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.

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“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” – Theodore Roosevelt

It’s taken me a lot longer to write about the Camino de Santiago than it did to walk it.

Trying to regularly blog on my cell phone while doing the pilgrimage proved impossible.  We were walking around 13 miles each morning and afternoon, and during the evenings we would either connect with our friends or meet new ones.  Thankfully, just about every day, I did manage to carve out time to write in my journal.

J’Nell and I finished walking the Camino on October 31st, and stayed four nights in the beautiful Spanish beach town of Finisterre (or Fisterra in the local Galician language).  We then spent almost all of November exploring Portugal.  Part of that time was with our new great friend Jeremy, and we were kept busy eating, drinking, and soaking up all the sights we could in Porto, Coimbra, Lisbon, Sintra, and Lagos.

So much fun, but other than some sporadic journaling, I didn’t write much.

At the end of November in Lisbon we boarded a sailboat, part of the Windstar line, and crossed the Atlantic ocean.  It was almost thirteen days at sea before reaching the Caribbean, and I had plenty of time to write.  But other than one blog post, I only made notes about being on the boat (which I hope to someday turn into a travel article), and transcribed part my Camino journal.

The transatlantic crossing became mostly a time for mentally digesting the last three months in Europe . . . and taking advantage of our all-inclusive beverage package.

But now I’m back home in Hawaii, and I’m committed to finishing what has become a retro blog of walking 550 miles on the Camino de Santiago.  I feel I need to do this.  If only for the people who have been kind enough to follow along, and also to help make sense of, as well as relive, what was the greatest journey I’ve ever taken.

We resume my Camino journal on October 4th, leaving the town of the singing nuns . . .

October 4th: Carrion de Los Condes to Ledgios

J’Nell and I slept in and enjoyed our luxurious hotel room, knowing we had already booked a place for the end of our walk today.  And with a long stretch ahead with no services, we had coffee and a light breakfast at the San Zoilo cafe.  It was 9:40 am by the time we got on the road, the latest start since Pamplona.

After leaving we snapped some photos of the backside of the monastery, which was the church entrance when it was an active place of worship. It was probably the most interesting thing we would see on our walk.

The Camino isn’t supposed to always be about beauty, interesting sights, or finding what you want.  On this day we walked utterly straight for over ten miles; first alongside the road where cars sporadically sped by, and then on a gravel path.  Ninety-nine percent of the hike was flat, and flies and bugs were almost always hovering around your face.

On the gravel path we actually did encounter one car, and it was a guy who pulled alongside and stopped.  J’Nell and I weren’t sure what to make of him when he thrust a map out of his window (was he lost or did he think we were?), but in Spanish and broken English he proceeded to let us know that a few miles down the road there was an oasis bar.  This was truly old-school social media advertising. 

We would stop at the oasis bar and eat a delicious sausage sandwich, the first one we had seen in Spain and more like something you would find outside of Fenway Park. We also got some much needed rest, and played with the friendly, elderly dog.

The road continued straight and featureless, and we had it mostly to ourselves save for a few other pilgrims and a tractor.  It was over an hour since we left the oasis bar, and there was supposed to be a town somewhere in the distance.  But there was nothing but dirt.   Weird thoughts start going through your mind after being out in this barren landscape for so long, and you wonder if somehow you missed a turn to the town.

But thankfully Calzadilla de la Cueza was right where it was supposed to be, appearing like a mirage when the road sloped downward for the first time all day.  A woman from the café greeted us and took our order before we even reached it, and there was no doubt we needed a cold beer. So wonderful to take our shoes off and relax after the long walk in the heat with no shade and an overabundance of bugs.  At the cafe we saw our friend Hannah from New Zealand, who we had last seen weeks ago.   Great to see a familiar face and to catch up.

Leaving town we would then follow the freeway all the way to Ledigos, but luckily the path was natural and set a good distance from the cars; there were also trees and shrubs to our right acting as a barrier.  However, the ground would eventually turn exceptionally rocky, and the last three miles were tough on our feet.

As we kept walking and walking, we had another moment where the town was supposed to be close, but we could not see it.  Thankfully when we rounded a bend we spied the path, across the highway on the right, leading into Ledgios.  It had been hidden behind a hill, and by the time we staggered into La Morena albergue it was almost 4 pm.

Our group of friends were all staying at the same place, and we would have another terrific evening with them.

