In the long, dark room with over a hundred pilgrims sleeping, snoring and making other natural body sounds, I weave my way through an obstacle course of backpacks resting at the foot of bunks. It’s early, 5:25AM, but Sue and I were both awake so we decided to start hiking. Around twenty other pilgrims had the same idea so we are all quietly stuffing packs and lacing up boots in the dining room. It’s hard to not stare at the stiff, antalgic gaits and raw, blistered feet being dressed with gauze and duct tape. No one is complaining, they are just doing what they need to do to walk another twelve, fifteen or twenty plus miles on the Camino.
The hospitalero wishes us “Buen Camino” as we exit the boot-room and enter the lifeless city dimly lit by street lamps and a sliver of moon. We will not see the sun for at least another hour. Within minutes the street lamps are behind us and we are walking down an unlit gravel road surrounded by large, rolling hay fields. We strain to see the yellow arrows that mark the way to Santiago de Compostela. They are painted on posts, rocks and farm buildings but are easy to miss with the scant moonlight. Reluctantly I strap on my headlamp and search carefully for yellow arrows each time another country lane or dirt trail crosses the gravel road we are following. Just ahead a couple of pilgrims have missed a right turn arrow and walk a few yards in the wrong direction but thanks to headlamps and an extra pair of eyes we are soon all back on track.
A few minutes later I remove my headlamp, turn off the light, and begin to carry it in my right hand. I switch it on only when absolutely necessary, such as at intersections. The harsh white light ruins the peacefulness of the morning darkness and destroys my night vision.
The morning air is chilly but as we climb up from the river town I start to sweat despite wearing only a T-shirt and running shorts. When the trail flattens out again on top of a mesa my body starts to cool rapidly and combined with my wet, sweaty shirt I start to get chilled. But I don’t want to bother stopping to remove it or put on my wind shirt so I walk on ignoring the mild discomfort and instead think about how wonderful it will feel when the sun finally rises above the ridge and drenches the fields with sunshine and me with warmth.
On the Camino the hiking day can be broken up into hiking in the dark and hiking in the sun. The transition occurs at the first town with an open cafe which typically comes after walking around five miles in the dark. We deposit our packs near the entrance with the others then head inside for hot coffee and a pastry or an egg omelet that is called a “tortilla” in this part of Spain. We also share morning greetings in English or Spanish with pilgrims we have befriended over the last couple hundred miles. By the time we return to our packs the sun is shining, we are refreshed and it feels like a different day. I throw my pack on, clip the chest strap, tighten the hip belt, adjust my shoulder straps and before long I’m sweating in the hot sun and thinking how nice it would be to be back walking in the cool, darkness of the early morning.