Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hontanas and Boadilla del Camino

June 17

I walked the entire day solo, again, as in “the old days.” It wasn't bad, I suppose. I didn't have to exercise my Spanish brain cells, except to order food and drink for lunch, but that was old hat now, no effort needed. I had the day to think, feel, observe; or not think, not feel, not observe. It was a little odd. It had only been a few days and I was already in the rhythm of walking with other people. Maybe I’m more of a social animal than I thought. Or maybe, I just liked the people I was walking with and as I've noted before, Maria had an aura that radiated energy and good feelings and Beth was always laughing and singing. The days just went by a little faster, walking with them.

Hanging laundry in the albergue built in the ruins of
and ancient convent
I arrived in Hontanas, a very small pueblo. My guide book said there was only one albergue, San Anton, in the ruins of an ancient convent. In that albergue there are no electric lights, so the only light after sunset is by candle. However there was another albergue, not listed in the guide book, which I chose—modern, comfortable, with washing machines and a small kitchen. I caught up with Maria and Beth there, but didn't spend much time with them as Maria had expressed her intent to spend some days alone and I honored her wishes. I helped Beth with her feet, with much grumbling and whining; Beth is not what one would call “brave” when it comes to small medical procedures. But I did the best I could, feeling it was my duty. Besides, I like to help where I can. That’s what pilgrims do. It just kind of comes naturally.

After I ate dinner I wandered down to an ancient church and found there was a photography exhibit in an upper room. A photographer and a man she met on the Camino, on a previous pilgrimage, created an absolutely awe-inspiring collection of photographs and texts that went with each that captured a spirit of the Camino I hadn't found until that point. They were an awakening for me. The photographs were nothing short of masterful and the words were inspiring, thought-provoking, and sometimes emotionally wrenching. As much as Maria had changed, and was changing, my Camino, these words and photographs also gave me a completely different perspective on my journey across northern Spain and my life.

Wouldn't it be nice if I could tell you the name of the photographer or quote some of the texts? I wish I could. I bought a small book of the photographs with the texts that I unfortunately sent back to the States sometime later to save weight in my back pack and, as I've written in an earlier post, the box was opened and a few things were stolen from it in transit. The book was one of the things taken. I've searched the web to try to find a site the photographer might have created, but to date have not found it.
Inside the albergue in Boadilla del Camino

Inside the courtyard of the albergue in Boadilla del Camino,
an ancient fountain? 
The next day, June 19th, I walked to Boadilla del Camino where there is one of the nicest albergues on the Camino, complete with a small swimming pool. The weather wasn't warm enough to swim, but it felt great to put my hot, tired feet in the pool until they were numb. I had completed almost a month on the Camino, settling in to a peaceful routine and getting quite used to a life I could have easily continued forever, or at least another 40 or 50 years. If it weren't for the necessity to beg for food and lodging, I could easily see how the life of a wandering vagabond would be very appealing. Time to think, time to feel, time to see, to experience the best that people are—helpful, kind, giving, not judging, sharing pain and joy openly and without reservation. On the web in “social networks” (and I use that term loosely) where people are anonymous or at least physically separated from everyone else, they feel free to be themselves, to express whatever they are thinking, or not be themselves, to develop alter-egos, someone they might like to be acting without the filters of social mores inhibiting them. On the Camino, people are also free to be themselves, but they are themselves with the addition of a physical presence which makes all the difference.

Who Are These Pilgrims?

Looking for something on the web, I forget what, I came across The Holy Rover Blog and an article about “Walking the Country as a Spiritual Quest.” The author references an article from the New York Times by Kate Murphy from which she quotes this paragraph:

Anthropologists have long argued that pilgrims occupy a so-called liminal realm outside of, yet proximal to, society. “In this space you can achieve a direct human interaction that doesn’t take into account hierarchies, so people become intimate very quickly,” said Ellen Badone, author of IntersectingJourneys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage and Tourismhttp://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=spiritrave0a-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0252029402 and professor of anthropology and religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “Stepping into this extraordinary sphere leads to extraordinary interactions where you very quickly become close and find that people are willing to go out of their way to be helpful (emphasis mine).

That is exactly what I found on the Camino de Santiago. Should I be relieved or disappointed to find that this is just normal human behavior? I wanted to believe that the Camino de Santiago is somehow special, that it attracts a different and wholly unique person: helpful, friendly, positive, willing to interact with and help anyone and everyone on a level not found in “the real world” and that there is some spiritual force on the Camino that envelopes people and enables the best behavior humans can muster. Now I read that people in general who take this type of pilgrimage are, as a whole, cut from the same cloth. The article speaks of people who have walked the breadth of the United States who have found the same peace and sense of wonder, a sense of being human, of being touched by mundane events and finding that the people they meet as they walk really are more interesting and engaging than their Facebook profiles might suggest.

