Tuesday September Twenty-Two, 2020
With another day of close to 40 kilometres ahead of me I made an early departure from Alcuéscar, so as to beat the heat that had so thoroughly exhausted me the day before. I doubled down on electrolytes in my water and made sure that both my Camel-Pak and my tankard were full for the day as there wasn’t a lot happening between my departure point and my destination. My feet came next in my hierarchy of needs and I sat lotus style on the ground taping up this and that blister with well-practiced precision. What fascinated me in the process was that my left foot needed only two Band-Aids – one each on each of my smaller toes. And even then they were really only there for preventative measures. My right foot however required an intricate web of ten Band-Aids that ended up looking like a roadmap across the sole of the foot, around toes and up and over the heel. It seemed odd that one foot continued to be more or less unscathed by the daily assault I subjected it to, and yet the other should come up with new and interesting ways to torture me each day.
After water and blister care came light, which I would need for at least the first thirty minutes of my journey, such was the early hour. I’d bought new batteries for my head-torch at the Decathlon in Merida over the weekend, and so I opened the torch up to replace the batteries within. I put the casing back together again and flicked the switch… Nothing. No light emanated from the torch. I wiggled and jiggled everything about. But still nothing. And so I resigned myself to the darkness once more, confident that I could pull off a second morning in the pitch black of the early morning as I had the week before.
I left Alcuéscar at 7am and wandered quietly in the darkness until a dull gloom finally made its way over the landscape, and then sunlight itself. Only one moment required me to pull out my phone and turn on the torch when the path split in two and didn’t give me an obvious indication of which direction to choose. The town itself had disappeared quickly behind me, and pot-holed farm tracks had replaced the tarmac underfoot. The morning air was blissfully cool, and as the sun appeared on the horizon so too did lovely little wisps of mist that gathered just above the fields to either side of me. It was another fairy-tale start to another fairy-tale adventure.
I met many cows as I went, acknowledging each of them as I passed. They pondered my presence but didn’t reply to my greetings. No hard feelings though. I imagined it was just my impossibly thick accent that they couldn’t get past. The only notable break from endless farmland was an old Roman bridge that needed traversing a little later on in the morning. It sat in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable setting, suggesting that once upon a time there was more happening in this sleepy little part of the world than there was in 2020. It reminded me once more of the awesome scale of time that the Via de la Plata represented, not to mention my own very insignificant role within the grand scheme of things as I walked it. I wondered whether or not time would remain kind to the bridge and whether it would still be around in another 2,000 years, long after all traces of myself had vanished.
For the better part of the day the Via followed a minor highway that continued in the distance just on the periphery of my vision. Every now and then my path would cross backwards and forwards over it, and occasionally beneath it. It was strange to be so disconnected to the ‘real world’ beyond the Via, and to see cars and trucks zooming along the highway at speeds that would get me to Cáceres within a matter of minutes, rather than hours. There was something satisfying in that thought of disconnection though, and I really felt like I was the lucky one for not having the benefit of speed or comfort on my side. I was the lucky one to be under the morning sky with blistered feet and 10kg of essentials on my back. I was the lucky one to really see and feel the landscape around me as I went, rather than to simply glance at it occasionally as a driver, focussed on the road ahead and the traffic about them. I was the lucky one to feel the earth beneath my feet with each step I took, despite the mild discomfort that each step brought with it. It all added up – the sights and the sounds, and the smells – and made me feel so much more engaged with the act of travelling.
The satisfaction of taking the slow road stayed with me as my path led to an old, seemingly abandoned, aerodrome. It appeared before me out of nowhere, on a perfectly flat terrain of nothingness, nondescript as an airfield except for a line of old tin sheds off in the distance built along its periphery. The structures creaked and rattled in the occasional breeze and suggested that once upon a time their purpose was much sought after. But now the whole enterprise seemed abandoned, and the tin sheds carried with them a bunch of Hollywood notions such as illicit narcotics drop-offs and drug deals with Mexican cartels gone wrong. If tumbleweed had rolled across the landing strip in front of me I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. Nor if I’d heard a gunshot from somewhere deep within one of the sheds.
My imagination started running away with me, to the point where I started to feel like I was being watched, exposed as I was on wide expanse of the open airfield. I tried to shake the feeling, but the sinister notion remained just the same. That’s when I spotted a police car in the distance, parked discreetly beneath a ramshackle tin lean-to. It was too far in the distance to tell whether it was occupied or not, and I was not curious enough to stare too hard at it, on the off-chance that my gaze might pique any occupiers interest. My imagination had already conjured up the skeletons of long dead drug dealers buried in shallow graves beneath the dusty surface of the landing strip. I was certain I didn’t want mine added amongst theirs.
In reality of course it was more likely that a couple of cops were simply bunking off from their duties and taking a small siesta away from the heat of the day. But imagination has a strong power over us, and so I picked up the pace regardless, to distance myself from such a powerfully suggestive setting.
A little while later I found myself at one of very few rest-stops created for pilgrims. So infrequent are they that I’m loathe to ignore them as I pass and feel obligated to enjoy them, simply for the fact that someone has gone to all the effort to create them. Today’s rest-stop was a simple concrete table and benches under a large tree, and I set my pack down, stripped my shoes and socks off and lay flat on the concrete table. The hard surface radiated the days heat against my back, and I closed my eyes, feeling unbelievable comfortable on such an unlikely bed. I had to force my eyes back open after only a few second, knowing full well that if I wasn’t careful I’d surely fall asleep within moments. Such was the restfulness that had overcome me. High above me in the sky I could see hawks or eagles circling and I had to laugh at the thought that it had taken so little time for them to consider me carrion. I imagined their disappointment when they saw me stirring once more and putting my pack back on my back to resume my journey.
