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A Pilgrim Tale: day three

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A pilgrimage is a way of praying with your feet. You go on a pilgrimage because you know there is something missing inside your soul, and the only way you can find it is to go to sacred places, places where God made Himself known to others. In sacred places, something gets done to you that you’ve been unable to do for yourself.

~Ian Cron, Chasing Francis

Lights go on at 6:00 and we are sung to wakefulness by strolling minstrels. Our kind hosts graciously push us out the door before dawn. Despite considerable altitude change, today feels like a recovery day (compared to yesterday) consisting mostly of rolling farmland and woodland paths.

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Dew speckled geraniums grow wild along the fence-rows. And a profusion of blackberries, grapes and apples have us drooling all day. Medieval pilgrims would have helped themselves, but we only partake of the wild blackberries. The number of pilgrims has grown to such a formidable number that we would unnecessarily burden the poor local farmers.

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Instead, we stop at the first market and pick up sweet, juicy nectarines and add them to our sheep cheese for a nourishing, delicious picnic breakfast.

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We walk for a while this morning with our new friend, Rhys. She tells us about her dear daddy who she lost way too early to ALS. She also lets us in on the fact that doctors aren’t optimistic about her chances of living a long life. As a result, she is trying to squeeze as much out of her days as she can, while she can. She will be a bright ray of wild, warm light in these early days of our Camino, and saying goodbye to her down the road will be more difficult than we can possibly imagine on this sweet morning when the world is still fresh and new.

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Mike and Paul catch up to us around mid-day. This will become a familiar pattern. They start later, but move faster. So it is inevitable that, most days, they will overtake us at some point. And how do they spend their break? Playing hacky sack of course. “To loosen everything up,” they explain. ūüôā Oh, to be young again…

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Although many of our friends will continue on to Larrasoana tonight, so as to have more time in Pamplona tomorrow, we elect to stay in the medieval town of Zubiri as part of our commitment to starting slow. Our small, intimate Albergue, Zaldiko, is near the bridge. I am struck by a watercolor behind the innkeeper’s desk; a painting of her and her albergue by an artist who came here on the Camino, and later came back to stay. He left her the watercolor as a gift.

Shortly after we sit down to dinner on an outdoor patio, Perry and Samra come walking by. We convince them to join us for what is to be, though we do not know it yet, our final meal together. We talk about civil war, Sudan, Bosnia and Croatia, religion, smoking, topless bathing, family, facebook, and what it might look like to meet up in Bosnia sometime.

Tomorrow, Hemingway’s Pamplona. But a couple of delicious detours still lie between here and there…

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Gear Note:

After yesterday’s brutal downhills, a familar hot spot along my right big toe is acting up. On this day, I use moleskin as usual. It does not help, at all. Tomorrow, I will use a product called Compeed which is made and sold in Europe. It is marvelous!! Tomorrow, I will not feel the hot spot at all. I will wear this same tiny circle of Compeed for three days or so before it finally comes off and I have to replace it (for the last time). Beyond this, I have accumulated enough callous to not need anything.

To be fair, I should say that friends who use Compeed on a blister that has already formed do not find it helpful at all. But, for me, it seems to be one factor that insures I never have to deal with a blister in the first place. There are as many “tried and true” methods of foot care as there are pilgrims: duct tape, threading blisters, salves, creams, sandals with socks, sandals without socks, on and on. Use what works for you. But never stop being curious and teachable. ūüôā

A Pilgrim Tale: day two

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They serve us BOWLS of coffee for breakfast, and I kinda want to kiss them. There is also orange juice, and toast with butter and marmalade. We pick up our preordered chorizo sandwiches and stuff them in our packs for lunch. We thank our innkeepers, fill our water bottles, and begin.

It is difficult to keep my eyes on the road because there are fathomless views in every direction. As we climb over and through the mountain passes, new vistas present themselves at every turn. Freely roaming flocks of sheep (and herds of horses) are everywhere. We sometimes hear their baaing and bells before we see them. We watch a shepherd moving his flock. He drives along the road (with his sheepdog leaning over his shoulder) whistling through the open window. And his sheep scurry along the grassy hillside right alongside him, as if he were walking with them.

