A finish for the ages

I’ve been guiding summer trips now since 2004, and it just so happens there was at least one person from every one of those years on this trip this summer. We therefore had a quorum when trying to decide if the finish at Cabo Finisterre was the best finish of all time. Now I can’t just jump in and say what the decision was since there’s about 10 days of exciting trail between the finish and our last message home.

Our rest day in Rabanal del Camino was what we like to say, ‘just what we needed.’ This phrase was actually used about 50 times a day and covered anything from a free pool to swim in after a scorching day all the way to a granola bar when you were getting a bit peekish. We left Rabanal knowing that we had about 350km left to get to the ocean and 12 days to do it, so were pretty much sitting at 30k days for the next two weeks….oh did I mention that the meseta had ended and we’d been thrust back into the mountains with some passes in our near future. This was good on one front in that the monotony of the meseta was getting a bit much, not to mention hot, and we were looking forward to some terrain change and a bit of cloudy weather. Spain fully obliged by lowering the temperature significantly so that we hiked and pretty much lived in our fleeces and rain jackets for the remainder of the trip. This also didn’t bode well for our every accumulating clothing stench as it was sometimes upwards of four days between when we saw the sun and the moist clothes in our pack could stink us out of our own tents.

On one of these chilly and foggy days we climbed O Cebreiro, our biggest climb since our first day way back in France. A chilly and foggy day led us along on about a 3000ft climb where we planned on camping behind a small church at the top. The terrain was completely new from our time in the desert and the trail wound through small villages and hamlets, through forests, and eventually up to show us lush green mountains all around. The sun poked out at the end of the day and afforded us great views for the last few kilometers of the climb, and also promised a great sunset from our exposed camp on the summit. We ate in a café with windows over looking the mountains and had a standard pilgrims meal that usually consists of a starter of pasta, a course of meat and potatoes, and a dessert of ice cream of flan. After dinner we made our way back to camp, pulled out the sleeping bags to help fend off the cold, and watched the sun set over western Spain and gazed/fretted at the many mountains remaining to hike over before finally reaching the ocean.

As we continued to head west through the mountains, hiking through farms and small villages, the number of pilgrims on the trail picked up significantly. To get credit for hiking the Camino and to receive your ‘Compostela’ you only need to hike the last 100km, so by doing 790km, we were making sure we got credit. The new hikers that we met along the way looked so clean, the men were freshly shaven, their clothes smelled good, and they didn’t have the characteristic Camino hobble that we’d all developed by this point. One of the nice parts about having more pilgrims on trail was that the laws of supply and demand that didn’t seem to apply in eastern Spain may have started to catch on in western Spain and the cafés and restaurants were actually open to accommodate the hikers and the quality and quantity of food improved dramatically. We were also very glad to have brought tents at this points. The albergues filled up very very quickly, and now that towns were more used to crowds it was very easy to find camping, thus we were able to camp near our ending café pretty much nightly, and didn’t have to deal with snoring pilgrims, or someone wanting to get a 4am start on the day.

When we arrived in Lavacolla, just 10km out of Santiago, it was foggy, cold, and misty/raining, so we jumped in the café and drank café con leche and played spades until it stopped. It never stopped, so we never left. At this point we were very skilled at hanging out in cafés for upwards of 6 hours, and this time was no exception. Our afternoon rest rolled right into dinner, and afterwards I shuffled (feet hurt) to our camp a few hundred yards up the road next to a falling down abandoned church. Lots of the group was not excited to set up tents in the waning light with the shadow of an ancient church poking through the mist alongside what strongly resembled above ground coffins. The morning brought the standard Galicia mist, and we packed up in the dark thanks to our early rise for the day. We made our way over a small hill and at its crest we stopped for café con leche and were afforded our first view of Santiago. After a short break we made our way into town, strolled through a few km of urbanization, and then without much warning we turned the corner into the grand Plaza do Obradoiro and thus we arrived in the center of Santiago on the Camino de Santiago. Almost as if on queue, the sun came out, just in time for us to shoot lots of photos and spend some time rejoicing a bit. We picked up our Compostelas and then went to the noon pilgrim’s Mass where the priest announced our group of 20 hikers arriving from France to the congregation. Some lunch followed and then some reveling in the plaza on our arrival to Santiago.

