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.

The latest (retro) installment of my walk across Spain with J’Nell on the Camino de Santiago …

Cool colors leaving Tosantos

Tosantos to Atapuerca
September 27th

I’ve come to love the tiny Spanish towns, with their austere beauty and simplicity. Just like Grañón and Ventosa, I could have spent a week in Tosantos relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere. But the Camino is all about moving forward, and J’Nell and I had a big walk ahead.

Burgos was two days away, and since it was a big city where we planned to spend two nights and get a much needed rest, the goal was to get as close as possible. Smart planning for tomorrow, but on this day it meant several big hills, a long hike through the forest, and a trek down into a valley over very rocky trails … close to 17 miles on my blisters.

Thankfully the morning began with with gorgeous colors in the sky and mostly flat trails until we reached Villafranca. There we had breakfast with Caroline (early 20s from Massachusetts, super nice, who we walked with earlier) and Charles and Caroline (cool spouses in their 50s from the UK we met the day before). I’ve said it before, but connecting with wonderful people like them is what makes the Camino so special.

Villafranca was a good spot to rest, as the next part of the hike featured a steep ascent into the forest and then an abundance of ups and downs for hours. Trees and hills were constants, and after a while I thought they would never end. Luckily there was a nice rest stop built into a wide clearing in the forest, and after 30 minutes off our feet, we trudged onward out of the timberline to San Juan de Ortega.

It was now past noon and hot, so we stopped for another break for a beer with a view of the church. The café was crowded, there were lots of people in the town, and during most of the walk we were surrounded by plenty of pilgrims. But since San Juan Ortega is a major stopping point in the book, we were hoping we would have quality alone time for the rest of the day.

Leaving town we got that solitude. It was enjoyable having the trail to ourselves, and I figured we would have plenty of options to stay in Atapuerca. In fact, there was a cool town before that (Ages) we bypassed since we were so confident in finding lodging.

We arrived in Atapuerca around 3:45 pm and took photos of the stone markers which commemorate (I think, nothing was in English) the archeological site there that is still yielding important historical treasures. Next was finding a place to stay, and after seeing the municipal albergue booked, we went from place to place with no luck. The town was very small, and with the next stop on the Camino a few hours down the road, things looked bleak.

In the book it said the restaurant Palomar also had rooms, and it was our last hope. I poked my head into it to find two gentlemen eating their lunch. One got up to greet me warmly and give me the bad news they were full. He could have just went back to his plate of food, but instead made some calls to help; he not only found us a room, he drove us up a hill (one we had already walked earlier) to the place. It ended up being a private room in a small, clean house we shared with 2 other pilgrims. We were so grateful and appreciative of his kindness.

So lucky to have all these amazing sunrises on the Camino

Stop in Villafranca before the ups and downs of the long forest hike

Forest selfie

Stone markers commemorating (I think) the archeological site at Atapuerca

Almost no rooms to be had in this town…

Atapuerca to Burgos
September 28th

Nearly all the places you walk through or to on the Camino are varying degrees of small. With a population of over 175,000, Burgos would be one of only 5 proper cities we would experience during our trek. From Atapuerca we had about 11 miles to reach it. We looked forward to the modern hotel that awaited us, a full day of not walking since we booked two nights, and doing laundry in machines instead of a sink.

The morning began with fog drifting and the sun blazing through it. Yesterday we climbed quite high, so with today’s manageable hill we reached an altitude of 3,537 feet. Going up we met a gentleman from Holland who had been walking since leaving his front door two days after retiring! He zoomed past me after we chatted, crested the summit, and I never saw him again.

At the top we saw a group of German pilgrims holding morning mass and singing by a cross. Instantly I began to think of the residents of Whoville getting together on Christmas morning even though all their presents were stolen by the Grinch. It was a beautiful sight.

Continuing west we reached the other side of the mountain, high up with the clouds and the drifting fog. Yes, we could also see an industrial smokestack belching cloud like plumes, which we would eventually walk past, but you gotta choose what to focus on. I chose nature.

After walking down into a small town we then came upon a highway with cars whipping by too fast. We were now deep in Burgos’ urban sprawl. Luckily we had done our homework, because there was a place where you could continue onward along the highway (the more direct route), or get on a natural path. Thankfully J’Nell saw the marker on the road, and we were both in agreement to walk longer to get away from the cars. Though it wasn’t scenic and took you around an airport, it was a great decision.

Hours later and after following a pleasant river park, we would finally arrive in the lovely town of Burgos. Our hotel room had a view of the city’s famous cathedral, and after relaxing and showering, we would head in that direction.

We waited through siesta time (where most restaurants don’t serve food) with beers, and we finally found an open kitchen. It wasn’t until hours after the sunset that Burgos came alive with a nighttime buzz of restaurants, bars, and music. After walking all day on the Camino, it was bedtime for us. Kind of a bummer, but we were too tired to get any Fear of Missing Out. On the Camino sleep is your friend.

