Friday, December 21, 2012

Day 50: The Dragonte Route

Dscn3704bSeptember 30: Once again, I took my time waking up in the morning. I wanted the sun to get above the horizon to help warm me up when I finally got out of my sleeping bag.


I didn’t have much water with me—the last rest area in Camponaraya didn’t have water like I expected it to and I hadn’t felt like backtracking to get more—so I ate a few snacks out of my bag instead of cereal. Anyhow, the powdered milk I had was running dangerously low. I assumed it would be easy to replace in Europe, but I turned out to be very wrong on that point. I hadn’t seen powdered milk anywhere since arriving in Europe. Not in France, and not in Spain. I was really stretching out my supply that I brought in from the United States so much so, that my milk in the morning tended to taste more like water than milk—but it was all I had. And with such little water on me, I couldn’t even do that. Nope, I just ate snacks for breakfast.


While eating said snacks, a couple of woman walked by—pilgrims from Norway—and they seemed absolutely fascinated by the fact that I had camped there overnight. I had camped in a nice, little meadow, but this site didn’t provide much in terms of privacy. Then they asked if it would be okay if they took photos of me. “Yeah, sure,” I said, “Go ahead.” I didn’t really mind, but I kind of felt like an animal in a zoo. As if I were an exhibit. Surely these people had heard of camping before?


I finally got up and got moving, continuing through the scenic vineyards that were actively being harvested all over the place. I was a little surprised at the workers, though—they seemed to be mostly “normal” people. Older people, wearig relatively nice clothes, like they were tourists out for a day of fun picking grapes for their favorite wines. It wasn’t what I normally expected of farm work. However, I did hear them speaking Spanish to each other, and laughed to myself that they sound just like the people who pick our crops in the United States. Maybe these are illegal immigrants from Mexico too? =)


In Villafranca del Bierzo, I resupplied at a small store, and bought a liter of milk for the morning. Although powdered milk is completely unheard of in France and Spain, shelf-stable milk was everywhere. They never refrigerate their milk! The smallest container I could buy was 1 liter—far more than I wanted—but my plan was to camp out overnight, leave the milk out under the sky to get cold overnight, and I’d have fresh, cold milk in the morning. =) It was freaking heavy to carry a liter of heavy milk, though. I really would have preferred carrying the powdered variety. I still had a little powdered milk available, but it was clear I was going to run out soon so I figured I’d try this new system before I ran out and see how it worked.


Dscn3714bOut of Villafranca, our guidebooks had three different route options we could follow. The first option went straight up a busy road—a miserable road walk the entire way, but probably the easiest and shortest route option. Option #2 veered off to the right, away from the busy road and over a tall mountain, but then merged again with the main route following the busy road the rest of the way. Route #3, however, veered off to the left and didn’t merge again with the main route until much later—at the very end of the busy road walk. But, my guidebook warned, it was the most difficult of the three routes and humping over three tall mountains. Not only that, it warned, but the route was poorly marked and contained virtually no services along the way. My guidebook reads, in part: It is not suitable for groups but individual pilgrims might sensibly join with another for added security in the mountains… Waymarking is obscure and the paths beyond Dragonte are frequently overgrown by scrub vegetation… so only contemplate this route if you are fit, have a good sense of orientation and an instinctive nature when faced with unexpected options. Don’t expect to get lost but allow some additional time in case you do! Leave early in the morning…

Naturally, I was inclined to take the road less traveled. Dragonte. Even the name sounds fearful, don’t you think? Dragon-te! Reading these warnings, I wondered how much was gross exaggeration and how much of it was true. I wasn’t particularly concerned either way. A lot of supposedly “strenuous” sections of the trail I thought were pretty darned easy, and I had no reason to expect this to be any different. Even if it was more difficult than other sections of the trail, that didn’t necessarily mean it would be hard. “More difficult” than easy could still just be “moderately hard.” By my standards, at least. But I would say this much about the warnings: They were the sternest warnings I’d ever read in my guidebook, and the elevation profile for it looked like a roller coaster. It might very well be the most difficult section of trail of the entire route—but I wasn’t necessarily convinced that meant it was going to be hard. Compared to my experiences in the High Sierras, it would be positively easy! =)


The suggestion to leave early in the morning I threw out the window, though. I intended to camp outside, so it didn’t matter if I reached the next accommodations on the trail or not. I wasn’t going to use them either way. If I did get lost, it wasn’t a big deal. I had plenty of food and water to get myself unlost.


Dscn3720bAnd clearly, I would not be joining anyone else for “added security.” I wouldn’t be leaving Villafranca until nearly 2:00 in the afternoon, and absolutely none of the other pilgrims I knew who might be inclined to take the more difficult route would ever leave that late in the day. They didn’t want to camp, and you can’t start this route so late in the day without the expectation that you’ll wind up camping. Nope, I would be on my own, and I probably wouldn’t even cross paths with any other pilgrims. Anyone who did take the trail that day would have left in the morning, and anyone behind me who wants to take it won’t start until tomorrow morning. I would be completely on my own—really, the first time of my entire walk that I was truly on my own! I was looking forward to it too. =)


So I left Villafranca, took the turnoff for Dragonte, and followed a very steep but paved road several kilometers to the dinky town of Dragonte. The views behind me were spectacular—I could see all the way to Ponferrada and even the mountains where I came out from the Cruz de Ferro two days earlier. The trail was impossible to lose at this point—it followed a paved road all the way into Dragonte. Only two cars passed me along this section, but I was sweating bullets and huffing and puffing by the time I reached the town. The climb was certainly steep and it didn’t provide a lot of shade walking on the road.


