The day would prove the most difficult for me, physically and spiritually! I learned to accept help and that everything can be faced together and there was no need to solo anything in life.
I woke up, packed up mini-camp, and set out. I got an early start and wanted to get out of Atenguillo while it was still crisp and cool. First sight was the town square full of vendors. I grabbed a coffee, six tamales (3 short rib, and 3 pineapple) and moved on. I had a feeling I was going to need a really filling meal today. In the future, I am only going to get pineapple tamales when I hit the trail again. The best tamales ever!
It was a breezy start on level terrain - crossed the river on another stone bridge; followed by a rather non-descript path in a field heading towards yet more mountains. Eventually the even fields turned rocky and started a slow and increasingly steep ascent. The theme was lots of loose curves and multiple paths that re-converge. Eventually, as things got steep, the paths became singular again and it was on par with the most difficult rocky, steep, and curvy ascent I have had so far.
By the time I crested that ascent, there was a nice view. There were a series of huts and a lot of cross graves lining the path, and an interesting amphitheater shaped structure decorated with an abundant amount of graffiti.
At one of these huts there was a rather boisterous man making talk, and I smelled alcohol on his breath. At first, I ignored him, but he turned his attention to me and made talk. He switched to English when it was clear that I was still learning Spanish. He asked if this was my first time walking to Talpa. I indicated yes, and he said that he has walked this path many times for many years. He stated that I will meet friends along the way to help. I thanked him and feeling better rested, set off on the path again.
I was curious, but the feeling to move on quickly overrode me. The path beckoned me onward; and what followed was a steady downhill lined with trees with gentle curves to the path. I felt like I was heading into a small valley of sorts, except the valley did not dip all that low. The road started out with a bright tan path with dark green. With an occasional bell being run that lined the path. I had no idea what that bell was for. Then the colors of the path slowly turned more granite with a hint of blue, and the trees were replaced with sheer rock.
The way got rocky again and the uphill started again with the diverging and converging paths. Shortly after, I approached a town that was built into the rock. No buildings, just carved cavities into the rock augmented with straw and wood to extend the roofs outward. There was a town square... or round centered with a fountain, and blue and white prayer flags radiating out in a star formation to the surrounding rock. There was a stone archway that I stopped at before entering the .. round. and there was the boisterous man again, named "Gus", or Augusto.
We greeted each other, and I immediately inquired what the route to Talpa meant to him. He was surprised that I would ask such a deep question and thought a moment, framing his words. He finally said, "To me, it is a path to remind me to have Gratitude for everything that happens, whether good or bad." I blurted out, "Gratitude for our Mother Earth for nourishing us both physically and spiritually, yes?" He nodded and slowly said, "I think we are speaking of the same thing, friend."
He then indicated to one of the bells I saw earlier, now hanging above his head and asked me, "Do you know what ringing this bell means, Peter?" I shook my head and he continued, "If you choose to ring this bell, then you make a promise to walk this path again at the same time next year." He said it with such gravity, despite his drunkenness, that I felt caught up in a momentum. Without understanding why my body moved so, I reached up and run the bell loudly and clearly.
The bell's tone was crisp, clear and resonated with the entire town. Gus looked at me with clear and somber eyes; and I looked at him with a matching gaze. Coming to my senses, I tell him, "...apparently I made a promise to return next year." He responds by chuckling and asks me if I want to ring the bell again.
I made that conscious choice to confirm, and with ceremony, I rung the bell again, with more force. The resulting tone was even louder, more assertive, and really shook the town. I made my promise. It had serious gravity to it. Gus then said, let's go. I asked him the name of this area, and he responded with a gleeful grin - El Espinoza del Diablo. I asked why the name and grin, and he simply continue to grin while nodding "you'll see."
I looked around and saw two paths leading onwards, and asked Gus which one I should take given my burden. He indicated a path and I went. One of his companions walked by my side, very closely.
As we walked - Gus had already moved past me - the way suddenly became steep and rocky, and I was having trouble. The companion provided his arm as stability and we kept going. The footholds were getting harder and harder to find, and each foothold was more distant than the last.
My Cadence fell to a tortoise pace with pregnant pauses as I sought footholds, and strained myself to lift up to the next foothold. I was using my walking stick very heavily now, and leaning on it heavily for support. I could feel the walking stick wobble and strain under my use, but it kept steady. The going got harder and each step up felt like doing a bench press upwards.
