Monday, December 31, 2012

Day 54: Do Not Eat the Pancakes!

Dscn4081bOctober 4: I woke up at 5:30 in the morning. Out the windows, I could see it was still dark, though some of the city lights filtered into my room enough that I could see a bit. And I felt absolutely dreadful.

I stumbled into the bathroom, tripping over some of my gear along the way, where I produced an epic explosion on the toilet which probably helped insure the rest of the hotel knew that something very bad was happening in this room.

I went back to bed, but I didn’t fall asleep. I lay there, feeling absolutely miserable, until another call of nature pulled me into the bathroom a half hour later. And while sitting on the toilet this time, I threw up.

It was bad. Very ugly. I didn’t want to throw up all over the floor, but the toilet was kind of preoccupied with other things, and I managed to keep most of the barf in my mouth until I could turn around and spit it out in the toilet. Most of made it, but there was splatter on the sink and a towel on the floor. I didn’t need a thermometer to know that I was sick.

I cleaned up as best I could, washing my mouth out with water, and eventually headed back into bed again, where I lay there feeling miserable for myself. It was kind of ironic, really. On all my other long-distance hikes, I’d constantly been warned by other hikers that it was only a matter of time before I got giardia for not treating my water, but I never did get sick. And now, when I’m on a hike drinking nothing but tap water, I get sick.

I didn’t blame the water for my sickness. Giardia seemed extremely unlikely since I hadn’t once had any surface water on this hike. Nope, I was just plain sick. Maybe I caught a bug from a pilgrim spreading them in a hostel, or maybe I had food poisoning, or maybe…. who knows. It didn’t really matter at this point. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good! And without a doubt, I’d have to take a zero day. No hiking for me today!

I lay in bed, feeling pretty miserable for myself, for the next few hours, but a strange thing happened at about 9:30: I got hungry. I got online and surfed the web a bit, but when my stomach started growling, I went ahead and ate a big bowl of cereal, which tasted great. And I had absolutely no problem keeping it down. In fact, I was actually feeling pretty good. Maybe I could get in some hiking after all! A short, easy day of walking, though. I definitely didn’t want to overdo things! I probably should have taken the whole day off anyhow, but the idea of laying around in bed bored to tears didn’t appeal to me either. No, I’d rather be walking—but I’d take it slow and easy.

Dscn4082bMust have been food poisoning, I thought. Normally, when I get really sick, it knocks me out for an entire day—minimum. This knocked me out for all of about four hours. Must have been something bad I ate the day before, but I had absolutely no idea what it might have been.

I took another shower to get off any lingering sickness or smells from my body and packed up my gear, not leaving town until nearly 10:30 in the morning. A super late start! Given the incredibly late start, I didn’t expect to see many pilgrims on the trail. They’d have all left town hours earlier.

But I was wrong. Immediately out of town, I didn’t see any pilgrims, but less than an hour later, I was passing them left and right. I didn’t recognize any of them either. But I did chat briefly with a few of them, however.

First I met a couple of women, when we went into a store saying that they’d stamp your credential. The two women were from Colorado and Michigan, but we didn’t really talk much. Just ships passing in the night, as it were, and for all I knew, I’d never see them again. But I would see them again. And again, and again. For pretty much every day until the end of the trail. They were also hiking with a third woman, although she wasn’t there to get her credential stamped.

We went in and handed our credentials to the store clerk for stamping. He told us to look around the store while he did the stamping—an obvious ploy to part us with our money before we left. Most of it was jewelry and knickknacks that I wasn’t really interested in in the first place. I might have been inclined to buy a souvenir magnet or two, except that I didn’t want to carry it the rest of the way to Santiago where I knew I could buy them there as well. So I didn’t buy anything, but I looked around for appearance’s sake.

The man stamped all of our credentials, and handed them all back to me. I think he assumed that I was hiking with the women since we were chatting when we walked in together, but the fact was I had only met them less than two minutes earlier. =) I pulled out my credential from the three he handed back to me, then looked inside at the name on the first one. “Which one of you is Nancy?” I asked. Nancy, the one from Michigan, fessed up, and I handed her her credential, and handed the other one to the other woman without checking the name.