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The back of San Zoilo Monastery as we left Carrion de los Condes

“Social Media Advertising” on the Camino

Our new friend at the Oasis Bar

 

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Pit stop in Calzadilla de la Cueza

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The rocky path into Ledigos

 
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Happy to have finished the day’s hike!

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Our albergue in Ledigos

October 5th: Ledigos to Sahagun

We had a private room at La Morena, and we were able to sleep in to help recuperate from the night of wine and laughter with the group (those in the bunk bed part of the albergue had to be out by 8:00 am).  Leaving at 9:15 am we saw Hannah and British Peter having coffee at the café.  They had each stayed in the town before us (where we had a beer before continuing onward), and playfully chided us on our late start to the day.

It was very foggy, and for the next several hours we had a cool, eerie vibe to the morning.  First we followed a dirt path along the freeway, then made a stop at Albergue Jacques de Molay in Terradillos de los Templarios.  In the town named after the Templar Knights, we enjoyed a coffee at the official halfway mark (per the guidebook if you start in St. Jean) of the Camino.  We clinked cups to toast the accomplishment, and planned on celebrating with something more potent when we stopped walking for the day.

It was more fog through fields of recently harvested farmland until we reached the town of Las Bodegas de Moratines.  We saw what looked like small houses built into a hill, and J’Nell made a joke we would find some hobbits.  Others must have thought the same thing as there was actually a sign out front that read “no, hobbits don’t live here”.  Instead, they were actually old bodegas used (still to this day) for storage of food and wine.  We hadn’t seen many people all morning, but at the café where we stopped at in town our friend Lindsay (from England) was at a table.  We chatted with her a bit over coffee and a snack, and afterwards we continued our conversation by walking together for a while.

Brown fields to our right and left for the next couple hours, and only a few other pilgrims visible on the way.  We crested a hill around 1 pm, and the town of Sahagun was visible straight ahead in the distance. But soon we were veering to the right, and the Camino took a wide detour.  Eventually we reached a small puente (bridge) that led to the Ermita de la Virgen del Puente Hermitage, once a pilgrim hospital in the Middle Ages that, according to the book, is sometimes open.

For us the doors were tightly shut, but there were several park benches close by and we rested before the last push into town.  There were also two tall statues, set about 10 feet apart from each other, looking like temple guardians; they are supposed to mark the threshold of the halfway point of the Camino, though officially it’s at the Templar town where we had coffee in the morning.

The last bit into Sahagun is through an industrial area by the railroad tracks, and eventually we saw the bullring and the road leading into the center of town.  We had read Monastery Santa Cruz, the albergue run by the church and very different from the private one we were at last night, was clean and comfortable.  Thankfully they had a private room available for 20 euros, and the place is as good as advertised.

We’re now sitting at a sidewalk table at Café-Bar La Ruta in the main square, with mostly locals and few peregrinos.  It’s nice being in a lively town with kids playing in the middle of the square, the older folks with canes sitting on the benches enjoying the sun, and people of all ages enjoying a beverage at one of the several cafes that surround the plaza.  This is a much more intimate plaza mayor compared to Estrella or any of the similar, medium-sized Camino towns.  But there is that same community spirit, and I love it.

Earlier in the day, after checking into our albergue and showering, we visited Santuario  de la Peregrina, the 13th Century Franciscan Monastery that has been recently restored to show the original mixed gothic and Mudjar (Moorish/Islamic) architecture that was covered up through the years.  It’s a museum as well as a church, and we got to see the namesake of the place, La Perigrina, the statue of Mary dressed as a pilgrim that dates to the 1600s.  We walked there with Sarah, the very nice writer from DC we met about a week ago and saw at a café in town, and also ran into British Peter after arriving.

It was at Santuario de La Perigrina we got our Halfway Certificate!

Hard to believe we have traveled nearly 250 miles all on our feet, all the while carrying a 20 lb backpack!  I have hardly thought of my pack recently, or mochila as its called in Spanish.  Wearing it has become something you just do, like putting on your shoes every morning.    It’s kind of like the commitment to walk day after day, mile after mile.  It is our world now, this constant westward movement on our feet.

I’m proud of both J’Nell and I for getting this far, and for doing it together.  Who knows what will happen on the second half of the Camino, but thus far this experience has been one of the best of my life!

I’ve had several conversations with other pilgrims about the Camino, and people always ask whether or not it has met expectations.  For me, I truly went into this with hardly any expectations.  I made the decision to have an open mind and try to enjoy it all.  While I did do some reading before I left, it was minimal research.

