Lay your burdens down
When we set out from Foncebadón the next morning, it was foggy, quiet, and peaceful. We continued climbing up through the fog to reach Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, and the highest point of the Camino.
This is another point of the trail we had all been looking forward to. It is where pilgrims place their burdens, symbolized by a rock they carried from home or from somewhere along the Camino.
Andy and I forgot to bring rocks from Oklahoma but we picked up rocks from Alto Del Perdón (“Point of Forgiveness”), which seemed like the next best thing. I also found this fortune cookie quote on the ground months ago when we were preparing for this trip and decided it was the perfect thing to bring along.
We climbed to the top of the pile and another pilgrim took a picture of us together. But then we split up, each taking our own path and a few minutes of solitude to place our rock and lay down our burdens.
Among the piles of rocks were ribbons, prayer cards, pictures of loved ones. Prayers for strength, prayers for healing, prayers for forgiveness. It felt like a very sacred space, being among so many tokens of hope and faith.
After Cruz de Ferro, we came across another famous landmark in the tiny mountain village of Manjarín, population one. The one permanent resident of Manjarín is Tómas, who claims to be one of the last of the Knights Templar.
The shelter Tómas runs is appropriately modest, offering warm drinks, a unique sello for your pilgrim passport, and a place to wait out bad weather. We took a moment to appreciate the landmark and its caretaker, then we continued onward.
The Way provides a chariot
After the cross, the elevation continued to change. Lots of downhill with big, loose river rocks that then changed to slick granite that was hard to find traction on.
We passed a ghost bike, a memorial for a bicycling pilgrim who was struck and killed by a car. We were reminded of how dangerous this trek can be.
Later, we were taking a rest and saw a contraption that looked like something between a chariot and a wheelbarrow. A woman who appeared to have special needs was being carried down the trail by 2 men and was surrounded by 3-4 other people. They seem to be having a great time, despite the challenging terrain.
Further down the trail, we passed the woman from the chariot sitting with another woman off the side of the trail. We didn’t think much of it, wished them a buen camino!, and kept carefully descending.
Once we reached the bottom of this gnarly bit, we saw a woman sitting by the side of the road. She had severely twisted (maybe broken) her ankle and seemed to be in shock. The man waiting with her said the ambulance was on the way. We realized that the people with the chariot had stopped to help carry her down so that an ambulance could get to her faster.
We saw the guys running back up the hill with the chariot to pick up the young woman where she was waiting to resume her Camino. I was amazed at how quickly this group jumped into action, then just as quickly went back about their business.
After seeing the woman with the wrecked ankle, I was even more cautious on the downhill, which resulted in an even slower descent. I had gained a better acceptance of my slow pace, especially if it meant avoiding injury.
Our stopping point for the night was Ponferrada. We found beds in a massive (175-bed capacity) donativo, meaning you donate instead of paying a set rate. We got checked in, claimed our beds, then Andy and I went out to explore the town.
Ponferrada has a Knights Templar castle from the 12th century, built to protect pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago. The castle grounds were beautiful, as were the views from the towers.
While we were roaming the castle grounds, we saw the group with the woman in the chariot. We learned that they were volunteers from an organization that helps take people with disabilities on the Camino.
After our castle exploration, we rejoined with Nicole to find dinner, which ended up being a 4-course family-style spread with a bottle of wine. It would have been a lot for three people anywhere else but the Camino. We ate our fill, then went to the market to replenish our trail snacks, then finally, back to the albergue to bed.
Sleeping with strangers
The next morning, we left Ponferrada in high spirits. Since we were in wine country, we decided to take a midday break at this lovely spot that offered a glass of wine and a pincho (small snack) for pilgrims.
It was so good that we had a second round.
We discovered two important things about drinking two glasses of wine in the middle of a 24 kilometer (15 mile) day. One, the first 6 kilometers after two glasses of wine on a hot day is enjoyable. Two, the second 6 kilometers after two glasses of wine on a hot day is difficult.
Our delightful buzz was replaced with a sloshy brain and a sour stomach. The hot afternoon sun seemed to be punishing us for our excess.
While we were dragging ourselves along, we met a solo female pilgrim, Gabby, from the US. She had just had an unsavory experience with a passerby in a car and asked if she could walk with us. We were happy to have her and thankful to have someone to distract us from our discomfort.
Andy was worried that we would miss our reservation at our albergue, so he hustled ahead to town so that they wouldn’t give away our beds. The girls and I walked together until Gaby peeled off to find her alburgue. When Nicole and I finally dragged ourselves to our albergue, we were relieved to learn we still had beds. And delighted to find that it was one of the best alburgues on the whole Camino.
It was a family home that had belonged to the grandparents of the current owners. It was beautiful and cozy, well-worn by generations of love and hospitality for family and pilgrims alike.
While we were waiting to check in, the young woman running the desk was coordinating something with a pilgrim sitting nearby. He had a bowl of food and seemed to be having some issues with his feet. He told us the young woman was going to drive him to the emergency room to have his very blistered feet tended to. And because he was in so much discomfort, she had brought him a bowl from her own family’s supper.
You could tell this wasn’t just the hospitality of an innkeeper. She wasn’t being kind in hopes of a good review on some website. This kindness and generosity were encoded in this woman’s DNA.
Not only was this place loving and homey, but it was also Camino Rich beyond our wildest dreams. There were real sheets on the beds, a wood stove, and a spin dryer. These all seem very simple and not noteworthy, but if the Camino had taught me anything, it was to take joy in the simple things that bring you comfort. And not having to hand-wring an entire load of my clothes brought me a great deal of comfort.
While we were showering and washing clothes, Nicole overheard a tour in the street outside our room.
The tour guide was telling the group (in English) that “albergues are where some pilgrims choose to stay along the Camino. There are bunks in a room…”
Tourist: “you mean they sleep in a room full of strangers?! I had a roommate in college once…but that’s crazy!”
We laughed at the absurdity of their shock. Then we realized how far we had come. There was a time not so long ago that we, too, might have been shocked at the idea of sleeping in a room full of strangers. Now the thought of it being shocking to someone else seemed silly to us.
If your definition of living on the edge is having a roommate in college, there is a whole wild world just waiting to amaze you. Get out there and experience it for yourself.