A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-eight

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Jan says she wants no steep uphills or downhills on her birthday. We cannot make this happen for her. However, the rain we have been promised never materializes. So, there’s that.

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Early in the day we pass a little hippie retreat with fruit and bread, eggs, nuts, juices, tea, and lots of hippie love in a cool open timbered barn with sofas clad in colorful saris. A soft spoken woman, probably American or Canadian we think, floats out the door of the house with more bread, and 5 yellow kittens at her heels. Everything is donativo. We suspect we might have stumbled into some kind of commune. But, the food is welcome as our first cafe is ten miles into the hike.

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We pause for lunch in Sarria, a hillside town that marks the starting point for some pilgrims. To obtain a compostella, a certificate of completion of the camino, you are only required to have walked the final one hundred kilometers. Some pilgrims begin here because physical or time restraint does not allow them to do more. Others, because they can not be bothered. These are easy to identify. They are loud and flippant. They usually carry only a day pack and send their luggage ahead. They stop at all the kitchy souvenir shops (also new in Sarria) and buy tacky bumper stickers and t-shirts. They are tourists, not pilgrims. Touregrinos. Learning to live with them graciously will be a challenge.

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After a burger and a beer, we resume our walk. By now, we have been joined by Jorge and Kelly, Otto and Jose, and their whole gang. We walk the final 3.6k into Barbadillo with them, belting out Neil Diamond hits.

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Casa Barbadillo has accommodations that are modern and efficient, but the dining room is a showcase of antiques; a whole wall of sewing machines, plus cameras, telephones, and more. They are so lovely. Here we gather for Jan’s birthday dinner. The table is full. Friends take turns singing Happy Birthday to Jan in English, Portugese, French, German, Spanish and Hebrew.

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We laugh at Jose and the waitress who have a playful banter all night. She is so funny. We also have a tender moment with him. He asks us why we are walking the camino. After giving our various answers, we ask him the same. He explains that he walks in gratitude for the extraordinary life he has been given. His eyes fill with tears as he says this, and so do ours.–Turns out, Jose is an important attorney in Brazil. He has presided over the bar association, and he and his wife Suely have raised three lawyers in their home. Since coming home, we have seen him in photographs with national leaders in very important meetings for the good of Brazil.–But on this night, and on this camino, he is one of us. We end the evening singing Willie Nelson tunes. Jose loves Willie. :)

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Santiago is close enough now that we can feel its pull. But, I think each of us is also struggling with the thought that soon this family that has grown so dear to us will be once again scattered to the seven winds…

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If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.

~Frederick Buechner

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*Thank you to David for the birthday photo, and to Mike for the photo with Jose as well as the crazy currencies at bottom of post.

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-seven

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Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

~John Muir

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A steep, 2.3 kilometer climb brings us to the summit of O’Cebreiro, and out of Castille into Galicia. At breakfast, we encounter our first Tarta de Santiago, a sweet almond cake, a Galician specialty that will be present at every cafe hereafter.

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Also unique to Galicia are Pallozas, whimsical round buildings with thatched roofs originally meant to shelter livestock (and sometimes humans). Now, they are often used as vacation homes. Some are elevated, others are nestled into the hill.

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There are jawdropping vistas ALL DAY as we are in the mountains and can see FOREVER! Stone fences stripe the landscape making us think of the Galicians’ Celtic cousins in Ireland. Some fences have huge slabs of stone. It is difficult to imagine how they moved them there.

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Early in the afternoon, we have a rather curious experience. As we pass through one of many cattle farms, a farm wife runs out to us with a plate of crepes. She sprinkles sugar on one and hands it to us, then another, finally a third empties the plate. Then she puts out her hand, “Donativo?” We hand her a couple of eruo coins, one of which drops in a fresh cowpile. No worries. She picks it up (with the same hand that held the crepes), wipes it on her pants and puts it in her pocket. All good. (insert Edvard Munch Scream emoticon here)

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Later, we see a woman working in her lush, verdant garden. And just past this, the most gigantic chestnut tree I have ever seen.

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We land in Triacastela for the evening at one of my least favorite albergues of the trip. It is only approximately clean and the bath fixtures are all in one room. Oh yeah, and they are butterscotch colored. I am glad the day has been cold and I do not really need a shower.

