Sunday, 17 August 2014

A Scheme is Hatched!

I give up one thing that doesn´t fit any more (like training hospitaleros) and another, bigger, more interesting thing zooms right in to take its place.

I came to terms with the Depression. I agreed to sit still while the darkness lasted, because maybe there is something down here for me to learn. Sitting still is against all my upbringing. It is un-American. When anything is less-than excellent, you get up and do something – anything! -- to make it better. Even when doing something is really not the best idea.

So it is hard for me, just sitting here.
But sitting here, after a while, I start to see the big picture. The writing on the wall stops being part of the décor and starts demanding translation.

With fewer and fewer pilgrims stopping here, I don´t need to focus on accommodating them. I have lost a lot of interest in things Santiago. I have answered the same questions 100 times, and I´ve barked up the same trees at least as often to fix the things that don´t work so well. And I realize maybe the Camino does not need any fixing. It is exactly what it is. Pilgrims come and go, like they´ve done for a thousand years. We´ll continue giving them a bed and a meal if they need it. But what I achieve, or don´t achieve, camino-wise, means little or nothing.

So I decided to stop training people to be volunteer hospitaleros. I sent in a resignation to the Canadian Confraternity and the Spanish federation a week ago, and posted the news on, the forum where I am most present, camino-wise. Nary a ripple was seen on the stream.

And a day later, up from Moratinos jumped another fish to fry. It´s fiesta week, and the town is heaving with friends and relations, come home to see granny and the cousins in the old pueblo. Everyone is happy to see the new chestnut trees and flowers blooming in the plaza, the cleaned-up streets, the fincas now for sale. Both church bells rang for the Santo Tomas procession, a jolly racket that echoed for miles across the fields and made all the dogs howl out loud.

procession of Sto. Tomas Apostol

And so we struck. A little group of us year-round residents rounded-up the visitors and founded a new Cultural Association, aimed at preserving Moratinos´ memories, informing outsiders of our little hidden treasures, and maybe shoring up our crumbling cultural patrimony, which is made of adobe.  

Response was overwhelming. No fewer than 55 people put their names down, along with a 10-Euro note to get things started. Men and women, young and old, all of them with some tie to this town, people determined – even though only 20 of us actually live here all the time --  to not let Moratinos die.  

I was made president. No one asked me. I was told.
I think it is because everyone can talk to me. My uncle didn´t offend their cousin back in 1985, so I am OK. I am a goober, clueless to a lot of historical inter-familial bullshit – when that comes up, I pretend to not understand. I work hard to keep a civil relationship with everyone here.
Costume contest: the Asturian chickens
This, I think, offers an opportunity to heal old wounds.

Only one family told me No, this can´t work, that people need to go home and mind their own business. They´ve been hurt in the past. I think they are just taking a “wait and see” stance. Once they see how things progress, they may jump on board, too. Because I feel pretty positive about this. And when I set out to make something happen, it usually works.  

I don´t have to handle money. There´s a treasurer for that. No need to take notes, because we have a secretary, too. Total transparency will be written into the bylaws. I might have to mount a FaceBook page, and update it with photos and copy – I can find someone to help me translate. Maybe this will improve my Spanish. Maybe someone will step up and make a web page. There is a lot of talent here.
Talent is cheap. Follow-through is what will make it really happen, once the initial enthusiasm goes. I am as hard-headed as a Castilian. I can make this stick. I just hope I do not step on too many peoples´ toes on the way.  
this year´s winner: a Pirate Ship!
We are starting out small. Tomorrow we will deposit all those ten-Euro bills in a new bank account. We will file papers to make ourselves an official Asociacion Cultural in Palencia province.  (You can join, too, and donate as much money as you like!)
We will clarify our goals. We will settle on what to call ourselves. And then start doing.

