Date: 8th October, 2013
Miles walked: 651
Miles left: 349
I reached Burgos and the start of the Meseta. Until Leon, a stretch of some 110 miles, it’s mixed emotions on El Camino. Huge, barren plains as far as the eye can see tempered by monumental skies. The way is straight for most of it, the sides of the trail diminishing to a point in front of you that never seems to get any closer. Some hate it but I relish it. Reach the top of one of only a few hills and look out on the most deserted section of the trip. Clouds bubble up to huge proportions and sweep across an azure sky, casting shadows that race over an endless, parched landscape. It can only be described as epic.
Reach Carrion de los Condes however, and El Camino really starts to test your resolve. The vast part of between Carrion and Astorga runs alongside busy roads, albeit on tracks. The route stretches away in front of you forming a datum that slowly wears you down. There is little shade, flies hover around and the heat becomes oppressive. There are few hills so a pilgrim can see their destination sometimes hours before reaching it.
El Camino Video Update Part 2 – (Apologies as this repeats at 4.14)
The nights turn colder in October. Soon they will be bear freezing but for the time being each morning I emerge from wherever I have slept with hat, buff, gloves and warm jacket. As the day warms, each one is removed until a T-shirt and shorts remain. Each day, the jacket stays on just a little longer. Once I hit Astorga, about 170 miles from Santiago it all changes.
I can see the mountains now as I take on another stretch of straight track. For days they have been with me over to the horizon on my right. Gradually they will get closer until they converge with my bearing and then I will climb up them and bounce along the tops to my destination. The road walking will be gone, the flatness a memory, the heat forgotten.
They will bring on a new set of challenges; colder temperatures, perhaps rain, maybe even snow, steep hills and misty mornings.
But it is time for a change.
Park on the exit from Burgos
It was one of those classic hiking days where I felt I could walk forever; I just didn’t want to stop. The temperature was perfect, neither too hot that I was sweating, nor too cold that I was constantly changing layers to find a comfortable combination. The slightest of breezes stole a little sweat from my forehead; an early morning chill relented to a rising sun. I swapped trousers for shorts, pulled on a t-shirt, downed a litre of water and refilled for the next section.
At 4pm, I felt invincible. At each little village I let down my pack, sipped water and watched those pilgrims who had already finished for the day. They sat on cafe chairs, sipping wine, hair damp from a recent shower, clothes clean from the laundry. They laughed, chatted and retold the day’s events, already good memories. I thought about doing the same but the trail called for more. I left and did the same in the next village, and the next. Rabe de las Calzadas was left behind, Hornillis del Camino came and went. They beckoned but I didn’t answer the call.
With camping gear I’m not restricted to towns. Most pilgrims will plan their day around the refuges. I observe them at night, eyes cast on guide books, pencil in hand calculating distances to the next one. I do the same sometimes but passing through a village late evening, it’s sometimes humorous glancing over at others. They nudge each other and look in my direction.
‘Where is he going? It’s 7 o’clock! Doesn’t he know its 4 miles to the next refuge? Is he crazy?!’
The Meseta – Incredible but soon to be over
I left Santa Domingo de la Calzada at 7.30pm with nothing ahead of me for about 7 miles save a small refuge at Granon, nestling along the Meseta in a hollow, detached from anywhere. The sun slowly inched towards the horizon, the shadows grew longer, trying to touch my feet as the sky darkened and a weak moon started to arc. I stopped. A few crickets made the only sound save a lone duck overhead.
The wind intensified, grasses bent over, weak leaves were ripped from trees and water in puddles rippled. I looked around for somewhere to camp and found nothing. My legs were good, still eager, but blisters claimed the day once more. Straw stubble and damp ground ruled out the fields, along with no shelter from the wind. There were no trees to act as a break. The Camino wound down to the hollow at Granon, I heard the generator at the refuge fire up and hum, breaking the stillness but it didn’t beckon. I wanted solitude, didn’t feel like company and frankly, couldn’t be bothered with the usual conversations. I walked on.
The sun set, leaving only the last offering of light to see by. I watched the Camino rise and then spotted a small cluster of stones, the remains of a long forgotten wall. A few feet high and wide but enough to win the battle with the wind. I sat down and leaned against it, felt the cold in my back. The wind roared over and around me but my friend stood firm. I looked up as a few wisps of clouds swept over and the first of the stars shined. This would do, there was nothing else.
I put down a groundsheet, inflated my mattress, took off my shoes and rubbed some talc into grateful feet. Too tired to cook I forced a few pieces of chorizo and bread down and took some water. Pulling my quilt over my head I was asleep in minutes.
4 hours later I was awoken abruptly by rain. I looked up, the stars had disappeared, faint cloud silhouettes lit by the moon raced over. I grabbed my umbrella and huddled underneath, scooping up the quilt with me and threw a poncho over my pack. I pleaded for a minute with whoever might be responsible and it was answered, the rain stopped. Barely half an hour later it started again, heavier this time, thudding into the umbrella as if coming back for revenge. I sat it out for 5 minutes but this time it was too strong.
Canal de Castilla (Built between 1753 to 1859)
I flicked on my head torch and frantically searched my pack for the tent. I darted back and forth around my surrounding area trying to find a level area away from the mud with no stubble. I had to relent as rain started to soak my back; a slope in the mud with straw it would have to be. The ground was soft, the pegs kept pulling out, the poncho blew of my pack, my umbrella took off.
Shit. SHIT !
Water ran down my face, I shivered, slipped on the mud and watched as the best tent pitch I could muster in the circumstances flapped and wailed like a sail ripped from its anchor. I threw in the mattress, a now damp quilt, my pack and launched myself in out of the rain. The side of the tent blew in my face and rain hammered a few inches above me as again, I pulled the quilt over me. Slowly, an uncontrollable shivering ceased.
Come morning it was a downpour. I waited till 7.45 when I knew the sun would just come over the hills and quickly packed inside, diving out at the last minute to ram my soaked tent into an outside mesh pocket. I pulled on a wet poncho, gave up on an umbrella which would have been ripped from my hands in the gale and set off, again shaking with the cold.
‘Walk Fozzie, walk. Warm up, forget where you are, forget it’s raining. Disregard the cold, ignore the shivering. You’re NOT cold, you just think you are. The sun will come up soon, you have 2 hours to the next village. Hypothermia? Don’t be stupid. Remember it’s all in the head, it’s all psychological.
You’re NOT cold.
I’m bloody freezing.
My teeth chattered as I felt cold water run down my arms and off my poncho down my legs. My shorts became soaked, my eyes struggling to find a way through stinging rain slamming against my face. The sun waged battle with black clouds and offered a weak light. I splashed on through puddles, my boots sticking to the way as slowly my feet became wetter and colder.
Eventually the rain stopped . . .
‘What are you doing you idiot? Why didn’t you just put the bloody tent up you lazy bastard? How many times do you want to make the same stupid mistake? Will you never learn?’
I trudged on, glancing occasionally at the clouds which seemed to be clearing. The small cluster of houses known as Hontanas never seemed to arrive. At each crest of the hill I longed to see roof tops. At each crest I was disappointed until finally, soaked to the bone, it appeared and I walked down through streets flowing with torrents of water. I laid down my pack outside the cafe, took off my poncho and watched the steam rise from my back. I wiped the water from my face, looked at the barmaid and ordered 2 slices of tortilla with a coffee. Suddenly everything seemed OK.