Because I was racing to beat other pilgrims to one of the two albergues in Atapuerca, neither of which took reservations, I left my hotel at 6:20. I walked endlessly upward under an ink-black sky sprinkled with constellations, guided only by the beam from my headlamp. The uphill was relentless, but finally, after 3.6km, I reached the Monumento de los Caídos, which marks the shallow graves of people executed during Spain’s Civil War. It sits atop Alto de la Pedraja, at 1,250 meters above sea level.
Villafranca de Montes de Oca (pop 200) to Monumento de los Caídos (3.6 km)
Then it was down and over a footbridge crossing the arroyo Peroja and steeply up again until the trail widened out under oak and pine forests, dotted sporadically with ash and juniper, for another 8.6km. It was one of the most boring and ugly stretches I’d encountered so far. The track was wide and rocky and there was nothing to break the monotony. The only thing that caught my interest were patches of heather and ferns and some small pine trees laced with spider webs.
Monumento de los Caídos to San Juan de Ortega (8.6 km)
We came upon a kind of rest area (no snacks) with different types of totem poles. I took a break to walk around looking at them.
Leaving the totem area, I bid adieu to the pilgrim sculpture at the far end.
Along the track, Anne from Paris caught up with me and walked with me for a bit. She said she slept last night near a shelter we’d passed partway up the mountain. She said people were out hiking this morning at 5:00 a.m., shining their headlamps into her eyes. She planned to walk all the way to Burgos today.
Anne’s brief presence alongside me today was a blessing. She said she wasn’t afraid of sleeping outside; she was more afraid of men approaching her in Paris. Once a friend gave her a can of pepper spray; she always kept it handy.
At the tiny hamlet of San Juan de Ortega (pop. 20), I shared a ham and cheese croissant with Anne.
San Juan, a disciple of Santo Domingo, was known for his great works to serve pilgrims along the Camino. He built bridges, hospitals, churches and hostels throughout the region. In this town full of dangers and difficulties for medieval pilgrims, he built an Augustinian monastery in 1150. The chapel is dedicated to San Nicolás de Bari, who supposedly saved San Juan from drowning on his way back from pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
It was too bad I wasn’t here two days later, on September 22 (the autumn equinox) to see the “miracle of light.” On that day, as well as on the spring equinox of March 21, a ray of light enters the building and illuminates the image of the Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. I didn’t stop here for long, just long enough to admire the mausoleum of Saint John with the canopy that surrounds it.
San Juan de Ortega to Agés (3.6 km)
I left Anne behind in San Juan de Ortega because she reconnected with some young friends she’d met earlier in her walk. I walked endlessly alone through more forest, not knowing for a long time if I might be lost. The forest was lovely, with spaces between the trees filled in with heather and grass.
When I finally emerged from the forest, I could see farmland and the two towns I was expecting: Agés and Atapuerca. I can’t tell you how exciting it is when you finally see your destination glowing in the sunlight before you.
I walked through Agés, a pretty little town. Its old quarter has houses in a traditional architectural style, with wood and adobe (sun-dried clay and straw bricks) as the building materials. Stone is also evident in construction.
Agés to Atapuerca (2.5 km)
After leaving Agés, I kept on, at first slightly downhill, crossing the simple medieval stone bridge, Puente Canto, built by San Juan de Ortega over the río Vena (a tributary of the río Arlanzón). It seemed like a long slog on a paved road to Atapuerca.
Atapuerca has become famous for its paleontological sites, chief of which is the Sima de los Huesos (the pit of bones), where some of the earliest human remains have been found. Ongoing excavations and analysis at this UNESCO World Heritage site point to human activity going back at least 1.2 million years. Sadly this site was 3km off the Way, so I didn’t spend the half-day it would take to get there and back, plus to explore the site.