I continued along the trail, waving goodbye and leaving the women behind. I was only walking for another five or ten minutes when I saw a younger girl walking ahead of me. She was blonde, and cute, but the thing that really stuck out in my head were her socks. One was black and the other was a bright purple, and I rather liked the lack of color coordination. I’ll often wear mismatched socks if I have two different pairs that are missing a sock. I’d like to think most people never even notice since I wear pants and almost nobody ever sees them. This girl wore shorts, though, so the mismatched socks was plain as the nose on her face.

Dscn4094bSo I complimented her on the socks, saying if I tried to do that, my girlfriend would probably shake her head and call me a neanderthal. =) Actually, she does that even when I wear two different socks that are the same color!

The girl introduced herself as Indi—short for Indiana, apparently—and she was from Australia and had only started her hike in Astorga, which wasn’t very far back at all. I was a little surprised—to fly all the way from Australia, and then only hike from Astorga to Santiago? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if I had to invest in an expensive plane ticket to go halfway around the world, I’d want something more out of it. *shrug* She said she was hiking with friends, although none of them were present at the time.

I pushed on passed Indi thinking I’d probably never see her again either. But I’d be wrong. As time would prove, I’d be seeing a lot more of Indi before reaching Santiago.

The rest of the day’s walk was rather uneventful. After I ate breakfast, I lost my appetite again and skipped lunch. In the early afternoon, I used the toilet at a bar along the trail. I didn’t need it at the time, but I figured it would be a good precaution. Better to use it and not need it later than to not use it and need it later in the afternoon.

But otherwise, my hiking went well. So well, in fact, that I decided I wanted to camp outdoors tonight. Assuming I didn’t take a turn for the worse before that.

I also passed the 100 kilometer marker to Santiago. Just another symbol that my hike was winding down, and I was a little saddened for the reminder.

Dscn4095bLate in the day, I arrived in Portomarin where I saw Indi sitting in a park with a couple of her friends and their gear laid out everywhere.

“Why are you out here?” I asked. “And not in an alburgue like everyone else?” Not that I wasn’t glad to see them. I planned to stop here in town to resupply at a grocery store, cook dinner, then push through town and find a place to camp somewhere out past the other end of the town. I was more than happy to have company around to chat with while cooking dinner. Even more so since they were all cute girls with those sexy Australian accents. =)

The two other girls there didn’t know me, so Indi answered. “We’re planning to camp outside of town,” she told me.

I blinked, stunned. They were camping?! Excited, I asked, “Really?!” I looked at her and her friends. “You mind if I join you?”

They seemed about as surprised at my question as I was at their answer to my question! “You have camping gear?” they asked me.


Dscn4106bSo they said, sure, I could camp with them. I had new camping buddies! A whole GROUP of them!!! They were still waiting for one of their group to get into town—she was taking her time lingering, and the fifth member of their group was in another part of the town doing I don’t know what. I went ahead and started cooking dinner since they looked like they’d be around for awhile and I didn’t want to do that in the dark after arriving in camp.

Kathy, one of the girls, warned me, “But we should warn you—we’ve been reading 50 Shades of Grey out loud to each other during the night!”

Oh, my… this should be interesting….. I hadn’t read the book nor had I ever intended to, but I had definitely heard of it. Apparently, a friend had given one of them the book just before starting their hike and they decided it would be fun to read it aloud to each other each night. I didn’t care, though—I was just happy to have someone else to camp with. And I was pretty certain that things would not be boring with them around! So while waiting for their other two companions to arrive, they brought me up to date on the plot of the story—what little plot there actually is—for where they left off so I could follow along later.

Almost everything I knew about the book comes from a scene I saw of Ellen Degeneres “reading” the book. I’ve included the clip below which, if you want to know why I titled this post “Don’t Eat the Pancakes!”—you’ll find in this clip. =) 

When all five of the Australians finally got together, they started to cook their own dinner. And they pulled out 50 Shades of Grey to start reading. They were determined to finish it before arriving in Santiago. It started off pretty boring, actually—reading the text of a multi-page contract described in the book. An interesting contract, to be sure, but not a lot of plot or action going on. Occasionally, a local would walk past us, and I’d wonder if they knew any English at all to understand what was being read.

