Today, according to the guidebook, we’ve crossed over the last of our “mountain tops” and it’s all downhill from here. I can see elevation ahead so I suppose it’s all relative but we won’t return to this same elevation again on the Camino.
This morning was a classic Camino morning. A British pilgrim in the large room we were sleeping in – probably 15 of us in all – had her alarm set for 6 a.m. So this became the alarm for all of us. What made it truly classic was the dear lady couldn’t figure out how to shut off her alarm to save her life. We ended up waking up to both her alarm and her loud apologies for not being able to figure out how to turn it off. Eventually it is worn out and stops itself but she’s so flustered that she drops her phone on the floor and then knocks a metal water bottle over while she tries to pick up her phone and it becomes impossible for any of us to continue sleeping.
She managed to get our whole room ready to walk by 6:20 a.m. An older man from the other side of the room was very unhappy about the wake up service and he let her know how unwelcome the early morning wake up was for him.
In almost all of the albergues we stayed in, motion activated lights were the norm. In some cases, these are great. They save on electricity and hosts don’t have to rely on pilgrims to remember to turn the lights off when they leave a room. They are also – um – inconvenient at times…like when you are sitting on the toilet and the lights go out or you are in the shower and the lights go out and you find yourself frantically waving your arms over your head trying to get them back on again.
We grabbed a quick breakfast, met a woman on the Camino from Russia and then shortly after we start to eat, a small crowd arrives from another albergue down the way. They had no heat the night before and it got cold. It’s funny hearing them talk about their near frozen experience and how it produced as more laughter for them that it did anything else.
As first light started to break we were already on the way and started what the guidebook promised was our last long ascent. By this point we preferred the ascents to the descents as they were easier on our knees. Up and up we walked until we came to O Cebreiro. A tiny village that was picture perfect and tourist ready. I exhausted the little place taking pictures of it. This was, for me, a ‘thin place’ and I felt my soul was nourished just by being in that place. For a while from here we walked in mist and clouds that had settled on the mountain tops. It felt otherworldly, rejuvenating and inspiring.
We walked up two more “peaks” but that was the last of our mountains. And I felt a little sad about that. I was becoming more and more conscious of “lasts” now. The end of our Camino was much closer than our start and as much as I missed my wife and family there was a growing sense of how much I would miss this walking and way of being. We were moving slowly enough to savor the experience, but the end of our Camino now felt like it was rushing towards us rather than a distant goal.
For a while we walked and talked with the “alarm lady.” Bill expertly chatted her up and we learned some of her story and why she was on the Camino. We had 2nd breakfast – a empanada and a coca-cola. And then we walked some more and by 1 pm we had gone as far as we’d planned for that day and found ourselves in Fonfria.
Checking in to the albergue we were offered a private room with a private bath for almost the same price we had expected to pay for a bunk bed and shared bathrooms so we took it. They offered a large, family style pilgrim’s meal that night and we signed up for that as well.
That evening we made our way across the street to the large, circular building that was the dining hall. Bill and I were some of the first to arrive so we had our choice of seats. The table was one long continuous table that curved along one side of the room. It must have sat 50 or more of us. We tried to sit near the middle so we could meet other pilgrims.
On the table – wine, water and bread. As pilgrims arrived and got seated we all started in on all 3. When it seemed like we were all there, the courses began. Soup was first and the food just kept coming. The lady who was our host was delightful and entertaining and she was making all of us feel very welcome. Each course was great and each was even better than the last. There was always a new bottle of wine and a new bottle of water on the table.
One of the conversations I had that night was with a woman who was there walking all by herself. She had recently turned 65 and the Camino was on her list of things she wanted to do. Her only preparation for the trip had been to throw some things into a back pack and go. She told me about her walk so far and how she had left so many things along the way that she thought she needed but didn’t, how she’d lost other things along the way that she thought she needed but didn’t and now was walking with what she thought of as the essentials – a much lighter load than what she started with. She leaned in to tell me, more quietly, that she was – at this point in the walk – wearing the same clothes every day until she couldn’t stand the smell of them anymore, and then she’d wash them.
On the first day of my Camino this would have grossed me out. By day 25, I got it.
After the amazing 4 course meal – or 5 if you count the bread and wine – Bill danced with our host around the large “dance floor” in the middle of the large building to the cheers of all the other pilgrims. There was a rich, community feeling at this place and it was exactly the kind of night I had been looking forward to on the Camino. The day had started rough with the early wake up call but it ended with an amazing meal with a room full of peregrinos and Bill and I got to go back to our own room with clean beds, with fresh towels and our own thermostat.
I almost felt guilty. Almost. But I knew that the next day the reality of sore feet, a long walk and bunk beds would return.