Day 34: Lavacolla – Santiago and Goodbye

I left the hotel joyfully in the morning, knowing that I was walking the final ten kilometres to Santiago. On the way I met the three amigos (Frank, Jill and Brett) and we stopped at Monte de Gozo, five kilometres from Santiago, to catch a glimpse of the city below. An hour or so later we entered the old town with its narrow streets and lovely artisan shops. Although they were charming, all I really wanted to see was the cathedral spire, and when it came into view, all roads led to Santiago de Compostela. Once we arrived in the square in front of the cathedral I left my rucksack in the care of others while I headed for the swanky Parador to use their facilities and Brett went to find his hotel.

Inside the cathedral we searched for a seat, but it appeared they were all taken until some people squeezed a little closer to accommodate Frank, while Jill and I pitched our rucksacks against a stone column and got ourselves comfortable. Then we waited, and when Brett arrived he joined us on the floor. During Mass I felt completely at home. I thought of my mother, in particular, whose anniversary it was, and of a friend who was having an operation that day. I didn’t say formal prayers – I didn’t have the words and they didn’t seem necessary – I just held them in my heart and hoped that would be enough. Then I walked to receive Holy Communion, each footstep a sincere prayer of gratitude for the privilege of being there.

Outside after Mass, I looked around to see who else I knew and I met Eugene. He told me that he had decided to leave Santiago in the afternoon and take a bus to where his wife was staying in Portugal. That had not been his intention when the day started and he still had to break the news to his walking companion, Heather. While I was surprised that he wasn’t staying to celebrate, at the same time I understood his desire to be reunited with his wife. Such a journey has a profound impact on the heart.

In the evening I met my Brazilian friend Manoel who had been such a significant support to me in the first two weeks. The last time I had seen him was in Ponferrada where he was recuperating for a few days. I was delighted to learn that he had walked the last one hundred kilometres, despite the injury that had stopped him in his tracks ten days earlier.

Last Supper Contingent

Later I joined Mike, Jackie, Brett, Frank and Jill among others for the last supper and had a wonderful meal, followed by churros (doughnuts) with hot chocolate. But afterwards I headed away early to be alone with my loss, while my comrades seemed to be in more celebratory mood. In the last few days leading up to my arrival in Santiago I didn’t want the Camino to end. Of course I wanted to arrive in Santiago, but I didn’t want the adventure to be over. I had been on a long walk with my soul, exploring and discovering its deepest longing, and although it had been the most difficult experience of my life, it was also the most transformative, all of which meant that being in Santiago was bittersweet – the joy of arriving and the sadness of ending. For me, it was like being without my best friend.

Earlier in the day when I had picked up my Camino certificate, I noticed how little it meant. In 2011, I had received a certificate of completion for walking the last one hundred kilometres of the Camino and it had meant a lot to me. Second time around I didn’t need it; I knew I had walked the Camino. It had taken me thirty-four days and my achievement felt deeply personal. Its meaning was something only I could know, and there was no certificate for that!

Next day while I sat in a café over breakfast, I noticed a line of rucksacks resting against the counter and my heart jumped with longing to still be part of the pilgrim community. I assumed they were heading to Finisterre to meet the sea and what is known as the end of the world, and I wanted to go with them! But this part of my Camino was over. I had just one call to make before leaving; my last trip to the cathedral. Outside, a security guard prevented tourists entering during Mass. As Mass was already in progress, I knew it was pointless to pretend that that was what I had come for, so I told him the truth: I wanted to say goodbye. He indicated that that was good enough and stood back to allow me to enter. Inside, Mass was in full flow and I rested against another of the stone columns, absorbing fully what I was experiencing in my heart. I felt full of gratitude and love for the one who guided me, while I acknowledged, too, the heartbreak of the losses along the way.

At the time I didn’t know what affect the Camino would have on me or how it would change my life. Now, I see it as the threshold that divides my life: the life before and the life after.

The Camino is in me now.

Day 33; Ribadiso – Lavacolla – 32 km

I set out knowing I was on schedule to arrive in Santiago the following day with just forty-two kilometres remaining. What I really wanted was to arrive in time for pilgrim Mass at midday. It was important to me that I arrive in my walking clothes with my rucksack straight from the Camino to take my place as a pilgrim before God. That would make my pilgrimage complete. However, the albergues were spread out in such a way as to make that wish impossible. No matter how I calculated the possibilities, I didn’t see how I could arrive in Santiago in time for midday Mass.

With so many pilgrims now within two days of reaching their target, the route had become particularly busy in places, so I decided to let people go ahead while I crossed the road to a café to consider my unresolved dilemma. As I was removing my rucksack I heard my name being called and I looked around to see Frank, Jill and Brett. It transpired that the three of them were planning a long day’s walk to Lavacolla, which would get them within ten kilometres of Santiago. I had stayed in a hotel in Lavacolla the previous year, so I was aware that it was nicely placed for reaching Santiago in time for midday Mass. I had considered it as a possibility myself but dismissed it as I knew the village didn’t have an albergue. Jill and Frank were intending to make a hotel reservation and Jill asked to borrow my phone. She spoke Spanish sufficiently well to make such enquiries whereas I didn’t, and until then I hadn’t considered a hotel a viable or cost effective option. I had anticipated both a lack of availability and a prohibitive cost, given that the hotels were within striking distance of Santiago. However, I was amazed to discover that I could indeed get a hotel room for just €30. Not only that, Brett was staying in the same hotel so I had a dinner date too, while Frank and Jill found an alternative source of accommodation. Synchronicity at it’s best! My decision to cross the road at that moment brought about the resolution to my dilemma.

My perspective on the day was completely changed as I set off again. It would be a long one; thirty two kilometres is no joke, but well worth it in the circumstances. I couldn’t have been happier. I felt as free as a bird as I walked between the eucalyptus trees on my way to Lavacolla. When I reached the hotel and discovered it was real; there was actually a room booked in my name, I felt so relieved. There had been a little worry at the back of my mind that it might not materialise. It was a tiny space but nevertheless a palace in my eyes. I had made it! I could taste it. Ten kilometres from Santiago, something that seemed almost unattainable five weeks earlier. It was a moment to celebrate. I switched on my phone for only the second or third time since I had left home. My Camino was a very internal experience and I had kept it to myself but now I wanted to share my joy with my friends.

In the hotel foyer later as I waited to meet Brett, I noticed my nervousness. It wasn’t really a date, so why was I nervous? I think because of his ministry. Sometimes, I can view people who choose religious life as something other; maybe not entirely relatable. That misperception is probably leftover from childhood and a time when Priests were more revered as high moral authority figures, while the rest of us were the sinners! At the same time I was fascinated by his vocation, and how his partner fitted into his life of ministry. Partnership or marriage isn’t allowed within the Catholic Church so my interest was piqued about Brett’s life of ministry and how it was intertwined with an intimate relationship.

Brett quickly showed me that concerns about his relatability were misplaced. I enjoyed his company very much and he took as much interest in me as I in him. We talked so easily, openly and freely. He was ordinary, approachable and full of good humour. I felt nourished by the encounter and the opportunity to share what gives meaning to me in my life.

I really liked him.

Day 32; Palas de Rei – Ribadiso – 25.8 km

My plan for the day was clear: I was going to walk to Arzúa and spend the night there regardless of what anyone else was doing. Why? The answer to that question lay with my experience of attending Mass in Arzúa the previous year.

On that occasion I knew I was in a special place when I heard the soulful sound of a singing congregation as soon as I entered the church. Then without any knowledge of the language I felt completely enthralled by the Priest when he spoke. It wasn’t what he said as much as where it came from, and I knew the scene was set for a powerful experience.

Moving towards the altar to receive holy communion I felt a oneness with the community of people around me. As I met each person, I watched their facial expressions and the devotion in their movement as they returned to their seats. I experienced a level of grace and connection that is impossible to describe and out of that space the words came; ‘if I die now it’s okay’. It would be okay because I had experienced everything.   

Later the Priest invited the pilgrims amongst the congregation join him at the altar to receive a blessing, and we stood before him in a semi-circle whilst he searched internally for his words. When he spoke, my mind had no idea what he said but my heart recognised their source and tears streamed down my face. I felt loved absolutely.

Mass in Arzúa is a nightly event, just as it is in most towns along the route. The blessing is a nightly event too, yet its impact was such that I felt it was the one and only time it had ever been given. Of course, I wanted to return in the hope of the experience being repeated, without any guarantee that it would be.

