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!