Before you leave for the Camino, it’s easy to daydream about what a typical morning might look like. Maybe you open your eyes to the first signs of sunlight, breathing in the smell of woodsmoke from the night before. An elderly couple greets you in the kitchen with hot water in the tea kettle and a pile of toast. You absorb the morning in your own time and eventually greet the cool countryside air feeling rested and ready for adventure.
In reality, most mornings do not start this way. Your alarm jolts you awake about two hours after you finally fell asleep. In the pitch black, you drag your backpack into the hallway where there’s some light to get your bearings. Your left knee hurts more than it did the day before so you limp into the overly lit bathroom to brush your teeth next to a grouchy woman who is strolling around naked in her shower flip-flops.
But sometimes, you get lucky. And the first scenario–the one with the woodsmoke and tea water and morning air–does happen. And Ben and I were lucky enough to experience it in Pieros.
The French couple was just heading out the door as we carried our things into the kitchen. They waved with a “Buen Camino!” and, as it often goes, we never saw them again. Our kind hosts had left out oatmeal, toast, fruit, and a cup for donation. Ben and I sat for a slow, hearty breakfast, left some money, and laid the dishes to dry by the sink. As I stood in the kitchen, I had an uncanny feeling that I’d be back someday. There was no guestbook for 2020 or 2021, so I tore a page out of my journal and left a thank you note on the table.
Trudy welcomed us outside with a very important cat story which she communicated with chirps, meows, and purrs as she climbed on us like jungle gyms. It was hard to say goodbye–and to make sure she wasn’t following us up the drive. “Go be with your mama!” I hollered as her sweet eyes watched us go.
Ben and I spent the first three hours of the day weaving our way through grapevines, their branches now turning red and deep purple to mark the end of the season. With renewed energy, we chattered as we passed by several villages and a handful of pilgrims that clearly knew one another from weeks of walking. I couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous of their camaraderie. Finding a pack this late in the game can be tricky.
Villafranca del Bierzo–a town I cannot recommend enough for a stop if you ever find yourself in northern Spain–greeted us with its winding cobblestone streets and a second breakfast of fried eggs, tortilla, and coffee.
“What are the chances I can find something for my foot in that pharmacy?” I asked Ben as he slowly sipped his coffee.
“Might as well ask!” he encouraged, and I left him with my pack to go hunting.
Friends, I have horrific feet. I could put a podiatrist’s kids through college. But the bunion on my left foot was rubbing against my shoes as I walked, causing a daily blister.
I attempted to look up the word for bunion in Spanish before walking into the pharmacy. Google translate said the word is “Juanete,” but the pharmacist looked at me like I’d just made up a word when I said it. So after some creative hand signals and grunting noises, he knew exactly what I meant. It turns out he specifically sold a small slip-on brace for bunions and provided excellent advice for caring for my feet. The whole exchange cost about 8 euros.
I explained in Spanish how much I appreciated the amazing healthcare in Spain, especially compared to how much this would cost me at home. “Estados Unidos es tonto,” he said with a comforting pat and a smile. I laughed and headed out with my new purchase.
“Success!” I hollered to Ben as I walked back into the square. Packing up our things, we thanked the waitress at the restaurant and traced our steps back to the Camino. The hills of the city cut through stone buildings embellished with fresh flowers and colorful flags from various festivals.
Just as we stepped onto the old bridge of town, I paused to touch a small metal lizard that adorned a statue on a pedestal. “El Santo!” a voice yelled behind us. A five-foot, blue-haired woman carrying flowers appeared, pulling my hand back to the statue to return to the lizard.
She must have been over 90 years old and walked in the form of an upside-down J with a cane of the same shape. She explained–in very fast Spanish–that the lizard was a symbol of the patron saint–at least I think that’s what she said.
We walked with our new teacher up the curved bridge as she regaled us with quick stories about her life in a mix of both languages. “I love–Hollywood ladies. Audrey Hepburn! Oh!” She gleamed and held the scarf around her head, swaying a bit as she said it. “I do NOT like–TRRROUMP!” she hollered, referencing her hair standing up, lopsided on top of her head. I loved the way she said it. TRRRROUMP! Like an orchestra announcing that the bad guy walked on stage. We laughed and assured her we felt the same way.
Her house sat right on the other side of the bridge. “Buen Camino,” she added with a wave and a warm stare.
“She was amazing,” Ben said after we parted. Bierzo had been kind to us.
I was lucky to have the new bunion brace–which may be the hottest sentence I’ve ever written–because the day ahead of us was challenging. The next two hours sent us alongside a curving highway with trucks barreling around the bends at shocking speeds. Luckily, the city had added a barrier since I’d walked in 2017, when you had to depend on the white line to keep you separated from the cars.
Walking on asphalt wrecks your tired joints, especially if they’re already swelling from the hot sun.
“We enter Galicia tomorrow, so I feel like this is some sort of test,” I comforted Ben. Galicia is a gift at the end of the Camino–days and days of lush fields, hot soup, and prancing sheep.
As we stopped to take off a top layer of clothing, my backpack tumbled a few feet down the shoulder of the highway. A tall, pale yellow flower caught my eye. Wild parsnip. I delicately retrieved my backpack and carried it back up the hill.
“Don’t touch that flower if you see it,” I warned Ben, “It’ll probably be all over the place now. And do not Google wild parsnip rash.” You’ve been warned, readers. Don’t do it.
“Gotcha,” Ben noted as he handed me one of the many hand-sanitizing wipes we received through airport checkpoints.
In 2009–a year that feels like three lifetimes ago–my friends, Claire, Cortney, and I walked this section of the road. At some point, we’d started quietly singing random Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel tunes to keep our brains occupied, not realizing that we were coming up on a village.
