Castilblanco de los Arroyos looked close enough on the map. It didn’t feel close at all. The way there was hilly – but really, it was the hills that were in the way. My bike’s panniers were burdened with my optimism, the wheels were still grinding from the grit that I had picked up earlier, and my knees…
“And my knees”, with the “and” giving it the semblance of it being an aside, doesn’t even begin to capture what a leading role my knees would be playing over the course of the camino. After a breezy downhill, I tried to get back on the bike and pedal – but I just couldn’t. I have memories of a pickup truck to the side of the road, and a yard with hens and a rooster running around. I tried to get back on, and I managed, sort of.
With each pedal stroke, my right knee would sound a warning that this could very well be the last pedal stroke it would manage, but I would ignore it. I had to ignore it. I had been planning this trip for months, and I couldn’t have my knees get in the way of that. More than that, I needed to get to the albergue in Castilblanco – a place which I hadn’t even considered as a stop before Guillena, and which now could have easily been in pilgrimage to all along.
I recall each pedal stroke being an end in itself. I recall the asphalt ahead of me. The rocky cliff face the road was cut out of. The discared beer and soft drink cans, covered in rust that had lain at the side of the road for days, months, years? I remember the lights on my bike not working. I had gotten a wheel handbuilt to handle a dynamo hub, and I had agonised over which headlamp to get. But my handlebar bag had been pushing over the headlamp and there was no light to be seen. I also had stopped caring about the bike. All I wanted was to get to the top of this hill, then down to Castilblanco des Arroyos, where my suffering would be over, just for the night.
I was shivering and beyond exhausted when I got to the albergue. There was the smell of burning woodsmoke. The albergue was to the right, at the bottom of a hill. I asked if I could stay, and the lady told there were a couple of beds left, but that I really should hurry to the restaurant across the street if I wanted to eat and sleep that night. A man with a dog – a pilgrim too – accompanied me, and introduced me to the marvel that is the “menu del pelegrino” – a three-course meal made to satisfy the hunger a day’s human-powered travelling only could cause. I remember the starter being cazuela – chickpea stew with chorizo – a hearty Andalucian dish that was perfect for what I needed. I also had a can of Fanta, and another one. I knew I needed the cans if I were to go on.
Back at the albergue, I saw other bikes against the wall. They were the first cyclists I’d met on the way, and they had gotten there much before me. Many had opted for a mountain bike in lieu of a classic lugged steel tourer, and for a lightweight “bikepacking” setup as opposed to the traditional rack-mounted panniers. No one had bothered locking their bike.
Because I had lost my first one, I bought my second credencial and had it stamped. The lady running the albergue – run by the village – was Dutch, and she was volunteering as the hospidalera for those months. Going up the stairs to the kitchen, where the showers and the other pilgrims were, was much harder than I thought. My knee was in serious trouble, and so was I.
There was a young German woman from Berlin. Her name was Daniela, and her knee was shot too. She told me there had been no signs from before, and she looked like a fit, healthy young woman. She’d looked up her symptoms online and what she had was described as “hiker’s knee”, typically caused by overuse. She had already resigned herself to going back to Seville and taking a Spanish course rather than continue.
I could empathise. Going up the stairs to the shower had been an ordeal – I couldn’t imagine going through any more of this.
I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag liner – inadequately flimsy to cope with the cold – and tried to sleep.