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.

Monday, October 14th – 9:30 pm
AC Marriott (Rm 401), Ponferrada
Today’s Walk: Foncebadón to Ponferrada

Today was one of the most memorable experiences on the Camino.

J’Nell and I reach the highest point we will travel (1,515 meters or 4,970 feet) on the Frances Way of St James, spend hours up in the gorgeous and serene Leon Mountains, and eventually climb back down a steep and rocky path. With the mist, fog and drifting clouds, it is mystical.

The forecast calls for rain all day, and we wake in Foncebadón around 6 am to heavy downpours.  We both dread having to walk in these conditions, and get another hour or so of sleep in our comfy room. Trasgu is trasgu.

The precipitation is fairly light when we start our walk, though increases as we head toward the cross.  Thankfully thirty minutes later the skies grow lighter and the rain disappears.  Turns out we won’t have to deal with getting wet again until we begin our descent out of the mountains into the town of El Acebo three hours later.

The ceremony at Cruz de Ferro is special, and there are not many other pilgrims with us.  I think about the purpose of my journey and what my stone from Lynn Woods represents as I place it with the millions of others. Going beyond Rabanal yesterday (where lots of people stop), allows J’Nell and I to be at the cross early for a peaceful ritual. 

We continue walking along the ridge and look across the valley to the other side where we began.  It is spectacular with those views and the clean, crisp mountain air. We also don’t encounter many people along the way. 

The rain returns as we hike down, maybe 30 or so minutes from El Acebo (the first real town since leaving Foncebadón), and by the time we arrive there it’s pouring. We stop not only to get dry, but also for one of the best sandwiches (egg and cheese) we’ve had on the Camino.

When we leave the cafe it is only sprinkling, and maybe 4 Km later at Riego de Ambros it stops raining. The yellow 7 Euro ponchos we recently bought do a great job keeping us dry, along with the plastic disposable ones we had kept underneath. Except there is nothing to help our shoes, which are fully soaked.  

There is something about Riego de Ambros that speaks to me. We’ve been through similar looking towns, but I feel a special presence here similar to Castrillo.  The stone houses, many crumbling and for sale, the mountain setting, what we’ve gone through to get here, and the fact it seemed almost abandoned, makes it enchanting.

From Riego it is a steep and rocky descent off the mountain, but the sun actually shines on us!  We had been told today’s climb down was worse than the extremely arduous one into Zubiri we did weeks ago.  At first I didn’t agree, because even with the wet and muddy ground, you could at least step around the rocks and find smooth earth (not an option into Zubiri).  However, by the end of the trail upon reaching Molinaseca, I concur this precipitous hike had been more difficult.

It seemed the slope would never end! You experience the sheer, rocky part for a good length of time, but then the road becomes smoother.  You think the worst is behind.   Psych . . . more perilous, muddy paths ahead. Checking my photos, from 1:50 pm to 3:10 pm we go down that treacherous road with only a few places of respite.

But it was all so cool!  Honestly, the majority of the sixteen or so miles of today’s stage were invigorating.  And even with the hills and elevation change, I feel great physically at the end; my feet never throb, which usually happens after about 13 miles.  J’Nell believes it is because we were cold, our feet going through all those puddles, and the effect is similar to icing them.  That makes sense. 

But maybe the lack of pain has something to do with absorbing the beauty around us all day.  As much as I love the ocean, hiking in the mountains bonds us with our ancient ancestors (the ones I learned about back at the Evolution Museum in Burgos).  I’ve always connected on a deeper level spiritually when I’m thousands of feet above sea level.

Very arduous walking down the mountain, the toughest one of the whole Camino

We reach Molinaseca, the ending point of that day’s stage in the Breirly book, and stand at the bridge admiring the church to our left and the river below.  I turn back towards the mountains and appreciate the strenuous and beautiful trek we’ve endured. A storm is rapidly approaching, and within seconds it downpours.

Racing towards the first awning in town, a guy smoking a cigar on a bench there greets J’Nell and I in English.  He tells us he completed the Camino three years ago and never left (retired and originally from Atlanta, he now lives in the town). He recommends either of the two closest bars for a beverage, and we choose Cafe Donde Maria.  It is dumping rain now and we watch it out the window and hear it pound the pavement while enjoying our beers.   

