Sunday, March 25, 2012

Camino Entry 19

Day 19, December 13th, 2011
383.2km completed

Expenses, Day 19:
Bakery: 6.20
Coffee: 1.20
Compeed: 7.80
Hot Meal: 14.00
Extra Lighter: 1.65
Coffee: 1.10
Albergue: 10.00
Total: 31.95
Trip Total: 418.59

Yesterday’s challenges were hunger, loneliness, and fear. It was a hard day.

First, hunger. There was no food in Ena, no food at the monastery, and no food at Saint Serós. It was a hungry day.

Perhaps the lesson here is patience. Instead of waiting hours for the bakery in Estación La Peña to open, I set off on my own into the mountains with no food. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

The climb to Ena was pretty enough, through a pine forest following a stream for several hours. The path crossed a horse ranch; letting myself in through the makeshift barbed wire gate, I saw a pair of horses. They wear bells, like sheep, to make them easier to find.

The vegetation began to thin out around Ena as I moved into the high country. The citizens at Ena must not like outsiders . . . there’s a sign labeled “center of town” that points away down the road. I took a wander through the town and saw not a single living soul even though it was noon on a Monday. The bar (such as it was) was closed. I continued onwards.

The road continued to wind upward through the hills. Climbing up a narrow valley about an hour and a half from town I realized that I had not seen a friendly yellow arrow for the greater part of thirty minutes. I thought back along the route . . . there had been no diverging roads, but I had been so focused on just placing one foot in front of the other (uphill, empty growling stomach) that perhaps I had missed one.

The territory surrounding me was no great help. The rough dirt tracks were the only signs of human habitation that I could see – I was above even the altitude of basic agriculture. The only other landmark that I could see was a huge red cliff in the distance with what looked like a stairway up to a door in the cliff face (I assumed that this was the monastery). The path led roughly in that direction, so I pressed on.

It was a huge and terrible scene, magnificent in its silent desolation.

Two hours later I was feeling desperate and hopeless. The road had turned East, and was falling slowly again towards farmland. I still had not seen an arrow, and the strange stair was falling out of sight to the West. Worst of all, I was headed away from Santiago. Spotting a farmhouse on the next hill, I made up my mind; I would walk there and ask directions, and if no one was home I would turn around and walk the three and a half hours back to Ena to see where I had gone wrong.

It was testing my nerves. I had not seen a single living person all day (except one passing car) and I was possibly lost in a desolate foreign land with no food and an empty stomach. No one knew I was here and my family was not expecting an “I’m still alive” email for another week. Should I twist or break an ankle, I would be in some real trouble.

As I neared the farmhouse, I heard the putt-putt-putt of a tractor coming towards me. I waved down the two old farmers and asked how to get to Botaya. They said something I didn’t understand. “What?”

“Over there, over the hill! 100 meters!”

I waved my thanks and ran up over the hill. There it was – Botaya, the town I’d been looking for all afternoon. Just one hill more . . . I was on the right track all along. I guess my nerves held just long enough.

Botaya (another pop. < 50 village in my guidebook) had no food either (I was beyond surprise at this point) but I filled up my water bottle and started up the path to the monastery San Juan de la Peña. At this point the tourist restaurant at the monastery was the closest food; I told my grumbling stomach to hush and pressed on.

It was a steep climb. With the added 4.2km from the cave to Estación La Peña, I was well past the 25km mark already, and now I had to climb 500 meters in elevation over a 2.4km segment of path. Much of it was on all fours over rough stones. At some point I stopped caring about what the path looked like or where it went . . . just climb climb climb.

It was a surprise when I reached the monastery. I emerged from the forest into a small playground near the tourist car-park. A stone monument from the Amics dels Peregrinos marked the spot, and the arrow painter had left a little salute. I followed the path up to a field on the mountaintop . . .

. . . and to a deserted monastery. No cars in the lot. Windows and doors all shut and shuttered. Iron gates locked. I mean, it’s a monastery, I expected it to be quiet, but do the monks go South for the winter or something?

I read a small sign that said, “Open for visits on weekends only during winter.” Apparently everyone knew this already except for me. And where the hell were all the monks?

There are two monasteries de San Juan de la Peña, by the way – the old one and the new one. “New” means that it was built in the 17th century when the old one was destroyed by fire. The new one is nice – built almost entirely of red brick on a plain on top of the mountain, it has a few large outbuildings surrounding it (one is apparently a luxury hotel?). I assume the others are facilities for monks. It is a very quiet place.

