Photo: Hiking in Spain

Pilgrims hike along the Camino de Santiago.

Photograph by Gregor Lengler, laif/Redux

By Andrew McCarthy

It had already been a long slog. I had started in the south of France, crossed the Pyrenees Mountains to Pamplona, Spain, trudged through the wine district of La Rioja, then made my way through the city of Burgos and across Spain’s high and barren central plains. I was more than halfway into a 500-mile trek along the classic route for the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), a pilgrimage that ends in the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela, where, according to Catholic tradition, the bones of Saint James were discovered in the ninth century.

Religious dictate holds that pilgrims who make this walk will receive a plenary indulgence and—at least in past days—have their time in purgatory knocked off. During the Middle Ages, the Way of St. James was a noble and popular pursuit. Centuries later, my reasons for walking it were purely secular. I just wanted to do a good long amble—or so I told myself.

After three weeks I’d made few friends among the other pilgrims I’d encountered. My schoolboy Spanish had proven woefully inadequate with the locals. I was tired, lonely, and unhappy. But I tromped on, knowing that failure would result in a disgrace more unbearable than my misery.

For several days the talk along the way had been of a steep gain in elevation when the route climbed to O Cebreiro, a village perched at 4,284 feet in a mountain pass between the Ancares and Courel mountain ranges. This climb was said to be even more challenging than the Pyrenees, which had nearly ended my journey before it began. I’d heard of pilgrims hiring locals to transport their backpacks up to O Cebreiro. Some were rumored to have hired a taxi for the climb, sacrilege for a true pilgrim.

Just past dawn I set out alone—as usual—from the village of Vega de Valcarce and began my way toward O Cebreiro. The terrain was rolling and lush. By mid-morning I’d reached a small village beyond which, I knew from a glance, the climb into the mountains began. Hungry, I found a solitary restaurant. I pushed on the heavy wooden door and entered a deep, unlit room with dark furniture. Seeing no one, I called out, and a man stepped through a doorway behind the bar. I explained my needs as best I could. He said the chef had yet to arrive and the restaurant wouldn’t open for a few hours. My pack sagged heavy on my back. It would be a long climb on an empty stomach. I turned to go.

As I reached for the door he called after me. “Espera,” he said. “Wait.” I stopped. With reluctance he told me he had just returned from a morning of fishing, would I care for some trout? I dislike fish but I appreciated his generosity. I sat down in the dark to wait. Twenty minutes later he appeared with a plate bearing two small, whole trout, each with Serrano ham wedged inside. “Trucha a la Navarra,” he said. “It is a local dish.” Then he left, and without enthusiasm I picked up my fork.

The white flesh literally fell from the bone; the ham was as dense and rich as the fish was light and moist. I ate slowly and with great care. Alone in the shadowy room, I felt myself finally arrive in Spain.

When I’d finished, my host returned and we chatted. My Spanish suddenly had a confidence it had lacked for weeks. We talked of the camino, of fishing, of America; we parted friends.

I marched on up to O Cebreiro without strain. I felt like the man I would have liked myself to be but rarely was. The next two weeks passed in a blaze of synchronicity and fellowship. When I finally strode onto the streets of Santiago de Compostela, I was filled with a joy and gratitude that I haven’t forgotten to this day, 15 years later.

Contributing editor Andrew McCarthy’s most recent feature story explored the art of bargaining in Marrakech, Morocco (January-February 2011).

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