Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Winter Walk in the West Highlands

Or, how to travel ON the “beaten track” 
and not encounter anyone!

Im taking another segue from my series on the El Camino 
to share a recent winter hike in the Scottish Highlands. 

I am now in western Scotland, hanging out in the bayside town of Oban, which is the “jumping-off-place” for ferries going to the Isle of Mull and the Outer Hebrides. I feel so blessed to be lodging in the local Scottish Youth Hostel. My room has a bay window that overlooks the harbor and I can sit here and watch the ferries come and go while I work. I have a lovely communal kitchen downstairs where I prepare most of my meals, and if I get a hankerin’ for a pint, the nearest pub is a short walk away. 

Although traveling during low season has its pitfalls (it can be “bloody” cold and windy), the peace and quiet you encounter more than makes up for them. Also, the people in these towns and small villages have more time to talk and get to know you.

As my regular readers have figured out, when visiting any country, I tend to find a small town and settle there for a week or more. Since being a nomad has apparently become a way of life, I have found that it is not a good idea to treat this form of traveling like a two-week holiday. If I flitted from one location to another every couple of days, I would quickly burn out. This “slow travel” allows me opportunites to meet a few locals and absorb the flavors of the place. It also gives me extra time to research next destinations as well as work on my knitting projects. 

The day after arriving in Scotland last Wednesday, I took the West Highland rail line from Glasgow to Oban. This is a stunning route, especially in winter. I kept wanting to get off the train and start walking up one of those enticing valleys or along the loch shore. And that gave me an idea. I jotted down the stations we passed that were in the heart of these Highlands. When I settled in my lodgings, it took little research to find some trails that were accessible from train stations. (Walkhighlands.co.uk is a treasure trove of ideas.) Utilizing WalkHighlands and Google Maps, I was able to put together a day hike of about eight miles that took me from Tyndrum to Crainlarich stations. That made it easy to travel from and return to Oban in one day.

I LOVE trains. We don’t have trains in the United States like they do here. They are so comfortable and easy to use. Given the chance, I always choose trains over buses. In the UK, Senior Rail cards are available to anyone over 60. You don’t have to be a citizen. They cost £30 (about $42 USD) per year and you save one-third on all your rail tickets.

So yesterday, I packed up some sandwiches and other snacks, including dark chocolate and raisinsyou burn a lot of calories walking in winter! I grabbed trekking poles, camera, and a few other odds and ends and took off. I had an hour to knit on the train—a great bonus for me!

Arriving in Tyndrum, it took me a bit to find the West Highland Way and start off. My plan was to walk on this very popular trail a couple kilometers and then take off up a valley along a loop trail called the Sheep’s Walk; return to the West Highland Way and back to Tyndrum. As you will see, I changed plans partway through, which turned out okay. But, I realized later that it was a foolhardy move and could have cost my life.

In the summer, the West Highland Way is a virtual highway of trekkers. I might encounter as many as 100 people on a nice summer day. Today I would meet five other walkers. Of course, I had to be prepared for the cold, but dressing in several layers was the remedy.

Soon after leaving the train I came upon the Lochan of the Lost Sword. It is said that after a defeat at the nearby battle of Dalrigh, Robert the Bruce’s army threw their weapons, including his legendary claymore (long-sword), in this tiny lake.  Today the icy little pond was peaceful and a nice place to eat my lunch.

Soon I came to Auchtertyre Farm, where the Scottish Rural College does research on sustainable livestock farming. This is there where I turned off the West Highland Way to follow a (sometimes non-existent) loop up into the Chlachain Glen and back. 

The first part of the trail took me right along a racing burn (stream) in pine forest with several waterfalls and green pools. Probably enticing on a hot summer day, but not now! I frequently saw ice in the water. 