I found a sign showing the location of a number of paths from the monastery. One of them led to Santa Cruz de La Serós, the next town in my guidebook that was listed as having food and shelter (although at this point I was seriously beginning to doubt that anyone in this part of Spain ate anything at all). I copied the map into my book and followed the trail – it was 5.30pm at this point; it was pushing it but I figured I had just enough useable light left to make it into Santa Cruz (pop. 157). I followed the trail exactly . . .

. . . only to find myself at a breathtaking viewpoint of the Pyrenees. I use “breathtaking” in a literal sense – I broke through the foliage and “holy shit . . .” Amazing. I feel bad for the poor fools trying to cross them now in winter.

But the trail hadn’t taken me to Santa Cruz, and I was running out of sunlight. I turned back and reached the road again just as the sun was setting (passing a totally unhelpful blank signpost in the forest at the meeting of four paths). Checking my backup road map, I could see that the road also led to Santa Cruz, but by a much longer route than the supposed path – at least seven extra kilometers. I took the road, so as to keep my way even in the dark.

My sense of direction must have been turned around at some point, because I was convinced that I would not see the Old Monastery and yet the road took me right past it. It is, I think, much more impressive than the new one. Dating from the 10th century, it has been mostly restored and lies halfway up the mountain under the overhang of a large cliff. It is literally under the overhang; the monastery is built right into the rock. I only got to see the exterior, deserted in the semi-darkness, but it is a place I would like to visit again. The famous pictures of the place look about as awesome as expected.

I kept following the road until the sun had fully set and I was navigating by starlight (no moon yet). I thought of Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic . . . alone, at night, with nothing but his own fears in the cockpit with him, hoping that the machinery would hold out. I was in much the same position, having passed the 30km mark long ago (after no food and sleeping in a cave the night before), hoping my feet held out.

I arrived in Santa Cruz de La Serós. The city was brightly lit, but again deserted. I was starting to get a little creeped out by this, since it was only 8pm (my guidebook was at least two hours optimistic about how long this stage takes). Finally I saw a guy smoking a cigarette on a second story balcony over the main square. I asked him if there was anywhere to buy food. He said no, everything was closed. 16 hours of walking, 30+ km, and not a damn thing to eat anywhere! Not to mention nowhere to stay!

I limped around the town; he was right, everything was closed. Hmm. I filled my water bottle at the fountain in the square before sitting down to rest my feet and to think.

I think the guy on the balcony must have seen me from the couch in front of his TV. He came back outside. “Hey, a question!”

“Yeah?” I replied.

“Do you want a sandwhich?”


“Give me just a minute . . .”

And he came back to hand me a sausage sandwich wrapped in foil and a can of beer. Nothing has tasted so good in my entire life. I even ate the crumbs that fell on the ground. Bless that man.

Finishing off the beer, I thought some more. It was getting colder – there would be frost by morning. I already had all of my clothes on, including my rain gear and mom’s love scarf, but it wouldn’t be enough up here in the mountains if I was just sitting still. I needed somewhere to rig my sleeping bag again before it got too unbearably cold, somewhere that the people wouldn’t mind too much (it was a fairly upscale town) and where I could lay down and rest my legs. The next town was another 6kms, and I was in no shape to go anywhere.

This must be what homeless people feel like every day. Christ.

I found a spot just outside the city, on the road I had just come down. It was a little meadow up an embankment from the road, too high for passing drivers to see me and with a big row of shrubs protecting me from prying eyes and the wind (learned my lesson from that first night above Barcelona, see?). It was a bit damp, but I laid my rain gear down first, cut away some thorn bushes with my swiss army knife, and spread out my sleeping bag. I removed my boots but left everything else on (the same clothes I’d been wearing since Sarsamarcuello). Just when I was wondering if I would have any trouble sleeping I was out like a light.

When sleeping in the open, I find that my body follows a schedule. Solo long-distance sailors speak of this sometimes. Every hour, on the hour, I wake up, check if everything is okay, and pass back out. It was an uneventful night.

Around 6:30 I woke up and decided to stay awake. It was my goal to be packed up and mobile at first light, in case someone came out and noticed my bright orange sleeping bag in the middle of their field (if you’re a farmer growing thorn bushes in Northern Spain, I apologize). The moonlight doesn’t bring it out as much, but in the sun my sleeping bag practically glows. There was no light yet, though, so I just lay on my back and watched the world spin. The moon was so bright that I’d lost most of the stars, but a few constellations stood out and I was able to find the North Star. It was an absolutely quiet moment.

