Lost in the Fog

With my new novel Lost in the Fog about to be published, in September of 2019 I embarked on a four month trip to France, Spain, Portugal, and the Caribbean. The main reason for the journey was to hike the Camino de Santiago, a 550 mile pilgrimage. With this blog, I am excerpting from the journal I kept and am sharing what made it so special. David Lynch once said "getting lost is beautiful", and my voyage embodied that definition.

October 20th (Sunday) – 11:15 pm
Albergue Aqua, Portomarin
Today’s Walk: Sarria to Portomarin

Hard to believe, but today J’Nell and I begin the last 100 kilometers (62 miles) to Santiago.  We’ve been walking westward on the Camino for more than five weeks now, and I’m not ready to contemplate the end.

Most do this last leg of the journey in 5 days, but we’re taking six. Beginning tomorrow we break the stages into shorter chunks to get off the main starting/ending points in the book. We hope less crowds that way.

Sarria is where many people actually start their Camino because you need to traverse a minimum of 100 kilometers to earn your Compestela, the church’s official recognition of completing the pilgrimage.  From reading the guidebooks and talking to others, the trail is supposed to get a lot more populated at this point and we’ve been warned to mentally prepare for it. 

The books also implore you not to think less of anyone starting now, no matter how long you’ve been walking.  Though not looking forward to more people, I certainly would never disparage any pilgrims.  Wherever your journey begins, everyone walks their own Camino and we’re all part of the ancient tradition.  Both J’Nell and I are very lucky to have had the time and resources to start way back in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. 

Though the trails are supposed to swell with people today, last night in Sarria there weren’t any more pilgrims than we’ve been seeing.  Maybe since it is so late in the season, I think, it won’t be that bad.

Nope.

We leave around 9:30 am, and starting at this hour we normally won’t see many people until the afternoon.   Not today.  There are lots in front, and just as many behind.  And of course, every one of them have just as much of a right to be on the Camino as we do.

Leaving Sarria we meet a very sweet couple from Mexico around my age who are excited to begin their adventure.  They are doing the Camino, touring more cities in Spain, and then will go to Italy.  That’s an awesome trip, and happy to meet and chat with such fine people.  They take our picture at the Sarria sign before setting out, and we do the same for them. From there I think everyone starting now are just like this couple.

On the trail the day starts sunny with that mystical fog we’ve been seeing drifting through the mountains.  The Camino looks much like yesterday, with the forests, green fields, mossy stone walls, and mountains in the distance.  But there is sun and we are dry!  I have a greater appreciation for our good weather after walking 7 hours in the rain yesterday.

The first town we reach is Barbadelo, and I read it has one of the most enigmatic churches on the Camino.  Dating to the 12th century, from outside I admire its Romanesque architecture and cool stone carvings on the entrance.  But unfortunately it is closed . . . how’s that for enigmatic?

After a late breakfast we encounter a cute black cat on a roof, and the way the street slopes upwards, it is almost at eye level.  The cat comes right up to me and leans in so I can pet it.  When I stop the cat nuzzles up to my hand for more affection.  We will continue onward, and will also see donkeys, sheep, and a herd of Longhorn cows.

About five and a half miles from Portomarin, we are about to get on a dirt path when hundreds of high school kids, some singing loudly, descend from the hill.  They are gaining on us fast, and we stop to let the ones belting out the unrecognizable tune pass.  But turning around, the group seems never ending, so we keep on walking and are absorbed by them.  Even knowing they have as much right to be here as us, it’s such a jolting change to what the Camino has been these last 5 weeks.

We spy a bar just off the left of the road with a patio overlooking the lush valley, and eagerly stop for a beer.  The sun shines, the view is outstanding, and this is a perfect spot to let the hordes of kids pass us by.  I love finding these tucked away gems.       

But dark clouds drift our way.  It begins sprinkling, then pouring, and J’Nell and I decide to wait it out while listening to acoustic covers of popular songs in English on the stereo.  We hope it will pass quickly, but it’s darkness all around us, and we order another beer.  Maybe twenty minutes later it seems to be lessening, and we don on our packs, our double ponchos, and get back on the Camino.

