A Pilgrim Tale: day nine

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We spend the whole of today walking with our camino niece, Rhys. (See if you can make her out along the wall.) She is still recovering from an ankle injury that required her to bus ahead a couple of days to Logrono, but she is being very brave. We talk about her many travels, including a season in Korea as an English teacher. We talk about the wild beauty of her home state of Oregon. We talk about the complexities of family and friendship. And we sing. Her library of classic rock, as well as Veggie Tales songs, is pretty impressive. ūüôā

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All along the Way are impromptu altars: Sanctuaries of stacked stone. Crosses of sticks and grass and bits of fabric woven into chain link fences. Tokens of pilgrimage. Of making place for the sacred. Right here. Right now.

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There have been stories of a minstrel. This afternoon, we finally meet him. He is walking his camino in a suit and hat and carrying a guitar. We sit together on a scrap of broken wall while he rolls a cigarette and tells us a bit of his story. Tonight, we will hear his music spilling through the open windows of our albergue as he and his band of merry men sing us to sleep.

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When we arrive in Najera, we check into the association albergue. Ninety beds in one room! The hospitaleros are all vounteers who have walked the Way themselves. They are very friendly and helpful. They receive our donations and assign us beds. As Mike and I are married, we are given two of the bunks that sit side by side. This a nice surprise.

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We stash yogurt in the refrigerator for tomorrow’s breakfast, hand wash a few laundry items and hang them out to dry, then walk to a cafe along the river for lunch/dinner. Here we run into Jan and David, then Kendra and her new friend James who, as it turns out, lives in Brentwood, about 15 minutes from us.

Our sleeping quarters are close and hot, and one woman just across the aisle from Mike throws open her sleeping bag to reveal more than any of us really want to see. But, it is nice to be able to hold my husband’s hand as we fall asleep to the Celtic strains of the minstrel…

A Pilgrim Tale: day eight

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Today is the first time I cry on the trail. I wake up in a funk. I have had my fill of other people deciding when I may and may not sleep, of sharing a toilet with 30 or 40 other people, of unpacking and repacking every. single. day. I am tired of no time to myself. No space.

Hear me say, “I love all the amazing people we are meeting on the Way!” Some of them will be forever friends. I am sure of that. Others are important encounters as we enter one another’s stories, for a moment, and talk about what matters. Conversations go deep more quickly here. Hearts are open. For this, I am grateful.

But…

I am in terrible need of a little quiet. I have journaled exactly one time in seven days. Last night I sat down at a table, pulled out my journal, and was promptly joined by a whole family we had met in the Church. As mentioned yesterday, we had a wonderful evening with their plus one. But, when we were done, I sent a couple of messages, posted a few pics to facebook, and it was curfew. I got to our room just as lights went out and had to brush my teeth without toothpaste because Mike (already asleep) had moved it.

So, between having no time or space to myself, having little say about when I sleep or what I eat, I am in a funk. I warn Mike first thing that it might be best for both of us if I not talk. At all. And for the most part, though we are always in sight of one another, we hike today alone.

I am tight all over and feel like I carry a stone in my chest. I pray. I listen to music. I drink in the beauty around us. But something is locked up inside me and I don’t know how to get past it. Then Audrey Assad begins singing in my ears…

I put all my hope on the truth of Your promise
and I steady my heart on the ground of Your goodness
When I’m bowed down with sorrow I will lift up Your name
and the foxes in the vineyard will not steal my joy.
Because you are good to me, good to me…
Your goodness and mercy shall follow me all my life…

And everything opens up. The tightness in my chest dissolves in tears, and accumulated griefs that are bigger than bathrooms and toothpaste and not enough quiet spill out my eyes. And this is the beginning of everything being better.