I thought of the Camino in the same fashion of how I approach films … I’ll never read a review before going to the movie, and I won’t want to hear anybody’s opinion on it until after I’ve seen it.  I want to experience it and form my own, and afterwards I’ll enjoy reading reviews and having discussion with people to get their takes.

…later on, back at the monastery

The gentleman who checked us in earlier today was very clear about their policy- the door shuts and locks at 10 pm sharp.  After wandering around town and watching the end of a bullfight at a bar, we walked back to the main square for dinner.  We had lost track of time, and we didn’t sit down until after 9 pm.  Dinners in Spain are meant to be relaxing and drawn out, but thankfully our waiter is understanding and does his best to speed the courses up.  We scarf down our desserts, finish off the bottle of wine, and at 9:52 pm we’re hustling back to the monastery.

We make it back with one minute to spare.  Our room is right above the main door, and suddenly we hear British Peter outside screaming “Hannah!” over and over.  We peer out the window, and he’s got his foot in the door and there’s a man, clearly upset, speaking to him in Spanish.  Another minute later Hannah arrives; the door thumps shut and the metal bolt clangs.  I smile and head off to sleep.

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Another long, flat road on the Meseta

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Santa Cruz Monastery Albergue, with British Peter in the background

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Halfway (if you started in St. Jean) Certificate!  They spelled my name with a “y” instead of an “i” … but still cool.

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Loved this plaza in Sahagun . . . and the four folks sitting on the bench on the left

Sunset in Sahagun Plaza Mayor

Watching a Bullfight with the regulars

 

October 3rd – 10:38 pm

San Zoilo Monastery, Room 212

Carrión de los Condes

For many the Meseta, the middle part of the journey, is the mental stage of the Camino, a time for deep introspection.  For J’Nell and me it’s been the social one.  We were going to have a quiet evening last night in El Fromista after visiting its famous 11th Century Romanesque church, but it ended up being another rollicking dinner with the group who are now a huge part of our Camino Family.

We read you usually bond with those who start with you, but that didn’t happen for a few reasons.  On Day 1, we only had fleeting conversations with our fellow walkers.  And since J’Nell and I are taking our time with additional rest days, most of the people we began with on September 12th (I would say nearly all of them) are far ahead of us.

And maybe you’re meant to meet and connect with the pilgrims you do because of a grander plan (there is the saying “The Camino provides”), or else it’s due to what Hunter S. Thompson referred to as “the whims of the Great Magnet”.  Whatever the reason, I feel lucky to have gotten to know all the amazing people along the way and consider them all part of our Camino Family.  There are pilgrims we saw earlier who we’ve reconnected with, ones you walk with for a period of days and never see again, and the new people who come into your life and stay.

Last night at dinner we were introduced to Michelle from Australia, in her 30s with a great sense of humor, and also to Doug and Nancy, a recently retired couple from Canada with terrific energy and spirit.  We also got to know Lea from Germany better (in her 20s and super nice), as we had eaten together before but really hadn’t talked too much.  Doug and Nancy said they’re thinking of visiting Hawaii next year, and it would be awesome if they did.  It got me thinking how cool it would be to see all the pilgrims we’ve connected with in the future!

It was at dinner last night with the group, during the conversation, laughter, wine, and a mysterious herbal green liqueur, that we learned of San Zoilo Monastery, the place where we’re staying tonight.

Our Camino Accommodations have been quite varied.  J’Nell and I have stayed at shared room albergues, private room hostels (sometimes with our own bathrooms), a few proper hotels when we’ve hit a big town, and even the attic of a church.  Tonight, we sleep in our first monastery.

San Zoilo was founded in the 11th Century and has been classified as a national historic monument of Spain.  It has housed kings, cardinals and bishops.  Today, instead of holy people and royalty strolling around, there are now Camino Pilgrims and tourists as its been turned into a luxury hotel.

At $87 a night, while cheap by any standard in the US and lots of other places, it’s by far the most we’ve spent for a room on the Camino.  We could have got a bed at an albergue for 12 Euro, but when are we going to get another opportunity to spend an evening at an 11th Century Monastery?  To be able to feel centuries of history with its Romanesque and Gothic architecture, contemplative cloister, beautiful church, and museum worthy artifacts throughout the hotel?