I have ideas, simple things we can execute with or without help from ministries or government groups. A sad fact is, many people here wait around for the government to improve things.  They don´t step up til they have a grant in hand, and grants don´t happen so much any more. But we can build a signpost, an information station to tell visitors what those caves are in the hillside, (bodegas), what those round buildings are in the fields (dovecotes). We can organize ourselves enough to open the church, open our bodegas, to show our children and our visitors that this is a rare sight, a disappearing resource, a  rustic little gem to be treasured.        

Small things, simple things. If we can make that work, we can tackle larger projects. Make the collapsed bodegas safe. Fix the uneven pavement in the plaza. Rationalize the reams of mouldering historical documents into a small archive. Label old photos. Collect old recipes and craftwork and stories from the elderly, while they are still here.Things people say are impossible, or too much, or beyond the reach of a small town and little people.

We are not many, but we have a big reach. We are scattered all over Spain, and most of us have some skill or another to offer. We love Moratinos. And we are only as small as our expectations. 

And here in the dark is something I believe in, something new worth working on.  

Friday, 8 August 2014

Madmen, Piglets, and Sun-stroke: Three Days of Big Fun

It was only three days, supposed to be five. I only made it partway, and I should've stopped after the first day, but I kept on going. I thought it would get better, that I would get better.
I didn't. I got worse. It got bad, very quickly.
It was a really self-serving hike anyway. The day of the last blog post, the day we saw through the neighbors' house, was the day Momo Cat was last seen. Time went on, he didn't come back. Pad and I both started looking glumly at one another, started giving up hope. So I did a Spanish thing. I made a promesa to Santiago. Momo comes back okay, I will go to Valladolid on the train, and walk home, as a thanksgiving. I said it out loud, in front of witnesses (Paddy and the outside dogs). And once the neighbors came back for the weekend, Momo reappeared, shouting loud outside the back door, not a scratch on him. We think he somehow got inside their house while it was open, and was locked in all week when they left. Thank God they're coming back on weekends these days!
Thank God indeed.
You'd better start walking, Paddy said.
And on Monday, full of expectation, I took the 11.05 train to Valladolid with my backpack good to go for a short hike across the meseta on the Camino de Madrid.
In August.  
I've been wanting to walk the Madrid for a long time. I was willing to do just the top bit, from Valladolid, just for a taste -- it is hard leaving Peaceable for longer than a few days, seeing as Paddy can't drive the car.
I should've taken the 7:30 a.m. train. Should have got an earlier start. In Valladolid I knew which bus to take up to Simancas, where the Camino Madrid passes through. I knew which bus, but I could not find a bus stop for it. I wandered the city for an hour and a half, from bus stop to bus stop, like an idiot. No one knew. I finally took a taxi. By the time I hit the trail it was 1 p.m. The sun by then was cranked up to 10. 
Only seven kilometers to Ciguenela, an easy two hours.
In August, only mad dogs and Englishmen do that. And mountain-bike riders. Everyone with an ounce of sense stays in the shade with a cold drink.
I walked long and hard, I was thankful for each little breeze that blew up the lonesome country road. Roads out there are Kansas-quality dirt, mostly straight, angled around property lines. Towns hide behind hills, you can see the church tower for hours before you get close. If you've walked the big Camino Frances, you'll remember that long strip after Carrion de los Condes. This is something like that, but it goes on for days.
I fell into my long-distance stride. Heat shimmered up off miles of stubble.
About four kilometers in, I saw two figures on the road ahead, moving toward me. Bicycles. Two men, sweaty, weaving and laughing. Maybe heading home after a long, loaded lunch, I thought. As they came closer I realized they were not drunk. They were mad.
Their handlebars waggled because their bodies shuddered. Their faces were like clown masks, they greeted me with wild hilarity and a wave that almost took one of them over. I played it cool, smiled and waved back as they passed by -- I didn't want to give them a reason to stop.
They rolled past, up the hill I'd just come down, very slowly, out of sight.
I walked on. I heard my pulse rushing in my ears. I felt light-headed. Soon as I stopped walking, a headache started. And a cold. I met the only other walking pilgrim on the Camino Madrid, in the lovely albergue of Cigunuela. He was very happy to see me.
He had not seen two crazy guys on bikes, he said. I wondered if they were real.
