The End

  • Oct. 25 – Santiago de Compostela to Negreira. 21 km.
  • Oct. 26 – Negreira to Olveiroa. 33.4 km.
  • Oct. 27 – Olveiroa to Muxia. 34 km.

At four o’clock on Friday afternoon I was following the trail through a grove of eucalyptus when I rounded a bend, the trees opened up, and there, in front of me, was the sea. The shock of it felt like a blow. My Camino was over. I still had several miles to walk – south until the trail curled around the entrance to a peninsula, then north again to Muxia, a little town where the peninsula ends – but that view of salt water was the moment when I stopped looking into the future as a place where I would be walking every day.

It is 791 kilometers from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago, then another 88 from Santiago to Muxia – 880 kilometers, more or less, or about 550 miles. I spent 39 days walking this distance, including five layover days in big cities. This means I walked for 34 days, averaging 25.9 km (16 miles) on every day I walked. This is only five or six hours of walking every day – enough time to feel fatigued, especially early in the journey, but little enough to have given me many luxurious hours in church courtyards and in the narrow canyons of ancient streets. In retrospect, I think my pace was about right.

I am struggling to find a way to describe the meditative aspect of doing so much walking that neither overstates the case – making the endeavor into a kind of search for Zen enlightenment – nor diminishes it, since it seems to me to have been the most important part of my journey across Spain. There is no direct analogy here to the disciplined meditation of the far East, that I have attempted a few times and failed at miserably; I almost never attempted to control my thinking while I was walking. What I’m talking about is much simpler than that.

Your feet hurt. The sun is hot. The pack straps are nipping at your shoulders. There is a large rock in front of you that you need to step around. A yellow flower. You plant your pole in the dirt and put a little weight on it. A figure far in front of you pauses and shades her eyes with her hand.

There was always room in my mind for more than this immediate experience, but, for hour after hour, whatever I might have been thinking was secondary. The important thing was the walking. Even the previous paragraph, in which I try to list sense impressions, conceptualizes them too strongly. These were not ideas so much as they were the workings of a healthy animal.

The intake of breath before laughing. The moment between stubbing your toe and the arrival of the pain. Realizing that the baby is asleep. A fresh stick of gum. When you know you’re going to sneeze, whether you like it or not. Uninterpreted life.

My insistence on this idea reveals, among other things, how easy my life has been. Most of my labor has been with my mind, or, sometimes, and often as a variety of entertainment, solving problems while using my hands. Almost entirely mindless physical effort has been rare and brief. I had a taste of it when walking the John Muir Trail, fifteen years ago, but that hike took only three weeks and covered less than half this distance. I had almost forgotten the value of the experience.

The mist clearing in the morning. Snails on fennel. The smell of smoke. White dust on your boots. A woman tucks her hair into her cap. Lichen on a bridge. Warm sweat on your back. Shreds of eucalyptus bark underfoot. A glimpse of the sea.

This is the last entry in my account of walking the Camino de Santiago. Writing it has been a pleasure. Thank you for giving me an audience.

The view of one of the cathedral’s towers as I left my hotel in Santiago.

I saw this graffito with great relief, since it was my first good indication that I was walking toward Finisterre – the end of the world.

The view back toward Santiago as the sun begins to rise.

Me and a way-marker.

A chicken atop a steep bank.

Wind turbines line all of the ridgetops between Santiago and the Atlantic.

I saw a number of German Shepherds that had been put to work as cattle dogs.

This must have been a nice little place before the roof fell in.

My first glimpse of the sea.

A surf fisherman.

Above Muxia.

This sanctuary, Virxe da Barca, marks the end of this branch of the Camino. It is at the tip of the peninsula, just above Muxia.

The end.

The Romance of the Genuine

  • Oct. 22 – Melide to Santa Irene. 30.3 km.
  • Oct. 23 – Santa Irene to Santiago de Compostela. 22.9 km.

A couple of days ago I met a man from England who was finishing his 14th Camino. We had both been awakened by the stir of early risers at the albergue in Santa Irene, 23 kilometers east of Santiago.

“Can you believe the rudeness?” he asked. “What is the point of getting out of bed at five o’clock in the morning? The sun doesn’t come up for more than three hours! And you’re going to wake up everybody else in the room, and why? Because you don’t care about other people, that’s why!”

The Camino isn’t what it once was, as far as Terry is concerned. The people who are sending their bags ahead or who are skipping sections are just cheating. “And yes, you can lie to the people who are giving out the Compostelas in Santiago, but they think they’re lying to God! Are they mad? I can’t conceive of it!”

Terry had just had the worst night’s sleep of his entire Camino, so it seemed right to cut him some slack. Also, I recognized this brand of invective. Too often, I hear words like this coming out of my own mouth.

I arrived in Santiago on Monday the 23rd, in the early afternoon on yet another beautiful day. I sat in the square in front of the cathedral, pulled off my boots, and watched pilgrims taking selfies and giving each other hugs. I didn’t recognize anyone in the crowd. The cathedral is covered by scaffolding on the outside and the altar on the inside is half obscured by tarpaulins; the aesthetics of this building, as a destination, are a let-down.

This cathedral is supposed to be home to the mortal remains of Saint James; that’s why people have been flocking to Santiago for the last 800 years. The story of how his bones got here is frankly ridiculous, but that hasn’t prevented millions of people over the centuries from walking enormous distances to get here. Me among them.

I’m not very clear about the fundamental nature of authenticity. If I had two big books on the desk in front of me, on the left a Shakespeare First Folio, and on the right a perfect facsimile of a First Folio, with no detectable difference between the two volumes, the book on the left would be a treasure, and the one on the right would be a curiosity. Even if there were no way to tell them apart. I believe this with no shadow of a doubt, despite how nonsensical it is to make such a distinction between identical objects. It’s pure muddle-headed romance.

Terry has an idea about the genuineness of a proper Camino that I don’t share. He thinks that walking every step of the way and carrying all your gear on your back is an actual Camino, and that every other variety is a shameful fake. I see what he means, when I think about my First Folios, but my example of the identical volumes proves to me that the most important thing about this sort of authenticity resides in my attitude, not in the things themselves.