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We leave the path to climb up to the Vierge d’Orisson (the Virgin of Orisson),¬†the first¬†of many shrines along the Way honoring the Mother of God. The setting is¬†breathtaking. And¬†it is good to reflect on her example of humble submission here at the beginning of our pilgrimage.

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The wind is ferocious. The shirt and socks I safety pinned on the outside of my pack because they were still wet have dried completely by mid-morning. We attribute the wind to the altitude, a theory supported somewhat by the many trees that have grown with a permanent lean in one direction. But this is unusual, even here. Later this afternoon, pilgrims will be removed from the mountain, and tomorrow the pass will be (unofficially) closed. The winds are clocked at 120 kmp (80 mph).

We have packed a lunch because we have been told there will be no food til we reach Roncevalles. Imagine our delight when we happen upon a food truck cozied into a little indention in one of the hills. We buy fruit and hot cocoa and homemade sheep cheese. Sheep cheese will become an obsession. (There might be some in my refrigerator, even as I write this.) Here we meet Steve, who some years ago quit his job, sold everything, and bought a sailboat. He has a water catchment system and mostly feeds himself on the fish he catches. He is on pilgrimage while his sailboat is undergoing repairs in Trinidad.

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We pass a stone hut built into the mountain. It was formerly used by shepherds, but is now sometimes used as emergency shelter by pilgrims caught out in bad weather. It will be used tonight. Not far past this, we cross the inauspicious cattle gate that marks the border between France and Spain. The path is littered here on both sides with clumps of heather and delicate crocus blossoms.

The descent into Roncesvalles is the steepest I have ever encountered. Anywhere. Ever. I am grateful for both my ankle brace and my poles. And for the trees that now protect us from the wind.

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The Albergue Colegiata at Rocesvalles is one of the most efficient we will encounter in our whole trip. We are pointed toward a large, orderly closet where we deposit our boots on shelves. We check in and are assigned numbered bunks, and directed to our respective floors. Large, spotlessly clean rooms are divided into tidy cubicles of four bunks, each with a locker at the end. You insert a coin to turn the key and lock the locker. Your coin is returned when you unlock the locker and take your things. Showers and toilets, also pristine, are arranged in a long room at the end of the hall.

We have the pilgrim supper at the nearby hotel which consists of soup, bread, wine, and a delicious local trout. Our dinner companions are Mike and Paul, two Mennonite boys from Winnipeg who have just finished college and are out adventuring and figuring out what comes next. Thresholds seem to be a common theme on the Camino. Later they, and we, are joined by Rhys, a vivacious young woman from Oregon they have come to know already, and who will later adopt Mike and me as her Camino uncle and aunt.

This evening we attend our first pilgrim mass. Though we understand little of the language, it is good to be in this sacred place with these people who are already knitting themselves into our hearts…

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Travel notes:

All photos in this and all other posts taken with my iphone 5c (sometimes edited/compiled with instaframe/instagram). When every inch and every ounce counts, a smartphone is a marvelous multi-tool. Camera, computer, repository for notes and contact info, ipod, etc… We did not activate our phone service, we kept them in airplane mode with wifi activated. Wifi, pronounced “Wee Fee” :), was inconsistent and sometimes, like at Orisson, completely unavailable. But we found it often enough to be able to stay connected to family.

Also, there are a great many travel guides for camino travelers. The one we used, and saw most often among English speakers, was John Brierly’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago.

 

A Pilgrim Tale: day one

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14 September, 2015:

We breakfast to the sound of rain. Weather forecasters predict it will be done by 7:00 They are wrong. We nourish our courage with warm cups of tea and coffee, then put on pack covers and rain gear. We exchange hugs, take photos of one another, and wish our new friends a good way. We fill our water bottles at the fountain by the church. And we walk.

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The rain comes and goes all morning. It is so cool that we sometimes see our breath. But inside our jackets, we begin to sweat from the exertion.

