Spain

Arriving at Puente la Reina

You’d think an historic pilgrimage route wouldn’t need a recently-updated guidebook.  And, for much of the Camino Aragones, that assumption is reasonably correct.  However, on what became my last day on that route, I learned that older guidebooks only work with a healthy dose of flexibility.

After getting lost leaving Tiebas, I planned to recycle my guidebook as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, I’d used the book to make plans for the day before setting off that morning.  I intended to spend the night in the albergue it mentioned near La iglesia de Santa Maria de Eunate, an incredibly beautiful Romanesque church standing alone in a field.  Even to my agnostic sensibilities, the church felt undeniably special and sacred; I found myself deeply absorbed in the act of sitting – and then singing – inside it.

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La iglesia de Santa Maria de Eunate

But, there was no longer an albergue nearby, so it was onward to Obanos.

When I arrived in Obanos, the town was fully involved in a celebration.  A band was playing in the bandstand, people (some of whom were dressed to the nines) danced in the streets, and food stands were set up around the central plaza, near carved wooden statues.  While I enjoyed wandering around and enjoying these eye-level statues, larger-than-life replicas of religious figures were unloaded in the town.  After I’d explored for a while, I headed to the albergue to drop off my bag and eat some dinner.

Big surprise:  It was closed.

By this point, after little shuteye the night before and some 37 kilometers of walking and getting lost, I was very ready to lie down.  Instead, I got what Quiver once called “morale on a plate” (some patatas fritas), shouldered my pack, and headed onward once more.

While I’d intended on sleeping on the quiet Camino Aragones rather than the Camino Frances, the bustling route most people simply know as the “Camino,” I now had no choice:  The next town was Puente la Reina, an important destination on pilgrimages of ages past and today, a town where several routes converge into one Camino bound for Santiago.

And, that’s why at 7:20, 13 hours after I’d set off from Izco that morning and a solid five hours after most pilgrims had finished their day’s walk, I shuffled into Puente la Reina, a little road weary, a little footsore, and a little wide eyed as I took in the town, which was overflowing with pilgrims.  As walkers had for centuries before me, I had arrived.

Remembering the Camino

It feels so long ago, the way that my skin smarted after a day in the Spanish sun, the joyous and multilingual conversation at a communal meal, the quiet of an albergue in the twilight.  My memories of the peaks seem too green; those of the water at the end of the Earth, too blue.  It’s been nearly one year since I left to walk my Camino.IMG_20160724_183350_656

In the year since then, the Camino has remained as dear to my heart as it was when I entered Santiago, eyes overflowing with brine, on the day I celebrated four Lyme-free months.  I’ve looked back with fond memories of the mountains I climbed, people I met, and towns I sought shelter in.

But, as no hike since my Appalachian Trail thru-hike has, the Camino has left me at a loss for words.  When asked about the pilgrimage, I find myself struggling to explain the details of the journey, let alone its personal significance to me.

What I do know is that it was a walk I would repeat in a heartbeat – but also one that I’m sure I could never quite replicate.  In its gentle, patient way, the Camino invited me to step outside my comfort zone, to explore and contemplate and consider.  It invited me to feel and appreciate and wonder.  What I found was unique to myself in that place and time, and I imagine I’d find something different on attempting to return.

And, even while I search for a way to articulate the meaning I found and continue to find in my Camino, I see my quiet, respectful awe shared by others: fellow pilgrims, who, too, struggle to put a journey across a country, a journey back in time, a journey within themselves into words.

Impressions of the Camino Aragones

The second portion of my dabbler of Caminos, the Camino Aragones extends from the Col du Somport in the Pyrenees to Puente la Reina, an important stop along the Camino Frances.  The approximately 170-kilometer Camino Aragones traverses the river valley of the Rio Aragones on the hot, dry side of the Pyrenees.  The Camino Aragones is often chosen by pilgrims wishing to avoid the “traffic” of the Camino Frances; while that may have figured into my choice, the opportunity to cross the mountains at Somport Pass was what pulled my heartstrings.

Some of my favorite portions (and, to be honest, the favorites of most hikers) of the Appalachian Trail are those miles in the southern balds and the northern alpine zones: times when we’re above treeline, wind-whipped, sunburned, and undeniably tiny in an enormous landscape. Similarly, when I left behind the beautiful woods of the Pyrenees National Park (Le Parc national des Pyrénées) and found myself in high meadows just under the pass, I was awestruck.  Simply gorgeous.