I am sure that the bones in the cathedral, a hundred yards from where I’m typing these words, are only bones, and that even if they were the bones of a saint they would still be only bones. But that’s because I don’t have a romantic attitude toward sainthood or any faith in the reliability of the church. If I were an illiterate farmer, 500 years ago, these relics would not only have the romance of history, they would be a physical connection to heaven. A First Folio would be nothing by comparison to such a thing.

I tried to explain this point of view in conversation with my friend Xiang Hua, a week ago. She only laughed.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to continue my Camino. I will have to walk for three or four days to get to the Atlantic Ocean. I had been torn about whether to go to Finisterre or to Muxia, two common destinations among those of us who haven’t had enough walking when we get to Santiago, but Terry convinced me that Muxia is the place to go. He said it’s a pretty little town, right on the beach, where big waves come crashing down. This recommendation was enough for me.

If I were to go to Finisterre, I couldn’t actually get to the water; the bluffs leading down to the beach are too steep. But in Muxia, I can get my feet wet. If I go to Muxia and take off my boots and wade into the water, I will have walked all of the way across Spain. Not 99.9999% of the way. All of the way.

I know this is ridiculous. Don’t bother to point it out.

“But I swore I wouldn’t tell it and here I am tantalizing you.” She yawned gracefully in my face.
– The Great Gatsby

I am not a car guy, but look at this thing. Look at it.


The Camino opens up into the morning mist.

The view as the mist retreats.

The unfortunate facts about the cathedral and my face.

Receiving your compostela has all of the mystery and reverence of a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A typical breakfast, with my compostela in a tube.

The French guy who hissed while he palpated his blisters walked on those blisters all the way to Santiago.

I was lucky enough to witness the dramatic censer-swinging at this morning’s Pilgrim mass.

Approaching Santiago

  • Oct. 19 – Triacastela to Sarria. 18.3 km.
  • Oct. 20 – Sarria to Gonzar. 30.4 km.
  • Oct. 21 – Gonzar to Melide. 31.8 km.

The book had led me to believe that the town of Sarria might reward a few extra hours of exploration, so, despite the ridiculously short walk from Triacastela, I decided to spend the night there. But the book was wrong. Sarria has a few old buildings, but they were neither old enough nor interesting enough to tempt me to pause over them, particularly when I have spent the last month doing little else but walking and admiring old buildings.

By the time I realized that I didn’t really want to linger in Sarria, it was too late; I had already checked into an albergue. Since I had some unexpected time, I pulled out my guidebook and did a little figuring. The book divides the distance between Sarria and Santiago, roughly 120 km, into five stages; if I were able to do this in four stages, instead, that would buy me an extra day to spend at the end of the world, Finisterre. It would also knock me off the Brierly schedule, which might ameliorate the surge in pilgrims that supposedly crowds the Camino between Sarria and Santiago – Sarria being the last place of any consequence where a pilgrim can start walking and still receive a “Compostela,” which used to be a ticket out of Purgatory and now is simply a souvenir (unless I’m missing something).

So that’s what I’m doing. I’ll be in Santiago in two days.

The walking is lovely. The countryside here in Galicia is lush, even by the standards of my first day, when I crossed the Pyrenees. The oaks and chestnuts bend under the weight of their own history, the cows and chickens busy themselves with no concern for history at all, and the stone walls mutely and obstinately decline the opportunity to reveal anything to me. I can’t tell how old they are, I can’t tell what purpose the original buildings might have served, I can’t tell why or when the ruined buildings fell to pieces.

I spent last night in Gonzar, a town that appears to have been named after a Star Trek villain. I remembered that the town’s only private albergue was “Casa (some common Spanish surname)”, so when I saw a building with Casa Gonzales in wrought iron over the door, I walked right in. “Hola?” I called. Perhaps recepción was at the end of this hallway. As I approached the far side of the house that, it was quickly becoming apparent even to a fool like me, was a private residence through which I was traipsing unannounced and uninvited, I heard someone at the top of the stairs. The Spanish woman was very nice as she shooed me out of her home. Casa Garcia was right around the corner.

Tonight I’m in Melide, which I have hardly seen, because I’ve been busy with my laundry and other chores since I arrived. The narrow streets through which I walked on the way here may be worth visiting as the city comes to life after the siesta, and the old church may be pretty, and I may be able to find a good place to eat – all I know for sure is that the crowded room into which I was placed smells like eight or ten people who have just walked 500 miles. The windows are wide open, but that hasn’t helped.

I have taken a shower and done my laundry, so I can take some comfort in the knowledge that I am not to blame while I suffocate in the monkey-house reek.

At the suggestion of my brother, John, I have made an effort to take a few pictures of some of the people who have appeared in these posts. This has taught me that the people to whom you hand your camera when they offer to take your picture do not, as a general rule, have the slightest idea what they’re doing.


Acorns and ferns atop an old wall.

The Camino in Galicia.

The friendliest cat in Spain. I couldn’t get far enough away from him to get a decent picture.

This is the intelligent young woman who showed me her new pack in Leon. Her name is Xiang Hua. I have spent more time walking and talking with her than with anyone else I’ve met on this trip.

This is an hórreo, a way of storing corn away from water and rodents. They are everywhere in Galicia.

Here I am with the two “Jimmy Stewart” guys, John and Dave.

The priest whose bust I included in a recent post came up with the simple idea of marking the Camino with yellow arrows, whenever there is any doubt about which way to turn.

Entering Galicia

  • Oct. 16 – Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo. 24.1 km.
  • Oct. 17 – Villafranca del Bierzo to O’Cebreiro. 28.9 km.
  • Oct. 18 – O’Cebreiro to Triacastela. 20.7 km.

Ponferrada is famous for its twelfth-century Templar castle. The remains are largely intact and are stupefyingly vast; the idea that an enemy might ever have had the temerity to attack this place seemed ridiculous. An information placard, with a helpful English-language translation, said something like, “Between the 10th and the 15th centuries, castles like this were like the nuclear bombs of today. They were an excellent dissuasion.” I rolled that word around in my head for a while. “Dissuasion.” Is this an artifact of the translator having had recourse to a thesaurus, or is there a common Spanish word like “dissuasion” that made including it in the English translation seem natural?