Leaving the forest, I came out on an open moor. It soon became difficult to find the trail. It was impossible to get lost with the burn always to my left, but I did misplace the trail quite frequently. Every time I found it again and would be comfortably walking along, it would suddenly and magically disappear and I was in a bog. Luckily, the ground was mostly frozen so walking in a bog was not so bad. In the summer, I would have sunk up to my ankles. (And yet another advantage of winter walking in the Highlands!)  

Almost at the top of the trail, I came to a fork: I could go down to a bridge across the burn, short-cutting the loop, and return from here,  or I could continue on to the next crossing up the hill. There was a picnic table and I stopped for a snack and an opportunity to soak up the view. Then I opted to continue on this side of the burn.

There were lots of Scottish Blackface sheep on the hillsides. Their wool is fairly coarse and not the best choice for clothing. There is a demand for the fleeces for mattress filling and carpets, however.
Water trickles under lacy
ice sheets in this little burn.
Once I crossed the upper bridge, I was on a dirt road all the way back down the other side of the burn. The views were tremendous. It would not look like this in the summer!

This is not the same sight you would encounter here in summer. 

And now is when I made my foolhardy decision. Of course, I did not think about it being foolhardy at the time. I said to myself, If I hike back to Tyndrum station, I will have to wait about three hours for the train. I will have more walking time if, when I rejoin the West Highland Way, I continue on that trail south to the Crainlarich station and catch the train there. So that is what I did. Looking back, I am glad that is the route I went because it was a rewarding end to my day.
The first flowers of very early spring.

The railway viaduct provides a preview of where the burn is
coming from and where you are going.
The trail to Crainlarich started out easy and clear, but it was not long before I had climbed high enough to encounter icy paths. I was so glad I had my trekking poles.

But, here is what was foolhardy about my decision: I had left a note at my hostel about where I would be hiking and when to expect me back. But now I was deviating from that plan. If I did not return, they would be looking for me in the wrong place. As I mentioned, the West Highland Way is a highway of trekkers in the summer, but now, in winter, I would encounter no one the rest of the way to Crainlarich. It was plenty cold in the afternoon; I cannot imagine what it was like once darkness fell. And those icy patches could easily have meant a broken limb. In the middle of one particularly slippery slope, I realized my folly and started walking very carefully over snow rather than ice when I could. As usual, I was fortunate. But I cannot always depend on my good fortune.

I arrived in Crainlarich with an hour and a half to spare before meeting the train. The local pub was closed. (Many are at this time of year.) But, there was a Best Western Hotel (!!) here with a warm bar. I settled in with a pint of bitter beer by the fireplace and pulled out my knitting.

Life is Grand!

Map of the Sheep Walk portion of the hike. Details can be found at WalkHighlands.co.uk.

If I had the trail to do over, I would have omitted most of the right (east) side of the loop. I would have followed the Sheep Walk trail clockwise starting at Archtertyre Farm, crossed the first (lower) bridge over the water, continued north along the east side of the river, crossed the upper bridge, and returned all the way back to Archtertyer Farm on the dirt track (road). This way, I would have avoided the impossible-to-find trail and most of the boggy parts, but I still would have seen the stunning views.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Camino de Santiago Primitivo: Days 26—27

Day 26: Tineo—Campiello     7.5 miles

19 October 2017 

I was glad to put Tineo behind me and be on my way. For the first part of the day, I felt very fatigued, which may have been my body punishing me for falling on my face the day before. Also, it was all uphill to start which was just not fair while my muscles were still cool. Early on, I had an excuse to stop when I saw this pilgrim effigy next to the trail. 

Some days, I fantasize about flying back to Vashon Island to see my long-time chiropractor, Elmer Carlson, so he can get my body lined back up again. And then I would fly back to Spain in order to continue beating my body up on the Camino.  

The trail was a long-not-too-steep uphill and a long-not-too-steep downhill through a nice foresta fairly easy day’s walk. But the fatigue continued to dog me. I  planned to stay in Campiello an extra night to get a bit of work done and to give my body a little rest before tackling the next stage. 