Walking along the road to enter Spain felt climatic, and mountain panoramas made it tough to make forward progress.  But, the air was chilly and the path beckoned, so, eventually, I began the decent.  (Conversational blue blaze: Some American websites bemoan the descent from Somport Pass.  If your knees tend to get achy, you’ll hurt, but it is nothing like the descent from San Jacinto!)  As I descended, the air kept getting hotter and dryer, and the plant life around me changed.  This aridity would be my reality for the length of the Aragones.

The Aragones was dry and hot and barren – but still dramatic and beautiful.  For the first time ever on trail, I carried body lotion because, before it adjusted to the climate, my skin was so dry that it hurt.  For the length of the Aragones, I found myself eager to hit the trail early in the morning to make some miles before the sun was high in the sky.  Often, I still walked until late in the day, but I did make sure that I rested in occasional shady patches.

It seems that articles about the Camino Aragones rarely draw attention to its variety.  The “lunar landscapes” of the Camino Aragones – the badlands left behind by the river – are bizarre and unusual.  The path passes through much farmland and some low-precipitation forests.  It passes a couple of large water bodies – the Rio Aragones and a giant blue reservoir.  It descends from the Pyrenees, keeping them in view for a while.  It climbs up to high moorland.  It passes through tiny villages and bustling Jaca.

While I’d approached Jaca with the standard amount of apprehension I give developed areas, I found myself unable to find anything disagreeable with the the beautiful, historic city.  Like Toulouse, Jaca felt special (and distinctly European).  I was glad to call it my home base for two nights, as I took a zero day to visit San Juan de la Pena.

It took a day or two for the Aragones to win my heart.  For a brief time, I’d considered skipping ahead, discouraged from walking by some miles of trail near traffic.  Then, the route began winding along gravel farm tracks and up and over small hills near stone ruins, the skeletons of farms from former centuries.  I found myself fascinated by the juxtapositions of new technologies (from tractors to wind turbines) and these relics.

As I walked the Camino Aragones, I found my stride on this medieval route.  I came to not just accept but appreciate the social time of the albergues at night and the community of pilgrims on the trail.  There weren’t many of us yet – perhaps just half a dozen or so – and I knew more awaited in Puente la Reina.  As we sought refuge from a thunderstorm together in Izco, rehashing our journeys thus far, I thought about our diverse community, united by a common destination.  I began wearing my shell more proudly.

A Long Day on the Camino

Now, I love the thru-hiking community dearly, but I can’t help but notice certain patterns to the conversations at shelters, watering holes, or shade trees:

“I just crushed 21 miles.”

“Yeah, I’m easily at 3.5 miles an hour — uphill.”

“Your pack looks like the new Gregory model.  I looked into that one, but then I chose one that experts say beats it on every level.”

“People say this trail is rocky, but it’s nothing compared to Mahoosuc Notch.”

“Guess I need to go grab some water.  This filter has 3,000 miles on it, but it will probably last a bit longer.”

“I should be in Canada in just a couple months.  Everyone could if they really put in the effort.”

There’s so much bro talk!  I try my best to avoid such conversations, but sometimes, especially when it’s clear that the speaker imagines he’s the most seasoned/fastest/toughest hiker there is, it’s too hard to resist asserting myself.  When Ant would catch me discussing pace or mileage on the PCT, he’d start calling me Rainbro Dash.

Years of these sorts of experiences had convinced me that that’s just the way the backpacking community was, and I’d stopped thinking much of it, bro-ing out when need be but (probably like many other hikers) relishing the deeper-than-gear-and-bro-talk conversations that happened one-on-one.  And, that’s why I was completely caught off guard by the absence of bro talk on the Camino de Santiago.

In the albergues at night and along the way, pilgrims didn’t discuss the number of miles they’d gone that day or on their journey. Pilgrims didn’t discuss pace.  There wasn’t any talk of gear.  No one exchanged resumes or tried to impress each other with tales of their adventures.

So, when I put in my first “big-mile day” on the Camino — my first marathon day of the trip — the only social consequence of my exhaustion was the way my sun-muddled brain struggled to string together Spanish sentences for the hospitalera.  I think the absence of external motivation made the day seem both more surreal and more fun.