His name was Luis, from Aranjuez. He was dark and slender, a runner. He worked in an auto-parts factory outside Madrid. I could not keep awake to chat. Later on, through a haze, I saw him soaking his feet, then putting himself to bed. He was beautiful.
In the middle of the night he woke me up. I was crying in my sleep, he said. He gave me some water.
I was sweating hard, but I felt cold. My head pounded. Only a couple of hours of sun had done that.
Luis was gone when I got up in the morning. He'd been doing 40 kilometer days, but his lightweight trainer shoes were shredding his feet.
The early-morning walk was superb. I said all my prayers. I saw rabbits and hares, sheep and shepherds and sheepdogs, a weasel, a kestrel, and a hoopoe. My nose ran, I snorted and coughed and hacked. I was glad to be alone. I still felt light-headed. I drank lots of water, wore sunscreen and a hat, I walked in the shade at every opportunity.
I saw Luis again in Penaflor de Hornija. He was slowing down. He'd see me in Castromonte, he said. I had trouble forming Spanish sentences. I drank two quick claras. (half draft beer, half 7-Up). I left Hornija just after 11, and the thermometer read 30 degrees. I went slow. A beautiful, medieval sunken lane, all dappled and dark, opened onto miles of endless wide-open blast furnace. An Allman Brothers song played an endless loop in my head.
Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy on me.
Miles on I could see a line of scrubby oak trees. As I drew closer I saw some enterprising person had set up a piggery among them, and dozens of fine black swine browsed behind makeshift fences. Acorns. Black pigs. These were Spain's famous Bellota hams on the hoof. They were friendly, they nosed up to the fence to say hello. And in the next pen were mother pigs, and a vast number of wiggly, wormy black piglets. They squealed and swarmed and ran, ran, ran, full of energy and joy. The moms were pretty active, too, at least the ones not fenced inside numbered concrete bunkers.
Luis was there, snapping photos, grinning. It was impossible not to smile. We walked on, and on the right heard something crashing in the bushes next to the trail. Out burst a line of leaping piggies, escapees, playing chase through the woods. They saw us, screamed, and split up, some running up the trail ahead, others diving into the bushes. They kept us company for a half-mile more, the most joyous pigs I ever met. Maybe that's why the jamon is so tasty -- their lives may be short, but they have them some fun!
Me and Luis straggled into Castromonte in the heat of the day. It is a gorgeous albergue. We did not see much of it. We slept. We walked into town and banged on the butcher's door til he opened up and sold us some food. We saw inside the church, with its images of 25 saints -- they take them all out for a parade every year, the Saturday before Pentecost. Beautiful adobe houses, leaning every which way, plaques marking birthplaces of forgotten fascists.
We ate simply -- pan-fried pork loin and cheese on bread. Olives. Plums from the tree outside. The scrap-end of a chocolate bar.
Luis made me a "isotonic cocktail" with energy drink and powdered minerals. I repaired his blistered feet as well as I could, with the minimal first-aid supplies I had. Tomorrow, Medina de Rioseco, I told him. There's a health center there. They can give you a proper bandage job.
There's a bus station there, too, he said. I can pick up there next year, walk on.
He'd made a promesa, he said. His mom, last year, a cancer scare. She's fine now. And so now he has a promise to keep, even if it takes him three years of holiday time to get to Santiago.  (I did not tell him about my promesa.)
We both were asleep before the sun went down. A man painted a wall outside. The roller went shush-shush-shush.
I said goodbye to Luis in the morning. I did not see him again.
It was another beautiful morning.
I do not remember it very well, but I liked it at the time.
At Medina de Rioseco I toured the churches of Santiago and Santa Maria -- the equal of any tourist attraction in Spain, and pretty much unknown outside this region. I had a horchata (an Arabic almond milkshake, cold and wonderful) at a bakery/bar run by a jolly family, but I couldn't taste anything. I enjoyed that beautiful little Castilian town -- it is known territory, a place I have always liked. But I do not remember it clearly.
I stayed at a hotel. I took a bath with salt, I drank a lot of Luis's isotonic cocktails.
I came home the next morning on the earliest bus. I thought I might try walking if I felt better, but I had the shakes in the night.
Defeated by the sun, smitten, I am taking my time getting back my energy.
Paddy is being kind and patient. We've had few pilgrims, and none since my return, and that's probably good. I am not fit company.
Momo cat slinks about, utterly ungrateful. I didn't exactly fulfill my promise, but he is only a cat.
Do not let me walk in August any more.  

