Much as leaving Pamplona marked a certain turn in the travels, the road beyond Burgos promises another change in both the emotional and physical landscapes. As far as the terrain, we now enter the meseta, which is elevated plains of wide and largely empty landscape full of big sky and little trees. This change of scenery will undoubtedly have an effect on the internal perspective, which is rather affected by the change in social circumstances. My first week on the Camino was all novelty and excitement and learning the ropes along with everyone else, and meeting a whole whack of people at every turn. Even if I didn't get to talk to everyone I saw, we were all kind of on the same schedule, and so I got used to seeing familiar faces (the Grande Prairie trio, the Germans, etc) pop in and out of my days, and had a set of people I was informally travelling alongside and a nodding acquaintance with. The second week was increasingly dominated by the evolution of my closer Camino family --Brian, Thomas, Melissa, and Elke.
Now our group has dispersed, and I still have a little over half of the road to go. I sort of feel a little taken aback and like I am back at the beginning again: very much on my own, and with none of the familiar faces about. Which isn't bad, exactly -- it's just how things go -- but I confess feeling a little disconcerted that everyone I started out with seems to have disappeared. It makes for a increased sense of the unknown, and so it is with this slightly discombobulated feeling that I strode into the next phase of my Camino to find out what awaits.
Because the next two days have been dominated by walking and getting back on track Camino-wise, I'll collapse them together. Day one was half of yesterday's allotted walk, and all of today's, making for close to 30K in a day. It took me up into the open altos of the meseta, which Brian had warned me were windy and indeed, are a base for more of those famous wind turbines. I got reasonably early starts of 7:30 am and enjoyed mornings passing through small villages I between gradual climbs to the empty plains. I had expected the meseta to be flat and a bit barren and dusty, like desert almost, but they are more like the Prairies, bright green against the sky, and roll a bit like the grasslands of South Dakota. It is sort of funny when you approach the town of Hontanas because you are going along for several k scanning the level landscape and wondering "where IS this town? Shouldn't I see it by now?" -- and then suddenly the meseta dips, and you realize the village is In a valley below grade and out of sight. Later the way sends through another valley and to a gravel road to Castrojeriz, a town that wraps around the bottom of a steep mountain below the ruins of a castle perched on top. I was tempted to climb the big hill to see them more closely, but the long walk had tired me out a bit too much for that adventure. Besides, I had laundry to do.
However, I didn't totally miss out on the experience. From Castrojeriz, the first thing you hit is a similarly steep hill that requires some 20 minutes' trudge uphill at a 45 degree angle. Once up there, you walk along the top for a minute or two and then begin a steep descent down into a huge flat valley that goes on for miles. From there you cross a river and begin encountering a string of towns at fairly regular intervals, none more than 8K apart, so it breaks up the mileage and you know you can always stop soon for a rest and a snack (and a bathroom -- there are almost no bushes to duck behind on the meseta! I saw two guys who passed me go ahead a bit and then just stop on either side of the road to answer nature's call as the rest of us approached...there was literally nowhere else for them to go.) I passed through the town of Boadilla this way and continued alongside a canal to the town of Fromista, arriving just in time to do laundry and have some dinner before turning in.
WEATHERING THE WAY
It all sounds reasonably simple, except that there is one factor that hugely affects your experience: the weather. Andit has made for a lot of drama on the road.
Normally, the meseta is a hot dry experience where you worry about carrying enough water and protecting yourself well against the amount of sun. Not this year! I started out from Rabe de la Calzadas on a very chilly morning requiring gloves and layers. Fortunately it was sunny, which helped, but it was also damp and very windy, which meant instead of my hat I was bundled in scarf and hood. The second day from Castrojeriz was not so lucky. It rained overnight and got very very cold, and we began the day's walk in a gloomy rain shower. It cleared as the day went on and the sun edged out eventually, making for a good few hours... But toward evening it clouded over again, and by the time I found a place to sleep I was being pelted by hail. Here I had worried that my long sleeved woollens would be superflous baggage after the mountains in Navarre...but it's my tshirts that are hardly getting any action these days. Fromista made the second night in a row I was huddled in my fleece sleepsack with wool blankets on top, and dressed in as many of my clothes as I could manage. I say most because many of them got wet in the freak rainstorm in Castrojeriz, and since it was too cold for them to dry properly I could only wear what hadn't been carried damp all day.
