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 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 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 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.