Day 19, April 25: Moratinos to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos (23.8 km, 14.8 extremely windy miles!)

I was so excited to have the time and space to catch up on my posts last night and then… then that excitement spilled over into sleep time. Not good. At some point after the midnight hour had struck, I turned on my flashlight and broke a Benadryl in half. Sleep was still slow in coming. But I knew morning would not delay its arrival, and indeed, it did not. I became alert to its arrival when a familiar tone sounded. It took a while for me to figure out why it was familiar: it was my alarm clock. Shoot! The last thing I had done the evening before was make my way down from the bunk and locate my plugged in inverter so I could top off the charge on my phone. I was quite sure I had turned off the alarm as I had no intention of trying to make my way out of a deep sleep, find the bunk’s ladder, negotiate the descent from on high, make my way across the room, and find the stop button on the phone. I figured it best to just cancel the 6:28 call and let the other pilgrims serve as my alarm clock.

Yes, that’s what I decided, but apparently I never carried through with that plan. Buzz! Buzz! Buzz! So down I went, feeling rather sheepish. There were 8 or 9 of us to take turns for the bathroom, but eventually all but the two sisters from Finland were gone. We shared some talk about our children and grandchildren as one of the sisters spoke fairly good English. I learned that the other one was, like me, trying to complete the Camino before her 70th birthday. Another ’49er. We gestured back and forth to indicate how strong and “youthful” we were. A light-hearted start to the day.

By the time I headed to the albergue‘s dining hall/bar, the rain had commenced. Because I had sort of skipped dinner last night, I soon found myself staring at a very filling ham-and-cheese sandwich (the bread being a kind of puff-pastry dough). Tasty! Pilgrims who had begun their day’s trek one town earlier were arriving to warm up, get caffeinated, and escape the rain. One of them brought me the menu and asked me to point out on it just what it was I had ordered. “Didn’t order from the menu,” I replied. “I just saw this on the counter’s display case and asked for it. It’s good!”

I was quite interested in taking the “optional route” on the Roman Way today rather than the standard route along the highway. A rural highway, but still: roadway and cars mean less scenery. Taking the alternative route would mean a two-day commitment through a more remote (read: no bar/coffee shops [which also means no “services”]). “Remote” I like, but what if I were to have problems? Would there be anyone who would come upon me and “rescue me”? When I learned that the Irish couple I met yesterday definitely planned to do the road less traveled, that cinched the decision for me. I called ahead for a reservation to make sure that I’d get a bed at walk’s end. I was thus committed to splitting off the main route a bit more than half way through the day’s route. Consulting the guide book and keeping my eyes open for arrows would be a top priority.

I kept observing the folks arriving in their wet garments, and on the basis of that, I came up with a brilliant idea for not suffering frozen hands again today. Although this albergue had an interior clothesline and heated floors so that most of my wet things had dried, I didn’t want to chance the “waterproof” mittens again. I dug out my lightweight wool ones, then pulled out from my pack a set of bread wrappers (both ends opened) and a pair of elastic bands. I put on the first mitten, secured the bag over it and the lower part of my arm, and twisted the elastic loop in a figure-8 to secure the bag in place. Now… picture me trying to do the same with the second one after the first hand was all “done up.” You’re right: I couldn’t do it. My Portuguese table mate to the rescue. He caught on quickly to my dilemma and got the elastic in place for me. First act of kindness received for the day.

Then, I was off! And, good news: it was no longer raining. The low clouds glided along the horizon, black and gray and white and puffy, allowing the occasional glimpse of sunshine. It was going to be a better day than yesterday, no doubt about it. 37 degrees isn’t so bad when it is not snowing or sleeting or raining. I could handle this! Especially with the warm hands.

Those bundled hands would certainly stay warm, and I could wrap them around the top of my hiking poles, but there was no way I could use them for anything else. Couldn’t access my camera. Couldn’t reach for the bandana for my nose. Or money for… whatever.

