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 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 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 14; Burgos – Hontanas

In the morning I left the albergue while Burgos was still in darkness, and even though the streets were lit, the Camino signs were difficult to make out, so much so that I couldn’t see them at all! Ahead in the near distance, I noticed a female pilgrim making decisions without hesitation and I decided to follow her. It turned out that I was following Brandi, a young American in her twenties, and we began walking together from the outskirts of Burgos. At our first coffee stop we met some people we knew, including Eugene and Heather. In fact when I arrived Eugene enveloped me in an uncharacteristic hug, as though I was some long-lost relative. After we found a table, Manoel and Sue joined us and I felt my happiness was complete. When I was feeling good, as I was on that morning, I found those impromptu meetings among the loveliest of my Camino experiences.

Brandi and I parted company some time later and before lunch I met Wilhelm who, much to my surprise, was walking alone, as he was one of the seven men from Friesland! Naturally I enquired about his comrades and found out that they had not originated as a group of seven, as I had imagined. Wilhelm had set out to walk the Camino alone, but got no further than the airport before he found a ready-made walking group. The six men carried the Friesland flag on their luggage and that was what had brought them to Wilhelm’s attention. What intrigued me about them was how they walked together – more of a march really, as though they were in the army; they looked like they were taking part in their daily drill. The Camino seemed to be mostly a physical challenge to them, while for Wilhelm it was more than that – he had a real gentleness of spirit. So the first day I talked to Wilhelm was his first day alone. The rest of his group had finished in Burgos, while he was walking on to Santiago, and indeed beyond, to Finisterre.

I had set myself a big task for the day: almost thirty-two kilometres, which was quite an increase under the circumstances. It was the first day of what would be a week of walking the great Meseta Alta, a barren wilderness that provided little or no shade from the relentlessness of the sun. So after lunch I set off on the remaining fourteen-kilometre walk to Hontanas, while others quite sensibly finished their day’s walk at lunch time. I knew it would be difficult; I just didn’t know how difficult until I encountered the reality of no cafés, no trees and no shelter of any kind – just endless walking in oppressive heat.

When I arrived at my destination it was about twelve hours after my day had begun and I booked myself into the first albergue I saw: a bar. They had rooms upstairs, along with additional dormitories located in a series of random buildings at the back. My dorm accommodated ten people and four of them were present when I arrived. We exchanged the normal pleasantries but I didn’t know any of them and I was soon off to complete my chores. As I stood washing at an outdoor sink in what felt like a back alley, I could hear noise and laughter nearby, and I realised how disconnected I felt. The transition from walking alone to being surrounded by people and gaiety was challenging, particularly after the difficulty of the day. Down in the square, outside pubs and bars, the whole of the Camino seemed to have congregated – so many people and yet I felt so lost and alone.

Later I went down to the square to face the world, but I felt that I stood out like a sore thumb. I could no more have engaged in conversation than I could have walked another fourteen kilometres. After walking around the village to get my bearings, I positioned myself at a table with a pot of tea and took out my journal to write. Writing helped me to process my feelings and explore what was going on. The holiday atmosphere really jarred with me and I felt out of sync with the rest of the world. I didn’t know what I wanted, while I had a list of all the things I didn’t want. At the centre of it was my ongoing resistance to the evening meal, the pilgrim menu. In addition, I was resisting drinking alcohol as a way of passing time, while others appeared to be doing it with gusto.

The pilgrim menu, a standard three-course meal served everywhere along the Camino, varies hardly at all from place to place, either in variety or cost. A simple salad – by simple I mean lettuce and tomato – or soup to start, followed by hake or stew with potatoes, but rarely any other vegetables. Dessert might be a banana, Santiago tart (almond), a pot of yogurt or sometimes ice cream, all washed down with red wine for a total cost of about €10. So what was my objection? I should be so lucky, right?

Well, for days I had been trying to figure out how to reduce the carbohydrate content of my diet and increase my vegetable intake. Vegetables were normally only available in the soup. So in order to have vegetables I needed the starter as well as a main course, and then while I was there, how could I refuse a dessert? While my body had some difficulty with the amount of carbohydrate and lack of fibre I was consuming, my mind was even more troubled.

Journaling helped me to realise the bind I had got myself into, and I began to see that my resistance to the pilgrim menu symbolised my rejection of how things were, a refusal to accept what is, which meant that I vetoed everything around me. In an ideal world, one of my own making, I would have had more control over my diet, but if I was to have any peace, I had to accept what was available. I was doing the Camino, after all, and pilgrim dinners were part of the deal!

