Camino de Santiago

© Bruce Nichols - 2004

Camino #2
Across the Meseta

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I’m writing from the city of Leon on the 19th of April. I’ve come a long way since my last email and the days seem to run together when I look back. I have almost finished crossing the meseta - the broad mostly flat plane that goes from Burgos to a bit beyond Leon. Yesterday for the first time I could see the mountains that I will probably begin to climb the day after tomorrow. They are frosted with new snow as temperatures here remain below normal for this time of year.

The meseta has been an interesting experience. After the hilly wine country of Navarra it was quite a change in scenery. And the way I came into it was also a bit magical. I had spent the night in a small albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) in Tardajos about 15 miles past Burgos. As usual I was up early and out in the still half dark that persists here until 7:30 or so.

As I walked out of town a sliver of a waning moon hung over the eastern horizon which was just starting to lighten. Some stars shone overhead. I walked through the quiet deserted streets and out into the countryside. As the light came on I noticed a bank of cloud or fog behind me and as I walked into the morning the fog slowly caught and engulfed me. I could see about 70 yards in any direction. The gravely country road I traversed disappeared in front and in back.

Off to my left and right rough grasses, gorse, some small flowers and occasional small birds were my company. It had been cold again in the night and some remnants of frost clung to the edges of the road. It was altogether a mysterious, moody, and abbreviated landscape. The only sounds were the calls of the small birds sometimes visible on a branch or in the brush but more often hidden somewhere in the grass. The larks especially were brilliant bursting into long ecstatic arias as the day grew somewhat brighter.

At about 11 after 4 hours of walking, things began to change and the fog started to lift. Little by little more and more of the surrounding world came back into being and when the sun finally had sent all the fog back to wherever it goes, I was in the meseta - Horizon all around me in a mostly flat world broken by small dips and rises and a sky that seemed huge. The Camino ran mostly straight but was broken by the occasional dip or swale around which it would curve in visually wonderful patterns. I took lots of pictures and for the second time in the trip unzipped the lower legs of my pants and converted them into shorts. When the fog lifted other peregrinos also appeared. I passed a group of French walkers who had started in France several years ago and were doing the Camino in 200-kilometer increments. After I passed they broke into song singing in wonderful harmony - this all happened before the fog was completely gone and added an interesting quality to its final moments.

I also walked for a while with a Dutch woman, Carla, enjoying the chance to talk in English for a bit. As we descended into a small depression in the meseta we were suddenly confronted with a small town, Hontanas that is hidden from view till you are just upon it. Walking down the main and only street we passed an open garage and were hailed by a craggy old Spaniard. His name was Jesus Martinez Delgado and the card he gave me reads "ARTISTA". He was quite a character though I understood only a little of what he rapidly spoke. His "art" was a bit bizarre. Odd pieces of wood carved and shaped into strange forms. But all of them were decorated with pictures of other Peregrinos and himself. And sure enough we were spirited to the official photo spot and pictures were taken. It was after this that I was handed the card with the understanding that photos were to be contributed for future artworks. I left Karla in Hontanas and continued across the meseta finishing the day in my favorite town so far in Spain.

Castrojeriz is an old city. Celtic origins predate the Romans who were there. Its most significant feature is a high conical hill that towers over the city and which is crowned by a mostly in ruins castle. I arrived in this small pueblo early enough to have time to climb the hill and spend over an hour investigating the castle. I had the place all to myself and the views in the afternoon light were incredible. Light dappled the landscape through broken puffy white clouds and the land around was a riot of greens, browns, ruddy earth and gray hazy hills. I could follow the Camino out across the valley and up and over the next outlying hill. A few other small pueblos were scattered across the broad landscape. Castrojeriz also marked a turning point in the meseta. The wilder and a bit rolling eastern part was to soon give way to an even flatter and more intensively cultivated stretch that has persisted all the way to Leon. Only today did the land begin to undulate a bit in preparation for the mountains soon to come.

Some other highlights of the last days have been again the wonderful birds. I think I forgot to mention the coo-coo´s in my last installment. But occasionally and usually early in the morning, I will hear the distant and distinctive call from some small stand of wood. The other birds that dominate the meseta are the raptors. Harriers, kestrels, hawks, and several others that I don’t recognize and almost constantly in the air hunting the wide expanses of field for small unsuspecting prey. I enjoy watching the lilting dance of the harriers as they cruise just above the earth and the staccato wing beats of the kestrels as they hold in one place 50 or 100 feet above the ground ready to swoop down for a quick meal.

I’ve done a lot of walking in the last few days. For the three days before today I walked 120 kilometers or about 75 miles. The walking has not been hard in this mostly flat land but the weather continues to be a challenge.

Sunday the 18th was one of my hardest days on the Camino. I left the town of Sahagun in the morning half-light in a cold drizzle. By 8 AM the drizzle had turned to harder though intermittent showers and it was cold. Then the wind came up and when the rain came down it didn’t come down but blew sideways. In fact the left side of my shoes and pants were wet and the right side dry such was the force and direction the wind carried the rain.

I thought to myself if it would only just rain or just be windy I’d be a happy boy. And I got my wish, the rain stopped. But the wind came on with a vengeance and turned more to the west so I had to walk directly into it. And so it was for the rest of the day. 30 MPH right on the nose.

I stopped twice once in a deserted courtyard in a small town I was passing where there was at least shelter from the wind though not the cold. And another time behind a large marble cross on a pedestal that occasionally marked this stretch of Camino. I was glad to finally arrive in Mansilla de las Mulas where I spent last night after 36 kilometers of bashing into the wind. There I met a couple of Americans and a Brit who had teamed up and walked single file trading places in the lead to make the going easier. I sat in a local bar later in the afternoon and actually had a glass of the local wine with these other fellows all about my age. We traded Camino stories. Duke and (name forgotten) were from St. Paul and had started a week before I did. If your interested, a glass of the local wine - really quite good even to a non-drinker - costs .50 while a coffee is a full euro.

Today I’ve enjoyed walking around Leon. The walk into the city was only a bit over 10 miles and I was here by 11 AM. The centerpiece is the gothic cathedral which is magnificent and has the most incredible stained glass that I have ever seen. The entire upper levels of this huge arching structure are filled with intricate and large stained glass (windows seems an inadequate word) that shine with a luminosity and grace that is truly breathtaking. I spent some time there just sitting and enjoying the wonder of it all. For the rest of the afternoon I wandered the narrow and warren like streets of the old part of the city getting lost and finding my way again. That is how I happened upon the internet cafe with very reasonable rates.

My last comment on this Camino installment has to do with the emotional component of this walk. It is so much different than the AT. A friend asked during a phone call how I would rate the experience. At the time I said and 8 out of ten but afterward realized that this walk has had almost daily incredible ups and downs.

I go from almost ecstatic enjoyment of some special beauty or vista to deep reflection and sometimes feelings of loneliness at being a bit of a "stranger in a strange land". Maybe it has something to do with wondering how I am going to live the final third of my life. In so many ways it seem that I have already lived about 6 distinct lifetimes. But walking hour after hour, mostly alone and especially in the vast sky-struck expanses of the last few days have given plenty of time for thought. Lots of reflection, no answers. The British fellow who was with us yesterday had walked the Camino before and his comment was, "The Camino really begins when you finish the walking." I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Camino, you see, means "the way" or "the path". It makes me think of another "way" the Tao. I think both are not paths to "somewhere" but rather are about the journey that goes on after the walking stops. And I guess that is what I will continue to think and pray about tomorrow as I head up toward the mountains hoping for a break in the weather
Peace and blessing to you all, and love also,


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page revised - 07/04/2004
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols