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Time walked – 11.5 hours, including two food stops, foot care stops and a 2 hour horse ride

Total miles walked – 13.1 miles on foot plus 5 miles on horseback

Miles to date – 420.9 (Ray) and 411.1 (Wendy) + 5 miles each on horseback

Weather – Cool morning, 61 degrees F warming up quickly into the low 80’s

Terrain – cobblestone streets; pavement; rough, steep, rocky path; gravel trail

Besides walking every step, there are many ways to Santiago de Compostela. We chose to walk the Camino Frances from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, but we have encountered dozens of pilgrims who have started at other points along the route. We had met pilgrims who started in Amsterdam, Germany and Le Puy, France, as well. Some pilgrims walk on foot, some take buses or taxis when necessary, and some bus or taxi through areas for a variety of reasons. Many pilgrims choose to bike the way, some sticking to the paved roads and some riding the trails with the walkers. Ray and I had heard of other routes like to Camino Norte, running along the northern coast of Spain, the Camino Primitivo, the Camino Engles, and the Camino Portuguese, starting in either Lisbon or Porto, Portugal. The Camino Frances is the most popular route with 64% of finishers in 2016 choosing it as their pilgrimage.

Many of the forums promote the ideal of everyone experiencing their own Camino, with no judgment from others. Ray and I were envious of the purist pilgrims who could walk every step with minimal gear, no guidebooks or electronics. On the other end of the spectrum were the guided bus tours, and of course, everything possible in between the purists and the bus tours. Since we were working in the evenings, Ray and I had to bring our phones and tablets. Ray desperately wanted to bring his laptop to make his work duties easier, but succumbed to his tablet because of the weight and bulk.

At dinner in León, Jeanette had the brilliant idea to form a WhatsApp group, including Yung Mi, Lisa and me. Eventually Jeri and Claudia were added, and we kept in touch with Carmen, Steve and Ann through other methods, forming the core of our Camino family. Even though I had not imagined forming these relationships, one of the highlights of my day was to check-in with everyone to learn how they were doing and where they were. The anticipation of possibly seeing each other along the way was motivating, inspiring and energizing, and had become an important part of our Camino. Our experience would not have been as comprehensive without Jeanette’s effort and foresight.

Carmen and I had messaged each other the night before about dinner. While it had seemed like a great idea much earlier in the day, we both admitted our exhaustion and declined the opportunity. As sad as I was over the thought of not seeing Carmen again, my body was in full protest from the heat of the afternoon and the cobblestone streets. Carmen proposed that she meet us on the bridge the next morning, and I agreed to send her a message when we were ready to leave the Parador.

Ray was ready to leave the hotel as I finished preparing my feet for the day. I had been able to wear my new shoes each day without having to break them in because they fit so perfectly. I sent a message to Carmen that Ray was checking out and then we would meet her soon. Little did I know that Ray was waiting for the entire car club to check out before he could get to the counter. Thinking of Carmen waiting for us caused me to become anxious, but when we reached the bridge she was calm and beautiful as ever. We hugged each other without saying good-bye, hoping that our paths would cross again. As we pressed on, I turned back to take a photo of the quaint village now behind us with our friend sending us on our way.

Ray and I faced two dilemmas on the thirty-sixth day of our journey. The first was whether to take the scenic path or stay on the main route along a major highway. The second problem was that we needed to log eighteen miles in order to keep to my latest revised schedule so that we would make our return flight. Because of a steep hill on the scenic route, I made the decision to forego the alternative route and stick to the highway. While the first couple of miles were either paved or a trail to the side of the road, we passsed through one small village after another, making the walk much more pleasant than anticipated. With many of the hamlets populated by fewer than twenty residents, they were starting to look the same. One stone building looked just like the next, so I stopped to snap a picture when a different facade caught my attention.

Ray and I stopped for coffee and had an interesting conversation with a Spanish developer who had recognized the Panamá patches on our backpacks. He was about our age, but very fit and walking a minimum of 30 kilometers a day. We left the café before him, thinking we would see him later as he passed us, but never saw him again.