Trevor makes his way inside (we last saw him at the place in El Acebo we had lunch hours ago), and we have a nice chat.  He tells us the whole time up on the mountain was fog and rain, and he couldn’t see anything.  We also talk with and share a beer with two nice ladies, Rosemary from England and Janet from Ontario. It is a warm and cozy in the bar, a perfect place to hide from the rain.

When we leave the sun returns, but we still don our ponchos for precaution. It is a smart move as the rain comes back the last 30 minutes into Ponferrada.  The whole walk from Molinaseca is on a sidewalk, appreciated after all the rough, rocky paths.  Thankfully there aren’t many cars on the road to our right.

There are two routes into town, one that passes by the bridge and the Old City Center, or we can stay along this path and it’s 1 Km shorter. Normally we chose the more scenic way, but instead go for brevity since it gets us closer to the hotel.  It’s nearing 6 pm, and we will see the bridge and city center tomorrow. 

Sunday, October 13th – 8:08 pm
Room 1 at La Posada del Druida, Foncebadón
Today’s Walk: Castrillo de Los Polvazares to Foncebadón

At 8:45 am J’Nell and I are treated to a brilliant sunrise rising over the exact center of town, casting a golden glow on the cobblestone street.  Simply stunning.  I would have liked to have stayed longer in the enchanting Castrillo de los Polvazares, but as always we must keep moving onward. 

We follow a quiet path on the alternative Camino with the gorgeous forest and amazing clouds until we join the main road.  Before leaving we had coffee, bread and jam at the albergue, graciously left for us by Basia and Bertran, so there’s no need to stop anywhere soon.  We pass through Santa Catalina de Somoza with more outstanding puffy and dramatic clouds all around us.

Leaving the enchanting Castrillo de los Polvazares

The next town ahead is El Ganso, and we are surprised to see so many people on the country road with the mountains rising in front of us.  Since we stayed overnight off a main stopping point in the book, we figured (wrongly) our timing was askew in our favor.  In El Ganso we enjoy coffee and a needed rest at the famous and funky-cool cowboy Bar, which has been open since 1991.

We keep climbing with clear skies to our right and ominous clouds ahead and to the left. Most of the people we saw this morning are gone, likely having already reached Rabanal, the main stopping point in this stage in the Brierly book. We skirt away from the paved road and every step is extremely rocky and uneven. We keep going up, up, up into the forest with these same conditions, and our feet take a beating.

We reach Rabanal and find the Benedictine monastery called San Salvador Del Monte Irago.  They welcome pilgrims to stay for two nights with a vow of silence. Last evening, after our research and discussion, J’Nell and I agree if they have open space, we will take part in their two day wordless retreat.  

With heavy rain on the forecast, the monastery seems like a good place to contemplate the journey we’ve experienced thus far while waiting for the storm to pass.  But unfortunately their office is closed until 2:30 pm, and as it’s only 1 pm, it’s too risky to wait.  To sit around for an hour and a half only to find out they’re booked would be a major bummer. So we charge onward and upwards.

It is another 5.5 Km to Foncebadón, a steady ascent into the mountains over more rocky paths.  But wow, the views!  And we only see maybe five or six other people as we climb.

This 1.5 hours of hiking is challenging, but very special. I take videos in an attempt to capture the quiet beauty of being in the mountains, but of course they’ll never accurately reflect the wondrous feeling of being here.  With the stunning clouds in this high altitude, it brings me back to the magical Day One on the Camino in the Pyrenees.

The air is so crisp and I inhale deeply.  I smell the freshness of the trees and the earth, and hear that lovely sound of bells jangling from the horses, cows, sheep or other animals we cannot see.  Magical.  We reach the town at 2:30 pm, turn back around for a look out at the land we just climbed.