When I arrived at 11:30 a.m., at Albergue El Perigrino, I put my backpack in line for a room. They didn’t open until 1:00, so I just sat around chatting with people. Here, I met Simon and Karen from Britain, who I’d meet many more times along the Camino; Ray and Tony, the friendly Aussies; and my Montreal friends, Paul and Richard.
It was hot, so once we were assigned our rooms, I headed for the narrow unisex shower room. I was one of the first in. When I came out, fully dressed in my clean clothes but still damp, Tony and Ray, bulky guys both wearing only their underwear, were on either side of me. I laughed and said I felt like I was between a rock and a hard spot. People were packed into the shower room.
Ray and Tony then asked if I’d like to share a washing machine with them in a combined load of laundry. I threw my stuff in with theirs. Later, after I returned from lunch, I found Tony happily hanging up my underwear on the line outdoors. “Nice things,” he said with a grin. 🙂
I went to the bar in town for a lunch of potato tortilla and limon y cerveza and toothpicks with blocks of cheese, prosciutto and olives smothered in olive oil. I sat with my two French Canadian friends, Paul and Richard. We shared a deep conversation over a few beers. After Burgos, their Camino would be over. Paul had done it before with his partner of 28 years, and this time was doing it with Richard, his friend of 40 years. I told them about my seven year separation, and they were curious about how that worked out. Richard had been married before and had kids from his marriage, but had been with his current girlfriend for three years.
After lunch, I wandered up the hill to the 15th century parish church of San Martin, visible on a steep hill from the town below. A cool breeze soothed my heart. I said prayers inside. Paul had said during lunch that in the churches he felt a vortex of prayers ascending to heaven from pilgrims doing the Camino for the last 1,000+ years. He felt it was his job to be grateful and to listen.
I enjoyed beautiful views of Atapuerca and the surrounding countryside from the hilltop grounds of the church.
I returned to my room at the Albergue El Perigrino to lie down and suddenly I got a text message from my loved one: “I don’t know what to do dad won’t talk to me and I’m going crazy over here the tiniest little things happen and I f** rage nobody will talk to me I’m completely alone.” I tried to call him and my husband but couldn’t get through to either of them. I called his brother who lives in Colorado and suggested our loved one should check himself into a hospital; he said our loved one would never do that and he wouldn’t either. He said they were both in a bad place right now. Our loved one had a big fight with his brother’s roommate Nick, who told him to get out, that he could no longer stay with them. He admitted Nick was a nightmare, an alcoholic who, after being sober for 6 years, was actively drinking again. He also said he was homesick and dreamed of coming home and he had been talking to his ex-girlfriend who was helping him; she had broken up with her boyfriend months ago. He didn’t know what he would do back home and he still liked his job. But he wanted to look after his brother and possibly live with him.
Then my loved one called and said he was upset that he couldn’t talk to anyone and wanted to share his ideas with his family . He believed that he couldn’t trust anyone because the things he’d been told all his life were not true, one thing being that the earth is round. He believed the edge of the earth is Antarctica and there is an international force there with guns keeping people on earth. He said we need to change what we do; we should stop paying taxes to the U.S. government because they’re supporting the killing of children in Gaza and if the government comes to collect taxes, we should stand up to them. I said I didn’t believe any of that, and even if were true, it doesn’t affect how I live my life. I also said I wasn’t going to stop paying taxes and go to jail for the rest of my life; there are other ways to help children in Gaza, by giving to charities, etc. I said I was trying to find joy in my one and only life.
He asked what if he could prove the earth was flat and I said it would depend on the source and he said it was NASA dot gov. I said, “How is this information useful in your life?” At this he hung up on me. I didn’t call him back but got on the phone with my husband for an hour; he wondered if he should fly to Denver and notify the police of our loved one’s location because he spent 1 1/2 hours on the phone with him and believed he was at the end of his rope. He also said our loved one was so agitated that he couldn’t go to his job at Chipotle, which meant he would likely lose another job.
