My daughter Elizabeth and I are early risers, so getting up before dawn would not be a hardship for us while walking the Camino Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain. Our plan was to leave by 5:45 am in an attempt to avoid the brutal heat and humidity of the day.
We left our much-loved hotel in Astorga in complete darkness, turned on our headlamps and headed out to find the way. We quickly saw other pilgrims and just followed along. We were still in Astorga when we saw our first restaurant/bar with the lights on. We timidly entered the establishment with so many other pilgrims but feeling like outsiders. We ordered our standard Camino breakfast of café con leche, croissants, and fresh squeezed orange juice. All the backpacks and walking sticks rested against a wall while pilgrims stood at the bar eager to eat and get back on the trail. The server was neither friendly nor rude he just brought the food, collected the money and was on to the next customer who was most assuredly another pilgrim.
I was extremely nervous at this early hour that we would lag behind the other pilgrims that were out and about. Would we get lost, die of heat exhaustion, be attacked by wild dogs, robbed in the forest areas and how the hell do I call the police in Spain?? So many questions, but so much excitement and pure joy that I was walking the Camino Santiago.
We quickly departed the café and joined the hundreds of others walking single and double file on the way. Quickly people were passing us but they always said “Buen Camino” as they did. At first, I felt foolish responding with “Buen Camino”, like I was a fake pilgrim or a fraud. This was our first day and others had been walking for weeks but after an hour or two, it became second nature for both me and my teenager.
As we walked out of Astorga, over several highway overpasses we observed the sun rising in the east. I knew the heat and humidity would soon prevail and I dreaded it. Sure enough, about an hour later I started sweating and didn’t stop until I was on the plane heading home from Spain four weeks later.
After about 5 miles we found our groove and were thoroughly enjoying this experience. We spoke to fellow walkers from all over Europe and they all seemed pleased that my child was walking. One Italian man was about 75 ish and told us he had been walking for over a month and the entire time we walked with him, he serenaded us with beautiful songs in his native tongue. The sound of people walking with their heavy hiking shoes, hiking poles clicking on the ground, and quiet conversations quickly became the norm.
Each day we walked about 15 miles and we were constantly hungry and thirsty so we stopped a lot, including 2 times for breakfast, a snack and then a long leisurely lunch. The best part of stopping was that all the pilgrims walking with you at different sections all seemed to stop and linger at the same cafes so you could reconnect.
It started raining and Elizabeth was thrilled to use her new rain poncho but not me. I knew the plastic was going to trap in more heat and it did. We quietly walked the trail and finally approached the very small town of El Ganso (translates to the goose) and decided to dry off and have lunch. El Ganso is home to the infamous Cowboy Bar, but we choose the no-name restaurant across the road to chow down on freshly prepared Spanish omelets and bananas. We were thrilled because there was a sign on the wall that said “240 kilometers” to Santiago so we were making progress.
We then got back on the Camino and immediately noticed the villages were smaller, some only appear to have a couple of houses and our trail went right by their front doors. I loved wandering through these tiny towns where some of the villagers sold drinks and walking sticks from their front doors or windows. Elizabeth decided to purchase a walking stick and paid about 5 euros for a very nice one. It was made of wood and had Camino Santiago carved into its side. We were advised that we needed a walking stick because of the steep hills but up to this point we had not really seen any hills, but would shortly.
That afternoon the crowd of pilgrims had thinned out and for the first time, I was unable to see pilgrims in front or behind us. This was my concern prior to arriving in Spain, hiking through the woods and not know who was lurking behind those trees. My motto was ‘there is safety in numbers’ and I had no intention of letting Elizabeth get victimized.
So just prior to entering our first forest we stopped and waited for 15 minutes until other pilgrims approached and we joined their pack. Many times, the groups you are walking with spoke no English, but it didn’t matter because we all had the same goal, to get to the Cathedral in Santiago. Once we entered the exquisite, old growth trees forest and started walking on the simple dirt trail I somehow knew we would be safe. The forests turned out to be my favorite places on the Camino, so peaceful and calm, a perfect opportunity for reflective moments.
At some point, we started seeing wooden twigs made into crosses that were placed in the barbed wire fences. There were literally hundreds of these crosses in this section of the Camino and they reinforced the fact that so many pilgrims came before us. All the anxiety and fear were gone and now all I care about was walking towards Santiago. We would be safe and succeed on this difficult journey and we knew it.
Elizabeth has only 2 vivid memories or our first day; all the crosses on the barbed wire fence and how happy she felt when she first observed the town where we would rest for the night in the distance. It took us another hour and a half to reach Rabanel, but I agree it was a great feeling when it first appears on the horizon.
After 8 or 9 hours of walking, we reached Rabanel, which is located straight up a long hill and although completely exhausted and depleted from the oppressive heat, I don’t remember being happier in a long time.