Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Camino Entry 17

Camino de Santiago Pt. 2

Day 17, December 11th, 2011
342.4km completed

Expenses, Day 17:
Coffee, Bocadillo, and sweetbread: 8.30
Trip Total: 386.64

This will be an eventful day to start the new notebook with. Let’s see if I can get much down before the light fails.

I started a bit late out of Sarsamarcuello, around 8:30am. The path led straight up a rock fall – it was slow, picky business, but soon I was up above the cloud level again, just like yesterday.

Today, though, I was headed across the mountains. Up, up, up, to a new dirt road I went. It twisted around the top of the Sierra de Loarre and around the West end of the range, giving me an entire morning of stupendous views just like the ones from Castillo Loarre yesterday (was that only yesterday?).

I passed to Romanic churches and the remains of an old keep . . . they must have built them in the most badass places on purpose. The keep was surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs, where flocks of black birds nested. I could hear goats below picking their way through the stones, the bells around their necks a mixture of different tones.

I even took a brief detour (one and a half hours) to get to a viewpoint up in the mountains. I didn’t follow the entire side path, but I ate lunch at the edge of a massive cliff and so it was worth it. I took the detour because I saw sheep in the valley below on that side of the path – they remind me of Coelho’s shepherd hero, Santiago, and I am trying to follow the signs. I am yet unsure as to how well I am reading them – you will see why in a minute.

I took the camino down from the ridge. It would around along the valley for a couple of hours, heading North from the pass Sant Román. A squad of four wheelers and dirtbikes passed me twice, like a unit of cavalry thundering by. They communicate with hand signals – when the leader saw me, he held up an open palm to warn the others to slow down.

Nearing the end of the valley, I looked forward to see the two opposing sides come around and in front of me to form two massive pillars of stone flanking the exit. Tolkein, have you been here? It was stunning. To exit the valley, the path clung to the left side before leaping out into space on a slender stone arch. Forty or fifty meters long, the bridge was less than three meters wide and had no handrails – it was only a plain dirt path with a drop of more than a hundred meters on each side! Good thing I don’t get vertigo. The other side of the bridge butted into the left pillar and wound around the sheet of granite on a path blasted into the rock. It was quite the feat of engineering and construction.

From here I could see the valley spread out below me, a small logging town across the river as my next stop. Down the slope, across the field (no path here), to the train tracks and across the river I made it into town – a place that could have been in West Virginia (if it was a little poorer). The plan was to provision at a bakery here before making ten more kilometers to Ena. No dice, though – I forget that it was Sunday, and on Sunday the bakery closes early. Maybe if I hadn’t followed the sheep I could have gotten there in time . . .

I had two options – make the hardest two stages of the camino on an empty stomach, or find alternate housing and wait for the bakery to open tomorrow. I opted for the latter and set out West along the river to the next town (where my guide mentioned there was a hostel). That was true (there were three hostels, actually), but nothing was open. Shit. At the only open bar they told me to ask at the church if I could set up my sleeping bag there. I got a sandwich and a couple prepackaged sweetbreads (lord only knows what decade they were actually baked in) from the bar and headed to the church.

The church was deserted. While I was standing, wondering what to do, an old man came by walking his dog. I asked him if there was any place to stay here at the church – he said no, but that he could stamp my credential. I think he was the priest, since the stamp was in his house and it is right next to the church . . . but he had a very odd little walled yard complete with a beautiful mosaic ying-yang table and so I’m not exactly sure what type of priest he was.

I tried the other hostel he recommended – also closed.

I forgot to mention that this town is built around an artificial lake (an “embalse"), dammed to hold irrigation water in the 1920’s. The exit has a geological formation very similar to the exit of the valley I wrote about earlier, except that it is much larger and there is a pillar in the center as well. The dam is in two sections, meeting at the pillar in the center, and the spillway is carved through the pillar itself and blasts into the canyon wall before ricocheting into a pool far below. I can hear the roar of it even now.

I had to cross that dam to get to the town, and on my way there I noticed a little hole in the cliff. Out of options, and with the sun nearing the horizon, I thought of it and returned . . . it is a little cave where they started some construction work and then stopped. One hall goes straight back about one hundred meters while another branches off at a right angle near the end of it . . . that’s where I am right now, writing this in the light thrown by the little prayer candle I cut in half at Montserrat. The cave is actually pretty cozy, even if the raw stone is hard on the back. Once I realized that the worst smelling thing in here is my socks I felt a lot more comfortable. I’m sharing the cave with three hibernating bats (Groucho, Chico, and Harpo) although I think the light is disturbing them so I will finish this up now.

Talk about getting in touch with the older things in life . . .


I just went outside to piss. I have never seen the night lit up so brightly. There’s a full moon and no electric lights, and so after being in the absolute dark of the cave it is like coming outside into broad daylight. I could read my watch – 1:15am.

I got some sleep, but not much – I suppose that’s to be expected on a hard, rocky floor. The Marx brothers are out hunting – I heard them leave a few hours ago. The cave is at least five degrees warmer than it is outside, and so I can see why people used them for so long.

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