I barely slept that night. The snores, the creaking metal beds, and my aching knees kept me awake staring at the bedsprings of the bunk above me for hours.
I’m no stranger to insomnia, and I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with it, even on a hike. But knowing that Ben wasn’t sleeping well either–judging by his tossing and turning–made it so much worse. He wasn’t used to the noise. He wasn’t used to falling asleep with aching legs knowing you had to torture them again in the morning. I felt terrible dragging him into this. Was it the noise or my guilt keeping me awake?
Before the sun rose, Ben and I slipped on our headlamps and changed for the day. We double-checked every dark corner of the room before stumbling outside–leaving something behind on the Camino is a huge headache and it’s often impossible to retrieve it.
Ben looked as exhausted as I was. “Let’s find food,” he said as he sighed.
“I know that was a rough night,” I added.
“I can’t deal with the snoring,” Ben admitted. I wondered how he’d manage the rest of the public hostels we had on our itinerary, or how much guilt would manage.
Molinaseca was still sound asleep as we searched for breakfast. Our last hope–the restaurant where we had dinner–was dark and closed up, its owners still resting in a sweet slumber. “Well, we still have dried fruit. And that chocolate from Astorga,” I announced, a bit defeated.
Ben sat on the ground and held his hands out for a small gray kitten that emerged from under the outdoor dining tables. After a few minutes of cat snuggles, it was time to get moving.
“Listo?” I asked. We walked out of town in the dark. The eerie silence of the main road and shadows of the side streets gave the town an unmerited sense of danger. When you live in NYC, an empty street sets off all your alarms, so I had to remind my brain where we were.
Our spirits rose with the sun; it was going to be a warm day. We rambled about nonsense topics in our lives and passed the time during the long stretch into Ponferrada–a relatively large town/city that housed a famous Knights Templar castle.
As we rounded the bend into town, an 80-something-year-old woman rushed toward us to tell us and spoke a bit too fast for my understanding. I heard “grandpa,” “coffee,” and “house.” She pulled on Ben’s hand to follow her and pointed across the street to a long table set up with coffee and cookies outside a small apartment building. A smiling man around the same age waved. As we approached, a sign on the table read “Abuelo del Camino.”
“Oooooh!” we said. Grandpa. Coffee. House. Cookies, crackers, fruit, coffee, and juice lined the long folding table. His homemade spread was like a mirage after a morning without food. He even made his own stamp for our pilgrim passports and proudly added it to a fresh square in our booklets. He then insisted that we sit and rest as he poured us coffee. After persistently asking if we could donate money, he shooed us away. Caring for pilgrims is as old a tradition as pilgrimages and we could see how important this was to him.
Newly caffeinated and touched by the abuelo’s kindness, we crossed over the bridge into Ponferrada. I’ve now been to the city three times and have never gone into the 12th-century castle, and this time was no different. There was simply no time and we had a long, hot day ahead of us. We snapped some photos, stopped in a restaurant for a more substantial breakfast–which meant bread and ham–and carried on with renewed spirits.
We walked together, picking up our chat from earlier as the sun grew stronger and more direct. By midmorning, we’d zipped off the bottom of our hiking pants and stowed our fleeces. I looked at the sewed-up patch on my left pant leg. Ironing a hold through my pants that morning felt like eons ago.
Andrew passed us on our walk, hollering out “Ginny and Ben!” as he came up behind us for a great chat. But since he had such a quick pace, we eventually split ways and said we’d see him down the road. It’s odd looking back and realizing that a small encounter was the last time you ever saw someone.
The theme of half-deserted villages continued. The next town looked like an old-Hollywood set without a film. Quiet, empty, and still except for the wandering stray cats.
“I’ve been to that bar!” I announced to Ben as we passed. It’s weird being a return customer in a three-table towny bar halfway across the world. I’d stopped there in 2017 with Christina and remembered a grouchy owner and a broken bathroom door that you had to keep closed with an outstretched leg.
Ben and I ducked in and said hello to the woman behind the bar and the two older men sipping orujo. We ordered coffee and I complimented the pretty pilgrim stamp to try and break the ice. Well, I can report that the owner is still grouchy but the bathroom latch had since been fixed. We walked outside with our small sandwiches and coffee to sit in the shade.
“It seems like the women are left to run everything in these towns,” Ben noticed. We guessed that the general gruffness from often-female restaurant/bar/coffee shop owners stemmed from singlehandedly holding their small town together.
Soon enough, a slinky black-and-brown cat wove its way between our feet and waited for bits of fallen ham. She playfully attacked Ben’s shoe and spent some time on my lap.
A sweet middle-aged French couple we’d seen earlier pulled into town and plopped down at the table beside us. I saw them pouring over a guidebook and heard them calling albergues for help.
“Do you need a room for tonight?” I asked in Spanish since we shared more of that than French or English. They explained that their room had been canceled, and with so many albergues closed due to Covid, they didn’t know what to do.
I handed them the email of the woman who owned our hostel for the night: El Serbal y La Luna in Pieros, one of the most anticipated stops on our trip. I’d stayed there in 2017 and it stands out as one of my most incredible memories. The albergue sits in a small settlement off the main road. It purposely has no wifi and the owner only serves homemade vegan dinner. The bunk beds look like they’ve been carved right from fresh tree trunks and the property is often full of happy animals. It is a place of peace and deep kindness.
