Our alarm rang us awake at 4.30am and we lay in our beds, wishing that we could lie in and make good use of the room’s quiet privacy. Instead, we found ourselves on the road at 5am, walking towards Los Arcos, the first of our abridged destinations. Our strategy to cope with the dangerous heat was three-pronged. First, we would begin walking very early in the morning and walk our miles before 11am. Second, we would reduced our miles to no more than 12 miles a day to ensure that we would reach our destinations within the cooler hours of that day. Third, we would slack-pack while sending our big bags to our intended destinations. This way, we would only need to carry the essentials for the day and not be burdened by the weight of everything else. The reception desk had given us courier service-branded envelopes that we attached to our bags with rubber bands. On the outside of each envelope, we had written our details and the name of the albergue that we intended to stay at in Los Arcos and in each envelope we placed a €5 note. We then left our big bags in the back room of the reception hall, placed our key-cards on the reception desk and walked into the dark. It was forecast to reach 40 degrees Centigrade that day and we headed out through the cool darkness and down the damp streets of Estelle towards Los Arcos.
The villages and farms that surrounded us on the gentle moon-lit hills were eerily quiet. Only the bells would chime the hours. In one such dark village we came across the wine fountain. Here, pilgrims can pour either water or wine from taps set in the wall. It was only five in the morning when we stumbled upon it and far too early to drink wine and appreciate it. So, we filled a 500ml bottle half-way and I tucked it away in my small bag for later.
I do not enjoy walking in the dark and I’ve never enjoyed darkness in general. I like to see where I am and what is around me. Maybe my imagination runs too wild. Maybe it is a residual of childhood and the fear I felt when waking in the night and the terror of not finding the light switch. Unlike the novelty of the previous morning’s night-hike, I did not enjoy walking in the dark that morning. Jennifer walked unfazed, still sleepy and lost in her own thoughts. I walked ahead. The woods were dark and we could hear animals rustling unseen in the bushes close by the path. At one point, I heard something in the bush nearby and I stopped, feeling a deep sense of unease. I shone my torch and stood, waiting for Jennifer to join me. Something did not feel right and all my nerves told me to wait for backup. She wasn’t far behind me on the path, but the time stretched out as I felt my breath catch and my heart quicken. I thought I saw something rush at me. What resulted was probably due to me already feeling anxious about the dark forest, a severe lack of sleep and physical exhausted. But in that moment, I could have sworn that something darted at me. It then rushed away before quickly returning, snapping at my feet while I screamed and swung my trekking pole, trying to frantically fend off the elusive creature. Jennifer walked up to me, confused, and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I came to my senses, feeling foolish and tried to laugh it off, ‘I thought something like a chihuahua was attacking me’. But the ‘attack’ had shaken me and I wanted to get out of the forest as quickly as possible. I couldn’t stop the irrational fear of the dark trees. It felt as though they were watching us and I tried to stay close to my friend.
As the sun began to rise, lightning flashed, lighting up the hill we were climbing and the sky rumbled. We descended the hill and meandered through rolling fields, watching the sun burn off the cool morning breeze. We walked through the narrow empty streets of Los Arcos and arrived far too early to take beds in the albergue. They were still cleaning up after the previous night’s pilgrims. So, we sat in the plaza by the cathedral and ate some food and drank coffees.
We approached the cathedral, wanting to go inside, but the doors were closed and a man began shouting at us before walking away. We stood, stunned, unsure of why he had been so aggressive. We then found a notice that informed us that the cathedral would only open at 12pm. Returning to the albergue, we sat in the shade of a tree and waited while enjoying the fountain wine. Finally, the albergue opened and we paid for our beds before sharing a washing machine with some other pilgrims. There were three of us sharing and each of us paid only one Euro. Our clothes hung from a line, while Jennifer, an English pilgrim, and I walked to the plaza, looked inside the cathedral and enjoyed Sangria until it became far too hot and we returned to the albergue and our beds for a siesta.
Los Arcos is a sleepy town, but we were very glad for that sleepiness and for the lack of any fiestas. The fiestas were fun and exciting, but didn’t allow us much rest. At the albergue, we lay with the other pilgrims on the grassy banks, watched the cats, read our books and wrote in out journals before returning to the plaza and eating paella and tuna salad. I had not yet become bored of this fare but would soon realise that the menu was standard the whole way along the Camino.
Walking back that night, we saw a woman was walking her chihuahua. Jennifer tuned to me and, with a teasing smile, said, ‘Look. It followed you.’