Day 10 (May 14)
Today Lauren began passing through the Cordillera Cantábrica, a mountain range stretching across Northern Spain from the Pyrenees to Galicia. These were some of the most beautiful views she had yet seen. She was thinking of what Emma said, that Galicia is the most beautiful region of Spain.
The day before had left her with a sore throat. Today, she was certain that she had a cold, probably picked up in one of the albergues from another traveler. She debated whether to stop when she reached the tiny village of Molinaseca or push on to the much larger town of Ponferrada.
Despite the cold, she felt stronger and more fit this week. She no longer has to wear bandages on her feet, and the callouses are forming over the blisters. Her brain pushes ahead of her body, driving her inexorably forward. She wants to walk all of the time, and is delayed solely by the limits of her feet, her knees, and her muscles.
She paused for a rest in Riego de Ambros and admired the stone houses and ornamental wood-planked balconies overhanging the street. She was feeling good despite the throbbing in her feet. There was plenty of daylight left. Though she had already hiked 20km (12 miles), the weather was ideal, and tomorrow held predictions of rain. She pushed on.
She paused just before Molinaseca to visit the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias, where she lit a candle. The day’s travel brought other surprises as well: she saw a man dressed in the full regalia of the Knights Templar. Later in the day, she was chased by a goat who tried to eat her pack! It seems that some natives are less friendly to pilgrims than others.
Though she knew that she should take her time and get extra rest to fight the cold, something continued to drive her forward, and she passed Molinaseca, crossing the Río Meruelo that cuts through the village a few hours later with barely a second thought.
In spite of the exhaustion, she was savoring her solitude today after days of walking and sleeping next to other pilgrims. Lauren is a woman who only truly relaxes and finds peace when she is by herself, and today, she cherished those long moments of silence. When a 71-year old Italian man on his 10th pilgrimage approached her and attempted to flirt, Lauren drove him off.
When she finally reached Ponferrada, she was exhausted and sore but feeling very happy. She’d hiked 32km (about 20 miles). Regrettably, Ponferrada was less pleasant than she had expected. It was very modern, a small city in every respect and mostly lacking in the ancient charm found in the hillside villages she had passed through. She found a place to lodge for the night and settled down for a meal.
Unfortunately, she had to throw a “spanish senorita fit” (Lauren’s exact words) after explaining in great detail to the server that she was vegetarian (no fish!) and then received a salad with tuna hidden in it. She ate half before realizing and then raised hell. Luckily, she didn’t suffer any aftereffects. A few minutes later, Lauren was drafted to translate the Spanish menu into French for several other pilgrims. The joke was on them though, because Lauren’s French is, well, comparable to my Spanish (i.e. – BAD).
The day ended in a surprise, and Lauren found the reason she had pushed on to reach Ponferrada. Also staying in the town was a woman who Lauren had attended high school with, some 16 years prior. A remarkable coincidence, and Lauren marveled at this fact as they discussed the details of their lives and their journeys.
Day 11 (May 15)
Today began by a hike through Ponferrada, which, despite it’s modern sensibilities, is dominated by a beautiful castle of the Knights Templar built between 1218 and 1282.
Lauren hiked alongside a Danish man. She was tired, her body feeling the strain of the road. She was coming down out of the mountains, and in some ways, coming down was worse than going up. The strain on her ankles, in the arches of her feet, her ACLs, and of course, her shoulders was almost too much to endure.
When she reached the tiny town of Cacabelos, she paused. There was a strange sort of parade underway. Inching closer and asking one of the old women clustered in the town square, she learned that today was the festival of Saint Isidore, patron saint of agriculture. Farmers lined up their tractors and decorated them with flowers, then the whole town processed together, following the line of tractors. As if in a dream, enchanted by the simple beauty, Lauren fell into the procession.
The procession ended at the festival grounds at the end of town. She approached the priest, who gave her a pilgrim’s blessing. Soon, the festival became a full party, with all the children of the town. They had bumper cars. They had three bouncy houses. They even had a foam machine which filled up an entire street with bubbly foam! Lauren played and ate churros with the locals.
She found a lovely albergue, where they keep only two beds to a room and have no bunk beds. And she had a special dinner – a veggie burger – a treat she had not had since leaving the states.
Day 12 (May 16)
Thursday was pure faith and determination. The weather was very cold and misted rain. Lauren was feeling weaker with each passing kilometer. She halted in the village of Ambasmestas, unable to continue, even though the larger town or Vega del Vacarse was only 1.5km away. The ruins of an ancient castle perched above the town on a nearby hill.
She was the only guest staying in the tiny albergue, a small blessing. Most of the other pilgrims pushed on to Vega. The albergue was actually quite pleasant. Unlike many places, they had sheets on the mattresses.
Lauren’s cold was the same today, no better but no worse. The journey was hard, but something was different today. Lauren was beginning to feel like a real pilgrim. She felt like she was doing something difficult–not fun, not exhilarating (though there had been moments of that), but just difficult. That struggle, and the accompanying suffering of pain, of discomfort, of exhaustion, made her really fell like a pilgrim. She finally purchased a small scallop shell to mark the day.
As she travels on, Lauren is increasingly mistaken by other travelers for a native Spaniard, and this always makes her happy. She is struck by how her life has been reduced to simplicities. There is no television, no constant internet connection, no email. She’s disconnected, and it’s nice. Instead, she takes joy in the most basic of facts: Will she have a bed to sleep on? Will it have sheets? How will the path be tomorrow? Smooth and flat or broken and muddy?
Simplicity and struggle – that’s what being a pilgrim is about.