Camino Day 27
I awoke this morning feeling the importance of the day. It was going to be a momentous day because a) it would be the longest distance I’ve walked in a day (32 km) b) I would reach the highest point on the Camino (1515m) c)I would have the opportunity to leave stones at La Cruz de Ferro—the Iron Cross. The Iron Cross is a touchstone, a highlight of the Camino. There for who knows how many years people have left stones that they have carried with them on the Camino.
Perhaps, early on, these stones represented “sins” (based on the pilgrims’ faith tradition) that they wanted to lay down. Nowadays, however, people lay down stones for things they want to release, things they want to receive, healing for themselves or others. And not only stones—people also leave objects like teddy bears, notes or prayers. Today, I saw a perfectly good pair of running shoes.
So, it was to be a momentous day. And I awoke early, wanting to get a head start on what would be a very long day, no matter when I began. I hurriedly ate my breakfast, washed it down with café con leche and set out from the charming village of Rabanal del Camino.
As I left, I said my usual morning prayers to the Universe, and put forth my usual intentions, as well, that I would greet the day with awe and wonder, that I would welcome each experience with a holy curiosity, that I would be in sync with the walk, with the weather, with whatever the day brought me. But of course, this was also a most auspicious day. I would be laying down these three rocks, releasing all those intentions into the Universe. One of them was specifically for my sister, Lori, who had asked me to place a stone at the cross for her.
I knew the Iron Cross lay on the ascent and so I wanted to be in a place of focused prayer, meditation, intention-releasing, for that. My idea was that I would walk contemplatively, reflectivity to the La Cruz de Ferro, feeling the weight of the three stones in my backpack, feeling the weight of the journey I’ve carried them on, bringing them with me from Colorado Springs.
But that was not to be. As I left Rabanal del Camino, the path narrowed to a single track, choked with plants and flowers on either side, threatening to completely block the path. But that was ok. That made it easier to give high fives to the flowers and other plants that I passed by. What was not ok was the swarms of flies or gnats or whatever the hell those buzzing, flying insects are that seemed to want to fly around my face, with their sawing voice going on and on. They were like the worst of playground bullies--always in my space and when I asked them to leave, they only laughed at me and continued to jeer at me and taunt me, “make me!”
I wondered if it was just me, so I was relieved when a younger couple passed me, both waving their trekking poles in the air to try to dissuade the flies.
I tried to ignore them, myself, in total zen fashion, tried to make friends with them, even and welcome them into my experience. Of course, then I remembered last week’s blog by my sister, Kari, in which she recalled in horrifying detail, the experience of having a fly fly into her ear as a young girl. That was it. I began waving my hanky in the air above my head like a true believer at a tent revival. I was not, however, saying pious prayers or giving praise, what I was saying went something more like, “Get the fuck aWAY from me!!”
While this frenetic gyration seemed to keep the insects somewhat at bay, every time I stopped to take a picture, they’d instantly go into formation and surround my entire head like a living beekeeper head gear meant for protection. It was horrifying!
Fortunately, a village soon appeared on the horizon and, while it was early in the day to actually stop for a break, I was desperate! I needed to ditch the bugs. So I went inside, had a Coke, and rested (my nerves) for a bit.
But I couldn’t stay there all day, there was still 17 miles to go, so I gamely put on my backpack and went back outside. Fortunately, the flies did seem to subside then, seeming more like a pack of children chattering about me, asking me for change, rather than a defcon 1 assault on my sanity, so I was able to get to a meditative state of mind after all. I thought about the rocks in my back pack and all they represented-both known and unknown to me. I thought about how I have carried them with me for so long and how it was time to let them go.
When I reached La Cruz de Ferro I was surprised by how small the iron cross actually was. It was maybe a foot or so high, but it was placed on top of a long pole that reached into the sky. At its base there was a mound of rocks at least the height of two humans at the very foot of the pole, then gradually cascading down to the ground. Folks were walking on the mound, placing rocks, saying prayers, and I made my way up to the top of the mound as well, where I placed my three stones near the foot of the pole. I stayed there for a few minutes, saying my prayers, setting my intentions, releasing what needed to be released, embracing what needed to be embraced, and sending the lot of it off into the universe. I was surprised at how moved I was by this simple site, and this simple act of letting go. Finally, I continued on the Way.
