The guidebook on my Kindle was very clear: just after Borres there would be a fork in the road. I think I’ll be there about the time the sun is rising.
To the right was the alternate route that I’d heard others talking about, with much greater grades and difficulty, of which the book warned, “must be avoided in inclement weather,” and to the left was the “recommended” path.
Don’t even ask.
Of course I would take the more “scenic” route. These little journeys I take are something I kind of take personally, as I’ve said before, it’s time with my Creator and my son. And so, when I’m most challenged, I imagine him on my back, and I’m giving him a piggy-back ride, seeing the most magnificent things that anyone could imagine, and can only be seen by hiking this trail. Perhaps that’s why they’re magnificent. And soon we encounter wild horses, and as I get closer I realize one is giving birth. New life, another pretty powerful metaphor.
About two hours after the fork, my thighs are beginning to feel the burn as the path becomes loose rocks, and the grade is becoming misleading. The trail meanders right, then left, over and over again, with relatively flat areas where it reverses. This results in my being fooled repeatedly that I’m “at the top,” or even near the top.
My pace has slowed considerably, and I’m beginning to count my steps and rest after every hundred paces, because I can no longer make it to the next flat area to stop to catch my breath and get a sip of water. And soon it’s only about 20 paces between rests.
Seriously? Am I this out of shape? Am I this much older than I had been in 2013? The huffing and puffing, and drenching in sweat in the morning sun, and the loose rocky footing is building on the doubt that we often carry around about ourselves. This is part of the “Camino catharsis.” During my previous 4 week Frances Camino, I heard it said that the first week breaks your body, the second breaks your spirit, the third breaks your soul, and the fourth week becomes the resurrection of all three, as you enter the Santiago and the Cathedral. An Ignatian Spiritual Exercise, if you will.
In a shorter, two week version like Primitivo, I’m not really sure where the cut-off is between breaking body and spirit, and today the first two are fully employed. Fortunately I had learned about knee braces, but my heart is about to explode right out of my chest as it struggles to keep up with me, and my back is killing me, especially where my right strap crosses the plate on my previously broken collarbone. As I shift the strap over and adjust the angle of my pack, I just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Like the “AA 12 step program,” I’m just taking one more step at a time, and not just “getting through” this but embracing and owning it. Life’s not about getting past the trouble and pain so you can get on with living, but rather seeing trials as important parts of life itself. And as I place one foot in front of the next, I slip into memories. My throbbing collarbone takes me back to the day Cullen and I were riding our dirt-bikes through the orange groves, often at breakneck speed. Zipping past each other we were laughing and screaming at each other, and popping wheelies and having the times our lives, and then as he cut me off, I slowed and dropped my front wheel to the ground. Scattered throughout the grove were stumps, and as I glanced over make sure I wasn’t cutting Cullen off, I hit one. My 250cc Honda 2 stroke came to an immediate halt, hurling me over the handlebars and although my head dodged another one of the stumps, my shoulder and neck took the brunt of the impact. I soon realize why they say a shattered collarbone approaches the pain of childbirth, and the memory of the pain brings me back out of my trance.
I’m also startled by the chill in the air. I’m much higher than I was when I started, and the damp from my perspiration is now really making me cold. I stop to add another layer from my pack, and I realize I can see my breath, and that some of the clouds are below me!
I’m trudging forward so slowly that I’m really surprised that none of the stronger hikers have caught up to me, and that actually I haven’t seen anyone since I left. Some of the Europeans, especially the Germans and Austrians think a day like this is just a walk in the park – they don’t even use hiking poles.
Most of the time I hike in silence with only the noise of the wind and birds and the voices in my head, but now I slip in the earbuds so some music can take my mind off this brutal climb and give my feet a cadence from the beat of music.
A few songs later I’m again struck by how cold I now am, and I wish I still had Cullen’s sock-cap to pull over my chilly ears. Before I can drift into that memory, I encounter on my left the ruins of a shelter, called “los Hospitales,” from medieval times. Just a pile of rocks now, I imagine the perigrinos from over a thousand years ago, especially in rain or snow, so relieved to discover a rufuge here in which to weather the storm, or simply find food and water.