Just steps from the bar it begins pouring, the heaviest we’ve seen on the whole trip.  But what makes it all worthwhile is being passed by a group of sheep and cows being led by 2 women and 2 dogs.   We had to move over to the side of the road for the convey, and it is comic relief while being drenched.

Our sunny oasis from the singing kids turns stormy!
The hardest it rained on us up this point, and hilarious to be caught in this convoy of animals

After an hour of hard rain, the skies lighten.  We have about 45 minutes left to walk, and cross our fingers it will stay dry.   We come down into a valley and see that Portomarin is perched on another hill.  On the Camino you are always going up and down, but at least the rain stays away.

If this were sixty or so years ago, we wouldn’t have had to walk up that hill to reach the town.  Portomarin, dating to its medieval days, was built right on the river. However in the 1960’s, the dictator Franco decided to dam it and make a reservoir for power.  This would put most of the place under water, so the residents came together and relocated the whole town uphill!

The beautiful 12 century Iglesia de San Nicolas, which looks as much like a castle fortress as it does a church, was completely disassembled and reassembled stone-by-stone by people of Portomarin. It’s a massive building and it’s miraculous such a feat was done.   It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve heard the Camino.

After checking into our modern albergue and showering, we tour the church and have dinner at O’Mirador.  We order an ala carte cheese plate, pimentos, garlic shrimp, and a pizza.  It turns out to be too much food, but we are hungry and it is delicious.  With a bottle of wine the bill will be 55 euros, the most we’ve spent on a meal since Paris, but well worth the splurge.  They give us a window seat looking out onto the valley during sunset, with fog rising to our right, and it is a terrific dining experience.

October 21, 2019
Today’s Walk: Portomarin to Os Valos

Waking up, it is once again very tough to leave a warm, cozy private room when you look at your phone and see it is barely 40 degrees outside.  From our window, we have a nice view down to the river, and watch hordes of people leaving town while we get ready.  At 9:30 am we’re out the door, and it is cold, overcast, foggy, but no rain!   After re-crossing the river we climb up a hill with a nice view of the mountains in the distance, and the fog has a prehistoric feeling.

We follow a highway for a mile or so and pass an abandoned factory.  But soon we are back on a more secluded trail, with the fog drifting against the mountain backdrop.  We stop at Hosteria de Gonzar, a café/restaurant where everyone is stopping, for a great cup of coffee and an outstanding egg and cheese sandwich. There we meet Mabel, who is 92 years old and is walking the Camino by herself!

A little while later we reach the turnoff for Castro de Castromaior, a 2,400 year old Celtic ruin site that was only recently discovered in 2004.  How can you pass up to see (for free!) something that old and not in a theme park setting!  Yes, you have to ascend a very challenging hill, and the ruins are up yet another hill, but it’s just a short detour off the Camino.

But no other pilgrims join us. J’Nell and I spend about thirty minutes there, and we’ll only see a German couple with their kid who park their car and walked up to it.  Being at this site is so special, ambling through the stone wall maze, and gazing down on the ruins from above on the hill that surrounds it.  Awe-inspiring thinking that I am in a place almost as old as the pyramids!

We are able to connect to the Camino from the ruins, meaning we don’t have to go back down and retrace our steps. If I breezed on by this amazing site in order to save time, I would have been very disappointed.  I feel grateful I got to experience the history and beauty.   

After walking with some nice open spaces and views of hills and forests, J’Nell and I go back close to the highway.  Eventually we cross it, turn right, and then head along a country road to Ventas de Naron. There is a tiny church, Capella a Magdalena, that was built by the Knight’s Templar using stones from a Pilgrim hospital. Some stones still have Templar engravings on the! The guy inside giving out the stamps is partially blind, and is a bit of a character.

J’Nell and I continue down the country road with only two cars passing us, and there are tall trees and huge puffy clouds. After the intense rain, this is wonderful walking. We also, after passing a cafe that is packed, seem to have the Camino, other than the cows, to ourselves.