The invention that brought an end to castles is the same thing that brought an end to the knight-errancy that Don Quixote loved: gunpowder. Cervantes has Don Quixote complain about how a bullet could go through his temple during a battle before he’d had the chance to display any courage at all. The technology that they used before gunpowder is still on display inside the castle; there is a heap of round rocks, each slightly larger than a bowling ball, near one of the walkways, and, under a nearby roof, a catapult, loaded and bent back by a rope, ready to go.

After touring the castle and buying the menú del dia at an ordinary restaurant in the square under the church, I returned to my sterile and unremarkable albergue at the edge of the medieval quarter.

The next morning, the pilgrims were abuzz. Had I been outside? How dangerous is it? Will it get worse? Should we simply take buses to Sarria? I spent some time that morning readying my most recent blog post, so I was slower than usual getting out of the albergue. A conversation with a young man at about 9:00 in the morning made me realize that the situation was interestingly serious. “Haven’t you noticed?” he asked. “It is 9 o’clock. The sun should have come up half an hour ago.”

Smoke from nearby wildfires had prevented the sunrise.

There was nothing to do but put on my pack, start walking, and see how it was out there. Ash fell onto my clothing and irritated my eyes. Most of the pilgrims who hadn’t used transportation to jump forward beyond the smoke were wearing dust masks or bandanas tied around their faces. I wasn’t very alarmed, though. The forecast was calling for rain, and the smoke, while undeniable, didn’t seem to be getting in the way of breathing. I walked for a while with a Chinese woman who was dismissive of the worries we’d been hearing. “Haven’t these people ever been to Beijing?!?” she asked.

My destination was a little town named Villafranca del Bierzo. It was barely visible in the murk as I descended the hill into town.

I chose an albergue based on its architectural façade, a strategy that often works, but which wasn’t very successful in Villafranca. The charming exterior of the building hid an grim and institutional interior, characterized by linoleum, generations of thick brown paint on every wooden surface, warning signs on every wall, and the smell of bleach. It was the kind of place where Jack Nicholson might be taken for a lobotomy. The crabby woman at Recepción pointed out places of interest as she led me up the stairs to my room. “La cocina,” she said, gesturing at the kitchen. “Okay,” I said. “La cocina,” she snarled, pointing at the kitchen again.* I had only two roommates: a chubby young man from eastern Europe who seemed never to put on a pair of pants, and a French guy who hissed and grimaced as he palpated his blisters.

I had dinner that night with the two men who have dubbed me Jimmy Stewart; these guys have been on exactly my schedule for a few days. We were joined by a young woman from Oxford who, as it turned out, was a big fan of Philip Pullman, and was excited by the news that the His Dark Materials trilogy was about to produce a fourth book – a mathematical peculiarity, but something to look forward to, nevertheless. She and I bonded over our fondness for the British sit-com, “Peep Show,” while one of the Canadians declared his allegiance to “Two and a Half Men.”

On the following morning, well before dawn, the French guy waddled to the window, opened the shutter, and said, “Écouter.” Rain was drumming on the roof outside. This was the first rain I’d experienced since leaving Bayonne, a month and 400 miles ago.

I had a spectacular walk out of Villafranca, up through bracken and oak, on an alternative scenic trail that I had completely to myself, along a ridge as the rain slackened and the clouds, suddenly calmer, poured placidly over low passes, and then down through miles of chestnut orchards, kicking the burrs in front of me as I walked. This route gained 1000 feet that the walkers who were down below didn’t have to face, but they were walking along a busy highway, and I was alone and surrounded by beauty and quiet. The smoke had been washed from the air and, as it turned out, the rain had extinguished the fires.

By midafternoon, I was climbing through hillsides that could almost have been in England’s Lake District. Villages full of slate-roofed houses, forests that are beginning to show fall color, and pasturage, high on the hills, each field neatly framed by an old stone wall. The views got better and better, the higher I climbed. I crossed the border into Galicia at 4:30 in the afternoon.

About 30 feet ahead of me, a Japanese woman uncorked a fart that sounded like a trumpet from Mordor – a high, dying wail, promising no pity and no remorse, heralding the death of all hope and culture and morality, a clarion of futility and despair. She stopped a few feet later and turned to me with a kind smile. “Buen Camino!” she said.

A few minutes later I was at O’Cebreiro, a tiny village at the crest of the ridge that was my destination for the day. I spent the night at O’Cebreiro’s municipal albergue, one of Galicia’s chain of government-inspired albergues which my guidebook characterizes as “one of the better examples of a rather uninspiring uniform design.” I wasn’t sure what that description meant until I carried my pack into a room that seemed to have been filled with long ranks of veal-fattening pens. This place didn’t even provide doors on the shower stalls. I may stay in a Galician municipal albergue again, but, whenever there is an alternative, I’ll take it.

Today was a very easy day – only 20 kilometers, mostly downhill, to yet another charming village of stone, slate, chestnut, and cow manure. I’m back on Brierly’s schedule, I’m sorry to say; if I had walked for another few hours today, I’d have been so close to the next big town, Sarria, that tomorrow’s walk would have been over by 10 in the morning.

Brierly divides the walk between this village, Triacastella, and Santiago de Compostela into six stages. Six days of walking. I expect to go a few days further, to Finisterre, but it remains the case that I am much closer to the end of this walk than I am to its beginning. I am not ready for this to be over.

* She had heard my “okay” as “Oh – que?” and was aghast at the stupidity of an American who had never seen a kitchen before.

An older couple enjoys the evening in Ponferrada.

The Camino, pilgrims, grapes, poplars, and smoke. I have not played with the color balance in any of the upcoming photos.

House, trees, and smoke.

The church at Villafranca del Bierzo, and smoke.

A good place to lobotomize Jack Nicholson.

The rain clears along the ridge as I leave Villafranca.

The first of what I’m sure will be too many pictures of cute little villages in northwestern Spain.


Looking back into the valleys out of which I had just climbed.

A bust in O’Cebreiro of Don Elias Valiña Sampedro (1929-1989), the parish priest whose efforts revitalized the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago.

The fattening pens in O’Cebreiro’s municipal albergue.

A statue of a pilgrim struggles with the wind at a high point on the trail. You can’t see them in this photo, but someone has applied Bandaids to his toes.

Another charming village.

This may be excessively obvious, but I’m not sure how else to caption this photo, so here goes: Cows.

Chestnut burrs remind me of Miyazaki’s soot sprites.

A nearby sign says that this chestnut tree is approximately 800 years old.