The girls finished dinner and we started off in search of a place to camp just after sunset. We didn’t go far—I doubt we went more than a kilometer out of town—and it was starting to get dark when we arrived, but we set up camp. The five girls carried three tents among them, which they set up. I decided to cowboy camp since rain seemed like a remote possibility, but set up camp near the tent where they planned to read 50 Shades and spent the next couple of hours doing just that. I’ll say this for it: There was a lot of giggling and laughing going on that night. =)

The setting for the book was in the Seattle area—which I had not known beforehand—so it was kind of fun for me to hear references to things like Pike Place Market at home. =) But I was absolutely convinced that all of the characters were Australian. In the book, they were allegedly Americans, but since the book was being read by a bunch of Australians with their accents, in my head, all the characters seemed Australian.

It was a remarkably fun way to spend the evening. =) Eventually, though, we all got tired and called it a night.

This badly graffitied waypoint marks the 100 kilometer
point on the way to Santiago.

The cemeteries in this part of the country seemed to mostly
be above-ground crypts. And annoyingly, I’d still find water
faucets at them all. I still wanted to prove Maria, whom I met
back in France, wrong! =)


It’s like a laundry machine exploded on this cross.

I stopped for a drink at this alburgue/bar. Wonderful
views from here!

I’m not sure why this field is lined with these slabs of rocks,
but I kind of liked the look. *shrug*

The trail crosses this incredibly tall bridge across the River Mino into
Portomarin. It’s a five-second bridge. (The time it took when
I spit off from the top for my spit to hit the water below.) That
officially makes it the tallest bridge I’d crossed on the trail!

The entrance into Portomarin.

My new camping buddies. =) Although you can’t really see
most of their faces in this photo, I’ll give you their names anyhow.
From left to right: Jenny, Kathy, Emily, Indi (in front), and Erin (standing).

Friday, December 28, 2012

Day 53: The Beginning of the End

Dscn4022bOctober 3: By morning, the rain had stopped, but a drizzly kind of mist hung in the air. I pulled out my umbrella, ready at a moment’s notice—I was absolutely certain I would need it so kept it readily available.

Out of Triacastela, I had a choice between two paths. In this case, the alternative, recommended option was quite a few kilometers shorter than the long road route. I can’t imagine why a longer road walk would even be an option. Most pilgrims just took whatever path was the shortest, even if it meant giving up the more scenic and secluded options. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would have selected the longer and less scenic route. Actually, it might have made sense for those on bicycles since it was less hilly and probably better paved. But for anyone on foot, I couldn’t think of one good reason for the longer road walk.

On my way out of town, I met a couple of Spaniards walking the trail who said that they were actually from Santiago, walking home. I’d met a few people along the route who lived in towns along the trail, but these were the first who said that they actually lived in Santiago. The one was severely overweight and clearly struggling, but I was happy to see him on the trail. Inspired to walk to his town. It might not be easy for him, but it was bound to be good for his health—especially if it inspired him to exercise more in the future.

Headed out of town, I saw a couple of pilgrims a few hundred yards away on a dirt road leading in, what I felt, was the wrong direction. But maybe it was ME walking in the wrong direction? I usually have a good sense of direction when tend to realize quite quickly if I’ve taken a wrong turn, and I had absolute confidence I was on the correct path… unless I saw those two other pilgrims in the distance. Then I started second guessing myself. Maybe I had missed a critical turn?

I backtracked about five minutes to the last major intersection of dirt roads. I was still inclined to think I was on the correct path, but better safe than sorry! And the yellow arrows definitely confirmed I was headed in the correct direction. Which means the pilgrims I saw were walking in the wrong direction, or that they weren’t really pilgrims at all. They sure looked like pilgrims, though.