Monastery San Zoilo was the perfect place to end today’s walk, which wasn’t as picturesque as the first part of the Meseta.  It began with almost three miles along a concrete path on the side of the highway until we reached Poblacion de Campos, where we had to make the decision to stay on the highway or take the alternative “river route”. An easy one to make, as its almost always best to get away from cars and crowds (there was a group of about 20 people ahead of us wearing green shirts), and to walk on a natural path.

The first two plus miles of the alternate route was a straight shot on a wide dirt road through flat farmland, and after a while you wonder if the river exists.  Two people and a tractor passed us, but otherwise we had it to ourselves.  The path eventually turned narrow (wide enough only for people and bikes), and that’s when we finally got glimpses of the river, which in most parts was barely a trickle or else attracting extra files and bugs.   After three miles or so we reached a bridge where the yellow arrow pointed left, and from there it was maybe twenty-five minutes to Villacazar.

We stopped at the first café we saw there (most everyone does as you never know if there is going to be another), and saw Lindsay, the very cool lady we met from England who has purple hair, who we last saw in Larrasoana on day 3.   We left our bags with the her, and we then went inside the 11th Century Romanesque-Gothic Iglesia Santa Maria la Blanca.  We’ve been fortunate to see so many magnificent churches, and this was yet another.  Set on the hill almost looking like a fortress, it features a rose shaped window, an elaborate and well-preserved doorway, and a Knights Templar tomb.

We chatted and reconnected with Linsday while we had coffee and a light snack.  Wonderful to catch-up with her, but we didn’t stay long as we still had close to 5 miles to Monastery San Zoilo.   The day began walking along a highway, and we would end it the same way until we reached Carrión de los Condes.

After checking in, showering, and then touring the amazing grounds of the place, we had a beer with Russ at the bar and walked back into town (the monastery is about a half mile from the center) to see the famous Singing Nuns of Santa Maria.  I had read they started at 6:30 pm, but when we arrived we didn’t find any nuns or hear any music.  So we walked around the church and then went to a café to meet up with the group.  Doug and Nancy heard there were more singing nuns at another place (Santa Clara Monastery), and they would start at 7:15.  We all finished our drinks and rushed over there.

The nuns of Santa Maria sing folk songs with guitars, but at Santa Clara they were a proper choir in full habit.  While very different from what I had planned to see, it was a powerfully moving experience.  Sitting in the pews and looking at the altar, religious paintings and sculptures, all while the nuns’ ethereal songs filled the church, brought me to another time in history.  When we stood up to leave, the nuns came over and gave us all a Tau Cross, which is associated with the Knights Templar who protected pilgrims back in the day, and St. Francis, who slept in Santa Clara Monastery while he was walking the Camino in 1214.  It was one of my favorite moments of the journey.

Later that evening we had our first dinner in some time without the group as we were very hungry and they weren’t ready to eat.  The meal was outstanding (red peppers stuffed with meat and cheese), and we had a nice stroll back to the monastery.  The moon rose over the river, and as we crossed the bridge I was once again transported back in time.  In my mind’s eye I could see a monk from centuries ago returning from town, taking a moment to stop and gaze at the same moon reflected in the same river.

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The “River Route”

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The Fortress-Like iglesia de Santa María la Blanca

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The Cloister at San Zoilo, Where Monks, Bishops, and Royalty Used to Stroll

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Church Altar inside San Zoilo

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Where We Saw the Singing Nuns

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One of the better (and very different from the norm) dinners I had on the Camino

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The Tau Cross Given to Me by the Nun at Santa Clara.   I have Yet to Take Off.

 

The Meseta in full glory

It has been said the first part of the Camino is the physical stage of the journey, the second is mental, and the third is the spiritual. Leaving Burgos we had already walked approximately 175 miles (which certainly tested our bodies), and there was still over 300 to go to Santiago. The Meseta, the high plains of Spain, awaited.

J’Nell and I had read the middle was a lot of people’s least favorite of the walk. The blogs and articles promised hardly any shade, long distances between towns, and uninteresting landscape to traverse. Many pilgrims actually skip it by taking the bus.

We would both love the Meseta, and it might have been my favorite on the Camino. Here’s my journal entries from the first three days:

September 30th, 5:15 pm
Bar Casa Monolo, Hornillos

Sitting here in the main square of this population 58 town with its 13th Century Church looming over us. We toured the interior of it, got a stamp for our Pilgrim’s Passport, and now enjoy a grande cerveza in the sun. Its all very nice, except for the flies. The tiny airborne bugs were also a nuisance on the walk today as well, though a minor one.

