Yesterday’s sunrise was spectacular. We were high enough to see it cascade across the mountains and the idyllic setting of Rabanal framed it wonderfully as we got up and around. We discovered another pair of gentlemen staying in the Posada but they were the most unengaging individuals we’ve seen since landing in Barcelona on October 3. It was kind of ironic considering there was no language barrier – they were clearly English.
The day promised to be challenging: 16 miles with the first part of the day climbing 1000 feet vertically and then descending over 2100 feet in the afternoon – a steep way down known for injuring peregrinos. The morning hike was one of my favorites yet on the Camino. Sally and I felt great and breezed up the mountainside. We saw the landscape change as we climbed above the tree line: broad vistas overlooking the valleys below with cows grazing, the leaves changing colors, and the mystical beauty that can only be captured in mountain settings.
Along the way, we passed a group of four slogging it out – it was Mr. South Carolina from the day before. It turns out that it was a truly international foursome: a guy from South Carolina, a guy from São Paulo, Brazil, a girl from Korea, and Hannah from Germany. I tried to get their names but they were quite consumed with each other and I didn’t want to wait and draw out the other three names. We moved past them so quickly and effortlessly that it made me feel giddy. A remnant of my competitive self emerging? We weren’t sure what the climb would feel like and were both very encouraged by how it was going.
Cruz de Ferro
We covered the 5.5km to Foncebadon fairly quickly and kept climbing through the village. As we’ve gotten into the mountains, the villages have been quite charming with almost all of the buildings constructed with a local stone and the narrow streets we’ve come to expect. We also started to see ruins in and around the villages – charming in a different way. Partial stone walls and foundations worn down unevenly built from a different stone than the rest of the village gave the ruins a very old and somewhat magical appearance. I found my imagination wandering as I saw “For Sale” signs on 800 year old ruins lining Foncebadon and overlooking the mountain valley below. Life in this little village would never be the same if American-style capitalism came to town…:)
About 2.5km from Foncebadon, we approached the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross). This simple site is literally the physical high point of the Camino at over 4500 feet. It is also a spiritual high point as the tradition is for the peregrino to bring a small stone from home to leave at the foot of the cross as a sign of releasing some burden in the pilgrim’s life. The site is marked by a small iron cross sitting on top of a tall wooden pole with a massive pile of stones at its base. As we approached, a young man stood on the pile at the base of the cross, holding his stone, and contemplating before adding it to the pile. It was an iconic moment as it captures the essence of this iconically holy place.
As we climbed that morning, we talked about the Camino de Santiago and our experience along it. I had told Sally that I wasn’t really sure what burden I would want to leave at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro and that I wasn’t sure that the metaphors for the Camino which had revealed themselves so far really fit our overall experience. We had talked about pilgrimage as reflective of Calvary: the Way of the Cross, and the trials Jesus faced as he approached Crucifixion, ultimately bringing salvation. We had also talked about The Way as reflective of the journey through life toward heaven: the challenges, the joys, the disappointments, and ultimately the rejoining of those encountered along the way in ”heaven” – Santiago. We started the Camino because we felt called to walk toward the unknown of it together but we realized that we weren’t walking it for the physical challenge, a relationship or job transition, or to get over the sorrow of a loss.
Along our walk that morning, I reminded Sally of the story of Don Suero de Quinones and the Puente de Orbigo. Don Suero collected 300 lances to regain his honor after being rejected by a noble lady. After Don Suero succeeded in his quest to regain his honor, he made pilgrimage to Santiago to give thanks. After 350 miles of walking the Camino, we realized that our pilgrimage was truly about gratitude. Sally and I both love our life together in Indianapolis, Indiana in the United State of America. We are grateful for our family, our friends, the jobs we have, the country in which we live, the language we speak, the food we eat, the house we call home – the life we live. As we walked up to the Cruz de Ferro, it all became very clear. We are blessed beyond our wildest dreams and that is enough. Tossing our stones on the pile, we spoke our intentions and our gratitude out loud as we looked at a small card pinned to the pole showing the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Come Holy Spirit, enlighten and strengthen us.
Moving down the path, we passed Norbert and Chantal. We shared pleasantries and agreed that it was a glorious day. I asked if they placed their stones at the foot of the Cross and they said yes. That was enough.
We made our way across the wide plateau and then began to wind our way down. As we started our descent, we could see Ponferrada, a city of about 70,000, at a distance in the valley below. After about an hour of descent, we stopped at Acebo for lunch. As we approached the village, we could see two cafes anchoring parallel lines of nearly identical stone buildings. The town looked like something from a movie set. “Phil and Sally!” Looking over, we saw Oxana sitting under an umbrella at a table on the patio of the cafe, bottle of wine in front of her. She motioned us over and told us how delightful this particular cafe was.