  • Oct. 15 – Astorga to Manjarin. 30.4 km.
  • Oct. 16 – Manjarin to Ponferrada. 22.8 km.

The Australians with whom I was sharing a room in Astorga started moving around before 5:00 AM. I spent about half an hour trying to convince myself that I could go back to sleep in the intervals between zipper pulls and headlamp flashes, but soon I was awake enough to understand the futility of this ambition. I groped my way out of Astorga in the dark, coming with some relief to a path at the edge of town that was unquestionably the Camino, and headed west into the mountains.

I had breakfast at an excellent bar in a little town whose name I never learned. I dropped my pack and hiking poles on the patio and strode inside, thinking about café con leche. “Hey!” said an older pilgrim at a corner table. “It’s Jimmy Stewart!”

The hills continue to get greener and woodier. I said something about this to a young woman whose stride matched mine for a few minutes.

“It’s nice to be out of the meseta, isn’t it?” I asked.

“I know!” she said. “What a relief! Finally, trees I can hide behind when I pee!”

This part of the Camino goes through Maragato country. The Maragato are or were a culture whose clothing, food, and architecture were unique to the area, but they appear to have all but vanished. The Maragato villages I walked through were largely abandoned; a hand-lettered sign saying Se Vende was propped up against a pile of rocks that hadn’t been a building for a very long time. In Astorga, tourists gather every hour in the square to watch two statues wearing Maragato costumes swivel mechanically to strike the hour with their hammers, in the least interesting display of technology I’ve witnessed since the last time I used toenail clippers.

At about three o’clock I reached a high point on the trail where a cross has been erected, the Cruz de Ferro. Pilgrims traditionally add a stone to the enormous heap that has grown at the base of this cross. I contributed a glassy green rock that I had carried out of the mountains on my most recent hike to Ingalls Lake; I have been carrying little fragments of this mineral away from Ingalls Lake ever since my first visit there, 45 years ago. I love those little green rocks, and now Spain has one.

My destination for the day was Manjarin, a ruined Maragato village that my guidebook says has a single occupant – Tomás, who is the hospitalero and keeper of the flame for the Knights Templar. Ever since seeing my wife’s photos of her stay in this place I’ve been itching to see it myself.

If, in some not very possible cataclysm, a gypsy camp, a hippie tree house, and a shocking number of flat rocks were violently conjoined, killing everyone except two of the hippies, one old gypsy man, and an indeterminate number of dogs, the disaster might produce something like Manjarin. I climbed up to the entrance, through the dust, over the uneven flagstones, past dozens of tattered flags, renderings of an Anglo-Saxon Jesus, something about Edgar Cayce, a wary white dog chained in a dirt yard and barricaded behind a couple of shovels that had been jammed between fenceposts, through a doorway made out of scraps, and into a “room” that seemed to be a souvenir shop, a religious sanctuary, a propaganda outlet for the Knights Templar, and a place where thirsty pilgrims could get water or coffee in exchange for a donation. No mention of lodging that I could see. There was one other pilgrim in there – a crazy guy I’d seen earlier, who muttered to himself and scratched vigorously at his badly sunburned pate. As I approached the refreshment table, he rasped “no coffee,” in minatory tones, but I just said, “De nada” and had a drink of water.

A bearded young man appeared and urged us to have something to drink. He did not mention the donation box at the end of the table. When I asked him about lodging, he shook his head dubiously and said, “Yes, but no electricity, no Wi-Fi, no…” He caught my eager look. “You want to see?” he asked, with happy surprise.

I slept in a building that must have been used at some point to store fodder or maybe to house animals. The other hippie, who had even less English than I have Spanish, explained that I should sleep in the loft, because he slept on the ground floor with his dogs. “They are my heart,” he explained, clutching his chest. The latrine was a squat-toilet outhouse across the road. There was no obvious source of water. I was the only guest.

Three or four dogs appeared to be running free. The hippies told me about life in Manjarin while the dogs milled about. “The mountains! So beautiful! The air! Leo! No!” A whirling mass of growling fur tumbled by. “No!” After the dogs had been separated. “It is so, no se, God has his arms…” He made a hugging motion. “We have no… Esteban! No! No!” Another dog fight is broken up.

I was told there would be a communal dinner at 7:00 or so. In the meantime, I hung around outside the “room,” using a pile of sticks as a pillow while I read Don Quixote, and making friends with the white dog who was chained up nearby. All he wanted was his freedom, and that, for some reason, was the thing he was being denied. The hippies sat at a table nearby, playing the guitar inexpertly and working on a song called “In Nomine Dei.” I assume that’s what it was called, anyway – that was the only lyric.

I met Tomás shortly before dinner. He was gruff, matter-of-factly monolingual, he wore camo pants and a down vest, and he was covered in what appeared to be an ancient and entirely unapologetic layer of dirt. A large coptic cross hung around his neck. At something like the appointed hour, he said something to me and made a gesture that implied I should follow him. Past a door marked “Reservado,” he disappeared into the darkness. When I hesitated, one of the hippies, who I hadn’t been able to see in the gloom, said, “Come, come” and welcomed me inside.

Dinner began with some discussion between Tomás and the hippies, but then settled down to silent eating. The room was lit with two LED lights and a candle; the result was a darkness that would have seemed oppressive to Homo antecessor. Bric-a-brac and bits of junk lurked menacingly in the shadows. Finally, one of the hippies asked me what I thought of Donald Trump, and the evening brightened.

People are not Spanish, and not Catalonian; people are humans. Korean guests are interesting but demanding. The recent hurricanes are probably the result of God being unhappy with Trump. Something about the Masons. No, none of the states in the United States are thinking about seceding. Not even Texas. Something about the Illuminati. Hippie 2 had made the dinner – delicioso! Mi gusta mucho!

I used a headlamp to make my way to my loft, stopping to conciliate the white dog, who had been alarmed by my unexpected appearance. I opened a bag of sunflower seeds that I’d been carrying for just such an occasion and used it to supplement the dinner I’d just been served.

I slept beautifully. At one point, Hippie 2, sleeping downstairs, yelled “Leo! No!”, but that was the only interruption.

