A note for readers: This is the second in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
After 7 kilometers of urban-street walking, the Camino San Salvador transitions to a wide track of dirt and gravel at the northern limits of suburban Carbajal de la Lengua. The landscape is austere but lush, the silence noticeable under a perfect, blue sky as the warmth of the day makes itself known. Today’s destination is the Camino way-station town of La Robla, some 25 kilometers from Plaza San Marcos in Leon. At last, the rhythm of the walk settles, my stride is full and relaxed, the pack barely felt as the extension of my body it is rapidly becoming. I feel as free as one could even dream, a walking pilgrim once again.
The wider track narrows to a single path as it courses through the gently undulating landscape, the color of its sandy dirt now a warm, buttery yellow and with just enough gravel to make a hearty crunching sound underfoot. To my right just ahead on the inside of a gentle curve, I spot a weathered wooden bench under a shade tree, and realize I’ve not yet stopped to rest. I drop the pack beside the bench, lean my trekking poles against the pack, and take a seat as I slip my shoes off for a while to massage my feet. An easy breeze is in the air, and quiet continues to surround me.
After a few moments I hear footsteps approaching. A stocky, lumbering fellow who appears to be about my age rounds the curve and spots me right away as I raise my hand to greet him. “Hola, buenos dias, buen Camino!” I say. I’ve found that when I meet a fellow pilgrim on the road, it often begins with a simple act of concern, an offer of help. Sure enough, stopping before me, he replies in kind, and, having noted my accent, asks in somewhat serviceable English if I am okay, if there is anything I might need. I thank him and assure him I’m well. From his pants pocket, he extracts a white handkerchief with a colorfully patterned band at the edge and wipes his face and neck as he asks if I’m heading to La Robla. I reply that I am, and now satisfied that I’m in good shape, he wishes me buen Camino once more and continues on his way. Noticing his pace as he does so, I realize I’ll likely catch up to him later.
I take more time resting, drinking water, and snacking, feeling somewhat ambivalent about the prospect of encountering this pilgrim again any time soon. I’d envisioned a solitary walk today, but I’m experienced enough at pilgrimage to know this may not be the way it’s meant to go. I shoulder the pack, grab the poles, and resume walking at a leisurely pace.
After a little while, I can see enough of the path ahead to note I’ll be scaling a ridgeline in a series of sharp ascents and descents. I can also note that my fellow pilgrim is a couple of hundred meters ahead, laboring in a slow, deliberate climb. On the ground not far in front of me, I see a white handkerchief with its distinctive, brightly colored band. I pocket it and move on toward the meeting I now know is inevitable.
I catch up to him as he rests at the top of yet another climb. He smiles as I present him with his handkerchief and introduce myself to Guilherme from Portugal. Without any formal agreement, we walk loosely together for another 10 kilometers or so, separated variously by a few steps or a hundred. Talking is minimal but meaningful, and we agree on a slight detour to a café for some food and rest. In many ways, he reminds me of a German fellow I walked with on my first Camino, a man who respected silence as a way of pilgrimage.
Sitting at an outdoor table, we cover the usual ground in conversation. How we came to be on the route, and what our intentions for the walk might be. We discuss our lives at home, our work, and our families. Turns out he is the CEO of a company manufacturing a large share of the world supply of cork bottle stoppers. “My life is about the cork,” he says, shaking his head a bit and smiling. He notices the imitation cork of my trekking pole handles, and can’t help but comment. “You know that’s not real,” he tells me, now grinning. “Cheap bullshit polymer.” I can see we share a similar sense of humor if not a passion for genuine cork. We leave the café and walk more closely for the remainder of the day.
Arriving in La Robla, we pause on the main street in front of my accommodation for the night. He says his is a little farther on, and tells me he will wait for me on the street in the morning until 7:30 if I care to join him for tomorrow’s walk into the Cantabrian Mountains. I suggest we exchange phone numbers in case something comes up, and we part for the day. After checking in, showering, and rinsing out today’s clothes, I walk about town for a while and consider if I really want Guilherme’s company for this first ascent. There is a tension between my predetermined preference, and what may be best. Again, I’m ambivalent, so I’ll sleep on it tonight and see how it looks in the morning.
Next, the first climb.