Overall it was a pleasant 13 mile journey from Burgos to Hornillos. We’re now in the Meseta, Spain’s so-called ‘breadbasket’ (as something to compare in the US, though a very loose one, you could say its their Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa). This is agriculture country for sure, with open plains, big sky, and plenty of puffy clouds above.

But it wasn’t all flat, and we had a steady incline at the start and a steep decline at the end. Heading down into Hornillos was so beautiful, and other than one biker we didn’t see anyone until a group of six passed us as we were almost into town.

They say this part of the walk is less crowded, and it seemed so today as we hardly saw any pilgrims (but of course, we left at 9am, which is late for the Camino). So happy to be sitting here in this square after accomplishing our 13 miles for the day … and I love that there’s a chicken on the fountain.

Tuesday, October 1st, Castrojeriz

We walked just over 20 kilometers today, which seems to be our sweet spot (more than 13 miles really wears on our bodies), and now are on a café terrace across from Albergue Rosalia, where we’ll be staying tonight. We just enjoyed a beer with Russ, a teacher from Australia who we met last night at our communal dinner at our albergue in Hornillos. Such a nice guy, and honestly, we met so many terrific people last night.

We brought our journals to this café to write (which I’m of course doing now), but I’m glad I had less time with my pen and more in conversation. There’s another communal dinner tonight, and I’m looking forward to it.

Day 2 on the Meseta has been just as incredible as the first. Gorgeous open fields with nobody around except scattered pilgrims and a farmer in his tractor. I love we are so far away from main roads and there are no cars to intrude on our Camino.

And how about those clouds today … amazing! Road, fields, sky, and clouds. What else do you need? I also love the remoteness of everything.

Wednesday, October 2nd – 10:38 pm
Hotel El Apostal, Fromista

Well … last night got a little out of hand. But in a good way. We were staying at the albergue with several of the great people from the previous night, and then we were joined by Sophie from France and Peter from England (who Butterfly and Jeremy introduced us to in Granon … I haven’t written about those two yet, but I will later as they became our best friends on the Camino).

There was lots of wine (most of it included with dinner, but we also got extra), and when that went dry we hit the vending machine for beers (1 Euro each). Albergues are generally lights out at 10pm, but since this was a small one and 80% of us were enjoying each other’s company, we went a bit later. There was also a thick door separating us from the dorms, so the party could proceed without interrupting our Camino neighbors.

It was one of those nights you cannot recreate from your memory, and you just have to remember you were there and it was special. With the booze flowing, Russ, Emelio (from NYC), and Sophie wanted to share their playlists with the group. Outstanding tracks, but I can only remember some of them, like Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, and Russ’ great one we could all relate to after a few weeks walking through so many places on the Camino called “Every Fucking City” by Paul Kelly. So much fun!

I’m pretty sure we were all in bed before 11 pm, and then J’Nell and I were on the road by 7:45 today. I don’t see why anyone would think the Meseta is boring or something you should skip. The road, open fields, sky, and clouds … wow. Many years ago when I drove through Eastern Washington, Montana, and Idaho I got a similar feeling of just being amazed by nature.

And today’s walk was gorgeous. We got to visit the ruins of San Anton (pilgrims have been going to this site since 1146!), which were impressive, and so cool there’s an albergue inside where you can stay. We admired the beauty, chatted with some people there about the history, and then were on our way to Fromista.

But first a pit stop at the wonderful little pub across the street. We heard Irish music, of all things, when we left the ruins, and since we were in a very remote spot we were surprised because we didn’t expect a bar until the next town. We had to stop.

J’Nell and I still had an hour plus to walk to our albergue, but we gladly stopped for 2 beers at this bar. The owner was so friendly, nice, and funny. There was also a terrific dog there, and Nells got to relax on the hammock.

Sky, road, and clouds…what more do you need?

A poster of the stamps from our great albergue in Hornillos (El Afar)

Chicken Fountain!

The dinner that started so many great friendships

Always follow the yellow arrow …

Nells and I on the Meseta

The amazing ruins of San Anton

Bar across from the ruins. Cold Beer, relaxing hammock, a cool dog, and a very funny bartender/owner.

I love the Meseta

Such a fun night with wonderful people.