FIFTY SHADES OF MUD
The other side effect of the damp weather is, of course, more mud. Day one from Rabe to Castrojeriz was sunny and dry, but the road was still a mess from rains in the days before, so it wasn't long before my pants were a mess and my boots caked in mud. Barely had I laundered them and let the quick dry when the next day's rain turned the road into a brown slush pit again, and made the slog as tough, wet and messy as the logging road in the snow a few days back. When the mud dried in the afternoon breeze, it camed on so thick that it stiffened my pantlegs till they made noise like sailcloth as I walked. I rinsed off the thick outer coating in the shower that evening, but it still took fifteen minutes of handwashing, soaping and repeating before the water rinsed clear. Just.A.Mess.
It was bound to happen at some point: some Camino blues set in. the dark gloomy weathers has taken a toll on many moods, including mine...it gets exhausting to keep anxiously watching the sky and to be constantly adding or shedding layers according to the volatile weather changes. The constant wetness has led to shoe damage; plenty of people have bought replacement shoes already, and yesterday I saw boots completely covered in duct tape and swaddled in plastics bags. The wet means having to do more laundry, but whereas before I managed to avoid the messy chore of sink washing by happily paying for washer and dryer service, in this part of the country these amenities are barely available... And the usual air dryer of the sun is not cooperating.
Beyond the damp, the cold is brutal. We've adopted the none too stylish fashion of wool socks and sandals out of necessity.A lot of the albergues are barely heated by anything more than the collective breath of its inhabitants, and in Castrojeriz, when my wool blanket slid off me in the night it was the cold that woke me up. I've slept in not just socks, but hooded and gloved to trap all the heat I can. And again, it wearies the soul to have to prep oneself for sleep so intensely.
There are other things at play, too...the frustration of endless mud, the settling in of routine, and the volume of pilgrims on the road. This last is actually quite an issue. Many experienced walkers and albergue owners say that they've never seen so many of us on the road at once, or this early in the season.More and more people seem to have joined the walk in recent days, and suddenly finding aces to sleep has become much more competitive. As a solo traveller I haven't had any trouble finding a spare bunk at the first albergue I might inquire at, but in Castrojeriz I knocked on five doors before I finally found a place to sleep, and even though it was super basic and shabby I took it because I had no more energy to look anymore. It's suddenly a source of anxiety, especially in smaller towns with limited hostel space.
The influx of new faces means everyone's Camino family has been disrupted.Over the last two days I have seen no one from my original group of walkers from the first two weeks, except for Elke, who seems to be travelling close to my schedule with just a few hours' difference. This lack of familiarity with fellow walkers adds to the sense of new isolation, and the impulse to socialize is not as avid as it was before. The urge to connect to home gets stronger at this point, but efforts to get in touch are thwarted by either a total lack of wi to access, or -- equally infuriating -- thin wifi that cuts in and out and makes it impossible to upload, email, or ahem, blog. It is just one more little inconvenience that is magnified when in concert with the others.
Almost everyone is wet, cold, frustrated and grumpier right now. And by the time I hit the road from Castrojeriz in rain, carrying wet clothes, on little more than coffee and a digestive cookie for breakfast and covered in mud within minutes, after a day or two of barely any contact with home and surrounded by walkers I didn't know at all, I was feeling pretty blue and despondent. I was just kind of sick of it all right about then, and felt a bit like crying.
THE BRIGHT SPOTS
Between the mud and my mood, it was slow going for me from Castrojeriz. The eventual clearing and brightening helped, and around three hours into the walk there was finally something to look at. A simple rectangular stone building rose up next to a pretty stone bridge, and I saw some pilgrims coming in and out of it. Curious, I stopped to check it out.