During the day I talked to Leo, who was part of the Spanish/Limerick contingent I had met a couple of days earlier in Samos. He told me that he had received reports advising that accommodation in Arzúa was already fully booked. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear and initially I blocked it out. I wasn’t going to be easily diverted from my goal. However, as I thought more about it, I realised that I ought to listen to what I was being told, even though I didn’t like it. The prospect of not being able to get a bed in Arzúa was not one I really wanted to test, and although it wasn’t easy to let go of what I wanted, my day became a lot easier once I did. My Camino was teaching me about flexibility; without realising it, that had been a persistent challenge for me over the previous thirty-two days. By letting go of my fixation on a particular outcome, other things became possible.

That night I stayed in Ribadiso, a hamlet with a couple of albergues two or three kilometres from Arzúa. After the initial relief of checking in and completing my chores, I went to the bar with my journal and a beer, and I noticed how lost I felt without my new friends. In Mike, Jackie, Frank, Jill, Brett and a few others I had found an inclusive circle where I felt safe. I didn’t know where any of them were and I was afraid of losing them. With only two days to go before arriving in Santiago I was afraid that I would be celebrating alone and I didn’t want that.

However, as I sat there Leo came in and joined me at my table while Javier joined some friends he knew. Soon we expanded to become a trio when a UK pilgrim joined us, and when I spotted Heather and Eugene arriving, I invited them over to join us for dinner. The things I worried about sometimes manifested into being while probably mostly they did not!

Day 31; Portomarín – Palas de Rei – 24.8 km

The day started with drizzle and progressed into full-blown rain within an hour or two, and I was back into full rain gear. While some people scurried for shelter I ploughed ahead. Then I realised, much to my dismay, that my waterproof boots were not in fact waterproof! They coped well with showers but were no match for heavy rain. My feet were soaked and I squelched as I walked, fully aware that my blisters were also coming under pressure, as my plasters loosened their protective grip. Up ahead I saw a café and decided that I would stop to change my socks, even though I’d be returning my feet to wet shoes.

The café had a calm, sedate atmosphere without a rucksack in sight. That was unusual. Sitting at the dining tables enjoying lunch were groups of four-star pilgrims (their luggage was transported). By contrast, I sat on a barstool in my waterproof leggings with my rucksack beside me. After a few minutes, Mike made an entrance in his dark green poncho, with Jackie, Frank, Jill and Brett following shortly behind. As we all lined up at the bar, I heard Frank ask Brett what he did in the real world. ‘I’m an Anglican Priest,’ Brett replied. I was certainly surprised; all I knew until then was that he was a four-star pilgrim with an English accent. While I was surprised, I was delighted too; now he really interested me as I have always been fascinated by people who choose a life of service to God. Conversation turned to more immediate matters; accommodation, we were all heading for Palas de Rei and there was some concern about availability. The wet day would force pilgrims to stop earlier than usual, and we were hearing that the private albergues were already booked up. So I decided to head off in advance of the others. Truthfully that wasn’t the only reason for leaving ahead of the group. I seemed to want to be part of it and also on the periphery.

The downpour resumed as soon as I left the café and it continued for the rest of the day. When I arrived in Palas de Rei I was absolutely dripping. On the outskirts, I noted the existence of the municipal albergue, and even though I questioned the wisdom of my desision to walk a further couple of kilometres into town, that is exactly what I did. Nearly an hour later, when I couldn’t get a bed in town, I had to retrace my steps to the municipal albergue, which turned out to be a modern version of Colditz. Even after a hot shower I still felt cold. The small laundry room was, I discovered, the warmest place in the building, so some clothes washing seemed like a good idea.

Soon I realised that my idea was not unique. With the day being so wet, a lot of people wanted to use the machines, and the facilities didn’t quite stretch to accommodate the needs of so many people. In fact, there was a long waiting list; I was fourteenth in line for the dryer, and fifth in line for a washing machine. While I hadn’t bargained on such a long wait, I didn’t have anything else to do. Then five girls got very upset when they returned from lunch to find that someone had removed their clothes from the washing machine. Their discovery was followed by drama and chaos as people argued about what had happened and who was next on the list. The noise, as it was to me, was all in Spanish and carried on until Javier arrived and took charge. He looked like an unlikely leader, as he stood in the middle of the room in his schoolboy shorts; nevertheless he was a leader – he came across as a really genuine man and people listened while he calmed the situation. It was a lot of drama over laundry, but with so few clothes available to pilgrims, laundry is very important business on the Camino.

That night I had a lovely dinner with Frank and Jill in the nearby hotel restaurant. Their walk had begun in León. Jill worked as a teaching assistant in Madrid and had travelled from there, while her father had come from New York. It was Jill who really wanted to do the Camino; Frank was a somewhat reluctant pilgrim. There was much of the whole adventure that he could have done without. He suffered quite a lot with blisters, which made walking tough, but he did like the social aspect, so it wasn’t all bad.

When I look back I see the ways in which I deny the fulfillment of my own needs. Earlier in the day I moved away prematurely from others when I left the café. I had begun to feel vulnerable as they began to discuss accommodation plans. As a four-star pilgrim Bret’s accommodation and evening meal were booked in advance, while Jackie and Mike had each other, and Jill and Frank had each other. Wherever they went, they went together, whereas I was on my own which put me in a more vulnerable position, one I didn’t really want to expose. At such times, it seems like making an exit is the only thing I can do, and then the impact of those decisions hit home later. That night I was lucky to meet Jill and Frank. Being alone is great when it’s what I actually want, but when it’s not what I want, it’s a lonely experience.

Day 30; Sarria – Portomarín – 22.4 km

In the morning I left shortly after 6 a.m. while the Limerick and Spanish contingent slept on. Outside the albergue I met Jim, Richard’s dinner companion from the night before. While we talked, we lost our way in the darkness, but doubled back before we got into too much trouble. Soon we were tangled up with quite a few other pilgrims and I was content to just follow, trusting that those ahead could see where they were going. There seemed to be an influx of Spanish pilgrims walking the last one hundred kilometres to Santiago, so it was quite noisy. When a group of Spaniards got together, no matter what time of day, they could be loud, and so I looked forward to getting away from them.

As the morning stretched out before us, so too did the line of pilgrims, and I separated from Jim until we met again mid morning over coffee. At the café I saw Kathy with her group and we chatted briefly before she moved on again. Then Peter, a man from Dublin who was travelling with his wife, took a seat nearby. I greeted him; we had walked together briefly a few days earlier, although his expression told me that he didn’t remember me. Then after my companions left, he came over to make amends for forgetting me and we left together to walk the ten kilometres to Portomarín.

Peter didn’t seem to notice that I shrunk as our walk progressed; by the time we got to Portomarín I was feeling utterly crushed. Although he walked alongside me, Peter seemed oblivious to me, as he talked and talked. There was no connection between us; we were walking alongside each other without actually meeting. My experience with Peter helped me to connect with another pain within and I knew I needed my own space; I couldn’t stay in a crowded albergue. At the bridge on the entrance to town I left him to wait for his wife while I went ahead to find a hotel.

In the hotel I waited as a young couple checked in, but when it was my turn the receptionist told me they were full. Fortunately, a young male employee with very good English overheard the conversation and told me they had rooms with shared facilities on the top floor for €25. That was all I needed: a room; sharing facilities wasn’t an issue. He showed me such kindness as he took my rucksack and escorted me upstairs, telling me that as I was first to arrive, the place was mine. It was as though he could see what I needed.

The impact of his seeing me was powerful. Once inside the room, I broke down into convulsive tears as the crushed part of me expressed itself. What I felt was absolute abandonment. It was too intense to be about missing the people whom I had met and parted from on the Camino. I knew this pain had earlier, deeper roots.

After I slept, I ventured out with my journal to get a beer and do some writing. There were lots of bars, but I wanted somewhere quiet. When I finally found one that met my needs I ordered my drink, and while I waited for it to come I heard my name called. It was Jackie; she was with Mike, Jim (the Alaskan) and Dave (the New Zealander). I couldn’t believe it. Of all the bars in town we could have chosen, how did we all end up in the same one? I joined them, even though I wasn’t sure I was ready for company. But within a short time I discovered it was just what I needed.

Frank and Jill, a father and daughter duo from New York, joined us too and we all became so comfortable that we stayed in the bar for dinner. Later, we were expertly guided through a selection of local aperitifs by the young male hotel employee who had helped me find a room; he turned out to also be a barman. Then we went outside, wrapped up, to enjoy our drinks and the remainder of the night. By then I felt relaxed. I really liked the people I was with; it felt like being in a family. Mike and Jackie were clearly at the helm, as they created the welcoming environment for waifs and strays to come into the fold. We might not have met at all that night, so I felt really blessed with good fortune. It was also nice to have the freedom of a hotel and not to have a curfew to comply with.

