Time walked – 7 hours with a long coffee break, a lunch break and two other stops for feet
Total distance walked – 11.3 miles
Miles to date – 380.55 (Ray) and 370.75 (Wendy)
Weather – Cold and foggy start, 51 degrees F to cool and sunny, 68 degrees F
Terrain – dirt path, gravel trail, pavement, rocky trail
Ray and I woke up in Rabanal del Camino after our longest walking day on the Camino de Santiago. Since we had stayed in a hotel, so there were no laundry services available. We had washed our dirty, sweaty clothes in the bathroom sink, and Ray strung a clothesline in the hotel room. The alarm on Ray’s phone sounded, and we opened our eyes to clothes hanging above our heads. My first thought was to find out if the clothes had dried; my second thought was to find out if my legs and feet would still move. I sat up and walked to the bathroom incredibly slowly.
It’s no secret that I had been known to eat more than my daily allowance of salt at a Mexican restaurant. Usually, my legs and feet would be a little puffy the next day. I had found, however, that I did not know what truly swollen feet were until I started walking the Camino. Stepping on my feet the morning after having walked 18.25 miles was like wearing a thick pair of rounded socks, or sticking my foot inside a swim noodle. There was an art to taking my first few steps, and fortunately I got used to the feeling rather quickly.
While I prepared my feet for the day with the multiple salves and bandages, Ray read the details of our day in the guidebook. I had done all of the planning for our Camino so Ray hadn’t had a reason to study the guidebook and was enjoying the surprises of each day’s journey. He had discovered all the information that the book contained and became more fascinated with the facts about each location that I had not been sharing. As we started down the trail, Ray made the comment that the Cruz de Ferro was only two kilometers away, much closer than we realized. I took a look back as we left Rabanal and loved seeing the steeple just above the horizon.
I was so excited when Ray told me that the Cruz de Ferro was only two kilometers away from where we started our day. After walking 600 kilometers since May 5th, another two kilometers seemed like a blink. It is tradition to bring a meaningful stone from one’s home to leave at the base of the cross. In the movie, “The Way,” the scene where Martin Sheen reaches the Cruz de Ferro was very touching as he dedicated the stone he left as a memorial to his son. For me, reaching the milestone also meant that we were close to the end of our journey. I anxiously approached each hill and turn of the trail anticipating my first look at the monument, wondering if it would make me cry.
One day on the Camino, I had timed the speed at which Ray and I were walking. The trail followed a highway with kilometer markers, making it easy to clock our speed. We were reaching each marker in just under twelve minutes, or 5 kilometers per hour. I calculated that we should reach the Cruz de Ferro monument in 24 minutes. When thirty minutes had passed, I decided that we were walking slowly because of the many miles we had walked the day before. After an hour had passed, I knew that our information had been incorrect. The trail continued to climb upward until we were walking into fog. It reminded me of the cloud forest in Boquete, and I realized that I was missing my home.
Ray spotted the village of Foncebadón through the fog before I did. He walked faster knowing that our morning coffee was straight ahead. At that point, I remembered that the Cruz de Ferro was two kilometers after this village, not after the one where we had slept. My initial plan was to stay in Foncebadón for a night, but the original plan had been scraped in the first few weeks of our Camino.
We passed the first café and the next because they were already too crowded inside. These bar restaurants had very little indoor seating, and it was too cold to sit outside. We found a place with plenty of room and ordered our coffee. After sitting down I realized how hungry I was and ordered a bacon and egg with toast. It had been rare to see eggs on a menu in the morning, and they caught my eye immediately.
Ray wasn’t wanting to eat a full breakfast, but I convinced him to have some of mine. As we were eating, we heard someone say our names. We looked over to the next table and saw Carmen, who we had last seen over a week ago in Calzadilla de la Cueza. We had been introduced to Carmen by Lisa. The last time we saw her we were all cooling off with drinks, and she was continuing on in the heat of the afternoon. Ray and I assumed that she was way ahead of us. We did some quick catching up and decided to walk together after breakfast.
Carmen was also excited to reach the Cruz de Ferro. I told her that Ray had brought a rock from Panamá that he had been carrying since our first day. Not realizing the tradition was to bring a rock from home, I had picked up a rock on our way to Roncesvalle on the Camino to represent the hardship I had overcome. Carmen had also picked up a rock from the Camino. I told her that every time I became aware of the rock in my pocket, I had prayed a specific prayer for my children. Just telling Carmen that made my eyes water, so I knew that I would shed a few tears at the cross. She acknowledged that it was expected to be an emotional milestone. We found that we had many things to talk about and share, but did not let our conversation stop us from admiring the breath taking view.
The three of us had been ascending gradually all day. It was my understanding that the monument marked the highest point on the Camino, and our anticipation of getting the first sighting continued to grow. The trail popped up out of a wooded area right next to a highway, and there it was. We were stunned as none of us imagined that the Cruz de Ferro was on a road. After all the miles we had walked seeing spontaneous memorials all along the way, it had never occurred to us that this highly recognizable monument would be so accessible.
Ray was the first to voice his disappointment, saying that it was a tourist trap. As soon as he said it, Carmen and I spotted the parked bus that had dropped off a tour group for a photo opportunity. We stomped our way the last several meters to the marker, attempting to force out our frustrations. Carmen, Ray and I had seen the movie as well as other pictures, but the vehicles and highway had always been carefully concealed.
I was able to get over the disappointment of my unrealistic expectation of the Cruz de Ferro scene fairly quickly. It had been a tremendous accomplishment to reach the sight so I focused on that instead. We walked first to a picnic table to remove our backpacks, giving the bus group time to leave. Because the scene wasn’t as isolated and spiritual as I had pictured, found that I wasn’t sentimental or emotional at all. Carmen and I offered to take pictures of each other, and Ray tossed his rock onto the pile without either of us knowing.