We don’t have a reservation anywhere, and the first place we try, El Trasgu, is full.  Thankfully, directly across the street, La Posada del Druid has one private room left. It will turn out to be one of the nicest places we’ve stayed on the whole Camino thus far- super clean, modern, friendly staff, and has the best shower (fully-enclosed so the water doesn’t go everywhere, great pressure, and very hot) I’ve experienced in all of Spain.

After cleaning up and resting, we go across the street for beers at the Trasgu restaurant/bar.  I wonder what that word means, and when typing Trasgu into Google Translate, it answers me with the same name. This leads J’Nell and I to keep saying “Trasgu is Trasgu”, which cracks us up no matter how many times we repeat it and becomes a comical motto.

I do further digging, and Wikipedia says Trasgu is a mythological creature in Spain and Portugal who is a mischievous goblin.  We don’t find any of those at the bar, but there are several cute, mischievous kittens who roam outside near the sliding glass door.

It is nearly 7pm, and we’ve only eaten a light breakfast to go along with the nuts and olives we got with our beers.  So we walk back to our place for our three course dinner, which we paid 10 euros for each in advance when checking-in. A great meal of lentil soup, ham slices with pepper, and pudding with a cookie and an earthen jug of wine.

Tomorrow’s a big day, one I’ve been looking forward to since J’Nell and I decided to walk the Camino. We will get the opportunity to take part in the Cruz de Ferro ritual, where we will leave a stone we have carried with us from home at one of the most ancient sites along the Way. This will be at the highest point on the whole Frances Route, nearly 5,000 feet above sea level.

The place has been a significant spot pre-dating Christianity, as the Romans and Celts would leave offerings of gratitude to their pagan gods there.  As Christianity took hold in the region and pilgrims began walking the Camino, they would leave stones at this spot. In the 11th century the hermit Guacelmo, who founded Foncebadón, set the Cruz de Ferro (iron cross) on top of a tall oak trunk at the site. The one we will see tomorrow is a duplicate, as the original historical item is at the museum I visited in Astorga. 

The practice of leaving stones there, which has created a large mound surrounding the trunk and the cross that towers over it, continues today. From what I’ve read, doing so symbolizes either letting go of something, forgiveness, gratitude, or some kind of combination of the three.

On a visit to my hometown in July, I collected a small stone from Lynn Woods and it’s been in my pack since starting the trek. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what my rock can symbolize.  I will have these ruminations in my mind when we reach Cruz de Ferro early tomorrow morning, but will not share them here as some things should be kept to yourself.

One of the best places we stayed on the whole Camino
Journaling before bed with my stone from Lynn Woods I will place at the Cruz de Ferro

October 12th- Saturday
Astorga to Castrillo de Los Polvazare
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With only four miles to walk today and our albergue for the evening booked, J’Nell and I sleep in late at Hotel Gaudi and further explore the alluring hilltop town of Astorga. 

After leaving our mochillas (backpacks) at the front desk at check-out, we head back to the Cathedral of Santa Maria just around the corner.   An excellent audio guide comes with the price of admission, and I’m glad it starts you outside to appreciate the façade of the building. The structure has two towers of slightly different colors (one reddish brown and the other tan), with the elaborately carved center featuring some great gargoyles attached by short flying buttresses on either side.  I could have stared at it for hours.

Beginning the Santa Maria Cathedral and Museum tour

Inside is a fantastic museum with paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, religious items of all kind, and gorgeous illuminated manuscripts dating back more than 600 years.  There are also numerous interesting side chapels and outstanding stained glass windows.  And how about that glittering gold altarpiece by Gaspar Becerra, who studied under Michelangelo . . .  a Wow sight!

We’ve seen a lot of churches up to this point, and while all special in their own way, this one really speaks to me.  For all the reasons above I loved it, but there was something atavistic that hit me on a deeper level I still haven’t been able to understand.  For favorites thus far, I put it up there with Burgos, Leon, and the round Templar church in Torres del Río. 

Next was a delicious lunch in the plaza at the Gaudi Café, which is run by the hotel where we stayed.  J’Nell stays in the square to journal and have another beer, and I go across the street to visit the Gaudi Palace, a late 1800s castle-looking building.  You can of course see it from outside the gate, but the 5 euro price of admission is worth getting to tour the grounds (providing different angles of the unique structure) and exploring the rich interior.