Earlier, when we were in the bar, Darren had come in and I waved to him, but he looked a bit preoccupied. I guessed he was asking about accommodation; it was about 9 p.m., very late to be looking for somewhere to sleep. When I saw him leave, I was in two minds about whether to go after him. I was worried in case he couldn’t find anywhere to stay and I wondered if I should offer to let him sleep in my room. When I confided my thoughts to Mike, he asked me whether that was what I really wanted. No, it wasn’t what I wanted. I was torn between what I wanted for myself and my impulse to rescue Darren, which came from my own fear of being unable to find room at the proverbial inn. Then as we sat outside later, the Australian woman with whom Darren had left Villafranca a few days earlier, came by our table. She had just arrived and was staying a few doors down. I guessed then that she was with Darren, so I knew he wasn’t homeless after all and I was very glad that I hadn’t interfered or acted on impulse.

Day 29; Triacastella – Sarria – 25 km

I wasn’t the only pilgrim to sleep well. The hospitalero had to wake up the whole dorm at 7 a.m., which was when we made the collective discovery that it was pouring with rain, and I mean really pouring. While I was still mentally adapting to the sight of such rainfall, I became aware of a heated exchange between some agitated pilgrims and the hospitalero. He was being confronted with suspicions that there were bedbugs, which featured high up on the list of ills a pilgrim might face. Some marks on the bed above mine were being pointed to as evidence, along with suggestions that they might have fallen into my sleeping bag. But there was no certainty that we had bedbugs at all, so I shrugged off the fuss and hoped, as I packed my sleeping bag back into my rucksack, that I was not also taking some unwanted companions with me.

Breakfast was a non-event – I hadn’t been able to make it to the supermarket the day before. A very sweet cappuccino from the vending machine had to do while I applied extra padding to my blistered feet before departure. The dining room was busy with pilgrims, taking longer than necessary, it seemed, to don their waterproof ponchos before venturing out into the pouring rain. With my waterproof leggings on for the first time, I went back upstairs to tell Branu I was leaving. ‘How can you say that!’ he exclaimed. His surprise that I could just leave when I was ready to go was evident. Feeling a bit guilty then, I told Kirsten I would text her after I found a café for breakfast. Truthfully, that was to soften the blow that I was leaving without them. Although we sometimes walked together, I didn’t feel obliged to do so. I wanted the freedom to make the choice that was right for me on any given day.

The rain was still falling as I headed towards the main street, and I discovered that the restaurant we had dined in the night before was open for breakfast. However, when I went inside I realised I didn’t actually want breakfast at all; what I wanted was to walk. Although I remembered what I had said to Kirsten, the bother of removing my rucksack to search and text in the dark and the rain was something I couldn’t face, so I just kept going. As I walked through town, I saw other pilgrims spill out onto the street in the half light of the early morning, and I felt there was already something different about the day, without being quite sure what it was.

Most pilgrims were heading for Sarria, the town where many pilgrims begin to walk the last one hundred kilometres to Santiago. There were two routes: one shorter and more direct, the other route was longer because it looped around to include the village of Samos, the site of an abbey and Benedictine monastery. As I hoped to walk a little further than Sarria, I intended to take the shorter route and initially I thought I had succeeded – that is, until I could no longer deny the fact that the road signs indicated I was en route to Sarria via Samos. Just like that, any realistic possibility that I would get beyond Sarria that day was gone. We had had lots of discussion the previous evening about whether or not to visit Samos, and although it had not been my plan, it was seemingly on my path.

As I looked at the poncho-wearing group along the road ahead of me, I observed for the first time a pilgrimage before my eyes. It was a scene I hadn’t witnessed previously. There was a mystical quality to the sight of poncho-wearing, slow-moving pilgrims with sticks in one or both hands. It was striking in its simplicity and reverence. People were talking quietly, if at all, and there was something much more devotional about the procession than usual.

The arrival of the rain seemed to bring a lightness and freshness to the experience. I remember in particular walking through a small wood where the branches intertwined overhead to give shelter from the rain. This brought me into very close contact with the beauty and perfection of the raindrops as they sat on the leaves in their simple Buddha-like poses. Coming out of the woods, Samos soon opened up and I saw the monastery stand imposingly on my right at the entrance to the village.

Earlier I had met Mike and Jackie, a couple from Limerick, for the first time. Initially I stuck up conversation with Jackie before falling into step with Mike while Jackie walked behind with Marlene from Belgium. Mike referred to himself as a passionate Christian and we quickly got to talking about life and, of course, God. I enjoyed his company very much; he had an open, inclusive way of interacting with the world. When we reached Samos, Mike and I were ahead of the others and as we were longing for breakfast, we headed straight for a café.

Afterwards, we approached the abbey and were advised by someone on the steps to be quick as it was about to close. When we got inside, a young monk came towards us, making a key-locking gesture with his hands. In the brief time we were there, I took in the tranquil holy atmosphere within the abbey; I would have loved to attend Mass. I considered waiting in the village for the next Mass, but people outside were talking about different Mass times. Some said Mass would be another hour while others said two hours, and as I knew Sarria would be busy with pilgrims, I didn’t want to get there too late. Faced with such uncertainty, I decided to continue my walk and return another day to Samos.

On leaving the village I pulled away from the others, as I wanted to walk alone for a while. I wanted to reflect on what meeting Richard had meant to me. As I walked, I wept with gratitude for the feelings he awoke in me. I felt alive, excited and playful, and I knew he had touched my soul. The whole experience felt like heart medicine, and I decided that if we met in Sarria I would let him know how he impacted me.

In the afternoon, although much of the route followed the road, it was really peaceful, uninterrupted by traffic except for a tractor. Walking along quiet, winding country roads felt completely different to walking on busy main roads, and for most of the day I didn’t meet another living soul – that is, until I heard Dave from New Zealand walking behind me. We introduced ourselves and talked only briefly before he powered on ahead of me.

Close to Sarria I rejoined the Limerick couple, and as we arrived in town we followed Javier and Leo, two pilgrims they knew, into the municipal albergue. As we settled in, Jackie asked me if I would like to join them for dinner later and I said I would, although in truth I wasn’t in much of a social mood by then. I needed some time alone and headed out with my journal to find a bar and a beer. Failing to find a bar nearby, I opted for a lovely Italian café and a glass of wine. There, I talked to the Italian man who was the café owner and he told me about setting up his new business with his Spanish wife. Then while he swept the wet leaves from the floor, the most beautiful furry kitten appeared to play with the leaves and the sweeping brush. She was thoroughly irresistible and when I picked her up, the owner asked if I wanted to take her with me. Ha ha! She had strayed into their lives a few weeks earlier and had taken up residence with them. Later, he asked if I would like to come back the following summer to give his wife a break – in the kitchen!

As I sat in the café I longed for a connection with someone who really knew me, someone with whom I could bear my soul. The people I felt closest to were gone and I was starting over again. During the day I had discovered that Branu and Kirsten were staying in Samos, and although I had said I would join Mike, Jackie and the others for dinner, I wanted to stay where I was. The owner came over to me as the café filled. ‘You tell me if and when you want your dinner here,’ he said. I felt really touched that he was taking care of me and tears flowed down my cheeks. The full power of the Camino experience happens in the most unexpected ways and circumstances; the connection I longed for came from an unexpected source. It had been a day of abundance: meeting Mike and Jackie, Samos, walking, feeling my connection with Richard and then the café owner.

While I was having dinner, Richard came in with Jim, an Alaskan man I had met briefly earlier in the day. Seeing me, Richard came over, expressing his surprise, for he had expected me to have gone further. I told him about my unexpected detour to Samos, which had been absolutely worth it. He asked if I wanted to join them and I declined. I knew it was time to move on. Then as I was leaving, I went across to where they were sitting and told Richard that I had really enjoyed meeting him and that he had touched my heart.

Back at the albergue and ready for bed, I took out my book to read while I waited for the others to return. When they did, I was informed that they had come back to look for me a few times during the evening. I apologised and told them where I had been. They didn’t mind; they weren’t offended. Javier asked me what I was reading and I exposed the cover so he could see Conversations with God. ‘What are you reading that stuff for,’ the Spaniards chimed, before recommending their own reading material. I just laughed, feeling pleased that I didn’t need to hide my book cover.

Before lights out, Mike came over and sat on the edge of my bunk with his bible in his hand and took out photographs of his daughters to show me. It was a lovely gesture of welcome and inclusion.

