Onward to the End of the Earth!

It’s difficult to describe how it feels to complete a Camino in Santiago. It’s definitely exciting to begin the final day’s walk of “only” 23 km to Santiago, and to catch the first glimpse of the cathedral spires from the top of Monte de Gozo. And after several kilometers of city walking and a few false turns (how is it possible to lose a cathedral?) to finally arrive in the plaza. The atmosphere is celebratory, with a steady stream of pilgrims arriving, snapping photos, and plopping down on the flagstones to enjoy the view and to watch the show.

I even saw a couple of burly guys shed a few tears. But then reality sets in. You still have to find a place to stay, get in line for your Compostela certificate, do laundry, and get food. And then, you’re surrounded by tourists, bars, and souvenir ships selling Camino t-shirts and shot glasses and anything with a shell on it. It feels a bit like finishing a pilgrimage in Times Square – not at all contemplative, and a bit of a letdown. So, after paying our respects to St James and taking a rest day, we decided on an alternative but also traditional end to our Camino.

We laced up our boots and kept walking to the Atlantic ocean, to a rocky coast that the Romans named Finisterre – The End of the Earth. At this point, what’s another 90km, right? As our guidebook puts it, “The act of walking literally until the trail meets the sea can be helpful to shift gears and process the experience.”

Over the course of four days, we walked through farm lands and eucalyptus forests, past stone hórreos, and picturesque bridges. The Galecian municipal albergues are kind of dumps, so we stayed in some pleasant private accommodations. It’s been lovely to see the ocean again after all this time. And think about it – we can now say we’ve walked across an entire country!

Last night we walked the final 3.2 km to the 0.0 km marker at the lighthouse at the tip of the Cape.

We watched the sun set into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean (with hundreds of our closest pilgrim friends) and reflected on how lucky we’re been to have this adventure.

We made it!

800km… 500 miles … 35 days…1 pair of worn out hiking shoes… 4 Spanish regions…4 major cathedrals… Countless churchs… More slices of tortilla and cups of coffee and glasses of wine than I can track. Many, many trail markers and works of public art and conversations with pilgrims and yellow arrows… Mike and I finally made it to Santiago de Compestella.

I’ll admit I’ve been bad about documenting our journey here in this blog, but it didn’t really fit the pilgrim lifestyle. After walking all day, doing chores such as finding lodging, doing laundry and cooking, there wasn’t much energy left for blogging. Plus when I had energy, it was more valuable to spend it talking to other pilgrims from all over the world, right? And don’t even get me started on the quality (or lack thereof) of WiFi in pilgrim hostels!

However, I did post a few photos every day on social media, with a few impressions of each wonderful stage. If you’d like to catch up with a quick spin through the beautiful Camino Frances, please feel free to follow me on:

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.baehre

Instagram:

@jennbsmiles

So here’s a funny story…

Two pilgrims walk into a bar. First pilgrim says to the second pilgrim….

Ok. I don’t really know any pilgrim jokes. I need to work on that! But the day before we walked to León, we walked 21 miles from Sahagún to Reliegos and ended the day by walking into Bar Gil around 3:00 pm. Now a bar in Spain isn’t the same as a bar in the USA. Yes, they serve beer and wine, but also coffee, sandwiches, and the ubiquitous tortilla. Basically a bar is a casual place to eat and drink that’s open all day instead of a fancy white table cloth restaurant that’s only open at Spanish (late!) dinner time.

And in this case, Bar Gil also hosted a few bunk rooms for pilgrims. So we went through the albergue routine: put our hiking poles in a container just inside the door, left our muddy boots on the shelf, showed our passports and credentials, paid our 8€, and chose a bunk.

After a shower, Mike and I were sitting at a table in front of the albergue with a snack chatting with other pilgrims when a cloud of grey smoke rolled up the narrow street. Locals sitting at the adjoining tables jumped up and hurried in the direction of the smoke. So we followed. It turns out that all of the dry grasses and vegetation in a 500 sq ft courtyard had caught fire, with a spark rapidly spreading across the entire space. If the shed or house caught fire, the entire street of connected but brick and wood buildings could be lost. With no firefighters in sight, the villagers (and a few pilgrims) grabbed rakes and shovels and tarps and beat the flames out. When the worst of the fire was contained, we all took turns pouring buckets of water on the embers and stamping on the sparks. I eventually decided it wasn’t the smartest idea to do so wearing sandals! I didn’t take photos during the fire (it seemed ghoulish) but here’s Mike in full Bombero (Spanish firefighter) mode as things were calming down. When we returned to our table in front of the bar, two of the local men thanked us for helping.

The next morning, we stayed out of the way while our French roommates packed up and got an early start. As soon as they were gone, we took over the bathroom and the floor space and did the same. As we were leaving up our boots to hit the trail I told Mike, “Um…I think we have a problem.” We had left our hiking poles in the bar which was now firmly locked and abandoned at 6:00 am. Drat!

We tried every door… Locked. I was getting ready to start knocking on the private doors to wake someone up to open the bar. Although I had no idea how is explain what I needed – in Spanish. We found an open window, moved several pots of plants and climbed through… Only gave us access to the restrooms. We found a back door with a key in the lock… Only accessed a back dining room with a few tables. But wait! Tossed in a corner of that dining room were our poles! Nowhere near where we left them. And not in any part of the building where pilgrims normally have access. Hmmmm…. Seems suspicious. But better not to think about it too hard. We had all of our gear, and we could go on our merry way. Just 45 minutes late and after quite a bit of breaking and entering.