The article also quotes Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking (link on the right)http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=spiritrave0a-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0140286012. “Part of the desire to do it is to accept that the world is unpredictable and you will trust what the world sends your way and you will cope with it.”  Again, this is exactly what I felt, and what everyone I met on the Camino also seemed to believe.

I suppose I should be encouraged, knowing that my next pilgrimage might bring the same sense of awe and happiness that I felt on the Camino de Santiago. 

I am encouraged.

Friday, March 22, 2013

An Embarrassment of Riches

June 15

We arrived in Burgos, walking through a lovely city park filled with runners and parents walking their children in strollers on a path along a meandering river. The weather was perfect; sun shining, not too hot, not too cool, no wind. I was reminded of Sunday in the Park by Georges Seurat

Entering Burgos through the park
It had been a short day of walking and we entered the city at mid-afternoon with plenty of time to find lodging, rest and have a leisurely dinner. I had planned to stay in an inexpensive hotel since we’d be there a couple of days and albergues allow only one night unless you’re having physical problems that preclude your leaving. That, and I wanted to get a couple of nights’ sleep in a big bed between sheets (no sleeping bag) without earplugs and enjoy a long, hot shower or two. It wasn't a pilgrim experience, I admit, but sometimes you have to go with the flow and do as the spirit tells you. The spirit was telling me to relax and enjoy myself. I did, and felt thoroughly blessed.

Sadly, Annick had decided to jump ahead on the Camino, taking a bus to Leon the next afternoon, as she was running out of time. She had begun in Le Puy, France and so had already been on her Camino for about 40 days by the time she reached Saint Jean Pied de Port, where most pilgrims begin. This would be her last night with us as a little group of pilgrims—she, Maria, Beth, and I—so I wanted us all to have a special dinner together and invited them to join me and allow me to buy dinner for everyone. (I was pretending to be a rich American, I suppose.) I had seen a restaurant called “Godfather” that looked good and was decorated in the theme of the movie by that name. Sounds funny, but it worked.

We were on pilgrim time, which meant that dinner started no later than 8:00 because albergue doors closed at 10:00. If you weren't in the albergue you had to find someplace else to sleep. Even if you had already checked in, claimed a bed, and deposited your pack and other gear, the doors were locked at 10:00. However, in normal Spanish cities, not purely disposed to cater to pilgrims as are a lot of small pueblos we passed through, an 8:00 dinner is early so we were virtually the first people there.

I was correct: the food was excellent, as was the service and the wine was better, made even more so by the price. I ordered a wine I was familiar with that would have easily cost $70 to $80 at an American restaurant that was only 20 Euros at Godfather. I've said it before but it bears repeating: Is Spain a great country or what? We had a wonderful 4-course meal, Maria and I sharing an absolutely delicious chocolate crepe for desert that could have served the whole table, but we ate it all ourselves.

Sometime during the desert course, Maria and Beth noted with some excitement a man sitting at the next table, surrounded by three gorgeous women, who turned out to be someone famous in Spanish television. I came to understand that he was host to some celebrity gossip show. I couldn't tell you his name if my life depended on it, but soon the restaurant was abuzz and people were having a difficult time not looking at him. Many were staring, not even attempting to display some sense of reserve. (I like to imagine that the citizens of my adopted country are above that sort of behavior, so the gawkers must have been tourists. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) Presently, there were people at the windows of the restaurant taking flash pictures. I didn't get the man’s name or I’d post a link here. Suffice to say he was someone well-known and there we were sitting at the table next to him. After dinner Maria and Beth stopped to say hello. They talked for quite a while while Annick and I waited outside and, I found out later, he actually invited them to join him and his small harem for the rest of the night. One of the  women who was in his entourage quickly nixed the idea and Maria and Beth politely declined.

I was happy they did because we spent the rest of the night and early morning hours, until about 4:30 AM, in various bars sampling the night life of Burgos. Again, I have nothing good to say about the techno-crap music that's common in Spain, but I really didn't care. I was pretending to be much younger, a much better dancer, and much more of a party animal than I am in real life. This is not standard pilgrim behavior, but as I said, I was following the spirits (or voices in my head, take your pick) and I had the time of my life.

