As I write this in April 2020 we are trapped in a common experience. Our lives are upside down. We are social creatures, yet have adopted social distancing. In a matter of a few weeks, the reality of a pandemic has transformed our world in ways we wouldn’t have believed possible two months ago. Camino plans for this year are no longer realistic, and all of us in the worldwide Camino community are grieving in as many ways as our numbers. “It’s your Camino” is as true as ever, even as we can’t walk it.
I think about our community of pilgrims around the globe at this moment. We share a passion for this transformative experience, but at this moment we share in our dismay at living our lives so very differently than what the Camino represents. Walking the various Camino paths we are able to move freely and at whatever pace suits us. Any path, any speed, any choice of resting place will ultimately lead to Santiago. Now we can’t go anywhere very freely, and it always leads to our homes. Oh yes, the Camino offers some elements of social distancing, quiet spaces where we can reflect without disturbance, but many moments on our journeys are shared in close proximity with others.
The expression – “social distancing” – wasn’t in my personal lexicon in September of last year when I set off from Ponferrada to walk the Camino Invierno. I knew that it was also referred to as the “Camino Solitario” for the relatively few pilgrims that chose this path, so I wasn’t expecting many connections with others. Still, as I’ve written numerous times in prior posts, the degree to which this would be the case – I simply called it “loneliness” – was a surprise. Today we refer to that as being “socially distant.”
At the end of the 11th day I spent a lonely – socially distant – evening in Lalin, a mid-sized city in the heart of an agricultural area of Spain’s semi-autonomous community of Galicia. After finding the spartan hotel room I had booked weeks earlier, I freshened up before wandering down a busy street in the twilight until I found a welcoming bar/restaurant for a bite to eat. It was a simple but lively place decorated with sports emblems and neon-lit beverage logos. On a Friday evening, there were more couples out than I‘d recalled in other bars on weeknights, so the place had a friendly vibe. What had attracted me from the sidewalk was the shiny black and gold pig’s leg locked into a stainless steel clamp, mounted on a pedestal near the window. My dinner that evening was a plate of paper-thin slices of that aged Iberian ham, plus some crusty bread and a cold “Kas Naranja.” That was all it took to make me very happy. Soon afterwards I was back in my room and slept well. The 12th day didn’t promise to be especially noteworthy.
It started, though, in a way I hadn’t expected. Walking through Lalin late the previous day there was nothing distinctive about the city. I concluded it was a forgettable place. That opinion carried into this sunny Saturday morning. Leaving the hotel, the path led me for about 1km on sidewalks heading toward a two-story shopping center, but before reaching it a sign directed me down an embankment to the “Paseo Fluvial del Rio Pontinas.” What a delightful surprise! My hometown of Boise, Idaho has a very long paved pathway following the Boise River that meanders through the city. I suspect that most cities along rivers have something similar, but I’m particularly fond of Boise’s for its peaceful atmosphere, the diversity of vegetation and even wildlife. Lalin’s “Paseo Fluvial” quickly captivated me and won over my heart as one of the prettiest such river walks I’d ever been on, rivaling the one back home.
The Paseo runs below the level of the city and the surrounding countryside, tracking a small stream, the “Rio Pontinas.” Its lush landscaping, combined with its location leaves it as quiet as a chapel, only in nature. The path runs on both sides of the stream, occasionally crossing it via wooden bridges. Besides myself on an early Saturday, there were the occasional runners and walkers, many with dogs. Suddenly I became conscious of the fact that here, on this charming pathway, I was actually sharing the Camino with more people than I had on any other day prior to this. They might not have been pilgrims, carrying packs and heading toward Santiago, but for this short moment they were my companions – the first and the last – on The Invierno.
An hour after stepping onto the Paseo, a marker sent me off again, up a slight incline and into a cluster of small pastures and farms. First to greet me were a flock of sheep whose owner was just about to move them across the path from their home enclosure to the pasture on the other side. As soon as they sensed my arrival, though, they scurried back to safety and then carefully followed my progress until I was well beyond them. Not far from there I paused for a few moments, becoming mesmerized by the slow and methodical tilling of a small field. Everything about this morning, even the sight and sound of a tractor, was inspiring in a hard-to-explain sort of way. In this blissful, almost hypnotic state I walked for several more kilometers, and then entered a different world and, without fanfare, reached an ending.
What greeted me first was a modern, multi-story hotel that I might’ve expected to see in the heart of the city. Instead it stood on a grassy island next to a heavily-traveled highway. As I had skipped breakfast earlier, I took advantage of this place and went into its main-floor coffee shop to enjoy my staple “cafe con leche” with a buttery croissant and Seville orange marmalade. After a very pleasant rest, I started walking again, and soon found myself in an industrial park in what I realized was the town of A Laxe. It no longer looked or felt like a Spanish town, but rather a harsh jumble of glass, aluminum and brick modernity. Most surprising of all in this stark setting was a simple marker by the side of the road declaring this to be the end of the Camino Invierno. I was so shocked that I didn’t even get a photo.
With a simple step forward I was now on the Camino Sanabres, a relatively short part of the network of Caminos through the Iberian peninsula. The Sanabres begins in the Galician city of Ourense and is an extension of the much longer Camino de la Plata that begins in southernmost Spain. Though the label of my path had changed, nothing else had, I was still alone and still headed toward Santiago de Compostela, now just two days away. It continued to be a tranquil walk across gently rolling terrain through fields (potatoes being harvested on a much smaller scale than in my home state of Idaho), over streams, alongside quiet pastures, and skirting clusters of farmsteads. Perhaps the most dramatic sight of the day was an immense railroad bridge high over the narrow valley through which I was walking. Soon afterwards a crossing of a smaller, much older, Roman bridge eventually led me to the outskirts of Silleda, my destination for this day.
Silleda, like Lalin at the start of the day, is a mid-sized city serving as a commercial hub for the surrounding agricultural areas. I passed several food processing plants and warehouses as I searched for my overnight accommodations in a quiet country hotel on the far side of the city. The Eco Hotel Nos was a delightful place to spend one of my final nights on this long journey, but as none of the small staff spoke a word of English it challenged my language abilities. Still, I managed to order a wonderful patio-table meal of Iberian ham with potatoes, eggs and croquetas, taking in the local vibe of animated conversation at the tables around me in the warm evening air. It had been a very good twelfth day on the Camino Invierno… correction: Sanabres.