Day 28; La Faba – Triacastela – 26 km

In the morning, Branu and Kirsten were just sitting down to breakfast as I was ready to leave. Although we had planned to leave together, I could see they were pretty relaxed, so I said I’d meet them for coffee later and left. The guidebook had promised some spectacular views on the way to O Cebreiro, but the morning was cold, misty and foggy and I could only see a few yards in front of my feet.

At the entrance to O Cebreiro stood a tall majestic tree that seemed to announce the special place the village held at the top of the mountain. Passing through, I headed for the church and met Richard emerging from it. Inside, the church was more understated than most I had seen. I liked the simplicity; the seats were made of plain dark wood while the walls were devoid of the usual baroque grandeur. However, what usually engages my attention in a church is how I feel. Despite the noise and activity of those around me, I felt really at peace and I knelt down to pray. As I did so, I realised that I felt torn between wanting to stay and wanting to go. I thought that if I left, I might be able to manipulate an encounter with Richard in the village. Then as I contemplated my dilemma, I felt clear that if I allowed distraction to steer me, I would be straying from my intention to walk this pilgrimage with sincerity. In hindsight, I see it as a test of faith and perhaps the most important decision I made on the Camino.

While I waited for Kirsten and Branu, I walked around O Cebreiro before stopping for coffee and cake. Just as I was about to leave they appeared. By that time our schedules were out of sync and I decided to continue walking alone. As the fog cleared, a warm day was revealed and with a full heart I left O Cebreiro. Around me the landscape felt intimate again; animals grazed in fields of lush green grass, wildflowers grew in the hedgerows and I felt connected to my surroundings. Being physically close to the bushes, the trees and the brambles connects me with my internal home, and my connection with the landscape brought forward thoughts of all the people I had met on my Camino, as well as my family and friends at home, and I felt tremendous gratitude.

During the day I was reunited with Kirsten and Branu, but as the afternoon progressed I went ahead of them. I expected Triacastela would be busy and I thought it best if one of us went ahead to get beds for the three of us. Arriving in town at about 5 p.m., I saw a ‘Full’ sign posted outside the municipal albergue, and my concern about finding accommodation increased. Then as I walked on further, I met a local woman dressed in black who told me that everywhere was full, but that I wasn’t to worry – she had a room in her house for €30. I hoped she was a chancer and I thought she probably was. When I asked two young German lads I knew about accommodation, they told me they had got the last two beds in their albergue; they also told me that the woman in black had peddled the same yarn to them. Further along, I saw more ‘Full’ signs and my anxiety deepened. Then at the end of town I entered the last albergue on the street. Inside there was no sign of the hospitalero, and while I waited I peeked into the ground floor dorm and saw some empty beds. What a delightful sight!

Later, as I stood brushing my teeth, Branu emerged from the shower. ‘What now?’ he asked. ‘A beer, and then dinner,’ I suggested. Although clothes washing could wait for another day, some tasks could not be delayed. Branu needed to go to the bank and the supermarket, while I needed to tend to my feet before going out. As there wasn’t enough space or sufficient light to carry out the necessary foot repairs in the dorm, I went downstairs to the entrance foyer cum dining room. While I worked, Richard appeared at the open doorway. ‘Just in time! I’m in need of a doctor,’ I said. I was delighted to see him, though it turned out that he knew less about tending blisters than I did. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t even have to leave the albergue to meet him. We talked about the day and I asked if he would like to join us for a drink. He accepted. I felt so excited.

As Richard and I walked through the narrow, pedestrianised main street full of bars and restaurants looking for a table in the evening sun, I heard my name called. To my surprise I saw Kathy, my American friend. I couldn’t believe it; I thought she would be at least a day ahead of me. The moment we embraced, I knew that what we had shared together was over. Although walking with Kathy had been one of the most beautiful and spiritual encounters of my whole Camino experience, I knew then that the purpose of our meeting had already been served. She was with a new group of Spanish pilgrims, as well as her earlier walking buddy Vanessa, and that was okay with me. I was happy walking my own Camino.

At dinner with Kirsten and Branu talk turned to home. Richard was coming to the end of his Camino, and that was when I found out that he was going home to his wife. Initially I became quiet as I felt my disappointment register, but I didn’t withdraw from conversation. In Richard I had found a kindred spirit, and I was able to continue enjoying our playful banter for the remainder of the evening, even though I had fantasised about more. When we parted later, it really felt like the final goodbye. He was heading for Sarria the next day while I thought I might go a little further.

That night I slept like a log.

Day 27; Villafranca del Bierzo – La Faba – 25 km

At breakfast, I met Kirsten and Branu and we talked about how far we would walk that day. It appeared that most pilgrims were focused on getting to the top of the mountain to a village called O Cebreiro, thirty kilometres from Villafranca. To reach it, we had a choice of routes: the shorter road route with a steep climb at the end, or the longer mountain route with a steep climb at both ends. Those intent on making it to O Cebreiro in one day took the shorter road route to save their energy for the ascent at the end of the day. As my feet and I disliked road walking, we decided to take the longer mountain route and stay overnight in a small village part way up the second mountain.

Kirsten left the albergue with me. She seemed very nervous about making a mistake and sought confirmation from others as we were leaving town. For her, the events of the previous day must have still been vivid. At the place where we needed to decide whether to take the mountain or the road route, I felt very clear about which way I was going, despite the steep climb that was immediately evident. However, Kirsten was torn, probably because Branu wasn’t with us; she didn’t know which way he would go, or when and if they would be reunited. She seemed to feel swayed towards the road route, as all the pilgrims we met were going that way. I advised her to do whatever she wanted, since I would still take the mountain route whatever her decision. At the same time, there was a small voice inside my head wondering if it was really so wise to be going up a mountain on my own. After some hesitation Kirsten came with me, although I knew she still felt uncertain about her decision. A kilometre or so later, when we looked below us, we saw the pilgrim procession along the road in the distance and agreed that we had made the right decision.

Crossing the mountain we met only two people: one a local farmer and the other a fast-moving pilgrim. After ten kilometres we arrived in the town where the two routes converged. For me it couldn’t come soon enough. Tiredness had really hit me as I descended, and thoughts of a chocolate croissant with a café con leche kept me motivated for the last kilometre or two. Half an hour later we took off again along the road. By then it was midday and hot, and my feet were really objecting to the hard road surface. Although I slowed down, my Achilles tendon ached and I became more and more ill-tempered. If truth be told, I really wanted to walk alone, but I couldn’t see how I could get away. I knew Kirsten would follow no matter how far I went. She had to be with me and I resented her dependence on me. I didn’t want to make small talk or big talk; I didn’t want to talk at all. Just walking was as much as I could manage.

Although I didn’t have a clear plan as to where exactly I would stay, I hoped to make it to La Faba, a village five kilometres from O Cebreiro. Kirsten had heard about a ‘hippy albergue’ in La Faba and wanted to stay there; initially I agreed. However, when we arrived in the village, a man told me about an alternative hostel and advised that it was the best place he had stayed so far. An unsolicited albergue recommendation was very rare, so I knew it warranted an investigation. But Kirsten didn’t want to come with me, so we were at another point of conflict, just as we had been at the beginning of the day. While I was clear about where I was going, Kirsten was reluctant. As I walked away she stood undecided at the top of a little hill, although I guessed she would follow me in the end.

The albergue was well run by a couple of German women, and on arrival I felt really welcomed, not something I had experienced everywhere. Often, arriving at an albergue was a very impersonal, transactional experience. It was always so nice to be greeted warmly and to have a sense that the hospitalero had some insight into what it took to continue to walk each day. As the German hospitalero enquired about my day, my reply was overheard by a male pilgrim passing through the foyer. ‘I recognise that accent,’ he said. He had clearly arrived sometime before me, as he was already showered and changed. I hoped we’d meet again later – I recognised his accent too.

A few minutes into the check-in process, Kirsten walked through the door and I was happy to see her. Perhaps I was slow to admit that this was the part of the day when I needed her more. With the resentment and friction of the day forgotten, we agreed to go to the bar for a drink once the chores had been completed. While I waited for Kirsten in the dormitory, the man I had spoken to earlier came in and introduced himself. Richard lived in my home county of Wexford, so we had something in common from the off. He asked if he could join us for a drink and as we walked up the little hill to the village, I found myself clicking with him straight away. It was a friendship born in immediate playfulness. Truthfully, I felt excited in his company and I hadn’t felt excited for some time. We had dinner in the local bar, where we were joined later by Branu who had walked back from O Cebreiro, having failed to secure accommodation. During dinner it emerged that Richard worked as a doctor. I wasn’t surprised; he had an air of calm, and my sense was that he was used to being in charge. I could really imagine people feeling safe in his hands.