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The House Next Door

The Peaceable is the yellow house behind THND.

I have lived only yards away for eight years, but I had never been inside the house next door.  Castilians mind their own business. They meet one another in bars or in the plaza, but almost never in each other’s homes.

Besides, there was hardly ever anybody home.

The place next door hasn’t really been a home for about 30 years, at least. Old Francisco raised his family here, but the kids grew up and moved elsewhere. When Francisco’s daughter married, he went to live with her in the city.  (It is a daughter’s duty to care for aging parents.) On holidays and sunny weekends we sometimes saw Francisco out in the driveway in his folding chair, watching the grain waving in the field over the road. He was small and stooped, but his eyes were bright and friendly. He told me once about serving in the civil war, that his military picture was on display at the ayuntamiento. 

Years passed, and Francisco stopped coming along when his daughter’s family visited town. The old man died this spring at the care home in Villada. His four children inherited the house next door. They agreed among themselves that none of them wants to keep the old place.

And so it is for sale. And so people like me, accompanied by others who might be interested in buying, can now see what’s inside the walls I walk past every day. And so on Sunday, when the daughter came to town, she showed me:
the patio

A patio paved in amateur concrete, streaked with rust and adobe. There’s a grey paisley wainscot of rising damp along two sides, and greenery is restricted to two neglected flower beds. It could be a lovely little patio. It may once have been, before sheep and cattle trumped hyacinths and hollyhocks.

A baking and roasting room, with two black-mouthed ovens built into the wall: one for bread, and one for roasting meat.  

An indoor well, a tiny room where the water comes in, a luxury in its time.  There’s a new water line and sewer line, too, installed a while back when Moratinos put in municipal systems.  Everything works okay, the lady said. They’re only here on the weekends in summer, and for the fiesta in August. They haven’t done much work on it, because it’s not really theirs.
The bathroom is windowless. Tiles, shiny, floor to ceiling, a pattern repeated over and over. A tiny tub, set up for showers. A pull-the-chain toilet. A derelict washing machine. A naked lightbulb overhead casting 40 Watts of gloom.

Not a lot of electricity. The wiring tacked-up and painted over.  

A kitchen, covered in funky 1960s tiles. No counter space, few cupboards – preparation and storage happen in yet another little room. A big, broad porcelain sink, a little fridge, a gas stove with the aroma of roasting rabbit floating forth -- Sunday dinner.
a beautiful, beautiful barn

Next little room in line, up three steps, the table is set for six. On a sofa pushed against the wall the little grandson naps. Fairies dance on the silent TV screen.  Up two more steps into an empty bedroom, cool and blue. The window looks out onto another patio, green and overgrown.  There’s a closet in this one, the lady says. Inside hangs a mop with a shriveled head.

We follow her down the steps, we turn a corner, and we’re in a sunny entry hall. Dark blue double doors open onto the sun-blasted patio; sunlight bleaches the throw rugs. It is airy there. Hydraulic tiles on the floors, moderno, very chic nowadays in New York and Barcelona. Four little bedrooms, low ceilings, small windows to keep out the cold in winter – they open onto the sunny hallway, onto another dining room, a formal room with a 1930s-era wedding photo on the wall. 

