It’s been a minute since I’ve written here. Ben and I had an incredible trip to Iceland last week so I’ve been slowly coming out of vacation mode. But after starting this blogging project more than three months ago now (!!), it’s time to get us to the end. And so…here’s the fourth-to-last Camino day. We’re almost there, friends!
After finally getting a solid night of sleep, we woke early, feeling confident we could get through the 30k day–the longest one yet. I snapped this photo of my pack leaning up against the wall. There was something so familiar about seeing it waiting there for me–pre-sunrise, covered in dirt, a shell hanging off the side. How many mornings had I started things this way? Nearly 90 now.
We stretched the band of our headlamps over our foreheads and walked out into the dark, dewy cold. The albergue was still asleep, this much be a late-morning wave.
I was grateful for the silence. The last 100km of the Camino are notoriously crowded, but walking so early in the morning and so late in the season meant we could pass through these heavily walked paths in stillness. And as the sun slowly made its way over the horizon, the sky shifted to a yellow and purple glow.
It took just a few minutes to reach the iconic 100km marker. They replace it or clean it off every few years because it’s so heavily loved with graffiti. We took the obligatory photos and carried on, the official 100-kilometer countdown began.
The sun fully rose just in time for us to meet with yet another breathtakingly generous refuge of food, coffee, and kindness. This respite was run by an older couple–who must have been in their 80s if not 90s–with a setup of both hot and cold homemade food, including baked goods and pastries. Moments like these are a reminder of why I need to improve my Spanish. The older woman and I did a lot of smiling and basic small talk, but I couldn’t do more than that to share my deep gratitude.
It was clear that Spanish autumn was coming on with a vengeance as we walked on since a dense fog descended so think that you couldn’t see a tree around the next bend. The moisture permeated everything–our clothing, our skin, and the sticky mud under our shoes. While it made the walk a bit tricker–and I worried about the cars not spotting us in time–I loved the mystical views it offered.
I knew that Portomarin–a town appropriately named for sitting along the port of a river–was on the horizon and Ben and I planned to have second breakfast and take out more cash. Green fields and country paths turned onto exit ramps and suburban streets as we approached the small city.
“I think it’s time I let this stick go,” Ben announced just before we turned onto the bridge. “It’s served me well but it’s very heavy.”
I’ve always gotten emotional about leaving behind walking sticks. I was so attached to mine in 2017 that I couldn’t bear to leave it in the general stick pile at the pilgrim office in Santiago. I knew it was too tricky to check it for the plane, but it deserved better than the stick pile! I found a quiet corner for it in the cathedral and said my goodbyes. I’m certain that a security guard found it before closing up, rolled his eyes, and sent it right off to the stick pile with the rest, but I don’t like to think about that.
When I returned my Portuguese Camino stick to the woods (it was a branch) in 2019, I also broke into tears. I turned around to see a girl from Ireland who wanted to chat and make a new friend, instead–she got me, a girl crying over a branch.
Ben leaned the stick against a guardrail, hoping a limping pilgrim would see it on their way and take it up for the final kilometers. We took a picture, gave it a pat, and moved on.
The walk into Portomarin inspired even more awe and silence. Fog surrounded the bridge. You couldn’t see more than 10 feet of the bridge at a time, like the leap of faith in Indiana Jones. I knew there was a city on the other side of that bridge, but Ben had never seen it before. We couldn’t even see the river beneath the bridge. We were floating in air as we crossed without any other pilgrims in sight.
When we reached the base of the city, the infamous set of steps–at least 50 of them–stood as a barrier between us and the town. Ben fell in love with the place instantly and we found a small bar that was serving breakfast. It seemed as if most of the pilgrims had already woken up early and moved on–most of the town sat deserted. This was both the benefit and often the loneliness of starting “off-stage”–or off the traditional stages mapped out by many of the pilgrim offices’ maps.
We settled into a cafe table with tortilla and coffee and I scooted across the street to a Santander bank to take out cash. I’ve always been told to use an ATM attached to an actual open bank when getting cash abroad. Just in case something shifty happens. I put in my card, take out the cash, and end the transaction. The screen goes back to the start…and doesn’t release my card.
“Beennnnn??” I yelled across the street. He ran over and stared at the “Welcome” screen as I began to panic. I went inside and explained in not-so-great and panicked Spanish that the machine was holding my debit card.
“There’s no one here to fix the machine until tomorrow,” he explained without looking up, “You can come back then.”
Now, there is no question that I am clearly traveling by foot and cannot just “come back tomorrow.” I try to take a breath and think about how this isn’t going to suddenly send our whole schedule into madness. The anxiety of the canceled flight all came flooding back.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t wait until tomorrow, I-” just at that moment, I see Ben flailing his arms at me–with one hand holding the card. “All good! Thank you!” I said and ran out of there.
“How did you fix it?” I asked him.