I will continue to wrestle with the tension of solitude and community. Whereas I expected a great deal of the former, I am experiencing mostly the latter. And maybe that‚Äôs why I am here. I‚Äôm not sure…

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Though I am preoccupied with my thoughts, I am not oblivious to the glory around me. We are back in the vineyards. These are littered with beehive huts. As the farmers live at some distance from their vineyards, they would have traditionally stayed in these huts as the grapes neared the pinnacle of ripeness so they might not miss that magic moment. Most are in various stages of neglect, but a couple are whole. Though not a fan of unsolicited graffiti, I have to smile when we pass one where someone has written ‚ÄúAlbergue gratuite!‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúFREE Wifi!‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúBreakfast 3 euros‚ÄĚ

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More snail gardens. They seem to love the anise. And I find myself wondering if you can taste the licorice when you eat them.

When we arrive in Logrono, a harvest festival is exploding all around us. The streets are thronged with people. There are streets artists, balloon bouquets, children in traditional garb; and in the plazas, smoke and food and great jugs of wine.

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We duck into the relative quiet of a cafe for a late lunch with David, Jan, Rhys and James. A well dressed woman in her late sixties comes over to our table. “Peregrinos?” she asks. “Si.” She tells us she too has walked the camino. Twice. Then she pulls up her sleeve to show us this:

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By mid-afternoon, the streets have cleared for siesta. We return to our albergue, where we join others crowding around the icy cold foot bath. We buy cans of cold beer from the vending machine in the courtyard and swap stories. And the conversation and laughter are good medicine.

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Later, there is a mass run to the mercado for picnic supplies, and we sit around tables in the courtyard and pass around cheese and bread, asparagus and chocolate, and pour glasses of wine, and spin the threads that continue to bind each of us to the other.

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Camino
David Whyte

The way forward, the way between things,
the way already walked before you,
the path disappearing and re-appearing even
as the ground gave way beneath you,
the grief apparent only in the moment
of forgetting, then the river, the mountain,
the lifting song of the Sky Lark inviting
you over the rain filled pass when your legs
had given up, and after,
it would be dusk and the half-lit villages
in evening light; other people’s homes
glimpsed through lighted windows
and inside, other people’s lives; your own home
you had left crowding your memory
as you looked to see a child playing
or a mother moving from one side of
a room to another, your eyes wet
with the keen cold wind of Navarre.

But your loss brought you here to walk
under one name and one name only,
and to find the guise under which all loss can live;
remember you were given that name every day
along the way, remember you were greeted as such,
and you needed no other name, other people
seemed to know you even before you gave up
being a shadow on the road and came into the light,
even before you sat down with them,
broke bread and drank wine,
wiped the wind-tears from your eyes;
pilgrim they called you again. Pilgrim.

*Thank you, dear Jan, for David Whyte. And for so many other gifts. xoxo

 

A Pilgrim Tale: day seven

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We leave our communal breakfast this morning full of anticipation. Early on we will pass one of the more popular landmarks of the Way: The Bodegas Fuente del Vino. For many years, these wine making families have refreshed pilgrims along their journey. A sign posted beside the fountain reads (approximately), “If you want to get to Santiago with strength and vitality of this great wine, take a drink and toast to happiness.”¬† Each pilgrim shows remarkable restraint, pouring only a few sips into cup or water bottle, insuring that those who arrive later in the day will also be served.

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If you should decide to walk the camino, I can’t imagine a lovelier time than autumn with voluptuous clusters of grapes dripping from the vines, freshly mown cereal fields, feathery fronds of white asparagus, and congregations of sunflowers that look as though they are praying, heavy with seed. We climb up to one hilltown after another. In Azqueta, we stop to admire two ancient grapevines that have had their way with one of the village houses, climbing all the way to the third story.

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Near Villamayor de Monjardin we are happily caught in a sheep stampede. We have been watching the flock move across distant hills for almost an hour before we finally meet. Later in the afternoon, we will pass another shepherd, resting in the meager shade of the only visible scrap of tree with his dogs and one of his flock, looking every bit the part of The Alchemist’s Santiago. Except for the cellphone in his hand, of course. ūüôā

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We land in Torres del Rio for what will prove to be one of my least favorite albergue experiences of the trip. Not because of the albergue itself, which is clean and bright with an open window looking out over the church, but for people banging impatiently on the shower door almost as soon as I get in and rushing me out of the bathroom, and old men who insist on walking around in their tidy whities. Nobody wants to see that.

