(Originally posted May 2014)
Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way, Leaning on the everlasting arms; Oh, how bright the path grows from day to day, Leaning on the everlasting arms.
"Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" by Elisha A. Hoffman, 1887
I don't think I had a "religious" experience on the walk (The Camino de Santiago, The Way of St. James) but I did have a deeply human one. I was blessed to have shared this adventure with my friend Jennifer and her father Ed. We experienced "the best 100 kilometers of the last 300 kilometers" of this hike across Northern Spain ending in Santiago de Compostela (not far from the Atlantic Coast).
It was the most difficult prolonged thing I've ever done (except maybe for parenting). The climbs were slow and exhausting--taxing the lungs but not the legs. Each time the views were overwhelmingly worth it. Hill after hill, corner after corner the sight was more beautiful (or brilliant!) than the last. It felt like a special secret gift--as if there were no other way to see these amazing hills and valleys, fields and farmlands except on foot. With a small but necessary pack. With the clicking of a hiking pole. In the company of a few people. Passing (or being passed by) others with a "Buen Camino!" Hearing an American accent and asking "Where from?"
The descents were a strain on my knees and shins--especially on the rockiest of terrain. I never got used to that nor became conditioned against it. Give me the up hills over any of the down hills! Any day.
The weather changed often. Pull out and put on the rain gear (coat, brimmed hat, and rain pants). Then take off and put away the rain gear. On! Off! On! Off! Though even the ugliest of rainy days was made pleasant by good company. A conversation with one of our new Aussie friends about his second career as a high school teacher, the challenges with one of his adult daughters and the joys of grandchildren stands out more in my mind than the blowing, cold, driving rain.
Hills (mountains) and valleys (small and steep) traversed by trails gave way to homes and farmyards and people all seemingly centuries old. Cows, sheep, horses, dogs, cats, chickens, goats. Nearly toothless peasants weeding small gardens or repairing slate roofs. Tiny churches, lots of crypts (with fresh flowers!) and sometimes a stamp for our Camino "passport." Always a friendly "Hola!"
Learning a few key Spanish words went a long way --gracias, hola, agua, te no leche, cerveza. It was surprising to us how many locals knew no English (at all). We tried really hard not to be ugly Americans. I like to think we succeeded.
My memory wrestles with "most important" status but certainly near the top were our lunch breaks. Always pre-arranged by our travel guides (our angels who also transported our suitcases and were great encouragers) and never begun until everyone finished their morning hike and arrived at the restaurant ("bar"). The food itself wasn't important (nor especially good in my opinion) but the time spent around the table was delicious. "Try tying your boots this way to relieve the pressure." "Would you like to use my rain pants this afternoon? I'm done for the day." "Try a taste of my lentil soup?" We were six Americans (two Marylanders, one Tennessean, one New Yorker, two Virginians), five Australians, two Scots, and a Brit. Our travel guides were based in London with strong ties to Spain. It helped that we all spoke English. But whose English? They giggled at our reference to "pants" for outerwear (more properly called "trousers" because pants are, well, underwear). We heard stories about dads (now granddads) who had never changed their children's "nappies" (diapers) and all the non-Americans talked often of "ringing people up." Hurrah for context to understand what people were saying!
I had a hilarious "Who's on first" conversation while hiking with a Scot. I thought she was whimsically wondering what our hiking poles would say (if they could talk) about each new group. Will they get along? Will they whine and complain? I went along with the fun conversation until it finally dawned on me she wasn't talking about our hiking POLES but our travel guides--father and son both named PAUL (which we had begun referring to as "the Pauls"). I asked her later if she thought I was crazy with my responses to her ("yes...it is interesting to think what the POLES might be thinking") and she just cheerfully replied (in her Queen's English) that she just figured we must have gotten our wires crossed somewhere! Indeed!
Selfies over mountains, with cows, and in church yards. Exploring small towns each evening for a light tapas supper. American music everywhere (Springsteen's "Born in the USA" infusing one hotel lobby). Figuring out lights and showers in each night's new hotel. Clearing skies after just a short walk when we were expecting a whole day of rain. Finding bathrooms at local establishments and buying a coffee or Kit Kat Bar from the proprietor (it's the polite thing to do). When there's no place civilized to stop for relief finding a secluded spot and letting your group know that you'll "catch up." A very (very) small dog herding large cows. Discussing politics over meals, comparing "the states" with Scotland, Australia, and England (they think our football players are wimps because they wear "armor.") Lots of second marriages in this group, lots of heartaches over children, those in our 50's seen as the youngins (two were 79 and two were 75--one birthday that we celebrated on Thursday with champagne).
And then there was the stomach bug (or food poisoning?) that wiped out over half our crew for nearly 24 hours (at least). We each thought we (or our room or spouse) were the only to be struck until the "how are you?" question at breakfast revealed "not terribly well" for most. In fact, dreadfully awful! Thankfully our "Pauls" were able to arrange for us to stay later at our Day 5 lodging, check in early at our Day 6 lodging, and bring us some cans of "Aquarius" which is like unflavored Gatorade. Tracking down Ritz-like crackers in a "super market" in Santiago was a welcome relief too. I tried to "say" crackers and only succeeded by pantomiming throwing up. That was met by a sympathetic smile from the shopkeeper who had been trying to sell me cheese and chocolates. Maybe he thought I just didn't appreciate his goods.
Favorite sight? Storks and nests in a chimney on the first day's walk (I thought they only were in Disney movies). Most beautiful? Purple flower covered hills. Or the cathedral in Astorga. Or maybe it was the day's end meeting spot (every day). Most unusual? Home of Tomas--who believes he's one of the remaining Knights Templar (we only stopped for a passport stamp and a look at a very scruffy dog). Packed but never used? Band aids. Couldn't do without? Power adaptor, Smart wool socks, rain pants, camera. Best advice? Shake your shoes out every morning. Even the tiniest pebble makes a difference. Greatest affirmation? Everyone has a story to tell if you just ask. It's a luxury to have the time to listen.
My "wires crossed" new Scottish friend said to me that many people don't start the Camino for religious reasons but most end up that way. I think she's right. A few religious truths I learned or re-learned: It's okay to not know where you're going if you just keep to the path. Looking down may get you lost. Look up, look around, and look back. It's good to take a break and have a rest but if the break is too long, you'll get stiff. One person's undulation is another's hills and valleys (perspective and cheerfulness matter). God is good. All the time.
I am very thankful for my traveling partners Jennifer and Ed. They made it interesting, fun, inspiring, and possible. I've only scratched the surface trying to describe our adventure. It's always amazing to me how in just a week you can grow deeply closer to old friends and how strangers can turn into dearly beloveds. Just like summer camp. Now it's time to go home.