The day had begun in Arrés, a tiny hillside town of 40 people.  I hadn’t slept much the night before, but I hadn’t cared:  I was in good company and had enjoyed my first communal Camino dinner.  We also breakfasted together, and then I set off.

I was on the Camino Aragonés, and the day seemed to dawn hot and just get hotter.  Along old rural roads, shade was limited, but I found a few cooler places to rest occasionally.  Most of the time, I was too busy marveling at the area’s “lunar landscapes” to stop walking:  The valley of the Rio Aragonés is dotted with eroded bad lands where nothing grows.

The middle section of the morning involved a brutally hot walk along a deserted new highway which may or may not have been the Camino.  (It’s a long story.)  It provided stunning views of a bright blue reservoir beneath long ridges, before yellow arrows led me downhill.  They took me along an overgrown, forested path, where a crumbling old ermita waited in a clearing, still providing a quiet place of worship and meditation to pilgrims.

Most of the Arrés crew stopped for the day in another small town under the towers of a medieval castle.  After cooling off with them, I continued on my way, surprised to find that the trail ascended into a forest.  I walked along a forest road, and the mid-day sun provided little shade, so I found a good spot and enjoyed one of my favorite components of a long day’s hike: a trailside nap.

When I woke, I headed toward Puenta la Reina once more and soon found myself in high moorland.  A longtime fan of The Secret Garden — I answered to “Dickon Sowerby” for about a year — I have a special love of the bioregions known as “moors,” and reaching the heathered highlands late in the day, already elated from exertion, was enough to make me quite high on life.  By the time my journey up there was over, I was thoroughly windblown, thoroughly sunbaked, and thoroughly happy.

Depending on the elevation gain, my favorite hiking days are generally 24 to 32 miles long.  That length seems to allow me enough time to stop and smell the roses and take some scenic breaks — such as my dinner break under a tree near the descent to Undués de Lerda — but still walk long enough to find a lovely hiker’s high.  As an Irish pilgrim told me, “When the body is tired, the mind feels good.”

That night, my mind was wonderfully quiet and content as I made my bed at the albergue.

Beginning the Camino Aragones

First, if you’ll humor me a bit, I’d love to share my latest felt “painting”:

A felted wool painting of the valley of the Rio Aragones

West of the Pyrenees

In celebration of the wonderful time I had on the Camino Aragones, I needlefelted one of my favorite photographs from that section of my walk across Spain.  I’d taken the photo midway through the Aragones, as I enjoyed a last view of the snowcapped Pyrenees rising above arid grain fields.  Felting from photographs is my favorite kind of felt painting; I try to capture the details and mood of a photo by using a special needle to poke strands of dyed wool into place on a “canvas” of wool I’ve made from our pet sheep’s last haircut.  It always takes a while to get a wool painting just right, but the result has lots of color and texture.  I’m quite pleased with this “painting.”  (If it strikes your fancy, here’s a shameless plug:  Please feel free to check it out on the Etsy shop of our family’s fiber studio: https://www.etsy.com/shop/heartfeltfleecefiber.)

Anyway, the Camino Aragones was the second route I came to in my dabbler of Caminos.  Almost from the moment the Camino began descending the Pyrenees at the France-Spain border, it took on a different flavor.  The misty, muddy path gave way, on the other side of the rain-shadowed mountains, to a drier, hotter trail.  The wildflowers were different, and the forests of the French side disappeared.  The first few towns on the Aragones seemed more bustling than the sleepy French mountain villages I’d gotten used to.

But, as the PCT taught me, arid lands have a distinct beauty of their own, and I soon found myself appreciating the brushlands of eastern Spain.  Unlike on the PCT, water carries weren’t an issue, as it was easy to ask a kind baker or bartender for water in the towns along the way.

A sundog above the trees

A sundog above the trees

By the time I arrived in Jaca, the Spanish sun had already begun working a number on my skin, and I’d been lucky to be a witness to a spectacular sundog, a rainbow-like phenomenon seen on sunny days.  I hadn’t yet glimpsed the “lunar landscapes,” the badlands for which that region of Spain is known, and I was excited to think that they were just around the corner.  But first, it was time for a zero day — and a field trip to the cliffside monastery, San Juan de la Peña.

Panorama from a vista near San Juan de la Pena

Panorama from a vista near San Juan de la Pena