We walk around to the beautiful 11th century Knights Templar church, Iglesia de Santo Sepulchro. The lady taking our humble 2 euro donations is gruff and businesslike and looks tired. Once several of us have seated ourselves around the perimeter of the church, snapping photos and drinking in the beauty, she signals, rather humorously, that we should try singing. (I have read that the acoustics are extraordinary.)

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Mike and I begin to sing the Exapostilarion of Pascha, a hauntingly lovely hymn with simple, but beautiful harmonies. Something happens to the sounds in that place and they become a music far more exquisite than what spilled out over our lips. When we are done, our hostess’s face is radiant. “Muy Bonita!” she breathes. And she is completely changed. Later, as we sit at a table outside our albergue with the folks we met in the church, she walks up behind me and kisses me on the cheek. And I am reminded that music is a language of the soul and that connections of the heart sometimes have nothing to do with words.

One of the people we meet in the church is Kendra, striking both because she is very pretty and because she laughs easily. We have dinner together and discover that she has been part of the community at Trinity Grace church in New York, a church planted by our friend, Jon Tyson. She has just left her job as a textiles designer at Gap, moved back home to Philly and, like many of us, finds herself in a place of transition. Walking with open hands…

The readers will find in my diary a random collection of what I have seen of the road, views somehow remaining in my heart.
~Basho

A Pilgrim Tale: day six

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When my kids were little, one of our very favorite books was Meindert DeJong’s The Wheel on the School. It tells about a village in Holland where the storks no longer come to nest, and how a group of school children go about bringing them back. It is a magical story and we love it.

On our way out of town this morning, I am confused by the enormous circles of twigs and grass on the church until I realize… They. Are. Stork. Nests!! I am giddy with excitement and immediately wish my children were here to see them. We will continue to see them all across Spain. Apparently the Iberian Peninsula is a favorite nesting place. And every time I see them, it makes me happy. Every time.

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Today there are rolling hills and Templar towns, aquaducts bringing water from the mountains, and grapevines groaning under the weight of their voluptuous burdens. There are snail gardens and more haystacks. (We later learn that Mike and Paul stop to climb all of these. Naturally. :))

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The day has grown very warm, and we eagerly join several others under a medieval bridge where we plunge our feet in a mountain stream. The water is icy cold and I can only bear it for a few seconds at a time. But, my goodness, it is refreshing!! While we are visiting with Shay and Nicole, we are joined by a pair of young pilgrims bearing a bag bulging with grapes. They tell us how the farmer talked with them, proudly showing them the bounty of his labors, then generously filled a bag for them. They have eaten their fill and want to share his gifts with all of us. The grapes are sweet and juicy, a delectable treat.

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We have lost track of the days of the week, but today is Saturday. And when we reach Villatuerta, we are just in time to see a wedding party exiting the church. The bride is radiant in a timeless gown of heavy brocade. I can’t stop looking at her. I ask her if I may take a photo. She hands her cigarette to a friend :), grabs the arm of her new husband, and flashes a smile that is all joy.

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In Estella, we check into the parochial hostel where we find Mike, Paul, and Lasse (Denmark), along with the beautiful newlyweds, Damien (France) and Psicobeta (Brazil), who are still on their year long honeymoon! For the first time, we pay to have our laundry washed in a machine. Though we still hang it to dry, it will dry faster after a nice spin. With the laundry done, we head out in search of a couple of cervezas grandes. On the walk back up the hill, we see clumps of people in traditional dress. I try to find out what’s happening, perro mi Espanol es no muy bien.

