Life Is Not A Race, Dondering On The Camino – Part 5 (by Nathan)
After three weeks of walking all the positive effects of the Camino are beginning to take affect. We are stronger and more capable in our walks of 12 to 25 miles (20-40km) wach day. Our bodies and feet ache less in the evenings and mornings. We are also much calmer, focused and easy going with each day, each hill and each footstep. It has been imprinted into our minds, our souls that every problem and every solution is reached one step at a time.
It is so easy to become caught up in the hurrying aspect of it all. Each day hundreds of caminantes (walkers) leave the albergues, hostels and hotels. The people pulse through the forests, farm lands and deserted sidewalks. Headlamps, clanking walking poles, whispered voices and the shuffled footsteps of obscure figures fill the moonless mornings. We walk at our standard pace of 4 to 5 km/hr (2.5-3mph), but still it is strange and uncomfortable when we are passed by person after person. We lengthen our stride, leverage our walking sticks to propel us forward and I huff at Carmen to quicken the pace. Eventually I realize the turmoil and anxiety within me; I stop, I close my eyes, I breath.
And I am passed by a small group of Spanish men. I am reminded how 29 days of walking can parallel 29,000 days of living (80 yrs). Carmen has been wonderful and encouraging that we walk at OUR pace. I tell myself “the Camino is not a race,”. We grab each other’s hand and we walk on. Similarly, life is not a race so we take time to observe and to appreciate everything around us. I have been learning to donder, to lolly gag, which, is actually a difficult challenge for me as I typically walk fast with purpose and conviction. Slowly, I am making progress.
The walk west from Astorga slowly climbed into the mountains. For the last week the terrain changed little, but now we left the meseta behind and worked our way higher and higher, we approached Galicia.
These mountains and foothills were amazingly spectacular. Shrubs, trees and wildflowers filled the rolling landscape. I remember stopping, breathing it all in and telling Carmen “This is soooo beautiful.” The terrain was red and rocky. And the smell, I distinctly remember the smell of thyme and dust. I spent many days thinking about time – what to do with it, why it is important. This strong fragrance further cultured these thoughts.
I am realizing that I value the power of patience more and more. This year off, this walk and maybe just growing older has shown me to slow down and let things go. Lack of control used to make me uncomfortable, but life happens. Deep down I am excited for a more patient me, less stressed and more skilled at adapting to any challenge. I am willing to stop and say “I am happy.” I can enjoy what I own, what I know and the people I love. What is the importance of the biggest house, highest salary or fastest car? Patience restructures life’s big hurry and we can be content. When life is good, rest, relax and enjoy it.
There are days that the walk thoroughly exhausts all energy from our body and mind. Those days require some warm sunlit grass and a siesta. I woke from my own nap one afternoon to find Carmen konked out overlooking the mountains.
I was mesmerized and entertained by the landscape. Each turn and each ridge opened up another view of the countryside. We stopped at a small shack that was the single residence of the Manharín village. We were invited for a communal lunch, and stayed for a dimly lit kitchen dinner and we slept in the “cabin.” Looking back on it, lodging that night more closely resembled a stable, but the food was rustic, home-cooked and delicious. It was worth a little sacrifice. In the morning we bid farewell to our mountain hosts and we clamored down the mountain.
The green of the mountains was endless. The towns showed that they now had the resources of stone to build bigger and more magnificent buildings such as the castle in Ponferrada that was built by the knights templar.
We entered into the Bierzo region. Rich wines made from Marcia grapes and picturesque cobbled streets.
One of the most impressive of these towns was Villa Franca del Bierzo. A mountain town that could just as easily fit into the alps as in Galicia. We were met by an elegant pilgrim statue at the bridge. We stayed at an albergue (la piedra) that was built into the rock outcropping of a cliff. For dinner we had botillo, a local specialty of pig parts and chorizo like seasoning. It was heavy and hearty, but just what we needed. The next day would be our hardest day of climbing yet.
We decided to walk separately this day. Carmen would walk the scenic route with 1,200m (4,000ft) of climbing and 32km (20mi) of walking. I went to for “the way of the dragon,” the extreme scenic route that climbed and descended four mountains with 2,000m (6,600ft) of upward change and nearly 40km (25mi) of hiking. My path would be small and sometimes non-existent. I was excited for a bit of solitude and way-finding exploration of the Galician mountains. By 7:30 I was 450m (1,500ft) into the clouds on a ridge looking down into Villa Franca and green mountains surrounded me.
Shortly after the first town of Dragonte I had a short conversation with a couple on a morning walk along the quarry. They complimented me on walking the “verdad camino” and encouraged me to get a coffee in Moral de Valcarce. I walked into the tiny village of twenty inhabitants. I found nothing anywhere close to resembling a cafe and I quickly realized I must have understood incorrectly. An older women with dyed red hair leans far out of her kitchen window and yells “camino autentico.” I agree and I ask her where I could get a coffee. She shakes her head, then with a sudden realization her face brightens and I am rushed into her kitchen
In a matter of seconds I have a plate filled with mini chocolate croissants, and cookies. She pours me a coffee from the percolator and asks me if I want aguardiente. I look at her confused, aguardiente was the 80% digestive jet fuel that I finished meals with in Portugal. She scurries off to the adjacent room and returns with an ornate crystal bottle with the clear elixir. I pour a dabble and she insist on a little more.
We sit and talk. I have my first conversation where I felt confident enough to understand and communicate. It is so nice to talk to someone that slows down, enunciates and actually cares to hear and understand. I gesture to the two buckets of grapes on the counter. I learn about the complexities and wonder of the Marcia grape and her plan to juice and make a few bottles of wine. My plate is again filled. This time with an enormous bunch of grapes. She refills the mug with the thick black coffee. This time she takes the cup and insists on fixing it right this time.
A couple teaspoons of sugar and some aguardiente…1…2…3…4…seconds, oh what the hell, I watch as one quarter of my mug is filled. Another mound of grapes lands on my plate. Recognizing that my eyes were starting to bulge from my head, we decide to delicately wrap them for me to take on my journey. Our goodbye is met with the eyes of all the neighbors that just watched this young man leave her house. She jokes that she is starting a cafe. I learn her name “Sofia, la reina de España,” how could I ever forget the sweet welcoming queen of Spain?
I descend the mountain walking on a cloud. A combination of meeting such a delightful woman, the beautiful scenery and I’m sure the pot of coffee and aguardiente had something to add. The trees thicken, I get lost, then bushwhack my way up the hillside to the village of Vilar de Corales. A sweet dog escorts me to the water fountain and I meander my way through forests and tiny mountain villages.
I cross rock quarries and farmland. Hours of walking and I only encountered six people from the various villages. In Herrerias I finally merge with the main camino. I am greeted by some cows and rejuvenated with some grapes from my pack. The last climb is more of a slog, I am exhausted, but I meet the smiling face of Carmen when I finally stagger in O’Cebriero. There is no doubt that Spain has changed before our eyes we are now deep into Galicia.