On the way back to the albergue, I walked ahead with Branu while we played with our shadows under the street light. However, we sobered up quickly when we realised the dorm was in complete darkness on our return. Switching on overhead lighting was not an option – a riot might have broken out. Finding what I needed, then getting onto the top bunk and into my sleeping bag without making too much noise or injuring myself was not easily achieved.

Although I didn’t admit it to Kirsten or Branu, I liked Richard. I had learned that he had a daughter, but he didn’t wear a wedding ring so his marital status wasn’t clear. But I liked him and I was hoping…….

Day 26; Ponferrada – Villafranca del Bierzo – 23.5 km

The albergue staff switched on the overhead lighting at 6 a.m., and with the brightness difficult to ignore, I sprung out of bed quickly. The three strangers I had shared the dorm with were early starters and had already left. Kirsten, on the other hand, was slow to mobilise herself; I had finished breakfast before she appeared, she looked exhausted after her long trek the previous day, even putting on boots seemed to take a lot of her energy.

Although we began walking together, Branu gradually fell behind and soon we couldn’t see him at all. It became apparent as we walked through the commercial district, which was completely different to the quaint old city, that Ponferrada was a lot bigger than we’d anticipated. With the city signs competing with one another for attention, I lost sight of the Camino and began to follow another pilgrim, assuming she could see what I could not. Mistake! It transpired that we were following Elizabeth from Dublin, and I don’t know who she was following. She worked as a teaching assistant in Madrid and had good Spanish, which came in handy, as we were lost. If I had been on my own I would have retraced my steps, but I felt safe in numbers and had faith that we would find our way back. However, Kirsten was less trusting – of me, of herself, or anyone else; mostly, perhaps, she was worried about being parted from Branu.

About two hours later we were reunited with the Camino and shortly afterwards, Kirsten and I stopped at a café. Darren was there ahead of us and I was pleased to see him, as I needed some light relief. Walking with Kirsten for the previous couple of hours had been draining, so I was glad of Darren’s company. The three of us left together after coffee, and as the morning progressed into afternoon, Darren and I laughed our way through story after story. We were as carefree as school kids on a day off. I really don’t recall what we were laughing at, but it all seemed funny at the time. After a while, Kirsten dropped back and later I saw her in a bar having a beer with Heather and Eugene.

In Villafranca, the albergue of popular choice was referred to as the ‘hippy place’. Run by a family who had been tending to pilgrims for years, it felt more like a community than usual, and it was clear that the family enjoyed the role they played. The upstairs dorms were accessed by external staircases while balconies overlooked the courtyard below, and as I observed the flow of movement from my vantage point in the queue, I had the feeling of being on holiday.

When Darren and I got to the top of the registration line, we were allocated a double bunk bed – not ideal, but I knew I would be okay. I felt really happy. I knew so many people; Kirsten had arrived with Heather and Eugene, and I was especially pleased to see Branu a little later. Even before he showered, he ordered a bottle of wine and the three of us pooled our food resources for a lovely impromptu picnic. Those were some of the best moments. I felt so fond of Branu. Sometimes we had deep philosophical conversations and at other times we would just look at one another and laugh. I felt no pressure from him or with him. I could come and go as I pleased and we would be happy to meet whenever we did. He was also the bridge that connected me to Kirsten; we seemed to need his laid-back let’s-have-some-fun attitude as an antidote to the intensity between us. His appearance often put things into perspective for me, and I would suddenly find my playfulness again.

Then after a lovely day I found myself drifting away and disconnecting in the evening. I didn’t seem to know what to do with myself and I felt at a loss. At the communal dinner, I struggled to participate in conversation; it took so much energy for me to talk at all. I could see Darren further down the table; he seemed to be getting along well with the girl on his right and I wondered if I had lost my companion.

Day 25; Foncebadón- Ponferrada – 25 km

Cruz de Ferro, a famous Camino landmark, is a huge iron cross originally erected to help pilgrims find their way across the mountain. Over the years, a large mound has formed at its base as pilgrims have added a stone, brought from home, to symbolise what they want to leave behind and their readiness for rebirth on the last leg of the Camino. Legend has it that when the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was being built, pilgrims were asked to contribute to its building by bringing a stone; hence the tradition at Cruz de Ferro.

As I approached, I could see lots of people already there, standing amongst the stones and taking photographs. Not only had I missed the sunrise, but I didn’t have a stone. Still, I wanted to participate in the ritual along with everyone else. Stitched to my rucksack was a multicoloured ribbon, which for me represented joy, and I placed it between the stones. Put simply I wanted joy and play to have more prominence in my life.

Walking across the mountain and through its villages was an uplifting experience. The picture perfect alpine village of El Acebo particularly stood out. I imagined people holidaying in the quaint, historic houses with their rickety balconies overhanging the narrow street, and for a while I felt more on holiday too – that is, until I was struck by the realisation that nothing big was going to happen to me on the Camino. It was like a bolt out of the blue. Suddenly, it became clear to me that I would be exactly the same person when I returned home as I had been when I started out. I could hardly believe that could be true. It was a reality I hadn’t bargained for, and in response I felt really angry and disappointed. What on earth was this Camino all about?

Before arriving in the town of Molinaseca, where I stopped for coffee, I had managed to walk off or at least park my anger. Inside the café I met Darren, the Irishman I had briefly encountered in Foncebadón, and we struck up easy conversation, which helped me forget my morning’s disappointment. Later we left together to continue our journey. Darren was good company and I felt really relaxed, until we arrived at the enormous municipal albergue in Ponferrada. The registration process took place outside in the courtyard, and as I stood in the queue with Darren I began to feel uncomfortable about the possibility of sharing a dorm with him. But I needn’t have worried; I was allocated a small room with two bunk beds and three new companions.

After a nap I made my way to the kitchen with my journal and took a seat at one of the long tables. Although I had slept, I felt unbelievably tired on all levels. I began to reflect on what I had discovered earlier in the day. My expectation that something big would happen was really a fantasy, a belief that I would become somebody or something else. It’s not that I actually wanted to be another person, more a case that just being me wasn’t really enough: I had to be something. Once the initial shock, anger and disappointment had worn off, what I felt was total relief. I realised that I had been saved from the utter disappointment of arriving in Santiago expecting my fantasy to be fulfilled there. So as I sat in the albergue that evening I knew something big had happened, just not the kind of big I had anticipated.

Later that night while I was food shopping, I met Branu for the first time in four days. He had just arrived in Ponferrada, which hardly seemed believable, as it was 9 p.m. I couldn’t imagine that he would have dawdled so much along the way that he needed to walk in darkness to get to his destination. Over a glass of wine in the albergue courtyard, I discovered that he had walked with Kirsten to Molinaseca, intending to stay there, but that they had arrived too late for beds. While they could have shared a hotel room, it was not Branu’s style, so instead of spending a relaxing evening at Molinaseca, they had set out on the additional eight kilometre walk to Ponferrada. Although Kirsten was a good walker, she was nearly thirty years older than Branu, and I wondered if it was something she went along with rather than wanted.

Our time to catch up that night was fairly short – the 10 p.m. curfew arrived all too soon – but we agreed to leave together to continue our reacquaintance in the morning. When I got to my room, it was in complete darkness and the ladder that had been there earlier to help me reach the top bunk had mysteriously been removed. After a couple glasses of wine, I was both a little tipsy and a little noisy in my endeavours to get to bed. But since I blamed one of my room-mates for moving my ladder, I wasn’t too bothered about the grunts that communicated their displeasure.

Day 24; Astorga – Foncebadón – 27.2 km

As the Camino curved its way back into the mountains, the landscape transitioned from the vast sparseness of the Meseta into vibrant, intimate abundance. It felt like a new beginning, an emergence from the womb into an exciting new world. Most pilgrims I knew were intending to stay the night in Rabanal, a town at the bottom of the mountain, but I wanted to be higher up. When I saw Christine waiting for the albergue to open, I went over to say goodbye. ‘Go be with your spirit in the mountain,’ she said. Her words touched me, and I wondered if she had seen more of me than I realised.

That night I decided to stay in a community albergue that offered bed, dinner and breakfast on a donation basis. The evening meal was determined by the shopping done earlier by the volunteer warden, and the pilgrims cooked and ate as a community. Until then I had avoided such places; I wanted to be on the outside of the community, not part of it. On arrival, I was told by the American warden that all the beds had been taken, but that I could have a mattress on the floor if I wished. This was followed by more disappointing news: there was no hot water. The man who had gone for gas hadn’t returned, nor was his return that day guaranteed. Since I had already decided I would stay there I wasn’t easily deterred, and I followed the warden to a room full of mattresses and a mix of German and American students. ‘We have one more,’ he announced. Immediately the students began to rearrange themselves to accommodate me. Then later they took over cooking dinner, while I and many others only had to turn up to the table.

