At first light we all grabbed coffee and breakfast. Then, strapping on the backpacks we headed out for our first walk. The group broke up as we turned left outside the albergue for the short uphill climb back towards the Convento. At the top Jon and I posed for a quick photo at the Sarria marker before locating our first yellow arrow and setting off down the steep hill road out of Sarria.
The morning was crisp and slightly foggy as Alida, Jon and I walked over the first small bridge towards the forest ahead. As we went we met others and waved with a friendly smile, always accompanied with “buon camino!” That is, until a couple of bicyclist blew past us without warning. Yes, I knew that they also did the camino but somehow I didn’t expect them to be on the trails, rather I assumed that they would stick to the roads. Not so. And as it turns out, they are not well-liked on those narrow paths as most don’t announce their presence and often speed by with no regard to the people on foot. We soon came to dislike their lack of courtesy. As we walked along after the bicyclists passed us we soon entered into the forest and over our second of many stream/river crossings to face the sharp rise of the next hill.
And that’s when the reality of downhill descents kicked in big time: On the camino what goes down goes back up. We now faced our first long climb up this steep, uneven dirt path with loaded backpacks. A couple of dozen steps up the steep incline and ohhh… no! I found myself struggling with the backpack as I climbed: Had I bitten off far more that I could chew, bad knee and all? I momentarily panicked. What, in the world was I day-dreaming about as I was walked the streets of Mantua? That was nothing compared to this! The trail felt like it was closing in as it rose even steeper into the trees. I stopped briefly for a moment to catch my breath. Calm down. The camino is not a race but a journey I told myself. It’s not about speed but just one foot in front of the other. That is how it is done. Now lets put that one foot in front of the other. And so I started again. Slowly at first, sticking one trek pole ahead of the other as I regained my resolve. At the top of the hill the sun broke through the trees and a beautiful field lay at our feet with a vista of rolling hills in the distance. As I stopped and stared at that bucolic scene I felt elated. I had passed my personal test and now had the confidence to conquer the distant hills that lay before me.
The rest of the morning went well as we made our way to out first coffee stop at a charming albergue with emerald green lawns where the rest of the group had gathered. I purchased my camino shell there, the one that you are supposed to drink with, as my badge of courage and with it securely tied to my backpack. We then started out again, this time with Eleanor joining us. The rest of the day proved to be a very pleasurable walk, with stops for a church visit, a lunch where we all caught up with each other again and a cow traffic jam. And here an explanation of the camino trail is in order: The camino mostly winds through forest, between farmlands and along roadways. These paths can be very wide farm roads, big enough for tractors and other heavy farm equipment or so narrow and steep with stone walls that only one person can walk it at a time. The cows were coming from a pasture on the left to their barns on the right. The road was narrow and fenced on both sides. Jim, who had joined Jon and me after lunch (we were always forming and disbanding little walking groups) politely asked the farmers in Spanish if we could pass but was summarily ignored. There was no way to walk around the cows and the farmers could have cared less about our pleas. The cows will take their time and peregrinos, you will just have to wait patiently until the last one is ushered into the barn. So it is on the camino. Life travels at a decidedly different pace.
That afternoon we arrived at our first stop, Albergue La Bodeguina de Mercadorio. We had booked ahead so that we could take our time and not fight for space as those pilgrims who walk until they find a bed-the ones that leave in the dark and who rush forward, fearing that there will be no room at the inn for them as all beds are taken. Also, shipping bags ahead requires reservations before they will be accepted, so municipal albergues are out. Because of the size of our group we were able to book a single room for almost all of us. Dinner at the albergue was quite good, if a bit rustic. Everyone was buzzing with tales from the day. We had done 19km on our first leg, not bad for a bunch of green peregrinos. Jim remarked that even he was surprised at the speed and stamina of the group. We had done very well, indeed.
At some point after dinner a rather crazy Spanish woman latched onto Jon and began incessantly talking to us in a mixture of Spanish and English which went on for quite some time. I say “crazy” but she really wasn’t. She was just very outgoing and vocal. She wanted to meet people and was doing her best to communicate with us. Given my poor at best Spanish, I could have done no better. Finally she wore herself down and we broke it off and headed into the sleeping area for an early turn-in.