Day 12; Belorado – San Juan de Ortega

A peaceful and quiet morning was made even more perfect by the appearance of two captivating vistas within the first couple of hours. The first gem was a field of sunflowers still in bloom. Having seen many dead or dying sunflowers already, I paused to move amongst them and examine them more closely. We were almost of equal height! Then soon afterwards, I was gazing into the distance at the simple beauty of a small hermitage built into a rock. The humble structure touched my soul more powerfully than the grandest of churches, including the Compostela in Santiago, its impact being in its pure simplicity.

When I arrived at my destination, I saw that San Juan de Ortega was pretty much a one-horse town: an albergue, a church and a bar – that was it. While a couple of the Irish/Canadians headed for the bar to wait for other members of their group, I waited with the seven men from Friesland for the albergue, a former monastery, to open at 1 p.m. Once inside I saw that it wasn’t worth waiting for – the accommodation was really grim. The only positive I found was that males and females had separate showering facilities. At least I could shower in peace, I thought. I wouldn’t need to queue behind or among the seven men from Friesland. With that in mind, I went into the ladies bathroom where I was met by one of the seven men from Friesland stepping out of the shower. He obviously didn’t want to queue either! His unexpected appearance ruined the one and only thing about the albergue that gave me any feeling of comfort. I was annoyed with him, and to make sure he knew that, I pointed to the female symbol on the door. What could he do? Nothing! He just muttered something in Dutch and left. After my shower I sank into a deep sleep and when I awoke, I saw Jeanie and Elaine (the Canadians) in bunks next to me while the others (Heather, Eugene and Bob) had decided to walk on further.

In the afternoon I sat on a bench across the road from the albergue having my lunch and pretending to write in my journal while I observed Jeanie and Elaine in the bar. Although I could have walked over to join them, I resisted. My internal dialogue was preoccupied with thoughts of all the things I didn’t want to do at that hour of the day. I didn’t want to sit in a bar and drink alcohol at four in the afternoon, neither did I want any other kind of drink. This was a regular dilemma – what to do when there seemed to be nothing to do except sit in a bar. What I really wanted was some kind of relief from the monotony, but I didn’t want to sit in a bar to get it.

Later, at about six o’clock, I relented, and with a glass of red wine in my hand, I joined Jeanie and Elaine. They had booked a table for dinner and asked if I would like to join them. Initially I declined and later I relented about that too. Over dinner I got to know Elaine a little and discovered that she was not as aloof as I had thought. I knew Jeanie better; I had spent more time with her and knew she was a talker. They were work colleagues who had become friends, and along the way they had met Bob, also Canadian, as well as Heather and Eugene, who were both Irish and had begun the Camino travelling solo.

We were joined at our table by a lady from Australia who was staying nearby at a Casa Rural. She was doing the Camino in more comfort than us, which for her was important, but she realised it meant that the camaraderie that resulted from albergue living was something she missed out on. I completely understand why people choose to stay in hotels, but having had the albergue experience, I know something huge would have been missing without it.

Day 3; Zubiri – Pamplona

I was awake at about 6 a.m., and while it was still dark I crossed the yard to the dining room, where breakfast for me consisted of a humble banana and coffee. Deborah, (Walking for love of God) was up early too and already tucking into a big bowl of fresh fruit, while a man I didn’t know kept a watchful eye on a small stove as he heated milk for his cereal. Observing the importance they had given their breakfast, I wished I too had planned ahead for the nourishment my journey required. Not just in terms of something more substantial to eat, though that was part of it, it was more about the sacredness of their morning ritual. It symbolised to me, patience, self care and apparent ease with themselves. In contrast, I couldn’t wait to be off.

Packed and ready to go, I waited impatiently outside for daylight to appear so I could be reunited with the yellow arrows that would lead me out of town – and to greater ease, I hoped. However, I soon realised that I could not get away from what I was feeling inside and I knew it was going to be a repeat of the day before. The Camino I was experiencing was not the one I had imagined. I had misjudged it completely. Before leaving home, I thought I would love walking in expectation that I would get lost in the peace and beauty of it all. How wrong I was!

During the morning I crossed paths with Sue and Manoel for the first time, while they had met a couple of days earlier in St Jean. Sue, a South African in her early fifties, had begun the Camino with her father, but they had separated soon afterwards to walk at a pace that suited them individually. Manoel, a sixty-something Brazilian, fell into step behind, while Sue and I talked, Sue every so often relaying to him the substance of our conversation and throwing in the few words of Portuguese he had been teaching her.