Highlights include the beautiful chapel and luminous stained glass windows, excellent Roman artifacts dating back to the 1st century, and the floor dedicated to the history of the Camino.  Probably the coolest sight is the original Cruz de Ferro, the famous iron cross perched on the pillar where people have been leaving stones for thousands of years (the one there now is a duplicate). 

The standout of the collection is the original Cruz de Ferro. A copy of this iron cross now sits on the iconic spot at the highest point on the Camino, which we’ll be seeing soon

I meet J’Nell back in the plaza at 2 pm, we collect our backpacks at the hotel, and we’re on our way to Castrillo de los Polvazares.  The reason we are making this short detour is that the town comes highly recommended by Ron, a buddy of J’Nell’s Dad, who has done the Camino 5 times.  He is great friends with Basia and Betrand, the couple who run Flores  del  Camino, a retreat center there.  In fact Ron has just spent some time with them, and we unfortunately miss him by one day.    

Castrillo de los Polvazares is likely the most charming town we have experienced on the whole Camino, and we’ve been through lots of them. The whole place seems to be built from the same reddish brown stones, and it gives the overall feel a perfect balance and special harmony. And to make it even more cool, we’re welcomed into town by a man serenading us with his guitar.

A nice welcome into town

It is Espana Day, a national holiday, and fun to see the cobblestone streets teeming with people. Normally when we enter a town during siesta time, it seems like it is completely deserted.  But this one is alive with everyone appearing joyous and dressed for fiesta. I did not take any photos because I didn’t want to be intrusive to their celebration. 

Since Flores del Camino is booked full with a group, we are staying at the municipal albergue which is also run by Basia and Betrand.  We were instructed to get the key at the retreat center, and the very friendly Basia is there to welcome us and extend a dinner invitation for later in the evening.  The albergue, like the rest of the town made out of those wonderful stones, is just a short walk around the corner. 

There are only two other people staying there, where it could probably accommodate around 20.  Michael, a 50ish gentleman from Canada, is extremely nice and will join us at dinner.  We say hello to the 30ish Frenchwoman when we get settled, but then do not interact with her again.  There are no places in town that serve dinner (only lunch), so she must have utilized the kitchen at the albergue for her meal and went to bed early.

We are worried there wouldn’t be any bars open to relax and journal before dinner, but thankfully we find the atmospheric El Trechiro that brews its own beer.  We sit in the pleasant stone wall courtyard with vines growing over the walls, and it is one of my favorites on the whole Camino.

There are only locals there, many families with small children, and they’re still celebrating Espana Day.  The stereo plays acoustic covers of popular English songs (U2’s With or Without You was on when we enter) as well as Spanish language ones, and it contributes to the overall terrific vibe.  We don’t want to leave, but the dinner invite is for 7:30 pm. We finish our beers and hustle down the street, thankful it is only a short walk.

It ends up being a fantastic evening with Alexander and the ten or so people he is leading on the retreat.  We don’t see Basia since she’s busy prepping the meal, but glad to finally meet Betrand and he is a wonderful person. J’Nell and I want to help with dinner, but unfortunately there is not much for us to do so instead we socialize with the group.

Alexander has done the Camino every year since 2012, and it is great talking to him not only about his experiences on the Way, but also about San Francisco (he lived there for 25 years, me for 8), and his book.  Returning from the Camino is a guide on how to readjust back to your regular life once you finish walking and how to integrate your Camino experiences in it.  I saw a copy of it at the albergue earlier, and had taken a photo of the cover so I could buy it later on; very cool to meet the author and he was such a nice person.

The wonderful time at Flores del Camino makes we want to return again someday to take part in one of their retreats.  When the group heads off to sleep, J’Nell and I get a nightcap at the El Trechiro (which surprisingly was still open).  We only have one drink to be respectful to our two mates in the albergue, and are back in our beds by 10 pm (the usual lights-out time).

Sunset in Castrillo de los Polvazares
Moonlight and time to say goodnight