Foncebadón was more of a hamlet than a village; there was no place to go and nothing to do but relax on the veranda. While most people with beds slept, I enjoyed talking to a French couple who were cycling the Camino. It wasn’t often that I got a chance to talk to cyclists, as they generally stayed in different albergues to walkers. Just before dinner I took a short stroll, and while I was out I met Darren, an Irishman from County Meath. He was continuing his Camino after a stint as an artist in residence in Carrión de los Condes. But someone called ‘Dinner’, which put an end to our chat, as I was more than ready for food. Afterwards, I didn’t even wash dishes as there were so many hands available for work. Instead, I sat back on the veranda making a bracelet with elastic bands, colourful beads and letters of the alphabet.

At bedtime most of us headed for sleep in anticipation of reaching Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on the Camino, in time for sunrise the following morning. However, for me sleep came slowly and as I lay on the thin mattress on the concrete floor, I felt cold and couldn’t avoid for long the call of nature. To reach the bathroom I had to overcome both psychological and physical barriers. Firstly, I had to persuade myself to get out of my sleeping bag when I really didn’t want to. Secondly, I had to give myself permission to make the necessary noise, as everything I was about to do involved discomfort for me and disturbance for others. With permission granted, my release began with the noisy separation of the Velcro strips on my sleeping bag, the equivalent of opening a packet of crisps in the cinema during the quiet bits of the film. Then I switched on my torch and swished the light around to establish the easiest route to the door without stepping on anybody. Stage one of my mission was successfully accomplished. Next was the dormitory with the beds and the sleeping bodies – the night would not be complete without disturbing them too. Oh, and I got to repeat the process on the way back. What fun!

Day 23; Hospital de Órbigo – Astorga – 15 km

Things did not go to plan. My reliable German alarm clock, Toby, surprised himself and me by sleeping in! Then there was a bit of a scramble in the small room as ten of us tried to get up and pack for departure simultaneously.

Mid morning Kathy and I stopped for an impromptu picnic with Jan and Christian on a hill overlooking the town of Astorga. They had been walking for three months and were well equipped with utensils and food; I watched in awe as they delicately sliced food into small portions to share with us. Christian sat beside me, and although I had felt blessed by his loving fatherly touch a week before, I found it a little too much that morning. I really enjoyed our picnic initially, but after a while I became anxious to move, and we left to continue our descent, leaving Jan and Christian to savour the view.

Arriving in Astorga, I headed to the albergue to register and drop off my stuff while Kathy waited at an outdoor café across from the Gaudí building. We had both wanted to see Gaudí’s work, but it was Monday and the building was closed. So we sat and had some lunch as Kathy battled with her decision to stay in Astorga or walk on further. She was very tired and conflicted. At one point she went and lay on a bench to get some rest while I watched over her rucksack. I began to feel hopeful that she might stay, but I didn’t apply any pressure. While I sat on my own, Eugene and Heather came to join me, enquiring about Kathy’s whereabouts. Then when Kathy returned we sat again for a while until she announced she was leaving, and I accompanied her to the outskirts of town. After we said goodbye, I watched her walk on ahead, noticing how tired she looked with the weight of the huge rucksack on her back. I wandered aimlessly around town afterwards and I was struck very quickly by the loss I felt at her departure.

I felt so sad. I knew I would miss her, but I really, really missed her, and although I hoped to bounce back after a nap, the feeling of loss stayed with me. In the supermarket, I wandered around hoping for inspiration, but I couldn’t make a decision, so I bought some water and sat on a bench in the square. All my energy seemed to have drained out of me; part of me wanted the Camino over because in some ways I felt it was.

In retrospect, I understand more about what was important for me about meeting Kathy and why I missed her so much. She had the capacity to see me and accept me. I felt seen by her as me, rather than some version of me that she might have imagined me to be. Furthermore she was sufficiently contained within herself to listen deeply and I felt safe to share my inner world. I didn’t need to edit my expression or wear a protective mask. In short, we were kindred spirits. Given that, it’s not surprising I felt her absence intensely; such an experience in everyday life is rare. Back home in Colorado, Kathy worked as a school teacher and studied spiritual psychology at Santa Monica University; in my view, what she had could not be studied – it was simply who she was.

Day 22; Leon – Hospital de Órbigo

After a breakfast of tea and toast supplied by the nuns, Kathy and I departed the albergue in high spirits; in fact, it was the most carefree I’d felt in three weeks. Although, initially I enjoyed mingling with other pilgrims as we exited the City, after an hour or so I felt tired and I longed to return to stillness.

With the busyness behind us, the rhythm of the day fell into place as we all spread out again. And in the quietness of the unfolding day, an easy peace settled upon us. We were reunited with life without distraction of any kind and we had nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other. In Kathy’s presence I felt held in a sacred, invisible and powerful container, and I experienced an inner stillness that gave me access to a deeper layer. There was no need to speak, and out of the silence the phrase follow the footsteps of Jesus came to me. It was, in fact, exactly what I felt I was doing in that moment.

It was evening time when we arrived in Hospital de Órbigo, a really beautiful town, but I had no interest in exploring it. My needs were basic after walking 37.5 km and all I wanted was a bed. Kathy planned to reach Santiago a couple of days ahead of me, and for her that meant some very long days. As our time together was limited, I was prepared to push myself for one day, while knowing the next would be a much short one for me.

After dinner I advised Kathy that there was no need to set an alarm. We were sharing the dorm with Toby, a young German man I had first met in Carrión de los Condes, where I discovered that one of his habits was to leave each day by 6 a.m., and I thought he couldn’t do that without disturbing me.

Day 21; Mansilla de las Mulas – León

Day twenty-one marked the end of my journey across the Meseta, and for me the unfortunate arrival in another city. I was sad to say goodbye, as I felt the Meseta had nourished me so well. Many mornings as I left on my own, I had felt that there was someone behind me holding a torch that shone light straight at my feet. Often I had turned around to check, but I was alone. Or was I?

For most of the morning I walked with Eugene and Heather and we talked about the possibility of hopping onto a bus to take us through the suburbs and into the city. My purist attitude of a week earlier had gone; by this time I would have accepted a bus without difficulty. No longer did I think it necessary to walk all the way to Santiago. After a while I let them get ahead of me, and I walked on my own until I met Branu and an anxious Kirsten. Branu approached the city leisurely, browsing the shop windows on the way, while Kirsten worried about finding an albergue. So I asked if she wanted to come with me to the Benedictine convent and let Branu follow in his own time.

The nuns were certainly in charge in what was the only albergue where I experienced men and women with separate sleeping quarters. There was something about the place that I loved; maybe it was that the beds had crisp white sheets – I don’t know. In particular, I loved the safety I felt there. After arriving, Branu, Kirsten and I shared a picnic lunch in the courtyard. While I only had bread to contribute, as usual Branu had enough for both of us. He used his rucksack for carrying food rather than physical attire. When he offered me wine from his yogurt container, I thought he was joking, but I was tempted to find out and it was, in fact, red wine. I was impressed. Kirsten had something of great value too – a sharp penknife – and it was lovely to have actual slices of cheese as opposed to bitten off chunks, which is what I often had. Not only was the experience an upgrade on my own cobbled-together picnics, but it was also better than any café lunch, and I was struck again by Branu’s generosity: he always had food to offer and at all times wanted to share what he had.

As we rested in the aftermath of a satisfying lunch, I spotted Kathy, the American woman with the blisters who had stayed with me at the hotel in Castrojeriz. I was excited and delighted to see her again and we headed off for a drink, although I felt a little guilty about leaving Kirsten and Branu straight after eating. Kathy and I had so much to share that we spent the remainder of the day catching up. I saw nothing of the beauty of León; that would have to wait for another occasion. Later, Kathy gave me her iPod to listen to the poet David Whyte in conversation about Mary Oliver’s poetry. He was offering his thoughts on the importance of retaining innocence in adulthood. That night I drifted off to sleep on my white sheet to the sound of David Whyte’s mystical voice.

Day 20; Calzadilla de los Hermanillos – Mansilla de las Mulas

As I stood in the hallway putting the final touches to my departure preparations, the hospitalero came over and thanked me for staying while he hugged me goodbye. This was an unusual occurrence. Then he pointed me towards the much anticipated seventeen-kilometre section ahead without café or shelter of any kind. Thankfully my visit to the local shop the previous evening had provided me with the necessary sustenance for such an adventure.

