Sometimes the trail was steep and narrow on the Camino de Santiago. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Time to Wake Up!

I was awakened at Albergue Leo by a metal bunk bed ladder that was knocked to the floor by a sleeping man at 4 am and again at 5 am. The first time, I jumped right out of bed! It was so loud and shocking, as it was right next to me. The ladder is free standing and hooks on to the bed. The man accidently hit it with his foot. Of course, it was dark, to add to my fright. The second time I was more aware of what was happening, but another man was getting up and knocked it over as he got out of bed.

Then it was time to hit the trail. While I was getting ready that morning, I thought of other ways I had morning wake up calls on this Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in fall 2014. In the pre dawn in the country villages and countryside, there was a local rooster that acted like the town crier and did a great job. In the hot, stuffy albergues I tried to find a bed near a window, and left it open if possible. The cock-a-doo-doodle-do was loud and clear. This occurred many times on the el Camino, and I don’t know how the farmer and the farm animals felt, but it was a bright start to my day.

Another wakeup call that happened frequently was an alarm system for all the villages—but for me it was a scary, be careful alarm. There were big (to be feared) guard dogs chained outside a building, or fenced in, just as the path entered the village. I would be walking in the dark before dawn, and one, then usually several, guard dogs would sound their alarm in great earnest. They hear you long before you ever approach them, and the barking goes on continuously until you pass them. I am very concerned one will be loose, so I stay very alert.

After my wake up call, I progress along the el Camino, and each day is different. After the ladder fell, Greg, Jorgen, and I made good time from Villafranca del Bierzo, an ancient town settled by the Franks, once wiped out by the Plague and later by floods. The two men stopped several times before 8:30 am, but I kept going, as I hoped to reach Vega del Valcarce in good shape and head up the mountain. I walked nonstop except to put on my rain jacket and pack cover in one of the villages. I went uphill all day! It got steeper and steeper, and then it began to rain, and finally the weather turned to dense fog.

I walked along the side of a road for a long distance, then the two-way road turned into a narrower road and became smaller still, until I was on the path, which was also a transport horse trail. It became very steep, and by the time I reached Laguna de Costilla, it was a muddy mess mixed with cow manure. I was in alpine country. I caught up to two young women ahead of me, who stopped every few minutes to catch their breath—and also check up on me—I suppose I was huffing and puffing, and for sure, I was dripping wet, like a drowned rat! It was a very strenuous walk.

I came to a private albergue just two kilometers from my destination, O Cebreiro, and stopped, too exhausted to go any further. What a day! I could hardly see more than a couple of feet ahead of me. I walked to the bar, asked for a bed, and signed in. Now I had cooled down enough to be chilled, and I went up the stairs, on the side of the stone building, to the sleeping quarters upstairs. After laying down for a few minutes, I felt more rested, and I got up and greeted another traveler sitting nearby.

Jack was a man from Quebec who had been on the el Camino since St Jean Pied de Port. Soon he was telling me how he had lost his guide book today. That can happen when you open your backpack to take out a rain jacket, or whatever, and you are in a hurry, and you don’t see or hear something drop. Poor Jack felt out of sorts. I let him borrow my guidebook, and I ripped out another page from my journal book and gave it to him. He took notes of distances and names of places to stay for the next day or two.

After talking with Jack, I went down to find a bite to eat. It was an old fashioned mountain bar with an adjoining dining room. The owner and his wife had their hands full, as they were taking care of their toddler at the same time. The wife would pass the young child to the husband while she waited on a table or took a message on her cell phone. He would sit the baby on the counter and talk to a customer, then pass the toddler back to the wife while he tended the cash register or poured a beer from the tap for someone. Then the proud grandfather came in and took over with the little boy. He sat in one corner of the dining room, playing soccer with his grandson. The toddler would kick it back and grandpa would laugh, smile, and give him praise. I was well entertained as I relaxed and enjoyed a hearty Spanish meal.

It was a rainy, windy night, high on the mountain, and I wondered if a rooster would wake me in the pre dawn in this foggy, rainy weather. I was hoping not to wake up to snow, which is very common here even in summer, and it was now mid-September, so anything could happen!

(posted May 12, 2015)