I went through the town—although calling it a “town” is being rather generous. It barely seemed large enough to call it a neighborhood. The paved roads ended in Dragonte and I followed a dirt road out. The trail climbed a bit higher, then reached the first of the three mountain ridges I had to hump over. The views from the top were spectacular, and I laid down in the grass off the side of the trail to admire the view and relax.


The trail plunged down steeply where I went through another small town of Moral de Valcarce. I saw an old man sitting in a chair outside of his home, and went I walked passed, he greeted me and started talking his head off. I had a lot of trouble understanding him—the lack of teeth and generally mumbling was difficult for me to get through. My Spanish was okay, but his challenged me more than most! I did pick up an occasional word here or there, however, and figured out that he was 92 years old. That’s about all I figured out, though. He probably spent ten minutes babbling at me, 99% of it I wasn’t understanding a word of, but he kept going. I think he must have been extremely lonely to talk at a stranger for 10 minutes even though it must have been obvious I didn’t understand the vast majority of what he was telling me. Finally, I interrupted him and said that I needed to get going. The sun wasn’t going to stay up for me forever!


I followed the trail out of town, down an even steeper embankment into a ravine with a small creek running through the bottom of it. I lost the trail a bit—the dirt road I followed seemed to dead end there—but I picked up another dirt road leading up the other side and followed back up what might be the single steepest road I’ve ever seen in my life. I followed it for about a half hour before it came up to another dirt road that was largely level. I hit this T-intersection and looked for a marker to guide the way, but there was nothing. Left or right? Right or left? I had no idea. Absolutely none.


Dscn3721bI walked for a few minutes to the right, where the road looked like it followed the contours of the mountain to a small town that I could see I the distance. I was pretty certain that this was the town I had just come out of. Down the steep ravine then back up the other side. If I’d known about this other road that followed the contours of the mountains, I’d have used it instead. It would have been a heck of a lot easier.


I backtracked to the T-intersection and took the left path this time. I followed it for a few minutes before I saw another town on the hillside in that direction. That must be the town I’m headed for, I thought. I knew that there was another town I’d go through on my way back up from the ravine. However, I also knew I wasn’t supposed to follow the contours of the mountains to get to it. I must have somehow lost the trail. Which wasn’t to say that *I* was lost—just that I had lost the trail. After all, I knew exactly where I was. =)


I walked a couple of more minutes towards the town, thinking I’d pick up the trail there, but then I slowed down to a stop. I can’t explain it in words very well, but something felt wrong to me. That gut instinct of mine was telling me something was out of whack, even though I couldn’t figure out why I had that feeling.


I stopped, pulled out my guidebook, and examined the map in it very closely. It had a few topo lines, but those were almost useless with 200 meters between each contour level. These maps weren’t really designed for orienteering. I turned the map sidewides, pointing the north end of the map to the actual north, picking out landmarks and figuring out exactly where they were on my map, and I finally came to the conclusion that I was going the wrong way. In fact, I was actually walking towards the town I had just left! And the town I thought I had come from was actually the town I was trying to get to. Argh!


I backtracked to the T-intersection again, half tempted to go back down the ravine and figure out where I took the wrong turn, but what a pain that would have been. Nope, I’d try to follow the dirt road that contoured around the mountain to the town. I couldn’t see the entire length of the dirt road through all the trees, so it was somewhat of a leap of faith for me to think it led all the way to the town, but it seemed probable. And if I had to backtrack, at least it was more-or-less flat.


I followed the road and arrived in Vilar de Corales about a half hour later, far later than I had planned on due to my wrong turn. Initially, my goal for the night was to hump over the second ridge and camp near the bottom of the next ravine nearly 400 meters lower than the top of the ridge. That would make the night quite a bit warmer than at the top of the exposed ridge! But my getting lost set me back and the sun was getting close to sunset. I definitely did not want to set up camp in the dark and decided I bet camp at the top of the ridge instead. It would be, I was certain, my coldest night on the trail to date. Nothing to do about that now, though.


I was also a little disappointed in myself that I had covered less than 20 kilometers for the day. Pitiful! In my defense, however, I had taken my time early on not realizing how long this alternative path would actually take me. But I was still annoyed at myself for not even getting 20 kilometers under my belt for the day.


The one good thing about camping at the top of the ridge, however, was that the views were fantastic! Most definitely a lovely place to watch the sun set. =)


I liked this mural on the wall of this café. =) They really
should have painted some ugly, blistered feet, though. That
would have been AWESOME! =)


A tractor pulling a load of grapes behind him.


Creepy house decoration….


A waymarker along the trail. Just 3.3 kilometers to Villafranca!


Vineyards! Vineyards! As far as the eye can see!


A group of some sort is getting their photo taken
in front of this church.


A statue on a bridge leaving Villafranca.


For those taking route #2, they to up the road on the right.
For those taking route #1 and #3, keep going straight ahead….


The view from a bridge crossing a small creek.


Looks like a wildfire tore through the mountain opposite where I hiked.




Looking back towards Villafranca and beyond. You can even
see the stacks of the nuclear power plant. La Cruz de Ferro
is somewhere on that ridge in the background, on the right side
of the photo.


A flower in Dragonte.


The trail passes a quarry outside of Dragonte.


My self-portrait for the day at the top of the
first hump of the Dragonte route.


It took me forever to get my camera to focus on the ladybug
in the foreground.


At first, I thought this was the town I was trying to hike to.
Turns out, it’s actually the town I had just left!


My campsite at the top of the second hump of the
Dragonte route.

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