We Conquer the Mountain

After a great night’s sleep at Rancho Baiguate, it was time to get to work! Along with our guide, Misheal, we drove about an hour through the gorgeous mountains to get to the Jose Armando Bermudez National Park. This region is extremely fertile land, and we passed farms growing tomatoes, squash, bananas, coffee, and cacao. Once we arrived at the park, we paid our 150 peso entry fee, and registered by signing into a very official spiral bound school notebook. We laced up our shoes, grabbed our packs, and checked out the park maps to figure out exactly what we were getting ourselves into. Basically, 23.1 kilometers to the top, and over 2000 feet of climbing.

Next we met our pack mules and their handlers (or as Misheal called them, our “country guys”) The park requires you to hire a mule and a guide, but I think our tour company had very little faith in our fitness and abilities – because we had six mules. This was enough to carry all of our food and camping equipment, as well as a couple of extra mules with saddles just following behind and waiting to rescue us if needed. They were very cute and patient, and they loved to eat our pineapple rinds.

Misheal told us “You go at your pace. I’ll come behind slowly.” Yeah, right. Our lazy butts haven’t climbed a hill in five months and our pace is slow as molasses, so Misheal was right on our heels the whole way. The first few miles were smooth and gradual. But then things got real.

After Los Tablones, the climb started. And I learned that Dominicans don’t believe in switchbacks. When they make a trail up a mountain, they just go straight up the mountain 😳. And when you’ve gotten into a groove, and started to get used to the climb, then you hit the mud. Not “oh dear, my shoes are going to get dirty” mud but “oh my gosh, I’m going to fall and slide down this mountain on my behind” mud.

By the time we reached Alto de la Coterra we were ready for a break. Each of the significant landmarks provides a small shelter with a roof, a wooden table, and a few benches. Great for resting, and I’m sure very welcome in the frequent rain storms. Our “country guys” weren’t quite on the ball. They were supposed to have gotten there before us to get lunch ready. Instead, we waited for then for about 20 minutes and got pretty cold before lunch arrived.

Sorry about all the mule pictures, but that face!!! About that lunch, Mike and I have to eat gluten free for medical reasons – no wheat, barley, rye, or oats. I’d communicated this ahead of time to our guide company. So they didn’t pack the usual sandwiches and cookies. But they didn’t really replace them with anything. So our meals turned out to be more like snacks: cheese, pineapple, juice. I’m glad I packed several Rx Bars and Kind Bars, as well as nuts and electrolytes.

Misheal had packed a couple of Milky Way chocolate bars for each of us, and I have never tasted anything so delicious in my entire life! When’s the last time this girl ate TWO candy bars in one day? Try never!

After lunch, we tackled the steepest part of the climb – and the rockiest. We’re talking Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania rocks. Big rocks, little sliding gravel rocks, baby head sized rolling rocks. Super tricky footing for most of the rest of the climb. Look who blended right into the rocks:

We finally made it to the camp site at La Compartacion around 3:00 and we had a decision to make – continue the final 5k to the peak (and then back down to camp), or stop here for the night and make for the summit at sunrise.

We dithered a bit, and then the light rain stopped, the clouds parted, and I decided we should go for it! We told poor Misheal, who was already getting comfortable, and he said “Ok! Vamanos!” So back to the climb. In my head, 5k would be easy. But we’d already hiked about 15 miles, and this was the steepest trail yet.

It was so steep, and I was so tired, I had to count my steps to distract me enough to keep on walking. I was allowed to stop to catch my breath only after 200 steps. Misheal didn’t have much faith in me. He had one of the country guys follow behind us with a mule just in case….

Finally, I caught a glimpse of the monument at the rocky peak. Hooray! Finally! The good weather held, we had amazing views from the summit, and there was much rejoicing!

So the final 5 kilometers back down to camp weren’t easy either. I encouraged myself out loud “Just watch your feet. Don’t trip now. Just a little bit farther” and finally made it back to camp. Camp was interesting. Basically just a muddy field with a whole lot of mule poop and a cabin where everybody sleeps on the floor.

It gets pretty darn cold at that elevation! It was in the low 40s according to the thermometer on the tree. Good thing there was a fireplace in the hut and a huge bonfire outside. Misheal was very apologetic for the country guys who never could get their act together to make hot soup. But eventually, they produced a yummy pollo guisado and rice and plantains over a wood fire, with a bottle of Brugal rum to wash it down. Again, there was much rejoicing!

I put on every piece of warm clothing I had (wool tee shirt, wool long sleeve, wind breaker, fleece top, sweat shirt, hat, gloves tights, rain pants) and sat by the campfire. A group of Dominicans were celebrating a birthday, and they drank and danced and sang all evening. I couldn’t follow the Spanish lyrics, but I understood the vibe and the fun, and soaked it all in.

After a chilly night on the floor with an air mattress that leaked, we packed up and headed back down the mountain. Now you’d think down would be easy, but today our legs were no longer fresh, and down is actually really, super hard! All of that mud, and all of those rocks are just as hard in the other direction. Plus these old lady knees can’t handle down! But the skies were blue, the views were gorgeous, and eventually we made it.

When I heard the roaring of the river I knew we were close. Phew! In the blink of an eye, we found ourselves back in park headquarters in the middle of a school camp trip of chatty teenagers who all smelled a heck of a lot better than I did. Misheal herded us back to the Rancho Baiguate truck, stopping to take a group picture with our guide crew! Back to the hotel for as much lunch as I could fit into my tummy and one more night in a bed before reversing the whole truck – bus – taxi thing back to Luperon and to Sanitas. We did it!