It wasn’t early (like 4.30 am) but it is still the crack of dawn as we wake. Others are already up and packing. It is the usual buzz. I pull my clothing out from where I’ve wedged it in the top bunk. I have a routine now. I hang out the clothes I am going to wear. If I’m on the bottom bunk, it creates like a privacy screen. It reduces the fumbling in the dark and means I can change quickly into my hiking gear, whilst packing the rest of my stuff through touch.
Dressed and ready to go, we have a lovely breakfast prepared by the hospitaleros at Gaucelmo. The meal is donativo. Charged and ready, I lace up my boots and go to grab my walking sticks. I have a momentary shock as I realise it is not there. The ownership of possessions on the camino is an interesting experience. Other than your key documents and devices, all other items are replaceable. Often, in the overall scheme of things, it is not worth much. One can afford to replace it. One could go on without it, albeit with greater inconvenience. But whilst you have them, you want them. It is yours.
So I scanned the pilgrims till my eye rested on my sticks, being held in the hands of another pilgrim. “Those are my sticks”. “No, they are mine,” she says indignantly. “No, they are mine. I know, because I have a compass stuck to the top of it. Those are your sticks there.” A veil lifts as she looks at her similarly branded but different sticks. I grab them, relieved that I found them and that I didn’t walk kilometres without it, only to have to turn back. Chances are, I’d keep going. No one goes backwards on the camino.
We walk up and up to Foncebadon. The views are beautiful. Foncebadon is a scrappy stone town that’s experiencing a resurgence due to modern pilgrims. Consisting of a few liveable buildings, most of the others are ruins. We stop at a bar for cafe con leche, but it’s not “machina”. I leave it, preferring my chocolate milk to give me energy for the push to Cruz de Ferro.
I meet Marianne from Auckland. She’s the lady I spoke to in Astorga as we lunched in a restaurant. She’s decided to walk in her hiking sandals as her boots give her blisters. We chat for a bit but I have to walk on ahead. The cigarette smoke from the next table is giving me a reaction. I start walking and start clearing my lungs.
I walk silently ahead. I wanted silence to reflect on what this journey’s been for me. Cruz de Ferro is up ahead, the whole raison d’être for my trip. It is time to leave it behind. Many times I’d hoped I left it behind, and often I find the thoughts slowly trickle back. I’d be left with a whole big feeling of futile “I wish”. “I wish that had never happened to me.” Immediately I hear Ian McKellan’s voice from Lord of the Rings saying, “so do all who face such tasks. It is what we do with the time that’s left that matters.” Like a parachute that trails behind me, it’s been catching the wind, holding me back, strangling me. One day, as I walked the Meseta on the old Roman Road, I cut the strings with my camino shell and I saw it fly away into the distance. I think I do not need Cruz de Ferro. I wish I had been alone for this stage of the journey.
Cruz de Ferro appears in the distance. It’s iron cross is thin against the landscape. It takes a while for me to register. I am suddenly nervous. Can I truly let go? Have I let it go? Sometimes, we live with an idea for such a long time that it becomes a familiar coat. It’s a tatty coat but it’s familiar. You know the coat is not good but it will take a while to find a new, better coat. But you can’t find the new coat with the old one on.
I climb up the pike of rocks to reach the base of the cross. I put my hand in my pocket to pull out the piece of embroidered goldwork of the camino shell I had embroidered during the preparation stage of my camino. I have shown it to others. They have said it is beautiful. And it is. It gleams in the sun. But it is not for keeping. It never was. I tie it to the cross and I take my stone that I had carried from the front garden of my house and I press it in the wood. The trunk feels smooth to the touch, worn down by human hands over the years. “Take it,” I say. “Take this burden away from me.” And I leave. I look back once, and my embroidery is lost amongst all the prayers, wishes and burdens that pilgrims have left behind.
The walk to Monjarin is beautiful, and we stop at the last templar’s refugio. The famous colourful sign I’d seen in guidebooks or the documentary Six Ways to Santiago looks worn and faded. But we admire the distances to Rome, Jerusalem and many other places.
The sun rises high in the sky and it is getting hot. We rest in San Miguel at a bar before making our way down. The descent is pretty steep and rocky. Stones are smooth like giant pebbles and it is easy to slip. My feet keep sliding forward and a couple of slips resulted in some serious toe jams in the boot. It’s very painful. Even in my boot I curl my big toe to try to relieve the pain.
As we walked into Mollinaseca, it was late. Not much seemed open and there didn’t appear to be signage to the nearest albergue. Suddenly exhausted, I saw a sign for a triple room for €50. No one could walk any further.