The rest of the day was non-eventful. The expected rain never materialized, so the umbrella stayed closed. But the misty fog definitely made me a little wet as if I had walked through a slight drizzle.

Dscn4037bI checked into a hotel in Sarria. The desk clerk tried to wave me into an elevator to take me to my room. I wasn’t going to fall for that trick again, though—I hadn’t used an elevator since that desk clerk in Saint Jean tricked me into one—so I shook my head and told the lady that I couldn’t get in the elevator. I couldn’t really explain why I didn’t want to use the elevator with my Spanish very well, so I just told her that “I didn’t like them.” She probably assumed that I was claustrophic or something. Is there a word for a “fear of elevators”? I’m sure there is, but I don’t know it. Nor do I suffer from such an affliction. I just wanted to stay off all forms of modern transportation on my hike—including elevators. =)

But I wave her on. “Second floor?” I asked. (Which would be the third floor in the United States.) She nodded yes, and I said I’d walk up the stair and meet her there. I actually jogged up the stairs and arrived at the elevator just as the doors opened and she exited. I think she was a little surprised to see me already there. =)

The room was absolutely adorable—I kind of expected a dump for how much I paid for it—but it was actually a pretty nice room.

I took a brief stroll through the city to see all of the major sites along the route. More pilgrims start their hike in Sarria than any other town along the trail—about 21% of all pilgrims reaching Santiago. The reason for this being such a popular starting point is because it’s the last significant town with train and bus service on the trail where you can still get credit for “walking” the trail when you arrive in Santiago, just over 100 kilometers away. It kind of strikes as incredulous that anyone would even want credit for hiking such a short distance. I could do 100 kilometers pretty easily in a three-day weekend, and those who start here have missed so much of what makes the trail worth hiking. They barely even have time to form blisters on their feet before they reach Santiago.

But I didn’t really feel as bitter as I might sound about things. It’s their own loss, not mine. If I were running the church in Santiago, though, I’d definitely require people to walk from at least as far as Leon to get credit. They should be waking for at least a week for their hike to count!

At the same time, it marked another important milestone for me. This really was the beginning of the end. I was just a few days away from Santiago now. So close, that everyone who wanted to hike to Santiago was now on the trail with me. I picked up dinner at a grocery store across the street from my hotel, walked back to my room, and made myself comfortable for the night. =)

The road looked like it was rained on, but if it did rain there,
it was before I arrived. The misty fog kept everything
quite damp, however.


The streets of Sarria.

My hotel room for the night. =)

A door handle in town.

A mural outside of a library. I’m pretty sure this
represents the big, bad wolf chasing after the
three little pigs. =)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Day 52: The Case of the Missing Trekking Pole

Dscn3944bOctober 2: Early in the next morning, I filled up the last slot in my credential at a church in Linares. It’s the same credential I’d been using since I purchased it at the church in Le Puy, and it was a bittersweet moment for. It represented so many adventures, but it also represented that my trip was nearing an end. Each day seemed to bring a new reminder that the end was getting near, and for the first time of my long-distance hiking career, I didn’t really want it to end soon. Yesterday I passed into Galicia. The day before that I passed the Cruz de Ferro. And today I filled up my credential and would have to start a new one. With less than a week until I expected to reach Santiago, the new credential would look pretty empty when I finished.

At the next church along the trail, they had another stamp and I stood in a small line of pilgrims to get it stamped. The woman doing the stamping added my name to a list she was keeping, then wrote “O’cebreiro” next to it. I assumed she was keeping track of where everyone started from, and since my credential was completely empty, she assumed I had just started hiking that morning which I found kind of insulting. “Hey!” I wanted to shout, “I hiked over a thousand miles from Le Puy to get here—there’s probably not a single person in this room who’s walked further than I have!”

But I didn’t say anything. It really didn’t matter, and I knew that.

The views coming down from O’cebreiro were spectacular, but clouds had moved in overnight giving the morning an overcast look and a chill in the air. Later in the afternoon, the clouds dropped and turned into a misty kind of fog, but the rain held off until after I arrived in Triacastela for the night.

