Camino de Santiago

© Bruce Nichols - 2004

Camino #3
Over the Mountains

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Today I arrived in Ponferrada an old town with an interesting fort and a very comfortable alburgue. But the real story of the day begins at 6:30 am on the other side of the mountains in a small village called Rabanal del Camino. I spent the night there in a refugio run by the British Confraternity de Santiago a group that has restored an old building there next to the local iglesia (church) where Benedictine monks chant and evening service. It’s a most wonderful place. Clean, well heated and the hosts spoke English. Frank was from Scotland and Jane from Pittsburgh. There was also a young American from Oregon - Dan - sporting blond dreadlocks and a Scottish couple who had completed the Camino a week ago and were walking back along part of the route. So there was a lot of good and welcome conversation. But, getting back to 6:30.

I was up early as usual. And went down to the entry area to organize my pack. I poked my head outdoors and noticed stars in the sky. A good sign I thought after a couple of hours walking in cold rain at the end of the previous day. At 7 there was a communal breakfast of coffee and bread with butter and jam. And by 7:15 I was out the door in the half-light but now with an overcast sky and a bit of drizzle and a rising wind. I walked out of this small town on my way up the mountain to 5000 feet and the little mostly abandoned town of Foncebadon. By the time I had walked a couple of hundred meters the rain had picked up and the wind increased so I tucked behind a convenient wall and pulled on my poncho.

Looking back behind me I could see the edge of the clouds back out over the meseta where the light was bright. Looking toward the mountains all was dark and swirling mist. I stepped back into the wind and began the uphill walk. The rain splattered down off and on cold and whipped around by the wind. But behind me an astounding sight was unfolding. As the sun rose, in the gap below the cloud cover, the valley behind blazed in incandescent gold and off to my left a brilliant rainbow rose like a pillar up to the black clouds. Click, click, click the camera came out and hopefully a bit of this will be recorded.

But the road still rose before me and I continued on. It was a bit over three uphill miles to Foncebadon and as I rounded the final bends I could see lingering snow on the roadside. The rain had stopped and I had pulled off the poncho but I was now in the clouds and mist swirled and the ragged town appeared and disappeared as I approached. Most of the stone buildings are falling down in Foncebadon and the place has an eerie ghost-like feeling especially in the mist. One or two dwellings have been restored and now cater to pilgrims on the Camino. The town was once famous for a pack of wild dogs that terrorized passing peregrinos.

As I reached the end of the one broken rocky street that runs through this mostly abandoned village the mist suddenly turned to snow and thick wet flakes flew sideways in the gusty wind. I had fortunately added an extra layer before heading out in the morning and though I was a bit chilled, the energy generated by the uphill walk kept most of the cold at bay. There were a few other pilgrims on the trail and they would appear and disappear as the turning path, blowing snow and clouds allowed.

About one kilometer after Foncebadon is another landmark of the Camino, a cross on a tall pole that sits atop a huge pile of stones. It is traditional for pilgrims to leave a stone on the pile and I had carried one from Connecticut for that purpose. An egg-sized piece of quartz garnered from the old stonewalls that crossed my grandfather’s dairy farm now sits atop the pile an ocean away from the bedrock of its birth.

For a moment while at the cross, the clouds thinned and the sun shown dimly through. I took some photos of other pilgrims leaving their mementos and had my photo snapped on top of the rock pile.

Then it was on down the other side of the mountain. For several hours in the clouds but then, quite suddenly, breaking out below with grand views of the slopes dropping away from the Camino and eventually, after crossing through a small notch in a ridge the wide valley of Ponferrada spread out before me bathed in sunlight.

As I descended it became warmer and warmer and I began to strip off layers. In the end I was down to shorts (legs unzipped from my trekking pants) and a tee shirt with a sleeveless windbreaker. Along the trail bright blossoms bloomed - red poppies, purple lavender (a guess), small daisy like flowers, yellow flushed brush that reminded me of Scotch broom, and other unknown but colorful things. In the valley bottom poplar like trees blazed in the gold green of new leaf. When I finally reached the valley floor at Molinaseca I walked across an almost 2000-year-old Roman bridge into the town. It had been an incredible day that had so many different levels of experience and weather.

From Molinaseca things changed and it was a 3 or four-mile walk along cement sidewalks beside a busy road to Ponferrada where I will spend the night. I’ve had a walk about the old part of the city. Visited the fort that dates back to the Knights Templar, and bought food for my diner that I’ll prepare back in the albergue before my usual 9 pm bedtime.

A few quick other comments about the last few days. The rainbow of this morning was my second of the walk. The first came on the morning of the day of the strong headwind. It was back on the meseta and under similar circumstances - the sun rising behind me under low cloud cover. Only this rainbow was unlike any I had ever seen. Instead of rising up into the sky it seem to be squashed out along the distant horizon. And not in bright bands but in dim pale swaths of color all under the low black clouds.

And one more incident that was very touching. While in the spectacular cathedral in Leon, a fellow peregrino came up to me an offered me a chocolate. He was a Spaniard I had seen once or twice before and we had exchanged hola´s but not much more. He spoke about as much English as I did Spanish - a tad above nada. I accepted the chocolate and was about to walk away when I remembered that I had some of my folded foil origami cranes tucked in with the small notebook I carry in my pants pocket for quick notes. I dug one out and walked the 20 or so steps to catch him as he walked away. I presented him with a small returned gift and we both smiled broadly. Sometimes words are not necessary for communication to take place.

So, that’s today’s update. Much more has happened of course, but some of that I’ll save for a future note. I’m hoping that spring may finally have arrived. There are more mountains ahead but not quite so high as today and I’d really like to put the long underwear away for good.

I’ve walked about 340 miles so far with another 120 to Santiago and 50 more to Finisterre (the end of the Roman world) where I will be able to look out from Spain and imaging Maine and the rest of North America just over the horizon.

Blessings and love to all. Bruce

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page revised - 07/04/2004
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols