“What is it about Camino people and motivational phrases?” Ben asked about a month before our trip. Camino people–myself included–love a good lofty expression. Everyone walks their own Camino. The Camino begins when you reach Santiago. The Camino provides. There is no wrong reason to walk the Camino. You get the idea.
“I think we use them for the same reason you use them in any situation,” I answered, “It’s just too big an experience to sum up in words. I also think the whole thing is so hard on your body that you need these phrases to keep you from giving up and going home” I admitted.
I understood his discomfort. If you haven’t been through it–and if you’re already skeptical about religions that use hyperbolic phrases–the whole thing has a bit of a cult vibe from the outside.
Still, Ben’s growing distrust in the traditions of the Camino had me worried. When I asked him if he’d chosen a stone for the Cruz de Ferro, he told me he was uncomfortable participating in a tradition he didn’t believe in. With so little time to go, I started to wonder if he would see our trip as anything more than an ordinary walk.
Ben and I staggered down to the lobby of our albergue the next morning, puffy-eyed and disheveled. We thanked the owners again for such kind hospitality, grabbed the leftover ham sandwich from the fridge, and popped it into Ben’s backpack.
The rain slowed down to a misty drizzle by the time we stepped outside. We were lucky. The storm had passed. Nothing was stopping us. Rain, canceled flights, pandemics, jobs. It was time to start walking.
And so we did.
We made our way up the first hill in the thick mist. After so many years of planning, here we were. So many training walks up and down the sides of Manhattan. So many nights sitting at my laptop trying to coordinate Covid flight cancellations. I turned around again and again to check on my new fellow peregrino–I’m a fast walker–and wondered if he was starting to resent me for roping him into this.
“You doing okay?” I yelled through the fog.
“Yup!” he said, not looking up from the rocky and precarious path.
Pilgrims passed us as we climbed, their mud-caked boots and sunburned calves indicating how long they’d been on the trail. I remember how I felt about seeing newbies this late in the game.
Even though fall was coming on, pink and purple flowers pushed through the dense green foliage along the trail. The fog blocked our view of the peaks on the horizon, but brought with it a soothing blanket of dew.
Before I had time to check our progress on the map, I looked up. The Cruz de Ferro. Suspended in a cloud of gray perched on the edge of the mountain. Hikers lined up, letting one or two people climb up at a time.
“That was quick!” Ben yelled. I wondered how this would go after his comment a few weeks ago. I knew I just had to get out of his way. Sure, I’d encouraged him and planned most of the trip. But he was here on his own accord and how he responded to it was out of my control.
I waited at the bottom of the hill as Ben walked up for his turn. It’s not my place to write about how he felt up there–nor will I ever really know. I walked up slowly after giving him a few minutes on his own. Together, we attached our friends’ prayer cards to ribbons tied around the cross. The wind roared.
Tears rolled down both of our faces. We didn’t need to say anything about what we were thinking. So much pain in just the past year. Over the past ten years. There are no words for that.
“Are you Catholic?” we heard a voice ask in Spanish through the howling wind. A man with a priest collar stood there waiting.
“Ummm..” we both hesitated, not wanting to be rude. “Un poquito?” I shrugged with a laugh. He understood and laughed with us.
“Can I bless you?” he asked in English. We didn’t know what to say. In NYC, I would have found a way out of it. But there, in that moment, it didn’t feel intrusive. He saw we were upset and wanted to offer support in the way he knew how.
“Okay,” we answered. The man crossed us and crossed himself and said a few phrases in Spanish that were blotted out by the wind. We thanked him deeply and he asked for Ben’s phone so he could take our picture.
Minutes later, we were on our way, the Cruz de Ferro now behind us. “I don’t know why, but that wasn’t weird,” Ben said to me. The priest and his buddies flew ahead of us, clearly in better shape than us. “Buen Camino!” he yelled as he passed, and we repeated it back as he disappeared into the fog.
We walked in silence for a few minutes. Suddenly, two furry creatures sprinted across the path about 100 feet ahead of us. “Were those pigs? Or a dog?” Ben and I stood frozen, our danger brains keeping us from moving.
“They were boars!” Ben exclaimed the moment it hit him. We’d read about boars in this area–it’s one reason ancient pilgrims carried walking sticks. “Baby boars!”
Just three days before, we were still in our 400-square-foot apartment staring at the same view and the same brick wall, and today we were watching baby boars run through a forest in the middle of Spain. We walked on, keeping a careful eye out for the rest of the boar family. The forest opened up to expansive views of mountains upon mountains, each with its own blanket of slowly receding fog.
Navigating the Camino with the trail markers is easy, but technology doesn’t hurt. I use an app called WisePilgrim that measures the distance between towns, notes which towns have services, and how to book an albergue in each one. We had a long stretch ahead of us before El Acebo–several hours at least–and I remembered a good deal of slippery downhills on slate up ahead.
By the time we slipped and slid down into the little village, it was lunch time, and our knees and ankles were starting to shake and swell. Still, it was exciting to see our first major village of the day. Despite the drizzle, we sat outside a crowded cafe–indoor seating was still limited because of Covid. An overworked owner–who happened to be from Houston–sprinted back and forth between the kitchen and the tables. He looked worn and frustrated. It was the first sign that the demands of the Camino were putting too much pressure on the already-stressed community.
After a steaming cup of coffee a potato tortilla, Ben and I gave up our table to the waiting crowd. The rest of the cafes in town were still closed, or closed for good.
