Time walked – 6 hours with a coffee stop, lunch stop, and stops to rest feet
Total distance walked – 11.95 miles
Miles to date – 392.50 (Ray) and 382.70 (Wendy)
Weather – Cool morning, 55 degrees F to hot afternoon, low 80’s
Terrain – Rocky trail, gravel path, steep downhill rocks, pavement
It was difficult to leave the bed and breakfast in El Acebo. Ray was up, packed and ready early, but not because he was ready to get going. We had left the plains of Spain, and he was eager to quietly absorb the atmosphere of the hills. He found a spot where he could take it all in while I got ready for the day. Our host included breakfast with our room, so Ray and I met at the table prepared with fresh fruits, breads and coffee just before 7:30 a.m. Ray kept saying over and over that this was his favorite spot on the Camino and that he would be happy to stay right here. While I thought it was beautiful and I was delighted to be back into the coolness of the mountains, the beauty of the Pyrenees remained foremost in my heart.
After breakfast, we took off through the small village and back to the open spaces. We started along a road that curved around the hills, and soon found the rocky trail that wound along just below the road. My new shoes were starting to feel like an old friend, and the blisters on my feet were beginning to heal. I desperately wanted walking to become more enjoyable again, but more tolerable was a better description. On the rocky trails I had to concentrate on the placement of each step which kept me from appreciating the views and experiences that the Camino had to offer.
Ray and I walked and talked as had become our customary routine. We no longer experienced the random aches and pains from the beginning of the Camino, or discussed the necessary backpack adjustments. Our packs and hiking sticks had become part of us. We joked about not knowing how to walk without them. Even though I was laughing, I said that I didn’t think I could walk down stairs without my poles, and I meant it.
The trifecta of topics most often discussed by pilgrims on the Camino were food, feet and facilities. Our first possible stop was only 3.4 kilometers from our start, but we had already had coffee and breakfast. I knew that if we were not ready for more coffee, it would be the perfect distance for a bathroom break. Not only did I painstakingly prepare our coffee and food stops each day, I spent as much time determining the distance between toilets. In my reasearch for the Camino it had been repeatedly recommended to allow your feet to air out and cool off at each stop. Taking off my shoes and socks multiple times a day was not something I had planned for initially, but it had become the necessary missing piece to the puzzle of my blisters.
As I was reporting to Ray the choices we had for food and potty stops, he continued to go on and on about how much he loved this part of the Camino. Since I had figured out that we could make our return flight home if we were able to push a little harder each day, I was getting a little worried that Ray was going to want to linger too long. Our conversation somehow segued into Ray’s bathroom habits, or the lack thereof. Of the people with which we have had this discussion, I am the only one who has remained regular on the route. Ray and others have found it to be more difficult. I asked him if he been able to relax enough at the previous accommodation to accomplish an elimination. His answer compared his performance to menu items from Taco Bell, diminishing his success. It was hard to have compassion for him when his analogy made me burst out laughing. Just as I was recovering from my laughing fit, we heard someone call out our names.
The morning air was clear and crisp, and Ray and I thought we had the Camino trail to ourselves. The path curved slowly to the left for a half a kilometer to the next village, with few trees to block our view. Carmen was about 250 meters in front of us and recognized our voices, questioning if we were who she thought. It was so easy to hear her that I was afraid she had heard our conversation. We caught up to Carmen in Riego de Ambrós, where we grabbed coffee together. I asked Carmen how she knew that it was us and was relieved to find out she heard voices and recognized Ray’s orange shirt.
We talked about where we had stayed the night before and the challenging downhill hike that was much longer and harder than anticipated. As we walked through the small hamlet, we admired the rows of ancient, stone houses built in layers. Carmen had included us on her Facebook group where she was sharing her Camino experience. Her pictures were amazing, so when she stopped to take a photo, I paid attention and took one as well. I offered to take a photo of Carmen and she offered to take one of me in return. I joked that just like my father, I preferred to take the pictures not be in them. Carmen took that as a challenge and I gave in to her requests, letting her get a picture of me in front of a charming home.
We left the village and Ray walked ahead as Carmen and I visited. Carmen wrote trail stories on her posts and shared some touching ones as well as funny ones with me. Ironically she had me in stitches over some of her squatting experiences. I confirmed again that she had not actually heard the conversation Ray and I were having earlier when she saw us, but filled her in on the subject matter. She was amazed that I had not had to use nature’s facilities, so I told her the story about barely making it to Sahagún. Thinking that it would be necessary at some point, I was prepared with a small, smashed roll of toilet paper, but had not needed it. Because I had made it so far, it was now a personal challenge to see if I could make it to the end without having to go outdoors.