This was the Ermitage St. Nicholas, an ancient pilgrim shelter restored and maintained by a confraternity of volunteers who run it in the traditional ways. It is simply a long corridor, about the feet wide and a few hundred feet long. At one end are a handful of bunks, where pilgrims can stay for a donation -- one of the many pay-what-you-can hostels on the Camino. In the middle of the building is a long wooden dining table covered in candle wax; the volunteers cook and serve a communal dinner by candlelight, as that is the only illumination in the place. A small and rustic kitchen space runs along the wall. (A single shower and bathroom are in an auxiliary building built outside.) At the far end and up a few stone steps was a tiny chapel consisting of a stone altar and some chairs in rows.
The chapel caught my eye. The only things on it were a few candlesticks, and a triptych of icons, featuring St. James (Santiago), the Virgin, and St. Nicholas. But what got me was that unlike so many other icons in the billions of churches I'd visited so far, these were Byzantine icons, with Cyrillic lettering -- the same kind I had grown up with my whole life. It was St. Mykolai, patron saint of winter holidays and presents and happy childhood memories.
Maybe it was my emotionally vulnerable state, but at the sight of this deeply beloved and familiar symbol of home, my eyes filled with tears. It was a little sign of something profoundly meaningful reaching out to me like a comfort, and it felt like a hug. I almost couldn't leave the place, I loved it so much: the integrity and simplicity of the keepers' practice, so true to the pilgrim experience; the dedication to a saint so entrenched in my cultural lore; the serenity of its location in a stone building by a pretty river; the discovery of it just as clouds were letting sun come through and drying the damp...it was a wonderful surprise, and exactly what I needed. And instantly I was compelled to leave something there.
I had always thought I would carry the stone dedicated to my dad to the Cruz de Ferre, a major spiritual landmark farther down the Way. But the more I thought about it, the more wanted to leave it here. My dad would have delighted in discovering such a place, and appreciated the principle of how it was run, and even that it happened to be in a quiet place by a river was true to his origins being born In a mill in countryside so much like this. And of course, he is closely connected to St. Mykolai in my mind as well. The fact that I found such a comforting place at a time on the road when I so needed comforting just made it impossible not to think of him. So I dug out his rock and tucked it behind the icon of St. Nicholas and left it there as a thank you. The volunteers at the shelter saw me do it, but I am pretty sure they will leave it there. I finally walked away into the emerging sunlight feeling a lot better than I had in a while. It was exactly what I'd needed. And I can't imagine he wouldn't have been pleased with the choice.
Less than half an hour down the road, another bright spot that could or could not be a "sign", but was enjoyable nonetheless: a young woman cycling out of the upcoming town of Itero de la Vega handed out flyers inviting people to try their albergue cafe for lunch (trying to draw customers from the big family run restaurant that greets you as soon as you enter the town). What won me over was not just her enterprise, but the fact that they offered not only a typical Spanish breakfast (ie white bread or a pastry, a poor man's continental breakfast), but also an English breakfast, aka trucker breakfast. Quite sick of the former by now, and long craving the latter, I opted to try it, and while the idea was slightly lost in translation, it was indeed fried eggs and ham slices as well as hot dogs, and a reasonable enough facsimile to make me smile.
I stopped again a few hours down the road in Boadilla, and caught Elke there checking in for the night. When I told her I was continuing on to Fromista she said shed heard viantext that Thomas had left there this morning, meaning he was way ahead of us by now. But I was glad to see her at least, and know we are not far apart and likely to keep seeing each other on the road.
By the time I reached Fromista the clouds were returning and I found a bed not long after the first ping of hail bounced off my cheek. There were not many of us in the very rustic albergue next to the railroad tracks, but I was cheered by chatting with the only other native English speaker there, an older pilgrim from Scotland named Fred, and so it was nice to get back in the groove of meeting people and making new acquaintances again. Maybe the sun'll come out tomorrow indeed.