It was a delightful cafe! We were able to to have actual grilled ham and cheese sandwiches on bread that looked like something we’d prepare at home! Coupled with a Coke and some delicious green olives, we had a perfect lunch. We also got to learn a bit more about Oxana, our Russian-born banker living in London. She told us that she was transitioning jobs and it had taken her 15 years to get to the Camino. Her 7 year old son, George, was following along from home and she FaceTimed him every night to discuss the day completed and her next day’s itinerary. We talked about the Camino, the appealingly different lifestyles of many of these villages and the collection of characters along the Way. We realized that Z and Diane had initially told us about Oxana and she laughed as we told her about our dinner with them. She too had done a dinner with them and told us how impressed she was with their energy, particularly at their ages. As we discussed the Camino, I suggested that the Way was more a pilgrimage for the affluent – at least relative to what pilgrims of prior ages brought to the party. A month+ off of work, the cost of lodging, food, sundries, and travel were not insignificant. Everyone we encountered were from the most advanced nations in the world. There may be those doing it on less but getting here and walking the entire Way was a luxury. Oxana concurred but added that she was amazed at how affordable the food and wine was throughout the journey. We spent about 45 minutes with her before continuing on down the mountain.
Getting to the bottom took us another 3 hours! Each time we thought we had reached the bottom, another descent appeared and they were all very steep, rocky paths that required careful attention to each step. Sally reminded me a few times that I had mentioned earlier that today was one of my favorite legs of the Camino – helpful as I resisted the urge to be grumpy at the never-ending path of rockiness in front of us. In several places, we had a very persistent Chinese mother-daughter team who haunted our steps with the clickety-clack of their trekking poles – for those who don’t use the poles, It is a sound that comes annoyingly near that of someone smacking their lips loudly while eating. We finally stopped and let them pass, though they foiled us repeatedly by stopping and seemingly waiting for us. Clickety-clack aside, the descent was as beautiful as the ascent, offering us broad vistas of the valley below and the winding road leading into Molinasaca and on to Ponferrada. The little houses and buildings below slowly got larger as we approached and we were both incredibly grateful when we finally hit bottom. I felt like there should be a bell or gong to hit to indicate arrival and the completion of the brutal descent.
Molinaseca is a quaint town with all of the charm of the mountain villages we have seen. We crossed a bridge, checked-in to Hotel Casa Ramon Molina Real (a place with a hospitalero named Raul and a logo that reminded us of Ramon from the movie ‘The Way’ – fortunately, a different experience for us). We walked up to Iglesia San Nicholas – no Mass tonight. However, we met Tim, an American who completed the Camino several years ago and was so touched that he sold everything he had and now spends 8 months of the year in Molinaseca. He volunteers at the church and greets peregrinos. He was all about the Way and its life changing qualities. He asked us if we “were asking the right questions” and offered to email us notes he took when he was on his journey. We learned that Tim has eight children and was in the railroad business. I suspect Tim is nearly 80 but has the vitality of one who has found purpose and he clearly wants to share it with peregrinos coming down the mountain. His conclusion: the Camino brings those who travel it closer to God, even when they are not seeking Him, and the two Holiest places on it are the Cruz de Ferro and the Cathedral at Santiago. He chose Molinaseca because it is right after the Iron Cross and the steep descent down the mountain.
We had pizza again for dinner though we had to wait until 7pm before any dining options were open. Rudy and Bert showed up in the same place – a recurring theme that is now quite funny. Bert had taxied again today and Rudy said he “ran” this leg and ended up taking a spill on the descent into Molinaseca. I now find myself taking all Rudy says with a “grain of salt” though this youthfully innocent 50-year-old continues to be entertaining and endearing.
Oxana showed up a bit later – she was actually staying in the albergue attached to the restaurant we chose. We learned that she is a wealth manager for very wealthy clients – primarily entrepreneurs and business owners. She said that so many have no wants or needs but still persistently create problems in their own lives. It was a great reminder that money does not buy happiness and her stories were cautionary for those who feel compelled to chase the “more” of existence. We learned that George contracted chicken pox on her third day on the Camino and she thought she would have to return home – fortunately her husband was able to manage and it did not get worse. We talked with Oxana for a couple of hours and bid her goodnight. She has been one of our favorites so far.
Tomorrow, we tackle our longest hike so far – 19 miles – as we head to Villafranca del Bierzo. The forecast shows rain every day between here and Santiago. As I type this post, I can hear the rain steadily falling in the dark outside. The Camino has found new ways to challenge us at every turn and today promises to uphold that tradition.