All around us is astonishing beauty. Lush green pastures, bordered by great stands of trees, where sheep and cattle graze. The clanging of their bells forms a musical counterpoint to the whisper of falling mist and the deep silence that lies over these fields like a blanket.

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Mist crawls in and out of the valleys. Clouds reach down long, filmy fingers, drinking in more water to sustain the rain. Queen Anne’s Lace, purple heather, and fields of fern bend in the wind. And rain drenched honeysuckle and other fence flowers¬†startle us with their delicious fragrance.

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The climbing is hard. This first day is a baptism of fire. Because I am still recovering from a stress fracture, and Mike is only two days out from a marathon, we have decided to divide it into two parts. I cringe a little every time I tell someone this. I feel like a coward. But perhaps this is good for me. Perhaps humility is to be one of the gifts of the Camino. Truth is, once we arrive at Refuge Orisson wet and cold and send our friends back out into the rain for 10 more miles, it suddenly feels like a pretty good idea.

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A fire roars in the fireplace. Rain jackets are draped over every available surface. Pilgrims come and go from long communal tables where they slurp steaming bowls of soup and munch long, crusty baguette¬†sandwiches. Most of them still have a rigorous climb ahead of them today. We¬†take¬†two empty spots across from Jorge, a firefighter from Miami who was born in Columbia; his feisty, slender fianc√© Kelly who is stuffing half her sandwich in her pocket for later (we are told she eats twice as much as Jorge :)); and Kelly’s mom Kathy, who was the catalyst behind this trip. She is a quietly¬†devout woman.

After the lunch rush has subsided, the innkeeper shows us to the timbered attic room we will share with Norm and Cathy, a couple from Seattle whom were our¬†roommates last night as well,¬†and two gentlemen from Sweden. She gives each of us a token we can use for our five minute shower (It’s on a timer, you understand. DO NOT dilly dally!), and tells us what time to expect supper.

I trot off down the hall with my token and indulge in a gloriously warm five minute shower. I pull on dry clothes. I realize I have never properly appreciated the sensation of being dry. I hand wash my shirt, socks, and unmentionables and hang them on the (covered, thank goodness) outdoor drying rack (drying, in this case, being mostly a figure of speech).

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The rain has stopped, so I put on my coat and dry wool socks and find a perch on the deck where the sun and wind will hopefully dry my hair. I watch Griffin vultures effortlessly ride wind currents over the valley. I take out my journal and try to capture thoughts and impressions before they run away from me.

Last night at dinner, we were asked to share our reasons for walking the Camino. I realize those reasons are becoming less clear. I am trying to walk with open hands and trust the process.

At dinner we meet two couples who will become very dear to us. Samra and Perry. David and Jan.

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Samra grew up in Bosnia and endured the brutal civil war there. She is a strong woman with a keen and unpredictable sense of humor. I imagine how that must have served her well during those difficult days. Perry is easy going and affable with a sharp intellect. Samra and Perry met when he came to Bosnia with an aid organization. They were coworkers. Since marrying, they have lived in Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Costa Rica and probably a host of other places I am forgetting. They are presently working with World Vision in South Sudan.

David and Jan are a beautiful couple from Vancouver, B.C. They enjoy hiking and adventure and have travelled widely. We talk about all this, and¬†about our kids, about David’s job as a marine biologist, and about the knitting business Jan helped to build and is in the process of selling. (spoiler alert: you will see a lot of these two in pages to come…)

We help collect dishes, and carry them to the kitchen. The innkeeper refills our wine jug. Again. And we talk until long after most of our fellow pilgrims have turned in.

Later, we¬†bed down in our chilly room, pulling the wool blankets we’ve been given up over our sleeping bags, and sleep the deep sleep of the weary and well fed. My heart is full.

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Travel Note:

Animals on the loose are very much a part of these first few days. They are not wild animals, though. Many wear bells (or a ring in the nose, as the case may be), and all of them know their shepherd.

