Step by step, day by day.

Last night at dinner, David from Italy, decided it would never do for me to have to turn around after only one day and brought up the idea of Western Union. He looked up where I could get the cash and the Western Union website said that there were two banks and a post office in Villafranca that said they were partners with Western Union. It mattered a lot to David in particular, I think, because he will possibly be in my position soon. He has a debit card with a PIN, but the Spanish ATMs aren’t accepting his PIN and so he has been walking with only the cash he started with. He hasn’t been able to get more cash at all. I think meeting me was a bit of a wake-up call for him and his determination to find a way for me to continue was in some way, a determination to prove to himself that he can finish this Camino himself. I’m so thankful for his determination and stubborness about this, because I didn’t know that Western Union was available in Europe, so I had never considered it.

Thanks to the time difference, I was able to get a hold of my Dad and he was willing to help me continue on my Camino. He didn’t want me to stop this pilgrimage any more than the pilgrims I met here. My Dad did a lot of running around to three banks in town and then to a grocery store before he could actually send any money to me through Western Union. And then he got it worked out and I woke up in Villafranca and walked toward the banks that David had said were partners with WU. Sue decided she wanted to take a bus for about the next 50 kilometers and so she walked with me to the main plaza to wait for the bus. I walked in to the first bank and asked and the fellow at the bank said he had no idea what I was talking about and had no idea what Western Union was. Feeling a little confused, I walked to another bank and asked the same question there of the lady at the counter and she said that she didn’t know what Western Union was and that she didn’t know of anywhere that offered it in Villafranca.

I had woken up feeling really hopeful about this development and thinking that I would be able to continue it and this was a blow. Sue was waiting for me since she couldn’t ask if there was a bus until about 10AM when the tourist office opened, and so I told her that I would have to just walk back to Ponferrada because I knew where there was a Western Union office in that town. I had seen it at the post office when I mailed the postcards home. So, I walked a bit off track since I knew where I was going and as I walked down some stairs into a small plaza, I was turning left to begin walking up the hill out of town and to my right I caught a site of a Western Union sticker in a window! It was the Villafranca post office and I hurried over and walked in and asked the guy at the counter about getting money here from Western Union and he said Yes!! I was so relieved. I had the information to get the money and we went through the process and the man was ready to give me the money when he said he couldn’t complete the cash transaction because, while the money was there and ready, my name didn’t match my passport. My Dad hadn’t put my middle name on the Western Union wire and the post office weren’t able to give out the money unless everything matched exactly. He told me to call my Dad and have him change it and then return. Well, it was about 1 AM in Albuquerque at this point and I thought there was really no way that this was going to work out here in Villafranca and that I could text Dad and then when he woke up in the morning he could try to fix the name and then I’d just pick up the money in Ponferrada. But, I would still need to walk back to Ponferrada because I didn’t know how far I would get along the Camino if I walked forward and didn’t know if there’d be any Western Union office ahead of me. So, I texted Dad and began walking back up the hill to go back to Ponferrada. It was raining at this time, but I felt pretty okay because I knew that Dad had succeeded in getting cash to Spain and that I would be able to continue here somehow.

As I was walking out of Villafranca, I came across an older woman who was out for a walk. She stopped me and asked if I was a pilgrim on the Camino, trying to point out that I was heading the wrong direction. I explained that I was heading back to Ponferrada and she said that I shouldn’t walk in the rain all that way. I should take the bus! And she would show me where to find the bus. I told her that I had no cash and couldn’t take a bus unless it would allow me to pay the fare with a credit card, which seemed very unlikely. She yelled up at a construction crew who were working on a building across the street and the construction workers said that I could pay with a credit card to get back to Ponferrada. So, the woman told me to turn around and begin heading back into town and she would run home and get an umbrella (because it was raining more heavily now) and would catch up to me. So, around I flip again, and walk back into town. Sure enough, the woman caught up to me and accompanied me to the bus stations and explained that I might be able to catch the next bus if we hurried. My feet are in no condition to rush anywhere and my pack is pretty heavy. I wasn’t going to be able to run to catch a bus.

