A note for readers: This is the eighth 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 previous articles for context, please scroll down.
This morning, I’m walking quickly from my hotel to a nearby café through the chilly, still-shadowed canyons of downtown Mieres. I opted for sleep instead of dinner last night, and I’m famished. Dinner in Spain is usually a late-evening affair, and all I was able to find earlier than that were some tapas with drinks. But while strolling the hotel’s neighborhood during the late afternoon, I discovered the café where I’m now heading ̶ ̶̶̶ one that caters to those who go to work early. As an added benefit, it’s located on the Camino route heading north out of town to Oviedo, the end of the San Salvador pilgrimage.
Today’s walk will, once again, be under clear skies with warm temperatures, and promises some of the most delightful trekking of the entire route. I relish this notion of delight. It is the way I wish for this first of two pilgrimage walks to finish. Today, there will be no hunger or thirst, no worry or suffering of any kind. There will be only care-free gratitude coupled with beautiful surroundings between two metropolitan bookends.
After a hearty breakfast, I head out for a flat, two-kilometer stroll along city streets to the suburb of La Pena, then begin a long, relatively easy climb of several kilometers on a winding motor roadway as it traces along the edge of a steep hillside and passes through a few small villages. The craggy-topped mountains of two days ago have yielded to large foothills, though they still rise quite sharply from the valley floor, and I find myself stopping frequently to take in the arresting views. Lately, my surroundings have been reminiscent of the beautiful Pyrenees Mountains found along the border of France and Spain.
The climb peaks at the village of El Padrun. Here, the route leaves the motorway for a dirt trail that descends into a lush valley through the hamlet of Casares, passing sheep and goats as they graze easily on the steep, hillside pastures of quaint farms. After a few kilometers, the path delivers me once again to a roadway. Soon I enter the town of Olloniego, and immediately come upon an inviting café. I drop my pack, take a seat at a sidewalk table, and order a café con leche and croissant. A mere ten kilometers remains of this six-day pilgrimage road to Oviedo.
I find it curious that I have no real sense of anticipation about arriving at the end of the route. Those ten kilometers may as well be a hundred. In fact, I’d prefer that to be so. Another hundred kilometers to consider this life I’ve lived and the remarkable course it has taken ̶ ̶̶ all that conspired to deliver me to my first pilgrimage seven years ago, how much everything has changed since then, and the profound gratitude I feel.
As I mentioned upon leaving Leon, when walking a pilgrimage it’s best to begin with an intention, a general direction, a way in, a pointer. This then becomes the substrate of whatever experience is to follow in the steps that traverse unknown ground. Penitence, as an intention, has served me well, for it has led to a Camino experience that touches around the edges of a truer humility, and a deeper way to wonder about the notions of choice and decision and blame. Penitence, it turns out, may be leading to forgiveness, a kind of forgiveness so deep as to be unnecessary. For a pilgrimage to be a crucible, the perfect atmosphere, the perfect air to breathe could just be...penitent air.
But despite my apparent lack of anticipation, ten kilometers remain and it’s time to walk them. After one more café con leche, I slip on my pack, head down the street, and take my leave of Olloniego. The final hills between here and Oviedo are calling me, along with a rest day tomorrow.
After a two-kilometer stroll on a paved road out into the countryside north of Olloniego, the route turns off into the woods and abruptly upward. This climb is shaded, but the heat of early afternoon is strong, and I’m sweating profusely. There is no displeasure in this, for my walk is framed in gratitude. I am embracing the climb, the strain of it, the utter carnality of it, even as some stinging nettle brushes my lower legs during a brief water break. The nettle connects me to the idea of how something painful can also be so beneficial to health, its leaves and roots known to be loaded with nutrients.
A few kilometers later, after scaling another hill, I’m walking along a relatively flat, double-wide dirt track. A pasture lies to the right and a stone Camino marker is on the left. Just past the marker the road bends a little toward a descent, and in the distance I can see my first glimpse of Oviedo. The end is in sight.
One more stout hill remains. It is long and steep and absent of any shade. By the time I reach the summit, I’m dripping sweat and panting. The heat wave that has brought these summer temperatures into October seems to be peaking today, but still there is no suffering. I feel as though in this final exertion of the San Salvador route, I’ve been purged and cleansed.
I descend the long hill into Mieres, and entering the city is every bit the anticlimax I suspected it would be. I am simply tired now and wish only to shower and rest. I’ve reached the end of the penitent walk.
Next: The Cathedral of San Salvador, then on to Santiago de Compostela and a new intention.