Across the patio and through a gate is another labyrinth, this one for animals.  Here is room for cattle, a mule, foals, chickens, rabbits, pigeons, tractors, wagons, hay and seed-corn.  The stalls look out on a little corral, space for another nice patio, perhaps. The walls are adobe brick, stacked and sagging, with elegant interlace of timbers, sticks, mud and tiles that make up the roofs.

And there’s the rub. This is not a large finca, but a massive amount of it is under roofs. And the roofs, neglected for decades, are failing. The timbers are riven with woodworm, walls and beams are jacked-up and coated with dove droppings. It is dusty and dark and well beyond redemption.

This finca, and thousands of others just like it in hundreds of towns in Castilla y Leon. For hundreds of years they sheltered farmers and carpenters, mule-drivers and wicker-weavers, but now that dark, grubby world is gone.

The family’s moved away, the space is useless, the maintenance and preservation too expensive. No one wants to live out here. No one wants to live in small rooms, heated by straw burning slowly in a tunnel underfoot. No one needs old fincas any more, and so they stand abandoned. They sag and leak until they collapse, and eventually the rain washes them away.

Unless a fool like me happens along.

The Peaceable was much like the house next door when we found it – just a bit smaller and less elaborate. We had to pull down the beams and ceilings, open little rooms into bigger ones, demolish the back barn, plumb and re-wire, put in windows, doors, a kitchen, floors, heating, roofs. It was a tremendous undertaking, expensive and frustrating and probably the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.  It turned out pretty nice in the end.  

It can be done. They are asking 72,000 Euro for the house next door. You can live in a camino village, or come here in summer, or rent it out to other camino dreamers. You can fix it up to whatever standard you like… you could bring your dog, your donkey, there’s lots of room for them. The place even comes with a bodega cave, albeit a broken one. Right next door to ours.   

And we will be here with all kinds of hard-earned advice and references, ready to remind you that Yes, it can be done, and yes, you really are insane to take on a great charming money pit in a tiny pueblo at the back end of the universe.

But this is Moratinos. Where the Big Fun is.  If you can stand the dog racket from the place next door, come and be our neighbour.  

