I woke up in the morning to the sound of the tap tap tap tap of walking sticks hitting the cobblestone outside of my room. Wow, this was really it. Still bleary-eyed I got myself up and had some cereal for breakfast in the hostel kitchen. I got my backpack all zipped and hooked and set out.
Here goes nothing.
I walked toward the Cathedral and tried to get the hang of my walking sticks. I’d never used walking sticks before, so it was a learn on the job situation.
I stopped to take pictures in front of the León sign and the Cathedral. In true solo traveler fashion I had to scout out who would take a picture for me. I found two women, one from Italy and one from Switzerland, who started in St. Jean Pied-de-Port and had been walking for about three weeks.
I kept on ahead and followed my first set of yellow arrows. Holy cow, I’m really doing it!
As I walked beyond the Cathedral I really started to feel the weight of my backpack, and I got worried. It felt really heavy. How was I going to keep this up for two weeks? Heavy or not my only option was to keep going.
As I was trying to get myself in gear I ran into two other pilgrims, and they turned out to be American! And one of them was black! I hadn’t seen any of us in the Camino meetings or elsewhere along the way, so this was cool.
Gary and Lou were from Austin and had been walking since St. Jean Pied-de-Port. I’m so glad I met them so soon. They quickly took me under their wing, showed me the ropes, and gave me great advice. The biggest piece of advice was not to feel like I needed to keep up with other people because I’d see them again.
As we continued walking through León a local man walked past me and said, “Buen Camino, peregrina.” It was a little thing, but I was so touched. It was my first “Buen Camino” from a stranger, and I felt like I was now officially part of the Camino de Santiago.
It takes a good while to get out of León and as we kept walking we ran into a woman named Catherine, whom Gary and Lou had been walking with some days before. Catherine is also from the US and went to the University of Georgia. Yuck! I kid, I kid. But seriously, what are the odds of meeting someone from a rival university within the first five minutes of being on the Camino?
We made a turn off on a side road that was recommended by the guidebook as kind of a shortcut, but we soon realized we might not have been on the right path.
Gary, Lou, and Catherine, not wanting me to get discouraged on my first day, kept assuring me that it’s not usually like this because the paths are clearly marked and it’s not easy to get lost and not to worry, etc etc etc. I honestly didn’t care because I was just excited to be on an adventure.
We ran into a couple of other pilgrims that the group knew, Hank and Jim, and we all found our way back to the main road.
There’s a point where the route splits, and there’s an option to diverge off the main Camino Frances to go an alternate way. The Friends of the Camino in León suggested to take the alternate route, so we did.
We eventually made it to Fresno del Camino, where Gary and Lou suggested we stop for lunch.
While we were eating I looked through the guidebook and the info sheet I got from the Friends in León. I didn’t know how far I intended to walk that day, but I wasn’t going to walk as far as everyone else.
I think I should pause here and talk about the guidebook. The Brierley book breaks up the Camino into days based on a certain distance covered each day. So for the Camino Frances it’s broken up into 33 days.
Some people follow the guidebook very closely. So if it says walk 28 km from Town A to Town B on Day 24 that’s what they’ll do. I’d say a good amount of people structure their Camino this way, and it gives you a firm date of arrival in Santiago.
My philosophy was that the guidebook should simply be that, just a guide. I’d use it for information on the route and descriptions of albergues, but I didn’t base my itinerary on what was in the book.
In the Brierley book the day that starts in León calls for 23 km (approx. 13 mi) of walking ending in Villar de Mazarife. Since it was my first day (and I hadn’t trained) I decided to ease into the whole thing. I chose to see how I felt as I walked and stop in one of the towns before Villar de Mazarife.
Well! As I sat reading the information sheet I realized there was no place to sleep in any of the towns between Fresno del Camino and Villar de Mazarife, so I would have to walk the full 23 km anyway. Change of plans!
Before we set out again I used the restroom. I set a policy for myself that for the duration of the Camino I would go to the bathroom every time I stopped anywhere. Hopefully this would prevent me being caught in an emergency somewhere.
I walked on with Gary and Lou. As we got further from Fresno I thought I heard some people speaking Portuguese. I introduced myself to Cariana and Luis, who were from Brazil. I walked with them for a while, and it was a lot of fun talking to them and practicing my Portuguese.
I felt like I was in the movie The Way. It just Day 1, and I was already meeting people from all over the world who made me part of their groups. It was a magical feeling.
As great as that was for the spirit, physically I needed a break. My backpack was feeling SO heavy, and I was trudging. I felt like I needed to stop and sit in the next possible place I could.
We came upon the town of Chozas de Abajo, and I decided to pull of the path to rest. Cariana and Luis decided to keep walking, and I didn’t know how they had the energy to keep going!
I followed the signs on the road to a bar, and I was looking forward to grabbing a bite and cooling off inside.
It was weird walking through the town though because it almost seemed abandoned. Everything was boarded up and shuttered.
I walked up to the bar and saw a bunch of pilgrims sitting outside. I needed to cool off, so I decided to go in. When I got up to the door, however, there was a sign that said it was closed Wednesday “por descanso”. It was kind of a hilarious twist of luck. I just so happened to get to this oasis on the one day in the middle of the week when they’re resting. So that’s why everyone was sitting outside.
While we were sitting on the porch resting all of a sudden a car came out of nowhere, swerved, ran up on the curb, and its tire exploded. How’s that for excitement in a sleepy town?!
We were all stunned and then went to see if the driver needed help. Jim sprung into action and started changing the woman’s tire.
She was so surprised. She was on the phone telling someone that she couldn’t believe a pilgrim, “un chico enormo” was helping her. She was grateful to this “Americano” for rescuing her. (Jim is a Brit, but whatever).
I was amazed at Jim’s selfless altruism in the midst of being overheated and exhausted. This is what being a pilgrim is all about.
Catherine and Jim walked up after all the excitement, and I told them about Jim’s heroics. We’d had our fill of Chozas de Abajo, so we walked the last 4 km to Villar de Mazarife.
I decided to stay in Mesón Albergue Tio Pepe and was able to get a bed when I walked up.
I took a shower, changed into my clothes for the next day, hand washed my old clothes, and did about 30 minutes worth of stretching.
I grabbed a glass of vino tinto and went to the courtyard to start journaling when I saw Gary and Lou! They were staying there too. I hadn’t seen them since I joined up with Cariana and Luis. I sat with them for dinner and was so grateful for the day I’d had. I met wonderful people and went beyond what I thought were my physical limitations. Gracias, Camino!