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Dinner, on the other hand is FABULOUS!! I feel sure it was all good, but frankly all I can remember is the dessert: Queso Y Membrillo. Also a specialty of the area. We will have it again, but it will never be quite as good as this. Pungent, whipped sheep cheese with tangy quince preserve. Brilliant!! Quite possibly the best thing I ate the whole trip.

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We have not been at dinner long when we are joined by Jorge and Kelly, Stephanie and Sarah, Otto and Jose, Lynn, Susan, and the whole gang who are staying at the adjacent albergue. There is hugging and laughter and an impromptu group photo.

Back in the albergue, fellow pilgrims have been boiling chestnuts collected along the way. They offer us some. Prepared in this way, they taste like potoatoes! Jan’s favorite. :) We stash yogurt and fruit in the fridge for next day and turn in early.

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One week til Santiago…

*Thanks, Mike,for the elevated Palloza.

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-six

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Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes…

~Elizabeth Barret Browning

Breakfast at our albergue is delicious and fortifying. While eating, we meet Susan who was a late arrival at the albergue the night before. She had been having a frightful time finding any place that could accommodate her. Jose had prevailed upon our young innkeepers on her behalf and they had pulled out a cot for her and allowed her to sleep in the lobby, at the base of the rock. She will become a fixture of our merry band from here on out. (Thanks, Otto, for reminding me of this part of the story.)

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We head out into the darkness and promptly make a wrong turn. Happily, we discover our error before too much damage has been done and are able to make correction. Much of today’s walk is along the road, but on the other side of the path is a gurgling river which makes us mostly forget about the road. There is a remarkable irony as we walk past ancient, sometimes derelict, buildings, while in the distance, towering modern bridges convey commuters crossing the country at break-neck speed.

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We are just getting into cattle country when we stop for lunch at a lovely outdoor cafe overlooking a pasture, and the river beyond. Trees are being felled on the heavily forested hill just above the river and it makes the cattle dogs nervous. We feast on fresh, beautiful salads and fortify ourselves for the big climb that awaits us.

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Most of our friends stop in La Faba for the night, but we decide to press on to Laguna de Castilla. We are very glad of this next morning when we already have an extra 2.3k of hills out of the way.

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We lodge at Albergue La Escuela, right smack dab in the middle of a dairy farm. We even watch them drive the dairy cows to and from the milking barn. In some ways, this is all very familiar as my grandparents made their living milking cows, and I saw this scene played out more times than I can remember in the mountains of my childhood.

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Here we have Galician soup for the first, but thankfully not the last, time. Potatoes, kale, beans. Hearty, warm, and delicious. We visit with Boyd and James, a father and son from Australia. And we meet “Martin the Healer”. An odd bird, he is walking the camino for the second time, is covering long distances (40k/day) and claims to have healing powers. He trys them out on James who is having difficulty with his knee, but the jury is still out on his effectiveness when we leave them.

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There are autumn blooming crocus everywhere, mallow and foxgloves growing along the fence, and some other scrumptious wild flower I don’t recognize growing in profusion with deep purple buds that open to dark pink blossoms (see top of post). I can’t stop taking pictures. I know I will never capture what it is to stand on this mountain with these bright blossoms all around me, and the lowing of the cattle and the earthy smell of them, and the good, wholesome fatigue in my legs and feet, and the deep peace inside me. But I know that when I look at the images, I will remember.

And that is enough.

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Travel Note: At this point in our journey, we have begun making advance reservations at albergues most days. Opinions are divided on whether this is appropriate. Some albergues do not even allow them. But, the number of pilgrims grows daily as we near Santiago, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find rooms at the end of a long day. So we are buying ourselves a bit of insurance. Each pilgrim must decide for himself. It does require having a phone with cell service (thx David), or a kind innkeeper who will call for you. You can, and should, cancel if you see you are not going to make it that far or decide to go farther. There is usually a limit to how late they will hold a bed for you before giving it to someone else.

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-five

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Up before dawn, as usual, so that we enter Ponferrada in golden lamp light. By the time we reach the 12th century Knights Templar Castle, however, there is light enough to make out its turrets and drawbridges.