Although it was dark at first, in the distance I could see Sergio, a lovely Italian man who had left a few minutes before me. He had very little English, but still we had bonded. We had both received the individual blessing in Carrión de los Condes, and later when we spoke about it, the memory brought tears to our eyes. Sergio was a very purposeful walker so I didn’t catch up with him, nor did I try to; I was happy to walk alone.

Although the red soil felt soft underfoot, it didn’t support any trees for shade and respite from the hot day. Yet I enjoyed walking and felt an extraordinary peace throughout. In some ways the landscape became my playground and I found myself talking to what was around me. The small creatures and the low-level prickly bushes became my companions. Looking ahead and around, everything appeared exactly the same; without anything to distract my eye, there was infinite nothingness, and in that there was everything. It was the most perfect spiritual container, spiritual in the sense that it was so pure: just me and the Camino. It felt like an encounter with God: on the one hand vast and infinite, and on the other so very intimate.

After walking alone for five hours, I stopped at the first opportunity – a bar situated at what was more or less a crossroads. Eugene and Heather were already there when I arrived, as they had powered past me earlier. I felt relaxed in myself and had an easier conversation with Eugene than on any previous occasion. ‘This is the happiest I’ve seen you. You’re shining,’ he said. Almost immediately a discomfort arose in me. Even though he had said something nice, I felt uneasy. After lunch we left together, but I was unable to regain my earlier ease and I wondered what had happened.

At the albergue in Mansilla, the party was in full swing and I felt happy to be there. In the dorms we were packed in like sardines, while outside in the courtyard everyone seemed to be on holiday and I felt my spirit rise. With my return to joy, I began to see the road I had travelled since my Camino began. In particular, I reflected on what Eugene had said to me a week earlier about taking it all too seriously. As I looked back, I saw that my lightness had gone and with it, my light had been all but extinguished. By way of contrast, I thought of Diane, the singing nun from Peru, and how much joy she carried in her soul. What struck me most clearly was the realisation that despite all the people I had met, no one knew me. For the first time I saw how closed I had been to others. So often I had wanted people to move away quickly or I would move myself. I didn’t want anyone to really see me, preferring to be among strangers than people I knew. In hindsight, I could piece together my story and accept without judgement that I wasn’t able to be any other way.

Many times over the previous three weeks, I had thought about a man and a relationship that had ended, but it wasn’t until that day in Mansilla de las Mulas that I acknowledged I was still mending a broken heart. No one knew that; in some ways not even I knew that. I didn’t want my Camino to be about him or about my broken heart; I wanted to be past that and on to another chapter. What I didn’t realise was that I had to go deeper into the pain before I could be free of it; only then could I let go of the hurt, anger and resentment that I was projecting onto the world. Wanting is one thing, being ready is quite another.

Day 19; Ledigos – Calzadilla de los Hermanillos

After half an hour or so without seeing any Camino signs, I began to suspect that I may have missed a turn in the early morning darkness. In the distance I could see some lights and I thought I would reassess my options when I reached the village. However, before I got there a vehicle coming towards me stopped. Two men inside the lorry spoke to me in Spanish and I understood from their gestures that I needed to retrace my steps. They offered me a lift back and I climbed into the cab, fully aware that it was not something I would do at home. When we reached the road I should have taken, the driver stopped the lorry, got out and came around to my side of the vehicle. At first I thought he had done this just to open the door for me, but then I realised as soon as I tried to get out that the weight of my rucksack was pulling me backwards and I couldn’t get out without his help. He stretched out his arms and I threw myself forward into them; he caught me safely and placed me on the ground, just like he might have done with a child.

By then I was about an hour behind schedule. The sun was up and while I walked, I asked God for support. I felt I really needed some holding. At a village further on I stopped, and as I was about to enter a café, I met Branu and Kirsten on their way out. We chatted for a few minutes before they moved on and I went inside. As I was the only person there, I sat at the bar and ordered a coffee and the last chocolate croissant. The barman went about his business, sweeping and tidying up, while I relaxed in the warm, homely atmosphere. A few minutes later, Jan, a Belgian man in his sixties, arrived. We hadn’t met before but actually it’s relatively easy for pilgrims to strike up conversation if they are so inclined. When his French companion Christian, also in his sixties, walked in, he immediately came over and touched my back. His touch was fatherly and not at all intrusive. In fact it was exactly what I needed, and I honestly felt he was an answer to my prayer. As I left the café, happy to set off again, I waved goodbye to Jan and Christian who were sitting outside in the sun, and when I caught up with Anna and Kelly, I told them about my morning and the kindness of strangers.

After lunch in Sahagún we separated again. Anna was staying the night there, while Kelly took the train to León; I was going further on foot. Despite my blistered feet and my adjusted and somewhat uncomfortable gait, I felt uplifted by my morning’s encounters and decided that in the full heat of the afternoon, I would walk another fourteen kilometres. It was a risk, as the village I had set my sights on had only one small albergue and with greater distances between settlements along the Meseta, I thought I might regret my decision.

Before leaving Sahagún, I bought a new supply of plasters and as I emerged from the pharmacy I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw a shop selling flip-flops across the street. Christine had advised me that I needed to air my blisters, that they needed to dry out – otherwise I would have them for the entire Camino. So ruthless had I been in my packing that I had left my sandals at home, taking only light shoes for the evening. Newly stocked up with supplies I set out on my afternoon expedition.

Less than an hour later, I entered a section of the Meseta that was even more barren than anything I had experienced over the previous few days. How I approached the challenge was my choice: I could resent the heat, the lack of shade and facilities, and worry about the possibility of not getting a bed in the albergue, or I could accept the conditions and enjoy the walk. The struggle to accept what I could not change was a central theme of my Camino experience. For a couple of weeks I had clung onto thoughts of how I wanted it to be and resisted accepting the conditions as they actually were. So I decided to take the view that all would be well and that if it came to it, sleeping under a bush wouldn’t be so bad. I had enough food to survive and I could wear everything I possessed to keep me warm overnight, if needed.

In any event, sleeping outdoors was unnecessary; there was, indeed, room at the proverbial inn. The municipal albergue felt really homely; it had a well-stocked kitchen full of items other pilgrims had left behind, while the overall atmosphere was one of welcome. When I arrived, the hospitalero had music playing and candles lit, both of which were soothing to my soul after a long, tiring day. In other respects the accommodation was basic; the comfort was in the heart-centred approach the two hospitaleros brought to their work and interactions.

After the usual arrival routine I went out in search of the local shop and found myself in someone’s front room. I walked into the hallway of his house and there on the left, where a sitting room would normally be, stood a grocery shop. Although odd, it was absolutely adorable. It was like stepping into Aladdin’s cave, where hardly an inch of floor or wall space remained unoccupied. The shopkeeper took on the character of a magician as he pulled out box after box of goodies while he enquired, ‘You want?’ When he opened the fridge to reveal what was in there, it was packed to the rafters. Then he pointed to the wine. ‘You want vino?’ It didn’t seem to matter how I replied, he still had more to show me. Moments like that are part of what makes the Camino so special. He was a tiny man with a large zest for life and the encounter with him made my fourteen-kilometre walk in the afternoon sun all the more worthwhile.

Later over dinner in the albergue, I spoke to Clare from the UK and asked if she had been to the shop. In response, she took out her camera to show me the picture she had taken of a beaming, pint-sized shopkeeper joyfully surrounded by his wares. She also showed me pictures of the local men and women as they sat talking and knitting in the evening sun. In every town and village, people, elderly people in particular, congregated outside their homes or municipal parks. I loved the idea of it and thought about how much my own mother would have enjoyed that life. There seemed to be a public space to rest, to congregate or to just be in every hamlet and village along the way. That night it was the albergue in Calzadillla de los Hermanillos which provided that for me.

Day 18; Carrión de los Condes – Ledigos

Soon after leaving the albergue I fell into step with Branu, a young Slovakian man I had met over breakfast. But we had not gone far when I stopped. My feet were sore, plus I was walking with a slight limp as the blisters made walking difficult. Unable to put my full weight on my feet, other parts of my body compensated and my natural rhythm altered. My hope was that extra padding and a rearrangement of plasters might give me some relief, but even getting my feet in and out of my shoes was painful. As I sat by the side of the road, Branu waited with me, offering plasters and anything else I needed. Then we were joined by Kirsten from Norway who waited with us until I was ready to move again.