Breakfast was a prepackaged sweet cake – something like a Twinkie without the filling – and yesterday’s cold coffee, poured from an enormous kettle with a twisted wire bail and a plastic handle that had melted into an oblong blob in some bygone misadventure. There had been an earthquake in South America, according to Tomás. This time, the fault was not attributed to our President. “It is evolution, natural,” said Hippie 1. “It is like, what is it, Neanderthal? And then, in one hundred years, you! Me!”

“Si,” I said. “Peut-être. I mean.”

“It is an aura,” said Hippie 1, and then something about astral planes. Hippie 2 said he thought I had an alma blanco, which translates to “white soul,” which I will take as a compliment, although he had no possible reason for making this judgment.

After packing my gear, I returned to the “room,” to say my goodbyes and stuff the donation box. The inhabitants of Manjarin were playing some kind of grand music over invisible speakers; think of Hail Freedonia as reimagined by John Williams. Then the hippies appeared, each carrying a medieval halberd, from which tattered flags hung halfway to the floor. And then Tomás arrived, carrying a sword. The hippies stood at attention behind Tomás while he addressed a statue of the Virgin, lifting the sword and bowing his head reverentially. This was not a show they were performing for their guest. This was a sacrament they performed every morning. They were doing their best to carry on the tradition of the Knights Templar – and, I suddenly realized, they were succeeding. They had fed and protected me, a complete stranger, purely because I am a pilgrim, and asked no more of me than I was freely willing to give. They were clawing a living out of a pile of rocks on a desolate ridgetop. Their sincerity legitimized them.

I stopped to say goodbye to the white dog. “You’re a good boy,” I said, scratching his ears. “I’m sorry about what has happened to you. I hope you have a good life. I will never see you again.” The dog looked into my face and wagged his tail, and my eyes filled with unexpected tears.

Another Santiago Pelegrino.

A ruined Maragato house.

An enlargement of the lintel in the photo above, into which are carved the words, “Calle Real No. 4 Ano d. 1841”

These little crocuses have been constant companions along the Camino.

A gargantuan bumblebee perpetuates the species.

Poor Sara.

My green rock from Ingalls Lake.

The Cruz de Ferro.

The home of the Knights Templar in Manjarin.

A ruined home in Manjarin.

I slept in the loft of this stone barn.

Sunset. Nearby wildfires have colored the sky.

The latrine at Manjarin.

Approaching Ponferrada, the town where I am writing these words. If you look carefully, you can see a black kitten watching me from the lower window.

My Sunshine

  • Oct. 12 – León to Hospital de Órbigo. 36 km.
  • Oct. 13 – Hospital de Órbigo to Astorga. 17 km.

I caught a glimpse of the back of my neck while stepping into the shower last night. It’s as brown as a chestnut. My left forearm is starting to look like a hairy salami. I carry and even use sunscreen, but I always wait until the sun has been up for a while before I apply it. A Seattle couple I’ve gotten to know on the trail agreed that getting an even tan on the Camino is impossible, because the sun is on our left – in the south – all day long. To get any sun on the right halves of our bodies, we’d have to walk backwards to Santiago.

A couple of days ago, I was sitting in the square in front of León’s cathedral, munching on something to tide me over until restaurants started serving dinner at 8:00, when an intelligent young woman I’d met briefly at Castrojeriz sat down next to me. She had just bought herself a new daypack, which she displayed proudly, pointing out its clever features. Like many pilgrims, she is having her main pack shipped forward from spot to spot, to make the walking easier; she needed the daypack for snacks, water, sunscreen, stray bits of first-aid, and so on. After a few minutes of chatting, she invited me to join her and her Canadian friends for a drink, down at Plaza Mayor. “Sure!” I agreed, with what I hoped was a convincing display of bonhomie.

Her Canadian friends were about a dozen people, many of them retired, all of whom appeared to be delighted to see us. One of them decided that I look and sound just like Jimmy Stewart – a comparison that seems to me to be at exactly the midpoint in the Steve Buscemi – George Clooney continuum. It was as though I’d been complimented for my inoffensiveness.

Then somebody asked, “Where’s Ray?”

“Ray Sunshine?” asked one of the retirees, who then explained to me that this man’s name was “Ray,” but that they’d added “Sunshine” because he was happy all the time.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“Hey!” chirped another retiree. “Let’s sing!”

So, as the sun was setting in Plaza Mayor, I joined these people in three verses of “You Are My Sunshine.”

When they all decided to go off to find dinner someplace, I demurred. I needed to find a quiet spot where I could scrape off some of the wholesomeness.

I walked a lot of miles yesterday. I wanted to spend the night in Hospital de Órbigo, because it is the site of “one of the longest and best-preserved medieval bridges in Spain,” and also because it is relatively close to Astorga; I figured that an early start in Hospital de Órbigo this morning would give me more time in Astorga, which is a bona-fide tourist destination.

The walk to Hospital de Órbigo hinted at changes to come. Everything is just a little greener than it has been since leaving Burgos. Hills have reappeared, and the valleys between them are full of life. It’s a relief.

The bridge at Hospital de Órbigo is the site of a famous jousting tournament from 1434. I’ll quote the guidebook again:

A noble knight from León, Don Sueno de Quiñones, scorned by a beautiful lady, threw down the gauntlet to any knight who dared to pass as he undertook to defend the bridge (and presumably his honour) against all comers. Knights from all over Europe took up the challenge. Don Sueno successfully defended the bridge for a month, until the required 300 lances had been broken. Together with his trusted comrades, he then proceeded to Santiago to offer thanks for his freedom from the bonds of love and for his honour, now restored!

This is brainless and nonsensical in such a Don Quixote-y way that crossing the bridge made me feel like a character from bad fiction. Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, maybe – except, instead of being afraid of heights, I’m afraid of lengths, like this long bridge! Yeah, that’s the ticket.

I toured Astorga’s Palacio Episcopal when I got here today – a neo-Gothic edifice designed by Antonio Gaudi. It’s spectacular and other-worldly, like all of Gaudi’s work, but it doesn’t rise to the inventiveness of the work I’ve seen in Barcelona, in which he seems to have generated an entirely new aesthetic vocabulary. It was a pleasure to spend some time with such a genius. Now, having checked into an albergue and readied this latest post, I think I’ll go back out into the streets. Places will be starting to open up after the siesta soon, and the sun won’t be setting for hours. Maybe I can work on my right-side tan.

Peter and Ann, Australian pilgrims of my acquaintance, in León.

