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.