I arrived in Campiello by about 1:30—a very early day even for me. The town is basically made up of two albergues that cater to pilgrims. One was closed, so I stayed at Hostal Casa Ricardo, which consisted of an albergue, cafe-bar, and a food store with all kinds of items of interest to pilgrims, including boots! There were plenty of blankets on the beds, which was very welcome because the weather has turned pretty cold for October. 

Locals visit in the little cafe/bar at Hostal Casa Ricardo. I enjoyed several
cafe con leches and nice meals in this cafe.

This little store truly catered to pilgrims!
Also found here was great hospitality. The cafe offered a two-course meal with wine and dessert for only 9 Euros (about $11.00). Later, I was glad that I took advantage of the menu both nights I was here because on the day I left, the fatigue had abandoned me. Maybe I just needed some good food in my belly. 

Day 27: Campiello—Berducedo    16 miles
“The Ruta Hospitales”

21 October 2017

The long awaited Ruta Hospitales. It has a reputation of being difficult and long. Reading the trail descriptions, I became quite intimidated. I was worried that I would not be able to do it and there was not going to be another albergue for 16 miles. Sleeping out was not an option because the wind and rain up there can quickly lead to hypothermia. I had to make it across those mountains. 

The beginning of the Hospitales Route

I got smart and decided to have my pack transported to Berducedo, the next stop. Some pilgrims have their packs transported every day, so there are several businesses that provide this service all along all the route. All I carried was a small lunch/emergency supplies pack. It turned out to be a very wise decision.

As anticipated, it was a tough walk, but not in the way I had thought it would be. It was my understanding that it would be technically demanding—with lots of scrambling over rocks. But I never encountered that. In actuality, many of the trails were very easy to walk oneven grassy. It was not steep, except near the end. 

Sometimes the pilgrim gets plenty 
of direction, like in this case where 
three arrows point the way! I guess
they are just making sure...
But, despite the sun coming out to warm up the cold morning, the wind blew hard all day and was only stronger as I ascended. Near the top, I felt like a drunkard as I was buffeted about. I was really glad I did not have my full pack to act as a sail. 

This is called the Ruta Hospitales because there are three sets of ruins of medieval pilgrim refuges (or hospitales) along the way. At the first ruins, I met Flor and her daughter August. Flor was very friendly and outgoing and we all hit it off right away. We would visit with one another frequently for several days, and you will see how Flor was a true pilgrim’s  friend and took care of me at the end of this long day. 

The second set of ruins were in fairly good condition and I spent some time exploring them. There were several sheltering buildings as well as a very large walled enclosure that I imagine was to corral the animals that accompanied many historic pilgrims.

Up I walked into windier and colder conditions, with rain squalls threatening. I began to get hungry, but there was no shelter from the wind. I finally had to duck behind a little rise and do my best to quickly eat a tin of tuna and some bread.

At the top of the pass,
you have the
opportunity to hire
a taxi to take you down!
Ahead of me I saw a ridge ahead with a drop on both sides. The wind had gotten so strong that it was harder and harder to walk in a straight line. Once I got to the ridge, however, I saw that there was plenty of room on the trail and little chance that I would be blown away. However, I looked back up the trail and could not see Flor and August behind me. It was getting late and I worried they would get caught up on that mountain. But I later crossed a road where there was a little advertisement for a taxi service. Obviously the taxi had pilgrim business in mind! I remembered that Flor had mentioned a taxi, so I assumed that they would take advantage of it.

Near the end of the day, I came upon this ridge of wind turbines. From my experience of the wind, it is a good location for them. There is a large power plant below them, and the blades were churning out the electricity!

