These are posts in which I relate the story of my walk on the Camino de Santiago with my friends Bill and Derrick in September/October 2019.
Today, after a simple breakfast of toast at the Casa de Peregrinos de Emmaus, we made our way out of Burgos and back onto the Camino. Before we left, our host had worked very hard to make sure we had accommodations for that night. She was surprised to find and sorry to tell us that there were no beds in the next town along the way that we had intended to stay in. But she did make reservations for us to get the last two beds available in the next town after where we wanted to stop and significantly further down the road.
We were headed towards the long walk across a stretch the plain that makes up a central component of the Camino that is called, the Meseta. Prior to leaving home I had listened to a number of podcasts where pilgrims described their own experiences on the Meseta and it seemed that people either loved it or hated it but I never heard people speak indifferently about it. Having to walk further than we’d planned on that first day out of Burgos was an ominous beginning.
It was, for me, the hardest of all the days that I spent on the Camino. By the end of the day I was unable to eat, was bordering on an anxiety attack and was terrible company for my friend, Bill. It was a hard day. But at the beginning of the day, I was reminded of a word I had been given by a friend, at a random moment, “you are not alone.” As we prepared to leave on our way, we each pulled a Scripture quote, randomly, from a handful of slips of paper. When I opened mine it read, “I am with you to the end of the age.”
I needed that word by the end of the day more than any other day of the journey.
As we walked, it got warmer than it had been and the places to refill water were fewer than we were used to. There was an oasis of sorts where several peregrinos had stopped to rest and to pull water from a pump well. Having previously read about some unsafe water in the region and stories of pilgrims who had fallen ill from dodgy water, we opted not to refill our diminishing bottles but soaked our buffs and wrapped them around our necks for some cooling effect.
We came to the village we originally intended to stop in for the night, hopeful we might find a couple beds still open but we rant into some younger pilgrims we had met along the Way and they assured us every bed was taken in the village and other pilgrims had walked on to Hontanas, where we were headed, in the hope of finding a bed. They encouraged us to come to the church with them as they felt confident we would be given space on the stone floor to sleep for the night. I’m sure they would have looked after us there but my body on a stone floor for the night would have meant little sleep, lots of pain and a good chance I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.
But I was feeling over it. We saw a young taxi driver who had been taking peregrinos on to Hontanas. We inquired about the cost. Only 75 euro. Each. “Supply and demand” I guess. We declined his offer and we kept walking. And walking. And walking. And walking. Again, others have great things to say about the Meseta, and we weren’t even properly on it yet, but I had already seen enough. We set our sights westward and on we walked.
The main words I would use to describe this day’s walk would be hot, dusty and flat. You could see far to the horizon and it reminded me of central Illinois where I grew up. On the flatness eventually led to one of the most difficult moments in this journey. As the kilometers stretched on, I kept checking my GPS to see how far we still had to go and each time I checked I also slowed down and a large gap opened up between me, nearly shuffling along after 25 kilometers and Bill who had maintained his steady pace.
Along the Way, we had always been able to see something ahead of us, something to walk towards. Signs and landmarks and things that encouraged us to keep going. I didn’t feel like any of this was present and when the GPS said I should be able to see our destination village in the distance – nothing but unbroken horizon line. The Bible says, “hope deferred makes the heart sick” and not being able to see any sign on Hontanas ahead of me, and Bill long gone ahead of me, made me glad to have the word in my pocket from that morning but still I was feeling heartsick.
Then my GPS said I was 1 Kilometer away. But still nothing but a dry water bottle, sunburn and sore feet. Then .5 kilometer away. I had to be able to see it now but it was invisible or it had been moved. I was feeling doubt, discouragement and a little bit angry. Or maybe hangry. When my GPS assured me I was only a quarter of a kilometer away I knew that someone, maybe God, was putting me on but I also couldn’t see Bill anywhere ahead of me so he either found Hontanas before it disappeared or… I didn’t know.
With only a few meters to go, the mystery was finally solved. Suddenly, the road dipped down BELOW the horizon into a gulley or chasm or holler – and “below” me was the village of Hontanas and at the edge of the village, a fresh water fountain. I met Bill at our resting place for the night and checked in, only to find out that there were only two beds left but our names weren’t on them. One was about 3 or 4 stairways up the side of the ravine or whatever we were in and the other was 6 stairways up. I took the top bunk 6 stairways up. When I got on the bunk I was about 4 inches from the ceiling.
I unloaded by pack. My back was sore. I smelled really bad. Covered in sweat and dust. I looked forward to a hot shower. When I found the shower room I went in, turned on the water and waited for it to get hot.
Finally, I realized it wasn’t going to get hot. Or warm. Or even tepid. So I stepped into the freezing water and tried to clean myself up while all of my muscles did the opposite of relaxing. I hopped out, dried off and went looking for Bill and food and wifi so I could contact home and let someone know I was alive. Or something approximating life.
Bill and I went across the street to a small hostel/restaurant and sat down at a table with another pilgrim and ordered supper. Live music was happening about 4 feet from our table and the longer I sat the less I wanted to eat and the more I just wanted to crawl up on my bunk, assume the fetal position and cry like a baby. So I did. I excused myself, leaving Bill alone with the food we’d ordered, crawled up on my bunk and re-evaluated my life and my commitment to walking the Camino Frances.
I wrote in my diary, “Back in a lot of pain tonight. It was the distance that did me in. There is just no way to actually prepare for this physically. There is no substitute or stand in for day after day after day walking and walking.”
Did I mention yet that this was my hardest day on the Camino?