Distance walked: 33.6km
Distance to Santiago: 440.8km
I loved this day. Somehow, it contained so much goodness that it became my best day’s walking on the Camino Francés. All this time later, I still think of it with great fondness. When the going gets tough, thinking back on this day fills me with strength. It was one of those days when pretty much everything went right and my body felt strong and able…a glorious synchronicity on my 500-mile journey.
My previous night in San Bol had been uneventful and restful. Once the generator had cut out, we had no choice but to go to bed at the unexpected hour of 8.30pm and I slept soundly under a mound of woollen blankets. I couldn’t have been happier!
The next morning, I left the hostel before 6am and headed west towards Hontanas, where I hoped to find some hot coffee and breakfast. Out there in the middle of the meseta, there was no one on the trail ahead of me or behind me. The wheat fields had been cut so that only stubble remained in this completely flat landscape. I could see for miles around. The moon hung low in the sky ahead of me, in the west. The morning sun rose warmly behind me, in the east. For a time, they both sat in the indigo sky and I felt the magic of being right in the middle, walking ever closer to Santiago. The lights on top of windmills in the distance flickered on and off, a warning to low flying aircraft, and were the only movement on that otherwise still and quiet morning. I felt as though I had the world to myself.
Early morning on the Meseta
In my “real life” I am not a morning person. I love lazy lie-ins. On camino, I was up before dawn quite a lot and those early hours became some of my favourite. I liked the quiet. I liked the changing light. I liked listening to the birds chirping and singing from their concealed perches. I felt altogether more wholesome and connected to the world when I was up early, walking, walking, warming up my body for the day ahead.
In Hontanas, I found a café with funky music and friendly staff, and I loaded up on hot coffee and carbs. I also spotted a swimming pool and for a moment, I stood at the chicken wire fence, gazing into the still blue water, so tempting, so clean.
If you can believe it, I debated on whether to bring my swimming togs with me on camino. In my real life, I swam 2-3 times a week and I knew I would miss it desperately while in Spain. I even researched some of the camino forums to find out whether there were swimming pools anywhere on camino but I struggled to find any real details. Anyway, the idea of packing my togs seemed ridiculous when the plan was to cross Spain by foot. I couldn’t justify carrying the weight of the togs (ahem!) when I’d surely get no use out of them…so I never packed them. That morning in Hontanas, I wished that I had!
Doesn’t it look great?!
For those of you wondering about swimming pools on the camino route: I stayed in 2 places with swimming pools and passing the pool Hontanas was a third. So…I’ll know for next time! 😉
I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly made Hontanas seem so appealing that morning, but it had a definite vibe, even at 7am. My morning coffee stop was usually 15-20 minutes but in Hontanas I lingered for an hour. Whatever the reason, the little village felt cosmopolitan and hip, and somehow connected to the real world beyond camino. I was reluctant to leave.
But I did eventually leave and walked on to San Antón and its 15th century convent, and a hostel that was/is famous for pilgrims sharing an evening meal by candlelight. Rumour had it that an American doctor walked camino at the same time as I, but was followed by Oprah Winfrey’s TV crews and “people”. They wanted to film him on his profound and life-changing journey, so he was followed by camera crews from beginning to end. I’m not so sure how profound that would be…but hey, I’m the last person to promote reality TV. Apparently, he & the crew stayed in San Bol about a week after I passed through, and destroyed the intimacy of the evening by using strong lights for their filming. No candlelit dinners that night. 😦
I heard the Oprah rumours again further along the trail but I never did confirm whether they were true. If they were, I feel sorry for any pilgrims that chose to stay in San Antón the same night as that guy…anyone wanting to experience intimacy or quiet would have struggled to find either, I think.
Brierley’s guidebook tells me that under St. Anthony’s archway (Arco de San Antón), bread was left for pilgrims of old. The tradition continues today but with pilgrims leaving messages instead. If only I’d read my guidebook at the time, I might have known this when I passed through! Instead, I wondered at why so many people had chosen to leave written prayers in that particular spot.
When I think back on this day, lots of different things helped make it a particularly great day of walking. My body had grown stronger so I forgot the aching exhaustion I’d felt at the beginning. The weather was spectacular: azure blue skies and beaming sunshine for hours on end. And yes, there was lots to see along the way. But something in me had shifted. Way back in Burgos, I had checked into a private room feeling overstimulated and cynical about the camino thing. I had expected that everyone walking towards Santiago shared the same sense of spirit. I had assumed we’d all be walking with humility and compassion: I thought we’d all “go with the flow”. I never expected to find myself in the middle of a daily race for beds. I didn’t expect people to leave pools of water on the bathroom floor. I didn’t enjoy watching pilgrims shout at café staff in English, thinking this was somehow reasonable in rural Spain. I didn’t like the selfishness that I saw play out, day after day.
But somewhere between Burgos and San Bol, I stopped caring about what others did. I’d already spent way too much time being upset by others’ behaviour, their words, and their apparent intent.
Everyone else had *their* camino: now it was time for me to have *mine*.
I reflected on my behaviour, my intent, and thought about what I wanted.
What did I want?
I wanted some peace and quiet.
I wanted more time by myself.
Most of all, I wanted to walk.
This day, between San Bol and Boadilla del Camino, I walked 34km of solid, steady, strong walking…and I loved it! After so many painful, worn-out days on camino where I felt I was dragging my sorry-ass corpse across Spain, *this* day felt like a magnificent flourish.
So what was the secret?
- I did what I wanted to do: I walked. I stopped thinking about whether that was fast or slow. I stopped thinking about pretty much everything and I just let my feet take over. Glorious!
