There are some things that are best experienced within the solitude of your mind, like meditating or soul searching… and perhaps, walking through the Spanish Meseta on the Camino de Santiago.
The Meseta is the central Spanish tableland, which intersects the Camino Frances between Burgos and Astorga. It is a part of Spain known among pilgrims for its wide skies, dry heat and flat lands, all of which mess with perceptions of time and distance. It is also anticipated as a part of the Camino that is likely to get under your skin, test your mind, confront your heart, and make you wonder a little bit about your connection to this world.
As planned, I walked out of Burgos last Tuesday, facing the the stark reality of my own company and leaving Dave in a hotel resting his injured knee. As much as I’ve always prided myself on being an independent spirit and an enthusiastic solo traveller, I have to admit that five months of travelling in a couple left me feeling a little vulnerable as I set out on my solo Camino walk. But, as I tend to find with these daunting independent adventures, I am usually most in need of time alone when I least want it, and there is a resounding satisfaction that comes with facing your doubts, going for it anyway, and achieving a goal all by yourself.
Day 1: Burgos to Hontanas (30-something km)
At 7am, I was late by pilgrim standards. The grey Burgos morning offered no comfort as I shouldered my pack, zipped my fleece and tentatively wandered towards the intimidating Gothic cathedral spires in search of Camino trail markers. I found the familiar yellow arrows on concrete kerbs, traffic signs and in shop windows, and followed them through narrow streets, deserted residential complexes,and farmland abutting the city limits.
After a few nervous tears, an internal battle about leaving a crippled Dave alone, and an album of Louis Armstrong’s ‘best’ tunes, I eased into a rhythm around the 10km mark. By noon, the sun had appeared, the birds started to twiddle a happy little melody and I was practically skipping through crop-green and dirt-red paddocks. Like exhaling, I let my mind expand into the space, as I had done every other day of walking, but this time really noticing the humbling comparison of a tiny me under a wide open sky.
The afternoon introduced a seemingly unchanging horizon that was spliced with still wind turbines and dotted with fluffy kindergarten-clouds. For quite a distance I was the only person in sight; the only sign of humanity apart from the eerie alien turbines and the recently grated road. I appreciated the surreal kind of beauty, painted with the majesty of motionless giants and the bold stretches of green grassy crops.
At some point in the hot afternoon, I swallowed a fly. I choked and spluttered with shock, then, struck with the bizarre hilarity of the situation, doubled over with laughter; a laughter not seen or heard by anyone but me.
Eventually, as my feet began to swell and my legs demanded to stop, I searched the horizon for the steeples and rooftops of civilisation. Finally, I encountered a sign saying Hontanas was only 500 metres away… only 500 metres away, yet invisible to the pilgrim’s eye. But surely enough, 300 metres down there track, there it was, like a mirage: a timeless stone village hidden in a small, surprising valley.
I spent the afternoon reading, writing, doing laundry, sipping vino with strangers and foraging for gluten free food in the land of bochadillos and baguettes. The long evening light faded gradually after 9pm, leaving me pinkish, tired and welcoming the sleep that would wash away the physical and emotional residue of my first solo day.
Hontanas to Boadilla del Camino (about 28kms)
Eager to beat the heat of the day and embrace my newly regained independence, I was on the road by 5.30am. Despite my early getaway, I made slow progress, with plump new blisters on my heals and toes and pulpy bruising across the soles of my feet. I was thankful for the pale pink dawn rising over the dew-dripped fields and tree-lined trail; a view which lifted me from a self-pitying state of pain, into a warped version of optimistic gratitude. Aided by the cool morning air and a reworked perspective, I managed to put 10kms behind me by 8am.
As the sun rose higher, the heat intensified across the plateau. The repetition of scape and sound became intoxicating, like an echoing chant, a numbing drug. There were some surprises to stimulate the senses though. First, there was the sudden majesty of the pigeon-infested Gothic ruins of San Anton Convent, straddling the road to Castrojeriz. Then, a hill that sprung randomly from the tableland, surprising me a much as the valley of Hontanas the evening before. I was delighted by the graceful field of purple flowers lining the path around noon and relieved by the hilltop grove that shaded my lunch time rest. In the afternoon, I walked past crop sprinklers that showering me with a cool mist and quenched my sundried skin, evoking playful memories of childhood summers.
