I awake in the middle of the night in pain. An old martial arts training injury has flared up and the joint between the phalange and metacarpal on my right big toe is inflamed. Even the weight of a sheet pressing on my toe tip sends daggers of paid shooting up my leg.
My diagnosis – neurosis, remedy – nut up… Pam
My sleep is restless and uncomfortable thinking of the 26km we have to walk later today.
When we wake I jam my right foot into my boot wincing, with the support of my boot my toe feels manageable.
We leave San Juan de Ortega before the sun has risen and walk the 100m that takes us out of the tiny village. We cross the road and are faced with a choice, do we walk the shorter route along the highway to Burgos or the longer hillier route away from major roads.
It is no choice at all really for we both would rather avoid major roads at every opportunity. We seek the path less travelled.
So into the forest path we go, the way is dim however no torch is needed. The path is smooth and within five minutes or so my toe has warmed up enough to have changed from painful to uncomfortable with each step. Five minutes later and I have nearly forgotten about it. Nearly.
We cross a couple of cattle grids carefully, the forest gives way grazing pasture, to our right the sun illuminates a row of wind turbines. The air is still and cool and the turbines are all at rest.
The sun is rising fully as we wind our way down to the village Ages. The air temperate drops markedly with the descent into the valley. We stop at an Alburgue that is serving breakfast for Pam to have a Cafe con Leche and we say hi to the pilgrims there who are preparing to leave.
There is a group of three Irish and three Canadians who have been walking as a group for a while preparing to leave. For the three Irish and one of the Canadians the journey to Burgos is going to be their last walking day on the Camino for, they are heading for a few days on the beach at San Sebastián before returning to Ireland. They seem glad and sad at the same time.
By the time we are ready to move on we are alone. As we leave Ages we see our friend Philip emerging from another Albergue and wave hello.
The walk between Ages and Atapuerca follows a newly surfaced single lane bitumen country road. Pilgrims walking straggled across the road move to single file with the appearance of the few cars that pass.
Atapuerca is an important archeological site where bones and artifacts have been found in caves along the Sierra de Atapuerca mountain ridge near the village.
We pass through Atapuerca and leave the bitumen turning left heading for the afore-mentioned mountain ridge. ‘Onwards and ever upwards’ my heart beat surges with the increasing gradient. I have to stop for Pam to catch her breath and she tells me ‘I am burning her off on the uphills now’.
At last I know how to catch up with her, start walking uphill.
The track becomes rough and steep, we seek out smoother sections where the finer stones and dust cushion each footfall, avoiding the ankle turning larger stones that lie everywhere.
Near the top the path is very rough and steep and we reach the large wooden cross planted on the crest gasping.
Energetic pilgrims have made constructed a heart and circles ring from loose stones just away from the wooden cross. From here we can see our destination Burgos and I tell Pam that ‘it doesn’t look that far away’.
By the end of the day I have resolved to keep stupid estimates to myself.
We set off down the hill, my left knee is still giving me grief on steep descents and by the bottom it is starting to feel sore. Soon after we make the flatlands again we are confronted with a choice of directions and elect to walk the longer route through the villages Villavel, Cardenuela Riopico and Orbaneja Riopico rather than walking down the long gravel path beside the large quarry and cement factory to our right.
We stop for a rest at Villalval and chat to a lovely German girl Chantal for a while.
Our map shows 14km left to walk to make Burgos so we set off again soon. We walk through the next villages without stopping, cross the major highway via an overpass and have to choose our way for the third time today.
Again we elect to walk the longer route that supposedly takes us to the Rio Arlanzon river where we will walk the shady path straight into Burgos. Our other choice is shorter and follows bitumen roads through the industrial section of Burgos.
Lines on maps can be misleading, the way we have chosen circumnavigates the Burgos airport, sections of the path lead us away from the city rather than towards it. We have walked for hours since our last rest, the sun is beating down by now and Pam tells me she can’t take another step without resting.
We leave the path and walk across a rock strewn field for the shade of the single tree in sight. Pam lies down on the straw and rocks and pulls her shoes off sighing. I know that if I get down on the ground there is no way I will ever get up again so I remain standing and give Pam’s burning feet a rub.
It takes Pam quite a while to recover the will to pull her boots back on and get going again however we finally make Castanares, a little village surrounded by industry and smoke stacks. We enter via the road beside the local tip and metal recycling plant, dodging trucks and utes.
There is a little restaurant with a sign that I read as Pilgrims Refuge on the main road in and out of Castanares and we are pilgrims in need of refuge. We stagger across the road, collapse into chairs in the shade and order some food.
The food Pam has ordered turns out to be chips swimming in some sort of tomato paste and though we do not finish the plate we are both feeling a little ill as we walk along the road towards Burgos.
We must have missed the turn that supposedly takes the pilgrim on a path leading beside the river into Burgos for our way follows main roads then into some run down suburbs passing empty vandalised houses. It feels like we have been walking forever as we make our way down the streets into the town.
We watch primary children pouring out of school at 2:00pm as we walk into the suburbs. It is 3:00 pm and older children are leaving schools as we get closer to the town center. The sun is beating down and we pass clocks with thermometers indicating 32C, our hottest day yet.
We have no idea where our hotel is and when we sit down on a park bench to try to figure out some sort of plan neither of us speak. This day has taken its toll on our legs, feet and sense of humour.
Pam struggles to her feet and finds we are on the street leading us into town, we walk and walk and walk down this endless street and finally I ask a news stand vendor where our hotel is.
He indicates we are close however of course I can’t understand what he is saying as he draws a map showing we have to cross the ‘river’ by turning right over a bridge then walk through an arch to our left and follow the street for one block.
The river is clearly to our left as I sit down on the bench where Pam has collapsed, muttering insults under my breath about people giving directions. Pam insists we look for a tourist information booth and get directions then heads off in one of her ‘random is the right way’ tangents.
I follow as we cross a little bridge across a stream running down a large drain, turn right and we come to an arch on our left. The news stand vender was right and I feel mean for the things I had been muttering so soon before. We walk down the busy street and find our hotel at the end.
Our good humour restored by a shower and rest we set off looking for some ‘recreation’. We pass an Irish pub and inside the crew of three Irish and three Canadians we met early in the day are drinking. They invite us into their mix and we are plied with ‘medicinal’ drinks and laughter as we swap tales of our travels thus far. We find that we have probably walked 36km today rather than the marked 26km and other pilgrims join us who have walked 40km and 50km today.
We dine at a restaurant as a large laughing group. Sore feet and knees for the moment forgotten.
Burgos is a larger city and we decide to stop for a sight-seeing day.
When we wake we dine on fresh croissants and hot chocolate. We walk the city streets and visit the impressive multi-spired gothic cathedral of Burgos. We wander the riverbank walk as a piano accordionist busking in the street plays the first bar of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ over and over and over again.
We return to the hotel as the shops close for siesta making plans for the march ahead. We plan nine days of 20km plus journeys to make it to Leon by the 26th of September.
Will we make it?
Time will tell.
Mick & Pam