Camino 9a – 28 September 2014
By Parson Thru
Triacastela to Sarria
We passed a fairly restful night in our opposite corners of the room at the O Peregrino. In the morning, from our window we could see valleys filling with mist. It climbed through trees and over the lower slopes of nearby hills on a gentle wind.
We eased feet into socks and boots, the blisters now feeling sore and delicate, and packed our rucksacks for the day. It was damp out, but not actually raining. We pulled the brightly-coloured rain-covers over our packs in case.
Time for the morning toilet, then off.
It was a later start by almost an hour, not heading out until around eight.
Leaving the key in the door, we made our way down the stairs and out to the front of the pension where we took our morning selfie. Somehow they lifted our spirits, lifting me out of my morning gloom to grin optimistically at the lens. I looked back as we were walking away and saw the waitress who’d signed us in the day before opening up the shutters for breakfast. She gave us a big beaming smile and shouted “Buen Camino!”.
Triacastela was still quiet as we orientated ourselves and walked up the slope to the main road. We continued through town looking for a yellow arrow to guide the way to Sarria. As we passed the albergue we’d seen the day before with laundry drying outside, pilgrims were gingerly starting out on sore feet. We were looking for a path leading out to San Xil. The path to Samos and the monastery was straight on through town following the river. We’d decided against the detour out to Samos the night before in the bar. Next time.
After a couple of false starts, we spotted the path – a good solid trail leading away from the town past a clutter of farm buildings and machinery. With peregrinos ahead of us and behind, we started walking for the first small village of A Balsa, then San Xil. Walking up a forest trail outside San Bolsa, we came to a rest area with a small stone reservoir on the back wall of which was a large carved scallop shell, representing the pilgrimage of Sant Iago. It was perfectly reflected in the smooth surface of the water. We stopped for a while, captivated by the tranquillity of the place, and drank from our water bottles. The promise of breakfast somewhere up ahead soon had us on the move again.
Between us and breakfast we had a climb over the shoulder of Alto do Riocabo, which stands at 910 metres. It felt like a long drag, broken by water stops and occasional viewpoints. The scenery was becoming much like what we are used to seeing back in Britain.
We stopped at around eleven at a busy bar called Caso do Franco on the edge of Furela. The proprietor and his wife were doing a roaring trade in chocolate y churros from a small hatch. We stood in line patiently while hot chocolate was painstakingly dispensed from a machine. The man was in gentle good-humour, which seemed to spread out into the café. We grabbed a table among the rucksacks, sticks and bare-legs and grinned across at each other as we dipped our churros. Around us, familiar faces. We exchanged morning nods and smiles.
The path turned into a long steady descent towards Sarria, much of it along the road. I noticed a white bus parked in a lay-by with its driver standing by as if waiting for someone. I smiled at her and passed by.
My right knee, which had been so much of a worry to me early on, wasn’t causing me any real bother now. But my feet were becoming sore in the mornings. The practice of walking directly onto blisters was nauseating, but the nausea passed once conversation kicked in. Limping to avoid walking on blisters would place stress on joints and muscles over time.
As we continued down the incline, barely broken over nine kilometres, I began to feel a pulling in my thighs. It was in those big muscles at the front – the ones that are easily pulled kicking a football.
We still had hours to walk and the sun was high. I was beginning to sweat with the heat and the effort of walking through muscle cramps. We stopped for water in a village. It may have been Pintin. I needed something to take the strain off my legs and walked into a café to see if they had walking sticks for sale. There had been so many places selling them back in Leon when I didn’t need one. Now there wasn’t a stick to be seen.
I asked the lady behind the counter if she had any anyway. My Spanish isn’t that great and walking stick isn’t in my vocabulary. We just about understood each other and a glance around the place was enough to convince me there was no chance. I thanked her and we walked on.