Vale. (Spanish for, it’s all good.) Shortly after we return to our lodging, they come parading right by us, stopping occasionally to dance. It is fantastic!! I follow them down the hill and across the bridge before my legs refuse to carry me any further. Later, we will go back out to a market for picnic provisions. We sleep in close quarters with mostly people a lot younger than us. Next morning, we enjoy a communal meal of bread and jam and coffee. And begin again…

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Every second of the search is an encounter with God. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous…I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible…

~Paulo Coelho

A Pilgrim Tale: day five

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Do not forget that to live is glory. ~Rainer Maria Rilka

Up and out early walking through farmland and past towering haystacks where I half expect to see “Jack from Ireland”. (Inside joke for those who have seen The Way) We are joined for a while by an ebullient school group out hiking with day packs. They chatter a mile a minute and sometimes run ahead. One of them has a bag of tiny kinder eggs that he is passing out to his mates. He stops to hand one to me. ūüôā

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Out across the rolling landscape, one can see several hill towns scattered about. Villages were built on hills: a. so that you could see the church from far away, and b. because they are more defensible. And here’s another thing: everyone lives in the villages. No farmhouses dot these great sweeping expanses of farmland. No sheds or barns. The farmers live in the village and ride their tractors out to their fields. Great towering windmills whir in the distance. We are slowly overtaking them.

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We have been playing leapfrog with Rhys and the guys all morning. Part way up the hill that will finally deliver us to the windmills, we stop under a scrap of tree for a rest and a snack. Claudia and Gabbi are eating yogurt from glass jars. Mike tells them the yogurt must be really good to justify carrying a glass jar all this way. Claudia assures him, it is. ūüôā

Mike and Paul join us. Mike stretches out on the grass, and Paul enlists our help in a clandestine project. He has “borrowed” Rhys’s video camera. He assigns us all crazy tasks. For instance, I am supposed to describe the texture of egg salad. He will knit our responses together to make a hilarious little Camino souvenir for Rhys that she will not discover til she is home.

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At the top of the hill are iconic iron statues reminding us of pilgrims who have walked this way for centuries before us. The windmills stand sentry all along the ridge, as far as the eye can see.

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In the afternoon, Mike and I decide to take an optional detour out to Eunate, a beautiful 12th century Romanesque church with links to the Knights Templar who once were the guardians of the Way. It is extremely hot. And more than once, we will question our decision, especially when we learn that the church is only open to visitors at certain hours and that we will need to wait more than an hour to see the interior. We pull off our shoes and lie on the grass in the shade for a bit, then resume walking.

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On the up side, this walk has taken us past some of the most verdant farmland we’ve seen. Padron peppers are literally dropping from the plants. There are artichokes, asparagus, corn, sunflowers, olives…

In Obanos we run into new friends Tad and Melinda and walk the remaining 1.8k into Puenta la Reina with them. There is an albergue in the basement of Hotel Jakue, and this is where we decide to stay. We are assigned to the Paulo Coelho room(!) which makes both Melinda and me very happy. We talk about The Alchemist and The Pilgrimage and she tells me about his On Being interview. I load it onto my phone to listen to tomorrow.

After doing a little laundry, Mike and I walk into town to see the Iglesia del Crucifio, so named for the unique Y shaped crucifix brought here by medieval pilgrims from Germany. It is only one of three such crucifixes in all the world. We are unprepared for the impact of our encounter. The whole of it is carved of wood. And the figure of Christ is so compelling, so full of anguish, that I can’t breathe.

We don’t talk much about it. I think each of us is guarding this profound moment in our hearts in our own way. But when we are home, I will walk into Mike’s office one morning to find a postcard of this image leaning against his computer. And when we compile a list of “luminous moments” from the Way to share with friends, this is the first one he mentions.

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The remembrance of Christ’s sufferings cures the soul of rancor, so confused is it by the example of Christ’s love. ~St. John Climacus

 

 

A Pilgrim Tale: day four

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At its heart, the journey of each life is a pilgrimage through unforeseen places that enlarge and enrich the soul.

~John O’Donohue

Before leaving Zubiri, we tuck into a bustling little coffee shop for one of the more decadent breakfasts we will have on the camino. The proprietor offers to warm our chocolate chip muffins, and when we break them open, we discover a gooey, molten center. Oh! My! Mike will tell stories about these muffins for the rest of our trip, stopping at one bakery after another, trying to find them again.

