Camino de Santiago: My Hardest Day

IMG_1108Distance walked: 11.4km

Remaining distance to Santiago: Just over 200km

My walk from Ponferrada to Cacabelos was, without doubt, the lowest point on my 800-km journey. I’m not saying that to depress you. I’m saying it because I think it’s important to be honest about both the highs and lows of walking the camino. Everyone talks about the great people, the cheap wine, and the fabulous scenery along the way. All those things are true. And people also talk about the “challenging” experience without necessarily going into details. So here are some of my details, and I want to point out that I also got through this dismal day!

When I woke up in Ponferrada on the morning of October 1st, I could hear the rain outside the window. Not just falling but thundering down outside. I twisted in my top bunk bed and peered out the window.

Pure black.

It was 7am – quite a lie-in by camino standards – and the sun hadn’t yet risen. On top of that, it had poured rain all night and the ground even sounded wet. It didn’t look good out there but I decided to go through the usual morning routine anyway. Pack up my gear, lace up my shoes, and go forth. That’s what it’s all about, right?

By the time it came to 8am, the sky was lighter in color but still a very dark grey. And still, it rained. Pummeled,  more like. Yesterday’s clothes didn’t dry out overnight and the tumble dryers were still going, still booked out. I’d never get my clothes dry on time before leaving, I’d have to carry them, wet, to the next hostel and hope to dry them there.

The hostel staff loudly banged on doors and turned on all the lights, threw open all the windows, and told us we had to leave. We all knew that we’d have to be out by 8.30am at the latest – this is normal on camino. No doubt the staff were thinking of their 3-hour turnaround time in which they’d have to clean and re-stock the hostel before the next 174 pilgrims would arrive. I don’t envy them that work. And yet, their approach and tone that morning was rather sharp, rather harsh.

I sat at the front door and peered out at the rain. The next coffee stop was 2.2km up the road – about half an hour away – and I hoped to get my breakfast there. The nearest accommodation was even further.

There was no mistake: a half hour in that and I would be absolutely soaked.

I still had one pair of dry socks left but otherwise, all my remaining dry clothes were on my person. If I walked out into that rain, they wouldn’t be dry for long.

I didn’t know what to do, but I knew this:

  1. I couldn’t stay in the hostel any longer
  2. It was too early to check into any other accommodation in town, so staying around for the day seemed untenable
  3. I didn’t want to “skip” a section by getting a taxi or a bus, like the women from Acebo were choosing to do

It didn’t seem like I had any option but to walk. At 8.30am, I heaved my extra heavy backpack on my shoulders (remember, it was full of wet clothes), and walked out the door. Instantly, the cold, wet rain pelted my face and was an omen of the day to come. I gingerly put one foot in front of the other.

The terrain between Ponferrada and Cacabelos is quite level – there are no major inclines or declines. The distance is quite short too, and ordinarily I would have comfortably walked it in three hours or less. That day, everything got on top of me. The rain was relentless all morning and in no time, I was soaked. The backpack was unbearably heavy and the ache along my shoulders and back were impossible to ignore. My feet dragged under the weight and the wet, and every step was an agony. And somehow, all of this got in on top of my heart, too. I dragged along at a record slow of 2km an hour, feeling disheartened in the extreme. I inquired about accommodation along the way but there were no beds. I had no choice but to keep going, even further into the rain. I bumped into Peter and Jeanne again but felt too weary and ashamed to stop for long.

Ashamed?

Yes. I hated to admit it but there I was, young and healthy and absolutely struggling that day. And I was also completely blind as to how to change my situation. From what I could tell, I couldn’t get a bus or taxi, and since there was no available accommodation, I had no way of stopping early or drying out my clothes. I presumed that Peter & Jeanne couldn’t help because their arrangements were different, so I didn’t really share just how defeated and hopeless I felt. I didn’t know what else to do except keep going, alone, and feeling rather miserable. I didn’t want to depress them but they saw it in me anyway and later confided that they were concerned about me that day.

Note to self: Had I told them about the wet clothes, the extra weight, and my extra sore feet, they might have been able to help me find a solution that I hadn’t considered. People can be good like that – full of helpful suggestions and kindness, if only I’d thought to share. I learned this the hard way.

The day was a slow, painful, drudge. The sunny and strong days in the Meseta felt like a lifetime ago and I was full of dread for the remaining 200km of my journey. If ever there was a time when I felt like bowing out, or felt truly doubtful of my ability to keep going, this was it. It was my most difficult day’s walking, for sure. The highlight of the day was to find, and eat, some fresh figs that grew on the side of the trail. I’d only ever had dried figs so these were a sweet, delicious novelty in my day, and a necessary distraction from the weariness.

 

I had no intention of staying in a private hotel that night but as I got closer to Cacabelos, the billboard signs for a pilgrim-friendly 3-star hotel were too tempting to refuse. The management was smart to advertise the nightly rate (€36 for a pilgrim) so that by the time I passed the third sign, I was sold on the idea. My daily budget was less than €36 so to spend a night in a private hotel, even at that price, was a splurge. And yet, something had to give.

I needed to stop. I needed to wash and dry every inch of clothing I carried with me. I needed a very hot shower, a very long sleep, and a hot, hearty meal. And, though I had refused for all 600km so far, I needed to take some sort of pain medication for my inflamed and swollen feet. No amount of stretches or ice water had resolved the persistent ache: if I were going to walk to Santiago, I was going to need some help.

But first: a quiet and clean hotel, with one of the nicest receptionists I’ve ever met. This middle aged man welcomed me with gentleness and warmth, and he told me everything would be okay. He must have seen the day’s despair and defeat on my face, and he assured me that they would take care of me there.

And that’s what they did. For the modest sum of €36, I was treated to a spacious room and a double bed with crisp, clean sheets. The bathroom was roomy, the towels were fluffy, and the soaps and shampoos were a dizzying indulgence. To top it off, they washed, dried, and pressed my laundry in a matter of hours and returned it to my door with a gentle knock before walking away. No drama. No demands. Just clean, dry (dry!) clothes that were a relief to behold.

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So, stopping off in that hotel was one of the smartest decisions I made in all 800km. It allowed me the chance to rest, to recover, and to get clean and dry. More importantly, it allowed me to gather my spirits for the final leg of the journey.

600km down, 200 to go!

3 thoughts on “Camino de Santiago: My Hardest Day

  1. I’m with you; what a good choice! There are times when I’m walking that I just need my own room… my own shower and my own bathroom… peace and quiet and my own agenda… just for a few hours. Happy walking… hopefully the rain will stop soon! I start in a week so I hope so 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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