“It wanted to know if you wanted to do any more transactions. It was literally the next screen.”
I felt like an asshole. I was so ready to devolve into panic mode that I couldn’t read the words on the screen. I sat back down, flustered and embarrassed, and finished my coffee.
We left Potomarin a little less enchanted than we entered it, to no fault of the city. Luckily the green Galician forest welcomes us with more gnarled moss-covered trees blanketed in mist. It doesn’t matter how steep the climb is when the views are that stunning.
The hours rolled a bit easier as we got into a midday rhythm. My body felt worlds different than it did yesterday. Jumping in that taxi felt weeks behind us. The only reminder was the constant anti-taxi graffiti that had popped up weeks before.
“This is my favorite one by far,” Ben called to me while staring at the side of a house. It was the picture of a snake a la Adam and Eve with the words, “Tssssss take a taaaxxiiii.”
“I’m not even mad at this one,” Ben chuckled, “This is actually clever.”
Nowadays, when Ben and I are having trouble with the NYC subway, we’ll still turn to each other and say, “Tssss take a taxiiiii.”
With about 10k to go, we stopped at a cafe on a hill outside of an unknown town. I was caught in the endless cycle of having to pee but needing to buy a coffee to access the bathroom. It’s a pilgrim problem. Round and round we all go.
Some familiar faces greeted us at the tables from the earth-crunchy albergue a few nights before. Mark and Cara–who I’ve yet to mention (again, not their real names) were headed to the town right before ours and hitched on to our train.
With the fog behind us and the sun blaring, my body started to push back against the abnormally long day. But with Cara and Mark to chat with–and because they had a much quicker pace than we did–I forgot about time and sunburn and blisters and fell into the magic of good stories.
Cara and I instantly jumped into emotional stories about our childhood, the stories of our marriages, and choosing whether or not to have kids. We were a walking Moth podcast episode and barely knew each other. My favorite type of interaction.
We stopped after about an hour to allow the men to catch up and announce that I was running into a store because–of course–I had to pee and thus buy something to drink.
“What were you two talking about?” We joked, recognizing the depth of our chat.
“Movies and comic books!” They yelled back. We all laughed and sat outside the cafe.
A friend of Mark and Cara’s sat nearby on a bench holding her leg. She’s been stung by a wasp and the sting was swelling up like a giant bullseye. She was throwing in the towel for the day and taking a cab to the albergue.
We pushed through the final hour of the walk and said goodbye to Mark and Cara about halfway through. The heat was so intense by this point that we walked in silence as I counted down every 100 steps or so in my head to stay focused. So much of this part of the trip comes down to getting through the most painful moments of the day any way you can.
A small hostel appeared around the next bend. I remembered stopping here years earlier to chat with some new friends who had only just started in Sarria. Christina and I have given them advice about blisters. This year it would be our stop for the night.
It was clear that the owner and his family were exhausted from the onslaught of pilgrims throughout the day. He waved us away when we walked in, explaining that the restaurant was closed, but when we noted we had a reservation to stay the night, his face softened. He was ready for a fight and seemed relieved to have an expected task for once.
Ben and I laid our things down on a bed upstairs–there would only be four of us there tonight it seemed. Girl with the bug bite, a kind man from Sweden, and us.
We all headed outside to do our laundry and have a cold beer in the dining room. It felt like the end of a normal summer day that you had the honor of entirely spending outside. Instead, it was the dead of fall and it was anything but normal. The company made us feel at home.
If you even find yourself in the final 100k of the Camino, you can’t miss this hostel. There are several massive statues of ants in the backyard–a reference to how pilgrims look like a line of ants as they walk. If you’re scared of ants, this is not the place for you.
“What is this, an albergue for ants?” Ben and I joked every few minutes, unable to resist an incredibly specific opportunity for a Zoolander joke.
The only caveat to our peace turned up when reached up to scratch what I thought was a bug bite on the side of my neck. Had I also been stung by that wasp that attacked our roommate? But instead of one bump, I found many bumps. Lots and lots of bumps.
“Ben, do I have a rash all over my neck?” I asked in a hurry.
He and the Swedish man confirmed it. We never figured out if it was heat rash, a wild parsnip reaction, or something else, but I later read that stinging nettles–another common issue on the Camino–was one of the top reasons people LEFT the Camino early. I normally wouldn’t include a story here about a gross rash, but when you’re on a time crunch to walk another 75km in three days, the last thing you need is a threat of a medical issue.
I had to admit that the friction of this trip was wearing on me. All of my Caminos in the past had their challenges, but there’s no question that the Covid restrictions, time crunch, and general leftover fear after a year and a half of Covid were catching up with me. And after a long discussion with the table about the difficulties of finding beds, I feared–yet again–that maybe we weren’t supposed to be here.
I tried to push the thought out of my mind. We had three more days to walk and the last thing I needed was an attack of morals and purpose after coming so far.