There weren´t many gifts around our little Christmas tree. No snow nor ice nor cloudy skies, even... we had our Christmas Eve lunch outside in the patio.
Christmas day was a long walk with the dogs in the morning, and Mass at 11:45. We made the rounds of the neighbors´ houses, bearing a bag of be-ribboned torrones (a sort of fondant chocolate bar). We came home with two boxes of pastries and two pilgrims.
They are winter pilgrims, a special breed. In summertime camino travelers tend to be more lighthearted and fun-loving and English-speaking. Many are vacationers, tourists, party animals, youth ministry groups or bored kids bopping around Europe on the cheap.
People who walk 500 miles in mid-winter are something different. They are tough. They´re grizzled. They are mostly silent, solitary men. And they are few. To see one per day in December is the exception. To see two together? well. We invite them home.
Or sometimes they come looking for us. Late on December 23 a man came to the door, a big dark-eyed bear in a red coat. His name was Joxe, a Navarrese Basque, he was "estropiado." Exhausted. He´d walked from Carrion de los Condes, intending to stay at the refuge in Terradillos. When he arrived there the dueña told him they were closed for the holiday, he´d have to move on. Sahagun was another 12 kilometers, and he´d already come 30 that day. He hadn´t had a real conversation with another person for three days.
"Seriously, I started walking along the road, and I started to cry," he said, wrapping his big hands around his coffee mug. "I was a little crazy, I think. Nobody sent me to this house. I was out of water, and this was the first house I saw with smoke coming out the chimney. And I find it is the only "house of welcome" in this village. I don´t believe in coincidence. I believe it is a miracle. This place. You guys." He started crying again.
Paddy gave me one of His Looks. I started another pot of coffee. Sometimes it´s kinda nice, being a miracle. Joxe stayed the night. I am not sure where he slept, because the bed in his room shows no sign of having been used.
Anyway, Joxe made it known there´s noplace for pilgrims these days in Terradillos, so on Christmas eve we went over to there and talked with the people who run the pilgrim hostel. They let us put a sign on their door telling travelers there´s a place to stop three kilometers on, if they can get that far.
And that´s how our Christmas lads found us. Luciano is a fine-looking young Roman who runs an Italian restaurant in Mallorca, one of Spain´s resort islands. Diego is a wizened, bearded old shepherd from Cordoba. He speaks with a thick Andalusian accent, biting the ends off his verbs, taking up little space. He ate only half his cake, and stored the rest in a bit of foil inside his coat, for later. He knows the Road. This is his 29th camino, he said -- he dates back 35 years, back when a "pilgrim hostel" was a corner in someone´s barn, a cup of water, some bread and sausage and maybe an apple.
But Diego also knows the shepherds´ paths hereabouts, having driven herds of sheep north and south along the Real Cañada Leonesa. Drovers for centuries have taken enormous herds of sheep from way down in Extremadura up to mountain pastures hundreds of kilometers away, following a network of public "cañadas," protected pathways for livestock. One of those paths passes just north of here. And that´s how Diego knows so much about the qualities of our spring water, what kind of soil is in our patio, what kinds of herbs grow wild here.
Luciano was taken with him, too. "I´m a city boy. If you left me out in the woods I´d last a couple of days, maybe. But Diego? He knows how to live out there. He showed me roots you can dig out and boil and eat, and leaves you use for cuts and bruises, and how to tell where there is water near the surface. Such knowledge he has... I feel like I´ve discovered a treasure."
"Shut up, you little shit," Diego told him, grinning. "You´d freeze your butt off out here, with me or without me. I´m just showing you the way your grandad´s butt was frozen off."
The pair of them didn´t stay, even though the refuges in Sahagun were closed. They headed out, their stomachs full of our weak American coffee and their pockets full of bananas and apples and fresh, harsh chorizo from the Milagros boys.
Happy Christmas to all of you in cyber-land, to all the pilgrims on the road and shepherds in the fields and all the sailors on the ships at sea.