Triacastela is named for three castles in historic times, none of which survive today. I stopped in at a grocery store to do my shopping, leaving my pack and trekking pole by the door at the entrance as I did my shopping. The store was small enough that I could keep an eye on it while I did my shopping, and nobody else was in the store at the time anyhow to even try to steal my pack.

Afterwards, I checked into an adjacent hostel. I spent a few hours there, on the computer catching up with email and posting blog entries, as other pilgrims arrived—none of whom seemed to speak much English. What happened to all the English-speaking pilgrims on the trail? This hostel, at least, had a lot of French, Italian, and Spanish being swapped about.

Dscn3950bAnd, at some point, I realized that I was missing my trekking pole. It wasn’t with the rest of my stuff. I looked under the bed thinking maybe it rolled under, but no, it wasn’t there. I looked in the lobby, thinking maybe I put it down and forgot about it when I checked in, but no, it wasn’t there either. But if I *had* left it there, someone might have already moved it.

Think, Ryan! Think! Where is the last place you remember seeing it?

Ah, the grocery store! I set it down by the front entrance when I did my shopping! Did I pick it up when I left, though? I couldn’t remember…. Maybe… Maybe not….

I put on my Waldies and walked over there in a light sprinkle, and there was my trekking pole, right where I left it several hours earlier. I was glad nobody had moved it!

I returned back to the hostel for the rest of the evening and watched it rain through the windows. It was good to be indoors. =)

Clouds all morning meant that I never really did see the sun.

A statue of a pilgrim battling though the wind.


Pilgrims take a break at this alburgue/bar.

Clouds seem to be dropping onto us.


As we descended further and got away from the taller mountains,
the clouds didn’t seem to be so thick.
The trail into Tricastela.

Pilgrims at a small restaurant on the edge of Triacastela.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Day 51: John Adams Slept Here

Dscn3847bOctober 1: The temperatures definitely reached new lows overnight. Condensation was terrible, but by sunrise, much of it had frozen into little pellets of ice. I had thrown my tarp over me like a blanket which helped keep some of the condensation at bay, but I definitely got uncomfortably cold overnight. Not dangerously cold, but definitely uncomfortable. The milk I had purchased, however, was at a perfect temperature. =)


I lingered in camp until 10:30 in the morning to give the sun time to help dry my tarp, sleeping bag and other gear. The drying probably would have been more effective later in the afternoon rather than early in the morning, but I wasn’t in any particular rush and some of my gear was seriously wet. So I lingered, read my Kindle to kill time, and enjoyed the morning sunlight.


When I did get going, the trail descended into an active quarry—passing a sign warning people of explosives in the area. I continued through a small town near the bottom of the ravine. On the way up out of town, the trail passes by some bee hives—and really, what could go wrong with bee hives within sight of an active quarry that blows stuff up?


The views were spectacular all day long! I stopped at an overlook a few kilometers before Herrerias—where the Dragonte route merges with the main path once again—to enjoy the views and solitude for an hour or so before I rejoined the crowded trail below.


In Laguna de Castilla, I heard a woman ahead shout out, “Ryan! I thought that was you!” It was Nancy from Pennsylvania, who I met a week earlier at the hostel in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos. I hadn’t seen her since the day we left from there, but I was a little surprised that she recognized me from such a distance.


“How did you know that was me coming?” I asked out of curiosity.


Dscn3851b“You were twirling your trekking pole around. I heard you did that.”


That made me laugh. Yes, I twirled that trekking pole around a lot on this hike, though admittedly, I hadn’t done that much on the Dragonte route since that route was so steep both uphill and downhill. Along this stretch of the trail, though, I didn’t really need it for support or stability, and so when nobody was in the immediate vicinity, I took to twirling it around in the air. However, I had no idea that my little habit had become a topic of conversation on the trail! Nancy hadn’t seen my trekking pole twirl before, but had been told about it, and when she saw me walking into town, she could only see a figure twirling the trekking pole and assumed that it must have been me.


“So that’s what people talk about behind my back?” I asked, amused.


