A note for readers: This is the fifth 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.
Guilherme and I leave the albergue in Poladura de la Tercia well before sunrise, our early departure dictated by the long, difficult day that lies ahead for him on his 31-kilometer trek to the town of Campomanes. This morning we’ve enlisted Ramon’s help. As a seasoned pilgrim who has recently walked this route, he agreed to serve as our guide on the tricky, poorly marked section of the path just ahead in the pre-dawn darkness. Possessed of a naturally fast pace, Ramon has assured us that the dark should serve to slow him down a bit.
We three practically sprint through the silent streets of the village, our breathing the only sound to be heard. Clearing the last buildings, we click on our headlamps and follow Ramon to the head of a wide dirt track that immediately launches upward as our real work begins. Soon the path narrows, and we enter the mountain world once more.
After almost two kilometers of our climbing without pause, a gold and pink fringe silhouettes a ridgeline to the east, and diffused light begins to insinuate itself across the landscape. Intuitively, we extinguish our headlamps and come to a stop, awed as dawn magically unfolds before us in the cold, silent stillness. I must absorb this image and sear it into memory, for each dawn is as unique as a grain of sand, as an ice crystal on a windowpane. As the sun keeps rising over the ridgeline, every passing moment dissolves in a kind of death.
We continue our climb as the east-facing slopes take on the burnt orange tones of low-slung light, the sun now full and round, perched on a mountain peak against a cloudless sky. The shadows are still deep, but with each step more is revealed and the air gently warms. I want this to last forever ̶̶ ̶ this climb, this light, this perfect, rocky ground upon which I now step.
As morning brightens, Ramon’s pace quickens and he begins to drift farther ahead. As we crest the top of our climb for this section of the trek and begin our first descent, it’s clear he’s done as our guide. I find myself lagging behind Guilherme, being in no particular hurry on what for me will prove to be a relatively short day of walking the remaining distance to Pajares. As long as he remains in sight, that will be good enough.
We descend into a deep valley where cattle are scattered on the steep, grassy slopes and then climb once more as I close the distance to my friend. We walk together from here on, eventually scaling a fence to cross a main road, and in a few moments we find ourselves at a café ̶̶̶̶̶our first opportunity for food after 10 kilometers of mountain trekking. Ramon greets us as he finishes his breakfast, having some more coffee as we tuck in.
From here to my destination is mostly downhill, and at such frightening angles that I have to extend the length of my trekking poles. The views of the mountains and valleys are breathtaking. The steep descent slows our progress considerably, allowing more time to take in the expansive surroundings. Guilherme, Ramon, and I enter Pajares around midday, locate my accommodation, and take a moment to say farewell. The remainder of their walk today is daunting, and I sense this is weighing on Guilherme. He is gracious, though, as he hugs me warmly, telling me that our walking together was... fantastic.
The following morning, on the path alone for the first time in three days, I leave the town of Pajares after a quick breakfast at my accommodation. The sky is once again clear, and a noticeable chill is in the air as I descend into a lush, sharply sloped valley. At the bottom, the path passes through the village of San Miguel del Rio. It follows a river for a while before turning to ascend the opposite side of the valley, then extends along a densely wooded three-kilometer track to the quintessential Spanish mountain town of Llanos de Semeron, where I take my first rest stop of the day.
There is no water fountain here, and I find this troubling. I have at least 11 kilometers without services to walk before arriving at my destination of Campomanes, and I’ve consumed roughly half of the water I packed this morning. All I can hope for is to find a water source along the way. As the heat of the day comes on, I follow a paved road out of town, observing the stunning mountain and valley views that accompany me. Taking note of my interior journey, I vaguely sense something gathering.
While researching the San Salvador route before traveling to Spain, I became aware of a split in the Camino that is now looming before me. I had not anticipated having to make a decision here, for in my hand-written route notes, I’d already ruled out the more difficult “high option” in favor of the safer, shorter valley route that involved more road walking. This stage is hard enough without adding the burden of a spur labeled as “extremely difficult.” Now, though, I come to the trail jutting off the road and stop. I stare for a long moment at the stony path leading up, away from the relative safety of the paved surface. I stare at this path knowing full well that I am to walk it.
I begin to sob uncontrollably, unsure as to why. It is odd but not unusual. These outbursts happen to me sometimes while on pilgrimage, their mysterious origins remaining obscure. Rising fear bids me to flee down the road. The Camino wishes me to climb, to ascend. A wordless thought, an impression, arrives with the sobbing and begs to remind me of my intention for the San Salvador...the intention of penitence. Do I wish to honor this, or not? There is no mercy or forgiveness, no comfort to be had in this thought. Still sobbing, I take to the upper path.
Next: Trial by climb and descent, by thirst and razor grass.