The next day we wandered around town, separately during the morning, and then met up in the afternoon to tour the cathedral.

The Cathedral of Burgos
The Cathedral of Burgos has to be one of the most beautiful, most amazing, awe-inspiring cathedrals in the world. It was constructed over the course of more than three centuries, requiring literally millions of man hours and incalculable money to build, and then restore some centuries later. It is still in a state of restoration today. The day I visited the cathedral it was gleaming white against a crystal blue sky overlayed with wispy white clouds that were embarrassed by the gracefulness and purity of the spires of the cathedral.
A tiny portion of the Cathedral of Burgos

And I was almost ashamed to call myself a follower of Jesus.

We toured the cathedral with recorders in hand, listening to descriptions in our native languages of the various chapels and naves, the architecture, the art, and the unabashed hubris of the bishops through the centuries who spent the people’s tithes on monuments to their pride. Somewhere, over in the corner of the cathedral was a chapel for Jesus, small and relatively modest, while the rest of the cathedral was a collection of chapels constructed around a bishop’s marble coffin in the middle, and an alter surrounded by marble carvings and paintings, normally with his family members and maybe a mistress or two as models for the personages in the art.

The famous mosque of Cordoba
No bishops' pride in sight
I understand the meaning of beauty in the House of the Lord and its use in bringing to the worshiper a sense of awe in the presence of God, a sense of His power to inspire humans to design and create such structures. I felt inspired and blessed in the cathedral in Montserrat, but at some point there are limits, and the Cathedral of Burgos surpasses those limits by more than I could have imagined. The same art, sculpture, arching space, marble and granite, without the monuments in each chapel to the bishops who controlled the church at various periods through the centuries required to build the cathedral might be inspiring. But I couldn't get past the bishops' pride that was so thick in the cathedral that you could practically cut it with a knife. I've been in awe-inspiring mosques that, by Muslim law, do not allow images of God (Allah), much less that of an imam or other persons of repute who were present during the mosque’s construction. They are truly beautiful works of art and eschew human pride. Like a slap upside the head, I had a sudden and powerful awakening to how a Muslim might view the world of Christendom in ages past and even now, and I would have a difficult time arguing with him. I left that monument to pride feeling completely “cathedraled out.” I didn't visit another until I reached Santiago.

West of Burgos. The Camino continues
The next morning I awoke to the sound of the mobile phone I carried with me for emergencies. Maria and Beth had stayed in a pension to save money, rather than in the hotel I chose. Maria was calling to tell me she wanted to walk a while by herself. While I completely understood, having had almost three weeks to myself earlier, of which I enjoyed every minute, I have to admit that I was somewhat saddened (bummed out is how I really felt) by her decision. 

As I've mentioned, she was a very special person and added something to the Camino experience that I missed when she wasn't around. But I put on my pack and began walking—the wrong way—out of Burgos, once again, alone. Luckily I saw a couple of other pilgrims walking the right way so I only went a few blocks before turning around and finding a yellow arrow and the Camino for another day of solo sauntering. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Hymn to a Saint


Leaving Redecilla, my camino amigos and I walked through Castildelgado, Viloria, Villamayor del Río, Belorado, Tosantos, Villambistia, Espinosa del Camino, Villafranca, and finally stopped for the night at Montes de Oca. The rain had stopped. The weather was perfect. The company was better.

On June 14th we stopped in Atapuerca. It was a short day but everyone had sore feet and it just seemed like a good idea, especially since the following day we’d have another relatively short and easy walk to Burgos where we planned to stay an extra day for rest and relaxation.  We walked through beautiful, cool forests albeit with some fairly steep terrain. My guide book said we climbed about 400 meters before heading down again. That doesn't sound like much to an Americano, used to measuring in feet, but that’s about 400 yards, or 1,200 feet. It’s not mountain climbing by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s good exercise for the quads and lungs, and the walk down was equally hard on the toes and knees. I’m not complaining, mind you; The First Rule of the Pilgrim is “Don’t complain.”

I think it was at about this time that I started thinking that if I ever did anything like this again it would be with a pair of custom-made boots, no matter how much they cost. If I were to complain (and I wouldn't, of course) it would only be about one thing, and that was my feet. The best-fitting off the shelf boots I found, with custom orthotic inserts, still bent at the wrong place and weren't wide enough or long enough in the toes. The entire sole of my foot ached at the end of each day, my toes were jammed into the front of my boots, especially walking down hill, and my little toes were bent under the toe next to them all day long. This was all manageable on Saturday training walks of 12 Km. with a week to rest in between hikes, but subjecting them to a daily routine of 25 to 35 Km., some days more, without time to recuperate was taking a toll. I know I've written about this ad infinitum, but that’s what was on my mind each day as I’d walk. In preparation for my next saunter I have already bought a pair of custom boots. We’ll see how they fare. I still have flat, misshapen feet, but I’m hoping for a much better foot experience between Barcelona and Rome in 2015.