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Today’s walk is up and down hills, past grapevine clad houses and trees heavy with fruit. We pay a brief visit to the Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz, the ruined church of Santa Lucia, which has recently been purchased by a former pilgrim from South Africa and his Spanish bride and is being lovingly restored in the hopes of creating a museum of Basque culture and possibly an albergue.

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We also pass a house that will be familiar to you if you have seen Emilio Estevez’s film, The Way. Do you remember a long table in a garden, Tom’s first encounter with cynical Sarah from Canada, and the innkeeper who would have liked to be a bullfighter? Yeah, that house. Cue James Taylor. ūüėČ

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We take a most meaningful detour up to Zabaldika to visit the 13th century church of San Esteban (St. Stephen). Here we are invited to climb the winding stone stairs up to the belfry and ring one of the ancient bells, sending our prayers out over the valley.

The trail leading away from the church is lovely, along a dry desert hillside where lavender and anise grow in profusion. The scent is intoxicating. I stop from time to time and run my hands over them, drinking in their fragrance. Also, there are dry stems covered in what I first believe to be white blossoms, but they are actually snails. Hundreds of snails. I’ve never seen anything like it. But I will, again and again, before we are done. And there is a farm with turkeys and ducks, chickens and goats. A fun surprise.

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The entrance into Pamplona is impressive, leading us under and around and finally through the ancient walls that once protected her. We secure beds at the albergue Jesus Y Maria, built into the nave of a 17th century Jesuit church. A clean room with rows and rows of bunks accommodates several of our friends including Rhys and the lads–who we will find practicing some restorative yoga later–David and Jan, Shay and Nichol.

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After a shower, Mike and I head out for an explore. First up, the art deco masterpiece, Cafe Iruna.

“The square was hot. The flags hung on their staffs, and it was good to get out of the sun and under the shade of the arcade that runs around the square…We take coffee in the Iruna, sitting in comfortable armchairs, while from the cool shadow of the arcades contemplating the great square.”

~Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

We forego the coffee, but do share a piece of chocolate cake. And there is an accordion player. And the square is hot.

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Mike runs for a bit with the bulls. Then, like the bulls, we make our way to the famous Plaza de Toros, where I have my picture made with a bust of Papa Hemingway.

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Dinner turns out to be another of our more memorable meals. We feast on pintxos (pronounced pinch-ohs, Basque for tapas)¬† at a table on the plaza directly opposite the lovely town hall. Many of the cafes offer pintxos specials. Our plate–chef’s choice of nine pintxos–and bottle of wine is only 12 euros. There is plenty for both of us and it is so good. Padron peppers (amazing!!), tortilla con papas, chorizo, another type of sausage that is tasty but it is best to not ask too many questions about, seafood salad, calamari, chicken wings, and a couple of things I have forgotten.

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Travel notes:

It is entirely possible to do the camino on the cheap. Though we anticipated spending the occasional night in a hotel, we ended up electing to stay in albergues all the way. These ranged in price from 5-12 euros/person. Some are donativo, meaning pay what you can. We usually paid the same amount at these, or more if a meal was included. We probably averaged around 15-18 euros each for food per day.

Also, a word about bedbugs: It is one of the great preoccupations for pilgrims. Hospitaleros do what they can, but anytime you move this many people through the same space day after day, it is always a possibility. We personally did not encounter them, but we met people who did. Here are a few tips: Pretreat your backpack and sleeping bag before traveling with a natural product called pyrethrin. One treatment is good for 30-40 days or so which will be just about enough. Also, lavender oil is said to repel them. We always travel with lavender oil, so any time we felt like the risk was higher, and especially toward the end of our trip when our spray was wearing off, we used it as well. Some people made a spray with lavender or clove oils which they used to spray mattresses. Finally, bedbugs tend to leave droppings in the seams of mattresses, so that is a good place to investigate before bedding down.

 

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.