Monday, 14 July 2014

Heretic Laundry

Breathless, Alberto came to the door this afternoon. "Priests," he said. "Seminarians, young, in black soutanes. From Canada. I tried talking with them, but I thought I better come over and get you."
I scooted right over to Bruno's place, and sure enough, there they were. Three Americans and a Canadian, all dressed in black, blank-eyed with exhaustion. English-speakers, no Spanish, none over 20 years old. Their priest and another seminarian were back the path somewhere. They had no working telephone. And could they say a Mass, later on, after the priest showed up? A Mass in Latin? Would that be okay?
I scooped up young Nick and we drove off to Terradillos to find his missing brothers. We stopped at the church, where Modesto was on duty. Modesto bustled up to the car window, anxious to learn about these holy boys. A Mass, a Latin Mass? Dear God, he said -- just the thought of it turned his grey hairs back to black! He still has all his Missals and Breviaries, he said, he did two years in seminary himself, and was altar boy for years and years!
Mass would be at 5:30 p.m. then, young Nick said. Modesto chortled with joy.
And so at 5 we rang the bell. Modesto and Raquel were waiting in fresh clothing, they'd brought water and wine and ironed napery. (I brought some as well. So did Milagros!) Milagros pulled a silver communion kit from a niche in the wall and gave the water-pitcher a good rub. An event!
We lit the candles and waited out on the steps.
Father Daley is well over six feet tall, and the assembled neighbours held their breath as he and three young men strode up the street in their flapping black soutanes. They were tall, young and handsome. They stepped right up and inside, where the priest unloaded a bagful of vestments and altar-ware, all in matching embroidery. They moved the books and candles into new positions, and at 5:30 sharp they sang out the first psalm.
Their Latin was said with flat Midwestern vowels, but the villagers -- the few people not out harvesting wheat -- knew the right responses, or at least the timing. Father Daley said Mass with his back to us. Bells tinkled, boys bowed, knelt slowly and painfully. Over the roar of passing tractors they sang in beautiful Latin, they chanted the Hail Mary and the Our Father and the Glory Be. It was strange, arcane, ancient. It was splendid.
At the end one of the ladies called it "the Mass of our grandmothers."
The men in black went back to Bruno's. Two of them were feeling quite sick, so I brought them some medicine. I took away some dirty laundry to run through our machine. I wondered if I was being silly, giving them this special treatment. I am not one to fawn over clergy, am I?
I asked one of the seminarians which religious order they are from. They are SSPX, he said. Society of Pius the Tenth. It rang a bell with me. Not a bad bell, but something familiar, something harking back to my long-ago incarnation as a religion journalist. Something to do with Vatican II backlash and Swiss bishops and maybe an excommunication or two.
I looked them up.   
Sure enough. Very, very conservative. Broken away from Rome. Efforts made by Pope Benedict to reconcile, but talks broke down when the SSPX man copped an attitude -- or when the Vatican refused to return to The Truth --- depending on whose website I read.
And so I clipped socks onto the clothesline, pondering what I had done. I'd invited outcasts into our Roman Catholic church, and they'd used our altar to celebrate a non-standard Mass. Some received Communion, even. Had we done wrong? The clean soutanes flapping on the laundry line were not good old Catholic vestments, they were reactionary uniforms. Holy shit, I thought -- I'd just down two loads of heretic laundry.
And then I gave myself a good smack upside the head.
I have done tons of laundry for pilgrims, and that is what these guys are: Pilgrims. We serve pilgrims of every size and shape and faith, not just Vatican-approved Catholic pilgrims.
I just finished reading a turgid history of the bloody succession crises that followed when King Henry VIII of England -- a hapless pioneer Protestant -- left his kingdom to Protestant firebrands, Catholic reactionaries, and faithless political manipulators, each in their turn. Everyone said he did his deeds for God and Truth and Our Lord. Religious sectarianism is ugly and small-minded. It ain't Christian.

And today we opened our church in good faith, and faith happened there. The people came to worship when the bell rang, and God was glorified.
It is not up to me to decide whose brand of Catholic is best, or which priest or pilgrim deserves a helping hand and who does not.
Me? I am the biggest heretic, the least Catholic of anybody in Moratinos.
It is up to me to just open the door, light the candles, ring the bell.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Mid-July, Tiny Pueblo

