Find your pace, find your peace
It was a beautiful morning as we left Villafranca and continued climbing through the mountains. A lot of the path was right by the road, but there was a concrete barrier and not a lot of traffic.
This St. James Pilgrim statue has a plaque at the bottom stating 190 kilometers to Santiago and 559 kilometers from Roncesvalles. Obviously, our minds and bodies knew we were covering ground. Still, it was so reassuring to see that number keep dropping.
Our stop for the night was in the town of Las Herrerías. It was calm and quiet, tucked in the mountains with a creek running through. The map showed a big climb coming up and we were apprehensive about being able to get it all knocked out in one day. So we decided to end the day at the base of the climb so that we could attack it with full energy in the morning.
We checked into an albergue, thankful to score a private room for the three of us. We sprawled out and sat on our beds with our legs up the wall to relieve the aches and swelling in our feet and ankles.
After a rest, we went out in search of beer, dinner, and WiFi. We found all three and we also ran into our friend Gaby from the day before. We were happy to catch up because it had been a while since we had seen a fellow pilgrim more than once.
I saw this graffiti while we were walking that day and it spoke to me.
I was always dead last, getting passed by everyone, dragging behind. And for the first few weeks of the Camino, I felt really bad about it. I was always apologizing for going so slow because I felt like I was holding everyone else back.
And then I stopped. Because feeling bad about slowly walking 10-20 miles every day over mountains, rivers and plains is not something to apologize for. It was an accomplishment and I was proud of it.
My pace was my pace. It was my Camino, no matter how fast I went. And I was finally at peace about it.
Never too tired to dance
We started off the morning with a gorgeous sunrise. Almost as soon as we left Las Herrerías, we began a steep climb up the mountain.
It was challenging and the path was at times treacherously slick with piles of horse shit. There is an option at this point of the Camino to taxi over on horseback. This sounds lovely and charming unless you’ve had near-death experiences with horses. Which I have.
I’ll trust my own two feet, thanks.
Once we got to the top, we officially entered Galicia, the final province on the Camino. Here was the town of O’Cebreiro, a small village of dairy farmers. This village is home to Iglesia de Santa María a Real, the oldest remaining church on the pilgrims’ way. It is also the final resting place of Don Elías Valiña Sampedro, the priest responsible for the familiar yellow markings along the path. He made it his mission to revive the ancient route known today as the Camino Frances.
The following Pilgrim’s Prayer was also posted within the church.
Leaving O Cebreiro, the trail took several brief climbs and descents, enough to thoroughly wear us out. We passed Alto de San Roque where there is a statue of Saint Roch leaning into the wind at the top of the pass. We stopped to eat some fast fuel of chips and candy bars before our last push to our stop for the night in Fonfría.
When we got to our albergue in Fonfría, we were happy to learn that they would be serving a communal dinner. Relieved might be the more appropriate word, as there were really no other options for food in the one-albergue town.
Nicole was excited to see that a group of pilgrims from Ohio were there as well. She had met them the night before, in Villafranca Del Bierzo, but somehow Andy and I had missed out. Lucky for us, we got to know them over a traditional Galician-style communal dinner and copious amounts of wine.
They were gregarious Midwesterners, close to our parents’ ages. Two of them were married and they were accompanied by a brother-in-law and another friend. We laughed and shared stories as we passed around the food and wine. It was one of the many times I have felt so at home with a group of strangers.
As the wine flowed, someone mentioned dancing and two-stepping. Someone had a phone or iPad that connected to the sound system in the dining hall. Someone mentioned dancing and we requested “Oklahoma Breakdown”, one of my and Andy’s favorite songs to two-step to. Even after a 12-mile hike, we couldn’t resist a dance.
After a little more wine, we carried the party back to the albergue. We proceeded to dance to “Copperhead Road”, another hit with Southerners and Midwesterners. We also played a few rounds of the card game “Bullshit” with an Italian woman and her young son. The boy was elated to be playing a card game with the adults. Especially since his mother permitted him to swear, “just for the game”.
We went to bed that night warm and fuzzy from the wine, the dancing, and the laughter.
The beginning of the end
There was a rainbow as we left Fonfría the next morning. A sign, a promise that all the walking would be over soon. We knew that we were in our last week of walking before Santiago. And we all felt bittersweet about the end that we knew was coming.
We shipped our bags that day because it was rainy and the terrain was several kilometers of very steep downhill. And, as we found out, lots of very slick, very fragrant cow shit.
It was rough going but the company was good (our merry band plus Gabby) and the landscape was peaceful.
Our stop for the night was in San Mamed Do Camiño at a sweet, family-run albergue. It had a beautiful courtyard and offered a communal dinner. We were excited to see a few other familiar faces there as well, including our beloved Ohioans.
Sitting at dinner we met a young Italian man named Gabriel. We were talking about the Camino and life beyond the Camino. We told him that we were at the beginning of a journey without a definite destination or deadline in sight. We told him about leaving our jobs and our home, on a mission to see and do as much as we could until our budget ran out.
His eyes lit up when he realized that it was a possibility. It was not unlike the way our own eyes lit up when we realized this was a possibility for us. And in our experience, that initial spark was all it took to change everything. I hope Gabriel finds the courage to take that leap and find his own adventure.
That was our last night before meeting up with the “week-long warriors”. These are the pilgrims who hike the minimum requirement of 100 kilometers to earn their Compostela, the certificate of completion for the Camino. We had heard stories about the trail getting more crowded, albergues packed, fighting for space with these “tourigrinos”.
We knew a big change was coming, so we wanted to soak up this moment as long as we could.
In some ways, our time on the Camino had flown by. In other ways, it had lasted a lifetime. I guess that’s what happens when you set out to walk across a country. You move slowly but a lot can happen. A lot can change when you have so much time with your thoughts.
We had all been ruminating on the thought that we weren’t ready to say out loud:
What happens after the Camino?