The Highest Mile

An essay written when I lived in Madrid, Spain.

I was almost there — if I was reading the map right. I was in the Guadarrama Mountains northwest of Madrid, Spain, following the old Roman road Via XXIV up a valley. Soon, I hoped, I would reach the Puerto de la Fuenfría, Coldspring Pass, 1796 meters/5927 feet above sea level.

The scenery had become a little bleak. Five miles earlier, down in the forested valley, water rushed and roared in Fuenfría River. Farther up, it gurgled in brooks, and farther still, it seeped from springs. But here, at the top of the watershed, up in frequent fog, the stony ground was merely moist.

Scotch broom no longer grew tall, exuberant with yellow blossoms. It was stunted, buds not yet open. Summer came later in higher altitudes. Squat alpine plants grew instead of the tall, delicate wild flowers at lower elevations. To my right, a scree of boulders that long ago had fallen from a mountainside lay under a layer of gray-green lichen. The dense forest had thinned to short pines.

I was hiking the highest segment of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in its route from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela. This segment of the Camino crosses the mountain range that splits Old Castile from New Castile, and it follows an ancient road. In Roman times, Via XXIV connected Toletum, Toledo, to Sagubia, Segovia. The pass served as the main travel route until the more direct but higher Navacerrada Pass opened for traffic in 1788.

A Roman road — it had sounded like an adventure, a chance to retrace history. Hispania had formed a major part of the Roman Empire, and some of the mountains bore names from legends about its gods. The Camino also lay at the center of the history of Christianity in Spain, and a priest had assured me that every pilgrim finds God. This hike had meaning.

But now the old stone pavement had deteriorated into a trail of rocks more like a dry creek bed than a road, difficult for hiking. The air was chilly and damp. Ahead, though, I saw a break in the trees: the top of the trail or just a clearing?

A half-hour earlier I had met a retiree coming down who asked how far it was to a rest stop. “I last took this pass fifty years ago as a soldier,” he boasted.

“Have things changed much?”

“No.” He looked around, suddenly unsure. “Well, it was snowy then.” I asked how far it was to the pass, and he told me two hours.

I hoped he was wrong. Perhaps he misunderstood the question. In any case, I decided to huff up the trail, now steeper than ever, to the clearing up ahead. I would rest there, no matter where I was.

I had started out from the train station in the town of Cercedilla at the base of the valley three hours and two blisters earlier. The hike had been beautiful, filled with flowers of every color, magnificent views, and constant bird song. Halfway up the mountainside, shouting schoolchildren had dashed across the meadows of La Dehesa picnic area, out on a field trip. Occasionally, other hikers crossed the trail and a few grazing steers wandered the slopes, but other than that I had been alone.

The road has for centuries been a livestock route, and by law, herd animals have the right of way. Not that there’s much traffic at all anymore.

I had solitude, but most hikers on the Camino de Santiago don’t. The Camino is a pilgrimage route — a network of many routes, actually — to the city of Santiago de Compostela, the site of the traditional grave of the Apostle St. James.

Each year, 100,000 people hike the Camino’s French Route across northern Spain, the most famous and developed route, and only a few dozen take the Madrid Route, though it is lovingly maintained by volunteers. Cheery yellow arrows painted on trees and rocks marked the way. I didn’t know how far along I was, but I couldn’t get lost.

I hurried up the last few feet to the clearing, and then suddenly the ground was level, covered by low grass and bare rocks. On the far side of the wide meadow, the path went downhill. I had made it to Fuenfría Pass.

A plaque on a granite marker in the clearing commemorated José Antonio Cimadevila Covelo, the founder of the Association of Friends of the Caminos de Santiago of Madrid, who died in 2001. A flat rock next to it formed a bench. I sat down to eat the little lunch I had packed, ignoring the slightly fragrant cow patties that pocked the meadow.

These days, only cattle and hikers use the old road, but for centuries there was no other way across the mountains. My footsteps had followed those of kings, herdsmen, priests, poets, armies, artists, and merchants, migrant farm workers. In medieval times, thousands of pilgrims walked through the pass, headed toward Santiago de Campostela — only 599 kilometers away, according to a granite marker near the bench.

Back then, the pilgrimage to Santiago to venerate the tomb of St. James the Apostle had attracted millions of people from across Europe, and the Camino became the “main street” of the medieval continent, allowing for exchanges that changed European culture. But gradually, due to social and religious upheaval, people stopped coming and the Camino fell into disuse.

In 1959, a young priest in northern Spain, Elías Valiña, began its restoration. In 1987, when the Camino was declared the First European Cultural Itinerary, 2,905 pilgrims arrived in Santiago from all routes. Since then, the trickle has grown into a torrent.

Most people hike for spiritual reasons. The Camino passes churches and shrines through beautiful countryside, and hikers enjoy the welcome of other pilgrims and the people who live along the road. The trip can bring spiritual growth to anyone looking for it. Miracles regularly occur, according to many hikers.

Did I feel closer to God alone in that mountain pass?

Clouds scudded low, obscuring the mountains on either side, which funneled cold wind through the pass. Pines were blasted and bent like bonsais. I unwrapped a granola bar with numb fingers and meditated as I munched. A few drops of frigid rain fell. Crows cawed in the pine trees, then flew off.

It was not a peaceful place. No one with sense would linger long in Fuenfría Pass. Instead, it offered a glimpse of a vast, restless power, its majesty weighted by long history: awful in its old-fashioned, reverent meaning. Rather than trying to get closer to God, I decided perhaps it might be prudent to maintain a respectful distance.

I finished eating, rose, thoughtfully looked around one more time, and began my hike back down to the train station and home.