Just as we were heading through the plaza again (I didn’t see Sue, so I think she must have caught a bus somewhere), my phone buzzed and there was a text from my Dad! It said that he was able to fix the name on the Western Union wire and that my money would be able to be picked up now. So, I was excited to get cash, but the woman was now on a mission to get me on a bus going back to Ponferrada and was rushing toward the bus station, where the bus was waiting. I was trying to rush up to her shouting “Senora! Senora, espera, por favor!” But she was awesomely helpful and by the time I caught up to her was ready to pay the 1.20 euro fare for me. I tried my best to explain that I no longer needed the bus, but I know it was confusing for her. I felt sort of like a fool apologizing to her for her trouble and heading off to the post office again, but I didn’t want to waste her money or a bus trip backward. I thanked her repeatedly and she said it was okay and that she hoped it all worked out for me and I headed off to the post office to get my cash, which worked out this time and I got cash and continued onward by foot.

leaving villafranca

Leaving Villafranca, cash in hand!


Sigh. It was a long morning, but I think maybe that woman was another of my angels on the Camino. If she hadn’t stopped me and turned me around, I would have been somewhere outside of Villafranca when my dad’s text arrived and I have no idea how long it would have taken me to get back to the post office. She saved me from going backward and kept me moving forward, which is exactly what I needed at that moment. She was wonderful.

So, today I’ve walked to nearly the highest spot on the Camino Frances: O Cebreiro. I’m in the midst of walking up the mountain, but will do the most climbing tomorrow. Tonight I’m staying in a refugio in Ruitelan. It’s getting crowded here because a lot of the places on the Camino are closed until Spring now. Even a lot of the hotels that don’t serve exclusively pilgrims are closed. I wonder if this crowd will be at many of my stops from here on out. My feet are killing me, but other pilgrims say this is normal for Day 2. I knew this entire trip would be hard, but I didn’t really understand all the physical pain I’d have with each step. Today’s walk was mostly all on pavement, much of it along the side of a highway. I nearly lost my hiking pole and my poncho when I stopped to rest at one point. they both fell through the highway barrier and began to roll down the ravine toward a stream, but I was able to quickly kneel down and get the pole and then use the pole to reach the poncho. I need those things, so was really glad I didn’t lose them today.

I walked alone almost the entire day. I realize that I’m a pretty slow walker, actually. People seem to be flying past me. I know my feet hurt, but even when the pain isn’t so bad, my pace is just slower than others. I got to the town of Vega and thought I couldn’t really go any further today and then David, the Italian guy, and two others (one is named Krista and she’s from Canada. She’s very nice and is my  bunk bed neighbor here at the refugio) came up to me and said hello. David was very proud of himself for finding a solution and I explained that if he needed Western Union that he should only focus on using the post offices because the banks are no help. David and Krista said that they were heading 1 kilometer further to come to this refugio and that I could come along with them. Krista had an illness earlier on the Camino and she doesn’t carry her pack any more. She has it driven to the next albergue, so she always knows which ones are open. She swore that this refugo in Ruitelan was open, so I said okay. The final kilometer wasn’t bad at all. Something about the power of walking together helps us all to walk further than we could alone. It’s not a race and I will try to remember to keep to my pace (slow as it is) and not try to keep up with these folks who are such fast walkers. I am a bit of a tortoise and I’m not ashamed of it. It’s my pace and I will eventually get to where I’m going.


It’s not a race.


In the final kilometer, we walked through the mountains and there was a man with his cows on the hillsides. The cows all were wearing cowbells and the music was so nice! The bells were clanging all over the hills and it was so cool.

It’s very cold here at this refugio. There aren’t any restaurants or bars here in Ruitelan. This is the only place to sleep or eat, so I’m doing both here! We are in bunk beds in the attic and there’s no insulation. I can hear the birds roosting in the eaves above me. It’s going to be a cold night here for sure. I’ll be putting on some extra clothes to sleep in. I expect there to be a lot of snoring in this place. Last night wasn’t too bad, but there was a lot of tossing and turning and one guy (he arrived after dinner and never spoke a word to anybody about who he was or where he was from) snored quite a bit. This morning, there was no water in the albergue in Villafranca, so I was glad I took a shower and filled my water bottle last night.

Krista thinks I am meant to be on the Camino. Maybe so, but it’s been anything but easy so far. Hers is also a very difficult Camino. She started in Burgos and walked for a few days and then got gout and had to be put in the hospital and not walk for a week. So, she’s back out on the Camino after her illness. She’s very nice. I’m glad to have met her. She has a wonderful outlook, despite (or maybe because of) her challenges out here. Each pilgrim out here has a story to tell, and each of us have had some struggles along the way. I think that’s the wonderful thing about this experience.