Sometimes, everything just falls my way.
The climb was everything I had hoped, and maybe more. No injuries, just sunshine, cool breezes, and perfect red cherries hanging right out over the pathway. We lived large in the back woods, me and Laurie. It was not a long hike, but it was a tough one, with spectacular views around each bend. It's the kind of hike that stays with you for years.
Back down here on the plains sunflowers bloom in bright rows. Combine harvesters clatter over wheat and rye and oats, cutting and threshing. They leave behind lines of chopped straw for the balers later on. They throw a fine dust of straw high into the air. The breeze catches it. Straw floats in the sky sometimes like a golden cloud. Some afternoons a rain of dust and straw descends on us, on the patio and dogs and hens. It is like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story. Magical Realism we have to sweep up after.   
I bought a cabbage, a green one big as a child's head. It's probably the best cabbage ever. I have made two magnificent batches of coleslaw with it, and there's still half a cabbage left. Out back, the garden this year chooses to yield many, many bright yellow squash. Tomatoes? Peppers? Courgettes? Beans? No. Not yet. For now it's squash, and onions, and tender, mild garlic. 
I let the hens loose this morning, they leapt into the high grass, snatching little insects in midair, humming and singing their hen music. I ordered two laying hens this morning at the feed store, little black ones, the kind from Zaragoza. What more could you want from life, when you have two new hens coming in the next few days?
But the goods keep coming. Fred phoned to say he'd wangled his way into the little house museum in Cervatos de la Cueza -- a dusty backwater town on the way to Carrion de los Condes. There's a house there once inhabited by the San Martin family, whose sons rose high in the Spanish military and "liberated"  Argentina in the mid-19th century. Eventually the whole family died or immigrated, and the house was left standing on the edge of town, surrounded by a big wall. Someone a few years back realized they had a time capsule on their hands, and voila! An adobe house furnished in the style of a century ago, tiny rooms full of dust and epaulettes, crucifixes and rope beds. Best of all are the lightbulbs -- tiny bright lights like the backside of a firefly. A wiry brown fellow named Delfin keeps the keys. I will try to rustle up a Moratinos field trip over there. Modesto will love that place.
Speaking of wiry brown fellows, our very own Paco did a star turn on Edible Camino, a fine blog, not long ago. He was not named, but he was certainly honored. I will try to get this fabulous intuitive new $$#@ computer to share that with you.
And now that it's July, the church is open each day for the pilgrims. There is no diocesan funding for it this year, so some of us decided to just do it anyway. Modesto is the man in charge. Modesto loves showing pilgrims through the place, taking down their names, telling his tales to fresh ears.
Moratinos continues to change. The finca next door, the finca where Paco grew up and where his sister comes for weekends, is up for sale. It needs a lot of work, but it's got a lot of charm, too -- sorta like our place was when we bought it. Pandora's box.
Maybe someday we will have new neighbors there. I hope they are the good kind. If I win the big lottery this week, maybe I will buy it myself.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Time to Climb

I was kissed for the first time by a boy in July. (His name was Jeff Smith. Up on a roof under a fig tree, in Izmir, Turkey. Just after fourth grade. He said I was groovy.)
July is the month when the ripe grain is cut and straw and hay are baled, when the lush green goes golden brown. July is when fireflies light up the dark orchards -- at least in North America, where I come from. (no fireflies here in Palencia, alas!) July is cookouts and vacations, swimming pools and long, long stretches of sunshine, with thunderheads looming in the western sky. In my book, July is the best month of all twelve. June and May battle it out for second place.
Last July I took a hike up in the mountains, on a trail I knew, but with a gang of mountaineers. I pushed way too hard. I hurt myself pretty badly. I scared myself.
This July, starting from tomorrow, I am taking another hike in the mountains with a mountaineer, on a trail I know already. But this time the mountaineer is Laurie. She is a hiking machine -- she is over 60 years old, a law professor from Illinois, tough as shoe leather. She can go 40 kilometers for days at a time without ill effect, and I am joining her at the finish of her Camino Olvidado -- she's spent the last couple of weeks striding across Spain from Bilbao along a rarely-used Roman Road that pilgrims walked a thousand years ago, back when what became today's camino was occupied by unfriendly Moorish Muslims. The Olividado goes straight through the Picos de Europa mountains, east to west. The Moors didn't bother much with mountains, but the pilgrims back then were plenty happy enough to move their camino a few miles south, down onto the flat, when they got the chance -- and the Camino Frances was born. (And now the pilgrims complain because the flat bits bore them so. Poor things have to take a bus.)
The Olvidado's been a lonesome trek, Laurie says, long and tiring and tiresome. 
I am counting on that. I hope it's slowed her down.  
Laurie and I will meet up tomorrow in Ponferrada, stay at a posh new pilgrim Albergue, and on Monday morning take a leisurely 22-kilometer hike from there on another Roman path uphill, across some forgotten bridges, to a little camino town called El Acebo. We will stay with Jaime, who keeps a nice B&B and a couple of goats up there, and who knows all the trails through all those mountains. It was Jaime, back in 2010, who drew me a map of the backwoods way from Acebo up to Penalba de Santiago, the local mountain-peak Mozarabic pilgrimage shrine. Me and Laurie hope to walk that way on Tuesday, over the river and through the woods and past a huge hollow tree full of honeybees, up into the mountain fastness. We will go slow and easy. We will stay up there in that twee little town, and visit the hermit cave, there I will light the candle I have packed in my pack. 
The next day we will climb back down to Ponferrada via the Valle de Silencio. The Valley of Silence. Then Laurie will continue down the trail to Santiago. I will go back home.

