The grip of the old world finally loosened when we woke up the next morning. We were in Spain. No more airplanes, check-in booths, train tickets. The spell of a difficult transition was broken.
Our original plan had us getting up at 6 am and starting a 150-something hike out of Astorga and up the notoriously long climb to Foncebedon, a small—we’re talking population: 22—village on the edge of the mountain. But due to the canceled flight, we decided to skip the first stage and take a taxi instead.
I was not looking forward to the drive. I hated the idea of rolling up to our first albergue in a car. I also mourned the original version of our trip that I’d spent months designing in my head. That highly detailed daydream got me through every quarantine extension, variant discovery, and Cuomo press conference. But here we were. And best laid plans aside, I had a job to do.
Backpacking in a foreign country has the power to trample on social anxiety out of sheer necessity. Sure, I might internally panic when I pick a spot on the floor at my local yoga studio (Will I whack that woman in the face by accident? Am I too close to the teacher? Do I smell?!), but messaging taxi drivers on WhatsApp in a second language? Sign me up.
When Ben came out of the shower, I announced, “I got us a car! And I spoke fully in Spanish!” We had a proper celebration with a dance and a kiss, said goodbye to our first hotel room, and clipped our backpack straps around our tummies.
Astorga, much to my surprise and discomfort, was still empty, nearly deserted. The last time I was there in 2017, the city erupted into its annual Roman festival. Everyone from small children to our bartender were dressed up in traditional Roman soldier garb and celebrating in the streets. I saw a wedding burst out of the cathedral doors throwing clouds of red rose petals. The same city today sat quiet, eerily still.
One of the hardest things to understand about this pandemic is that you can’t “go elsewhere” to escape it. There is no elsewhere.
I was very aware of the horrific impact of Covid on Spain going into our trip. I followed one of the county’s primary newspapers and checked forums and case counts daily in the Times. But I was naive enough to think that I’d know what it would feel like when I got there. And was even more naive to think I’d find anything close to what I found in 2017.
I try to be an honest traveler and steer away from an almost unavoidable sense of American self-importance, but this caught me up. What was I bringing from the past 19-ish months of quarantine and how much was I forcing on a traumatized country? How much anger, frustration, coldness, and confusion did I drag from my couch in Manhattan into this small city in the mountains of Spain?
The pandemic warped my ability to mitigate expectations. We hadn’t even started walking and it was clear that I thought the Camino—something that, well la-dee-da, I had walked before—owed me some form of peace, respite, or space for celebration. And on top of all this, we hadn’t even started walking yet. So yeah. All these thoughts before breakfast.
In pilgrim fashion, we ate two breakfasts in the span of two hours. One potato tortilla with a cafe con leche and then a giant cookie with another coffee from a candy store I’d stopped at in 2017.
The cafe owners and a group of locals smoked cigarettes outside and gossiped about a gathering the night before, paying no attention to us–the millionth pair of pilgrims they’d seen in their lifetimes. Even though I only caught every other word, it was nice to see and hear signs of life that counteracted the quiet of the city. Normalcy. Life going on, just with masks and vaccines. Like at home, but halfway across the world.
Ben and I wrapped up second breakfast and meandered through the city. We saw Roman ruins, a palace designed by Gaudi—filled with a shocking number of saints holding platters of boobies—and the local cathedral.
Waiting for our taxi on a sunny bench, now satiated with culture, Astorga chocolate, and too much coffee, a tour—much like the one I’d taken 13 years prior—walked by carrying the Puerto Rican flag. They stopped to ask us about our pilgrimage. We were part of the tour! With a big yell, they all wished us a “Buen Camino”—the common exchange between pilgrims. It was first our first Buen Camino of the trip, and from such an enthusiastic bunch.
Our taxi driver was a kind fatherly type who lived in town. We shared little language between us but managed to explain that we only had 10 days to walk because of Ben’s job. Taxi drivers, he explained, even got more vacation days in Spain than we did.
I watched the Camino signs fly by us—the ones I assumed we’d pass on foot. The edge of the city, the first long stretch into the mountains, and Rabanal del Camino, where I’d slept in 2009. All a blur through the taxi window. I reminded myself of my morning revelation. You can’t bring along your rigid pandemic preemptions about how something will go.
The last time I humbled myself and swallowed my pride about the taxi—I know, calm down, Ginny—is when we pulled up to our albergue in Foncebedon. A small crowd of sunburned pilgrims drank from tall mugs of beers and ate large ham sandwiches as they clocked our arrival.
Ugggggghhhh, I whined in my head. They all likely had a hard climb up the hill and then here came the clean-clothed, non-mud-covered travelers hopping out of our chariot. We thanked the sweet driver and walked toward the patio.