My legs began to feel like they were on fire, under the strain. Then it spread to my back, then to my arms, and finally a pounding sensation in my head. It was like I was on fire. Each torturous step intensified the burning; each becoming harder to do. Then, there was one step I could not make. Pilgrims walked around me as I strained to make the next step. At one point, Gus came back and asked if he could help by taking on my burden. I stopped and thought, anything to ease this burning.
I was leaning heavily forward, because if I was not, I would fall back down. I gingerly removed my backpack, and swung it to my left shoulder, towards Gus. He took it and lifted it off my shoulder onto his. I showed him how to work the hip straps and he was off again.
I almost lose my footing as I was leaning in such a way that was balanced with the load on my back. Now it was not there and I was wildly flinging about, trying to find a new center of balance. The companion was still beside me and he urged me onward. I took a step, and this time, I was able to lift myself up to the next foothold - body still burning as if each step in contact with the devil continued the fire with full intensity.
Then I took the next step, then another. A new Cadence was forming, fueled a bit by momentum. Many times I almost slip due to the momentum, but Companion stabilized me with an arm lifted upwards. I took step after step upwards an increasingly steep non-path.
I forgot to breathe, and had to stop. Companion stopped and offered me a drink from a bottle of power-ade. I took a few sips not realizing what it was and looked around. I was on a precarious foothold, a bit wider than the others, but not by much. I had to keep leaning forward to keep balance. A rush of sugar washed over me and I suddenly wanted to move again. At a feverish pace, we continued upwards.
A hut loomed upward from us, barely a dark hole covering the side of sheer rock, barely enough slope to put a 1 poled hut on! There was a tiny shelf that held drinks on stock, and behind the drinks, sugary snacks. The drinks were all power-ade and similar. He asked me if I wanted a cookie. Not thinking, I accepted. More sugar coursed through me and we moved on at the same feverish pace. The burn was now accompanied by this sugar energy, intermixing to create an un-holy alliance within me to keep on going, walking across the Devil's backbone.
At each of these huts, we needed to stop, I got fed more sugar, they kept ordering more cans of beer, we chug and swig our stuff, let the refresh happen and continue the fever. Hut after hut, beer after beer, sugar bomb after sugar bomb. We kept going. Other pilgrims were doing the same, looking just as feverish as we were.
Then, the increasing steep path started to let up suddenly.
What? How? We were burning forever, doomed to walk the back forever, as long as we burned, so shall we ascend, only prodded on by the sugar and alcohol, which kept the burn at bay and our bones moving like locomotives. I blinked.
The path up was getting less steep and there was a level area. Many pilgrims were panting, standing and ambling over to one side. We approach, still delirious from our ordeal and awkward with our steps and saw where everyone was ambling towards.
A viewpoint! Majestic, we were on top of the damn world! Bathed in reddish golden light. The demon's body. We stopped, marveled, and I took a picture - because it was going to be worth that hell:
After a while, we slowly walked again, and saw many hundreds of graves marked with a cross:
The path evened out and became more smooth, and soon afterwards, we came upon a most welcoming hut. Many pilgrims were there, drinking beer as it it was more precious than water. Gus was already there, backpack parked at the entrance. Tables were laid out and seats waiting for their occupants.
I sat down heavily and some young guy was offering me a beer on the house. I refused a few times using my phantasma phrase - he does not understand until Gus explains. He stops and leaves the untaken can for someone else and asks what I wanted. I simply stated agua naturale. He goes away, and I sip at my water. Gus tells me that I needed to go to him and his group and thank them for their support.
I was clueless. I had no idea what was going on, but obliged anyway, asking Gus to take me to them. It was a group of 8 headed by the young man who offered the beer. I thanked them for their support in really bad Spanish and we toasted. I returned to our table and slumped down again.
We sat, drank, rested and I suddenly realized - I know who those guys are! They were the pandejos who made fun of me on the first day! I share this with Gus and he replies that they told him how they saw me the first day struggling and thought that I would not make it, and that I was dumb to even embark with such a burden. They were really impressed that I made it this far and desired to honor me.
Wow. To go from ridicule of the outsider to respect as one of them in a space of two encounters. I was beside myself, speechless.
I sat, nursed my water some more and thought. Perhaps, divinely speaking, their ridicule was a way to cheer me up and encourage me, even if in anger.
