All of the days are melding together in my mind at this point! They say 21 days makes a habit (or at least I think that's what they say?), and we've been at this for 25 now -- which means that when, suddenly, we DON'T any longer need to wake up and walk for 10 hours straight, safety pin our laundry that didn't dry to the outside of our backpacks, and collect stamps verifying our daily whereabouts, we will be very confused! By our count at some point today, Santiago is 220k away (or was, relatively, at some point on or around today.) One thing about this Camino is that the distances are ALWAYS off. Julia's book will say from one town to another it is 26.7k. Tina our Slovenian friend's will say it's 31.2. My book will say 27.6, and Rachel's will say 28.9. And Rachel and I have different editions of the same book! The only thing certain about this is that at the end of this Camino we will actually have no idea how far we've walked, because the guide books don't even agree on that! One day, quite a while back, we passed a sign in the morning that said "555 K to Santiago!" Late that evening, seven hours later, we passed a sign stating, "573 K to Santiago!!!" plastered with smiley faces. These motivational signs are everywhere, and are basically just not helpful. Therefore, we have started designating distance in terms of days.
By our count today, we have about 8 days left, unless we walk fast the last 100k. The roads are getting clogged now with pilgrims who have begun in Leon, Astorga, or other towns along the way, and if you leave at the wrong time it can be, as a very frustrated Mike/DC described, "a train of refugees fleeing a war!"
These newcomers are easily identifiable by their chipper, carefree walks. They zoom by us up hills and on the flat parts of the trail. Their shoes are clean and they don't have even the slightest bit of a limp. We grin at them knowingly, and they grow slightly fearful as they gaze at our sunburned and bug-bitten selves, in our dirt-doesn't-wash-out-anymore shirts, and our mangled feet in sandals. At least I think that's what happens. We give them a heartfelt "Buen Camino!" and turn our focus back to not falling over rocks on the trail. It's a challenge that not all of us (*cough* Rachel) have succeeded at thus far.
As we all left the Maseta a few days ago we said, "Gosh, that really wasn't that bad!" Crossing back through the mountains yesterday though we all said, "... gosh, the Maseta was TERRIBLE!" It was breathtaking yesterday and felt like being in a Spanish version of The Sound of Music; and the trail was brutal, but we loved it. It wasn't flat, it was pretty, you couldn't see your destination miles away, and there was no treadmill effect! Bliss.
Upon arrival in our town on Sunday night we kept hearing that we had to get to the next town for sunrise -- that it was breathtaking! We aren't ones to miss that, so we were up and out and hiking up a mountain at 5, mainly by the light of the glorious bright stars. Julia was the only one with a headlamp (Rachel's is lost and mine had broken), and part way up the silent, dark mountain she screamed:
Then she started laughing and yelling, "Oh my gosh! It's a donkey! A DONKEY!" As it happens, sometimes when you have a headlamp on in the dark and an animal looks directly at you, you see nothing but their eyes reflected at you. Usually this is small, and no more than three inches above the ground (mice, raccoons, cats). But when suddenly Julia, in front, had two MASSIVE glowing eyes almost at human level looking at her ... it caught her by surprise, to say the least.
Across from an albergue in the next town we found a rock wall perfectly positioned, Robert and Tina (who had walked to this town the night before), and an assortment of coffees and teas in the dining hall of the albergue. We grabbed coffee and some blankets and climbed up on the high rock wall (really the ruins of an old house) to watch the sun rise. It was glorious. Except at first it was pretty boring, and we thought it was kind of a dud, and we were cold. We were just thinking it was over and time to get off the wall when I looked up to see a golden shimmer just clearing the mountains. It looked like molten gold, surrounded by brilliant pink -- and suddenly it shot up above the mountains in majesty!
When we finally continued on, we climbed up to a giant Cross set on a pile of rocks -- the one where pilgrims traditionally leave a rock that they have brought from home, signifying some trials or problems they hope to leave behind on the Camino. Only Tina had remembered a rock, but we paused for a while and watched the others, and reflected on what we did want to leave behind us.
When we moved on we set off into mountains again, and into a hike that (we hear) is more difficult than the Pyranees on the first day, but that we are now a lot more prepared for. We absolutely loved it, and the views were breathtaking, the wind cool and wonderful, and we felt we were walking on top of the world.
In the last morning we happened upon one of the most bizarre places I have ever been. A donativo albergue (donation only), was built ramshack-style into a series of long abandoned house ruins. Flags were flying, banners were fluttering, and animals were running around the yard. Music could be faintly heard. Intrigued, we entered the yard, where we saw a long wooden bench-style table in a garden courtyard, beyond which was a large room filled with goods, food items, kittens, and a man in a full on Crusader outfit (complete with large cross) who welcomed us and invited us to sit and stay. We sat at the outdoor table, gave a few Euro for some milk, and began to make cocoa with Julia's camp stove.
Suddenly bells began to ring. All the dogs howled in unison. Then Gregorian Chant began to play, and this knight (whose name is Tomas) and a man who seems to be his assistant processed from the house, past us, with Tomas in front bearing a sword and the second man behind, carrying a statue of Our Lady. This began a long religious ceremony of sorts in Spanish, most of which was done by the help of a really old tape deck, and which we understood none of. We were also awkwardly holding bread and cheese, heating milk, I was threading a new blister with thread and bandaging it, and we were blocked into the table by a very affectionate large yellow dog. Finally the service ended, Tomas came back and told us to be really careful with our wallets and passports on the way and we all drank some cocoa, and then we went on our way.
We eventually made our way into the town of Molinaseca -- a town that obviously has more of a tourist (vs pilgrim) thrust, as we had to walk over a kilometer out of town to get to the albergues. We walked back in and had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant right along the river, where we watched fellow pilgrim friends of ours jump into the freezing water ... from a distance.
Today was flat, gearing up for tomorrow's hill climb. We passed first a castle built for the Knights Templar, which is quite impressive -- but sadly is closed on Monday. Nearby was a beautiful church in which I snatched several quiet minutes of prayer before heading out of town. We passed through miles of rolling vineyards today, green and beautiful. In the midst of them I developed a shin split/leg cramp (yet to be determined) and hobbled with my wonderful patient friends at a very slow pace. We finally plunged down into the city of Villafranca del Bierzo, in a vast basin between mountains, where Rachel, Mary, and I got probably the last 3 pilgrim beds in the city (we were slow today.) The others are at a castle, or at least what looks like a castle, close to the city center, where we all joined up together to laugh and talk.
We're closing in on the end, even though it's still quite a ways, and we're all getting antsy! Especially when we'd gotten so used to the relative peace and quiet of small albergue's, familiar faces, and open roads, the sudden busyness and bustle is a little overwhelming! Each day we get significantly closer to our goal -- and none of us are quite sure how exactly we feel about this!