Wednesday September Twenty-Three, 2020
Every now and then there comes a day that changes the way you interact with the world. Those days herald a sharp shift that turns things about and promptly places you in a strange new world that you weren’t privy to prior. Those monumental days can often be provoked by a jarring personal misfortune, or an unexpected loss. But every now and then they come about thanks to a sudden upturn in fortune, and a monumental gain. My eleventh day on the Via de la Plata gave me the latter, and swiftly turned my lonely Camino into a journey full of banter, and laughter and glee.
It was still dark when I left the hostel in Cáceres at 7:00am, eager as I was to jump into a new day. I’d spent extra time dressing the increasing number of blisters on my feet, hoping with all of my heart that there would be some respite from them soon enough. They were not the easiest things to ignore as each day wore on, and yet to fixate on them meant that I ran the risk of turning my Camino into an endurance test, rather than the meditative journey I wanted it to be.
I stepped outside onto the dark and empty streets and within minutes of walking the path out of town my thoughts about blisters had transpired into thoughts about rain instead. Initially the air was only graced by a light drizzle, which I thought I could persevere with. But soon enough the drizzle had gained in confidence and become sustained solid rain. In the dark I couldn’t gauge how long it might stick around for, so I found a dry spot on a terrace under shelter and dressed myself in the new poncho I’d picked up in Merida a few days beforehand. It was a fluorescent orange affair, almost the size of a tent, and it guaranteed that no one would mistake me as anything other than a Peregrino as I walked. I say fluorescent orange, but it could also be construed as peach, or mandarin. It’s one of those mysterious shades that six different people will give you six different interpretations of. However you wanted to describe its luminosity, it was bright enough to give me a degree of confidence in the dark as I walked. And confidence was what I needed that morning as the route away from Cáceres followed a major road, which seemed to have an unusual amount of traffic speeding along it – more vehicles than I’d seen on a road during my eleven days of walking.
The early-morning commuter traffic was constant, and in the dark and the wet it became rather intimidating as well. I walked along a very, very narrow shoulder of the road, facing towards the traffic so that I could be better seen. But the speed of the vehicles, and the amplified sound of their journey on the wet asphalt, made for a fraught start to the day and I realised that the close proximity of the vehicles to me was making me feel quite anxious. Even in my fluorescent orange (peach, mandarin) poncho. In addition to the poncho I had a working head-torch, to help guide my way and make myself more visible alongside the road. By some good fortune, when I went to discard the broken head torch before my departure from the hostel, I had thought to double check it. Just in case. And lo and behold the damned thing began working once more. It gave me an extra amount of reassurance that I could at least make myself that bit more visible to oncoming traffic.
My nervousness as I walked was amplified by the fact that the yellow arrows I’d come to rely on so much along the Via were now few and far between on the way out of the city. And the ones that could be seen were rough spray painted versions that had not been tidied up or repainted in quite some time, so were faint and inconspicuous in the dark. Their scarcity meant that I kept dipping into Google Maps on my phone to reaffirm that I was indeed on the right route. And all the while my lack of certainty, and the rain, and the traffic, was promoting a burst of stress in me that I hadn’t yet experienced on my travels.
The journey along the shoulder of the highway was perhaps only a 30 or 40 minute affair, but it felt a lot longer under the circumstances. I was pretty darned tense by the time light finally arrived in the sky. It came at the same time as a more official looking Camino sign came into view in the distance, directing me off to the side of the road and towards open farmland. I stopped to reset my head and thanked my head torch for coming to my rescue as I put it away in my backpack. I thanked the rain for stopping also, and bundled the poncho up and strapped it to my pack to dry, thankful for its dual services in keeping me dry and visible.
From there on in the day began proper, and with an audible sigh of relief I pursued the gravel path that crept upwards ever so slightly into the surrounding landscape. Up ahead on the track I spied the Spanish couple who I’d seen the day before at the hostel. I’d thought my 7am departure was an early one, but theirs had obviously been much earlier still. My pace meant that I caught up to them quickly, as I passed we exchanged our limited greetings and well-wishes to one another. I wanted to interact with them so much more, and engage in an approximation of a conversation – especially because the gentleman was heavily tattooed with Camino imagery and was sure to have many wonderful stories to tell – but language betrayed me. Well, the lack of language at least.
With the landscape now rolling out endlessly before me I decided some music might help reset my day’s journey, and so chose an ABBA playlist on Spotify that was soon blaring at maximum volume on my headphones. The steadily climbing path kept revealing more and more of a vast landscape to the East of me, rolling off to the distant horizon as occasional sunbeams burst through the thick clouds that had gathered there. The heavy gloom of the clouds and the bursts of light made for a really rather a pleasant view, and it should have been enough to keep me satisfied for the duration of the morning. Except for the fact that my feet were absolutely killing me. The enormous blister that had consumed the sole of my right foot the day prior had been padded and wrapped to my now very exacting standards, but to no avail unfortunately. And every step now came with a conscious grimace. It didn’t help that my shoes were now sodden courtesy of the early morning rain, and weren’t likely to dry themselves out anytime soon. I tried to shift my headspace with cool, calm and collected thoughts, but not even the cheery, beat driven tunes of ABBA were helping my increasingly foul mood. If anything, the incessant boppiness of their tunes were making me crankier still. And when ABBA has the ability to make you despair rather than smile you know you’ve hit a dark place.
I took my first break earlier than I might otherwise have and rested on a lovely big flat rock, near a collection farm sheds outside of a village, and treated myself to a banana, pistachios and a dry pair of socks. I was joined briefly by a curious farm dog who realised quickly I had nothing of edible interest for him and so quickly disappeared once more. I was tempted to lay flat on the rock, and rest for just that little bit longer, but I knew that the longer I loitered the harder it would be to make a start once more. So I stood, rattling off the reasons why I should be grateful for the day. It was still overcast after all, and nowhere near the high temperature of previous days. The ongoing ascent came in a very gradual fashion also, making the day’s route far from taxing. It was enough to get me moving again, and so onwards I travelled.
My only additional companions on the path were cattle and sheep, of which there were many. The path went directly through farmland and paddock after paddock of sheep especially. Some considered me with curiosity, but most decided to err on the side of caution as I approached and scrambled to the farthest corner of each paddock to avoid my advance. I stopped once more where a series of boulders forced the path to bend around their presence. I gave my feet another breather and changed socks once more before putting a new pair of inner-soles into my shoes. I’d been saving them for a ‘later’ day, but I figured that now was as good a time as any to treat myself to them. I snacked, took some selfies, and would have only been sitting there for no more than ten minutes before getting up to continue my travels. No sooner had I turned the corner and arrived on the other side of the boulders than I was alarmed by the sudden sight of another pilgrim on the track in front of me. A woman. Walking slowly along the path ahead. We had been taking a break simultaneously only meters apart on opposite sides of the boulders.
Hola. Como estas?
Bien. Y tu?
Muy bien…. Buen Camino!
My Spanish language skills were exhausted at that point, but we each shared beaming smiles at one another, which spoke volumes in the absence of words.
And so on I walked. I had a fairly large suspicion that the woman wasn’t Spanish, but I couldn’t bring myself to launch into English under such an assumption. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the assumption that the English language is universal because it really isn’t. Especially in regional Spain. I told myself that the two of us would surely cross paths once more that evening, at the albergue in Embalse de Alcántara. It was another 20km away at that point, and it was the only albergue for a long distance to come. So the mystery would surely be solved there.
The scenery became more and more dramatic as the day wore on, and if it weren’t for my raging right foot I might have been provoked into a kind of ecstasy as I walked. A mountain range loomed off in the distance beyond a vast expanse of plane. Hawks gathered in large groups above me in the sky and rode effortlessly together on the unseen convections within the air. Black clouds loomed on either side of my path, bulbous and heavy with rain that promised to start falling at any moment. It was the sort of setting that would be painted to invoke an ominous occasion, with threat being ever present. Other than the threat of my blisters finally driving me insane though I found wonder in the stormy atmosphere and endless landscape.
I found myself under a shelter alongside the path and took some more time to air my damp feet once more while I considered the promise of rain all about me. I snacked again and resumed my journey toward a landscape that changed suddenly at the turn of a corner. The path took me down towards a highway that followed the edges of a massive water reservoir – the embalse in Embalse de Alcántara. The scale of the reservoir was impressive, and its depths were surely quite incredible also. The steely grey colour of the water against the dark of the sky above was really quite dramatic too, and it gave the whole setting a cold and forbidding sense. The gravel track at this point became a concrete footpath and followed alongside the barely used highway. The even surface beneath me finally gave my feet a small respite, helped along considerably by the sense of wonder I felt for the strange, almost alien landscape that surrounded me.
The albergue at Embalse de Alcántara is famed for its magnificent location, and considered something of a treat by all of those who stay there. And when it finally revealed itself to me, hidden as it is in the landscape, I met it with a great sense of relief. I was beginning to question whether or not it even existed, such is its position in the middle of absolutely nowhere and its very simple footprint on the land. What appeared as nothing more than a simple concrete bunker ahead of me proved to be anything but. My host met me with a big smile and a warm welcome. He checked me in, pointed me to my bunk for the night and offered to do my laundry for me, which I certainly wasn’t going to decline for the very cheap overall rate of €15 per night. He put me in a fine mood, simply by association. My mood picked up even more as I took a long, hot shower and relished the sensation of my feet being shoeless again after their 34km ordeal.
I positioned myself at a table on a large concrete terrace that overlooked the reservoir, with the intention of writing my journal and possibly reading my Kindle. The view before me interrupted my intent however and drew me in to its everchanging qualities. Great volumes of cloud came and went, and came and went, reflected off the surface of the water. As they intermittently disappeared they allowed sunshine to penetrate the landscape for the first time all day. On the horizon was a solid band of raincloud though, thick and black and absolutely brimming with the promise of rain. I took solace in the setting and relished the idea that I would need to dig deep in my pack that evening for some winter layers. It had been forever since I’d worn trousers, or anything long-sleeved, and the promise of a stormy, chilly evening felt like the reward I was due after suffering on my feet for so long that day.
My Kindle kept me company at the table as I sat on the terrace with a beer in hand, but not a lot of reading was done. My eyes kept being drawn away by the magnificence of the setting and the drama of the approaching weather front. Two hawks appeared out of nowhere above me, doing their thing in wonderful sweeping arcs through the sky as the rain cloud beyond approached faster and faster, threatening to break at any minute. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d need to head indoors and find a spot to take refuge from the rain, and was in the process of standing as the mystery peregrino arrived at the bottom of the terrace.
“Hola”, I offered.
“Hello” she exclaimed. “I think I arrived just in time”.
And so there it was. I had met my very first English speaking pilgrim.
Joy stepped up onto the terrace with a wide smile and an energy that made her instantly likable. We compared the day walking with one another in a boisterous burst of conversation before she made her way inside to check in with our host.
And then the rain came.
Considering that rain had been threatening all afternoon it still came as a shock when it finally fell, in such an angry volume that the landscape soon seemed drowned under the weight of the water. I watched the torrent from behind a magnificent set of floor-to-ceiling windows in the common area and pitied anyone still out there on the path and walking. And no sooner had the rain stopped and the sun returned to the sky from behind the clouds then the Spanish couple I’d passed earlier in the day made their way onto the terrace. They were sodden to the core after such an epic downpour, but they were still in high spirits as they stepped onto the terrace and full of relieved smiles at finally making it to their destination. After them came another solo traveller, who I’d not yet passed on the track. He was an Irishman, equally drenched by the brief but violent downpour and equally relieved to finally be at the albergue.
With the sun shining once more I made my way to the terrace again with a beer and my Kindle in hand. Joy soon reappeared and sat beside me with her own beer, and I was all too happy for the distraction. Not since Barcelona over two weeks beforehand had I had a face-to-face conversation with another English speaker. Let alone a conversation with beer in hand and the sun shining overhead after an epic day of walking. We introduced ourselves to one another properly and soon launched into a conversation about this, that and anything else that came to mind. The Spanish couple appeared with beer also, and sat alongside us, followed by the Irishman. And just like that I was surrounded by fellow pilgrims and finally able to share my journey with others travelling the same path. The contrast between starting the day alone and suddenly being surrounded by a merry band of travellers felt a little startling, but in the best possible way, and I settled into the afternoon in particularly high spirits.