In the mid afternoon, I hobbled into Boadilla del Camino, a tiny little place with a seedy bar joined to the municipal albergue, a couple of lovely private albergues with ‘tropical gardens’, a church, and not much else. Of course, in my weary state, I missed the markers to the nice accommodation and hastily checked myself into the 12 bunk, grimy municipal facility in the fear that I’d miss out on a bed and need to walk to the next town. By the time I’d realised my mistake, I had little choice but to spend a long, hot afternoon in the company of concrete. I did pop over to my tropical neighbours to source the only apparent food in town and some fellow pilgrim company, but returning to my shabby bed was like being banished to the corner for bad behaviour.
That night I went to bed while the sun was still beaming through the window. I slept soundly with the hope that I would wake invigorated, with shiny new feet.
Boadilla del Camino to Carrion de los Condes (25-ish kms)
When I woke early on the third day it was immediately apparent that my feet were in a worse state then the night before. Forcing my over-sized heels into seemingly iddy-biddy shoes was a teary shock, but within 5kms, I was convinced I had the substance to ignore the hurt in each step and make it to Carrion.
I have always tried to look on the bright side of life, and I’m a big believer in overcoming challenges to focus on the good stuff. But not that day. No matter how hard I looked into the gorgeous Spanish views, admiring the dawn-tipped water reeds and reflections in the canal, I could not distract myself from the pain or stop my spiralling, darkening minds-eye.
Even with the gloss of hindsight, I have to admit that third day was nothing but a hot, torturous drag of burning pain, worsened by bruise-belting stones underfoot and the dreary road-side view that dominated most of the way. As I struggled to pull myself together, keep my head up, focus on the idea of an end, I felt as though my body had failed. Here I was, young, fit, doing ‘all the right things’ to look after myself, and I was being overtaken by people more than twice my age and being given kindly, sympathetic looks from the Spanish nannas who watched pilgrims pass. It was a stab to my ego for sure, and therein lay one of the lessons of my solo Camino: letting go of ego is the best way to carry on with what is good for you (in this case, a slow, pathetic, teeth-gritted plod all the way to Carrion).
By the time I arrived in the albergue run by the nuns of Santa Maria, I was close to sobbing into their ice-tea offering arms. Of course, a hot shower, some good company and a glass or two of cold vino tinto worked wonders, quickly making the whole experience seem more like a horrid dream than my morning reality. It was sometime that afternoon, in my vino-inspired wisdom, that I decided to never again doubt my ability to push through a challenge, to always try to respect my physical limits (rather than stubbornly sticking to a goal) and to remember that most of the unpleasantness in the world will pass eventually, and be replaced by better, sunnier things.
The heart-filling night that followed my little epiphany will remain one of my most treasured travel experiences. I sat with the nuns and other pilgrims at 6pm to hear songs of love and forgiveness and stories about why other pilgrims had chosen to walk the way. In any other setting the experience may have been corny, forced, fake, but there, in that time and place, it was inspirational, moving and a beautiful reminder that we all have a story, we all have a choice and we all have a reason to be happy. Then I sat in the back of the 12th Century church and listened to the echoing Spanish mass, before sharing a communal pilgrim meal and meeting more amazing people from all walks of life.
That third night I went to bed with a light heart, knowing that I’d be okay, surrounded by people who all knew a little bit about blisters, bruises and many of the other pains in life.
Carrion de los Condes to Leon (further than I could walk in a day)
The morning of my fourth solo day was spent sitting in Cafe España waiting for the one daily bus to take me to Leon, where I had planned to meet Dave. In the five hours that I sat there, I watched pilgrims come and go, stopping for a coffee on a journey to somewhere else. I met locals who spoke to me in Spanish as if I understood every word. I marvelled at the charming everyday workings of the town through the movements of tradespeople, tractors, retirees. I also met a retired man from USA who indulged me in long discussions about international politics, relationships, religion, economics… and other general ‘meaning of life’ stuff that seemed so natural to talk about with a stranger on the Camino.
By the time the bus arrived, I felt I had come full circle in my little solo crisis/ adventure/ experience. I had broken a little bit, picked myself back up, reached my goals, learnt some lessons and ended up feeling more inspired, enchanted, invigorated by life than before I started. This was a nice, warm, fuzzy realisation to have, and it made me smile to myself as I inched along the bus isle looking for my seat.
Then, with a quiet tap on my arm, there was Dave, my fella and travel buddy, looking at me with the same surprised expression I must have been showing him. And just like that, I slipped back into the comfort of familiar company, but this time knowing a little bit more about myself after experiencing something unique, something special that I could call my own.
Stay tuned, there is more to come.
I’m posting this from Ponferrada, after recovering from a stomach bug and giving Dave’s knee a few more days to heal. Soon we’ll be setting off to walk the last stint of our Camino… life permitting.
You can also follow my journey through my Facebook site www.facebook.com/NicFreemanTravel