The Road to Santiago.

October 21, 2002

Mule Killer Hill.
Top of Mule Killer Hill

Burgos to Hortanillos

The alarm clock awoke me at 8:30. Slowly I got out of bed and looked out the window. Agh! It was raining and blowing. I just wanted to go back to bed but I didn't have enough time and money to dally another day. Besides, it might clear up. So I got up, transmitted some email and loaded my pack.

As I went out for breakfast it started to clear up — a good sign? After breakfast I went to the correos (post office) to mail some postcards. The P.O. was like back home — long lines. But here you have to take a number depending on the various categories. And if there is no one waiting to mail a package, the package teller doesn't help those waiting to mail a letter. He or she suddenly finds paper work to do.

On the way back from the post office, I decided to go to a pharmacy to buy some test strips for my glucose meter because I didn't know whether I could find them in the villages between here and Leon. The pharmacy had the right strips. But there was just one hitch, they didn't take credit cards. Fortunately, there was a caja automatico (ATM machine) just around the manzana (block).

The weather cleared as I left Burgos at 11:30.

Just at the edge of the city and just after I had come to believe that it was going to be a good day after all, the rain came. The heavens opened up and a heavy downpour sent everyone for cover. I huddled close to a big sycamore tree. After about twenty minutes the rain hadn't let up. The leaves of the tree had become saturated and now water was starting to soak me. I realized that I could drown standing or drown walking. I decided to walk. Besides, it's hard to have a long relationship with a tree. After all, what do you talk about? "Lived here all your life?" "Not quite yet!"

I had another motive for continuing on. The sound of rain has a suggestive effect on the body — similar to water running. I had to go soon and I knew that soon I would have to go badly. It's difficult to find a private spot in a big city, so I wanted to get out of town as fast as possible. Fortunately I soon came to a park which met my needs.

Before long the rain stopped and the weather became quite pleasant. Fortunately it wasn't very cold because my pants were soaked.  My upper body was okay because I was wearing the top of my warm-up suit that I had gotten from New Balance. I like it because it's light but waterproof. It also has a thin lining that absorbs perspiration.

Muddy Trail.
Muddy Trail

The problem was that the camino that day was all mud — mud the color of light chocolate. In fact, that's what the locals call the mud after a rain. It was so slippery that it wouldn't take much of a misstep to fall or twist a limb. Thus, it makes you quite tense as you make your way along the trail and it was very tiring. The need for frequent rests made it a slow day.
As I made my way along, I started studying the many tracks in the muddy path to relieve the boredom. (You can sing only so many songs before you drive yourself nuts. Besides I have a lousy voice that even I can't stand.) As I looked at the tracks, I couldn't help but think of the Lone Ranger and his trusty Indian friend Tonto. (Tonto means fool in Spanish — coincidence?) I was always amazed at how much Tonto could learn from the tracks:  " Hum!! — white man, six feet tall, 180 pounds." So, I tried to ascertain what the tracks would tell me. All I perceived was: "Yuppie — Birkenstocks." I knew that the tracks were lying to me because I knew that a yuppie would not want to get his sandals muddy, let alone walk 20 K in the rain.

Ahead I could see that the trail led up and over a steep hill. I was apprehensive because the guidebook indicated that the name of the hill was Cuesta Matamulas, which translates as Mule Killer Hill. I didn't know if it was named thus because that was where they slaughtered mules or because the hill was so difficult that mules died on it. For some time I fretted about this — a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Actually the hill wasn't too bad and it would have been a piece of cake if it hadn't been so slippery because of the rain. Then I saw a pilgrim ahead of me moving back and forth looking for the most favorable trail. I followed his lead. He looked strange because he was wearing a jump suit for the rain and had a bright yellow covering over his back. The covering made it look like he was wearing an oxygen pack and his slow deliberate steps made him appear to be an astronaut walking on the moon. But, he was one slow astronaut and I soon overtook him. As I passed him, I realized that he was a she — it was the German woman I saw in Burgos!!

As I was walking along the crest I saw a woman huddled under a bush. I asked her if she was all right. She replied that she was okay but that she just needed to get out of the wind for a bit. So, after a brief discussion, I left her and continued on. Soon I came to the edge of a steep down slope. As I looked down on the small village below, which was Hortanillos, my destination for today, I realized why they called this a mule killer hill. I could imagine mules tripping and stumbling down this rocky trail breaking a leg, which would be a death sentence. But it would take more than a steep slope to kill this stubborn old mule.

I found the alburgue — a very basic one — next to the church. But it had hot water (at least when I had my shower) and a small kitchen downstairs which the pilgrims could use to cook a meal. Unfortunately, there was no tienda (store) in the pueblo (village) to buy any food so unless someone brought food, the only food there would be that which might have been left by a previous pilgrim. There were packages of rice and pasta, and pieces of stale bread, but I couldn't eat any of that starch if I wanted to.

So I went to the local bar that had a comedor (dining room) and they served meals on pilgrim time. The meal was a typical "menu of the day" which consisted of two courses, dessert, wine/water, and, of course, pan (bread). Each course had about four choices. I chose alubias con chorizo (kidney beans with pepperoni-like sausage) for the first course. For the second I had filete de tierna (filet of veal). With the wine and dessert it was a good meal for a good price — only 8 euros (about $7.20).

As I was sitting there, waiting for the first course, in walked the two women that I had passed that day. I asked them to join me and we formally introduced ourselves. The German "astronaut" was Martina and was from Munich. The woman who had been huddled under the bush a Swiss woman named Ugette. Ugette ordered what I was having and seemed to enjoy it. Martina had more difficulty — she's a vegetarian. She couldn't eat the mixed salad because it had tuna on it. She couldn't have the beans because they had chorizo with them. And she couldn't have the lentils because they were cooked with pieces of ham. She went right to the second course. No veal, no chicken, no eggs and ham, and no fish; she had macaroni and tomato sauce. Now I knew why she was having trouble getting well!

Later that night I sat in the kitchen sharing wine with various pilgrims, comparing notes about their camino and what they liked and disliked so far. It was a pleasant end to a miserable day. As I went to bed, I thought to myself, "Well, it couldn't get worse!"

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