- I noticed myself saying prayers of thanks as a way of passing the time. Hour after hour, I gave thanks for the weather being dry. I gave thanks for the high-tech gear that made my walk a bit easier. I gave thanks for not having blisters. Hour after hour, I listed off hundreds of things that were working well in my life. And you know what? I discovered that I had an awful lot to be thankful for.
- I also noticed myself saying the very few prayers I know since childhood. Hail Marys and Our Fathers, mostly. I said them on a loop, hour after hour. Without thinking about it, I prayed for my first teacher at school and for the woman who drove my bus to school each day. I prayed for relatives who were living and dead. I prayed for healing. I prayed for people I hadn’t thought about in years. And when I had finished praying for all of these people and I felt I still had prayers to spare, I prayed for anyone at all who might need some help. I prayed for pilgrims ahead of me and behind me on the path who may have been having a tough time of it, just like I did a few days earlier.
Somehow, these things unlocked*my* camino magic.
My camino joy came from the very simple, but profound act of doing something that I loved. I walked, and I left people behind without feeling guilty or sad. It wasn’t because I didn’t like them anymore, it was just that I needed to really strike out on my own in a good way.
I didn’t (and don’t) do enough of this in my life. I get bogged down by responsibility and duty. I get bogged down by chores. I make decisions that are for a group’s benefit rather than my own. I run around with an endless “To Do” list and I leave the fun stuff to the very end. Neglecting this blog is an example of my misplaced duty for other parts of my life. Only if, and when the kitchen is spotless and I’ve replied to all my emails do I allow myself to do the things that nurture my soul. So you can be pretty sure that I don’t get to these things often enough…it sucks.
This day, I mentally & emotionally embraced what it meant to walk for myself, and I rejoiced at the glory of it!
The second bit – expressing gratitude – was truly profound for me. I chose to walk camino in a particular way and it meant I could never be certain of a bed to sleep in or of getting all the way to Santiago. Walking this way – and leaving myself wide open to the uncertainty – forced me to take note of all the things that worked in my favour every day. It forced me to pay attention to all the goodness and once I started doing that, the goodness seemed to multiply. There were, quite literally, hundreds of things to be thankful for. I spent hours listing them in my head and feeling like the luckiest woman in the world to have it all fall into my lap so effortlessly.
Out there in the meseta, walking towards Santiago, I walked exactly as I wanted to walk and I gave gratitude for every step along the way. It was a potent combination and by late morning I felt invincible.
In Castrojeriz, I had the unexpected delight of stepping into a photography exhibition in Hospital del Alma, where I drank mint tea and ate cookies in the cool shade. I never expected to find a photography exhibition on camino but it was delightfully normalising and I lingered for more than an hour, wandering around the shabby chic house that had been converted into a gallery.
If I had looked at my guidebook (ha! if ever!) I’d have known that there as a 900m high point ahead of me that day. I’d have known to pace myself or to brace myself for a sweaty climb in the afternoon sun. But I didn’t read my guidebook. After hours of walking, in the scorching heat, I suddenly found myself half way up this hill that seemed to appear out of nowhere and I remember thinking to myself:
“Fuck me, this is a bit much, innit?!”
By then it was early afternoon and the sun was at its highest, and hottest part of the sky. I had walked for hours already and I had worked up quite the sweat. Climbing uphill in the early afternoon sun was the last thing I needed but there was no way out of it so I coached myself on with the thought that from the top of the hill I’d have a good view of the land on the other side. I expected to see the next little village up ahead. There’d be a cluster of trees and buildings. There’d be some cool shade and a café bar where I’d get an ice-cold coke instead of my usual coffee. There would be a chance to get in from the 100 degree heat and take a break.
When I got to the top, I looked out the far side. This is what I saw:
No cluster of trees!
No little village!
No cool shade. No coke. No break!
Another day, I would have wept at the realisation. This day, I laughed out loud…and kept walking. I felt so entirely content. I didn’t really care that there wasn’t a break in sight. I was caked in sweat and dust, and my own odours were intense (nice!) but I didn’t give a hoot. The physical exertion felt like the most real thing I had experienced in years and I was only delighted to keep walking.
Bring it on!
An hour later in Itero de la Vega, I happily bumped into Denis and Fred, and some other familiar faces. I joined them in the shade of a café bar while they drank cool beers and I finally got my cold coke. They’d booked into the hostel already and would pass the afternoon with chat and laughter. I was tempted to join them…even more so because I hadn’t seen them in days and I loved their company. If I stayed, I’d have a fun evening and great company.
I really, really wanted to walk.
I had walked just over 25km that day – a decent amount – and it was wise to quit while I was ahead and keep some of my energy. It was also gone past 3pm and the ground seemed to shimmer from the intense heat. To keep walking in that was madness…especially when the next hostel stop was over 8km away. Most pilgrims stopped walking by lunchtime every day to avoid the heat. It was a risky move to consider going on further:
What if I walked those extra 8.2km and got sunstroke?
What if I walked those extra 8.2km and exhausted myself?
What if I walked those extra 8.2km and found there was no bed in the next village? I’d have to walk even further and by then, it would be late in the evening. Did I really have the energy for all of that?
In the end, I decided that I did.
So at 3.30pm I waved goodbye to the guys and walked the fastest 8.2km of my life! I wanted to get out of the sun as quickly as I could, so I pounded my way to Boadilla del Camino where I hoped there’d be a bed for the night. I had felt invincible and blessed that entire day, and it was my best day by far. I wondered what awaited me in the village up ahead but there was only one way to find out!
I wonder: what was *your* best day on camino? Do you know what made it so great? And do you think those things could be replicated in your “real life” every day? 😀