When I’d checked on the albergue earlier in the pandemic, someone had started a GoFundMe to help the owner afford firewood for the winter. So I sadly didn’t expect to get an answer when I reached out to check if they were still open. But much to my surprise, the owner sweetly answered to confirm within minutes. The French couple called and booked a bed and thanked us for the suggestion. It sounded like it would just be the four of us.
The heat was unexpectedly intense as we carried on, and my skin burned and itched, irritated by the mix of sun and clouds of dirt. I could see Cacabelos far in distance–a perfectly charming town with a less-than-charming name.
I also happened to have a terrible association with the place. I was 22 in 2009 when I walked my first Camino with two dear friends. It was the end of week three, and our disconnect with society was starting to take a toll. I got constant emails from my upcoming job that I couldn’t answer quickly enough–remember, this was just before smartphones–and more importantly, my relationship at the time seemed to be falling apart more and more every day.
There was nothing we could do. The relationship wasn’t meant to be for so many reasons. But I was 22 and not ready to accept that. He and I had scheduled a phone call for that afternoon when I reached Cacabelos. Phone calls were tricky and expensive, so this was the first–and likely only one–of the trip. I talked about it for days, and half an albergue rooted for me as I headed out to a nearby park. Between a row of towering trees, I sat down on the bench, stared at my phone, and waited.
The time of the call arrived. And then it went. Eventually I accepted that my phone wasn’t going to ring. It turns out that it was an honest technical issue that kept him from calling. But I was exhausted, and I was starting to sense the heartbreak on the horizon. I sat on the bench and sobbed. Somehow I knew it was the beginning of the end.
Ben and I tell each other nearly everything, so he knew the story. Even when heartbreak is long gone, it’s odd visiting a landmark of bad memories. We decided to stop for a hearty late lunch and a mug of beer in celebration of almost reaching the end of the first day. Pieros was just a kilometer up the hill.
Before we left the city over the bridge, I paused and stared at the long park that lined the river. It looked exactly the same.
“Is that where you cried on a bench?” Ben asked.
“Yup,” I said.
“Wanna make out?”
We took a guess about where I likely sat in 2009 and I can now proudly associate the Cacabelos park with kissing Ben. I know I can’t talk to that 22-year-old version of me, but I hope I can hold on to the lesson that things can get so much better, even when you’re running out of hope.
The final trek up the hill was a hot one. I got in the habit of counting my steps when I was really struggling and promised myself that when I reached a thousand, we’d be much closer than we were now. Thru-hiking requires many mind games.
The French couple sat outside the albergue eating a late lunch surrounded by cats. They waved us over as we made our way down the long driveway to the familiar house. The owner of the albergue greeted us–a barefoot, long-haired woman with long smile lines across spread her face. I hope to look like her someday. A 30-something man from Belgium also stayed there and planned to volunteer and help run the place “until it was time to move on.”
The stone and wood common space of the albergue is like a sanctuary, the air as cool and crisp as any of the 12-century churches we passed on our walk. Since it was just us and the French couple that night, we slept in separate rooms–a gift of a silent evening! We chose our bunks and settled in, Ben heading to the shower and I excitedly going outside to wash my clothes.
This may sound terribly odd, but I missed washing my clothing in a bucket. The simplicity of it. Hanging your clothing on a line in the sun, ringing out the water, watching it dry as the warm afternoon passes by. After I finished the ritual, I sat and chatted with the owner and the Belgium volunteer in the longest Spanish-English hybrid chat I’ve ever had. I was so proud of my conversational Spanish. I showed her pictures from my visit in 2017 and even found where I’d signed her guest book. We exchanged stories about the pandemic and what it was like to live in NYC and in Spain. The opportunity to talk for this long with what people call “Camino angels” is rare and cherished. Something broken from the past two years began to heal.
I spent the rest of the late afternoon laying on a makeshift couch in the backyard covered in cats and looking up through the branches of the trees. Trudy, a particularly chatty kitten, attached herself to Ben and I. She climbed on my shoulders and I folded my laundry and meowed stories about her day in my ear. We were in love.
The French couple fell asleep early so it was just me, Ben, and our hosts for dinner. A stew of vegetables and pumpkin was a sight for sore eyes after so many days of ham. We shared deep, important conversation–the kind that reminds you why you spend some much money and energy to leave home.
I told the table about trying to write my book for so many years. The topic, I explained, combined the story of my 2017 hike and some traumatic events from when I was young. But after so many attempts, it still didn’t feel like the right time. The man from Belgium asked me, “Why do you need to write it if it’s so personal?”
“I think I need to transform it into a story so that it no longer feels like a part of me. Like a release. Like I’m freeing it by turning it into a myth of some sort,” I explained.
“But why publish it?” he asked, “If you can free to story by just writing it down on paper, why does anyone else need to see it?”
I still carry this question around with me.
At the end of the night, I was emotionally renewed by their hospitality. What a gift it was to sit around a table with people again. Our hosts bid us goodbye and said that we’d likely leave before they got up for the morning.
We gave them both a hug and gathered our things for bed. “Well, we’ll see you out there on the road,” Ben said as he patted the man from Belgium on the back.
He chuckled in return, “Is that an American way of saying we’ll never see each other again?”
We all laughed in return and gave a hearty “Have a good life!” as we parted.
We rested our exhausted bodies in our bunk beds and switched off the light. For the first time on the trip, I was at peace and excited for the next day.