The final part of the day’s Via was tough once more. Not so much because I was anticipating my arrival out of tiredness, but more because my feet and shoes were up to their old tricks again and conspiring against my good cheer. I had anticipated such a pushback from my feet, given the heat and the fact that I was putting two forty kilometre days side-by-side. So for that reason I had been very diligent that day and stopped every hour on the hour to stretch, sit, change my socks, refuel etc. It might seem like an obvious tactic to many, and one that I should have been practicing over the previous nine days, but the reality is that I’m a charger, with little patience for loitering. I push straight on through and don’t stop until a thing done… Such a tendency has very few merits when it comes to walking, and a lot of potential downsides, but it had been my approach nonetheless, which I was now trying to redress. But even with the frequent stops and rests my feet had still managed to remind me that they were feeling aggrieved.
So, I was happy once more to finally arrive at my destination. Cáceres itself had been visible to me on the horizon for far too long, teasing me from a distance and not seeming to appear any closer as I walked. And even when I did reach its periphery Google Maps told me that I still had another 45 minutes of walking ahead of me before I reached the hostel. It was a long, slow final grind into the city, made all the more arduous by the steep climb into the historic centre where the hostel was located.
The hostel came as a welcome relief when I finally arrived, and it came as a pleasant surprise also as it seemed to be buzzing with other pilgrims who had appeared out of nowhere. There was a Spanish couple who were checking in ahead of me, as well as a trio of Spanish cyclists who were fastidiously cleaning the dust and muck off of their bicycles. We greeted one another, but once more the conversation didn’t go past the basic pleasantries, and I rued my remedial grasp of Spanish all over again.
I was given a bunkroom to myself, in light of Covid occupancy restrictions, and proceeded to shower and revisit my undressed feet. My left foot was still perfectly fine – my anatomical golden child, with so few needs or disruptions. My right foot however continued to be my bane, and as I pulled it towards my face for closer examination the source of the days great discomfort was revealed to me. I had a new blister. But not just any new blister. It was a rather sizeable one, and it ran down through the centre of my right foot under my arch and occupied the better part of my sole. I played with the giant raised bubble for a bit, fascinated as I was by how much fluid had accumulated inside of it so quickly. My curiosity was perhaps a little morbid, but it convinced me that I needed something a little more industrial-strength for the following day, and so I limped from the hostel in my flip-flops in search of a pharmacy to purchase new protection.
Cáceres was a revelation to me without the pressure of 40km behind me, nor my heavy pack and my rubbing shoes. I had no prior knowledge of the city, and so no context for where I was, but every corner turned revealed something new and wonderful. And while Merida had offered up Roman treat after Roman treat Cáceres not only included Roman sites but plenty of Moorish, Northern Gothic, Italian Renaissance and Medieval sites to boot. On display was a veritable mish-mash of styles and epochs, all sitting alongside one another in perfect synchronicity. That the city was a UNESCO World Heritage site was also news to me, and I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t done enough forward research to even discover that about the place. I felt guiltier still that for all the wonderful architectural and cultural sites there were to visit I couldn’t bring myself to change my plans and pause for a day to explore. I felt impatient to keep going, especially so soon after taking a two day break in Merida.
I stood in the central plaza and apologised openly to the city that I wasn’t paying it its dues, but I promised that I would be back one day to explore it properly. As compensation I sat at one of the many restaurants in the square and resigned myself to soak up the general atmosphere of the city from my table, rather than explore its many historical nooks and crannies. Tapas were brought out with each beer, and soon enough I was onto my third of each watching the world go by around me. The sun eventually set, and the surrounding buildings were lit up with a warm glow from spotlights beneath them. The scant number of tourists present placed themselves strategically in front buildings to have their photographs taken, with little fear of being photo-bombed, such was the scarcity of visitors. Dogs roamed about on the open square freely without threat of being lost amidst a crowd, and an impromptu football game even broke out in the plaza while I sat and sipped, which I was certain could never have happened in a pre-Covid era.
I eventually realised the late hour and decided I needed to put something a little more substantial in my belly for dinner – especially considering my meal from the evening before had consisted solely of Pringles and miso soup. The following day was only a 30km trek – a mere stroll in comparison to my previous days of walking – but I wanted to be sensible nonetheless and ordered El Menu del Dia to fuel the day to come. As I ate my meal the tables around me quickly filled with local youth who chatted away excitedly amongst themselves. But even their enthusiasm for one another’s company couldn’t disguise the fact that the plaza beyond our tables remained barren of the sights and sounds that would be typical of a September evening.
I tried once more to convince myself to stay for another day, to properly explore the history of the city that was so evident to me. I felt guilty about my impatience to move on and continue my journey, but the compulsion to move on still trumped my instinct to explore. I stood up from my table and said my farewell to the plaza, and to the heart of the city. ‘Oh, Cáceres’, I thought, ‘I do wish I had more time to get to know you. You seem like such a striking destination, with so much to offer. Please don’t think less of me for not sticking around’.
Guilt had been replaced by exhaustion by the time I arrived at my bunk and I quickly made myself ready for its acquaintance. I would be back, I told myself, on another day, on another Camino.