The guidebook advised that there would be no facilities for seventeen kilometres. In other words, most of the day would be without any comfort whatsoever. When I mentioned my feelings about this anticipated situation to Branu I was met with optimism. He thought that some enterprising individual would have set up a mobile unit somewhere along the route, and about two hours into our walk his prophecy was realised. A mobile unit selling coffee appeared at the side of the road, and while the taste might not have been up to much, the break was very welcome. We relaxed for half an hour or so and I enjoyed being with my new friends. But as time passed it became apparent that Branu and I were not going to be compatible walking companions. He didn’t mind being out in the sun all day, whereas I did. So I left Kirsten and Branu at the impromptu café to set off again on my own.

The albergue in Ledigos was an interesting collection of somewhat random buildings built onto the rear of a bar that had a large garden and paddling pool. Once settled inside, I discovered that two pilgrims I knew, Anna and Kelly, had a room upstairs in the main building, which I suspected was a bit nicer than the packed outhouse that was my home for the night. In the garden, Christine was paddling her feet in the pool while her friend Sylvia lay in the sun. By contrast I couldn’t take any more of the heat; I was only in the garden to hang out my clothes. After a while, Christine came over and I sought her advice on treating my blisters before enquiring how she was coping. Each day was a struggle for her to remain on the Camino; she wanted to go home. Although I struggled, I never wanted to go home. Maybe that’s because I just wouldn’t give up! But I also had faith in the process, and even though there were times when I really didn’t like what I was experiencing, I knew it would pass.

That evening, while I joined Anna and Kelly for dinner, Christine and Sylvia were short of cash. Instead of the usual pilgrim meal, Christine told me they had two eggs, some bread, yogurt and enough cash for a beer. She wouldn’t take any money from me and later when I saw them in the garden again, I understood why. They were tucking into an appetising omelette sandwich in the evening sun and I could see nothing more was needed. Simple, wholesome and nourishing.

Day 17; Frómista – Carrión de los Condes

I had been walking the Meseta for a couple of days and felt I had entered a different phase of the Camino. There were fewer people, stops and shelter, along with much less variety in the terrain and an elusive horizon far off in the distance. Everything seemed to stretch out. Maybe I had stretched out too; I had certainly slowed down. At last I seemed to accept that there was no such thing as getting ahead.

When I arrived in Carrión de los Condes, I headed for the parish albergue where I met two beautiful young nuns, Maria from Spain and Diane from Peru. At the check-in desk, Maria sat with the male hospitalero inviting pilgrims to join her and Diane for a sing-song before evening Mass. At the appointed time, about twenty of us sat in the foyer in anticipation of being entertained – well, that’s what I anticipated anyway – but before any singing began, we were each asked to introduce ourselves and say what we were looking for from the Camino. I hadn’t expected that. Not only did I feel the discomfort of the truth in the pit of my stomach, I was also first in line to speak. With a shaky voice and a pounding heart I said I was looking for oneness, and just to add to my discomfort, I was asked to repeat what I had said! My mind questioned then whether I had said too much – or perhaps too little; had I been understood? Worst of all, had I sounded too holy?

After Mass the priest, with the help of Maria’s translation, invited the pilgrim congregation to join him around the altar to receive a blessing. Twenty or so of us stood in readiness for what I anticipated would be a group blessing when unexpectedly, the priest asked us to approach him individually. As he laid his hands on each person’s head, Diane sang in joyful accompaniment, and when I looked over at her through my tears she just nodded. I felt she was saying, yes, it’s all here for you. Then when it was my turn, I walked slowly and as consciously as I could to stand in front of the priest. It was an experience I wanted to savour. I didn’t want to miss a thing, and when I received the blessing, I felt the innocent gratitude of a child truly received. In fact it was like making my first communion all over again.

Over the previous two weeks I had received a number of blessings, some particularly special, but none compared to that night.

Day 16; Castrojeriz – Frómista

In the morning the hotel was eerily quiet with no signs of life – so different to waking up in an albergue. At the water fountain I filled my bottle while I observed activity outside the hostel nearby and kept my eye out for people I knew who might have slept there. On the steep climb out of Castrojeriz I thought about Kathy and wondered whether she would need to take another rest day and, of course, if I would meet her again. Then after the exertion of the climb, I stopped for water and rest while I enjoyed the rewarding view back across the valley floor as the early dawn blossomed into full expansive light.

To my surprise, day sixteen marked the arrival of my first blister – after two weeks I had begun to believe that I was fated to walk the Camino without any. The burn began before I stopped for coffee, but I didn’t investigate, so my eventual concern and subsequent treatment was delayed, and for that I would pay the price.

While I walked I enjoyed the solitude, and perhaps for the first time on the Camino I was really in sync with myself, immersed in the rhythm of my own body and soul. At times I felt absolutely at one with my environment, while after reading Conversations with God, I had more compassion for my struggle to accept and be open about my spirituality. For lunch I settled under a tree by the river where it was incredibly quiet and peaceful. That day, lunch comprised more white bread and a tin of tuna. I had bought a pack of three small tins a few days earlier and they proved very handy on the days when cafés were at a premium. Dessert was a gorgeous doughnut-shaped peach.

Arriving later at the albergue in Frómista, I stopped on the way in to chat with Christine who was outside washing clothes. Inside, the place was lovely – well, as lovely as you can get with twenty-odd bunks in one long room and very little natural light. The bunks were newish with proper deep mattresses, unlike at some albergues where the bunks were old and the mattresses very thin. There was also a bench in the room, which meant I had somewhere to sit while I carried out blister repairs. Christine sat beside me while I treated my feet, telling me about the challenges she faced on the Camino. Listening to her helped me feel less alone in my own struggle, and not quite so odd after all.

The albergue offered an evening meal, although the dining room was too small and intimate for me to feel comfortable. What I wanted was to blend in and feel anonymous so I went to a hotel for my pilgrim meal and the obligatory red wine! I also thought I was less likely to bump into people I knew there, particularly Eugene and Heather. I felt they didn’t understand me and I had a sense, sometimes, that they wanted to change me. It was as though we spoke two different languages.

Back at the albergue Christine asked me about dinner; she knew I had gone out. When I told her where I had been, she was surprised that I had gone on my own. Although I knew I could have joined her and Sylvia for dinner, I also knew that I was unable to make small talk. It would have required too much effort on my part. The Camino was bringing up a lot for me to process, and that was where my energy was engaged.

Day 15; Hontanas – Castrojeriz

Leaving Hontanas in the darkness of the morning was a magical experience, as the path was lit by the stars. They provided just enough light to keep me out of potholes and I switched off my torch. A clear sky, combined with a path that was sandy white, illuminated the way.

After the sun came up I ran into Brandi and gave voice to the thoughts I was having about calling it a day at Castrojeriz. It was not what I had intended when I set out that morning, but I was feeling pretty low; my throat hurt and I had very little energy. Truthfully, I had probably overdone it the day before. It was Sod’s Law really: any time I thought I got ahead, the following day I seemed to pay the price. The first café appeared on the outskirts of Castrojeriz and when I stopped, my decision not to walk any further that day had been made. So I enjoyed a large chocolate pastry and two cups of café con leche (milky coffee) for breakfast, and by the time I was ready to leave the café had cleared. Outside I saw Kathy, an American woman from Colorado, just standing up from her table. She was alone too. Instead of passing with my usual ‘Buen Camino’, I told her I was stopping for the day. In response she showed me her blistered feet and said she wasn’t going any further either.

Out of a regard for Kathy’s feet we walked slowly up the hill into town and decided to reward ourselves with the comfort of a hotel room. While we waited for our rooms to be readied, we sat outside on a bench in the early morning sun and were completely open with each other about our lives and our Camino experiences. We clicked straight away. I felt Kathy understood when I said how difficult the experience was for me and how out of tune I felt with those who were having a wonderful time.

After we checked into our hotel we went our separate ways, although I hoped we would meet again later in the day. However, as the day progressed I felt really vulnerable and tired, so I spent the whole day more or less in, or on, the bed. With nothing to do, the day was long and I wished I had a novel for company. At some point during the afternoon I picked up the only book I had brought with me, Conversations with God. It was not what I wanted to read, but it was all I had and so I began, reluctantly. Surprisingly, I really got into the book and felt my spirits lift.

By the evening I was starving. I hadn’t had any lunch, and although I was in a hotel, they didn’t serve food; it functioned more as an apartment service. While I could have gone to any number of places, I didn’t have the energy I thought it required, nor was I in the mood for facing people. So after the rain stopped I found a local shop where I bought bread, fruit, cheese and cured meat for dinner in my room. That way I could also continue reading my book.

Later, despite being in a real bed with actual sheets and having a private bathroom at my disposal, I had a fairly sleepless night; part of me wanted to be in the albergue with everyone else.