I think she worried that I took it as an insult, like it might have been a touchy subject with me, but it wasn’t. I just found it amusing. How does something like that come up in a conversation?


“Oh, hey, have you seen that Ryan while he hikes? He twirls his trekking pole in the air!”


I just couldn’t figure out how something so trivial could get worked into a normal conversation without sounding so contrived. I never really did figure out how that subject came up.


So I walked with Nancy for a bit, but she walked a lot slower than I did and eventually she fell back, not wanting to keep up with my pace.


Dscn3860bWe crossed the border into Galicia, the next state/province (I’m not really sure what there administrative areas in Spain are called). I hadn’t even realized it until another pilgrim told me that the colorful monument we passed the kilometer before marked the border into Galicia. “Oh, yes,” I replied, “I took a picture of that, but I didn’t know what it was for!”


I had heard a lot about Galicia over the miles, but the thing I heard most often was that it got a lot more rain than any other part of the trail. It was a beautiful day today, but I knew that wouldn’t last long. Nope, not long at all….


I stopped in O’cebreiro for the night, checking into a hotel. O’cebreiro was perched at the top of a long, narrow ridge with absolutely spectacular views in the ravines on both sides, but I was a little disappointed with the town when the girl at the tourist office told me that there was no wi-fi anywhere in town, nor was there even a tiny grocery store for me to restock my food supplies. There were plenty of restaurants in which to eat, and I ate a mystery dinner wrapped with bread. I still have no idea what was in it since I couldn’t understand what the bartender was telling me. I really wanted a grocery store since my supplies were getting low, but I guess it would have to wait.


John Adams, our second president, travelled along a section of the Camino de Santiago, ringing in the New Year here in O’cebreiro in 1780. You can read those details at if you’re curious–it’s fascinating stuff with one of the few American connections to the ancient trail. To make a long story short, John Adams was charged as a minister to France to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain and formally ending the Revolutionary War. He brought his two sons, including John Quincy Adams, age 12, who would also later became president of the United States. The boat they crossed the Atlantic in started leaking water—a lot of water—and the ship put into port in northwest Spain for repairs. Repairs were expected to take about a month, however, so John Adams decided it would be better to travel overland the rest of the way to Paris, which began his journey along the Camino de Santiago. In reverse. He didn’t start in Santiago, and he didn’t even go through Saint Jean, but he did follow a few hundred kilometers of the route I now walked, including through this small town of O’cebrerio. On the day he arrived in town, he wrote the following journal entry:


“We rode from Galliego to Sebrero, seven Leagues. Our journey was more agreable this day, than usual: the Weather was remarkably fair and dry, and the roads not so bad as We had expected. There was the grandest profusion of wild irregular Mountains I ever saw: yet laboured and cultivated to their Summits…”


That description seems like something I could have written today. Perhaps not in quite such flowery language, however. =)


Eventually, I headed off to bed where I worked on blog entries all night long (to be uploaded at a later time when I actually go a wi-fi connection) then went to sleep.


The condensation overnight froze into little pellets of ice.


I never got any blisters after that one in France, my
”butter cutter blister” never really goes away. It’s not
technically a blister—just a bunch of thick, hardened skin
with no fluid under it—but it’s an ugly thing when I walk a lot! =)
My feet are pretty tough at this point. A lot of the white stuff
on my foot is foot powder or fluffing off dead skin. =)


“Abejas” is the Spanish word for bees.


And really, what could go wrong setting up a bunch
of bee hives over an active quarry where they set off explosives? =)


I stopped here for an hour or so to admire the view before
merging again with the main path in the town just under that
giant highway bridge.


Merging back with the main path most people followed.


It’s been quite awhile since a herd of cattle drove us off the
trail. Not a lot of animals on the Meseta.


This badly graffitied monument marks the
border into Galicia, the last province of the trail.




This head in O’Cebreiro reminds me of something out of
Futurama. =) I guess they didn’t have enough money
for an entire statue.


Absolutely wonderful views from O’Cebreiro! You can still even see
that giant highway bridge far in the distance.

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.