Later, our loved one sent a text to both of us saying, “I challenge you guys to simply consider the question: ‘What if he’s telling the truth?”
I wrote back a long, well-thought-out (in my opinion) text, which he never answered: “Let me ask you: Is all this research and are all these thoughts serving you well in your life? You can find information out there to support any idea you want to believe. Even if you are telling the truth, it doesn’t affect my life. I want to find joy in this life as much as possible and to connect with people. I have met so many people on the Camino struggling with many issues, yet they manage to find joy in the midst. Dad told me you were so agitated today you didn’t go to work, which may cause you to lose your job. Does making everyone upset and angry connect you or separate you from others? The big question is, are these beliefs serving you well and enabling you to feel fulfilled in your life? If they’re making you miserable, maybe it’s time to reevaluate. I love you and sadly I feel helpless to do anything to help you. I love you every second of my life with all my heart but I feel heartbroken that you seem to want to be at odds with the world. The world is not going to change to suit you, so why don’t you work to be the change you want to see in the world? I honestly don’t care if the world is flat or in the shape of a triangle; my desire is to find fulfillment and joy in the one life I have. You have so much to offer the world but if you continue as you are, I just don’t see how you will find your way. I love you but please don’t waste your time trying to convince me of your beliefs because they won’t change the way I life my life.”
My husband thought my message sounded good. Later, our loved one sent a text to my husband saying: “Just went and talked to a priest. He said he’s glad to see young people like me asking questions like this. He said he’s sorry my own family won’t listen to me. I’m going to work today but for one reason…SOMEBODY listened to me.”
I was terribly upset. I felt keenly the futility of trying to talk logically to someone who is illogical. Also, I knew I needed to step back. In the end, people are going to believe what they are going to believe. I can’t change anyone’s mind about anything. I felt my loved one needed psychological help, but there was no legal way I could force him to get help. Unless he attempted suicide or hurt someone, I was powerless. He was determined that he would not seek psychological help. He always has been firm on that point. My heart ached for him and his struggles; I wanted so much to help him but he has to want to seek help.
I must have looked devastated as I walked back to the albergue (I had been walking through the streets of the town as I talked to my husband on the phone, crying sporadically), because I met up with Karen and Simon and they listened lovingly to my predicament. Simon said gently that young people these days can find any information online to support any belief. They shared that someone in their family went through a series of breakdowns and it turned out she had been struggling with her sexuality. I loved how they shared their vulnerability, and were understanding and not judgmental, and they didn’t offer advice. They helped soothe my angst considerably.
I went to eat at the bar – pizza and red wine – and the bartender, who had been gruff earlier, must have sensed I was stricken because he was very gentle with me.
On the way back, I sat with Paul and Richard and told them what happened and let them read my text to my loved one. They thought it was a good text. Paul said I should just set him aside from my mind because I couldn’t do anything to help him unless he decided to help himself. Richard disagreed and said it was impossible because I am his mother.
I could hardly sleep all night because I was so agitated and anxious about my loved one’s mental health and well-being. I felt utterly helpless. I also felt disappointed that all my prayers, offered daily in my long solo walks and in churches along the Way, seemed to be going unanswered. What little faith I had been building seemed in danger of being snuffed out.
Atapuerca is one place I will never forget. The kind friends I met, the funny experience of the shower and laundry, and this traumatic experience all mingled together to etch the time and place vividly into my memory. I can still see it clearly today, and I still feel my heart race when I think about it.
*Day 17: Thursday, September 20, 2018*
*230,502 steps, or 12.93 miles: Villafranca Montes de Oca to Atapuerca (18.8 km)*
You can find everything I’ve written so far on the Camino de Santiago here:
On Sundays, I post about hikes or walks that I have taken in my travels; I may also post on other unrelated subjects. I will use these posts to participate in Jo’s Monday Walks or any other challenges that catch my fancy.
This post is in response to Jo’s Monday Walk: Back Lane Beauty.