The next day we would enjoy staying put in Burgos to tour the city. The cathedral was a highlight, the best church I had seen so far, and we had seen many gems. This one dated back to 1221, and as gorgeous as it is from the street, with its 15th Century spires looming over the city, stepping inside the church is a must. The interior is so chock full of amazing architecture and art, it would take years to examine them all. One highlight is a da Vinci oil painting, where the subject (Santa Maria Magdalena) looks like she could be a cousin of the Mona Lisa.

Another of my favorite places in Burgos was the Human Evolution Museum. It tells the story of the excavation of Atapuerca (the town we had just stayed in), where in the 1970s archeologists found remains of the earliest human ancestors to live in Europe (400,000 years old). Then in 2007 they discovered in the same caves bones of our caveman family that are 1.2 million years old!

Trying to wrap my brain around the enormity of human evolution was too much. But it made me think of all the beautiful churches I had seen on the Camino, the oldest of which had been built in year 1000 or later. Very impressive those structures are still standing, but to think of how long our species (and ancestors) have been wandering around this planet, there is some perspective to have.

I would take those thoughts with me as we left Burgos and walked west on the last day of September.

Foggy sunrise leaving Atapuerca

(Whoville) Mountain Mass

Sierra de Atapuerca at ridge of the Alto de Matagrande (3537 feet)

Keep following the Way, even when there is a smokestack in the distance

Approaching Burgos along its pretty riverside park

Arco de Santa Maria, the entrance to Medieval Burgos

View from our hotel room in Burgos

Catedral de Santa María (13th Century), Burgos’ iconic landmark

As beautiful as it is outside, the interior is more amazing

Leonardo da Vinci painting in Burgos

Museum of Human Evolution

Above Burgos

Pilgrim statue in Burgos

It was early morning of September 25th when we left Azorfa with the sunrise casting rays on our backs. When we crested the hill into the vineyards, I turned around to see it and smiled. J’Nell and I were now 2 weeks into our westward trek across Spain to Santiago de Compestella, and moments like these continued to be special.

Our first stop of the day was Santo Domingo de la Calzada, which has the legend of the Miracle Chickens. Whether or not you believe in the life saving poultry, inside the cathedral they actually have live roosters there! They also have a couple of El Greco paintings that were outstanding.

Leaving town at 1:30 pm via the bridge over a dry riverbank, it seemed we were the only ones on the Camino. A lot of people end their day with the miracle chickens, but we still had another 7 or so kilometers in the heat to Grañón.

We had not reserved anywhere, and when we reached the cool murals built into the town walls there, thankfully J’Nell had remembered that at the church of San Juan Bautista, you could stay there on mats for a donation.

Other than camping, I’m pretty sure I’d never slept on a mat. And I’d certainly never slept above a church before. But I’m very glad I did as it was a special experience, one of my favorites of the journey.

The people who run the albergue at San Juan Bautista make you feel part of the church and their family. And with the communal meal you help prepare, the Pilgrim’s Mass right underneath where you will be sleeping, and the group activities by candlelight, you also bond with all the people staying there. I highly recommend it to anyone walking the Camino.

While I was raised Catholic, I am no longer an actively practicing one. Other than weddings or funerals, I hadn’t attended mass in probably 20 years. But with the Camino existing due to it being a religious pilgrimage and with us visiting so many amazing churches, I felt I had to attend at least one Mass. I’m glad I picked Grañón for it, and also that I participated in the voluntary activities after dinner.

A group of about 15 of us gathered in the alcove above the back of the church by candlelight, and we each took turns reading a prayer (in our own language as they had it translated). Then the candle was passed to each person, and you got to say why you were walking the Camino (while there were only 2 other English speakers in the room, I could feel the emotion from everyone even if I couldn’t understand all the words). And lastly, we all held hands and and then one-by-one were asked to turn left and give that person good wishes on their pilgrimage.

The woman who I spoke to was younger than me from Basque Country, and I tried in my best Spanish to say nice things to her. When she teared up and hugged me afterward, it made my day. I would see her on the trail a couple days later, and she hugged me again and called me her Camino Hermano.

Leaving Azorfa

The town is very proud of its miracle chickens

Fresco in the church showing the miracle

El Greco painting in the cathedral museum in Santo Domingo

Approaching Grañón

San Juan Bautista, church and albergue

Grañon to Tosantos

I surprisingly got a good night’s sleep on the mat, and after our communal breakfast at the church we were on the road and walking by 7:45 am (early for us). We got a terrific sunrise behind us again, and I couldn’t stop turning around and snapping photos. One of my favorites is of the church where we stayed silhouetted from the rising sun.

The day featured a lot of open fields, haystacks, and what J’Nell would aptly call Sad Sunflowers (rows and rows of ones in various stages of decay … had we been there a couple of months earlier they would have been stunning). We then would then have to walk quite a bit alongside the freeway (though there was a patch of grass along with a metal barrier to separate us). In addition to the trucks zooming by, the path was very rocky and it not only aggravated my blisters but I started to get some pain in my Achilles (thankfully both would subside).

Belorado was the next town we would reach, which is the main stopping point for many people. We only had lunch there, and when we were back on the Camino, we hardly saw anyone during our almost 5k walk to Tosantos.

