: trees! Groves of trees! Shade! I hadn’t realized that I’d been missing trees and shade until I found myself surrounded by it. And then, more magic: I heard the pond before I saw it. How many frogs must have been serenading the late afternoon? Hundreds? I couldn’t resist taking several videos. While I grinned. And then grinned some more. Wish you had been there.

When I came round to the bench, a fourth gentleman, a younger one, had joined the trio of cronies. This time I was upfront with them, asking if I might take their picture as they enjoyed the afternoon sun, that it would help me remember a lovely walk on the outskirts of the village. They complied. I also asked for an explanation of the “caves” I had photographed as I made the loop. I had seen something similar upon leaving the city in the morning. “Bodegas,”they said in chorus. “From when we used to grow grapes around here. Lots of grapes. Ahora no. Now we have crops like corn. More irrigation. Now we don’t have grapes. the bodegas are empty.” The chimneys I had seen, they explained, were for ventilation. It was really a fun encounter. These are the experiences I crave. Before returning to my hermit state!

Wow! It’s after 9:00 already! Have I showered yet? Nah, did that this morning. Washed clothes? Nope. Did that yesterday. Had dinner? It was a late lunch, but the apple here on the table is starting to look tempting. Written the post for yesterday? Oops! Not yet! Might have to hold off on that one for another day. I’m going to try to send photos of some of the things I’ve described in this post  Reminder: smile, it’s good for you!


In looking through my photos from today I was reminded of another unusual sight: a young pilgrim walking barefoot. I caught up with him just before we entered one of the small towns where his friends were waiting. This was at the end of a long stretch during which I hadn’t seen anyone.This fellow–Miguel, a Spaniard who works in Norway and who had come with 14 others all natives of Norway–had been walking barefoot since the previous village, for a total of 5.5 miles! It was a reto [a “challenge”] he had given himself. And yes, he was looking forward to putting his boots back on!


Proclaiming the good news

Morning of April 27

Just wanted to share this: lots of good weather coming! Highs in the upper 60s to mid-70s.

It’s 37 degrees (“feels like 32”) at the moment, but I’ll be wearing the long underwear on my back–in my packthis morning instead of on my legs. Zero percent chance of rain and the wind, at least currently, is blowing at 3 mph.

See me smile!

Let’s play “Name That Post!”

Let’s play “Name That Post!”

Day 20, Friday, April 26: Calzadilla de los Hermanillos to Mansilla de las Mulas (24.6 km, 15.3 miles)

You have to admire those town names, don’t you? I mean, are they not pure Castilian names?!

And, had you been on the road with me, you would certainly have admired the scenery! Oh, my gosh! You’d have to be totally immune to beauty to not have uttered, as I did countless times, “Oh, my God!”

That said: it took a tremendous amount of determination to put one foot in front of the other. And then do it again. And again. And again. 37,000 times, in fact (or so says my Fitbit).

The short version

She walked. She arrived. In one piece, which means, does it not, that “she conquered”? End of story, at least the short version of it. Go back to what you were doing, or, stay tuned to help me “name that tune”…. oh, I mean: “name that post.”

The details

(Don’t worry, there won’t really be that many: there were no stops along the way [nowhere to stop], very few people with whom to talk, and too much wind to have any hope of hearing what anyone said. So this will be shorter, if not sweeter, than most)

The day called for distracting oneself from the reality of the wind.  One such distraction was to come up with possible titles for today’s post.  Here are some of the ones that occurred to me:

  • What shall we call today’s post?
  • The sun doth return, but the wind remains to welcome it
  • That darn cuckoo bird is still taunting me
  • Mountain magic, music, and stones…. lots and lots of stones!
  • Walking in the wilderness
  • Walking the Roman Way
  • In the footsteps of Charlemagne
  • Where’s the nearest farrier? I need some new horseshoes
  • Remind me why I wanted to do this…
  • May the wind be ever at your back (don’t I wish!)
  • Are we there yet?

But I’m actually getting ahead of myself, so, if you can bear with me (I know, I promised few details, but then I start writing and the floodgates open…).

Shortly before lights out last night, I told my three roommates to alert me if the clicking of my keyboard bothered them at all. I was wanting to get yesterday’s post done (didn’t happen…). Alan said: “It won’t bother me. I’m going to turn in now, but I wear ear plugs every night. I don’t think I snore. My wife says I don’t.” Within minutes his snoring began. Loud. Constant. For the first time on this journey, I got out my ear plugs. I can only conclude that Alan’s wife is a martyr or that she lives several houses away from him. But hey, we survived. The ear plugs were uncomfortable and didn’t block everything, but they helped. By 6:30 am, Alan–who, I trust, had an excellent sleep–was packed up and out the door, leaving Victoria and Pia and me some privacy for getting dressed and rolling our eyes about Alan’s opinion regarding his sleep habits.

When I, too, was packed up, I chose to head over to the municipal albergue just down the street to see if I might join Kelly and María at their dining table. (My place had a “breakfast menu” and didn’t encourage pilgrims to bring their own food into the dining room. I had a hard-boiled egg, an orange, and some pastries that I didn’t want to tote around with me.) It was fun to see the girls again, and their hospitalero welcomed me in and brought three glasses to the table, along with fresh-made coffee and a pan of heated milk. (The latter was my choice, and, having discovered yesterday just how good warm milk can be with a spoonful of sugar, I indulged again.). So yes, the hospitalero was both friendly and kind, but he made it clear that we were to eat our breakfast quickly–“celulares, no; ahora no” [“no cell phones now”], he chastised. “You need to be on your way by 8:00. I have to mop, clean up the kitchen, remake the beds, have time for a paseo [a stroll about town”] before the next group starts to arrive. Kelly looked longingly at the wood stove, but no, no fire was going to be started up until afternoon. We took the “hint,” and set out, Kelly and Maria to bring their packs to my albergue where they would be picked up and brought forward, and me: heading down what would be a very quiet road. (Perhaps you recall: we took the alternate, scenic route; most pilgrims went the most direct way, along the highway.)