Which is why I was met with the day’s second act of kindness when I stepped into a cafe in Sahagún some 10 kilometers later. The sweet lady behind the counter took one look at me, handed me a paper towel, and indicated my nose. “Here, you need this. The air is so frigid today. Come. Sit here,” indicating the bar stool. I must really be a sight, I thought. I worked with the bread wrappers, finally freeing my hands enough to provide some relief to those leaking nostrils. Next order of business: request an orange juice.

And then the third act of kindness for the day. It was my turn to take notice of something. The “thing” was a local lady a few stools down from me. Clearly not well. She had a coffee and a sweet roll, and I could tell that the waitress had also noticed that she was under great stress. “Has she paid yet?” I asked softly, indicating the weary customer as she rubbed her forehead. “If not,” I added, “let me pay for her breakfast as well.” It was appreciated, and so easy to do. Felt natural. I got bits and pieces of the lady’s tale of woe: the four UTIs, the fevers, the exhaustion. She needed some sympathy. We’ve all been there…

I had read that Sahagún was the “geographical center of the Camino”; I had also been told that somewhere at the mid-point of the Camino a pilgrim could get a fancy certificate indicating “half completion.” I set about trying to figure out if Sahagún was the city where such a certificate was issued and just where a pilgrim had to go.

Bingo! A church a few blocks off the Camino, recently (starting in 2004) reconstructed to be a pilgrim information center (as well as a venue for modern art) was the spot I needed to head for.

The Santuario de la Virgen Peregrina was a treasure indeed. I was lucky to find it, lucky it was open.  And it was here that I met up with the fourth random act of kindness for the day.  I’ll explain.  A group of Spanish pilgrims arrived just before me. (Truth was: not many pilgrims seemed to know about the stop and the “half-way certificate,” and so this magnificent place was almost empty.) One of the Spaniards seemed to be in charge of the group. He was dishing out the euros. “¿Quién más necesita entrada?” [“Whose else needs a ticket?”]. I joked with him and said, “Well, I do. But why would you pay for me?” But he did! Just a couple of euros, but… as with me paying for the sick lady’s breakfast, I’m betting that it “felt right” to him. A chance to pay it forward.

So, about 7 of us must have arrived about the same time. The woman behind the desk collected all our credenciales (pilgrims’ passports) and told us to go ahead and enjoy our tour. She would examine our passports and then issue our certificates, each with our name on it, to indicate having walked half the Camino.

The church was a combination of things: a modern art museum, a celebration of the Camino itself, and a tribute to the various art/cultural styles that were discovered when the almost-in-ruins church was renovated. I was fascinated with the displays, with the examples of “moorish-style” wall designs that had been uncovered and restored. Took lots of photos as I found it fascinating to see the kind of architecture I would expect in southern Spain, in Granada or Sevilla or Córdoba, here in the north. A reminder that once upon a time various cultures had coexisted in relative peace and harmony in this area.

And the day continued…

Let’s move on to highlights, as the 10:00 pm lights-out hour approaches all too quickly.

How about this for a gem: as I was leaving Sahagún, I was “behind,” most pilgrims having passed through earlier or having elected to stay in the town. Not many of us on the trail. Not many pilgrims, but suddenly, approaching me rapidly, not pilgrims, but sheep! Many sheep! Like… maybe a hundred? Sheep, sheepdogs, a shepherd, right on my trail. I had just enough time to climb up a little embankment and get my camera out. Got slowed down a little bit when one of my mittens blew away, but I rescued it without being run over and made it back in time to get a great video of the passing flock. I might have expected something similar in the country, but this was just on the outskirts of town. And in an area where we hadn’t seen any 4-legged animals in days and days, but only just acre after acre of wheat or of fields waiting to be planted. I felt so lucky, just as I had been so excited a few days earlier to see the boat going down the canal. Sometimes we are just lucky that way, being in the right place at the right time. (I guess we don’t really realize how many times we aren’t in the right place at the right time, but then, what you don’t know won’t hurt you.)