And then…I saw him—the one and only, Camino Instagram stars of Instagram stars—Gato Nomada. To me—a hero in cat form. A celebrity of The Way with four legs and a tail. Gato Nomada is a cat that travels on long-distance trails in the basket of his owner’s mountain bike. Ben and I couldn’t believe our luck. I asked to pet him and, friends, I did. Gato Nomada and I hit it off instantly, one cat pilgrim to a cat-loving pilgrim. Perhaps the stars for our trip were finally aligning.
We let them finish their meal and walked inside to the desk to check-in. “Ben,” I whispered, “I embarrassed myself in front of Gato Nomada. He saw that we took a taxi.”
“Oh stop it,” he joked.
The owners of our albergue were nothing but deeply generous, clearly meant to live a life caring for pilgrims. But there was a weariness about them I hadn’t seen on the Camino before, an exhaustion in their eyes that I only recognized from back home. It was that shared look of shock and fatigue from the past two years.
One man walked us up the stairs to our cozy wooden getaway with a skylight that looked onto the mountains. This was not going to be a normal Camino for us when it came to accommodations. We knew we were already taking a huge Covid risk traveling, so opted to balance our nights between private rooms and the typical multi-bed hostels. This night we’d be on our own, but still in an albergue designed for pilgrims.
Evening brought our first official pilgrim dinner and a room packed with our new crew. Limping, red-faced, pony-tail-wearing hikers with calm, knowing smiles on their faces. Some clearly recognized each other from hundreds of miles back, others sat on their own with a large plate of Jamon Iberico, a carafe of wine, and a journal.
In minutes, we met a nurse from California who’d walked from St. Jean Pied du Port—the traditional starting point about 350 miles back—and instantly made a new friend. I love Camino people. Complete humanity, vulnerability, and kindness.
An older woman from France joined our table who spoke little English or Spanish. With the help of high school classes and Google translate, we managed to pass messages around the circle like a game of multi-lingual Telephone. Ben and I dug into an intimidating spread of ham.
I stepped away from the table for a minute and when I returned, Ben and our new California nurse friend had an odd look on their faces. The French woman ate happily, totally oblivious.
Suddenly tired, our California nurse friend bid us goodnight and Ben suggested we do the same. The French woman soon got up from the table as well.
“What happened?!” I asked Ben when we were alone.
“She’s not vaccinated,” Ben said to me in a panicked hush, “The French woman. She started going on about how there were bigger issues in the world than some virus so she didn’t bother.”
“Oh Lord!” I said, now worried how much time we’d spent with her at dinner. I also thought about the audacity of downplaying the pandemic to a nurse.
Suddenly, the French woman returned with a pile of napkins, pointing at the ham and bread Ben and I hadn’t made it through. “Sandwich!” She yelled. She’d gotten me to-go napkins so we could carry sandwiches with us the next day over the mountains. I was so torn.
“Merci beaucoup,” I said with a smile, though completely confused by a woman being so generous while simultaneously putting us all–and herself, of course–at risk. I wrapped up the sandwiches and put them away.
At long last, Ben and I headed upstairs to our room. We were set to walk about 23 kilometers the next day. There were mountains ahead of us in the morning and a notoriously steep and slippery decline in the afternoon—one of the hardest on the Frances.
But most importantly, we’d pass the Cruz de Ferro, the highest elevation of the walk. At the top of the peak stands an iron cross, whose origin story, much like most of the Camino, changes depending on who’s telling it. Some see it as a Christian shrine, some as a shrine to Mercury, others simply as a milestone—a major transition—where you leave the old world behind and prepare for your final days walking toward Santiago. The tradition goes that you should carry a rock from home and toss it behind you onto the pile of millions and millions of rocks from pilgrims before you. Countless countries together in a pile of stones.
Pilgrims also bring poems, art, photos—and perhaps most commonly—prayer cards of lost loved ones. This time, I was entrusted with prayer cards from close friends who lost family members over the past two years.
I laid each card on my side table before going to sleep. Next to them, I placed a glimmering beach stone from Cape May that I picked up during the week of Ben’s mom’s memorial just months before. I had a specific mission for the next day. These cards and stones would join my grandmother’s card from 2017 and my theatre professor’s card from 2009.
No matter where the shrine came from and what you believe, it has one hell of a view.
When we turned off the lamp, my anxiety from the past few days returned. The wind raged outside, whooshing angrily against our window and the siding of the cottage. I thought of the sheep and little stray cats on the farm next door. Did they have a place to huddle together?
A storm was coming and we had no idea if it would hit at night or right when we needed to leave the next day. Why did it feel like an endless litany of unseen forces were trying to keep us from just walking?
I had to believe that the winds would change and we’d finally call ourselves pilgrims the next morning. It had to happen eventually, right? After coming all this way? But I didn’t sleep much. The sound of the wind carried on all night.