We reached a tourist stop with a bench outside, and I told Ray it was time for me to stop and grease my feet again. I liked walking on the pavement because of the smooth surface, but it was much hotter in the sun and hard on our knees as well. Ray went to buy us some bananas as three couples walked by me on their way into the souvenir shop. One woman stopped to ask me about our pilgrimage, and I could see the admiration in her eyes as she complimented our accomplishments.  Her words were encouraging, yet bewildering at the same time. Ray and I did not think we were doing anything remarkable or extraordinary because we believed that anyone could do what we were doing. We were inspired daily by people overcoming challenges far greater than ours.

Not long after my foot rest, my feet felt like they were hot and tired again. The road was shaded, which helped greatly, but the pavement was taking it’s toll on my feet. Ray and I discussed looking for a place to stop and have lunch while letting my feet cool off.

As we walked along the road, I tried to explain to Ray what our options were for the end of the day. I don’t think of myself as a worrier, but on this day I was consumed with figuring out Plans A, B and C. In a perfect world, I would find the guy with the horses to take me up the 5 miles from Las Herrerías to O’Cebreiro totaling an 18 mile day. Ray did not want to ride a horse because he wanted to walk every step of the Camino, but I had wanted to since my friend had told me about it in Panamá. Getting ahead would gain us another rest day that we had lost in León. If I was unable to ride the horse, we would have to stay short of O’Cebriero and have one day in Santiago before leaving. Plan B was to walk part of the way up the steep, rocky mountain, spend the night and walk the rest in the morning. Plan C was to stay in Las Herrerías, ride a horse the next day to O’Cebreiro then walk as far as possible. It was not occurring to me that the horse ride might not be available the next day, requiring a Plan D.

The previous evening, I had entered the number for Victor, the horse guide, into my phone to see if he had WhatsApp. He did, so I used a Spanish translation app to send him a message asking if I could make a reservation for a horse. He replied with a voice message in Spanish that was translated for me by the desk clerk at the Parador. His message said that he needed three people to take at a time. He did not specify a time or say that he would let me know if he had other inquiries. I didn’t send anything back since I was afraid that he would answer by voice again and I wouldn’t understand. For some reason I remained hopeful that the horse ride would work out. The odds were extremely slim, but I had already witnessed so many Camino miracles, instead of giving in to defeat, I prayed.

As hard as I tried to get Ray to understand all the details of the dilemma, he wasn’t sharing my anxiety. The more I talked about it, the more worked up I became. I heard The familiar ding of my phone in my pocket, indicating that someone in our Camino group was sending a message. I was hot, hungry and needed to use the restroom, so I did not have the energy to check my phone. Ray and I were approaching the next village, so I knew relief was in sight.

I looked up and saw a sign for a panadería, or bakery, and told Ray that I wanted to check it out. I wasn’t for sure if they would have a lunch menu, but I was willing to take the chance since it was different from the typical bar restaurant. I quickly removed my backpack in a chair outside so that I could use the facilities. I opened the door and saw a familiar figure sitting in a booth bent over her phone.

“I think I’m seeing a Camino angel!” I exclaimed as Yung Mi looked up, recognizing my voice. She was as surprised as I was, and she threw her hands up in the air as a big smile broke out on her face. She started to stand so that we could hug, but I pointed to the bathroom and asked her to give me just a minute. She laughed, saying that she understood and ran out to greet Ray. Yung Mi highly recommended the food and helped us pick out our lunch. All my anxiety left as we sat together filling each other in on our experiences. Once again, it was difficult to calculate the odds of us walking into the right place at the right time and to explain the utter delight in the surprise of meeting again. Yung Mi had spent an extra day resting in this tiny village and had been feeling lonely. These relationships along the way had become so important to Ray and I that this Camino miracle made the rest of the day insignificant.

Ray and I were greeted with encouraging, hand-made signs as we entered Las Herrerías. On the first building in town, I recognized the name of the accommodation as my first choice of places to stay if the horse ride didn’t work out. We entered the small restaurant attached to the bed and breakfast at 2:30 in the afternoon, and I knew the odds of having Plan A workout were nearly impossible. I approached the proprietor behind the bar and asked if he had any rooms left for the night. He answered that he did, and I immediately knew that I had messed up. My intention was to ask him if he had information about the horse ride first. I was kicking myself inside wondering if he would help me knowing that he could sell us a room. As he grabbed his reservation book, I asked if he knew about the horse rides and if there was a schedule. A smile broke out on his face when he answered that he knew Victor and could give me his phone number, saying that Victor took people at 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