After a while I walked on ahead of them as I found it challenging to be around people for any real length of time. The pain I was carrying inside felt like a dead weight and made it difficult for me to speak and connect with others. It was as though we were orbiting different planets and what I really wanted was to scream and lash out at the world I felt locked within, but instead of screaming I remained silent.

My utter disbelief at how awful my experience felt didn’t get any easier to accept as the hours rolled by. In fact, it was further compounded by the struggle between my need for rest and my desire to run for the hills as I faced the challenge presented by the first opportunity to stop for coffee. Facing people I knew was difficult. I couldn’t say how I was feeling, so I knew I would have to pretend I was fine and I found that incredibly hard.

At a busy outdoor tavern an array of brightly coloured rucksacks stood lined up against the wall while their owners sat at the many outdoor tables, chatting and having fun. I noticed the chatty young South African woman with her Dutch companion from the previous day, and while I stood at the bar waiting for my coffee, I scanned the environment for other seating possibilities. Seeing no alternative, I steeled myself to go and join the faces I recognised and although I tried to participate in conversation it was a huge effort for me. Then as soon as I finished my coffee, I fled. I had to get away to recommence my walk; I had to be alone. When I was with others, it amplified the painful depth of my disconnection from the world, and although I felt compelled to be alone, I also felt the pain and isolation of aloneness. I felt as though I was a small island adrift from the mainland, without the means to return home but I also know that even if I had been sent a life raft, I would not have taken it.

Another, less crowded, opportunity to stop presented itself about an hour from Pamplona. There I was joined by Christian, a young German man I had met at the outdoor tavern earlier. As we talked he became the first person to ask why I was doing the Camino. On hearing his question, initially I felt stumped. While it sounds like a small, simple question, it’s actually quite big and I didn’t know whether I wanted to answer it sincerely or say something general that would deflect him. I was aware that a sincere response would feel exposing for me but I decided to take the risk. In hindsight I see that answering sincerely was more for my benefit than for his. As I began to find the words, tears came. ‘I’ve come to meet, and be alone with, myself,’ I said. In response, Christian wondered if that was not something I could do at home and I said ‘not in the way I want to experience it’. Actually I had come in the hope of experiencing a deep encounter with my soul. I wanted to be close to God, although I didn’t say so. I noticed my reluctance to name God and soul. Even on the Camino, where I might have assumed pilgrims were accepting and open about their spirituality, I felt vulnerable and reluctant to reveal mine.

When I arrived in Pamplona in the blazing heat of the early afternoon, I found myself standing outside a homely and inviting two-storey stone house that advertised itself as an albergue and I decided to check it out. Inside it looked and felt just like a family home, and once the preliminaries were completed, I was shown to my bunk in one of the upstairs rooms. It was a complete contrast to the night before – more like staying in a bed and breakfast, where breakfast was offered for an extra €2.50. I found a little more of myself there, as the hospitaleros, two German men in their fifties, offered a more caring experience, in contrast with the no care experience of the previous night.

In the evening, I was partly filling time and partly hoping to have a spiritual encounter that would connect me with God and myself so I joined a small local community for rosary in the Cathedral. Just when I though the rosary had reached an uneventful conclusion, I noticed the congregation joining the priest to walk in procession around the large, almost empty, church, while they were accompanied by what sounded like a choir of angels. Immediately, I felt moved to join them but I hesitated, telling myself I didn’t know where they were going! However, I felt drawn as if by magnet to the procession, and I put aside any reticence I felt about my spirit being so visible. While I walked slowly around the church, something within me melted as I sank deeper into connection. Then when I came into line with the choir I stopped to digest the experience fully, taking in the ordinariness of the group of men in front of me. As they sang, they channelled pure love and I felt transported to another world. The one I had inhabited earlier in the day had dissolved into a puddle.

To witness the coming together of the local community to honour their connection with God, with themselves and each other touched me deeply. It was the apparent ease with which they took their place in honour of their God that affected me most, and I realised my struggle lay in the tension between my longing to satisfy the needs of my soul and my resistance to its fulfilment.

Despite the uplifting experience in the Cathedral, once I returned to the albergue, I noticed myself withdraw. I didn’t have it in me to go and join the group in the garden for a drink, even though I had regained more of myself that day. As I lay down on my bunk I could hear laughter downstairs, and I wished I had a buddy to make my experience easier. I seemed to need someone to open the door for me, so most of the time I felt as if I was on the outside looking in, wanting what others had while I stayed in the shadows.