I sleep great considering my not so ideal campsite. I’m awake around 6:00 and packing up in the dark. It doesn’t get light until 8:00, but I’m paranoid someone will see my tent so I’m anxious to get going. It’s so cold out! I put on every layer of clothing I have and walk quickly to stay warm, enjoying the starry morning and crescent moon rising above the glow of dawn on the horizon. I’m slowing climbing up some foothills and it’s just light enough that I don’t need to use my headlamp. I love these quiet starry mornings and the gradual lightening of the earth.
I make it to the top of the climb just as the sun finally shows itself. I sit in the dirt and eat some rice cakes and peanut butter and enjoy the warm sunlight on my face. I descend into the town below, Manzanares el Real, and stop at the first cafe I see to warm up and have a coffee and a bocadillo. By the time I’m leaving the cafe it’s finally warmed up and I can take all my layers off. It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday morning and the trail begins winding along a national park boundary and some rocky mountains. It reminds me of the Southern California section of the PCT, the desert mountains and the sweet smells of pine and sage. I’m loving it. The trail is bustling with activity, no other pilgrims but lots of trail runners and mountain bikers. At one point I find myself in the middle of a trail running race and actually walk through the finish line. I think the race photographer even snaps a photo!
I’ve been fighting a bad cold since I was in Madrid and today it’s feeling worse. I have a sore throat and my nose is both runny and stuffed up. I’m sure over-exerting myself yesterday hasn’t helped. When I reach the next town, Matapaelpino, I stop in a cafe with WiFi and begin searching online to see if there’s any cheap accommodations nearby so I can stop walking soon and have a short day. Unfortunately everything in the upcoming towns is either booked or ridiculously expensive. So I guess I just keep walking. My plan is to either stay at one of the albergues about 15 miles away or, if they’re full, keep walking and try to stealth camp somewhere past the albergues because it appears to be all forested. I’m not super excited about either option, but I don’t have much choice unless I want to shell out $150 for a room for the night.
As I’m leaving town an old man stops me and begins speaking Spanish. He asks me if I’m going to Santiago and I say “Si!” He grabs my arm and mutters some more Spanish that I can’t understand, but it ends with “tranquila”. He gives me a big smile and I’m guessing he gave me a nice blessing of sorts before sending me on my way.
Luckily the more I walk the better I feel. Maybe walking is the cure? Or the old man’s blessing? I finally reach the last town with lodging options, Cercedilla, before an 18 mile stretch that goes over a mountain pass into the next town of Segovia. I reach the first albergue and I’m turned away because I’m by myself. The man tells me the rooms are designed for two, so I can’t stay. This seems like discrimination against poor single people. He doesn’t even give me the option to pay for 2 people. He tells me there’s another albergue 3 km up the road, so I keep walking. Well, this one is full so I ask if I can camp, they say no and that camping is forbidden in the national park. Wait, I’m in a national park? I didn’t realize it but it appears that I am. I did notice streams of day hikers coming down the road towards me, but I didn’t know I was in a park.
At this point I have no choice but to stealth camp somewhere in the park. There’s literally nowhere else to sleep. It’s about 5:30 pm, I’ve got just over 2 hours until sunset and nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain before I get over the pass—game on! I fill up my water at the albergue and begin speed walking past all the day hikers up, up, up into the park. At first it’s just a paved road but eventually I’m on a path that’s actually an ancient Roman road. It’s super rocky and uneven and slippery, but how cool is it to be walking on a Roman road?! Soon the Roman road turns into a regular hiking trail and by now I’ve hiked past the point where all the day hikers were and I’m finally by myself out here.
I reach the top of the pass just after 7:00 and the sky is beginning to turn pink. I give myself 30 minutes to find a good stealth spot to camp. The trail begins heading downhill and at first I’m worried I won’t find a good spot, there are steep slopes on either side of the trail. Finally, just after 7:30, I find a perfect little nook on the side of the trail in a tree well tucked into the side of an old rock wall, mostly hidden. I’m not too worried about getting caught. I saw zero signs indicating that camping is prohibited, none of the signs are in English, and I haven’t even seen a single park employee since I’ve been in the park.
I set up my tent, eat dinner, and snuggle into my sleeping bag just as the last bits of light are fading. Another incredibly long day, maybe 27 or 28 miles, and once again I’m happy and warm and cozy and exhausted. I fall asleep immediately.