As promised in the guidebook, the trail turned steeply downhill again. Carmen expressed her hesitation, and I volunteered to got first since I have few choices but to go slowly. The solid rocks formed small steps in some places, almost like a shallow staircase. We were thankful that it was not raining, amazed at how anyone would navigate the path while it was wet and slick. At a narrow part of the trail, I straddled the sides of the path above the rough, rocky center. Alternating my hiking poles and feet, I worked my way down the trail. Carmen said that I looked like I was ready for American Ninja Warrior, and we both laughed at the thought of our warrior training on the Camino. Between Ray’s comments and Carmen’s stories, I had not laughed so much in a long time.
Ray was waiting for us at the bottom of the steepest part of the trail. Considering how rough it was and how long it took us to hike down, Carmen and I were a little surprised that he hadn’t come looking for us. He laughed and said that he could hear us for much of the way. Carmen had made a reservation in Ponferrada and I had planned to stay in a large albergue there that had been recommended by Yung Mi, so we didn’t have the pressure of hurrying to find a bed. We decided to stop for lunch and a foot rest in the next town. With a population of 800, Molinaseca seemed like a city compared to the small villages we passed through regularly. Our first stop was in a church at the outskirts of the town. The door was open and a woman was sitting inside the entrance giving tours. This particular church had been carved into the side of the mountain, and she opened a tiny door that revealed the system for draining the rain water behind the chapel. It wasn’t a big church, but beautifully built and maintained.
The central part of Molinaseca was inviting and attractive, making me wish that we had more time to spend exploring. I was constantly struggling between wanting to have the time to walk fewer kilometers leaving more time to be a tourist and walking more kilometers, giving me a fantastic sense of accomplishment. For me there were two Caminos, one being the fun and engaging journey of exploration and relationships and one being the physical challenging adventure of pure joy as we complete each goal. I had not been prepared for this dilemma and stifled the thoughts of returning to the Camino to walk differently.
The restaurant where we stopped for lunch had a moat, of sorts, circulating from the adjacent river. After ordering, Ray soaked his feet in the cool water while we waited for our food.
Behind our table was a park next to the river. The Roman bridge with arches that we had crossed on our way had become a common sight for us. The type of tree we had been seeing since the beginning of the Camino was full of leaves. It took me a minute to realize that the leaves were not a result of us being in a different location, but the growth in over a month that we had been walking. Carmen also commented on the unusual tree, saying that she had learned that they were specifically planted as a shade tree. The unusual shape was typical of the tree and not the way it was pruned, which we had assumed. Being part Puerto Rican, Ray and I were jealous of Carmen’s fluency in Spanish. However, her ability to communicate with the locals had inspired Ray and I to learn more of the language.
It was an easy six kilometers to Ponferrada and went quickly talking with Carmen. Once we reached the edge of town, the Camino was paved next to busy city streets and the sun was getting hot. We parted as we got closer to the city center, with Carmen headed to her accommodation and Ray and I to the albergue. We were confident we would run into each other the following day and planned to meet up the next night for dinner if we didn’t see each other sooner.
Ray and I found the albergue, got checked in and settled. The girl who checked us in told us that all attractions and museums were free on Wednesdays, suggesting we take advantage of that and mentioning a castle nearby. We took our showers and headed out to be tourists. The 12th century castle had been recently renovated and designated as a national monument.
After finding out the castle would not close for siesta, Ray and I grabbed a bite to eat at a café across the street from the castle. We ordered cokes and Spanish olives to start and burgers to follow. It is often customary for the cafés to serve a small appetizer with drinks and sometimes that includes our colas. When they brought the tray to our table outside, it carried two bites of bread with sardines. After walking and perspiring for hours, the food combination was perfect.
We toured the castle after our early dinner, imagining what it would have been like in its early days. The displays were interesting and insightful, but my favorite part was the view of the mountains in our future. The heat cut our sight-seeing short, so we headed back to our modern, air-conditioned albergue. Right as we walked in, I got a message from Carmen that she never did find her hostel so ended up in the next town. I wasn’t for sure if I should laugh or send her my sympathy. Because they say the Camino plans you and not the other way around, I wasn’t sure that we would see Carmen again. We sent messages wishing each other a “Buen Camino,” and hoping that we would reconnect.
Since we were not on vacation, Ray and I had to get some work done before going to bed. Working from the Camino was getting harder and harder. The wifi was not as good as what we are used to in Panamá, but also, we felt like we were missing out on so much of the experience of the Camino. We were starting to see the end of our journey and we wanted to savor every moment.