Gear note:

Mike and I carried lightweight, but warm sleeping bags. However, some of our friends used only sleeping bag liners or warm weather bags. As many of the Auberges in colder locations (like Orisson) will provide you with blankets, this is usually sufficient.

 

A Pilgrim Tale

As the train carries us from Bordeaux to Bayonne, I am surprised to find myself frightened. For years we have been planning for and dreaming of this moment, and now that it is upon us I feel sick to my stomach.

What if I can’t take sleeping in a room filled with stinky, snoring pilgrims?

What if it rains for days and I can’t get dry and I¬†get pneumonia and die in some Spanish hospital and never see my babies again?

What if I was never really cut out to be a pilgrim after all and have to tuck my tail between my legs and slink off home in utter humiliation?

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Then, all of a sudden we are boarding a bus for the final miles into St. Jean Pied de Port¬†and travelling across fresh green hillsides dotted with white plastered¬†houses bearing¬†striking roofs and shutters of red or green (required). Further on,¬†the jagged,¬†sapphire¬†peaks of the Pyrenees stab a cerulean sky littered with wispy white clouds. And I realize that, even if all those things prove to be true, being in this place–just here, just now–is worth all the trouble.

The bus disgorges a¬†whole gaggle of pilgrims–boots, backpacks¬† and all–at the bottom of the town, and so begin our first attempts at navigation, some more successful than others. Eventually we land before the door of our first Auberge, Beilari, directly across from the Pilgrim Office. We are welcomed by Maria who receives pilgrims on weekends while the owners are away. She shows us our bunks, the bathrooms, and where to put our boots. She gives us¬†covers for our mattresses and¬†pillows, and tells us that¬†dinner is served at 7:30 and¬†that the¬†front door will be locked for the evening at 10:00.

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After depositing our packs on the floor at the end of our bunks (Never on the beds! Chinches, you understand. Bedbugs.), we head across the narrow street to queue up at the pilgrim office. Here we receive our pilgrim passport, the scallop shell that we will wear on our packs to mark us as pilgrims, a map, and a list of places to sleep.

We wander about town, travelling up to the ancient Citadel for breathtaking views out over the valley. When we return to the auberge, Maria allows us to help her put supper onto the table in the courtyard. Here we gather with strangers over a meal of soup, cheese, chorizo, bread and wine. Two hours later, we leave the table as friends, having shared the stories of love and longing, pain, devotion and curiosity that brought us here.

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Tomorrow we will be separated from several of our new friends (though¬†we will find many of them again before journey’s end). And we will make room for new friends. This is part of the Way. Learning to live in community. And learning to let go.

O how many unknown things
You made known to me.
In how many places
You found room for me.
What was distant, Friend,
You brought near.
The stranger
You made my brother, my sister.

~Rabindranath Tagore

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*On September 14, 2015, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Mike and I began walking the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain. I had planned to blog along the way, but quickly learned there simply was not time enough in our days for blogging. So I journaled, sort of, and took lots of photos, with the hope of reconstructing the stories when we were home. My blog was down for a while in the fall for technical reasons, so I decided the cold, gray days of January might be a nice time to return to sunny Spain. I invite you to come along.

The entries will appear in the form of a travelogue, roughly one per day. I will be relying on journal notes and photos, and my memory. My fellow pilgrims are welcome to provide corrections–or additions–where appropriate.

Travel Note:

There are several roads to Santiago. The most popular is the one we walked, the Camino Frances, which typically begins in St. Jean Pied de Port (France) and ends, 800 kilometers later, in Santiago de Compostella (Spain). For the first few days pilgrims pass through Basque country, a region with a strong cultural identity, much coveted by both France and Spain. Most locals consider themselves Basque first, and French or Spanish second.

 

Letting Go

Imagine your departure as a metamorphosis. Through simple acts of intention and attention, you can transform even a sleepwalking trip into a soulful journey. The first step is to SLOW DOWN. The next one is to treat EVERYTHING that comes your way as part of the sacred time that envelops your pilgrimage.

~Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

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It has been more difficult than I imagined: the weeks, days, now hours, leading up to our departure.