The sun eventually disappeared on the horizon in an incredible blaze that seemed improbable after such a stormy afternoon. The vast expanse of water beneath the albergue darkened and the evening air cooled quickly. It felt good to dig around in the bottom of my pack and wrap up in unused trousers and a jumper in anticipation of the cold night. Dinner was called shortly after and I made my way to share a table with Joy and the Irishman.
It’s not until something is reintroduced into your life that you realise just how absent it was in the first place, and how much it was missed. For me the simple pleasure of sharing a meal once more, with friendly company and conversation, came as a great revelation, and a burst of unfiltered bliss settled over me for the remainder of the evening. Not only had I missed company, but more importantly I’d missed the ambling of good conversations had over a shared meal, with wine and beer in tow. Sharing thoughts and experiences with others who had travelled the same path as you provided a level of satisfaction that I couldn’t have anticipated, and I made a note to myself to never take any dinner company for granted in the future.
Joy had begun her Camino along the Via de la Plata back in March of that year, but when Covid had hit and borders were starting to close she had returned home quick-smart, unable to complete the journey. As countries and communities opened up a little more in September she had returned to Spain, to start the whole process again. We compared notes of where we’d stayed and how wonderful each of our hosts had been along the way. Our Irish companion weighed in with details of people and places we’d experienced along the way, and with a certain authority that suggested he had a lot of familiarity with the Via. And as it was, he wrote guidebooks for a living. It was only when we realised we’d not formally introduced ourselves to one another that we finally shared our names. Joy. Jay. Gerald…
An Irishman named Gerald who wrote guidebooks. There was something familiar about that.
Almost in unison Joy and I asked, “You’re not Gerald Kelly, are you?”, and sure enough he was.
Both Joy and I had Gerald’s Via de la Plata guidebook in our backpacks and had adopted it as our Via bible along the way. I had pored over it incessantly in the weeks leading up to my departure from London, trying to visualise all of the things that I would encounter along the way. That said, despite the font of information provided in the guide there was no way it could ever prepare me for the realities of life on the Via, so unique and often indescribable as it was. Having the source of that information at the same dinner table as me was a wonderful privilege, and provided even more of an insight into the path I had so far experienced as well as the path that lay ahead of me.
The three of us ate and drank and yarned until the weight of the day finally caught up with us and we decided to call it a night. It had been such a great relief to finally share a table once more, and to banter freely about this and that without the tyranny of an unknown language getting in the way. It was wonderful also to experience a shared sense of camaraderie for the first time on my journey, and it was really only with that newfound rapport that I realised just how lonely I had been until then.
Undertaking such an adventure places enough physical and emotional challenges in your way as it is, but what I hadn’t anticipated when leaving Seville is the toll that that loneliness would have on me. And the most insidious part of it was that it hadn’t revealed itself fully to me, and I never quite understood just how alone I felt. Not that being unaware of it makes it any easier, because it sits beneath the surface of everything you do and think, and all the ways you behave, throughout the day.
Joy and Gerald had suddenly appeared as a wonderfully refreshing tonic, and added a new layer of satisfaction to the Camino. It wasn’t simply about distances and endurance anymore, but had very quickly become about friendship and a shared experience also. Both of my dining companions had walked many Caminos before, and they carried an abundance of knowledge between them that I relished as they spoke. I hung off of their every word, like a disciple on the hunt for new knowledge and understanding. But even more important than the Camino knowledge they offered up was the Camino attitude that they seemed so full of. I felt certain it was unique only to those who had walked alone across endless expanses of the Spanish landscape for days on end. And it was this attitude they each imbued that excited and inspired me the most. The attitude of nothing being much of a big deal, and certainly nothing being insurmountable. Santiago de Compostela was out there somewhere in the distance, and we’d all get there eventually, but until then each day was what it was and nothing more. One step at a time, as quickly or as slowly as you were prepared to take them. It was entirely up to you.
I went to bed in a completely new world to the one I’d woken up in, relieved that I was now sharing this strange journey with kindred spirits. Kindred spirits who had welcomed me into their own Camino, and who I would now share the path with in a unique sort of solidarity that only a Camino can generate.