After half an hour or so without seeing any Camino signs, I began to suspect that I may have missed a turn in the early morning darkness. In the distance I could see some lights and I thought I would reassess my options when I reached the village. However, before I got there a vehicle coming towards me stopped. Two men inside the lorry spoke to me in Spanish and I understood from their gestures that I needed to retrace my steps. They offered me a lift back and I climbed into the cab, fully aware that it was not something I would do at home. When we reached the road I should have taken, the driver stopped the lorry, got out and came around to my side of the vehicle. At first I thought he had done this just to open the door for me, but then I realised as soon as I tried to get out that the weight of my rucksack was pulling me backwards and I couldn’t get out without his help. He stretched out his arms and I threw myself forward into them; he caught me safely and placed me on the ground, just like he might have done with a child.
By then I was about an hour behind schedule. The sun was up and while I walked, I asked God for support. I felt I really needed some holding. At a village further on I stopped, and as I was about to enter a café, I met Branu and Kirsten on their way out. We chatted for a few minutes before they moved on and I went inside. As I was the only person there, I sat at the bar and ordered a coffee and the last chocolate croissant. The barman went about his business, sweeping and tidying up, while I relaxed in the warm, homely atmosphere. A few minutes later, Jan, a Belgian man in his sixties, arrived. We hadn’t met before but actually it’s relatively easy for pilgrims to strike up conversation if they are so inclined. When his French companion Christian, also in his sixties, walked in, he immediately came over and touched my back. His touch was fatherly and not at all intrusive. In fact it was exactly what I needed, and I honestly felt he was an answer to my prayer. As I left the café, happy to set off again, I waved goodbye to Jan and Christian who were sitting outside in the sun, and when I caught up with Anna and Kelly, I told them about my morning and the kindness of strangers.
After lunch in Sahagún we separated again. Anna was staying the night there, while Kelly took the train to León; I was going further on foot. Despite my blistered feet and my adjusted and somewhat uncomfortable gait, I felt uplifted by my morning’s encounters and decided that in the full heat of the afternoon, I would walk another fourteen kilometres. It was a risk, as the village I had set my sights on had only one small albergue and with greater distances between settlements along the Meseta, I thought I might regret my decision.
Before leaving Sahagún, I bought a new supply of plasters and as I emerged from the pharmacy I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw a shop selling flip-flops across the street. Christine had advised me that I needed to air my blisters, that they needed to dry out – otherwise I would have them for the entire Camino. So ruthless had I been in my packing that I had left my sandals at home, taking only light shoes for the evening. Newly stocked up with supplies I set out on my afternoon expedition.
Less than an hour later, I entered a section of the Meseta that was even more barren than anything I had experienced over the previous few days. How I approached the challenge was my choice: I could resent the heat, the lack of shade and facilities, and worry about the possibility of not getting a bed in the albergue, or I could accept the conditions and enjoy the walk. The struggle to accept what I could not change was a central theme of my Camino experience. For a couple of weeks I had clung onto thoughts of how I wanted it to be and resisted accepting the conditions as they actually were. So I decided to take the view that all would be well and that if it came to it, sleeping under a bush wouldn’t be so bad. I had enough food to survive and I could wear everything I possessed to keep me warm overnight, if needed.
In any event, sleeping outdoors was unnecessary; there was, indeed, room at the proverbial inn. The municipal albergue felt really homely; it had a well-stocked kitchen full of items other pilgrims had left behind, while the overall atmosphere was one of welcome. When I arrived, the hospitalero had music playing and candles lit, both of which were soothing to my soul after a long, tiring day. In other respects the accommodation was basic; the comfort was in the heart-centred approach the two hospitaleros brought to their work and interactions.
After the usual arrival routine I went out in search of the local shop and found myself in someone’s front room. I walked into the hallway of his house and there on the left, where a sitting room would normally be, stood a grocery shop. Although odd, it was absolutely adorable. It was like stepping into Aladdin’s cave, where hardly an inch of floor or wall space remained unoccupied. The shopkeeper took on the character of a magician as he pulled out box after box of goodies while he enquired, ‘You want?’ When he opened the fridge to reveal what was in there, it was packed to the rafters. Then he pointed to the wine. ‘You want vino?’ It didn’t seem to matter how I replied, he still had more to show me. Moments like that are part of what makes the Camino so special. He was a tiny man with a large zest for life and the encounter with him made my fourteen-kilometre walk in the afternoon sun all the more worthwhile.
Later over dinner in the albergue, I spoke to Clare from the UK and asked if she had been to the shop. In response, she took out her camera to show me the picture she had taken of a beaming, pint-sized shopkeeper joyfully surrounded by his wares. She also showed me pictures of the local men and women as they sat talking and knitting in the evening sun. In every town and village, people, elderly people in particular, congregated outside their homes or municipal parks. I loved the idea of it and thought about how much my own mother would have enjoyed that life. There seemed to be a public space to rest, to congregate or to just be in every hamlet and village along the way. That night it was the albergue in Calzadillla de los Hermanillos which provided that for me.