As I approached the final very-steep-and-rocky downhill portion of the day, I came
to a point where I had to cross this road. Yes, indeed, the route took me between these guardrails. I briefly wondered if this is how they reduce the number of pilgrims completing the Primitivo!
As usual, the last couple kilometers seemed to stretch into miles. I envisioned eating a “menu” (full meal) with Flor and August, and the image kept me going. The last part of the trail was pretty steep and rocky downhill and I had to be careful on my fatigued, wobbly legs not to fall. It was dark when I finally arrived in Berducedo and approached the Hostal Camino Primitivo. There was Flor coming out the door with wet hair in the cold night, and August followed. They had been worried about me, especially when they saw my pack in the albergue hours before I arrived. As Flor watched the albergue fill up, she was concerned that I would not have a bed, so she took it upon herself to pay for my bed for the night. She even put a reserved sign on a lower bunk! Bless her sweet heart!

Flor and her daughter August were a sight for sore eyes as I dragged myself into the albergue. This photo was taken the next morning when were were all fresh and ready for another day on the trail!
It was disheartening that the albergue was not offering meals for the night and had closed their pilgrims’ kitchen because of a special event. Also, walking around town, we found that no other bars were open and the very small store had little to offer. I was VERY disappointed. It does not pay to anticipate things too much—but I usually cannot help myself. I made do with some yogurt and tea and fell into bed—I did not care anymore. But, in my journal I wrote:

* Wondering what that is? See this TED Talk.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Camino de Santiago Primitivo: Day 25

Bodenaya—Tineo     7 miles

18 October 2017 

After breakfast, but before some of us left, David told us more about Bondenaya. He lives in the hórreo next door to the farmhouse-turned-albergue and it serves as his bedroom and office. He gave us a peek inside and they are much taller on the inside than they appear from the outside. 

He showed us some of the artifacts on the walls of the albergue. The most interesting to me were the wooden shoes, called madreñas in Spanish. Similar to Dutch clogs, they are carved of chestnut wood and each shoe has three little pedestals. They were traditionally worn in the muddy fields to keep feet dry. 

Because David was so interesting to listen to, I delayed leaving such that in only a kilometer, I was ready to eat again. In a little bar, I got a tortilla (like our omlettes), bread, and café con leche for €2.30. How do they sell food so cheaply? 

The day started out with no rain, but the sky was gray and it was not long before a light rain commenced. I was resting by a fountain and an old man shuffled up to me with the help of a cane and umbrella. He was wearing a pair of madreñas! He rested for a bit on the bench next to me and then started back the way he had come.

You know—life is full of ironies…About 3-4 times a day, I need to find a good place to pee. Sometimes it is not easy if you are in wide open spaces, or in a heavily populated area. And public toilets are non-existent in rural areas. I heard rumors about a Camino guidebook in German that is called the “magic guide” because it points out all kinds of interesting and special places, including the best hiding places to “do your business.” 
It was not unusual for me to walk 2-3 kilometers before a place presented itself. Okay, call me a little over concerned with shyness. One day, I got so desperate that I just decided it did not matter if anyone saw me and squatted down to pee within view of about 6 farmhouses. But today, between two villages, I came upon this “porta-potty” in the middle nowhere. And guess what? I did not need to use it!!!

Reaching Tineo, I had the choice between the run-down pilgrim’s albergue for €5, or the fancy albergue attached to the fancy hotel in the town center for €12. After one look at the pilgrim’s albergue, I decided to check out the hotel. But first, I had to carefully descend quite a few steps to the street below. When I got to (what I thought was) the sidewalk, I stopped to get my bearings. Then, not realizing there was one more step, I walked forward and fell flat on my chest. Life seemed to swing into slow motion as I hit the pavement and then my pack crashed against me, crushing me harder to the pavement. My first fear was that my Camino was over. In pain, and cursing, I rolled over and unharnessed myself from my pack. The funny thing was, I had my trekking poles in my hands, but had not been using them for support once I got down the stairs.

