Two hundred and thirty days since I set off, and the strain's starting to show. The Santiago trail is a place to make friends for life. I do - then stop to go tromboning, and say goodbye. Time and again. Seven months is a long time to be alone, and each parting hurts more than the last. Bastian and Liesbeth whom I met in France, Jose and Melanie from Quebec, Beatriz from Madrid, Joachim the German, one after another. They're here to walk. I'm here to trombone. It hurts.
Reach Santo Domingo de la Calzada, alone, exhausted, sad. Stop at the cathedral, and suddenly feel better. Romanesque stonework, Gothic carved choir-stalls, Renaissance altarpiece (a fretsaw massacre) - and chickens. Two live chickens in a gilded cage, memorials to a saintly miracle.
I'm still staring when I hear music outside. Step out. Instantly accosted by a teenage girl. "Money!" Eh? "Fiestaaaaaa!!!!!" Hordes of youths run by, importuning allcomers. Then the band appears. They see my trombone. "Come and join in!" I'm soon jamming along to "Tequila" at 110 decibels.
It's the quintadas, a birthday party/pub-crawl for everyone in the area who turned 18 this year. Mission: a drink and a dance in every bar in town. Lots of bars in Santo Domingo. Dancing gets progressively less inhibited. Then, suddenly, all eyes are on me. "Guest star! A dance!" Right. Dance to "Scotland the Brave". Fast. Fifty Spanish teenagers attempt the Highland fling. My 18th was never like this.
When it's time to leave, handshakes from the guys, kisses from the girls. I'm presented with a "Quintadas 1999" neckerchief. And more kisses. Feel much better.
On across an empty landscape. In the distance appears a homeward-bound pilgrim. Comes closer. Stops. "You're Ben." Wow. "I've got a letter for you." Double wow. It's from Melanie. She's left a surprise for me in the next hostel. WOW. The miles fly by. As night falls I'm there. And so's she, opening the door. "Surprise!" Jose, Joachim, Beatriz are queuing up to hug me. "We missed you, so we waited." Words fail me. Tears don't. Like I said. Friends for life.
For more information on the charity trombone walk, visit the website at www. netplaycafe.co.uk/bonewalk