After a month on the Camino, I discovered that a day of walking, for me, is divided into three chapters. During the first third of the day, I feel enchanted by everything – the scenery, the flowers and birdsong, the exact shade of the blue sky. The second part of the walk, I’m focused. I turn inward and think. I look at my maps carefully to consider lunch options and distance. The final third of the walk, I hate my life. I hate my feet and I especially hate the Camino and wonder why on earth I’m doing it.
These three chapters repeated themselves so consistently that I began to find their predictability hilarious. What a crazy place the mind is! So little changes around me, yet my inner experiences vary widely.
I awoke this day feeling high on life. The evening’s singing and the beauty of O’Cebreiro filled up my heart and soul. I noticed with relief that my cough and illness seemed to be improving progressively.
Morning dawned clear, crisp, and cold–just above freezing. As I began to walk, the sun illuminated the hills in the distance and I felt awed looking at the sparkling snow crystals like mounds of scattered diamonds. At this elevation, I was on top of the world and the valleys below were a white lake with emerald islands where the morning fog filled them. The beauty stunned me silent.
I walked alone for a good part of the day, catching glimpses of songbirds in the brush (three new ones today!) and thrilled as one sang on a branch just above my head. I also I spotted a new-to-me flower that looked like a giant-sized forget-me-not. All was right with the world.
As I slipped into the second chapter of the day, the earth began to warm enough for the frozen path to turn muddy. This presented a challenge to walking. Instead of mindlessly putting one foot in front of the other, I became mindful of each footstep by necessity – either to avoid sploshing into a chocolate-pudding puddle or to maintain traction on the slippery descents. This constant attention invited mental fatigue.
Despite the challenging paths, Galicia’s beauty enchanted me. I met a pilgrim from this area who was bursting with pride about his region. He pointed out a hillside of vacas rubias, the Galician cows who produce the creamiest milk to make the freshest cheese. I’d coincidentally enjoyed their cheese for dessert the previous evening, served with dollops of local dark honey and felt happy to meet its very source. The blonde-red cows have a mess of curly locks on their heads, and the calf on her side, sound asleep in the sun was too adorable for words.
Toward the end of the day (when I hate my feet, my life, and the Camino), I started having uncomfortable pain in my knees, a squishy soreness that was made worse by a particular steep and slippery descent. I felt mad and teary. According to Brierley, the walk was supposed to be fairly easy. I was fed up.
Fortunately, Triacastella arrived with perfect timing. Without consulting my guidebook, walked to the first albergue in town, just off the path at the back of a green, grassy meadow. It turned out to be a great choice! After checking in, I appreciated its hot showers, its setup featuring just four beds to a room, and location right on a scenic river. I even got a lower bunk!
After cleaning up both my person and my attitude, I went to the cafe/bar across the road for a bite to eat. The woman running it looked a little harried, but soon became my new best bud.
“El trabajo es duro con todos los peregrinos, no?” I asked her after I ordered my food. (It’s difficult work caring for all these pilgrims, isn’t it?)
Well, I guess that was the right question to pose.
“Si!” she said emphatically, looking at me a moment longer. It was as if I’d become a person in her eyes, not just another one of the masses of pilgrims. It’s amazing what a little empathy can do.
We chatted for a few minutes, kidding around. Three schoolteachers from Salamanca sitting at the bar joined in our fun. When I almost forgot my sun hat, she hammed up modeling it for me. I told her she looked like a peregrina as we laughed together.
Sitting in the late afternoon sun in front of the albergue, I had a lovely conversation with Sally from New Zealand. She was so funny, sincere, and thoughtful in her ability to share and listen. I joined her for dinner at the bar and then we enjoyed a walk around tiny Triacastela’s streets and alleyways, taking in the church and gardens. The weather was such a vast change from the previous days of rain, it was such a pleasure to stroll around with such good company.
When I returned to the albergue, I met my three young roommates: Jorge, Diego, and Kristina who were good friends and Spanish medical students. They were fresh-faced and excited having only commenced their Camino the previous day. After asking about my story, they were astonished to learn that I’d come all the way from the US’s West Coast to do this pilgrimage. Until meeting me, they hadn’t realized what an international phenomenon the Camino is!
They couldn’t have been sweeter. As I got settled in, they told me, “We’re going out to a bar and won’t be back until about 10pm. Is that okay with you?”
Were they really asking my permission? I told them not to worry. “Of course, enjoy yourselves!”
“We will be really quiet when we return,” they promised.
True to their word, I didn’t hear them come in. In fact, I woke up at midnight wondering when they would return. Did they get locked out? I worried. Peering into the darkness, I discovered my three roomies, fast asleep in their beds. I, the light sleeper, never heard a sound and felt really touched by their excess of courtesy.
The Spanish medical students (or “The Kids” as my friend Gary called them) would appear many times on the path ahead as we approached Santiago. Every time I encountered them, I enjoyed their company and felt hopeful about the future of Spain.
So, back to my three-chapter theory, if you will. Today, I noticed a fourth chapter – the process of settling in at the end of the day. In the last week, I’d mostly stayed by myself in a private room, often feeling isolated and lonely. My new fourth chapter was to purposely stay in albergues to enjoy the company of kind, open people at the end of a long day.
Finally, this resolved for me the dilemma I’d struggled with of walking alone or with company: walk alone during the day, and then spend time with people in the evening. I marvel at the myriad blessings and discoveries this pilgrimage brought me!