An innovative design sense.

Una silla en un campo.

The bridge at Hospital de Órbigo.

A peregrino that someone made from trailside rocks.

The key to the essence is the presence. This is one of those phrases whose nouns can be rearranged without changing the meaning at all.

A Roman mosaic under the streets of Astorga.

Gaudi’s Palacio Episcopal.

Typical Spanish

  • Oct. 9 – Sahagún to Reliegos. 30.6 km.
  • Oct. 10 – Reliegos to León. 24.3 km.
  • Oct. 11 – Rest day in León.

Sahagún was once an important town, my guidebook says, but “owing to the lack of stone for building purposes, many of the grand edifices were constructed with brick and, accordingly, many have disappeared.” I found an albergue by following my usual practice, of walking through town until the architecture became interesting, then checking my “Camino Pilgrim” Android app for the nearest place to stay. In Sahagún, this meant that I walked all the way through town, to the decayed remains of the Iglesia San Tirso, and then checked in next door. This albergue, El Labriego (“The Farmworker”), is a bar/restaurant next to the street with an albergue behind. That night a party started in the bar. A saucy, dark-haired woman in a tight rayon dress was encouraging everyone to dance and sing to the flamenco that was blasting out of the speakers. People were undulating and singing and clapping their hands and stomping their feet and shouting and waving cervesas when the proprietor, flushed and happy, gestured at the dark-haired woman, bent to my ear, and roared, “Typical Spanish!”

The next morning was cold. I walked for the first half hour with my poles tucked under one arm and my hands jammed in my pockets. The sun, when it finally rose, revealed even more nothing than usual; endless empty fields, and a path that paralleled the road for the entire day. The day ended in Reliegos, a town so small and insignificant that my usual method for finding lodging didn’t work at all; there was no interesting architecture to use as a starting point. I sat at a streetside table at the only open café, watching emaciated cats mince warily by, and wrote an email to a friend in which I described the place as “a genital wart on the 312th extra in a battle scene of a Bible epic that flopped at the box office of a town.” Sorry to quote myself, but I wanted to use that phrase more than once in my life.

I had breakfast the following morning in a lovely little town surrounded by a nearly complete medieval wall. From there, John Brierly, the author of the guidebook, encourages his readers to take a bus to León, rather than walk the remaining 18 kilometers through the city’s outskirts. John Brierly has walked the Camino more than a dozen times; it’s hard for me to imagine that he would offer this advice if he hadn’t become so casual about the idea of walking across Spain. And besides, the industrial outskirts of León aren’t so bad if you walk through them while listening to a podcast in which someone tells a story about the time Jim Morrison and Mama Cass Elliot came over to his house and danced with his performing circus monkey.

I came into León with no preconceptions. I knew it was a city large enough to justify a rest day, and that it possessed a cathedral, but that was all I knew. I didn’t know about its largely intact medieval wall, with long stretches that date back to the Romans, or about its enormous historic center, full of winding, narrow streets, jammed with cafes and tourists, or about the Museo Panteon San Isidoro de León, where I was shown an object that some people believe is the actual Holy Grail, and an 11th century frescoed ceiling, in superb condition and entirely unrestored, that is called “the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque Art,” or about the superb cathedral, whose perfect gothic vaults and more than 1400 square meters of medieval stained glass made spending an hour there feel too short. Everything in León closes at 2:00, so I returned to my hotel to update this blog before returning to the streets.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be getting out of bed before sunrise and walking out of this city, likely never to see it again. This thought would hardly be bearable, except that it is only by leaving that I can see all the interesting things that are waiting for me a day or two down the road. I wish I had a memory that might give me some consolation in 2047 – that might allow me to stop worrying for a few minutes about why the nurse is trying to poison me, relax against the bed restraints, and replay days like today in León.

Bicyclists on the Camino at dawn.

A typical view.

This rest area, although it has no water and no shade, does boast one sapling that is not yet dead.

Catalan independence doesn’t seem to be popular in northern Spain.

This part of the Camino is between the guardrail and the stripe of white paint.

The medieval wall at León.

The harrowing loneliness of the blower of giant bubbles.

Don’t Throw Me in the Brierly Patch

  • Oct. 6 – Castrojeriz to Frómista. 25 kilometers.
  • Oct. 7 – Frómista to Calzadilla de la Cueza. 36 kilometers.
  • Oct. 8 – Calzadilla de la Cueza to Sahagún. 22.6 kilometers.

After half an hour of being ignored inside a fly-blown restaurant in a tiny village whose name, Calzadilla de la Cueza, I hope never to type again, I moved outside, to the plastic tables where I could hear pilgrims talking and drinking. Nobody paid any attention to me out there, either. Is it a hygiene problem? Do I look too well-fed? Are there secret hand signals that no one has taught me? If someone had approached me, I would have given them money, hoping that they might be grateful enough to bring me a beer – the profit motive should have brought camereros to my table with all the avidity of the moscas that seemed so fond of the end of my nose.

But then I overheard an American say that he was going to move inside, since it was after seven and the dining room was open. How did he know that? And why, during the half hour I spent sitting in there, did no one approach me to tell me it was closed?

I ended up sharing a table with Ardesh, a Hungarian who had driven his car to Pamplona and is now bicycling the Camino with his little white dog. He has an ingenious trailer rigged up for his dog, but the dog hates it, so now the trailer contains all of Ardesh’s gear and the dog rides in a pack on Ardesh’s back. We talked about camping, dogs, the difficulties of learning languages – a wide range of things. He said that living in Hungary isn’t so good, because of the politics. “But of course, you in America now…” he said, with a meaningful look. “You are so right,” I agreed, with a rueful countenance.

Ardesh told me that Hungary has a problem with Gypsy communities that are insular and poorly integrated with the rest of Hungarian society. “They do not want to educate,” he said, “And they do not want to mix with people who are not Gypsies. It is like your American problem with negroes.” After a moment of shock, I realized that, despite all the nuances I wanted to use to modify this, and the uncountable exceptions, I agreed with Ardesh more than I disagreed with him. Ardesh thinks that the solution to Hungary’s Gypsy problem is desegregation. Despite how poorly it has worked in the United States, I continue to believe something similar about race problems in America. By the time the apple tart arrived, Ardesh and I had solved some pressing social issues. We licked our forks clean with real satisfaction.

