Sheep crossing the Camino de Santiago trail, photographed by Madelyn Given, September 2014.

El Camino: The Meseta and the Shepherd

The Meseta has a bad reputation on the el Camino. It is the part of the trail that is a desolate, vast, and endless flatland. This is where I am headed, in September 2014, after spending a night in the municipal albergue in the heart of Burgos.

I left before dawn, and met up with locals going home from the bars and outside cafes; they had serenaded me all night while I tried to sleep with the windows open for ventilation. After walking only a few blocks, I encountered two Spaniards having difficulty finding the trail signs. I helped them and we walked at the same pace for a few kilometers. Then they took a break and I went on alone.

I felt quite by myself—so much happens in a day. I walked through Tardajos before dawn, and this town was fast asleep; the same was true for the next town, Rabé de las Calzadas. It was a stretch before I reached Hornillos del Camino.

As I came in on the dirt path, a wrecker was pulling a car out of the gully. The bridge was too narrow for a car and the driver made a ridiculous mistake. Thankfully no one was hurt, and the locals were very quick and helpful as they took care of the problem. Soon I had crossed the little bridge and was on my way again.

It was hot, and I wished the hours away as exhaustion set in. I took in the scenery: I passed palomares (dovecotes), small round buildings that housed doves in the middle of fields. The droppings are used for fertilizer. Along the trail I saw caracoles (snails). Locals collect them by the bucket, take them home, and boil them. Then they add herbs, onions, chorizo, and jamón, and cook them in an earthenware dish.

The highlight of the day was passing a young shepherd, with his dogs and a flock of several hundred sheep. He was coming straight towards me, and so were the five or six working dogs and the noisy moving flock (see my photo at the top of this blog post). The dust was creating a small cloud, and the shepherd had a scarf covering his face, draped over his shoulder, with a staff in one hand, and sandals on his feet. I stopped in the path, and the sheep passed on all sides of me, never bumping me; some crossed over a short stone wall. The shepherd acknowledged me by tilting his head as he looked at me. This single scene, right out of the time of Christ, carried me the rest of the day in awe.

A sign read 5 kilometers to albergues in Arroyo de San Bol, and that was encouraging. It had been a long trek. It was tempting to take a detour, but the town was not on the trail, so I kept on walking.

I passed two girls resting with their packs on the ground, and later I met a women sitting by the trail. A Spanish man passed me as I stopped to remove a pebble from my shoe.

The two Spaniards caught up with me, and we walked together into the tiny village of Hontanas. I stayed in a small hotel with just four single rooms. I went to my room, kicked off my boots, and sat on the bed for 15 minutes. The albergue was across the road, and after I had showered and washed my clothes, I walked over for a coke and snack.

Lo and behold, the Italians were there. They were excited to see me and vice versa. Later, the German couple who owned the tiny hotel served us dinner. I tried to call home, but the connections here were too weak. I would try again tomorrow.

I had hiked 7 and ½ hours, as fast as my legs would carry me, with my pack and trekking poles. There were times I would feel my feet going, and then the heat would attack my body. My head, back, hips, and legs ached. Nevertheless, today only a few people passed me: a Dutchman, a German, one Italian, and a few bikers.

I focus on one day’s goal at a time. The uphills are exhausting, and the downhills are painful. It is not speed that is significant—it is enjoying each special part of the el Camino. It is a great experience.

(posted March 3, 2015)