It was at this stage, as the little group of people composed of Annick, Beth, Maria and I neared Burgos, that I fell in love with Maria. In my defense, anyone who spent time with Maria and got to know her even just a little would fall in love with her. I wasn't the only one. Between Logroño and Finisterre we walked together about two thirds of the time. There would be hours in the day, sometimes days in the week, where we’d become separated, walking alone or with other groups of people. When that would happen and I’d stop for a rest, people with whom I became acquainted along the Camino would ask about her. If I was asked once, I was asked a hundred times, “Where’s Maria?” Everyone enjoyed her company. They wanted to be around her. Everyone was uplifted and energized by her. Maria made everyone feel a little bit better just being in her company. She had an aura that radiated good energy, enveloping people, uplifting their tired spirits. She had a smile and a positive word for everyone. Those who were tired, in pain, feeling frustrated or exhausted were less so after a few minutes in Maria’s presence. A healing, generous, joyful energy surrounded her. People wanted to be in her presence.

How do you not love someone who volunteers as one of a troupe of clowns that visits terminally ill children to give them a little laughter and happiness? How do you not love someone who goes on aid missions to South America, living for months in a mud hut without even running water? Maria isn't what we’d call a bleeding-heart liberal. She doesn't tell other people how they should live; she just goes about living her life, her convictions. She speaks through her actions, and her actions demonstrate everything that is good in this world.

There were times when Maria wasn't perfectly happy and content. She had her challenges and dealt with issues the same as everyone else. She didn't talk about them, but in conversation, little things would be said in passing that gave me small bits of information that I put together which told me that she had ghosts haunting her no less than anyone else. But her aura was too strong for them to get close or to remain in her vicinity for very long. She repelled sadness and pain, and all those around her benefited from her multi-hued energy shield.

Sitting in the cathedral in Montserrat May 20th, listening to vespers, I prayed that I would be led on a journey of discovery, that I would advance spiritually on this trek, this saunter, that I would be shown miracles and wonders, that my life would be changed on the Camino. I talked with my guardian angels along the way, asking for guidance and praying that whatever experiences were in store for me on the Camino, I would take notice of and realize for their benefit to enrich and improve my life, that I would use them to make myself a better person. I didn't know why I was led to begin my Camino in the unusual location of Montserrat, and why I had such problems with my feet that I had to stop for two extra days of rest in Lleída and Zaragoza. But because I started in Montserrat and took exactly twenty days to reach Logroño and slept late the morning I left that city and had written post cards and didn’t know where to mail them, and had to ask a group of strangers as I left the albergue if they knew where I might find a post box, I met Maria. And Maria changed my Camino, and the Camino, my life.

Friday, March 8, 2013


Time for another break…

I came across an essay by Henry David Thoreau called Walking. Naturally, it caught my attention. Here is a paragraph from the first page:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understand the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about in the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till children exclaimed, “There goes a Saint-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant that the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Imagine that. I was, for fifty days last year, in both senses of the word, a saunterer. I was on a holy, or spiritual, pilgrimage, following in the tradition of millions of people over the course of a thousand years, and I was also sans terre—I literally had no home. I had sold or given away virtually all my possessions and for the first time in my life had no address. When someone would ask me on the Camino where I lived I would tell them, honestly, that I had no home; I lived on the Camino. For fifty days, I was a free man, sauntering across Spain.

I haven’t finished the essay yet. I’m hoping that I’ll find some words to help me coalesce my memories, thoughts, and feelings after the Camino, to help me find a place for them in my life “back in the world” where they might profit me rather than haunt me as a type of phantom in my mind that continuously tries to draw me away from where I am—in the present, where I need to be now, fulfilling obligations and preparing for the next saunter—back to where I was, but which is just a place in memory that has come and gone and can’t be relived.