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We breakfast in a cafe just across from the castle that looks as though it could be part of the castle cellar with its arched stone roof. Or a bodega. :)

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We are back in wine country. The Bierzo region. There is harvesting going on. And leaves are beginning to put on their fall dresses. The effect is spectacular. A glorious feast for the eyes. And the nose.

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When we arrive at Albergue de la Piedra, in Villafranca del Bierzo, the young hospitalaro offers us tea and coffee and directs us to tins of biscuits on the tables. He and his lovely bride receive us as though we are guests in their home. “de la Piedra” means “of the rock”, and it is so called because, well…

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This photo is taken in our room!! The whole structure is built into and around a giant hunk of granite. And our windows open out onto a flower-clad balcony and the gurgling river below. That river will be our lullaby. But that’s not all. Oh no! Jan, David, Mike and I are in a little alcove for four that opens into another room where a whole host of our pilgrim family is also sleeping: Otto, Jose, Jorge, Kelly, Kathy, Catherine… There is singing. Of course. And goodnights a la the Waltons.

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Otto keeps collecting stories. Sometimes the stories come looking for him. Like today. The words below are his. (It will be helpful to know that Otto’s much beloved late wife is named Maria Luise).

Today as I was walking alone, this 80 year old Spanish woman suddenly came out of her house and started talking to me in Spanish. I said no comprende. No espanole. She kept talking, she insisted on telling me something. Where is Jose when you need him I thought. I knew he was behind me. After a few minutes he showed up. Please I said …what does she want. She wanted to tell me that I reminded her of her husband who died years ago in a accident. So I politely listened to her story as Jose translated. When she finished I asked her name…she said my name is Maria Luiese ..I kissed her and she gave me a big hug…I know the door is open God but what are you trying to tell me…believe me you can’t make this stuff up…buen camino…Otto

Buen camino, friend.

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-four

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The morning comes clear and cool. And dry. We race the sun up the mountain. She reaches out rosy fingers, gently caressing everything we see, as though she is as glad to see the world again as we all are to see her.

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Foncebadon is like a little hill town that time forgot. Scattered between albergues and cafes are neglected relics of another age; lovely stone cottages that have no one to love them back into themselves. We stop in a general store/cafe that has the wonderful smell of old wood. With it’s glass canisters and suspended farm implements, it looks as though it would be at home in any small town of Appalachia. We share coffee and conversation with Otto and Jose before resuming our climb.

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On the way out of town we pass a remnant of what I imagine was once a church. One impossibly slender fin with a perfect arched window stands sentinel in a walled yard. We first see it bathed in warm, early sunlight, then silhouetted against the same. It is a striking figure, and it begins to prepare our hearts for the weighty encounter just ahead of us.

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The Cruz de Ferro

Here each pilgrim leaves something that no longer serves her. A burden, a sadness, or perhaps a token of gratitude. It is a very personal thing. And yet, it is made even more beautiful for us because we arrive with a great many friends who have become dear to us on this journey. When we first see it out ahead of us, we fall silent. The deep significance of being here settles on us like a mantle. Holy Ground, Otto calls it.

Each of us stands in respectful silence as the others take their own walk to the cross. There is a holy hush over the mountain that all of us are reluctant to break. We carry this with us for a space, unwilling to intrude upon the sacred.

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Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger. Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, without distance closeness cannot cure. Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures…
~Henri Nouwen

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The afternoon is a succession of mountain towns under a cerulean sky where contrails form giant fans, followed by long, deep, cerveza lubricated conversations with our fellow pilgrims on the porch of Albergue Santa Marina in Molinaseca. Our home. For tonight.

The road has been long. And good.

My heart is full.

 

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-three

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The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.
~Dolly Parton

Thanks, Dolly.

Thanks a lot.

Tough day for me. Rain coming and going all day. Jacket and pack cover on…off…on…off…ad nauseum. And stuff hurts. The front of my calf. My knee. My shoulders. Tired. Plus I have a bad attitude. Mostly, I have a bad attitude

And yet…

The whole day is braided with luminous moments. The best one comes early in the day. We stop at Meson el Llar for a little second breakfast. There we run into our friend Josh who we met at the very start in St. Jean. He has become a pied piper of sorts, gathering a whole group of young people around him. Almost immediately, we are also joined by Otto and Jose, Jorge, Kelly, Kathy…SO. Many. Friends.