Eventually the telltale grey glow began to show in the Southeast. I stirred from my bag – it had actually been pretty cozy through the night, and I know it had been cold because the thing was covered in frost. By god I’m abusing the poor thing, but a heavy-duty sleeping bag was the best investment I made in Barcelona. I “performed my necessities” as Rooster Cogburn would say (toothpaste does funny things when you freeze it) and got back on the road, trying to ignore all the chalkboard menus sitting just inside locked restaurant doors.

I decided to follow the road again to St. Cilia instead of the Camino, as it was still too dark to follow the friendly yellow arrows and getting to St. Cilia early would do me no good if everything was still closed. On the road I started talking to myself about my favorite meals, working my through each bite. I started with the skillet breakfast at the Robin’s Nest that had been my last meal in the United States (back in March), moving through the strawberry waffles at the truck stop in West Virginia, spinach Börek in Vienna’s Turkish quarter, Martin’s egg+cheese+bread combination (the pilgrim sandwich) in Montserrat, chicken fried steak, cornbread, barbeque chicken, dad’s linguine with clam sauce, mom’s chocolate chip cookies, pork ribs, onions of any type, cannelloni, tamales . . . you get the idea.

I gotta say, though, that my body is a trooper. I figure that I made 35km and climbed a mountain on four hours of sleep and an empty stomach, and then slept outside on the bare ground in below-zero temperatures for six hours. I woke up that morning a little stiff and a bit hungry, but otherwise no worse for wear. That would not have been the case two weeks ago.

But my mind was starting to weaken. The fear was there; I’d been wrestling with it for two days now, and being hungry and cold make the fear stronger. I needed some food.

Coming into St. Cilia, I began to feel a bit better. There were people here going about their business – something I hadn’t seen. The two farmers and the guy on the balcony were the only people I had seen anywhere in the past two days. This wouldn’t have been bad if I was just in the country, but this included towns and villages – all deserted. The phrase, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” came to mind. But here there were people!

And I saw a sign – “Panadería” – “Bakery.” It was dark inside, but the handle turned and I bought at least two kilos of baked goods from a baker whom I was tempted to kiss on both cheeks out of joy. He even gave me a flat loaf of bread covered in caramelized sugar straight from the oven that was as big as a turkey tray. I downed the whole thing. Victory was mine; sweet, sweet victory.

And it was a victory – a victory over the fear that wants to make me turn around and quit this crazy venture, to run back home where it is safe and warm. This was not a victory over a physical obstacle -- although that was part of it, human beings can go much longer than two days without food --but rather a victory over fear.

Coelho talks about “warriors of the light” and sometimes that imagery gives me strength. I trudge forward through the mud, dirty and weary. My armor is dented and broken from many defeats, my sword notched and dull. Around me are dark fears – sometimes we fight, and they throw me down in the muck, laughing. This fear, though, I fought for a long time – two days, until finally we threw down our weapons and grappled each other in the slime and ooze. For one of the first times in my life, I prevailed, and with my knee on its neck I saw fear running through its own eyes – fear’s weapon turned against itself. With my free hand I picked up my sword and struck the demon right through the head, exploding with white light as I did so.

Fear is legion. There is no end to the demons; they will always return. But in this moment, I was invincible – bursting with white light, armor shining and polished, sword glowing like flame. And the other demons saw, and took notice.

This is how I felt, walking down the road to Puente la Reina, licking the sugary residue from my half-burnt fingers. I was invincible to fear (at least for the time being) because of that white energy. And because that light is love, I decided to take a day off from fear and love everything around me. The trees, the sky, the people, the little yellow arrows (I told each one that I passed that I loved them – a very, very strange pilgrim I must seem). Even the camino itself; the very same camino that I was damning at the top of my lungs in the hills outside Botaya.

The fear will return – it always does. But I will defeat it again. I have a pack full of food and the camino is laid out before me; keep laying it down, and I will keep walking. The Camino Aragonés is well marked, I’ve already met another pilgrim here at the albergue in Arrés (even if he is a grumpy Spaniard); the next stage of my pilgrimage begins. I am ready.

P.s. I passed the end of the Camí Catalán today, where it joins the Camino Aragonés. It looked typically thorny and treacherous – a loose, rough rock fall winding up into the mountains. I stopped for a moment and said goodbye, a little wistfully. We’ll see what the next weeks bring. I am ready.

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