A note for readers: This is the fourth 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.
Should you need to review the previous articles for context, please scroll down.
The pace of this climb is glacial. There is no choice. Only one step exists, and that is the one I’m now taking. The trekking poles are helpful as they enlist my upper body in the effort to move forward and upward, but my legs and lungs burn. Where the climb finds its summit is unknown to me, for it can’t yet be seen, and I wish it to remain so despite having an informative route navigation app loaded into my phone. It’s better this way. Let it be a mystery like this whole pilgrimage needs to be, like the darker aspects of my past that currently occupy my mind, like the sense of calling that brought me to this in the first place, and like my abiding love for this kind of effort. A mystery.
Each time I’ve seen Guilherme pause, I have paused too, but now I see him drop his pack and retrieve a water bottle. I allow myself to catch up and drop my pack as well.
“Everything okay, mi amigo?” I ask.
He nods. “I’m fine. Our pace is good, no?”
“It’s perfect.” Looking around at the expansive view, I take a drink of water. “This place is perfect too, huh?”
“It is,” he says, “fantastic.”
I’ve noted before that this is his favorite word in English. He describes many things this way: coffee, how he slept, a church, a sandwich. He always means extraordinary.
“Yes,” I say. “It is fantastic indeed.”
Guilherme shoulders his pack and returns to the climb. I wait for him to get a good lead before setting off myself.
Time has become distorted and therefore irrelevant, this a result of what I would describe as a kind of self-hypnosis. I have no idea how long it’s taken, but finally we pass through a saddle between two peaks and this first major climb of the San Salvador route is done. We pause for a long while, resting. My friend offers a triumphant smile and tosses me an orange. It feels as if I’m standing on another planet in some lonely outpost of the galaxy, as if I now know what the Moon might be like if it had scrub brush and grasses and air.
The remaining 6-kilometer trek to our destination of Poladura de la Tercia consists of a descent in varying degrees, a few minor climbs, and a fair amount of relatively flat walking near our finish.
I can’t get over the weather. I packed some cold-climate provisions out of respect for how quickly conditions can change in the mountains, much as I had done before climbing New Hampshire’s Mount Washington a few years back. But Spain has been experiencing a very warm October, and even at these high elevations, the midday temperatures are in the 80s. I’ve gotten into the habit of removing the lower legs of my zip-off pants around noon.
After our long walk across hilly pastures framed by magnificent granite peaks, my companion and I are both severely leg-tired as we arrive in Poladura. We claim our bunks in the municipal albergue, and, after tending to our showers and laundry chores, find our way to an inviting, rustic café located in a nearby hotel. It’s mid-afternoon, so we assume they’ll be serving only drinks and snacks, but our old friend Ramon and two other Spanish pilgrims greet us there with the happy news that a three-course meal is available. As we hungrily tuck into our food, Guilherme declares it all to be...fantastic.
Later, as evening sets in, I take a walk alone around the village. The subdued tones of the day’s remaining light usher in a slight chill as I stroll along and consider the stages of the pilgrimage just ahead. Tomorrow, because he soon needs to return to work in Portugal, Guilherme plans a 31-kilometer day from here to Campomanes, a brutally difficult trek of wildly varying mountain walking which begins with a stout climb just outside of town. As part of my advance planning, I had elected to halve this inordinately severe stage by stopping for the day after 14-kilometers in Pajares where he and I will part. These sweet goodbyes are an enduring feature of pilgrimage, because while companionship is often a part of the walk, what’s best for the pilgrim’s spiritual intention remains primary, and for me this return to the solo walk serves that notion best. I may not yet fully realize it, but there is something ahead I must face alone.
Next, an early morning climb, sunrise in the Cantabrians, a fond farewell, and moments of penitence.