As I continued up the steep path, I realized the terrain was changing from the hard-packed dirt with the overgrown flowers to the big stones in the path that I remembered from the first few days on the Way. There was no way to get an actual stride going so I stepped nimbly and paid attention as best I could. I was eager to make it to the top, the highest point of the Camino and I took pictures of fellow peregin@s ahead me as they began the ascent to the point, or at least I thought.
But I when I reached that same place, there wasn’t any sign there telling me this was the highest place so I trudged on. I quickly came upon a small mobile café that sold everything from café con leche to bocadillos but I kept going. I was focused on reaching the top.
It soon became apparent to me,however, that I was clearly on a downward trajectory; I had missed the highest point, although I walked right over it.
Soon, all I could do was to keep my eyes focused on the descent. Those damn big stones were everywhere! Sometimes, despite my eagle eyes, I would trip over one, or feel the roll of stones underneath my step. When this happened, I corrected as best I could and went on. I had wondered how I would do without trekking poles and it turned out I did just fine. I basically plunged down the path, trusting my feet to find solid footing. Sometimes, I held my arms out at my side, balancing myself, as if I were walking the tracks on the abandoned railroad line near my home.
These big stones seemed to occupy most of the path going down. Exhausted, I stopped in a small village for a bocadillo and Coke and then, somewhat fortified resumed my trek.
The stony path continued until it was replaced by a narrow path that seemed to be made of either petrified wood or some prehistoric lava sludge—bluish in color and undulating down the path. It was smooth and slipper and extremely difficult to walk upon.
This was followed by washed out parts of the trail, requiring me to hopscotch over water by means of stones to get to drier land.
Finally, I made the city of Molinaseca. From there it would be only 3.8 miles to go. I did those miles after another brief stop to guzzle down some ice cold water. This trail led me along a busy road, with cars whizzing by, into a moderately wealthy suburb that lead to an industrial part of town before, finally, leading to my hotel.
As I reviewed the day, while walking the last couple of miles, it occurred to me that today had, in some ways, been a test. It was as if I faced, in a single day, the hardest challenges of the Camino thus far.
Those steep ascents and descents with those damn stony paths hadn’t been seen since my earliest days walking. The weather was hot and muggy, also not felt in a few days. The busy traffic and urban sprawl was like right out of the walk into and out of Leon.
I remembered when my sister, Katy, and I were in the USAF Basic Training. One of the things we had to complete (Attempt, anyway) was the Confidence Course. This was a race through different challenges—crawling in the mud under barbed wire placed a foot off the ground, climbing over walls, and several water challenges, such as swinging from a rope over water to walking on a rope over water.
I remember our TI (Technical Instructor) mentioned that the course used to be called the Obstacle Course and there were a lot of failures. But when they did nothing more than change the name to Confidence Course, the failure rate dropped! Although Katy and I both failed on different water challenges, the power of the name stuck with me through the years.
When I first started the Camino, it felt more like an obstacle course. The steep inclines and descents, those damnable rocky paths, all felt like something set up to defeat me; they were tasks I felt unequal to.
But today felt like a Confidence Course! I knew I could handle the terrain, even without trekking poles, and I embraced the opportunity to try.
When I arrived at my hotel, my watch told me that I had done 46, 326 steps for a total of 20.17 miles. I had started at 7:42 this morning and arrived at 4:50 this afternoon. Just over nine hours from start to finish with three breaks—and my feet were fine!!. It was a long day, a challenging day, a good day. I had passed the test and I knew that, even though I still have nine days left to walk, that I will be just fine. I’ve no doubt there are still things I will learn on this Camino but I feel like the biggest lesson I learned today: that I can do it, if I just have confidence in myself.