It was still a little foggy and the sky was gray with clouds when I climbed the mound to the top. I was surprised to see other items that had been left, like photos and shoes as I climbed. I threw my hands up in the air as celebration for the accomplishment and then added my rock to the mound. I took Carmen’s picture as she took her turn climbing to the top. She spent more time reflecting on the monument itself than I had, then tossed her rock into the pile.
After photos I realized that the whole experience had been so different than I thought it would be. As much as we tried, Ray, Carmen and I could not stop talking about how disappointed we were. A chapel had been constructed on the site along with picnic tables and other seating, so the grounds were very nice. I had imagined a quiet, spiritual time when I looked forward to leaving my rock behind, and I decided that I could still have that moment. I walked over to the chapel and repeated the prayer I had said so often over the past month. I prayed that God would reveal the path that He had created for our three children, my daughter-in-law, and any future sons-in-law, to each one of them. I prayed that they would seek God’s wisdom for their lives and not stray away, toward pain and hardship. It was also my prayer that God would use the example of Ray and I walking this Camino as more than just a walk, but a commitment to persevere through hardship by relying on God.
As I finished my prayer, I was surprised that I wasn’t more emotional. Then I realized that I was wrong to think that removing a rock from my pocket would be some life changing moment. Praying for my children and others to know the love and grace of God did not start and would not stop at the Cruz de Ferro. As we walked away, I turned back for one last look just as the sun broke through the clouds revealing a glimpse of the blue sky I had grown to love so much. It occurred to me that likewise, I had recognized a tiny insight of all there is to learn from this walk called life.
Ray walked ahead as Carmen and I chatted. The Camino followed the paved road for a while, then turned back into a path at what we thought would be a village called Manjarin. As we approached Manjarin we realized that it was not a village but two buildings resembling a medieval shack. One of the buildings was being worked on by the one resident keeping the hamlet active. According to the guidebook, pilgrims can spend the night there for a donation and get to sleep on a mattress that is on the floor. Since the proprietor was busy, we chose to push on down the trail.
After the long trek the day before, I had planned a relatively short day of walking since I was not sure how my feet would hold up. Ray and I were both happy that we were making progress again, although still behind the original schedule. I was beginning to relax that we could cover some ground and make it to Santiago de Compostela without having to change our flights. The confidence made our daily walk more enjoyable again, and we stopped occasionally to appreciate the sights. We could hear cow heels in the distance and remarked at the fancy trough the cows used to drink their water.
Carmen wanted to stop, rest her feet and have a snack that she was carrying in her backpack. Ray and I wanted to keep moving because I had not made a reservation. Our plan was to make it to El Acebo and find a place to sleep there. We had been warned that a steep downhill was coming up before El Acebo, and I wanted to get it over with while my feet felt alright. Ray and I continued to climb upward when the Camino turned toward the left. A two lane dirt road continued straight, and Ray wanted to climb to the top. It was one of the first times on our journey that we separated as we walked. I rounded the corner of the rocky trail and was astounded by the view before me. I turned to look for Ray, but did not see him. I was a little nervous with him off the Camino, but knew that he had plenty of hiking experience.
The trail continued on around the mountain peak. Ray had climbed to the top, and I thought that he would come back down and catch up to me. I could hear foot steps behind me, but every time I turned around, it was an unfamiliar pilgrim. At one point I decided to wait for Ray and stopped on the trail. I was passed by about six pilgrims, which seemed like many since the Camino was not very busy. Finally, I decided that I had to keep going and hoped that eventually Ray would catch up. My imagination was getting the best of me, and I did not like it. I wondered the steps I should take if Ray did not show up. Before long, I saw the familiar faded, orange shirt coming down a path that joined the Camino trail. Ray had climbed up and over the top, descending on the opposite side. I had gone around, following the yellow arrows, but we found each other once again. I did not tell Ray what I had been thinking, I just asked him if he had enjoyed his view.
Before we left Carmen, she had asked a man how much further to El Acebo. She spoke perfect Spanish and had also heard about the steep descent ahead. The man told her that El Acebo was four kilometers from where she had asked. As most hikers will tell you, the downhill is much harder than the uphill. I had learned that for myself on the Camino, appreciating my hiking poles for taking some pressure off of my knees. The trail was not only steep, it consisted of large, loose rocks and was uneven. At one point I could not see but a few feet ahead of me because the trail dropped off sharply on the other side.
Ray was quicker traveling down the rocks than I was. I had to concentrate on each step to ensure that I would not slip or fall down. I had calculated in my head that for kilometers would take me about an hour and a half, even if it was as difficult as it had started out to be. After two hours of descending, I knew that the descent was further than four kilometers. We continued downhill right into the village of El Acebo. Ray and I went in the first establishment and asked for a room. They were full, as is normal for the first place in a village. We followed the signs to a Casa Rural, and got a room with a queen-sized bed, a private bath and an incredible view of the mountains.
I sent Carmen a message asking her to check in so that I knew she had made it down the mountain alright. She sent a message back that she had, but was not happy to learn that it had actually been six kilometers rather than four. We sent a few jokes back and forth, thankful that the rocky descent was behind us. Ray wandered around the property, commenting multiple times that this was one of his favorite places on the Camino. When I asked him why he was loving it so much, he said that he loved the views, being surrounded by mountains. I laughed because we have very similar views from our home in Panamá.
Ray and I left our home in Panamá on May 1st, and we had been on the Camino for more than a month. Since we were back in the mountains, we were being reminded of our home. Before going to bed, I worked on revising our Camino schedule. It was so much fun to spend time with our Camino friends, but I was committed to making our flight in two weeks.