Today is March 30th, 2020, some six months since I finished walking the Camino Invierno. For reasons I can’t quite explain, my motivation and energy to write had drained out of me two months ago when I finished my previous blog post. In that story, titled “Overcoming Dread and a Mountain,” I wrote of my physical, and to a lesser extent emotional, exhaustion from the traverse of the Invierno’s longest climb to the highest point on this particular Camino route. “Monte Faro” took it out of me, and as I reported, it eliminated the only three fellow pilgrims with whom I’d had any interaction over ten days. Even that bit of human contact was very brief. It consisted of me trying to help one of the trio with a persistent nosebleed, an affliction that caused all three friends from Seville to stop their journey that day. No doubt, by this time the loneliness of this long walk was wearing on my spirit, yet I still had several more days to go before reaching my destination of Santiago de Compostela, the city in whose “Praza do Obraidoro” (the plaza fronting the landmark cathedral) all Caminos de Santiago come to an end. I also needed to bring my telling of the story of the Invierno to an end, but I’d lost the drive.
This being the end of March 2020, readers know that our world has changed within just a matter of weeks as the normal patterns of our lives have ended, giving way to social distancing, confinement around our homes, and disruption of our economic activities. Nothing is the way it was just at the start of March.
In the cycle of the Caminos, this is normally the time of year when a trickle of hardy pilgrims begins leaving Saint Jean Pied de Port in southern France or Porto in Portugal, heading toward Santiago, 800 or 250 kilometers away. The smaller numbers that go the less-traveled routes, including the Invierno as the least traveled, typically start somewhat later in the season. By May, though the most popular Camino routes – the Frances and the Portugues – are fully alive with energy, high spirits, and budding friendships among the pilgrims plus a lively commercial hubbub among the store keepers and hospitality vendors in communities along “The Way.” None of that is happening this year. The Coronavirus outbreak hit Spain particularly hard. A nationwide lockdown quickly blocked the path of all pilgrims that were already underway, forcing them to end their journeys from one day to the next, and it derailed the planning and preparation of tens of thousands of others who had chosen this year to fulfill their Camino dreams. Sadly no one knows when these dreams might be realized. Pilgrims have regular lives, families and jobs, and taking several weeks up to two months to complete such a journey is not easy to reschedule. If these hopes are pushed into 2021, they’ll coincide with a Holy Year on the Catholic Church calendar, and the masses that might seek to take pilgrimages then could easily overwhelm the capacity of the trails and the communities along them.
All this – plus the unexpected gift of time – is background for why I finally found the motivation to wrap up my story of the Invierno. Though few potential readers are likely planning to take the Invierno – hence it’s nickname, “Camino Solitario” – I dedicate this post to all pilgrims, particularly those who still dream of walking when their opportunities arise. To avoid the inevitable crowds on the more travelled routes, perhaps more pilgrims will choose the Invierno, making it less solitary. It’ll be just as beautiful and rewarding, both spiritually and physically.
I begin now in Rodeiro, the “unremarkable town” as I called it in my prior post, where my long day traversing “Monte Faro” had ended.
On some days a pilgrimage is simply a very long walk. Not every day is memorable for its difficulty, its unique surprises, or unexpected encounters. I’ve had all of these – except very few human encounters – along the Camino Invierno over the past ten days. Perhaps it’s the fact that by now, with the major geographic obstacles behind me and feeling like I’ve reached my top physical condition, it all seems pretty simple. Get up, get dressed, fill up the hydration kit, reassemble the backpack, get a cup of coffee (the best) and a bit to eat, then find my daily starting point and start walking.
Being totally alone, there’s no one to coordinate with, wait for (or rush because they’re waiting for me), but also no one to talk to. The dark side of that is there’s no one with whom I can share anything. Friends have asked what I’m feeling being so very alone. Despite the fact that I’m writing this six months later I still find it difficult to explain. I was mentally prepared to be mostly alone, but still I expected to meet at least a few fellow pilgrims, maybe make a connection with someone I’d see more frequently, possibly share a meal. There’s been none of that, and frankly the extent of that loneliness leaves me disappointed.
The offset to that disappointment is the spectacular landscape that this path offers. Much of that is behind me now, and if you haven’t been following this blog, I invite you to refer to prior posts in which I try to share these sights. Now, as I begin the final three days on the Invierno I’ve reached the “simply a very long walk” stage. My expectations for each day are relatively low.
Indeed this eleventh day meets my expectations. It’s about 20 km. (12+ miles) of gently rolling farmlands interspersed with short stretches of woodlands. I’m entering dairy country which is obvious by the presence of pastures, cows being moved from one grazing area to another, small villages and the occasional milking sheds from which I can hear the rhythm of mooing and pumping. It’s plenty warm and sunny, and since I’m not in a particular hurry – plus still recovering from the previous day’s challenge – I take my time and rest frequently on the side of the trail or a village bench. Earlier on the Invierno there’d be long stretches without any population clusters, but now I’m entering and soon exiting more villages. None, though, offer any services such as on the more popular Camino routes, but at least there’s a better chance of seeing and using a village fountain. By late afternoon I arrive at the small city of Lalin, and soon I’ve found my simple hotel on a commercial stretch beyond the vibrant center of town. After a shower, I find a restaurant down the street and enjoy a simple but satisfying meal. Then it’s to bed, and a good night’s rest. Some days a pilgrimage is not particularly exciting.