We’d only gone a few metres when I heard the woman shouting after me. I turned around and hobbled back. She was saying something about her husband. He came out of the café and beckoned me to follow him around the back. Opening up a garage door, he walked into the back of a glory-hole and rummaged around, coming out with a battered-looking grey walking stick. It wasn’t telescopic like the newest ones, but it was made of light carbon-fibre and had a loop to wrap around my wrist.
He offered it to me. I tried it out, pacing up and down. It was a little long, but was better than no stick at all. I tried to pay him for it, but he turned it down. It was a gift. My heart came into my mouth. I beamed at him and shook him warmly by the hand. What a lovely thing. Gushing with gratitude I tapped my way back up the lane to N, waving through the café window. Now we had a new sound to accompany us.
At first, the stick made a great difference and I practiced my technique as we skirted the main road. The wrist-strap was important. Up on Mt. Mulanje in Malawi I’d used a plain wooden stick, placing a lot of weight on it coming off the mountain. By the time we reached the bottom, I had big blisters on my hands.
After a few kilometres, my thighs cramped again – first a slight pull in one, worsening, then the other. I couldn’t work out why it was happening. We’d started to see taxis passing us with damaged and exhausted pilgrims in the back. I suddenly realised why there were so many cards and stickers in bars and on signs by the road carrying phone numbers.
N asked whether I wanted to stop and try to flag down a taxi. No way. We’d bussed from Ponferrada to Villafranca, but that was it. I was determined I’d walk the rest.
We began pausing at regular intervals. I saw the white bus parked by the road again. The driver smiled. I looked up, sweat pouring from under the hat I’d put on to fend off the sun. Every step became agony. I was leaning heavily on the stick and barely shuffling. N was becoming impatient. She told me I should stop. I barely had strength to argue and just shook my head. We were being passed by almost everyone now – people in their seventies.
The sky was bright blue above, but ahead and to the right storm clouds were building. The track became undulating and the brief uphill sections were a relief, but always the tendency was downhill. My thigh muscles were agony. With all the running I’ve done over the years, I couldn’t work out how my legs could be letting me down so badly.
Set back from the road was a very welcoming albergue with seats scattered on the lawn. We considered stopping, but that would just add the kilometres onto the next day. N went in to find a toilet and told me she’d catch me up. I soldiered on.
I must have looked the epitome of the struggling pilgrim, hobbling painfully along hanging onto my stick, shaded by a broad-brimmed hat and weighed by a heavy pack. I kept myself going by singing songs. Dylan again – the whole of “Tangled Up In Blue”, “A Simple Twist of Fate”. I just focused on the lyrics and kept myself moving, pausing only briefly to wipe the sweat out of my eyes.
N had been a while. I looked back. No sign of her among the straggly line of peregrinos. In my paranoia, I began to worry what might have happened. I couldn’t have been moving that fast.
Ahead, thunder began to rumble over the empty fields – roughly in the direction of Sarria. The white bus came by and parked again. This time the driver gave me a nod and a great big smile of encouragement. A few pilgrims who passed me stayed briefly to check that I was ok. One of them told me the bus was support for a party of Brazilians. I eyed the storm-clouds and pushed on.
A few minutes later I caught sight of N tramping along behind me – still some distance away. I stood and waited, taking my hat off to get some air to my scalp. My hair was matted. Up ahead, squatting in a dip, was what looked like the outskirts of a big town. I tried not to pin my hopes on it being Sarria. Silver and dark-grey storm-clouds boiled above it and were rolling our way. We were in for some rough weather.
N caught up. She’d stopped for a chat at the albergue and had had a coke, bringing a cold can for me. I drunk it down gratefully as she told me about the place. People were enjoying the sun in loungers and chilling after a hard day’s walking. I briefly thought about turning back, but we decided to press on for Sarria.
As we continued, the town spread out from the behind the foothills. It was a decent sized city. It had to be Sarria. The sky filled with cloud and it became obvious that the storm would catch us out in the open. We pulled on our ponchos.