August 18, 2008 Vega de Valcarce to O Cebreiro

As I thought about it through the night I realized Gail had been a true hero the day before. Without much training she’d conquered a very difficult climb. She wasn’t here out of any desire of her own. She was here to keep me company and help me fulfill my own goal, to complete the Camino de Santiago. She’d taken two weeks of precious vacation from her work as a physician and had dedicated it to my goal. It was a great sacrifice and I was very grateful for this gift she’d given me.

As she awoke it was clear she was having Pilgrim Second Day Syndrome — the annoying realization on the morning of a pilgrim’s second day that they’d face another and another challenge just like the one they’d already surmounted. There’s a certain hopelessness about Second Day Syndrome, and although the day was bright and beautiful Gail’s cheerlessness was completely understandable. Today we would finish our long climb up to O Cebreiro, gaining at least as much elevation as we had the day before.

At about La Faba the camino becomes quite steep and it was about here that Gail’s pack was becoming a real encumbrance. I stopped her, unbuckled her pack, took mine off, then strapped the two together and lifted them both onto my back. The combined weight was only about 40 lbs — we were both light packers — and the lighter weight made a big difference for Gail, allowing her to gamely trudge up the mountain. Several times we stopped and watched as other pilgrims looked at the double packs, mentally counting the weight I was carrying. I’m sure they didn’t realize backpackers in our local Cascades carry 50-60 pounds on a regular basis and the 40 pounds on my back wasn’t a big deal since we had all day to make our goal and my legs had already been strengthened by nearly 400 camino miles earlier in the summer.

As we neared O Cebreiro the clouds rolled in and the air became quite cool. I learned that even in August O Cebreiro can be chilly. We found a room at a tiny inn, found a warm dinner and a credential stamp at the chapel, and covered ourselves with blankets, trying to stay warm in the cold room. Out the windows, though, we saw the amazing views from this beautiful and historic village and were thankful we were able to conquer the biggest hill of our camino together.

August 17, 2008 Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce

With my mother’s illness behind us I had somehow managed to talk Gail into joining me in Spain for the final 188 km (115 miles). She’d been able to train only briefly, walking back and forth each day the 3 miles to and from the hospital where she works. From her hiking days years ago she had well-worn boots, so at least footwear would not be a problem.

As we made our way to Spain — to Madrid by air, to León and Ponferrada by train, to Villafranca del Bierzo by bus — I realized this last stretch would be much different than the former. Gail had already let me know she was not interested in experiencing albergue life, regardless of the cost savings. That was fine by me. I realized, too, that I was bringing my own camino family this time and wouldn’t feel as much need to reach out to any English speaking stranger I happened to find in a cafe/bar or albergue. Best of all, I’d have a partner with whom I could share the memories for many years after.

I’d made reservations at the Parador in Villafranca del Bierzo, where we arrived on Aug 16.  We headed out to dinner at the same restaurant where I’d read Gail’s email two months earlier and, coming back, we heard the sound of American English behind us. We stopped to introduce ourselves and met Carol and her son, Jake, from Virginia. They had started in León in celebration of Carol’s 60th birthday. Jake, a Northwestern University drama student, had already walked the camino years before. We didn’t realize at the time that Carol and Jake would become our new camino family.

The next morning we had a plentiful Parador breakfast, then stepped out of the hotel to begin our walk. We walked toward the plaza and came to the yellow arrow on the asphalt where I’d abandoned the camino two months earlier. I was thrilled and excited to return and thankful to have Gail with me.

Somehow we couldn’t find the right arrows to cross the river, so we walked across on the auto bridge, then walked until we picked up the arrows again. The way was obvious since the Bierzo river valley dramatically cuts through the ridges that encircle the town. Just as we left town we had a fateful choice to make — take the way along the road or take the Camino Duro, the tough road that climbs to the ridge above town and follows it much of the way toward O Cebreiro. At the turnoff for the Camino Duro the signs shouted out in Spanish, “Danger! Don’t go this way unless you’re very athletic. It is very hard!”

We stood together and talked about which way we’d walk. I was concerned that, without adequate time for training Gail would have a difficult time on the ridge route. “If I weren’t here,” she said, “which path would you walk?” I admitted I would walk the Camino Duro, so together we headed up the steep path toward the ridge.

The combination of a heavy pack and the steep, vertical climb immediately took its toll on Gail. We paused over on our way up, but she persisted. We were rewarded by spectacular views back toward Villafranca and extraordinary views up the valley toward O Cebreiro.

Once at the top the ridge road levels out and becomes much easier. At that point the views take over and the walk is pure bliss. We continued on for some miles in the bright sunshine until coming to a stand of walnut trees. At this point we realized the path headed back down a steep, gravel road to the valley floor below. We picked our way down to the town of Vega de Valcarce and located an albergue/hotel as our stop for the evening. As should be, Gail was exhausted. We found dinner and caught a good night’s sleep in our simple hotel room, halfway up the last big climb of the Camino Frances.