The man grabbed his phone to give me Victor’s number as I told him that I had it, but did not have any minutes. He said that Victor spoke good English and that I should talk to him as he handed me his phone to use. Ray did not want to ride up the hill on a horse, but said that he would do it if I needed him. Victor answered immediately and I asked him if he had a space open for his afternoon tour. He asked me how many people I had, and I told him that it could be me, or me and my husband. After a brief silence, he said that he would take the two of us to Laguna, 2 kilometers from O’Cebreiro. I protested telling him that my feet were bad, we were behind schedule and we needed to go all the way to O’Cebreiro. Victor asked me if I had a reservation in O’Cebreiro, and I answered that I did not. He told me that the beds in O’Cebreiro were sold out, but he could get me a reservation in Laguna. Somehow I remembered that I had read about a small hamlet just beyond O’Cebreiro that had something to do with the production of linen, and I told Victor that I wanted to make it to “Lina…”

“Oh, you want to go to Liñares,” Victor said, and he asked if I had a reservation. I told him that I did not, and before I could react he said that he would call and make a reservation at the albergue for two. He asked me twice if we had experience with horses, and I assured him that growing up in Kansas had given us many opportunities and that I had a pony as a girl. He then said that he would meet us with the horses in one hour. I handed the man his phone back, thanked him and ordered a snack and two colas. I filled Ray in on the conversation as we sat and drank our colas. Normally, when the impossible happens, it’s exciting or emotional, with feelings of disbelief. Ray and I sat without talking, acknowledging to ourselves that we were experiencing yet another miracle. It wasn’t Plan A, B, C or D, because I would have never planned to make it beyond the top of the mountain, but despite all my effort, it was about to happen.

We passed a couple of albergues and restaurants on the way into Las Herrerías. Many pilgrims had settled in the village for the day, stopping before the long, steep climb. After climbing the Pyrenees at the beginning of the Camino Francés, I was confident that I could make it up this mountain on foot, but I the opportunity to make up for lost time was the appeal for me. I knew that Ray wanted to walk every step of the Camino and appreciated the sacrifice he was making for me. He had repeatedly told me that I had willingly supported him on his many adventures, and he intended to do the same for me on the Camino. Because I initially thought the Camino would be a memorable way to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, I was reminded that his help, support and companionship were the greatest anniversary gift of all.

Victor arrived with three horses, feeding them alfalfa while getting them saddled. I was curious about how we would get our backpacks up the mountain, but Victor explained that we would keep them on our backs. He introduced me to my horse for the ride, Bunny, and Carlotta, for Ray. He would ride Luna because she did not like backpacks. I got a little nervous when he threw on the English-style saddles. Western saddles have a horn on the front which I was used to for holding on. Victor assured us that we would be fine with the unfamiliar saddle while telling us about his adventures in the United States.

Victor told us that Bunny, named after his wife, might want to pass Carlotta, named after his daughter, on the trail. We started out along pavement, and I eventually became confident on top of Bunny to try to take a photo. I needed to hold on to the reins with one had and did not want to have to stop because I dropped my phone.

The path turned rocky and steep, and I imagined the horse shoes slipping on the rocks while the horse fell down. I kept having to reassure myself that I had not read any accounts of the horse falling and that it wasn’t going to happen. I tucked my phone in a zippered pocket for the steepest, roughest parts of the trail, praying and holding on with my knees. Ray’s horse, Carlotta, was passing gas, and I chuckled at how appropriate that seemed to be for him.

I thought about my dad, who bought me a Shetland pony when I was a little girl, and introduced me to horses on his father’s farm. My other grandfather had a horse painted on his barn, holding the horse in the yard with the sun rising so his silhouette could be traced for painting. One of my favorite books as a child was “Misty of Chincoteague,” about a horse born in the wild on an island. Memories that had been long forgotten flooded my mind until I was distracted my the impressive panorama.

We entered a small village where the horses drank from a trough below the central fountain. Cows sauntered by down the main street while we waited, an apparent typical occurrence as evidenced by the numerous cow patties deposited on the road. Carlotta continued to pass gas, providing sophomoric entertainment for all those nearby. I wasn’t sure if Ray was even aware of what she was doing, until he started laughing as well. Once I realized that he was aware of her flatulence, I started to giggle which turned into a full-on belly laugh. Before long, I was laughing so hard that my eyes were closed with tears running down my cheeks. I was afraid that since I couldn’t see what I was doing that I would fall off of Bunny. Ray was afraid for me as well, but my laughing was making him laugh. Every time I thought I was about to recover, Carlotta would pass more gas, repeating the entire episode. I finally decided that if I died falling off of a horse in a fit of laughter, it would make for a great obituary.

The rocky, narrow Camino trail curved along the side of a cliff with a steep drop off to the left. The tremendous views were spectacular as we climbed higher and higher up the trail. We passed a few pilgrims, and I felt guilty that we were riding because they were looking so weary. One  rather large man had sweat running down his face and his shirt was soaked. One young couple picked up their pace when they saw us coming. They kept in front of us for quite a while as he pleaded with her to slow down and let us pass them. Ray and I were impressed with her strength and determination as she continued ahead of the horses. Another man stepped to the side of the trail as we passed. He called out to his companion to check us out right as Carlotta passed gas in front of him. He chuckled and thanked her which started my laughing fit all over.

We passed through Laguna de Castilla with three quarters of the way before reaching O’Cebreiro. Bunny was continually stopping to eat the grass along the sides of the trail, while Victor would holler at me not to let her eat. My legs were starting to go numb, and I realized that Bunny was the fattest horse I’d ever ridden. I tried pressing my knees in her sides while using my heels to keep her from eating, but my legs were not responding. I wondered how I was going to get off the horse let alone walk another three kilometers to Liñares. I checked my watch an hour and a half into the ride, acknowledging that this wasn’t as easy and painless as I had anticipated.

Along the tree-covered trail, Victor turned Luna toward a tree and stopped, and the other two horses followed suit without any prompting from Ray or me. He announced that this was the end of our ride and came over to help me down first. I started to remove my backpack, but Victor instructed me to leave it on. I hesitated to tell him that I couldn’t feel my legs as he assured me that I would be fine. Victor grabbed the top handle on my pack as I attempted to swing my right leg over Bunny. To my great surprise, my leg found it’s way to the ground, my left leg released from the stirrup and I was standing on both feet. I wasn’t about to attempt a step until I had my hiking poles secured in my hands, so I stood and waited as Victor helped Ray then handed me the poles that had ridden up on Luna.

Ray asked Victor where we were supposed to go, and he said that he would walk with us in town, leaving the horses to rest. It was a short walk to the village, and Victor pointed out the buses in a parking lot. Ray and I heard him, but didn’t realize the significance until we rounded the corner into town and felt like we’d been dropped into Branson, Missouri. O’Cebreiro was packed with tourists milling about the shops and restaurants. The women wore cute dresses with sweaters around their shoulders, brightly colored flats and styled hair. The men had on shorts with loafers and pressed dress shirts. Victor pointed out the 9th century church, the oldest church in existence on the Camino Francés.

The church also holds the final resting place of the priest who is credited with the revival of the modern Camino. In the late 1970’s, it was his idea to mark the trail with the yellow arrows making it easier for the pilgrims to follow the way. I found it fascinating that in 1986, 2,491 pilgrims received their Compostela in Santiago de Compostela, and thirty years later, in 2016, the number had grown to 277,915, largely due to the efforts of the priest in O’Cebreiro.

Ray and I did not stick around to do any sight-seeing, but found our way out of town on to Liñares. It was late and we would be walking into the sun. I was thankful that the three kilometers was mostly a smooth, gravel path lined with trees that kept the sun out of our eyes. We had started before 8:00 a.m. and would not reach our day’s destination until after 7:00 p.m.

The Camino trail dumped us out onto the side of a highway with only two buildings in sight. A pilgrim at a fountain pointed us to the albergue across the road, but we were attracted to the umbrellas, tables and chairs outside a small store. Chris and Bob recognized us first, inviting us to sit with them and four others. We visited awhile, then ran to check in and get showered before returning for food. We met two ladies, Linda and Laura, who had been walking with Chris and Bob, and a man from Spain, Cesar. They were gathered around a table full of food and begged Ray and I to help them finish it before buying any more. We promised to help them, but purchased our usual grocery store meal of sausage, cheese, olives, bread and cookies.

Ray and I ate and ate while listening to the bantering of the lively group. The sun was setting, but it remained light until after 10:00 p.m., making it seem earlier than it was. The evening temperature was perfect, the food satisfying, and company entertaining. I sat and savored the last moments of the evening. It had been a miraculous day that I never wanted to forget.

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