I’m writing this from a warm cafe on the morning of Day 5, my last day on the Camino de San Salvador. It was raining all night long and rain is in the forecast for today, too. It’s only spritzing a bit right now so I suppose I should get a move on, but I couldn’t resist a nice and hot cafe con leche.
It’s going to be a long day into Oviedo- 34km- and that’s going to be made to feel a lot worse in the rain. Yesterday wasn’t exactly a stellar Camino day for me, either. I wasn’t feeling great (as in, I think I’m getting sick), and I was moving slow after only a few hours, dragging myself up hills that were barely hills (that being said, yesterday did involve quite a lot of ups and downs). The weather was gray and cloudy and a little humid; while most people prefer not walking under the heat of the sun, gray weather tends to drag me down a bit.
I was looking forward to another beautiful day, my guidebook raved: “It’s hard to think of any day of more beautiful Camino walking” and “It (the path) is well marked and very well cleared”. I should have remembered that this guide was put together back in 2009, so what was “well cleared” 7 years ago might not exactly be well cleared now.
And it wasn’t. Remember my post from La Muse when my legs got all scratched up from the ‘field of thorns’? Well this was sort of a repeat. Not nearly as bad, but guess who wasn’t wearing her long pants? Just as the old scratches had finally faded, I’ve added a fresh set of new ones (just baby ones, luckily). The path was overgrown, it was wet, the gray skies obscured the promised glorious views. In fact, I was wondering where those views were- the track through the forest was so thick with trees that I couldn’t see out to the mountains.
And when the path did open up, I could see that there would be stunning views if not for the clouds. And to add insult to injury, I reached an area where this was painted on a rock:
It’s like the person going along marking the Camino decided that a yellow arrow just wouldn’t do. I looked out at the impressive view and knew that a lot of it was obscured.
But this is how it goes: my first day on the Camino two years ago, through the Pyrenees, was perfect- clear and cool and sunny. When I walked the Hospitales route on the Primitivo last year, clouds covered everything. Two days ago was another perfect day, yesterday not as much.
The highlight of my walk, however, was the dog friend that I picked up (we’ll call him Salvador, thanks to my sister for the name suggestion). I’d stopped by a fountain in a small village to rest and have some water, when I heard growling and barking. There was a small pack of dogs in the street, they seemed to be ganging up on one guy, a light gray fluffy dog who was trembling in the corner. The bully dogs moved away, and when Salvador spotted me, he ran over and jumped up on the wall where I was sitting, burying his face into my chest. Then he backed up and looked at me and I swear he was saying, “Save me.”
“Don’t worry buddy.” I hefted up my pack and grabbed my stick. “I’ve got you.”
We moved out of the village together, Salvador taking quick and nervous looks around, while I brandished my stick at any dog who dared to come close. Once we were well clear, Salvador ran ahead joyously, then would double back to make sure I was still following. He’d come at me in a fast gallop, his tongue sticking out of his mouth, and when he reached me he would jump in the air and wriggle his body and try to lick my face. Then, as quick as anything, he’d tear on ahead again. This continued for about 45 minutes, and I was reminded so much of my walks with Homer, at La Muse, of how nice it felt to have a dog along for company, to lead the way, to check on me and make sure I was coming along. But after awhile I started to get a bit nervous- how far would Salvador walk with me? Where did he belong? What if he never left? And then, because I was all alone, I worried that I would never want him to leave. But how could I stroll into a city, much less walk through Spain, with a dog at my heels?
I didn’t have to worry. Eventually, Salvador ran off down a sloping hill towards a building, and he never came back. I assume that he found his way home.
I found my way home, too- home for the night anyway. It was something between 25-30 kilometers to Pola de Lena, a small, gray-looking sort of town. I found the albergue, it was locked, and when I rang the bell no one responded. By now I knew the drill; I had seen a pay phone on my walk through town and so I doubled back to call the number that was posted on the albergue door. This time, all I had to say was, “Hola, soy peregrina” and the voice on the other end of the line said he’d be there in 5 minutes.
Within about an hour of my arrival, the 4 Spanish men showed up, and then another younger Spanish man. The younger guy had walked from Poladura (where I had started the day before), and he brought me reports on other pilgrims on the trail. “There aren’t many,” he said. “Last night there were only three of us in Poladura. I heard that you were the only one the night before, and the night before that, there was no one!” But he also told me that last week there were 18 people staying in La Robla one night. 18! I can’t even imagine it after the quiet days and nights I’ve had out here.
The Spanish guy and I went out for dinner together- he was very intent on finding the best food in town, and I think he succeeded. We went to a small place that specialized in homemade dishes, and when our waiter found out we were pilgrims, he offered us a ‘pilgrim’s menu’ that we hadn’t realized we could get. I chose the Fabada bean stew to start, a specialty of the region, and then we shared a plate of some sort of fish- chipirones- and I’m not even sure what it could possibly translate to in English. When the waiter put the dish down I was slightly alarmed, but each bite was smooth and silky, with the most mild and delicate flavor. My only regret was that I wasn’t feeling that welll and despite all the walking, I didn’t have much of an appetite. But the food was so good I ate a lot anyway, and polished off my entire bowl of arroz con leche (rice pudding, but you’ve never had rice pudding quite like this!). There was a bottle of La Rioja wine, too, which is some of the best wine in Spain, if not the world.
Throughout dinner I was reminded of how sometimes, the Camino can feel a lot like dating. I was sitting across from a man in a cozy little restaurant eating a good meal, and we hadn’t known each other before that afternoon. But I guess the nice thing about the Camino is how easily stuff like this happens, how little pressure there is. It’s natural for pilgrims to connect with each other, to gather together in the evenings, to come together for a day and then separate. There’s none of the pressure and stress that I tend to put on myself, either. I wasn’t thinking, “What am I going to wear? Do I look good enough? What will we talk about?” I mean, besides my hiking clothes I have one other outfit, I’m not carrying make-up or beauty supplies, my eyes were a bit puffy and my nose a bit raw from the cold that was descending on me, and it just didn’t matter. I’d walked all day, and I wanted dinner.
But throughout dinner, my desires changed. All I wanted to do was go back to the albergue and get into bed. I was starting to feel worse and worse, and my companion talked and talked. Sometimes I would try to say something, and he would kind of pause to give me room to speak, but then jump right back into whatever else he wanted to say. He kept trying to convince me to switch my plans and walk the Primitivo, saying that the part of the Norte I was going to do was the worst part. “It’s really awful,” he said. “You walk on the road all the time and people don’t have the Camino spirit.” And at one point I even started thinking- “Maybe I should do the Primitivo instead…” but then I snapped out of it. The thing is, everyone has an opinion about the ‘best way’: how things should be done, how you should walk, what you should carry, how you should act (true in life, as well…). I’ve already walked the Primitivo, and I’ve never done this section of the Norte. Maybe I’ll love it or maybe I’ll hate it, but this is my Camino. I need to walk it how I need and want to walk it. I’ve learned that already.
So after a day slugging uphill on an overgrown and brambly path, befriending a dog and eating a darn good pilgrim’s meal, I sank into bed and wished I could stay there for a long, long time. But the trail beckons, and it’s just 34 km into Oviedo, where the Camino de San Salvador ends. Time to carry on.