Fleeting moments, lasting memories
Our merry band left Los Arcos in high spirits. I was happy to have someone new to talk to, especially someone from so close to home.
We stopped for a breakfast of egg and chorizo bocadillos (sandwiches) and coffee. We stopped for a brief visit to the Iglesia de Santo Sepulcro, an octagonal church that is believed to have been used by the Templars. Then we continued.
The “knee wrecker” seemed like a dramatic description of that day’s climb. It was not the worst we had experienced, and we would end up seeing much worse.
I had the chance to get to know Nicole and hear about her trail experiences from before we met. When she was crossing the Pyrenees, she had been with three other pilgrims. One of them, the cheerleader of the group, was a flight attendant from Canada named Dan. He kept the morale of the group up and kept everyone moving forward through an especially challenging day.
We met Dan the same night we met Nicole. He was part of the liveliness of the whole crowd and it seemed like he knew everyone there. As soon as he started talking to us, he gushed about how much he loved our Oklahoma accents.
Then he offered us some marijuana (which, as it turned out, wasn’t even his to offer), but we politely declined. I could imagine his infectious energy keeping his group powered up over the Pyrenees.
About seven months after meeting Dan in that plaza, Nicole would text us to let us know that Dan had passed away unexpectedly.
We were heartbroken, even though we never saw or spoke another word to him after that evening. We are grateful to have known him. Without his energy and enthusiasm, we may have never crossed paths with Nicole.
The merry band takes a rest
As we were making our way to Viana, our stop for the night, Nicole got to experience some trail magic. She found an abandoned hiking pole to help ease the pain and strain on her injured foot. The Camino provides once again.
Viana is a small city that celebrated its 800th anniversary (!) in 2019. We stayed in the municipal albergue, which had gorgeous views of the city, and was next to the remains of an ancient cathedral.
Andy, Nicole, and I went out to find a pilgrim menu for dinner and our Aussies stayed behind to cook for themselves. They had strict dietary restrictions, which presented a lot of challenges on the Camino.
When we got back to the albergue, Mike and Reuben invited us to play a card game. Why they allotted the weight in their packs for things like card games and balls for juggling, I never understood.
But that’s another Camino lesson I learned: different people carry different burdens for different reasons. And it’s not anyone else’s place to judge that.
The next day the merry band had a quick breakfast before setting out on the short 10-kilometer walk to Logroño. We were all dealing with some aches and pains so we were happy to take it slow.
Leaving the city of Viana we also left Navarra, the first province of Camino France, and entered the province of La Rioja. It felt like another small milestone in our journey.
That night we celebrated our accomplishment with a 5-liter jug of wine for 5€. We shared it as we enjoyed more card games back at the albergue.
The next day, we all agreed to a rest day. Our Aussies weren’t feeling great, perhaps on account of the wine. And Nicole wanted to get her foot checked out at the hospital to make sure it wasn’t seriously damaged.
Once Nicole rejoined us, we went exploring in Logroño. We had lunch, then found a gelato shop. We enjoyed taking in the scenery instead of chasing scallop shells and yellow arrows, the waymarkers of the Camino.
It was here that I attended my first ever Catholic mass (I am not Catholic but Andy was raised Catholic). Even though I didn’t understand every word or every part of what was happening, I was thankful for the experience.
And then there were three
The next morning, the Aussies of our merry band were not doing well. They had some prevailing trail pains that hadn’t improved with the day of rest. They decided to stay behind and were considering taking a bus or train ahead to Burgos.
We were sad to part ways but eager to continue. So we wished them “Buen Camino!” and promised to keep in touch.
Then the two Okies and the Texan set out.
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We were happy to leave Logroño. By this point, we had developed a preference for the countryside over the busy cities. The noise and traffic of the city were unnerving when you were lumbering, slow and clumsy, with a giant pack on your back.
The day began with a walk through a beautiful nature park with a small lake. The scenery changed to vineyards, stretching as far as the eye could see. It was hot and dusty and when we stopped for a midday rest (and beers) in Ventosa, we agreed it was a great place to stop for the day.
We checked in to an albergue then enjoyed a pilgrim dinner together, complete with a bottle of local wine. We went to bed early to prepare for another hot day of walking.
The Hardest Day
Day 17 El Camino, 31K, Ventosa>Santo Domingo
When we left Ventosa the next morning, we didn’t know it was going to be the longest, hottest, most challenging day since crossing the Pyrenees.
Perhaps it’s better to be surprised by those things.
If we had known, maybe we wouldn’t have stopped in Najera to visit an 11th-century monastery in the middle of the day. We acted like we had all the time in the world. Like albergues and municipal hostels weren’t prone to running out of beds.
We marched on in the scorching summer sun. There was hardly any shade anywhere. We stopped for a break in Azofra. We decided that when we got to the town of Cirueña in ten more kilometers, we would decide on whether we kept going.
When we got to Cirueña, we discovered a bizarre, golf-resort-styled ghost town. Everything was so modern but so empty. There were no people around. We couldn’t find any cafes or shops. No place for pilgrims. It was jarring and felt like we had walked into the Twilight Zone.
We decided we would continue the 6 kilometers to Santo Domingo.
It was mid-afternoon at this point and the hottest part of the day. The terrain wasn’t very challenging, but the temperature had us all on the verge of heat exhaustion.
We were dragging ourselves toward Santo Domingo.
Every time we topped a hill, it seemed like the distance hadn’t changed at all. We were hot, tired, and thirsty. I leaned forward, hoping some law of physics would carry me onward.
When we finally reached the town, it was 5:30 pm. Usually, by this time, all beds were long gone.
We limped into the first albergue we came to and stumbled toward the desk. We heaved a collective sigh of relief when we found out there were three beds available.
The sweet, elderly nun behind the desk looked worried about us. She insisted we sit down and drink some water before continuing the check-in process. We accepted, but we were running out of time and energy for all the things we had left to do.
We hobbled upstairs to the dorms and squeezed our way past the pilgrims who had claimed their spots hours ago. We tucked our packs away as best we could, washed up, then left in search of dinner.
We enjoyed our pilgrim dinner on a patio while we watched neighborhood kids play in a water fountain in the square. They laughed and squealed and chased each other with water balloons.
Their playfulness made us temporarily forget the challenging day we had.
When we got back to the albergue, we finished our daily routines. For Andy and Nicole, that included tending to their blisters.
Somehow I still hadn’t gotten a single blister on my feet. Was I even a real pilgrim? I joked that it was because I moved so slow; there wasn’t enough friction to cause blisters.
In my bunk, I crawled into my sleeping bag. I settled into the well-worn crater in the mattress where hundreds, possibly thousands of pilgrims had slept before me. I was thankful to have a top bunk near the open window in this small, crowded room.
I was also thankful for my eye mask and earplugs as I blocked out the world around me. I nestled into my burrow and drifted into a deep sleep.