First, there was the injury. A stress fracture, diagnosed just 5 weeks out. Just like that, the marathon was gone. But the pilgrimage? Who could say?

Days before, I had read this admonition in the guidebook: “Remember, this is an inner as well as an outer journey. Be sure you spend at least as much time preparing your spiritual body as you do your physical body.”

Snap.

Immediately a film reel rolled before my eyes: hours spent researching lightweight sleeping bags and backpacks, reading pilgrim forums and attending presentations. And goodness know how many hours on the trail. Yet precious little time asking why I was doing this or seeking God’s design.

Until the doctor handed me the boot. Literally. “This is to protect the bone and make sure it heals straight. But mostly, it’s to slow you down. Stay off it as much as possible.”

So while I was “staying off it” and icing religiously, I decided to embrace this sudden “opportunity” to take a hard look inside. What if this was never meant to be a physical pilgrimage at all? What if there was as much for me to learn sitting here on the couch and letting go of my agenda as there was traipsing across Spain? Could I be ok with that?

I spent some time reading. The book referenced above, for starters. It made for a pretty great perspective shift. I had borrowed the book, so I filled my phone with some of the more radiant, and uncomfortable, phrases.

I pulled other books off the shelf that had been lifegiving to me and scribbled favorite passages into my pilgrim journal. I knew I would want them close to me on my journey. And even closer if the journey didn’t happen.

And I spent a good deal of time being still.

And slow.

I like to think I came to a place of being at peace with whatever God had for me in this. “Be flexible,” my friend Debra said to me on the morning of my doctor’s appointment. “Be willing to walk the path God gives you.”

Turns out the path involves starting, at least. I am cleared to go, thanks be to God. And am advised to take it slowly, a concept which is as foreign to me as the two languages I will be corrupting over the next few weeks. I know that if the pain returns, I have to stop.

Meanwhile, I find myself putting away laundry and fondly stroking the clothes I will not see for ages. In fact, all my worldly goods, at least all the ones going with me, are in that backpack you see up there. Except my sleeping bag, which I haven’t rolled up yet because I still have to treat it for bedbugs, ūüė≥ and the¬†one outfit that I will wear ever single solitary day from this Wednesday until October 21st. Oh, did I mention that all my worldly goods (including sleeping bag) weigh 14 pounds?

Last night, Mike innocently said to me, “Just three more nights to sleep in our own bed.” And I almost cried.

Apparently, part of what this sacred time means for me is to let go. To let go of my demands that this look the way I imagine it should. To let go of clothes, and make-up, and the flowers I had to cut down because they would become gangly and unkempt while I was gone. To let go of the house renovation project that began last week and must continue without me there to hover and get in the way.¬†To let go of my children and the grand baby for a while and trust that they’ll be ok without me. And that I will be ok without them. To let go of friends who are hurting and trust that God will take better care of them than I ever could, and believe that my prayers might be a far better gift than my presence.

It is begun. We leave on Wednesday, God willing. And I will make every attempt to report here from time to time. As best I can. On my phone. Which will not really be functioning as a phone because that costs a million dollars, but as a wifi receptor/the world’s smallest computer. This is my first attempt at posting from my phone so the jury is still out on how that works.

But I am letting go of that.

By the way, I write as though you know what I am talking about, which might not be the case at all. So, if you are new round here: my hubby and I are off to walk an ancient pilgrimage route across Northern Spain. The Camino de Santiago. It culminates at the tomb of Saint James, Apostle of our Lord. 500 miles, give or take. God willing, we hope to commence on the Feast day of the Elevation of the Cross (Monday, 14 September). Two days before this, Mike will run the Marathon du Medoc in Pauillac, France. Alas, I will be cheering him on from the sidelines.

p.s. I corrected the photo on my computer, otherwise it would have appeared on your screen sideways. Incidentally, I didn’t even know it was sideways on my phone. So, be warned, you might have to stand on your head, or at least turn your computer sideways to see the photos I upload into these posts… ūüėú

 

 

 

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