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The counter is lined with all sorts of delectable temptations: tall, luscious looking tortillas, French toast, meatballs, fancy teas, a whole jar of muesli… And the busy proprietress is laughing and bossing people around while golden oldies are cranking on the stereo. And then it happens. A spontaneous eruption. Like a single spirit moves us all at once.

It is one of the singularly most memorable moments in an ocean of memorable moments.

We finally tear ourselves away from this warm, friendly oasis and resume the walking. Despite my best efforts to be a total grump, God keeps pelting me with beauty until my resistance is finally spent.

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In Rabanal, we attend an evening candlelight service. Several pilgrims read passages in a variety of languages. Our friend Jorge reads here in Spanish. A mercy of peace at the end of what has been, in some ways, a turbulent day.

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The Most High has wounded me with His Spirit,
filled me with His love,
and His wounding has become my salvation…
All the earth is like a memorial to Thee,
a presencce of Thy works…
Glory to Thee, O God,
Thou Who are forever the delight of Paradise.
Alleluia!

~The Odes of Solomon

*Hat tip to Mike who captured our proprietress at Meson el Llar.

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-two

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The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. And the hills. And irrigation channels and wildflowers growing in ditches. In small towns and big cities. On men riding bicycles. On allees of poplars. On pilgrims.

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It comes strong early, but by the time we reach Astorga in the afternoon, it is mostly mist. Astorga is a quaint, old city with winding, labyrinthine streets. The Bishop’s Palace, another Gaudi offering, is just around the corner from our albergue. It is the quintessential marriage of refinement and whimsy.

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And there is a civil building with figures on the clock who come out and hammer a bell to ring the hour. Mike and I walk back at 4:00 to see it.

Our albergue, San Javier, is in an historic building in the charming old quarter. A stellar location. The building has nice bones, with stone arches, heavy wooden beams, and a fireplace (especially welcome on this chilly day). But it is a bit of a run down affair. EVERYTHING creaks. The floors. The beds. It would actually be funny if it didn’t make it almost impossible to sleep. OK, it’s still kinda funny. But the beds are tight, there is no room for storage, and the laundry sink is out of doors with only cold water. Brrr.

We buy cheese and bread, olives and wine, and picnic in the common area near the fire. We stuff newspaper in our boots, hoping against hope that they will dry before morning, when we will walk back out into the rain. Again.

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Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.

~Paulo Coelho

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-one

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RAIN.

I hear it outside the open window as I brush my teeth and it makes my stomach feel tight. We really can’t complain because we have mostly had amazing weather. But it is still hard to make myself walk out in it. I’m not gonna lie.

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But there are beautiful snails scurrying across the path. And we can’t help but laugh when the dirt path becomes mud that sticks to our boots in huge clumps and makes us feel like we are wearing anti-gravity boots that weigh 100 pounds and we have to slog off the path and into the far away grass to try and get rid of it and find some way to move forward without being finally sucked into the mud so deep that you can no longer find any trace of us.

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Then, in the late afternoon, the rain finally stops for a space and the skies are ridiculously gorgeous and the fields of corn are saturated with color. And though gratitude is not the only possible response, it is the only proper response.

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Once we secure lodging in Villavante, we head out to the local pub for dinner. There, I feel like we step through some kind of wonderful time machine. At four different tables sit men of various ages engaged in spirited games of dominoes and cards. There is yelling and laughter and smack talk. You would think we were at a major sporting event. It’s amazing.

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Gear note: We read mixed reviews before coming regarding ponchos versus rain jacket and pack cover. Jan and David did the former, Mike and I the latter. While each has advantages and disadvantages, I had first hand experience on this day with one of the disadvantages of the jacket/pack cover option. As it rained ALL day, water trickled down my back between my jacket and pack and invaded my pack from inside, puddling at the bottom, meaning my towel and a portion of my sleeping bag were damp. From here on out, I put both in a large plastic zip bag and had no more trouble.

*Due to the rain, my phone stayed in a plastic bag in my pocket for most of the day. Top two photos courtesy of David.

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty

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The world is silvered with frost, and the most common roadside weeds have become works of wonder.

I am wearing all my clothes.

Literally.