We stop and admire Cruceiro de Lameiros, an interesting 17th century cross that has Jesus on one side and Mary on the other (with building tools carved on the base, as well as skull and crossbones on the other side).

As we approach Ligonde, it begins to hail.  Pebbles of hail plink off us and you can see them on the ground before they melted.  Time to find a bar.

There’s one as we reach the town, and we go inside with only about 45 minutes left of walking in the day.  It is a cool local’s hangout, and the beer is delicious.  We are getting ready to leave, and that’s when J’Nell spots Jeremy through the window! 

We had last seen him and Butterfly in Leon, and so amazing to run into our friend randomly!  He comes inside and we have a beer with him … and then another.  He mentions that he had walked with Mabel earlier in the day, the 92-year-old we saw in Gonzar!

We all walk down the road together, taking sips from Jeremy’s wineskin he bought way back in Logrono at the festival.  Another huge high school tour group absorbs us, and that’s when Jeremy speaks a great, unexpected, and wise take on the influx of people on the Camino.  He says by the time he reached Sarria, he was feeling a bit worn down, and the energy of the people starting jump-started his enthusiasm.  I would keep those thoughts with me the rest of the way on the Camino. 

It rains off on as we walk, with more hail, and J’Nell and I reluctantly say adios to Jeremy when we reach our stopping point of the day at Hosteria Calixtino in Os Valos.  Our friend, like most pilgrims, is continuing further along.  Bummer to be parting ways with him, but we know we will soon meet up again in Santiago!

October 18, 2019
Day 37 on the Camino
Today’s Walk: O’Cebeiro to Triacastela

The municipal albergue in O’Cebeiro has an 8 am check-out time, and stepping outside, the mountain air chills my hands and face.  J’Nell and I have breakfast and then walk over to the stone wall at the edge of town.  It’s too early for sunrise, but the sky grows lighter in the stillness of the dawn over the valley, and we are treated to a foggy and mystical view.

Rain is in the forecast, but as we set out it is dry.  Looks like most people left earlier, and we once again have the trail almost to ourselves for most of the day. The path out of town is nice crushed rock and sand, just like yesterday once we reached Galicia.  However, there is a ton of up and down, and it is like a rollercoaster along the hillside.  

Linares is the first place we reach, and it seems deserted.  The fog is thick, and has an almost otherworldly quality as it drifts through the town.  This can’t be much different from what a pilgrim would have experienced in the Middle Ages.

There is the gray of the fog, the gray of the stone buildings, the gray of the sky, and the vivid green grass you glimpse through the diaphanous haze.  Soon we reach San Roque, at 4,167 feet reaching toward the sky, with its famous and very tall pilgrim sculpture.

In Hospital de la Condensa we ring the bell of their church, and it’s a wonderful feeling tugging on the rope and hearing that chime.  Soon afterwards we don our light, plastic ponchos as the mist turns to rain. There is a steep incline ahead and I try to crest it as fast as I can in this weather.  At the top we continue in the inclement conditions for another 3 kilometers to Fonfria, where we warm up with coffee, a sandwich and a cheesecake at a cozy place called A Reboliers.   

We sit across from three young women who are all being positive and spiritual, and are enjoying their good vibes until a guy walks in and interjects himself into their conversation.  It is the same person, tall, maybe in his early 30’s, we overheard complaining at the albergue that morning.  I caught pieces of it while getting ready to leave, but mostly tuned him out.  J’Nell heard the whole exchange. 

She later says his diatribe at the café is almost word-for-word from the albergue.  The crux is he is pissed there were no blankets provided in the municipal (you should never count on that…they did have some but they were all taken), and that we were “kicked out like dogs” in the cold at 8:00 am.  He kept saying it wasn’t “Christian”.  I wanted to clap when one of the women perfectly counters every single one of his arguments with something positive, and put the responsibility for his ailments back on him. 