As we turned onto a side street–by now in a full-blown three-part-harmony rendition of “Let it Be”–a small man with a shepherd’s crook materialized from the forest and yelled, “Shhhh! Pereje!”
We could not, for the life of us, understand what he was trying to tell us. He just kept throwing up his arms and saying, “Pereje!” A hundred feet down the road, we passed the sign for the town of Pereje. “Oooooh,” we all realized.
Pereje looked different this time around. I recently read about the term España vacía–or “empty Spain.” It refers to the dwindling populations of the small villages across the country. Off-the-road places like Pereje–which only had an estimated population of 34 in 2015–must have sent most of its final residents heading away from the hills during Covid. I hoped that was the case, and not the even more tragic possibility.
Pereje was nearly deserted save for a home at the edge of town with two friendly dogs. The cafe where I’d sat in 2017 was long closed. The buildings boarded up. The old man with the shepherd’s crook from 2009, well, who knows. We walked through in reverent silence and hoped there would be better days ahead for the village. Part of me wondered if I’d return someday to find it reclaimed by the forest.
We carried on along the highway in the sun. Every several kilometers, we spotted a new piece of self-righteous graffiti on the side of a telephone pole or highway divider. “You can’t find peace in a taxi,” or “There are no shortcuts to the Lord,” next to a bad drawing of a taxi.
“Oh this is my favorite one so far,” Ben hollered while giggling. He called me over to another message from our preachy artist. “Jesus didn’t take a taxi,” he read. Someone had it out for taxi drivers apparently.
I chuckled. “I don’t even know where to start with how wrong that is,” I said. “A. Jesus most definitely never walked the Camino,” I started, “B. We don’t even know if St. James walked the Camino. And C. There were no taxis…”
Ben cut me off, advising me not to let my brain melt away any further.
The next village was a bit more populated, though not by much. We sat down at a cafe, ordered large salads and cold sodas, and grabbed a table outside in a patch of shade. A few minutes later, a massive yellow lab meandered down the road in the heat and walked into the cafe. When he exited, he had a stale loaf of bread in his mouth, which he proceeded to drop and lay on like a pillow. Lucky for you, I have a photo.
Moments later, a group of already drunk late-20-somethings broke up our precious silence. They even jolted the dog awake, who picked up his bread pillow and left for a more peaceful spot.
I heard the group mention that they were walking on to the town where we were staying but had to stop for beer first. I tried not to judge their volume or assumption that they could walk in this heat so drunk, but I gave in to my annoyance by the time we left. I hoped that they wouldn’t be in the bunk next to ours.
The sun was nearly tipping behind the Galician mountains by the time we reached our destination for the day. My app raved about the particular albergue at the end of town where we had a reservation. When we arrived, it was clear that we were lucky we booked ahead–it was nearly full, and most people had checked long before us and were already drinking out back.
The stillness we enjoyed from Pieros was clearly behind us, but I was determined to make the best of it. Maybe there was even a chance to make some solid friends. As Ben showered and washed his laundry, I went out back with my journal and placed my feet in an ice-cold stream that ran through the center of where the group was sitting.
The party’s apparent host wore a large cowboy hat and swayed as he stammered, balancing a cigarette between two mud-covered fingers. He poured shots from the young pilgrim women with a deep, creepy chuckle. I didn’t care for his vibe. Maybe I didn’t want to be invited to this party.
Also, the moment I sat down on the ground, I felt the wet mud beneath the grass fully soak my newly washed pants–the pants I planned to wear up the mountain the next day. Damnit, I thought. I decided not to move for a few minutes, hoping it was just water, but when it became clear that no one was going to chat with me anyway, I got up, defeated. Maybe my social skills had been too damaged from two years of quarantine.
“Oh no! Your pants!” I heard one of the women yell with a laugh. The mud-soaked through down to the back of my thighs. I laughed with them with a shrug, but between my exhaustion and this permeating feeling of homesickness, tears welled up in my eyes. I felt like I was in 7th grade again.
“Oh no! Your butt!” Ben exclaimed when he saw me.
“I know,” I said. He noticed I was upset and hugged me.
“Let’s get you a beer.”
As I scrubbed my pants and let the Estrella calm my damaged pride, Ben and I managed to break the ice with some of the women who broke away from the gathering.
We chatted with a kind, energetic woman from England named Sally who was having problems with her ankle. She was debating going home after coming all the way from St. Jean. “What’s the point of permanently hurting myself. This was far enough, wasn’t it?”
After offering my various pain pills, creams, and braces to Sally, Ben and I said goodnight and decided to wander around the town before dinner. The owner of the albergue advised us to check out “El Monstruo!” in the center of town–something she couldn’t say without cracking up. What was the monster in the center of town, you ask? Oh, just an old tree.
After the stroll, we settled at a small bar to watch the sunset and to pet a yellow cat as we drank a tall beer and nurse our angry legs. The drunk afternoon crowd from hours before stumbled in, sunburned and weary. They told us that all the beds were booked but someone was going to let them sleep in an empty rec hall with no plumbing.
We finished the night with a large pilgrim’s menu of meat, potatoes, and a large dessert and shuffled back in the dark hand-in-hand. The sky was so clear. The brightest set of lights came from some old ruins on the top of a nearby mountain. We stopped to take it all in.
Camino days are impossibly long–and not in the negative sense. Trudy, the French couple, and the vineyards felt like weeks ago. What would I do if I had this sense of time at home in real life? Tomorrow would be an even longer day, one with one of the hardest climbs on the journey. But we still had a night to get through.