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After the frost burns off, we pass our friend Daniel, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, as he is resting his feet. He has had some difficulty with his shoes. He has even done the unthinkable and bought new ones along the way, keeping the old ones so he could switch them out while breaking the new ones in. He has just had bad news from home. A family member has died. But he will rally, and we will see him in the cathedral in just less than two weeks.

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We arrive in Leon on market day. The city is thronged with people. In the square in front of the cathedral, there is a farmer’s market where we buy nectarines. In another square, tents are filled with pottery. Still another street holds jewelry and cloth and other flea market type items. At one point, we have to step aside to allow an armored knight on horseback and his retinue to pass. I’m never sure what that’s about, but it’s pretty cool.

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Leon possesses a number of architectural masterpieces. Gaudi has a building here, Casa de Botines. Not all Dr. Seuss and sandcastles like in Barcelona, but still magic.

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Though a great many of our friends are stopping in Leon to have more time there, we decide to press on to La Virgin del Camino. There we stay in the very clean and efficient municipal albergue, Don Antonio y Dona Cinia, though it takes us a minute to find it. We are happy to discover an Irish pub that sells an assortment of beers, the like of which we have not yet seen in Spain. Though the basic blonde, fizzy cerveza is refreshing enough after a long day of hiking, it is nice to find something a little sturdier.

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Special Thanks to David for reminding me that this was the day I ate the largest hamburger in the world. And for capturing it on film. :) (Hey, a girl gets hungry.)

Tomorrow, we will wake to rain. But tonight, my mind is filled with images of thistles against a blue sky and bright blossoms in sunshine.

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The difference between pilgrim and tourist is the intention of attention, the quality of the curiosity.
~Phil Cousineau

A Pilgrim Tale: day nineteen

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Bar Elvis is something of a legend on the camino. A quirky little bar with graffitied walls, inside and out, and a bustling proprietor who carves strips of salty, cured ham from the loin on the counter and piles them onto long baguettes, or stirs them into delicious, freshly-made tortillas. Johnny Cash is on the stereo and the music flows out the door onto the porch where we sit and eat in the sun.

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We have lost track of the lads for a couple of days as they have been walking an alternate route, but our paths converge here and it is good to see them again. We also make a new acquaintance. Guido is a tattoo artist from Sicily. He is young, but already he carries the scars of war. He spent time in Afghanistan with the army and it has affected him deeply. He pulls out a square of paper and rolls a mound of dried leaves into a “medicinal” smoke for the road.

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Most of our walk this day is on a gravel path that runs alongside the highway. Not especially charming, but easy and flat and comfortable underfoot. We pass a construction zone where road work is happening at a dizzying pace. Dozers and dumptrucks with familiar names like John Deere and Caterpillar whir in a cloud of dust, and I try to think of one time I have passed a construction zone at home when even half the workers were employed at once.

We find lodging at the municipal albergue in Mansilla de las Mulas where several buildings cluster around a central courtyard draped in geraniums and ivy. Guido is here. He announces that he will be making pasta for dinner and we must join him. And because we are not idiots, we say yes. :)

Jan, David, Mike and I walk to the mercado to pick up wine, and provisions for a giant salad. On the way, we stop into a bar for a beverage and are happy to see Peter and Nicole from Germany. We have visited with them a couple of times along the way, but it is good to have leisure to visit long and easy. Peter’s first wife died of cancer a few years ago. Now he and Nicole are building a good and beautiful life together. They have traveled widely. And wildly at times. They are full of story.

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Back at the albergue the kitchen is humming. People are chopping and sauteing, reaching over one another for pots and spoons, salt and the sink. We find a corner and begin tearing lettuce into a stock pot, the only container left. Guido sweats onions and garlic in a pan, the beginnings of pesto. Meanwhile, the hospitalero offers us a gas operated pot on legs that we can use in the garden for making the pasta, as the stove is all full.

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Guido’s guests begin gathering. He has apparently been accumulating them all day. By the time we gather around the long table laid with olives and cheese, pasta, salad, bread and wine, we are a mini United Nations with folks from Russia, Denmark, Italy, Canada, the U.S., Australia, Argentina, Japan, and Poland. There is frequent toasting, and much talk and laughter. And Guido, who carries so much hurt in his body, has given all of us an exuberant and unforgettable night.

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Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
~Rumi

*Thank you, David, for the photo of Guido at work. :)

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