You can ring my bell …

At a town called Biduedo we see “the tiniest chapel, and continue downward.  We’re finally able to take off our ponchos when the sky clears, and at Fillobil we catch up to the nice Australian lady (cannot remember her name) we first me when leaving Ponferrada.  We talk while heading into the beautiful valley, but then she realizes she left her phone and glasses at the cafe in the last town.  

She sprints back up to get them, and then ten minutes later, just as we about to cross the highway, a car parks at the side of the road.  A woman carrying glasses and a phone rushes by us up to trail.  J’Nell notices the objects and lets her know we had been with the person who left them, and that she is heading back up.

How amazing for that lady to drive down the mountain and run up the path to try and find a complete stranger.  It is the true the spirit of the Camino.  We would see the Australian woman later that night, and while she retrieved her glasses and phone, she didn’t know the effort that had been expended.  She greatly appreciated hearing about it.

J’nell and I keep going down, down, down past the rolling green hills until we reach a small village and are greeted by an adorable kitten who comes right over to me.  I pet her, she rubs up against my leg, and keeps following us when we continue on our way.  The kitten eventually turns around once we reach the rocky path downward.

We next pass an 800 year old gigantic Chestnut tree with its gnarly branches and thick trunk, and it’s only a short walk to Triacastela (named after the three castles that long ago stood in the town).  After showering we get beers and write in our journals at restaurant & bar Complexo Xacobeo.

Trevor would eventually walk in, and we hang with our new friend and have another great talk. He jokes that the thing he will miss most about the Camino when it’s over is being able to talk about his feet problems from walking. Nobody in New York will understand!

We have dinner there, which is quite good and probably the busiest restaurant we’ve seen on the Camino other than in the big cities.  The traditional Galician soup is the highlight of the meal.

October 19th (Saturday)- 6:21 pm
Meson O Tapas bar, Sarria
Today’s Walk: Triacastela to Sarria

Rain-O-Rama.  This is the worst weather day of the trip, and it will pour on us nearly every single step on the Camino.

The morning starts with a visit to reception to ask “Donde esta me ropa, por favor”?  We paid the proprietors 10 euro for them to do it, and last night the woman said she would leave our clean clothes aqui (here), and pointed to the spot.  But they were not aqui when we got back from dinner.  While someone stealing our ragged Camino clothes is unlikely, the thought flashes for a second of how much that would suck.  Thankfully they were still in the dryer.

There are two paths to Sarria, and while one is more remote and takes you to a beautiful monastery, it also adds 6.4 kilometers to the day’s walk.  That was out of the question in this weather, and likely would have been even if it was sunny.  So at 9:30 am we take the path to the right marked San Xil.  

J’Nell and I have mountains, forests, green fields, fog and mist to start the day. It makes me think of Ireland or Middle Earth, and although we are dealing with foul weather, it is beautiful.  The stone walls and moss and overhanging branches in the forest are enchanting.

We are only 2 kilometers into our day when the rain gets heavier.  With our new dark blue ponchos I figure we are protected from the elements. But J’Nell says she is feeling wet, and that’s when we realize the material, while beading water, is not actually waterproof.  Why sell a poncho that fits over your backpack that isn’t waterproof??  This is the first time on the whole Camino I actually experience any bit of anger.

Under an awning for cover, I help J’Nell take off the blue poncho.  She then gets the light plastic one we’ve been wearing that is more like a trash bag, puts it on, and then fits the other one over it.  I am stubborn and still pissed off, and keep wearing the one that doesn’t keep me dry. But truly nobody to blame here other than myself as I should have bought a real one from REI before leaving. I’ll eventually do the same as J’Nell and use the plastic poncho as an inside liner later in the day.

Soon afterward we hit steep hills with rocky, muddy paths and make our way up nearly 1000 feet. Being under the thick forest helps lessen the impact of the rain, but our feet are soaked.  We reach the town of Sans Xil, which consists of some stone buildings and no people anywhere, and we’re completely exposed to the rain all along the mountain pass.  It is windy and cold, and my shoes feel as if I’d gone swimming in them.

I have to make peace with the weather.

