June 14, 2012
In the early morning, you can see the storks tending their families on top of the church tower. The mountains are up ahead as we cross what’s left of the meseta. The terrain is what in Oregon you’d call the high desert, scrubby bushes, no tall trees, fairly dry. Today I’m headed for the Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, a famous stop among pilgrims at the top of the highest hill we’ve crossed yet (yes, higher elevation than the Pyrenees) at 1550 meters.
At the base of the hill is Rabanal, home to one of the best churches I’ve visited yet. It’s a Templar church, but it’s not empty, like the first one we visited, or huge, like the last one. It’s just big enough for the village, built to serve the pilgrims in the 12th century. If I was to stay the night in this town, I would go to the evening vespers and hear the Gregorian chanting offered by the monks that live in the monastery next door. In fact, I think Mary and Susie did when they were here. I meet a young German guy who is spending 6 months there helping the monks and the pilgrims. Finally I find a pair of shell earrings – for only 4 euros – in the monastery store. I came without earrings because nothing I owned seemed suitable and the scallop shell (symbol of the Camino) ones I came across at home were expensive. I’ve been feeling rather naked without earrings, so now I’m pretty happy. I receive a gift of a matching bracelet. I’ve gotten lots of complements on my scallop shell jewelry. After a quick sandwich, it’s up the hill.
Back on day 2 of our journey, we each picked up a stone (well, actually it was supposed to be a stone from your home town) that would represent our cares and worries and struggles. I picked up a piece of slate (not a large piece) and put it in my wallet. I’ve been carrying this rock representing my worries for the last few weeks in order to leave it at the foot of the cross, along with all of the other pilgrims. Leaving the rock here, I am to reconnect with the purpose of my journey.
However, arriving at the top (not a hard climb, really) I am somewhat underwhelmed. The famed iron cross is just a little tiny thing on top of a long pole. To be sure, there is a mountain at the base of the pole of left stones, messages, and keepsakes that pilgrims have been leaving for years and years. I take off my pack and find my stone. Between pilgrims, I clamber to the top and leave my stone. I try to summon some emotion, but it’s just not there. I think about leaving the stone as my blessing and it makes me smile, but that’s about it. The good news is that the road crews that were working on the road right under the cross that morning are gone, the bad is that for the next few kilometers it smells like asphalt. Oh well.
It’s downhill a bit into a small valley on the mountain. It’s 1pm and I’m ready to stop. There’s an albergue at Manjarin that’s supposed to be pretty unusual, organic food and solar heating. Turns out though, that the “bathroom” is a hole in the ground across the road and the water is from a well also across the road. No hot shower, but organic food and perhaps a Templar chant. Sorry, not for this pilgrim. It’s 7km down the hill to the next town. How hard can that be?
Well, it is absolutely true that going down is definitely harder than going up. The trail, if you could call it that, is one flowing piece of mountain rock interspersed with random rocks of all sizes. It is hard hard hard going, trying to maintain my balance (would it have been better with one or two walking sticks?) and not slip and fall. I am deliriously tired from having walked 13km to Rabanal, 7km to the cross, with another 10km to Acebo, the last 4km being straight down. Each step down requires excruciatingly cautious effort to not roll right down the hill. I’m looking down for each footfall and up between them for the amazing views from the top of this mountain.
When I see the sign for Acebo, 800 meters to go, I start singing, I’m so crazy happy. Beatles songs, mostly, I don’t know why, at the top of my lungs. Thank goodness my walking partner is far enough ahead that he can’t hear me. When I turn the corner and see the town, I bring out my camera to take a photo. Before I can get the strap around my wrist, I trip (on the flat) and the camera flies into the road, lens open. Unfortunately, when I pick it up, I find the lens won’t close. It’s broken. Bummer. The good news is that the memory card was saved, but for some reason, some of the pics did not make it to show the steep way down. Sorry!
I’m not sad for long, though, because the first people I see are Susie and Mary sitting at the bar. I scream with joy, disturbing all the other pilgrims who are enjoying their end-of-the-day peace. I don’t care. Mary takes my camera and directs me to the albergue, somewhat further down the hill, where I find my bed, a shower, and do some laundry. Everything freshly scrubbed, I haul myself back up the hill to find Mary and some new friends watching the bartender make them a homemade pitcher of Sangria. I’m in for that.
There’s internet here, and I have time to check my email and Skype home. Amedeo has bought a bottle of wine for us and we meet him back at the albergue. Dinner is family-style at this German-run hostel, and we say grace in two languages before we eat.
I’m exhausted, however, and go straight to bed. Tomorrow, Mary and Susie will walk the 13k to Ponferrada, a decent sized town, and I’m going to add another 17km to Cacabelos, at least that’s the plan. But first I need to buy a new camera…