Camino de Santiago, Camino Frances, pilgrimage, Spain

September 17th, Day 16: Villacalar de Sirga to Calzadilla de la Cueza: ‘The Meseta Will Either Break You Down or Break You Open’

The morning leaving Villacalar, and my new hat.

I wake to the sound of a phone alarm set on vibrate. It’s 6:00 a.m. and I call out to Tammy to ask if it’s her alarm. I hear some rustling around, and first, her phone falls to the floor. Then I see Tammy’s sleeping bag begin to fall over the side of the top bunk. What I don’t realize is that she is still in it. I hear a thump as she hits the chair next to the bed and then the floor.

As quickly as she has fallen, she gets herself up and back into the top bunk. I am well awake and on my feet, asking her if she is ok. She is shaking and I can’t tell if it’s from pain or laughter, but when I determine that she is indeed laughing, the two of us being belly laughing, waking up the rest of the room who wasn’t already awakened by the thump of her fall.

I have to leave the room because I keep replaying the fall in my head. I am so glad Tammy is ok though. She has a few nicks and bruises, but we have heard horror stories of broken bones and hospital visits from falls like this. Tammy needs to sleep longer, so I make some coffee in the kitchen and write until Lynne wakes up. She is feeling better and luckily no bed bug bites have appeared overnight, so she packs up and heads out for an early morning start.

Tammy and I are at least an hour behind. The whole time we are getting ready, the Italians are looking at Tammy, asking if she is ok, and trying to figure out how she actually fell out of the bed. I can tell she is embarrassed, but we laugh the whole way out of town, tears streaming down our faces as we each retell the story from our own perspective. About 30 minutes into the walk, the five Italians pass us by bike and call out goodbye from the road. We lose it again.

We walk to Carrion de los Condes, a sweet, medium sized town that is bigger than what we have been passing through recently. We cross a couple of streets and park ourselves in the main square, order breakfast and determine we will walk to Calzadilla de la Cueza today – a total of 23 kilometers.
Since we are in what feels like a small city, we take advantage of topping up on some necessities, and while Tammy is buying sunscreen, I sit on a bench outside.

As I wait, a beautiful older Spanish woman who is walking by, meets my eye and smiles a warm, knowing smile. She is wearing an emerald green blouse, has died dark red, almost purple hair, which is perfectly set, and she smells like she has just sprayed perfume. I haven’t showered in two days, and I’m wearing dirty clothes, and I wonder what everyone think of us pilgrims. I’m sure I look a sight. This lady makes me wish for a warm shower, a hair dryer and a clean set of clothes. She is so well put together and I feel like a bum!

Stamps or ‘sellos’ collected along the way.

She walks directly over to me and begins to talk to me about the Camino. I can understand enough and try to make conversation. She asks if I’m tired and how long I’ve been walking. It’s a short conversation, and at the end, she repeatedly wishes me a ‘Buen Camino.’ She is gone as quickly as she appeared, and I have no idea which direction she left. Tammy returns and I try to explain the exchange, which felt almost surreal to me. We leave Carrion, but the picture of this woman and her kind wishes stays with me.

We leave town and begin a long, hot afternoon walk. We have been advised that we will not find shade or water for a solid 15 kilometers. I am feeling quite strong despite the heat, but Tammy’s suffering from bad leg pain. We leave the paved road and begin walking on a gravel path and she stops to take an ibuprofen and urges me to walk ahead at my own pace. I don’t want to leave her. She’s in pain and we’ve been pretty good about walking at each other’s pace and slowing down when necessary, but I get the feeling that she wants to walk alone for a bit.

We agree to walk on for another hour and stop for a picnic lunch. I will scope out a spot and wait for Tammy to catch up. I cruise along, the hour passing quickly, and I glance back for Tammy occasionally but don’t see any sign of her in the near distance. I come across a field, walk over to a shaded spot, and moments later Tammy arrives. Tears are streaming down her face, and I immediately feel bad for moving ahead. I had no idea she was in this much pain, but as she makes her way over to me in the field and we begin to talk, I realize that the pain is a combination of physical and emotional, and what was the guise of physical pain was actually emotional pain manifesting  and breaking at the surface.

We sit over a picnic lunch of bread, cheese and meat, and half a small bottle of vino tinto and Tammy talks to me openly about her mother Judy’s death, the years of her deteriorating health, her battle with kidney disease and eventual kidney failure, and the moment when she learned she would have to have both legs amputated. Tammy looks at me and says, “How can I complain about this pain in my legs, when my mother lost both of hers?” I have no answers, but listen and try to comfort her. We both find it ironic that Tammy’s pain has manifested in her legs, and the pain has brought us to this conversation, one that allows Tammy to let it all out. I hope despite the pain (physical and emotional), it’s a cathartic moment for her.

Before we leave our picnic spot, Tammy retrieves the small bag of her mother’s ashes she is carrying to Finisterre and tells me she feels it appropriate to leave some here. She sprinkles some on the edge of the field and we pour the rest of the vino tinto nearby toasting to Judy’s life. We dig deep for the energy to cover the remaining kilometers

The afternoon drags and it seems to take us forever to arrive in Calzadilla de la Cueza. We seem to be in the middle of deserted, barren farmland, with nothing nearby, no sign of a town or village. Tall trees in the distance play tricks on our eyes. What we think are church steeples are just a mirage. And then, in a matter of minutes, the path begins to descend into a village below. The reason we couldn’t see the town is because it literally sits in a dip.

We head directly to the one and only albergue and learn that they are full. It is already quite late in the afternoon and the idea of walking another 6 kilometers is highly unappealing. We drop our packs and debate, but there’s really no debating. The only option is to stay, and that means accepting the lovely German hospitalerio’s (a past pilgrim who is now serving as a volunteer on the Camino) offer of sleeping in the garden.

The garden and pool at the albergue in Calzadilla de la Cueza.

We decide to get checked in, and a fellow pilgrim who takes pity on us, buys us a round of beers. The hospitalerio stamps our passports and explains that she will provide us with a mattress pad and a heavy wool blanket and that we can sleep in the garden for the night. She will not turn any pilgrims away. As she explains all this, I can sense her excitement. She is looking at this as one big slumber party, and says to me,”When else do you get to sleep under starlight?” We are coming around and thank her for her hospitality, and she tells us if we need anything, just to ask. Her name…Judith. Tammy shoots me a look and I think about that same quote I heard earlier on the Camino: There are no coincidences, it’s just God’s way of staying anonymous.

We spend the afternoon sitting in the garden, washing clothes and watching other pilgrims have a cannonball contest in the pool. At dinnertime, we head to the one and only restaurant in the village. It is packed, but we meet Cesar, the owner of the restaurant, who proceeds to hug and kiss us every time he passes by. He helps us find two spots at a table and we enjoy our nightly vino tinto and dinner with other pilgrims. The worries of the day feel far away now, and we are just thankful for the camaraderie, a good meal and a place to rest our heads – even if it is in the garden under starlight.

Tammy and I on mattress pads on the patio.

We head back to the albergue at dusk and Judith is turning the patio into another dorm room, dragging sleeping pads, almost more like gymnasium mats, outside. She then provides everyone with woolen blankets. Tammy, who is more prepared than me, unrolls her sleeping bag, and kindly throws me her blanket to use. It is a cool night, but a clear one. The stars are out above and we don’t have to sleep in a stuffy dorm room and listen to an orchestra of snoring. We realize we’ve got it good!


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