We’ve been so lucky since September 12th when we started, and to complain about the weather doesn’t seem right.  Nobody is forcing me to be here.  I chose to walk the Camino, and it is a privilege to do so.  

I think about my buddies B Doane & Bradleigh, Debe, who was a big mentor to me, and my grandparents.  They all passed away in the last decade, and I have a moment in the rain where I feel I am walking for them.  All possibly never even heard of the Camino, but in this terrible weather I am hit with the thought I am doing it for those who won’t get the chance.

Just when you think there is nowhere to shelter from the rain, we reach Terra de Luz, a cozy commune/donativo pilgrim’s oasis. There we see and chat with Sophie from France, who was part of the Meseta crew who became a big part of our Camino family.  I have green tea, a banana, and a cookie while getting a respite from the rain; we will show our appreciation with lots of gracias and also leave a donativo (donation) to help restock for the next group of pilgrims.

We are still 12 klicks from Sarria, and every kilometer would be tough ones in the non-stop rain.  We see plenty of cows, some horses, more green fields, and lots of trees.  We don’t pass any cafes, making us even more grateful the commune was open.

The remaining three miles to Sarria are on a dirt trail that parallels the main road, which has few cars traveling on it on this Saturday afternoon.  Thankfully so, because we are forced off the dirt path onto the pavement because mud puddles and bogs make it impassable. After reaching the edge of Sarria, we cross a river and go through the modern town center to find yet another hill to get to our hostel. 

Nearly at the end of the day’s walk in all that rain, seeing a bunch of steep steps, you can only sigh and chuckle.  We use Google Maps to help us find our hostel called Travesia Rooms, but it’s not where the pin says it should be. We ask a guy outside of a bar for help, and he graciously directs us to walk into the church grounds.  Our place is in in a narrow alleyway ten feet from the cathedral.

The shower in our private room and bath is hot, spacious, with good pressure, and is fully enclosed. I didn’t want to leave it.  Thankfully we also have working heaters, and we dry our shoes, socks, and clothes on them.  There is a café around the corner called La Travesia dos Sonos that is open.   

Cozy and welcoming, we are able to have a cooked-to-order delicious meal available at 5:00 o’clock! Most places only offer a pre-set pilgrim’s menu, and usually not available until 6 or 6:30 pm at the earliest.  At La Travesia we have baked cheese on toast with jam, Raxo pork (little bites with garlic), falafel, and grilled pimientos. Afterwards we walk around the town a bit, which has a nice medieval center and some cool, old buildings, and the sun shines on us!

October 17th (Thursday) – 9:20 pm
O’Cebeiro, Corolo Restaurant & Bar
Today’s Walk: Vega de Valcarce to O’Cebreiro

In the guide book today’s stage was supposed to be nearly 30 kilometers, including a daunting hike up to 4,265 feet.  But J’Nell and I had gotten off the recommended distances/stopping points several towns ago, and instead we chopped our walks up in a more manageable fashion.  On this day we would only need to go 12 kilometers to OCebreiro, but the ascent and terrain would be strenuous.

We started the morning with gorgeous views of the mountains surrounding us, as well as the towering modern bridge so high up in a mystical fog.  The sunrise was casting a Golden glow on the mountains ahead in the misty distance.  We also got to see the Templar Castle ruin upon the hill. Called Castillo de Sarracin, it’s believed to have been built in the 800’s and the restoration efforts are being lead by a Hungarian who went up there a decade ago and had a mystical experience.  It is too far out of the way to hike to and back for us, but would love to visit it in the future.

From the moment we left our casa rural, everything around us was so green and lush with the sun rising and the stunning sky and the puffy clouds.  We would pass cows and sheep, and then only 4 kilometers away we stopped for a coffee and breakfast at a cafe called Las Herrias. It would be the last proper town before almost reaching O’Cebriero.

We would soon take a left off the main road and enter the forest to begin our very arduous and rocky uphill hike. We were lucky the weather was sunny, as several of our friends posted photos via the WhatsApp text group of the same place that were foggy and rainy.

