Sunday, May 15, 2016
Distance: 25.6 km
7:45 – I’m sitting in a small cafe adjacent to the hostel in Rabanal del Camino while summoning up the strength to tackle the toughest stage of the Camino this side of the Pyrenees.
Today I will reach the highest point on the entire Camino and make the steepest descent of the entire Camino. While the morning will be spent climbing and the afternoon stretch is mostly downhill, it’s the ultra tricky descent that causes the most injuries. Climbing up long stretches of loose rock and gravel is tiring but the same surface when going downhill is downright treacherous.
9:40 – I have stopped at an old stone albergue in the village of Foncebadon and I’m having a coffee and a baked pear and chocolate pastry. Screw the calories; I’ll burn 7000+ today. Even the cyclists who I met earlier are scarfing down banana bread with jam like there’s no tomorrow.
I read years ago about the tradition of pilgrims bringing a small stone from their home country and placing it in a growing pile at the base of the Iron Cross or Cruz de Ferro which is located a few kilometres before the highest point.
I had always intended to collect a pebble from the shore of Lake Ontario but I left that chore until it was too late and on July 1, 2014 I boarded a train for Winnipeg without a rock. A week later I was in Calgary when my friend Shel Hastey offered to take me on a day trip to Lake Louise. I jumped at the chance and we had a great day hiking and exploring the area near the Alberta/BC border. Today I placed a small piece of the Canadian Rockies at the base of Spain’s famous Iron Cross. As a bonus, my shaving kit is now 25 grams lighter.
10:54 – I was within a few hundred meters of the highest point on the Camino Frances when I snapped a bootlace. I cannot think of many prettier places to sit and change the laces on a pair of pungent boots. As I sat there, two purple butterflies chased each other around my feet, thousands of songbirds provided a chorus, and in the distance one lonely cuckoo called out for a mate.
Eventually a young couple passed by and I overheard them talking about the Bruce Trail and Collingwood, Ontario. They were from Aurora, Ontario which is close to my hometown. We chatted for a few minutes before parting ways with a simultaneous and totally spontaneous “Go Raptors.”
12:25 – Finally, Monte Irago, the highest point on the Camino Frances. Unlike the historic Iron Cross that graces the day’s second highest peak, Monte Irago is crowned with a cell tower. What does that say about modern day worship?
13:35 – After reaching the summit on fairly dry track, things took a turn for the worse. Where there was dry rock, forgiving dirt track and even paved road on the way up, it was mostly mud and in some cases a shallow but very wet creek bed on the way down.
The above photos don’t really show how treacherous the footing was. Perhaps the most telling sign was the decal advertising a taxi service for those who had a cell phone but not the knees to make it downhill on their own. Today’s ultimate destination is still about 10 km beyond the town that is visible in the middle of the above photo.
13:50 – I met several people today who were part of a package tour that included gourmet meals at Michelin rated restaurants, seven nights at quaint country inns with fireplaces and 800 thread count sheets on canopy beds. They even have a Mercedes van and driver to transport them 90% of the way between stages. They walk the last one or two kilometres into a town – if they don’t skip the town altogether. I’m not judging! Really, I’m not.
The last few kilometres before Molinesca were pretty … as in pretty dry. The final stretch was even paved with cobblestones. Believe it or not, I prefer mud to cobblestones as you have to watch every step on the uneven stones or risk tripping or twisting an ankle. The mud is soft underfoot and easy on tired shins and knees.
14:15 – As I arrived at the bridge to Molinaseca I noticed a man who struck me as suspicious. Why was he leaning on a stone wall far away from all the other tourists? As I got closer I sensed that he was up to no good. If this was Delhi or Mumbai I’d say “nope” from about 10 feet and he wouldn’t even waste his time on me. But this guy beat me to the punch when he called out: “I hope you have a reservation, my friend, ’cause EVERYTHING is full.”
“I’m good,” I said, as I walked right on by. I did not have a reservation, of course, but I was only pairing his boldface lie with one of my own. Ten minutes later I got a bed at the first place I tried.
If the hotel tout wasn’t evidence that Molinaseca is infinitely more “touristy” than any of the past 100 small towns, the next three women I ran into surely confirmed it. I didn’t actually run into them but I would have had I not stepped onto the busy street so they could continue three abreast on the sidewalk. They didn’t even attempt to make room for me, let alone issue the traditional pilgrim greetings of “hola” and “buen camino.”
In addition to the pastel coloured sweaters tied loosely around their necks, these three Martha Stewart lookalikes were wearing shiny new hiking boots. It was as if they had just stepped out of REI or wherever you buy hiking boots in Paris or Milan or Barcelona. I wished them “happy blisters” but I doubt they heard me. And, unfortunately, I doubt they’ll do enough walking over the next few days to even get a blister.
Does this officially make me a camino snob? Perhaps. Not everyone has the luxury of taking as long as I will to complete the entire Camino Frances in one shot. In that same vein, I admire those who complete the Camino in multiple stages by returning to Spain year after year during their annual vacation. That’s dedication!
There’s no “right” way to do the Camino but I have a hard time believing that anyone could get much out of it by walking 90 minutes a day for four days out of seven. But damn, what I wouldn’t do for a good night’s sleep on a pillowtop mattress!