Camino de Santiago – Day 26 – Beauty and Terror

Cacabelos to O Cebreiro

For more Day 26 pics…


I was awake at 5:00 am after a good night’s sleep at La Angustia albergue, we needed to get an early start on the day. O Cebreiro was the target, 23 miles onward and upward in the Galician mountains.

A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey but I haven’t been particularly attentive to any religious practice or ritual along the way. This morning, however, I did read a devotional from my favorite Franciscan teacher (everybody has one, right?) before setting out. This poem was the heart of the devotional:

Go to the Limits of Your Longing by Rainer Maria Rilke

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Book of Hours, I 59

I love this poem and made a mental note to read more Rilke. the limits of your longing, flare up like a flame, make big shadows, and my favorite line, let everything happen to you: beauty and terror! With the religious act finished, we strapped on our packs and left Cacabelos in the early morning hour. It was dark and rainy.


A few people had recommended ending a day in O Cebreiro and beginning the next to see the sunset and the sunrise. The little town rests on top of a mountain (altitude 1330 meters) in eastern Galicia. And that’s why we set our sights on the lofty, 23 mile goal. The 23 miles is uphill all the way.

The early morning hike through the rain and fog was beautiful. The ruta alternativa winds through the vineyard-covered hills between Cacabelos and Villafranca del Bierzo. By the time we arrived in Villafranca, the rain had stopped, the fog lifted, and the sun was shining. It looked to be a beautiful day. We had breakfast in Villafranca, joined by a young friend from Washington and a lady from Germany. After the food and good conversation, we all set out on our separate ways.

There are three options to get to O Cebreiro from Villafranca:

  1. The traditional route is a gradual ascent to Herrerías, then a long, steep climb to O Cebreiro.
  2. The second route makes a climb up a big hill out of Villafranca and then descends and converges with the main route in Trabadelo.
  3. The third route climbs and descends three different mountains before making the final ascent into O Cebreiro.

I am a self-aware man, I know that I have a finite amount of energy in my body. I chose NOT the “path less taken.” The traditional route along the highway was the easiest of the three. My breakfast companions chose the other routes.



The middle part of this walk from Villafranca del Bierzo to Ruitelán runs alongside the N-V1 Highway. This is 18.3 km of walking on pavement. And walking on pavement creates a different kind of hurt from your knees to the tips of your toes. I am learning that all experiences on the Camino (and in life) are of value. The beautiful mountain walks and even trudging alongside the highways.

It is a fantastic countryside. It was a blessing to be able to walk among the hills and forests, even with automobiles whizzing by.

I stopped for an extended lunch break in Vega de Valcarce a little after noon. I needed to get rest for my legs and fuel for my body before the looming ascent. The calories and rest did some good.

Elevation Day 26
Lunch at the left edge of the 28 chart, destination underlined in red…the last leg

The Last Leg

We started the day walking in a rain and fog that lasted a couple of hours. Most of the day was very pleasant – sunny and warm. That changed as I entered the mountain forest above Herrerías. The clouds rolled in, the rain started falling, and the temperatures plummeted.

I have hiked higher mountains and in worse conditions but never at the end of 20 plus mile hike, or for that matter, after twenty-something consecutive days of walking. This last leg was arduous.

I lumbered through the forest, tired and soaked to the bone. It was here (time and space) the most serendipitous moment of my Camino occurred. Struggling with the steep ascent, I leaned over on the side of the trail to gasp for air. At this very spot I noticed a piece of slate a few feet off the trail. Written on this piece of broken slate were some of the words from the Rilke poem of this morning!

Rilke Poem

Let everything happen, …ty and terror. Just keep…feeling is final.

A one-hundred-year-old-but-new-to-me poem delivered by email early in the morning, the poem written by a poet from the Czech Republic, my hiking partner for the day was a young lady from the Czech Republic, and parts of this same poem written on a broken piece of slate placed on the side of a rain-soaked slope in the rain soaked mountains of Galicia, miles from civilization. Serendipitous seems too whimsical. Maybe Jung’s Synchronicity? The universe conspiring? The Divine orchestrating? Or simply random events? I don’t know…but I do know these words on the slate helped me embrace the hardship of the moment and embolden me for what was to come.

It was still raining as I left the forest. Now exposed in the hills below O Cebreiro, the wind blew harder and the rain was horizontal. I estimated the temperatures to be in the low 40’s (Fahrenheit), this is much too cold for a south Texan in late June. And I was ill-equipped for these conditions. The hiking shorts, t-shirt, and rain jacket that served me well on the hot and dry Meseta were inadequate for today. I was shivering and soaked to the bone, even worse than Day 1 in the Pyrenees.

Near the Galicia border

These conditions persisted all the way to O Cebreiro. Every grove of trees, few and far between, had a cluster of pilgrims underneath trying to find refuge.

