Camino de Santiago – Day 26 – Beauty and Terror

Cacabelos to O’Cebreiro, 36.8km

For more Day 26 pics…


I was awake at 5:00 am after a good night’s sleep at La Angustia, needed to get an early start on the day. O’Cebreiro was the target, miles up in the 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 before setting out from my favorite Franciscan teacher (everybody has one, right?). This poem was the center 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 loved the poem, made a mental note to read more Rilke, then strapped on my pack and left Cacabelos in the dark of the early morning hours. It was raining.


Along the way, a few people recommended ending a day in O’Cebreiro and beginning the next in order to see the sunset and the sunrise. The little town is situated on top of a mountain (altitude 1330 meters) in eastern Galicia. That’s where we set our sights, a lofty goal, especially considering the 23 miles is uphill all of the way.

Despite the rain and fog, it was a beautiful hike through the vineyard-covered hills between Cacabelos and Villafranca del Bierzo. I walked this morning with a Camino friend I had met a few days earlier. 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, though it was going to be long.

We had breakfast in Villafranca with a new friend from Washington, DC 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. The traditional route is a gradual ascent to Herrerías, then a long, steep climb to O’Cebreiro.

The second route makes a climb up a big hill out of Villafranca and then descends and converges with the main route in Trabadelo.

The third route climbs and descends three different mountains before making the final ascent into O’Cebreiro.

Being the self-aware man that I am, and knowing the finite amount of energy in my body, chose, not the “path less taken,” but the traditional route, which would be the easiest of the three. The others chose the other routes.



The middle part of this walk, from Villafranca del Bierzo to about Ruitelán, runs alongside the N-V1 Highway, 18.3 km of walking on pavement. This creates a different kind of hurt from your knees down. But I am learning that all experiences on the Camino (and in life) are of value…the beautiful mountain walks and trudgings alongside a freeway.

It is a beautiful countryside. It was a blessing to be able to walk among the hills and forests, and speeding automobiles.

Needing to get food in my body and rest for my legs, I stopped for an extended lunch in Vega de Valcarce shortly after noon. The calories and rest did some good, preparing me for the difficult last leg of the day’s walk.

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 the rain and fog. Fortunately, it only lasted a couple of hours. Most of the day was very pleasant, sunny and warm. That began to change as I entered the mountain forest above Herrerías, the clouds rolled in, the rain started falling, and the temperatures dropped.

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.

As I lumbered through the forest, tired and soaked to the bone, the most serendipitous moment of my Camino occurred. On the side of the trail, written on a broken piece of 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.

This helped me embrace the hardship of the moment and emboldened me for was to come.

It was stilling raining as I left the forest. Now fully exposed in the hills below O’Cebreiro, the wind blew harder and the rain was horizontal. I estimated the temperatures to be in the 40’s (Fahrenheit), this is much too cold for a south Texan in late June. I was ill-equipped for these conditions – hiking shorts, ankle socks, a t-shirt, and a thin, ineffective rain jacket. The rain jacket was not designed for horizontal rain and I was 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. Where there was a small grove of trees, there would be a small group of pilgrims huddled together for refuge against the weather. These groves were few and far between.

In his book, The Pilgrimage, Paulo Coelho tells of an encounter with a threatening dog outside of O’Cebreiro. I think I encountered the descendants of that dog on my pilgrimage.

The path was bordered on the right side 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 entire life and have developed an emergency plan in case of attack.

There was no need for me to execute my plan. As I approached the pack, their snarling intensified. Cold, wet, and in a generally foul disposition, I yelled,

“Shut the hell up!”

Apparently, these dogs understood Texas English, or they understood that I was the alpha-male among the four of us. They stopped their snarls and sat down on their haunches to watch me pass.


I took this pic right before the canine encounter…Safely, but wetly, I made it to O’Cebreiro. I reserved a bed at the crowded Municipal Albergue and took a lukewarm shower. Early in the evening, I reunited with my young friends from Villafranca del Bierzo.

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 be seen except the 30 meters immediately in front of you.

We braved the worsening weather conditions and went out for our evening meal. We chose a cozy little restaurant in the middle of town and enjoyed our Pilgrim Meal. My young friends recounted their long days over the mountains on the second route and me, my long day up the mountain on a different route. The weather was the same for all of us.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the risk of injury, or even worse, as realities of the irrational Camino. We witnessed the “even worse” during our meal. The cozy little bar was crowded 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. Suddenly, one of the men fell face first into his bowl of pasta.

Because of the close quarters, we all heard the sickening thud. A fellow pilgrim, a Spanish doctor, jumped up 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, as such, it would take the Response team over an hour to get there.

The doctor and an Emergency-Responder/Pilgrim from the Czech Republic tirelessly 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 of 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 tragic ending to a difficult day.

This man’s death did initiate a good conversation about life and death, which is a good conversation to have. Most of the people I know avoid the topic, though we are all heading down that path.

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.

Here’s the question of the day:

Would you rather die sitting in a recliner at home while watching television? In your cubicle at work? In a nursing home or retirement village? In the middle of an epic adventure? Or surrounded by the people you love?

Most of us don’t get the luxury of choosing how we die, but we do get the luxury of choosing how we live.

Make your life count.

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