A few kilometers beyond Sahagún I had to watch very carefully for the start of the alternate route, the one that makes use of some of the remnants of the old Roman Road. I liked the sound of the “wilderness-like” nature of the path. I headed first through a small village where I bought yogurt, an apple, and a tomato for the 8+-kilometer walk into Calzadilla de los Hermanillos. Took a cool picture inside the store of a huge loaf of round bread. It was the top loaf in a large, wide paper bag that stood about 3-feet tall. Golly do they ever eat a lot of bread in this country!

Just past the grocery store I came upon a pilgrim going the same direction. I pointed out the store, thinking he might want to stock up, but that was not the case. This guy was French. Also crazy! Not to imply, of course, that the two things go hand in hand. No. No generalities here. Why crazy? He told me how he had his sleeping pad with him because he has been sleeping out every night. Every night since St. Jean! Without a tent! “N’avait vous froid?” I asked him. “Mais oui!” Hmmm. A 60-something man who does this? Must have something to prove. I could not identify with him. Another minute or so and we realized that he needed the pathway to the left, while I needed the one to the right. 8.4 miles of solitude.

Only not! Along came a Korean I had been seeing on and off but whom I hadn’t formally met. María, she told me, for Mary, mother of Jesus. She explained that she was Catholic, thus the name. María had a story to tell about her day. She had walked 6 miles along the other route, the one that goes along the highway, before realizing that she had missed the turn-off for the route she really wanted. She had someone call a taxi for her, and then she returned to the point where she had missed the turn-off.

María and I walked together at least half of the way to our destination. She said she had hardly talked to anyone since beginning her Camino a day or two before we began. So, about three weeks ago. She didn’t want to speak Korean or identify herself with the Koreans. She was here for her own purposes and didn’t want the distractions. Turns out that María had left a husband and three sons–high school, middle school, and one still in grade school–in order to celebrate her upcoming 50th birthday (May 19). A present to herself. We snapped a few pictures one of the other, enjoyed the scenery together. And then the solitude. She caught up with me a few minutes after I arrived at my albergue, and was very upset to learn that it was full. Maria was exhausted. “No problem,” my innkeeper told her. “The municipal is just down the street.” Hoping she would find a spot there, I proceeded to my room.

A nice one. For the first time on this trip, a bed with top and bottom sheets, a blanket and even a bedspread. A bed you could actually crawl into rather than sleeping on the top of it in my sleeping bag liner. A towel provided for each of us (4 beds in the room). Ample cabinets in which to spread out gear. A shower to die for.

After cleaning up, I went back out to pick up some food for the next day, knowing that I’d be continuing on the “wilderness road” for almost 15 miles before coming upon any place serving food or drink. As I walked past the municipal albergue two figures ran out and called to me. It was María whom I had just met and Kelly who I’ve been seeing in at least every other town I’ve been to for about two weeks.

As it turned out, they had the entire two-story albergue to themselves! This optional way was indeed the road less traveled. I spent a good hour visiting with them in their cozy if humble gathering space where their hospitalero kept feeding the wood-burning stove. Not “fancy” at all like where I was staying, but “cozy”; I found myself wishing I hadn’t made the reservation.

Back at my albergue, I had a great pilgrim’s meal of lentils, roasted lamb stew, and flan. Also gathered round: my two female roommates, a couple from … was it the Czech Republic?… and Mark, someone I had met earlier in the day who told me he was from California, but come to find out he was Hoosier born and bred (Kokomo).

Stomach full, bed waiting, I climbed in to begin the telling of this tale. When I saw that Alan had put down his Kindle and Pia her phone, I put this half-finished post aside… until now (Friday night). I think I’ve brought you much more up to date than you needed to be, but … I’ve preserved some memories for myself. Possibly at your expense. Enough is enough, though, so off this goes, from my fingers to your screen, with all best wishes. Remember: I’m thinking of you and “lifting you up”. And grateful that you are doing the same for me.