I was dreading the 11th day on the Camino Invierno since long before I began in early September. Each of the guides I used to plan my walk have one thing in common: the stage between Chantada and Rodeiro sounds ominous, featuring the single longest climb along the way. It’s the ascent of Monte Faro, the highest elevation on the Invierno. If a guide mentions alternate routes in order to avoid the climb, it raises your anxiety. But descriptions of the views from the mountain’s summit are luring, so I never give a serious thought to anything but tackling that climb.
The day starts in my private castle in the hills above Chantada. I call it “private” since, like many other places along this Camino, I’m the only guest staying there. Plus, it really is a small castle with thick stone walls, a courtyard and a tower. I had fallen asleep early last night, so I’m up early as well. Consulting my map to lay out the details for the day ahead I realize that I’m 5km outside the town from where the route starts. Now I’m not only dreading the looming climb but also the fact that my imprecise booking of the past night’s lodging – comfortable as it was – would add more distance and length of time to this day.
At 8am I enter the dining room and find a single place setting in a spacious facility that typically holds weddings or other festive events. This morning it’ll just be a humble breakfast. The hostess, Maria, speaks no English and my Spanish is limited. She asks about my plans and when I say that I’m walking to Rodeiro over Monte Faro, Maria becomes concerned and almost motherly. She has to drive into Chantada soon and insists that I ride with her. Normally I’d reject that offer, but today, with what’s before me, I graciously accept and quickly determine where I’ll start walking… at a prominent church in the town. Somehow that sounds right to me, almost penitential for accepting two rides from Maria, one last night and one this morning. By the time we leave the “Pazo do Pineiro” a morning fog was lifting.
Where the field path ends and the climb starts is the charming hamlet called Pensillas. It’s approaching noon and this is definitely a place to take a rest. I choose a bench where I can sit for a while, taking the weight off my back before starting the dreaded climb. Then I spot a cafe across the small village plaza, but it appears to be closed. Still I wander over to check it out. A beaded mesh to keep insects out covers the door, and when I look through it the door appears to be ajar. I push it open and go inside. It’s a welcoming-looking cafe/bar but without people. I call out “hola” and moments later an aproned friendly woman appears from around the back. While she’s making a Cafe con Leche for me, I go to fetch my pack from the village bench.
A few minutes later, a scene from the previous day repeats itself, the three friends from Seville walk in, just as they had followed my arrival at the Diomondi chapel yesterday. In the awkward way we had communicated before they now tell me that one of their group has serious nosebleeds. My old Army Medic instincts kick in, and I try to explain a simple solution of putting a cotton ball between the lip and gums to apply pressure to the blood vessels that might be source of the flow. I pull out my first aid kit which contains some cotton gauze, good enough. Ten minutes later they’re back on the trail and I begin to roust myself to get going as well. But before I’ve paid and am out the door they walk back in. The bleeding started again. I have no more solutions, and since time is slipping, I wish them well, especially the nosebleed sufferer, then bid ”adios” and move out.
The climb up the mountain isn’t as ominous as advertised. Yes it’s long, and it’s a steady uphill, mostly on a paved road. While the grade is fairly steep, I recall the previous day’s climb up through the vineyards after crossing the Minho, to have been much steeper. Still, I need to use my tried and true technique of climbing a short distance, followed by a momentary rest to catch my breath and let my heart rate slow down. Then on again, repeating this pattern almost rhythmically for several miles.
Along the road leading to Pensillas, and here on the track up the mountain, ancient carved stone markers appear in irregular increments of several hundred meters. They are called “petos de las animas” and are medieval shrines or ways markers. Due to the passage of centuries and exposure to the elements, the inscriptions – both images and words – are difficult to make out, but I know from the guides that they tell the fate of souls in purgatory. As though making a pilgrimage isn’t difficult enough, long-ago church leaders invested great efforts in reminding believers of the harsh consequences of falling out of line.
Perhaps more uplifting are the series of stone markers that line the last two hundred meters of the climb, the “Stations of the Cross.” In fact this very steep ascent on a worn grassy slope is marked by multiple stone crosses alternating on the left and right sides of the hill as it approaches the “Ermita de Nosa Señora do Monte do Faro,” the stout granite chapel that sits at the nearly 1200 meter summit of the mountain. Despite the fact that this is my third pilgrimage with deep religious history, I’m not a religious person. Yet, the moment moves me to whisper a silent prayer during my climb up through these crosses. Several friends are in distress with illnesses, and it’s the very least I can do to use this moment to raise them, even in my awkward and small way, to a higher power that may influence their conditions. Personally, though, I’m immensely relieved and, yes, proud to have finally reached the summit. It’s also the geographic center of Galicia, and in the clear afternoon air of this mid-September day I can see in all directions of this region of Spain.
But there’s more walking to be done; I’m still nearly five miles from the day’s end in the town of Rodeiro. After a brief but thoughtful rest by the “Cruzeiro” in front of the chapel, I begin my descent. For reasons that I still can’t explain I am disoriented and have a difficult time figuring out the most direct path off the mountain and westward toward Rodeiro. In these moments I consult the “maps” app on my phone. It tells me that I simply need to climb up a relatively short rise on my left and then continue, presumably downward, until the path eventually intersects with a road that leads to my destination. This climb is easy, and all the while I can see its top.
When I reach that point, though, I’m shocked by what I see. It’s a very steep and extremely rocky drop-off at the bottom of which, the app assures me, is the road that I need to reach. I no longer debate with myself how I’ve managed to get myself into this pickle, but as I’m running out of energy and time I commit to getting through this obstacle safely. Safe, in this case, means SLOW. I evaluate every step and test the stones I’ll be stepping on for stability. Not all pass the test. Poles are essential on this precarious descent, especially with the added weight of the pack on my back and the distortion it creates to my normal center of gravity. My greatest fear, and not the first time on this Camino, is falling and hurting myself. I’m totally alone and out of range where I could call for help. So I go as slowly as necessary to be safe and after nearly an hour I can see the road not far ahead. I’ve made it, I think. Then, on a short flat stretch of densely vegetated berm aside the road, my feet get entangled in a thorny vine and I fall hard… but thankfully into a bush. After a few choice curse words I assess the damage and it’s very minor. Nothing is broken, nothing is twisted, but the thorns and the bush have perforated both legs enough to cause multiple trickles of blood. None are serious enough for bandaids but I do pull out my first aid kit – second time today – to clean the affected areas. Then it’s time to move on, and now it’s just on a paved and empty road.
Two hours later, by 7pm with still plenty of light, I arrive in a very unremarkable town and soon locate the bar and hotel where I had booked a room. After a much-needed shower I go down to the bar to rehydrate and wind down before the very spartan dining room is opened at 8:30. Just as I leave 45 minutes later to return to my room I spot one of the three men I had crossed paths with in Pensillas. In our awkward way of communicating he fills me in on his friends. None of them walked any further. The other two, including the nose bleed sufferer, called a cab and went back to Chantada to catch a bus and then trains back to Seville. This one has an uncle in Rodeiro, so he took a cab to here and would be going back home as well the next day.
I’m not sure what it says about the Camino Invierno – or me – but the only other pilgrims I’ve had any connection with in more than a week, and it was only very briefly, went no further. As for me, I feel like the hardest sections are now behind me, and I am more determined than ever to finish it… on my feet.