Mountain view on the Camino de Santiago trail; photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Cruz de Hierro

It is amazing the wonderful people I meet on the trail every day, as I hike the Camino de Santiago in fall 2014. There are new faces–all are positive, motivated pilgrims on the journey of a lifetime–and then I see my great trail friends, happy to see a familiar pilgrim, all of us in this together. The Spanish countrymen are very pleasant and helpful, too. Wherever I am on the trail, they wave and shout out “Bueno” or “Buenos dias” or “Buen Camino.”

Today I was leaving Astorga and I walked with Jorgen, a Danish man. It was dark and we both had on our head lamps. As often is the case when leaving a town, the el Camino is on the highway until it diverts onto a path and goes back into the country, woods, or mountains. This was the case today.

We were walking along the road, looking for the el Camino signs, when there was a choice: take the path or stay on the highway. Ahead of us was a couple from California. They chose the path, and in the dark, it seemed safer than being on the highway.

This was the beginning of a mistake. The four of us walked quite a few kilometers until we came to a four-way split in the trail. We could find no markers. On the left was a deserted town. I remember reading about this in my trail book.

Ahead I did not know, to the right seemed wrong, and we had just come from the other way. Jorgen and I decided it was safest to go left, and away we went, leaving the California couple with their GPS. They were sure they knew the way, but they were new on the trail.

We said goodbye and wished them well. We never saw them again.

Jorgen and I walked through this completely restored ancient town, with all up-to-day living, but the lovely stone homes were empty. The government had poured in millions of euros, hoping people would come back here to live, but it is too far from good jobs.

After a few minutes of slowly walking through the only street in town, I saw one woman standing by a car, and I asked her how to find the Camino. She said, “Derecho.” Pointing straight ahead, she continued, “Y izquierdo!”

I knew to turn left at the end of the town. After this we walked and walked. Finally I saw rooftops over the horizon, then a good omen: two deer walked in front of me. I could have almost touched them.

Then, in the distance, pilgrims were walking. Perhaps 10 or 20 in all, none in a group, simply spread out along the visible trail, the highway, and the same road we had decided not to continue on early that morning. We were relieved to be finally on the trail again. It was an exhausting extra few kilometers not knowing where we were.

Not long after we came to a town, Jorgen stopped for breakfast, but I kept walking. I met an Englishman and we walked part of the day together. It was a day of hiking uphill through several ancient towns and near the old Roman gold mines.

That night I stayed in Rabanal del Camino, the last resting place before tackling the high Cordillera Cantábrica mountains. It was cold and damp at the Nuestra Señora del Pilar albergue. This is Iberia, wolf country, and the land of the Maragatos, ancient muleteers, Spanish mountain people. It is an area also known for legends of Charlemagne and his knights.

The weather can be very rainy and it can snow any time of the year. The albergues are not heated, and some will close soon, for the winter is too severe here. Inside the cold albergue, I slept with layers of clothes and my sleeping bag. In the morning, I left the albergue, high on the mountain, in a heavy cloud cover and darkness. I knew others had gone out ahead of me, and others would soon follow, but it was still an eerie place when I set out, being able to see only a foot or two ahead of me.

I was soon joined by a 40 year old woman from Nova Scotia. She was happy to have a walking partner though this challenging area. The terrain was uneven, narrow, and steep. We took our time, checking carefully not to miss a trail marker or to lose our footing.

We stayed together until after dawn, and we reached Foncebadón, high up on the mountain pass. There were a couple of stone buildings, where animals stayed under the buildings, and the families lived above them. Several goats greeted me and waited on the steps of the homes like dogs hoping to be greeted by their master.

There was a tiny store/café: I opened the door and we went inside. It was a great feeling to come in, out of the cold, damp, and wind. We had a cup of coffee, and she wanted to rest awhile, so I went on along the narrow trail, alone. It was still uphill; two men joined me, and we continued the climb to Cruz de Hierro, one of the highlights of the el Camino.

I knew about Cruz de Hierro before I left home, and I had been looking forward to leaving two special pebbles here: one from my son Michael’s mantel, that he had collected on his worldly travels, and one from a hike in my hometown. These had been carried in my pack, in Belguim, France, and 21 days on the el Camino. I dropped them on the massive pile of stones.

This site marks the pass over Monte Irago and the border between La Maragateria and el Bierzo. It is known that Celts laid stones at these peaks and passes to calm the mountain gods and ask for a safe passage. Romans in this area followed the same tradition, calling the stones murias, after Mercury, their god of travelers. After I had taken a few photos of the tall iron cross, I walked up onto the pile and looked at some of the special stones with engraved names or scribbled writing on the stones; some had been painted. All the stones had been carried for many miles to be placed in memory of a loved one. This was a shared time with my son, Michael.

At Cruz de Hierro I met another Michael, a 25 year old man from Australia. We walked the rest of the day together to Molinaseca, and I found another albergue for the night. It had been a meaningful day. The scenery was magnificent after descending below the clouds, but my concentration was on the narrow path with sharp rocks. I was excited knowing that I was getting closer to Santiago, and I enjoyed every step along the way.

(posted April 21, 2015)