Most pilgrims end their trek in Santiago and we were pretty tired, so the thought of cranking out another 90km to the coast over some more mountains wasn’t all that exciting of a prospect at 4pm when we decided to head out of Santiago…..boy were we glad we did….hint about the end. Since most hikers stop in Santiago, the trail was well marked to the coast, but very sparsely populated with few albergues, and even fewer restaurants. Over the next three days, we supplied up in one of the larger towns and nibbled on snacks on our way through some lush but rather remote trail….oh and it was foggy or rainy almost the entire time. On our final evening on trail, we stayed in Hospital, Spain and it took us a while to find the one building that was supposed to be open where we could eat and ended up sleeping outside her little café in the field and eating a somewhat celebratory meal on Finisterre Eve. In the morning the weather turned out to be actually clear for once and we pressed on in a cool morning up one small final pass. As lunchtime approached we neared the city of Cee and also the crest of the hill, we hiked over the top and were greeted with our first view of the Atlantic Ocean, and off in the distance could see the sea cliffs of Cabo Finisterre. After a lunch in Cee, we hiked further out the peninsula and took a swim in the frigid Atlantic and soothed our aching feet in the sand and tide.

Everyone on the trip voted the ending in Cabo Finisterre the best of any trip they’d ever been on. We arrived in the town of Finisterre late in the afternoon and grabbed some dinner supplies at the grocery store. From there we headed to the end of the European continent. A few kilometers down the road led us up a hill, past a lighthouse, and to a rocky cliff a hundred feet above the water where there was a small flat clearing where we could gather. We sat down shortly after 6pm and since we ran out of land to hike west on, we were pretty content to stay for a while. We made dinner with the sun gradually lowering on the horizon, spent quite a bit of time shooting photos, and then all took out our journals and recounted stories and reflected on our adventure. We watched the sun get swallowed by the sea and the laughter and stories continued under headlamp as the stars came out and the milkway stretched across the sky overhead. When it was all said and done, we left at 1:30 am, having spent about 7 hours on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea after a 35 day 517 mile journey, truly a finish for the ages.

Now that I’m home and my feet still hurt a couple days out, I’d have to rate the trip as not only epic… check out the pics when you get a chance…. but also relatively challenging aka brutal. There was no single hardest day on the trip that everyone could agree on, but every single day was a challenge in its own regard. When we rolled into camp there was no playing Frisbee or shooting hoops like on previous bike trips. We collapsed at a table and maybe summoned the energy to play some cards…explore town, forget it…it was probably old and closed anyway. And then we’d string long day after long day together, so if you rolled into camp after a 35 km day at 8pm and barely had time to eat dinner before the sun set, you could bet that there’d be no break, you’d be up at dawn lacing up your boots for your 11th consecutive 30km day. Blistered feet, the Camino doesn’t care, wet clothes, Camino doesn’t care, music and dogs barked all night and you didn’t sleep at all, Camino doesn’t care, got food poisoning and threw up all night, guess what, you’re putting in 30k at 7am. So if you see someone strolling around town with a weathered Camino shirt, not one of those that worried moms buy and wear to the airport that still smell like detergent and have a crease in them, but one that is bleached out from the sun, has black bands on the shoulders from pack straps, and has salt stains that look like they’ll never quite come out, know that he has been tested by the Camino and has passed. So to be in high school and to conquer the Camino in all of its relentlessness, I can’t imagine that there can be that many challenges that really seem daunting in the near future.

So be sure to check out photos at the site www.ElCamino2011.com or at our troop site www.Troop845.net. And while you’re on the site remember to click on the donate link and continue to help us raise funds for the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center.

Well, we survived it… I mean

We hiked it, and we liked it.


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