I’m glad I didn’t leave in a huff before dinner, as I’d been thinking of doing, back when I was swatting flies and feeling ignored. I said something about the importance of patience in my last post; I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I’m in too big a hurry to look it up right now.

I’m more sympathetic now than I was a few days ago to the comment I quoted earlier, that doing the Camino across the meseta was like “walking across Kansas.” There isn’t much to look at out here. Even the fields are only theoretically interesting: “Here’s where they might grow wheat, although now there is only stubble.” “Here’s where they must grow sunflowers, judging by the withered debris.” “Here is a vast expanse of dirt.” It’s dull. This also helps illuminate another comment, which I may have heard for the first time in Roncesvalles: “The first part of the Camino is physical, the second part is mental, and the last part is spiritual.” This is the mental part, all right. Thank God for podcasts.

John Brierly’s book on walking the Camino is the universal reference among English-speakers out here. Yesterday, when I reached the little town where he suggested pilgrims spend the night, it was only about 1:00 in the afternoon. His typical day’s walk is a little more than 20 kilometers. At about three miles per hour, I cover 20 kilometers in four hours – the time between leaving my albergue in the morning and lunchtime. My blisters are under control, my legs feel good, and walking is the new normal. Even though the next town was another 17 kilometers down the road, I decided to go for it.

By the time the little town whose name I will not type hove into view, I’d walked more than 22 miles – a new high for this little adventure, and something I haven’t done often at any time in my life. It was surprisingly untraumatic to just keep walking all day long. I kept expecting to have some physiological reaction – collapse, cramping, uncontrollable weeping, something – but instead I just washed my laundry outside in the sink, played with a curly-haired puppy, and got irritated at camereros.

I stopped at about 1:00 today, partly because I need to divide the stages between here and León, the next big city, into reasonable chunks, partly because I thought I should be careful about my legs, despite how good they feel, and partly because this town, Sahagún, is full of ruins from the days of the Knights Templar. It turns out that there’s another good reason for staying here, though – this town is not one of John Brierly’s recommendations for places to spend the night. What this means is that I am no longer part of the wave of pilgrims that washes from one of his recommendations to the next. All of a sudden, I am not part of a big group of pilgrims in Spain. I’m just in Spain. All of a sudden, the Camino is relatively empty. This is much better.

A marker outside my albergue here in Sahagún says that I’m halfway to Santiago. I’m just getting warmed up!

A view from the hilltop castle in Castrojeriz. The road pointing at 1 o’clock from the church is the Camino.


Walking into the moonset while leaving Castrojeriz, early in the morning.

The sun begins to rise on the meseta.

Another lovely old church.

The Camino became less crowded when I stopped following Brierly’s schedule. The nearest pilgrim in this photo is at the crest of the road, between the trees.

This photo encompasses the entire village where I spent the night last night.

This scarecrow’s sign reads, “Good Roadicant Any More.”

A waymarker as I approached my current town, Sahagún.

Spanish kittens roll their r’s while they chew on my fingers.

Beginning the Meseta

  • Oct. 4 – Burgos to Hornillos del Camino. 20.6 km.
  • Oct. 5 – Hornillos del Camino to Castrojeriz. 19.7 km.

The meseta has a bad reputation among pilgrims. The word means “plateau” – it is a high, arid region where agriculture is often reduced to barley, oats, and rueful countenances*, and where the sun can be unforgiving at the height of summer. The name of the village where I spent last night, for example, translates to “Little Furnace of the Camino.” I had heard that there is little shade and little to look at, for the entire trek between Burgos and Astorga – perhaps ten days of hiking. One American I met told me that he had heard it was “like walking across Kansas.”

After having spent two days on the meseta, it seems to me that the warnings and complaints I’ve heard have probably been coming from that large class of people who cherish their opportunities to warn and complain. It is true that there is little to look at, I suppose, but every time a ruin or a town, or even a tree, heaves itself up onto the horizon, it appears to have been framed there on the skyline by the entire universe, just to help us remember to admire it. And I’m sure the heat is terrible in August – but it’s October. I’m enjoying myself.

Yesterday, for the first time, people started asking me how many times I’ve done the Camino. It’s possible that we have started to leave behind the people who were unable, through training or luck, to reach the 200-mile mark**, or maybe those of us who have elected to walk across the meseta (instead of taking a bus, as so many pilgrims do) are the type to have done this multiple times. We are the people who laugh when we see the graffito that is scratched into an underpass, back by Logroño: “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? WHY?”

I have seen a few people who have been taken off the Camino by injuries. One woman was led out of the albergue by medical professionals at San Juan de Ortega because she was no longer able to put any weight on one of her ankles, and yesterday an American woman started the day feeling fine but, by the end, had developed a knee problem that left her hardly able to manage a flight of stairs. On the other hand, some people whose sphericity would never allow you to mistake them for athletes are still chugging along uncomplainingly. A woman I met in Roncesvalles had had knee surgery relatively recently, but there she was, at the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos. A woman of 79 or 80 is walking the Camino for what I believe she said is her 18th time; yesterday she took a hard fall, but tonight she is here at my albergue, chatting happily with her fellow pilgrims about the dinner they’re serving us tonight. People are inspirational.

The best thing about the last few days has been the people I’ve met, who have always been friendly and, unsurprisingly, committed to muscle-powered entertainment. I’ve been making an effort to hang onto people’s names – never an easy thing for me – and the effort is paying off. Just this afternoon, while resting in the shade in the courtyard of a lovely old church, a young woman in a floppy hat appeared around a corner and said, “Hi, Jim!” “Hi, Anna-Marie,” I was able to triumphantly reply.

Other people seem to have a much better idea of their schedules than I. More than once, I’ve been forced to admit that I had no idea where I was going to spend the night, even though I’d already been hiking for hours. Just yesterday I was shocked to discover that I was arriving at the destination I had been shamed into establishing, Hornillos del Camino, at noon, having covered my 20 kilometers since breakfast without really noticing. The next reasonable stopping point was another 10 km down the road, though, and the town seemed nice, so I called it a day. I had an excellent communal dinner at the albergue, and met people from Seattle, Tasmania, Florida, the Netherlands, Australia, and Ottawa; it’s hard to believe that I lost anything by spending the afternoon there.