I loosen my backpack, and unload her to grab the cheese and baguette I’d stashed for my lunch. It takes forever to get the cheese package open, because my fingers are numb from the chill.
As I fumble to assemble my sandwich, I’m startled to see a shadow quickly cast on me from the only other hiker I will encounter today. Stefan seems as glad to see me as I am him. I ask if he speaks English, and he smiles to respond with a German accent. Of course he does, Germans are the only ones who consistently speak English proficiently – I learn that it is mandatory for all their students, and I’m again embarrassed that I’m the idiot abroad. Although I can get by in Spanish, all I can think of in German is (I know I can look up the proper spelling, but this is the awkward way I tend to say stuff) “Gesuntite” (which wasn’t in context now), and “sproish de English?” And we’d already established that, so I was stuck with, “Beautiful day, huh?”
Soon we’re past the small talk and quickly form one of those unusual Camino friendships that are difficult to describe to anyone else.
And so as we walk together we begin to unpeel the layers of our respective lives, and he agrees that this rocky path is “beginning to get challenging.” (I wonder if he means our lives, or just today in particular). “It just keeps going and going, up and up and up!”
But, mostly, time spent hiking is in silence. Soon I take note that the directional monuments on this “alternate route” aren’t of concrete and spaced every few kilometers, but are wooden and every few yards.
Hmmm. Then I again notice the clouds below me, and realize that this is not one of the inclement weather days, where the the fog is so thick that you would need trail markers every few yards. (I later learned that there’s only about a dozen days each year with the visability have today). And I can imagine how treacherous it might be on such a foggy day or in the driving rain. To my right is the mountain, but to the left is a sheer rocky, crumbly drop-off of about a thousand meters. If the weather changes and it becomes such a day, I’ll be glad I can hug close to these markers, and I’ll be glad that they are spaced so much closer.
Although I’m enjoying my walk and sharing with Stefan, I know my pace is much slower than his and I encourage him to go on ahead, and not wait for me. He does, but not really.
Then, without warning, I realize the wind is almost gale-force. The side of the mountain is no longer at our side. Finally we’re at the top, walking on a ridge, and the wind is screaming from one side to the other. It is so exhilarating.
The ridge on the top lasts about 6 Km (a little more than an hour), and the descent now down to Montefurado and then Lago is beautiful, but just incredibly difficult on my knees, even with the braces.
There are two descents, both of about 200 meters, each in about 1 km. Trust me, this is pretty steep, especially on loose rock! I have no idea how Stefan manages without poles.
After the two downgrades we have a chance to talk again, and as we encounter a few cattle, Stefan decides he wants me to take a picture of him with them. As he approaches the cows, one from a distance turns out to be a he and begins to run after him, ripping the ground and snorting.
Thankfully the bull stopped the pursuit after the perceived threat to his harem had passed, and we fell to the ground laughing.
As we approached Berducedo, Stefan wants to eat dinner together, after we find the hostel and get cleaned up. I’m really embarrassed to admit that as much as I’d like to take him up on the offer, I’ll be boarding a bus in Berducedo to skip tomorrow’s segment, and instead will be then a day ahead of him. I’ll be staying in Grandas de Salime tonight and hiking tomorrow to Fonsagrada. It was unlikely that our paths would cross again.
Our walk passes the bus stop there, and we embrace to say goodbye. He wished me, “Buen Camino” as he continues on to the next town where he has now decided to stay, another 4 km down the road. I can’t imagine walking more. The day has taken its toll and I am spent.
As I ride the bus, I realize how blessed I am. I’ve learned that people share our journey for a reason, and I’m so happy to have crossed paths with Stefan. When we take off our masks and let down our guards, we truly accompany each other as we walk through life. He’d shared some pretty personal stuff with me, and I know that I’m the only one in the world that he’s told some of these things. I’m also better for having “walked” with him.