In his book, The Pilgrimage, Paulo Coelho tells of an encounter with a threatening dog. I’m certain I encountered the descendants of that dog this afternoon. To the left side of the path was a steep slope to the valley below, the right side bordered by a rock wall. Perched on top of the rock wall were three snarling, wet, and mangy farm dogs. I’ve been around these sorts of dogs my whole life and have developed an emergency plan in case of attack. The plan includes sacrificing one of my lesser limbs (probably left arm) and pummeling the dog’s head with a stronger limb (probably my right arm). For the record, I love animals and treat them better than most people I know, but I would never allow them to eat me alive.

Poised and ready, I walked ahead. Ultreia et suseia.

Thankfully, there was no need for me to execute my plan. As I approached the pack, their snarling intensified. I was cold, wet, tired, and in a generally foul disposition. I snarled back,

“Shut the hell up!”

Apparently, these dogs understood Texas English, or they recognized the alpha in our new little pack of four. They stopped their snarls and sat down on their haunches to watch me pass.


Rain. Fog. Pavement. Uphill. Not enough calories. Cold. Wind. Dogs. 37 kilometers, 23 miles…I survived my longest hike so far. Safely and wetly, I slogged into O Cebreiro, walked straight through to the far side of town and reserved a bed at the crowded Municipal Albergue.

The big room at the albergue was full of pilgrims in similar states of disrepair and despair. Wet clothes festooned every one of the one hundred bunks in the room.  I took a cold shower in the communal shower and then pieced together a dry-ish outfit to wear to dinner. Decked out in damp jeans, a dry v-neck, and flip-flops (an Eddie Bauer winter model??) I reunited with my young friends from Villafranca del Bierzo to make our evening plans.

The End

One of the reasons we wanted to be in O Cebreiro was to watch the sunset from the mountaintop. A little before sunset, the wind and the rain stopped but a dense fog settled on the town. There wasn’t much of anything to see except the 10 meters directly in from of us, visibility was very low. The other reason to stay in O Cebreiro was to play tourist for an evening in this cool hamlet. It was too damn cold to play anything, so we just went to eat.

We chose a cozy little restaurant in the middle of town and enjoyed our Pilgrim Meal. We recounted our long days over the mountains. Alex and Eva took the mountain route and I shared my experience on the traditional route. The weather and difficulty was the same for all.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the risk of injury, or even worse, as realities of the irrational Camino. We experienced the “even worse” during our meal. The cozy little bar was full with 20 pilgrims or so. At the table across from ours were two men, they looked to be in their mid-60’s. They were dining and conversing like every other person there. The pilgrim chatter was interrupted when one of the men fell face first into his bowl of pasta.

We all heard the sickening thud and crash of the tableware because of the close quarters. A tired fellow pilgrim, a Spanish doctor, rushed to assist. Assuming the man was choking, he cleared his throat and did the Heimlich Maneuver. After 30 seconds, it was obvious there was something much more serious going on. The doctor stretched the man out on the floor as the rest of us cleared the tables and chairs. The owner of the bar called for Emergency Services. O Cebreiro is very remote, and as such, it would take the Response team over an hour to get there.

The doctor started CPR. It wasn’t the sanitized, no-touch version taught in CPR classes and practiced in America. It was raw and shirt ripped open and chest compressions and direct mouth-to-mouth and sweat and angst. After fifteen minutes, a Pilgrim/Emergency-Responder from the Czech Republic relieved the Spanish doctor. They alternated and performed CPR on this man for over an hour. The rest of us watched helplessly.

The Emergency Responders arrived after an hour and continued the CPR. After five minutes, they resorted to the AED. All the efforts were of no use. They covered his body 1 hour and 15 minutes after he collapsed during his meal.

I’m no expert but I suspect he died before his face hit the plate. Still, the committed professionals expended every ounce of energy trying to bring him back to life.

It was a strange ending to a difficult day. The harsh reality settled on the room as the restaurant owners wept in the corner and we dazed pilgrims tried to arrange the tables and chairs back to normalcy. Fifteen minutes later, we wandered back to the albergue.

This man’s death started a good conversation about life and death with my young Czech friend. This was the first time she was up close and personal with death. It was a good conversation to have. Though we are all heading down this path, most of the people I know avoid the topic.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.


…is fickle. One moment you’re taking a nice summer stroll in the mountains, the next you’re fighting your way uphill trying to stay warm. One moment enjoying a meal with friend, the next moment gone. Or was he?

…He makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night

Was this death a tragedy? I know it was for sure for the pilgrim companion, I tried to comfort him. And he would have to call home to Poland to deliver the tragic news. For the family and friends left behind at home? Certainly. What happens in the first moments after the last breath and the last beat of the heart? Was it a tragedy for him? Would he rather have died twenty years hence sitting in a recliner at home while watching television? Or in his cubicle at work? Or in a nursing home or retirement village? Or in the middle of an epic adventure?

…Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.

We concluded that life is a mystery and complete control is an illusion and we won’t know certainty until that moment. We concluded that most of us don’t get the luxury of choosing how we die, but most have the luxury of choosing how we live.

We decided to make our lives count.

…Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.

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