On my first day of walking completely alone, I slipped out of the crusty hotel first thing, with visions of a comforting breakfast to warm me.
As I walked León’s streets, I realized there were no cars were on the roads. This city of 130,000 was completely, eerily dead. No buses. No people. The silence and cloud cover made everything feel spooky and post-apocalyptic.
Then I remembered that today was Sunday. It seems that Spain takes its day of rest seriously.
I walked for 5km/3.1 miles through León’s sleeping streets and didn’t find a single open café, nor familiar smells of bread wafting from a panaderia. I was carrying practically no food, and began to feel a bit panicky that I would have to walk hungry. This is one of my biggest fears, now on the brink of coming true.
Along the street I passed a group of young people exiting their car. They were dressed to the nines but looking a little rumpled, still partying from the previous night.
Further along, a single car honked as it approached. Though I anticipated a friendly wave to a solitary peregrina, a hand emerged from the window and flipped me the bird. I laughed, incredulous.
As the walk continued, I was eager to get out of this seedy part of town and back into the countryside, but felt immense relief when I discovered an open cafe just on the outskirts. I downed a slab of warm potato tortilla and a cup of coffee, grateful for the sustenance.
Then off I went again under the low morning clouds. In Virgen del Camino, an urban extension of León, I passed three local women walking on the sidewalk with no shoes. In fact, I noticed they each carried a shopping bag with their shoes inside. I attempted to inquire about their purpose, but they just laughed with me. “Yes,” they told me. “We are walking without shoes. Our shoes are in the bag.” Que misterio!
At long last, I stood at the brink of the countryside, trying to unravel the yellow arrows. Instead of a simple flecha spray painted on a rock or fence, the road surface itself was covered in scrawled instructions and arrows that conflicted with one another. I didn’t see a pilgrim in either direction, so I consulted my guidebook and read that the confusion stems from two towns vying for pilgrim attention and euros.
Sticking with the official path (to the left), I soon found myself in flat, flat, flat land, walking primarily on the road. Fortunately, the absence of cars and buses I’d experienced on a León Sunday extended to its outskirts as well. Before long, my feet began to ache, but I amused myself by looking at the plant life along the road, a few scattered trees, tiny lupines, and a new orchid.
For a while I talked with a man from the Canary Islands, who was leading a walk with two of his cousins and his brother in law. He was curious about my perspectives on the US, our country’s direction, gun control, and faith. We agreed that more mindfulness on my country’s part about its place in the world community would benefit everyone. His friendliness and curiosity was a great distraction from my increasing foot pain.
After a brief stop at a bar for lunch, I noticed myself feeling remarkably, oddly cold. The weather wasn’t over-warm, but I was wearing a sweatshirt, so I began to worry that something was up with my body. It hadn’t yet dawned on me that I had a fever. To retain heat better, I put on my wool hat and gloves and walked as fast as I could the rest of the way to Villar de Mazarife.
After getting settled at the albergue in a solo room, the sun came out and warmed the earth, but low clouds descended on my heart. I worried about my budget, berated myself for past excesses, and made a list of things I was no longer allowed to purchase (toast, cafe con leche, lunches at bars, private rooms). This set off a chain of depressing thoughts including how I hadn’t lost any weight on the Camino. As my body chills continued and sniffles increased, I felt hopeless, lonely, and sad.
From my journal: Well, shit. My nose is running, I have no tissue. I’m sitting in a small plaza outside a small church in a small town. The sun is out, the birds are singing, but I feel grouchy and miserable. I have a little cough developing too, which has previously left in the morning, but today is lingering. I’m hungry, head-achy, and my feet are really uncomfortable – throbbing and tender. I walked 22km/13.7mi anyway, mostly because I made a reservation here yesterday.
When I get into a funk, I really throw myself into it.
I took a nap on my sagging mattress, and later wandered around the tiny town getting lunch supplies for the next few days. In one store, I encountered an entire wall of canned tuna. Passing the church, I stared up a the storks overhead, amused by how they clack their bills in greeting as they land in the nest.
Slowly my mood lifted. I met a Catholic pilgrim, Marta from Indonesia, and felt her buoyant worldview lift me up. I ate a few Principe cookies and took some ibuprofen – both good medicine.
For me, being a pilgrim is about making room for the full catastrophe, honoring my feelings while staying open to unexpected blessings. Even the kid who flipped me off brought me laughter. Even the tightened budget evoked gratitude for the resources I do have. Even in a dark mood, life found ways to delight me with 100 kinds of tuna.
Despite the odd and lonely day, my achy body, and the “weird chest thing,” I went to bed that night feeling less weary and, if not exactly ready to meet a new day, at least feeling open to what blessings might come next.