Gus cuts into my thoughts and said that I had a choice. I could stay and camp here, or go on with them for another three hours down to the next major camp, where I can rest. I quickly chose to go on with them and made the motions towards resuming. He mentions that from this point on, it is all a steady downhill.
Sounds great to me!
As we walked, I was behind the other three, including Gus and I noticed that despite how drunk he was, he was making perfect steps, his gait was consistent, balanced, purposeful. He reminded me of the miraculous movements of those who practice the Drunken Fist. The others too, were walking in a similar fashion despite their drunkenness. No swaying, no dilution of being - in fact, their presence was impeccable. I marveled at their existence.
Gus and I made conversation, and we got onto the subject to why I was on this trail, and in Mexico. I took a risk and told him everything - The Prophecy of the Black Sun, Standing Rock, my experiences of the A.I; the emotion in languages; my perspective of the land. He listened, with a careful demeanor.
His response - he does not understand much of what I say, but it is interesting to him because each word I said resonates with him on a deep level, and that, he understands.
Our conversation drifts to the vegetables I am carrying. I told him that they were organic and that I took them so that I would not waste them and have vegetables at as many meals as I can. My original intent was to cook them myself; but there was no opportunity to do so, so I shifted to asking the cooks at the huts to prepare some for me alongside my order. He responds in the same way before, interesting and what I say, although not all understandable, speak to him at a Deep level.
At one point on our slow descent towards camp, we came across a hut that sold an apparent local specialty - a sweet bread made with cow's milk. They were passing a round around, and offered me some. I initially refused, and Gus informed me of the bread and it just came out of the oven. I tried some and...
Whoa - that was fantastic! The texture was like the best moist cake you have ever had, perfectly sweetened, not too little, not too much, bubbly, dough-y, air-y, very moist and creamy - cake-bread! My eyes rolled back as I reveled in the taste and immediately wanted more. I wanted to buy a round for myself! The others laughed and told me they were all sold out; but not to worry; I will be given one from the others.
I was ecstatic!
We continued our canter down from the Spine as the sun started to turn a deeper shade of reddish golden.
After our picture merrymaking, we decided where we wanted to eat from the multitudes of huts now surrounding us. They noted that there was only an hour or so of daylight left, so we better hurry. I was invited to join them for the meal. I got my last remaining veggies out - they were one night away from going completely bad. I had swiss chard, green beans, spinach, and broccoli left. I asked the host to prepare all of this for me, and serve it alongside chile con carne.
The others got their orders and started to eat. I talked, rested, and waited while they ate, already knowing that my meal will take a while, as I put in a special request. They wondered at where my order was and it was explained to them in Spanish. When my meal came, they were done and eager to find camp for the night before it got dark. We parted ways and had our adios for now.
My order came - two heaping piles of food - the veggies were on top of a bed of half potatoes, roasted; and the chile con carne on the other plate. There were no tortillas this time because of the potatoes. I was famished, and wasted no time in gorging myself in this bounty. They already paid for my meal, another free meal on the road! I ran out of potatoes and continued with the bread they gave me earlier.
I got up and got ready to go, and could not find my phone! Earlier I had handed my phone over to take the group photo. I panicked and looked around. One of the waiters noticed my distress and asked if I needed help. I simply said I was searching for my phone. We looked, we both said, we do not see it. Acceptance washed over me and I chuckled. He chuckled while apologizing, as he saw I understood the Mexican's way of Acceptance. I left and proceeded through the path and gauntlet of huts to find camp.
I turn a corner and saw a field ahead - there is my place to camp. Next to the grazing livestock. I had a sudden hit and feeling to return to the restaurant hut where I ate and search again. I rushed back and did just that. The main cook asks me what is wrong, I tell her, and she said, check your red bag where I procured the vegetables. She saw me put something in there distractedly. I check and there was my phone! I sighed in relief, and the previous waiter asks if I found it. I nodded and he simply said, "*that* was luck!" I nodded vigorously and thanked everyone; and rushed off to camp.
After some asking around to confirm I could camp in the fields, I found a spot next to a triangle shaped rock jutting out of the field; and set up mini-camp. I kept noticing pilgrims who also camped going to a remote spot to urinate; and made note to do the same.
The night deepened, and I fell asleep.
78.89 km traveled so far, 14.52 km this day.
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