Another communal dinner is scheduled for 7:00 tonight, at the albergue here in Castrojeriz. I plan to devote the next couple of hours to visiting the ruined castle on the hill above the town; if I leave at 5:00, I should have left the worst of the day’s heat behind me, and I should have no trouble getting back in time for dinner. I have asked two people about how to get up there, and both of them have told me to walk along the road. My map shows a trail network, though, and the aerial photographs show trails, too, so to hell with their stupid “local knowledge.” What could go wrong?

I would close by telling you where I’ll be spending the night tomorrow, and how distant it is, but honestly I have no idea.

* I am reading Don Quixote for the first time. Don Quixote has been dubbed “The Knight of the Rueful Countenance” by Sancho Panza.

** Having just done the math, I have learned that Castrojeriz is 203 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port, where I started the Camino. Passing 200 miles feels like an achievement.

A tree, framed by the universe on the meseta.

Approaching Hornillo del Camino.

Moonrise last night.

Leaving Hornillos del Camino early this morning. I met the pilgrim on the left moments after taking this photo; her name is Astrid, she has four daughters, she was born four meters below sea level, in Haarlem, she has retired from the Canadian diplomatic service, and she, by her own account, “cannot lose an argument about health care policy that is based on facts.”

The road goes through the ruins of this 15th-century convent.

Approaching Castrojeriz. That’s the hilltop castle I’m planning to visit as soon as I finish up here.

This is a different and more peaceful image of St. James than Santiago Matamoros. This shows him as Santiago Pelegrino. Note the scallop shells that decorate his robes – still a standard part of a pilgrim’s equipage.


  • Oct. 1 – Belorado to San Juan de Ortega. 24.1 km.
  • Oct. 2 – San Juan de Ortega to Burgos. 24.9 km.
  • Oct. 3 – Layover day in Burgos

I accidentally put a thumb through the side of one of my few pairs of underpants. This seems like a bad omen, although I am not at all sure what it portends. I may have read an old Spanish saying, Es un hombre sabio que entiende completamente las aperturas en su ropa interior. Or I may have made that up.

There is only one albergue in the tiny village of San Juan de Ortega, which is a 25-kilometer hike from the city of Burgos. This albergue is built into an ancient monastery; to get to the WC, I needed to go out into the colonnaded central courtyard, whose red stone sobriety was only slightly marred by all the washing that had been hung out to dry.

After finding a bunk and changing my clothes, I visited the village’s only café, where I asked the man behind the counter if he could heat up my empanada. “Caliente?!” he roared. “Nonono. Si caliente…” he mimed something growing to the size of a basketball, puffing out his cheeks. “Entonces,” he intoned, and then mimed a basketball squelching down to the size of an overripe mango, complete with a long farting sound. I took it at room temperature, you can be sure.

Attending mass wasn’t exactly a prerequisite for getting dinner at the albergue, but it might as well have been. Since the dinner served by the albergue is the only option in San Juan de Ortega – and since I was sure the mass would be interesting – I was happy to go.

Every word was in Spanish, of course, so I didn’t catch much beyond the concluding “Buen Camino,” and the service lacked the censer swinging and monotonous droning that I’d been hoping for. At one point, a Spanish-speaking pilgrim was supposed to read the next part of the service, but she had lost her place in the printed program; the priest stepped forward and, while he was guiding her to the right spot, someone started booming out the words from the back. It was the “don’t heat an empanada, for the love of God” guy from the café. The priest returned to his place, giving the woman who had lost her chance a smile and an apologetic shrug. Often being right is less useful than being patient.

During the quiet parts of the service I had started to enjoy some self-pity about my tinnitus, but then realized that the man standing next to me was wearing a hearing aid that appeared to weigh half a pound and which featured a plug that entered his skull slightly behind his ear.

Despite my nearly complete incomprehension, I was moved by the matter-of-fact performance of a ritual that everyone there had been through thousands of times, and, despite this casual familiarity, the unmistakable seriousness of it – the attention of the congregants and the concentration of the priest. Everything mattered.

The walk to Burgos started more than an hour before sunup. It threatened to rain a few times, but the occasional drops never even became a drizzle. It took a few hours to leave the uninhabited forest in which San Juan de Ortega is a kind of oasis. For 12 kilometers or so, this village is the only sign that anyone has ever lived along the Camino. This was probably a dangerous stretch of road, back in the Middle Ages; people must have traveled in groups as protection against thieves.

I passed a young couple with whom I had shared a room in Belorado: Alan, from Dublin, and a Swedish woman whose name may be Angelica or Evangeline. We exchanged a few pleasantries before I left them behind.

When I arrived in Burgos, I snagged the first cheap hotel I could find and then went for a walk through the old quarter. I was having a beer at a streetside café when – there they were! Alan and Evangelica! We exchanged a few pleasantries before I went off to tour the cathedral. A few hours later, I found a “cheap eats” restaurant that was well reviewed on TripAdvisor, climbed the stairs to the packed dining room, and – there they were again! This time, though, they hadn’t seen me, and I was plumb out of pleasantries, so I made my escape. My nightly attempts to find food are always stressful experiences for me – the last thing I needed was the added stress of having to be friendly. With people.

There is obviously something wrong with me.

On my way to Burgos from San Juan de Ortega, I walked through the little village of Atapuerca, which is famous for the remains of hominids that have been found in nearby caves. Today I toured the excellent Museum of Human Evolution here in Burgos, where the Atapuerca finds are discussed in clear, detailed English, and where the fossils themselves are shiver-inducing. I had an excellent lunch in the restaurant I fled from last night, and now I am catching up on this narrative while the city readies itself for its nightly revelries.

Tomorrow I’m setting off across the meseta – Spain’s high central plateau. It will be eight days with little shade and little to look at, I hear, before the next big town. I expect it to be challenging, but I’m also eager to start walking again.

Say a prayer for my underpants.

The door to San Juan de Ortega’s albergue is at the left side of this photo.

This visitor helped me with my empanada crumbs.

I flipped this beetle onto his legs when I found him upsidedown on the trail. He got back to work without a word of thanks.

A sylvan scene outside Burgos.

The cathedral at Burgos.

I am not sure what Saint Jeronimo is worried about here, but I think he might want to take a break.

The view straight up inside the cathedral.

Santiago Matamoros – Saint James, the Moor Slayer.