We arrived in town early, and after claiming our beds at the clean and cozy Los Arancones Albergue, did some laundry and had a couple of beers in the sun (it was probably around 80 degrees). After walking up the hill to see a shrine built into the mountain and finding it closed, we would return to our albergue and eat one of the best dinners on the Camino with two very cool retired ladies from Missouri.

Leaving Grañón

Sunrise behind San Juan Bautista

Sad Sunflowers

Cool Templar Mural in Belorado

Terrific albergue with great food

Cool mountain shrine … That was closed

The 137 miles J’Nell and I have walked since St. Jean Pied de Port

In the most popular Camino de Santiago guide (written by John Brierley), it has the whole pilgrimage broken down into 33 stages (how much to walk in a day and where to start and stop). It’s an outstanding book (not just from a how-to standpoint, but also a spiritual one), and it’s no wonder nearly everyone we meet has a copy. If you followed it exactly, you could theoretically finish the whole journey in a little over a month.

We’re not on that pace.

J’Nell and I are taking a more leisurely approach. And after Logroño, we decided to get off the starting and ending points from the guide whenever possible, as they tend to be less crowded. We also just like doing shorter days (20-24k, or 13-15 miles, seems to be the sweet spot), and often the book’s stages are longer.

Logroño to Ventosa

If we were following the guide, we would have walked another 6 miles that day, and there was no need for that after our super fun fiesta in Logroño. In fact, strapping on the backpack and leaving our comfy bed at the hotel to hike seemed like a terrible idea. But we did, and Ventosa was a relatively short distance from what we’d been doing.

Here’s an excerpt from my journal of that day (September 23rd) that I wrote at a sidewalk table:

Sitting here at this mostly empty cafe in this charming hilltop town enjoying a San Miguel cerveza. The owner/bartender of this place is so nice, and the olives he gave us as a complimentary bar snack could be the best I’ve ever had. We need to start thinking about dinner (its either here or the one other place …Ventosa has a population of under 200) as Quiet Time at the albergue is at 10 pm (standard for the pilgrim hostels).

What a contrast to the fiesta we just left in Logroño . We arrived in town today at 3 pm to Albergue San Saturino (named after the church in town), which was only 11 euros per bed and clean, friendly, and cozy. After showering we walked up to the 16th Century church (it was closed but was nice to admire from the outside), and then took in the sweeping views of a valley of red dirt interspersed with the green of the vineyards and darker green of the trees in the distance.

We could also glimpse Alvia Winery below, and made the trek down to see if it was open. You have to arrange in advance for a tasting or tour, but thankfully the shop was abierto for business. The very friendly lady there explained the different wines they sold in English, and we got their famous Tempranillo for only 6 euros. Spanish wine is terrific and inexpensive, the way it should be everywhere.

But how about that walk today? It started with the cutest 7 or 8 year-old girl as we were leaving Logroño say completely unprovoked, “Buen Camino, peregrinos”. Sweet, touching, and emblematic of the wonderful people here.

While it took a while to walk out of the city proper, we did go through a nice park and saw reddish-brown squirrels, a gaggle of large geese, and a feeding frenzy of fish (a woman was throwing bread into the pond and they were swarming). We continued to the pretty hilltop town of Navarrete with a 16th Century church (Iglesia de la Asunción) with one of the grandest alterpieces I’ve ever seen (carved of wood and glittering with gold). Before reaching Ventosa we would also pass through lots of vineyards with grapes plump and purple.

Alterpiece (or Retablo) at Navarrete

Our Second Spanish Winery visit

Taking the alternative route to Ventosa

They look ready to become wine!

Walking through all these vineyards sure makes me thirsty.

Ventosa to Azofra

Here’s my journal excerpt of from September 24th:

Sitting here at a table in the communal area of our albergue in this tiny, appealing town drinking a glass of vino tinto. We’re continuing to go off the book for our Camino, and also doing shorter days of walking (win, win!). Like Ventosa, there’s around 200 residents here, two bar/restaurants, and one church that was great to look at but closed.

The walk today was lovely (not a word I normally use, but apt … and maybe the Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis we’ve been meeting are rubbing off on me). It was mostly vineyards stretching out to mountains far off in the distance. And those clouds! As great as I thought they were yesterday they were even better today.

The other highlight was visiting Santa María la Real in Nájera, an 11th Century Monastery that includes a Church built into the red cliff mountainside. Its a gem of a place (we were surprised to see so many pilgrims just trucking on by it), and we’re very glad we stopped. The inside of the church is dramatic and gothic, but what sets it apart from the others we’ve seen on this trip is the miracle cave.

The dude who discovered the cave, King García III, was out hunting in 1044 when his falcon flew inside it. Legend goes he followed after his bird, and the King found an image of Mary and Baby Jesus on the wall and then then ordered the church to be built. Whether you believe the miracle or not (and either way, I think this could make an outstanding episode of Drunk History) it’s a damn fine cave and seeing it was a special experience.

Sunrise leaving Ventosa

Magical Clouds

The Miracle Cave of Nájera

Heading towards Azofra … More cloud porn.

Pre-dinner beers and journal time.

Where we stayed in Azofra