What I loved about this day’s walk is you had to turn around and periodically take in the sweeping vistas.  We hadn’t seen a lot of people all day, but as we approach O’Ceberio several pass us who are likely the overachievers who started early in the morning from Villafranca and did the whole 30 kilometers that’s recommended in the book.  Much respect to them, but of the dozen or so who passed us, few stopped to admire the gorgeous views behind them.  Most were too busy charging forward to make their distance quota.

The colors are so vivid in the mountains, high up there with those white billowy clouds, blue sky, and green rolling hills.  Just being in such unspoiled nature is mesmerizing.  The solitude of the altitude is peaceful and contemplative.

The last town before OCebreiro is Laguna de Castilla, and we stop at La Escuela Bar for a coffee (me) and a Coke (J’Nell).  Great to rest, as the final climb to town is going to be difficult.  Not only is it steep, rocky, and muddy, but you have to contend with the flies and an abundance of horse and cow poop.  The flies stick onto you and it’s possible the whole path is pure fertilizer. The stench increases the closer we get to the top.  But the views continue to be stunning and special!

We finally cross into the Galicia region of Spain, marked by a cool stone with two crests next to a red Templar cross.  In doing so we hit the 3rd highest summit on the Camino at the top of the Cantabrian Mountains.  At the stone wall at the edge of town that looks into the valley, we take more photos and thoroughly enjoy the moment.

We hadn’t booked a room in OCebreiro, which is a popular stopping point on the Camino, and we worry it could be full.  Somehow we find a private one available for 45 euros, but J’Nell is skeptical of the place after checking-in.  While I shower she finds both a dead and live bedbug.   She also reads some recent reviews of the place online, several complaining of the same experience.  Time to check-out!

I’m still in my towel when we get our money back, and I’m grateful J’Nell is so vigilant after detecting the room wasn’t very clean.  But I refuse to dwell on the negative as it was blissful walking up the mountain.  It’s also the only time on the whole Camino we experienced something like this, and I only note it for the record.

Luckily the municipal albergue, which is the largest we’ve stayed at with beds stacked one on top of another, has plenty of space.  What tonight’s dwelling lacks in atmosphere and aesthetics, it more than makes up for in functional antiseptic fascism.  I joke . . . the albergue is only 8 euros, very clean, the staff are friendly, and it’s a place to stay for the night with fellow pilgrims that doesn’t have (we hope) bedbugs. 

After getting settled into our cramped living quarters we head to Santa Maria Real, the town’s church where the foundation dates back to the 9th century.  Before going inside we watch a news lady interview a guy restoring a thatched roof.  Later when we’re at the bar, we’ll not only watch this story on TV with the locals (who are shushing each other so they can hear), but then the journalist and her camera crew come inside for a glass of wine.

Santa Maria is a very important church on the Camino, not for its antiquity but for recent history.  It contains the tomb of Elias Valina Sampedro, the priest who preached there in the late 20th Century, and is credited with the current Camino resurrection. He is the one who first painted the yellow arrows, researched where the original routes went, and wrote the first guidebook on it (in 1984) in centuries.  Very cool to pay him respect as we would not be here if not for Father Sampedro.

There is also a profound pilgrim’s prayer (in English) on a poster beside Sampedro’s tomb. I include a picture of it below for the full text, but share with you a powerful quote here:  “Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end and waited for every pilgrim in need of encouragement, or given my bed to one who arrived later than I, given him my bottle of water in exchange for nothing, if upon returning to home and work I’m not able to create Brotherhood or to make happiness peace and unity, I’ve arrived nowhere.” 

And now I sit here in this bar in OCebreiro with J’Nell drinking a slightly sweet but more smoky Spanish brandy that has a bull on the bottle. It was recommended by Trevor, our recently retired and very witty friend from New York we’ve lately been seeing nearly every place we go.   He just bid us goodnight, and we need to do the same and get back to the albergue for our 10 pm curfew. Though I’d rather linger here longer with my journal and this brandy, as it has warmed me nicely in the chilly mountain air.