What one noticed from the get-go this morning: the sunshine! At first, not a cloud in sight. Rejoicing at this novelty, I was able to once again have my pink bandanna on the outside of my pack within easy reach. And the air was still chilly enough (a “feels-like-32-even-if-it’-actually-a-37-degree morning) to employ the oversized hanky frequently for my leaky nose.

The second thing to notice: that the sun was sparkling on the snow-topped mountains off to my left. I can’t tell you how many time I stopped to retrieve my camera and take both still photos and videos of the impossibly-distant mountain range. Had a perfect view of it and if my neck is sore tomorrow, it will be from spending so much time looking off to my right. More and more mountains came into view as some clouds on the horizon lifted (though enough clouds remained to make the view interesting). It was impossible not to commence with some “praise singing”; it just followed naturally. Again, I hit on a familiar melody that lent itself to countless verses, each with a word or two changed.

The third thing to notice: as that first half hour turned into a second half hour, the wind decided to show its strength. If it could have made its point with just a gust here and a gust there, fine! But no, this wind had something to prove and blew the entire day. Ruthless! Relentless! Non-stop! (Got my point?). Demoralizing! I recalled how in an early stage on the Camino someone passed me and said, “Boy, I’d sure like to be as slight as you–just for the Camino–when trekking up these hills!” I got to thinking how I’d like to have a lot more bulk–just for the Camino on a windy day–so I wouldn’t be blown to Kingdom Come!

And then I noticed the fourth thing: the stones. We were, after all, on the old “Roman Road”; originally built 2000 years ago to get treasures back to Rome, to get pilgrims hither and yon, to conquer the peninsula, to reconquer it. Wouldn’t you think that, with all those centuries of use, the stones would have been pounded down into the earth? Wouldn’t be so loose, so ready to make my feet twist this way and that? Think all you like, but know that it wasn’t so. Tough walking. Had someone brought truckloads of new stones to make the road more “scenic’ and “quaint”? Curse them!

But it was clear that kind of thinking would get me nowhere. Instead, I called forth the song I had “invented” two days ago, the one that redeemed my afternoon and made it memorable. That one and another of the same ilk that I worked on. Like the iconic “spoonful of sugar,” the singing made the medicine of the trail go down so much better.

So did lunch. I spied a picnic table just as my roommate from last night, Victoria, arrived on the scene. She and I got our prepared lunches out of our packs and realized that if I shared my tomato with her and she shared her avocado with me, our sandwiches would be healthier, more colorful, and tastier. Said and done. We stayed at the table a long time, finding out that we had a lot in common (a love for bargains found at Goodwill, interest in long-distance bicycling, and our determination to do everything we could possibly do, always and everywhere, to stay warm). Heading onward was a lot easier from that point forward. Not easy, but easier. Maybe I had just been hungry.

We resumed our solo walks after lunch. As I told Victoria, as bad as my hearing is and as loud as the wind was, it would be an exercise in frustration to walk together. In general, at this point on the Camino, people are mostly walking at their own rhythm, mostly alone. Seems to work best. Sharing is often best done once we have settled into the hostels.

And soon I was settled in mine, the municipal, a bargain at 5 euros. The large group of Asians we encountered a few days ago at the convent are here. Lots of them. With big suitcases! I noticed the tag on several of the bags calling it a “Catholic tour.” Their language skills seem to be limited to …. whatever their native tongue is, so I haven’t learned much about them. The are cooking some pretty good-smelling food though.When I entered the patio of the albergue, there was a big group gathered, one person playing the guitar, some bongos going, many voices. English-language songs. Folk songs. Music from the 60s, mostly (although, what do I know?). I was in need of a shower, but could hear the singing from the shower and I was really enjoying it. I happily found a seat in the sun, post-shower, and enjoyed at least another 40 minutes before the concert was over. So nice!

It only seemed right to express my enjoyment too the guitarist/soloist. Besides, I wanted to hear him speak so as to determine if he was Irish or British. (I was recalling my month in Santander, summer of ’67, when about a dozen Irish seminarians were living in the same dormitory as the group with which I had come to Spain. Every night it was the same thing: gathering in the patio and listening to them play and sing. Was this experience today a kind of book-end to that earlier one?)

So I went up to the fellow, thanked him, and asked: “Have we already met?” “Met? Why we slept together last night,” he responded! “Oh, maybe I should have said that a bit differently: ‘we shared a room last night.’” It was Alan. Alan the snorer. Alan with whom I had stepped out for a trip to the market yesterday afternoon, with whom I had had a cup of coffee (well, “steamed milk” to be precise; he had coffee). I’m bad with both names and faces! It was a funny situation. Embarrassing but humorous, too. I guess Ken need not worry that I am giving undue attention to other men!

And that brings you up to date on today’s details. I’ve been sitting in the patio doing this write-up and the sun is no longer shining on me. Even with my winter coat back on, it is clearly time to head indoors, maybe put the long underwear back on, and then start thinking about where I’ll have dinner. Who knows, this post may get a PS before I sent it off to you.

But the title? That’s for you to come up with. Remember? We were playing “Name that Post!”