I was lucky this time. I did not hit my head. Two men were walking up the street and they came toward me, so I thought they were going to offer help, but one got into a car and the other walked off. I was already mad and now my feelings were hurt. Tears welled up. I sat down on a bench and took a breath. Better…

Then a woman stopped her car, spoke to the man walking off, and got out of her car and came over to see if I was okay. By then I knew my injuries were superficial and the only harm was some embarrassment, so I thanked her and told her I was fine. I had a scraped up knee—a Camino battle scar. The worst thing was that my new hiking pants (that I had just bought in Bristol before I started the Camino!) were torn across the knee. I got mad all over again! 

Recuperated, I found the hotel. It was a bit weird. Everything was antiseptically clean and very quiet. Red drapes hung from floor to ceiling everywhere, creating the feeling that I was living in Cooper’s “Red Room” dream from Twin Peaks. The place was comfortable enough and pilgrims were given free use of the sauna between 5 and 7 pm. Sounded wonderful, but there were only mostly-naked Frenchmen in there and I just did not feel like I would fit in. Also, there was no kitchen, so most of us bought ready-made meals at the nearby market for dinner and breakfast.

I was glad to move on from Tineo the next day.  

Monday, January 1, 2018

Day 24: A Little Bit of Heaven—Part Two: Bodenaya

Day 24: Cornellana—Bodenaya      10.2 miles
17 October 2017

As I mentioned in my previous post, today was magical in so many ways.

Early in the day, I walked over Puente de Casazorrina, one of the many old bridges on the Camino. This one was over 300 years old. How many other pilgrims and other travelers have passed this way?

About an hour later, I was felt like a little mouse as I walked under the behemoth legs of the modern highway overhead. 

Then through serene woods with the sounds of rushing water coming up from the gorge below.

Not too long before I arrived in Bodenaya, the fog moved up from the valley, and the wind turbines played hide-and-seek on the far ridge.

And then there was the magical-mystical Albergue de Bondenaya, which is one of the best albergues on the Camino.  David makes you feel so welcomed. “Sit down,” he says, “would you like some tea, coffee, a glass of wine? For tonight, this is your home and we are all family.” He explained the routine for the evening, and then told us that after we had our shower, we should leave our day’s walking clothes in a basket. They would be washed and ready for us to don in the morning!

We are close to 700 meters (2275 feet) here and the evening was cool. I had been longing for an albergue with a fireplace and David did not disappoint. So cozy to sit in the common room next to the fire writing in my journal. The albergue is a veritable museum documenting perigrinos who have passed before us. Covering the walls and ceiling are mementos that others have given to David as well as his keepsakes from his own Caminos.

The seven of us pilgrims staying here tonight were served a warm communal meal with two kinds of soup, artisan bread and cheese, and, of course red wine. David is very charismatic, draws everyone out, and makes everyone feel important. One request he has of the group is that we all agree for a time to wake up in the morning and that we all have breakfast together before leaving, “like a family.” As a group, we decided on 7:30 as a reasonable time in the morning. 

He told us a little about the albergue. He lives in the horreo next door (more about that in the next blog post). This building had been a barn and farmhouse. The common room downstairs was where the animals and farm implements were kept. The family lived upstairs where the dormitories are now. The body heat from the cattle in the barn, helped warm the upper story.

After one of the most wonderful dinners I experienced on the Camino, we were all ready to find our bunks…

…and in the morning we were gently awakened by a very quiet Ave Maria on the speakers—much nicer than another perigrino’s phone alarm.

We came downstairs to find our clothes washed, dried, and folded. What a luxury!

This albergue has no set cost to it. David asks the peregrinos only for a donativo (donation) as we see fit. We left what we chose in a donation box by the door.

David, on the right, and his friend (left) who visits occasionally to help David at the albergue. Smiles all around! David kept commenting on my smile. "You are always smiling, Cathy," he would say, "I love your smile." I think he finds something unique and special about each pilgrim in his care. 

I felt the sincerity in what David does and how he lives. It was not forced or a show (as I kind of felt at the Guemes alburgue). Of course, his is a much smaller and more personal establishment, which I like better anyway. It was difficult to say goodbye.