Walking across Spain, for me, was therapeutic in the extreme. I felt alternately, and sometimes all at the same time:
  • contentment with life, a life of no pressure to perform, to be anything other than who I was; to not be committed to anything other than taking another step;
  • freedom from frustration of the working world and to simply enjoy each day, hour, and minute;
  • happiness in small things—a small yellow arrow on the pavement that told me I was still on the Camino, ice cold beer and a bocadillo in the shade, a bar tender in an Irish bar who spoke English;
  • joy when coming into a pueblo where I could sleep and rest my exhausted feet to prepare for another day;
  • wonder at the life I observed in cities, towns, and tiny, ancient pueblos, all so completely and absolutely different from my life of 55 years in the U.S.; 
  • awe at the beauty of the countryside, the ancient architecture, the thought that generations   of laborers and architects worked on even a small cathedral and that those at the beginning would never see the end; those at its completion would only have ghosts of ancestors to tell them of its beginning.

So I'll take another saunter, and it won't be the same. But I'll find more inspiration, more contentment, more happiness, more wonder, and more awe for the world. Of that I'm sure. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Azofra to Redecilla del Camino

11-13 June

I wish now that I had written more in my journal, but I was too busy enjoying the Camino and the truth is, I went with the intention of only doing each day what my heart told me to do. I wrote when I felt like it, but didn't consider it an obligation. I hardly made any notes of my thoughts or  the things that happened along the way; I didn't want the time spent annotating the experience to decrease the time I had to simply experience the experience. 

And there’s the other thing: I had been walking in silence for the last 3 weeks, listening for some word from God, for some revelation, or at least a good joke or two. I wanted relief from the same old daily thoughts I’d had for decades, which had all been about my shortcomings and failures, things I was embarrassed about or even ashamed of. There were a few hours of mulling over the problems of the world, but the days, even here on the Camino, for the most part were spent cataloging my deficiencies and how I had hurt people I loved and how I had come up short in every area of my life. I didn't want to write that down. What if I died of heat exhaustion or was kidnapped or got carried away by one of those giant storks that were as common as mosquitoes in Minnesota? What if someone discovered an empty pair of boots and my journal laying there on the Camino, and happened to read what I had written? Better to leave myself a mystery so they would think “That poor soul, part of some stork’s nest,” rather than “Good riddance, buddy.”

So I didn't write much.

On the 11th we got to Azofra. On the 12th we passed through Cirueña, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and intended to stop in Grañon, but the albergue turned out to be an upper room in a 12th century church. We’d be sleeping on a stone floor and would have no running water. I had my comfortable air mattress and had spent a few nights in albergues with only a sink with cold water, so brushing my teeth and washing my face in the fountain in the town square was OK with me. The others, though, thought the effort of walking the extra four kilometers would be energy well spent. I was enjoying the company of my new-found friends and even though my feet were saying “STOP!” I was not about to stay in Grañon while they went ahead, with the possibility of never seeing them again.

Beth, who was always singing
So we walked another four kilometers to Redecilla del Camino, Beth singing and laughing and making jokes in Catalan of which I understood exactly nada, Maria helping me with my Spanish as I tried to carry on a rudimentary conversation, correcting often and laughing just as much when I’d refer to myself in the feminine form of noun or pronoun, which I seemed to do a lot. Annick walked mostly in silence, but we conversed a little, as she was fairly fluent in English. We had lost Adolfo and Diego earlier when they took a detour, intending to meet up with us later but we seemed to have missed the rendezvous. We never saw them again.

The night of June 11th it rained hard so we walked through deep mud the next morning between Azofra and Cirueña. I felt awful for Beth because she only had sandals on her feet, the boots she had originally brought turned out to not fit well and she had to leave them behind well before Logroño. She began the Camino on a whim, originally planning to walk with Maria only a few days, but as each day passed she decided to walk another day, then another, until finally deciding to continue all the way to Santiago. She was not adequately prepared and had severe foot problems the entire way, but kept walking when I would have stayed in a hotel soaking my feet. Not only did she keep walking, but she kept singing. She must have known the words to every popular song on the radio. And she kept smiling and laughing. And all the while each of her feet were a colony of blisters that I knew from painful experience were killing her. I carried a well-equipped first aid kit and each night I’d help her care for her feet as much as she’d let me. On the one hand I wanted to tell her, “Look, you’re not prepared for this. Call it a day and go home. Come back next year when you've had the chance to prepare yourself with the proper clothing and equipment.” On the other hand, I wanted to pick her up and carry her, do anything I could to help because her spirit was so strong. We got separated and I lost track of her the last week or so of the Camino. She eventually had to slow down and stayed extra days at some albergues to give her feet a little extra time to heal. I think of Beth often and miss her. I miss all of my Camino Amigos.
Walking from Azofra to Cirueña the morning after
the rain.