We only had about eight kilometers to go, but I knew that they were nearly straight downhill, almost dangerously so. We walked in meditative silence for the first hour. Every spot where I placed my foot was critical. I wasn’t going to fly off the mountain or anything, but one wrong move meant a rolled ankle and an end to the hike. I remember a fellow hiker from a past Camino telling me that it helped him to curse the large rolly-polly stones like they were some evil outside force out to get him. “Stupid stones,” I muttered, “Why are you so awful? Everyone hates you, stones.”
“You alright?” Ben occasionally called out to me, now trucking ahead of me.
The mountain leveled out for a few kilometers and soft earth found us once again. When the clouds parted, the sun warmed up the day so quickly that we walked in t-shirts and shorts, something we didn’t expect to encounter in the mountains in October.
But with the heat came another challenge–flies. A growing cloud of gnats encircled us and grew larger and larger as we ascended the next hill.
“Do we smell that bad?” I asked Ben. We pulled up some tall grass and flogged our backpacks like horsetails. Ben pulled his Buff up over his mouth to keep from swallowing them. It was getting worse. We stopped for a minute and spun around, dodging and swatting. What was going on? The gnats were multiplying.
It took us a whole 30 minutes to realize the culprit. “The ham sandwich!” Ben yelled. Even wrapped up tightly, the now-forgotten leftover ham mountain was making us a target of every gnat in a five-mile radius. Ben pulled the sandwich out of his pack, now under full attack, removed all the packaging and–I am sorry to admit this, fellow hikers–chucked the ham sandwich off the cliff in desperation. The flies went with it.
“We had to do it,” I comforted my guilt. “Maybe a very happy animal will find it. Like those boars.”
We laughed at our stupidity as we walked on. I remembered a joke from my 2017 Camino that referenced a famous Youtube video and turned to Ben, “I smell like haaaaam. I smell like haaammmm.”
After one final hour of joint-wrecking downhill walking, we saw it. The flags of Molinaseca in the distance. “We did it!” I yelled as we made the final descent.
Ben and I checked into our albergue. It had a bit more of an old-school setup with metal bunkbeds and bare necessities, but we still had our own space because of Covid. Half-walls separated us from the 20-or-so hikers sleeping in their own areas.
We were still in that witching hour between siesta and dinner, so we knew we couldn’t find food for several more hours (and half regretted tossing the gnat ham sandwich). But we wandered through the village and Ben marveled at how beautiful and unique the buildings were. Thank goodness for his enthusiasm. The town looked very different to me. Hardly anyone on the streets, businesses closed, yellowed signs on windows from 2020 warning pilgrims to return home. Ben’s joy buoyed me.
We asked one restaurant whether they were serving food and they shooed us away and told us to come back at 8. A gruff, grumbling voice with a southern twang called out to us. “You Americans?” We turned to a Hemingway-like man lounging with a glass of coffee orujo. Blog, meet Tim. Tim walked the Camino several years before and decided to move to Molinaseca to help pilgrims emotionally and spiritually navigate the journey.
“It completely changed who I am and what I wanted to do with my life,” he told us. He asked us about how we ended up here and we told him our story.
“I still can’t wrap my head around this trip, I don’t know why,” I explained, “Maybe I’m still stuck in quarantine in my head.”
“You have to let the Camino walk you. Stop questioning it.” I was excited for Ben to hear someone else speak in riddles for once.
“You should walk apart sometimes. Married couples shouldn’t always walk side by side,” he added.
We exchanged information and read a series of questions Tim wrote to help walkers. It was an excellent encounter.
We still needed something to eat but had four hours until dinner. Wandering through town, we popped into a corner store owned by a spirited man with a future–or missed calling–in Commedia dell’arte. As we picked snacks off the shelf and dried fruit from his array of colorful baskets, he popped more and more free gifts in our shopping bag with a smile and a laugh. We didn’t share a ton of language but we tried.
He asked us where we were from, to which we said New York City. “Oh!” he exclaimed, his eyes searching for a way to connect with us. “Nueva York–” and then, I kid you not–he made a flying plane motion with one hand and crashed it into his other hand, which apparently represented the Twin Towers. He made sound effects as well, my friends.
Our jaws dropped. I didn’t even need to look at Ben to know his jaw was dropped. “Si,” I muttered, “Muy triste.” Now, he was NOT making fun of 9/11, don’t get me wrong. He just felt that in that moment, the only way to connect with us was to make a hand puppet motion of the planes hitting the towers. Sweet mother of pearl.
Ben and I bid him farewell and headed back into the street. “This is one of those strange stories we’re gonna tell people a lot, isn’t it?”
When dinnertime came, we grabbed a table in the restaurant where we’d met Tim earlier. A black cat snuck in through the door and planted itself at my feet. We chatted with a kind man named Andy who sat at the table next to ours. Another American. The giant plate of pork and potatoes and the generous pours of yellow orujo made us more than ready for bed.
We ended the night strolling through the streets, catching glimpses of families playing cards or sitting at a bar together. Spain’s lockdown involved three full months without being allowed to leave your home–even on your own property–for anything other than emergencies or to walk your dog. I can’t imagine what that did to such a small village like this.
Kids came out to feed the parade of stray cats as we passed. Ben was enamored by the town and still says it was one of his favorite on the trip. We tiptoed back into a dark room and attempted to get some sleep in our first albergue packed with a choir of snorers.