Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.
On an early winter’s morning it seems to poke at the seams and zippers of your jacket like a ravenous dog pawing at its owner’s door trying to get in.
Riding a bicycle, the cold becomes magnified. Gliding down a steep hill or along a flat plain, cold air rushes against you numbing your body. On a bicycle, your legs pump the pedals, but your feet remain immobile and can quickly lose feeling. Wearing three or even four pairs of socks doesn’t help. The cold inevitably sneaks within your clothing like a deadly virus that numbs your extremities.
It is winter in Europe. For the last week, we have slowly followed the Camino de Santiago, a series of hiking trails and dirt roads, across northern Spain. The Camino was initially formed by pilgrims during the Middle Ages, walking to the city of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James were buried.
To this day the original road still exists. Each year thousands of new-age pilgrims, devout Christians and adventurers alike, still traverse the ancient road by foot or bicycle. Pilgrims collect stamps from churches and the many cheap pilgrim hostels along the way in a small booklet obtained at the Camino’s beginning in France. The stamps in the booklet serve as proof that a pilgrim has successfully completed the pilgrimage.
We have traveled 9,150 miles since April. Last week Adrian Cyr, the former boss and friend of my cycling partner Ellery, flew to France and rented a bicycle to complete our journey with us. Since his arrival, we have enjoyed the luxury of going just 30 miles a day until his legs adjust to riding a bicycle laden with heavy gear. The sun has shown brightly each day since Adrian arrived, a welcome reprieve from the foul weather which inundates Europe this time of year.
This morning everything changed. A cold fog hovered in the air as we set out. Several hours later, it lifted revealing dark storm clouds hovering over the looming mountain range running north of the Camino. I zipped my jacket up tightly to ward off the chill and watched as several stray snow flurries ominously settled on my jacket.
Today, we ride through the Rioja region, a Spanish province renowned worldwide for the delicious wines produced here. Fields of grapevines cover the hillsides, growing in long rows that fall away into the distance like phalanxes of troops marching into battle.
On a day this cold, we can only ride 10 to 15 miles before our extremities go numb and we must warm up in a small village cafe or bar. Inside we invariably encounter the same scene: a group of lively villagers socializing before a warm fireplace. A glass of the famous Rioja wine here often costs less than a dollar. It is the perfect consolation for riding through such cold weather.
By mid-afternoon the temperature plummets. In the small town of Canas, we find the local cafe for a wine break. Across the street is the Abbey of Santa Maria, a tall stone building constructed in 1170 by the same order of nuns that still occupy it.
The Abbey is one of countless beautiful old buildings of religious importance constructed near the Camino. After warming up in the cafe, an old Spanish man opens the Abbey’s door and let’s us inside. The towering heights of the church within are lit by alabaster windows allowing light to pour into the wide hall. As we leave, the old man at the door stamps our pilgrim’s passports with the Abbey’s official stamp.
We return into the cold and climb seven miles up a tall mountain then speed down the other side. I hit my brakes on and off so I don’t go too fast downhill. It is so cold, I’m afraid of hitting a section of black ice and slipping.
It begins raining just as we arrive in the small town of Santo Domingo. We shiver from descending the mountain and are crestfallen when we find the town’s pilgrim hostel closed for renovation. Luckily, there is also a hotel nearby. We gratefully retreat inside to warm showers and comfy beds.
Out in the cold
“Enjoy your trip,” the waitress of a small cafe tells us the next morning.
“I hope you don’t have too much snow,” she adds.
Like a taut rope pulled so tight it suddenly snaps, her cautionary words cause my optimism that we might have good weather today to dissipate instantaneously. The chance of precipitation today is 100 percent and our likelihood of seeing snow will only increase; today the Camino leaves the mountains behind and ascends to the Meseta, an expanse of high altitude plains in northern Spain.
As we follow the road west, a light snow begins falling. Today, we will ride over one last mountain range before embarking on the Meseta. We must stop at a cafe to warm up every 10 minutes then continue before the snow on the mountain accumulates too much for us to cross it.
This morning we ride on a road beside the Camino. Suddenly we pass by a young pilgrim walking. She yells as we pass by and I stop as my friends proceed ahead. It is a young Polish girl I met in France one week ago as she was just starting out on the Camino.
“I can’t believe I was ahead of you walking!” she exclaims.
“I’m truly impressed, you are fast,” I say.
“I walked almost 30 miles yesterday,” she boasts.
“Sorry, I can’t stay long,” I say interjecting, “the snow is falling quick and we have a mountain to cross.”
“Snow! What snow?” she says with a sarcastic overconfidence.
“Nice to see you again!” I say before leaving, “be careful out there.”
Although the snow continues to fall, trucks have salted the roads enough that it does not stick. After many frequent cafe breaks, we make it over the mountains and descend to the city of Burgos.
The following morning it is so cold it hurts. We enter the flat plains of the Meseta and a chilling wind bears down upon us. We can’t ride more than several miles without our feet going numb.
That afternoon, the sun comes out and the earth slowly warms up. For the first time today, it is warm enough that I can focus on the beauty of the land we pass through instead of wiggling my toes to prevent them from going numb. To my right, a beautiful stretch of snow-capped mountains rises above this high altitude plain. Adrian and I stop for a moment to admire the scene.
“It is so silent here,” Adrian says observing the flat land and listening to the wind, “so beautiful.”
Stopped in their tracks
The following morning, we walk outside of our small hostel and discover it has begun snowing intensely. The streets are white and snowflakes furiously cascade upon the earth like falling stars. After talking it over, we decide to wait a day for conditions to improve. Snow falls all day, but it is too warm to stick. After a restful day we fall asleep with an optimistic outlook for tomorrow.
Overnight, four inches of snow accumulates upon the earth. The Spanish rarely see this much snow. Nobody plows the roads. The streets are pure chaos. We push our bikes outside, but it is impossible for us to ride through the slushy mess. Our tires just spin and slip.
Determinedly, I push my bike through the slush to the outskirts of town hoping to find the main road plowed. On my way, I pass a small group of kids having a snowball fight. Last winter, far away in Siberia, I remember passing a similar group of Russian children playing in the snow. The Spanish kids here make me consider how alike humans are all over the world, how similarly we behave in certain situations.
On the town’s outskirts, I find the main roads also covered in snow. I keep walking in the vain hope that the road ahead might improve before returning back to the small cafe where my friends wait for my report about the conditions ahead. Suddenly an old Spanish man runs after me.
“Look,” he says putting his hand on my shoulder, “you can’t ride a bicycle on this road, not here and not further, do you hear me? I won’t let you continue,” he says leading me back. “It is too dangerous for pilgrims.”
I glance back at the impassable roads. More snow is expected in the next few days. For a moment it seems like bad winter weather may not allow us to continue.
We are stopped in our tracks.