The forecast is clear and cool. Paddy feels pretty healthy. The cupboards are full of chow for everybody.
And I love the mountains, and Penalba. I could use a good walk, and the company of a girlfriend. (One who's promised already not to walk my legs off.)
It is July, after all. The peak of the year, the top of the calendar. Gotta make that hay while the sun is shining.

Saturday, 28 June 2014


A trip to Barcelona, good friends who volunteered to watch the Peaceable so we could get away, some more good friends who stepped in when the first ones were suddenly called away.
Sunflowers coming on. Watermelon for dessert, watermelon that does not raise hives on the inside of my mouth! Thunderheads building up all day on the horizon, and lightning at night -- but no lightning bugs here, alas!
But here are birds that sing their hearts out, at 3 a.m.
Dogs. Affectionate dogs, smiling dogs, disobedient rotten ill-mannered dogs that run away and do not come back when called. One of them (his name is Harry) ran off today and came home with his toes and ankles in tatters. Three stitches and a splint, 40 Euros later, his foot is taped to a ballerina en pointe. He will do it again if he gets a chance.
Paddy's hearing is not good. Paddy's had a cough for months now, and yesterday had a chest X-ray done to rule out really bad things. Paddy is 73 years old now, and getting older. It is hard to get my mind around that.
We talked today about things he did when we first moved here, things he cannot do now. No more ladder-climbing, no more scrambling down into the passages under the floors, no more wrangling roof beams and tiles. He gets breathless just lifting Harry into the car.
There is no shame in that, not when you are 73. I need to stop thinking of him as the same guy who walked 20 miles with me along the Maumee River on Sunday afternoons, back in Ohio when he was but a lad of 60 summers.
Paddy is still very much alive, still full of vinegar and toadspittle. But I mourn what is gone, what the years have taken away. I think he does, too.
I am depressed, I will not lie about that. I've dealt with depressions before, so I know the signs and symptoms. I am letting this one just do its thing. I am not fighting it. I try to stay busy, keep reading books, keep getting up and exercising each day.
But I am not out in the village so much, I am not engaged with the neighbourhood, and I am missing things. Someone is angry with us, apparently -- someone was very rude to Malin and David last week when they were walking our dogs out in the fields. I cannot figure out who it was. It makes me sad. I want to keep amistad with everyone, but I am not out there doing the maintenance work.
The head of the Diputacion was here in Moratinos this week, paying a sort of State Visit. I would love to ask him to have the Tourist Office erect a big sign near the bodegas, explaining to visitors what bodegas are and why they are special. I am not sure my Spanish would be equal to the job. I am not sure the head of the Diputacion would be interested in talking to a foreigner. But it is all academic. I did not even know he was coming until after he was gone.
My Spanish is slipping. It is always slipping.
There are so many things I would love to do here, but I do not have Spanish enough to do them.
Pilgrims come, sporadically. Antonio the homeless guy came this week, and a houseful of Germans and Americans. They overwhelm us. We cannot really handle more than three of them at a time any more.
There is a perfectly good albergue in town, and a hostel, too. Pilgrims do not need us to take them in nowadays. I wonder why we keep it up.
I trained a couple of hospitaleros this week, but I feel a bit hypocritcal doing that. I have not served in a Federation Albergue for months, and I have no plans to do so anytime soon.

And as you can see, I am not writing so much, nor so well.  
I live in a gentle fog. I do not feel like doing much. Leaving the house is an expedition. Using the computer is an ongoing ordeal. Feeling excited about life, or pilgrims, or wedding anniversaries, or... whatever? Seems like a lot of trouble.
It is sad, but it is the truth.
And it will pass.