This refugio is sort of interesting. It’s privately run and we have many rules to follow. The fellow who runs it checked us in and directed us that the door we entered through was never to be used by us again. It is only for new pilgrims. We could only leave through the back door from now on. Dinner is communal (because there’s no where else in town to eat) and is at 7:30 and will go until 8 pm, at which time we will all go back to our beds and be silent from 8pm until he turns on music at 7am. When we hear music, we are then allowed to walk around and come back downstairs for breakfast. Some of the pilgrims are feeling sort of put-out by these rules. He has yelled at one girl who happened to leave through the new pilgrim’s door rather than the back door. Everyone was a little unsure of this place, but what choice do we have? Unless you want to turn around and walk back down to find a place to stay, this is it.

For me, this place is actually wonderful. Our dinner was absolutely fantastic. It was carrot soup, salad, and pasta. Custard for dessert and a surprise birthday cake and birthday celebration for a young German pilgrim whose birthday is today! There were 24 of us all squished together on a long dining table in the dining room. We sang “Happy Birthday” and it was really lovely. Tomorrow is Krista’s 29th birthday, so we sang for her as well. She wants to have a little celebration tomorrow at the top of the mountain in O Cebreiro. Tonight was great because I got to meet so many new pilgrims and see some that I’ve met briefly on the way so far. I saw David, Lisa and Patrick, who I’d met before. I also met Krista, Alex from Denmark, two from England, one from Australia, three from Germany, one Italian, one South Korean, two from Poland (although one lives in Colorado), and a bunch of others that I never actually got to meet, but who seemed very nice. Everyone seems very cheerful and joyful. We are all tired and some of us are in pain, but I think tonight’s dinner was so wonderful for all of us. The woman from Australia who was sitting next to me told me that this is really unusual for the Camino dinners. Most of the pilgrims here began in France and have walked this far as a big group. Not walking together necessarily (although some have definitely created little “camino couples” and walk together every day), but always staying in the same place in the evenings. The woman from Australia said that this was the first place that she’s had this sort of wonderful communal dinner. I’ve been really lucky, I think. Tonight is my second communal pilgrim dinner since I also sort of had one last night with the pilgrims in Villafranca.

Some people are dreading the uphill climb tomorrow. It’s going to be tough. It’s the highest mountain on the Camino and, as Krista said, there’s only one way over it and you have to do it sooner or later, so we may as well all do it together. She is especially dreading it because she said she feels better each day, but hasn’t yet gotten back to where she was early on before her illness. I’m less worried about the uphill climb as I’m worried about the downhill walk. My legs and feet hurt the most when I’m going downhill. My knees especially hurt and many of the paths we walk are in the woods and they have rocks and mud and fallen leaves, which make for a slippery path. We’re due for some rain tomorrow as well, so it’s sort of adding to everyone’s anxiety about what this next day will be like for us. But, again, as always, there’s is just one way to find out. You can take horses up the mountain, but I haven’t heard anybody yet say they are planning to do that. I believe we’re all planning to hoof it up there ourselves.

I find myself singing songs in my head as I’m walking. Today’s selection as I walked along the highway for miles in the drizzling rain thinking about the cash fiasco, and hobbling on my feet as other pilgrims flew by was Whitney Houston’s “Step by Step”. She’s totally my Camino muse. As I’m slowly walking and people are passing me at, what seems like, breakneck speed, I find myself trying to make myself feel better  by humming and singing the lyrics to that song. It fits me and my Camino so perfectly, it’s absurd:

Well, there’s a bridge and there’s a river
That I still must cross
As I’m going on my journey
Oh, I might be lost.

And there’s a road I have to follow
A place I have to go
Well,  no one told me just how to get there
But when I get there I know ’cause I’m taking it

Step by step, bit by bit
Stone by stone, yeah, brick by brick
Step by step, day by day
Mile by mile

And this old road is rough and ruin
So many dangers along the way
So many burdens might fall upon me
So many troubles that I have to face

Oh, but I won’t let my spirit fail me
Oh, I won’t let my spirit go
Until I get to my destination
I’m gonna take it slow because I’m making it

Step by step, bit by bit
Stone by stone, yeah, brick by brick

Step by step, day by day
Mile by mile, yeah, go your way, go your way

Say, baby, don’t give up
You’ve got to hold on to what you’ve got
Oh, baby, don’t give up
You’ve got to keep on moving, don’t stop, yeah.

I know you’re hurting
And I know you’re blue
I know you’re hurting
But don’t let the bad things get to you. I’m taking it

Step by step, bit by bit
Stone by stone, yeah, brick by brick
Step by step, day by day
Mile by mile, go your way, go your way.


Whitney is alive and well on the Camino, my friends. She’s another angel on my Camino, anyway.

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