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.

June 17, 2008 Molinaseca to Villafranca del Bierzo

A crisp and chilly, but sunny morning greeted me the next day and I rolled out of bed early, hoping to cover many miles today and perhaps find my pilgrim family at Villafranca del Bierzo, 30 km in the distance.

After a couple of hours I arrived at Ponferrada, with its famous Templar castle and — an ATM! With cash in hand and a croissant from the bakery adjacent to the castle I headed on past the wineries, to Cacabelos. Growing tired with the passing hours after many days of walking long distances to find my pilgrim friends, I stumbled into Villafranca and paid for a bed in the Ave Fenix Albergue, one of the more storied hostels on the camino (partly because it has burned down three times). I walked toward the plaza and there, having a late lunch, were Trevor, Danni and Tim! After a week I’d finally found them. We shared hugs and then, over beers, many stories of our pilgrim adventures.

Late that afternoon I checked my email from home and was surprised to read this message from Gail:

Hi Sweetie,

I hope you are catching up with your comrades!

I have some important news to pass on from your mother.  After her [recent car] accident, she took some time to resume activity, and has noticed her exercise tolerance was down.  She also was experiencing some pain in her chest that she thought was the bruise on her sternum.  However, after a student suggested she be checked out, she was referred for a treadmill test today, and it sounds like the treadmill test indicates that she probably has coronary artery disease.  The doctor gave her the option of getting another type of stress test (presumably a “stress thallium” …), or being referred to a cardiologist for heart catheterization.  (The doc consulted a cardiologist after her stress test).  I spent some time tonight talking with her about the pros and cons, and right now she is thinking she probably will want to go straight to the cardiologist and have a cath, with angioplasty or stent if needed.  This sounds like a reasonable decision to me.  If
she is referred, I think she will end up having the cath sometime this week or early next.

She is otherwise doing fine:  no chest pain unless she exercises, and she has medication and strict instructions if things get worse.  She is feeling completely well, and I suggested she treat herself to comfort food tonight, and practice relaxation!  She sounds like she is in a very good mood.  We should know a lot more tomorrow, and I’ll keep you posted.  Once I know when she will be scheduled, I’ll take the time off from work and be with her that day (she gave me permission!).

I’m sorry to write with what must be nerve-wracking news…”

Needless to say, I was thunderstruck. I went back out to the plaza and shared the news with my pilgrim family, asking their advice about whether I should head back to the U.S. or stay with the camino. I realized that over the next days I would be in another remote stretch of the walk as I crossed another mountain pass. I knew that ground transportation to an airport would be difficult for at least the next four days, and that Internet access would be equally uncertain. I also knew I’d spent nearly a week trying to catch up to my friends and that if I left the camino now I’d likely never see them again.

I went back to the albergue and decided I needed some time to catch a good rest and plan for my next steps. I’d seen signs for a Parador Hotel, so I grabbed my things from Ave Fenix and checked in to the modern and spacious Villafranca del Bierzo Parador.

That night I decided to proceed with my camino. After all, Gail was there for my mom, and Gail is a physician. In the morning I walked to the plaza again and began looking for yellow arrows to begin making my way up the mountain toward O Cebreiro. I came to a yellow arrow with a branch showing the option of going left or right. As I looked down at the arrow I realized I couldn’t walk onward on the camino with my mom sick. I just couldn’t do it. I asked at a bar/cafe when the next bus back to Ponferrada was and I said goodbye to the camino, perhaps forever. Though they’d already left for the day, I wished goodbye to my friends and began the long journey back home, my goal to complete the camino unmet.

Postscript to the day: The bus from Villafranca left me at the bus station in Ponferrada, and I took a taxi to the train station. Who should be there but the delightful French/Bulgarian crew I’d met at Hospital de Orbigo. And, surprise of surprises, who should be standing there with my lost poles but my Bulgarian friend. She’d found them at the cafe where I’d left them and had adopted them as her own. I assured her they were mine, but were now a gift to her, both from the camino and from me.

I took the train from there to Madrid, then caught a flight back to Seattle. My mother’s surgery was delayed until late in July. The surgery — a stent installment — was successful and she recuperated just fine. During July it was clear to Gail that I was longing to return to Spain and finish my camino. So with all the persuasion I could muster I convinced her to join me in August so we could pick up together where I’d left off. She agreed and we made plans to return to Villafranca del Bierzo in a few week to finish Camino 2008.