Sunday, 29 March 2009

Pilgrim, Hermit, Host, Hospitalera

In between is a busy place. I´ve not had much time nor inclination to appear online this week, as I´ve just returned from one pilgrimage and I´m off to another, longer sojourn within the next couple of days.

In between we´ve found an answer to one of my prayers, and we´ve entertained two jolly old journos from Paddy´s past.

Kim is a blog reader who came here soon after I returned from Oviedo. She´s an American from Key West, Fla., a photographer who worked in newspapers and publications before discovering the Camino and deciding, like a few other nutters I could name, to sell up everything in North America and head to Spain for a stab at a new life.

And while she´s making up her mind what to do next, she is dwelling in our despensa (otherwise known as The Hermitage) and generally helping out with things. The Peaceable is much neater and cleaner and maybe even saner with her here, even though her presence is a very quiet one. I had wondered how we´d get along during these next two weeks, and now I know it is do-able. An Answer to Prayers, right on time. (Now I hope The Camino will send us someone who can fix Una´s leg. And redesign our patio garden.)

The two journos are Derek and Brian, who worked with Paddy back in the Glory Days of Fleet Street. They are grand chaps who can drink anyone right under the table (although I am not testing this theory personally...) They don´t know much about the Camino, and can´t believe what a wacky thing we are doing here. And their first night here they got a good taste of it: five grubby young German pilgrims showed up for beers and rest and sellos. Two of them stayed overnight. A good time was had by all. Kim saved the evening, really, as she kept track of the pilgs and enabled me and Pad to take Derek and Brian out for a squid-ink paella. Having a third person here is a natural fit. I don´t know how long Kim will stay, so Applications are now being accepted from would-be Hermits.

Meantime, Brian and Derek were full stories, tales, jokes, rhyming slang, and 40-year-old Fleet Street scandal! Fascinating stuff, interesting lives. And I found it so fun to just talk Newspapers activity that´s passing into nostalgia for just about everyone these days. The two of them go back to London tomorrow, and I also will depart these shores Tuesday. I am off to do my two weeks´ stint at the pilgrim albergue in Miraz, along the Camino del Norte in darkest Galicia.

I don´t know if I´ll get to post much at all from there... it´s even more isolated than Moratinos! Be assured I will report back with photos and news and lighthearted witticisms and all that. Soon as I slow down enough to write it all.

I promise to leave Uncle Fester out of it.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Separated at Birth?

This one may upset some people, but I´m just sayin´. Paddy posted a papal photo on his blog the other day, and I was struck by the resemblance between His Holiness and the cheerfully macabre Uncle Fester.

Seriously: Both these fellows are celebrities, known and beloved by the masses. Both are known to wear strange clothing. You never see both of them together at the same place. Tell me these two were not separated at birth? They are at least closely related.

(Paddy agrees with me, and even attempted to blog this himself, except he had a better idea going on.)

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Down From the Mountain

First, get a cup of coffee or tea, and settle in. This is a long one.

I walked along a river deep and rapid. I walked north. The river ran south. We parted company when the mountains started.

I walked five days, all of them clear and bright and beautiful and blessedly long. Pilgrimage makes time stretch out. So much happens in just a few hours out there, a strange phenomenon I think is tied to moving along at a human pace.

I see so much more when I walk. I realize I haven´t really smelled things for a while. I haven´t looked up, not since... since when? When did I last look up at the gables of a building, or a jet-trail, or a slow-flapping stork?

On this camino I did lots of looking up. The trail goes up, it feels like the climbing never stops. My gaze went up. The sky is massively wide in the mountains, and it made me breathe deeper. The sky and sun and stars feel so much nearer up there. The air is clear, almost steely in the morning. Shadows are sharper. And the afternoon light... ah! It is golden, faded and rich and saturated as an old Kodachrome photo.

Yes, I found the stretch of “lost camino” my fellow camino-heads asked me to figure out. It wasn´t difficult to locate, as a regional hiking association decided to waymark it last fall with handsome, meter-tall wooden tablones. They released a booklet detailing the route a mere five days before I set out on my hike... and I happened into the Tourist Office in the town of la Robla and was given one, with compliments. With great rejoicing I set out, confident now that my hike through the high sierra would be trouble-free and spectacular.

It was spectacular, anyway. Two days of the most lonely, isolated, exhausting, and breathtaking mountain country I´ve ever walked. I saw (and heard) barking deer, and silent foxes, and the tracks of some critters very large indeed. I patted the noses of fuzzy foals and calves and lambs, performed gymnastic feats with barbed wire, electric fences, manure lagoons, and a 6-kilo backpack. I slept, alone, in a 12-bed albergue so new that some of the mattresses still wore their plastic wrappers.

But it was cold up there, up high. And this winter has been a rough one, with more rain, ice, and snow than anyone´s seen in ten years. And as I learned very quickly, there are still tons of snow up there, as late as mid-March, even with temperatures in the 20s.

The snow is melting, which turned parts of the camino into wide, fast-flowing streams. And when the trail makes a turn ´round the face of a ridge, sometimes I walked straight into snowbanks, snowfields, drifts of snow. I wore good waterproof hikers, but no gaiters, nothing to keep the white stuff from soaking my socks and dropping down my ankles and wetting my feet.

And the beautiful new trail markers, and the old reliable yellow arrows? They were there, somewhere, maybe. Under the snow. I was glad I had a compass and a good topo map. I blessed the Girl Scouts and the Pitt Orienteering Club for teaching me, many years ago, how to navigate. Otherwise, I could have been in trouble.

I did see one other hiker. It was a man, using two hiking poles, walking purposefully across a pristine valley and up the mountainside toward me. He moved incredibly quickly. He did not wave or stop, even though he had to see me. He vanished over a ridge well above where I stood. He carried a red backpack. He left no tracks. I think he was the devil.

Long story short: The high sierra portion of the Camino San Salvador – between Buiza and Pajares Pass -- is perfectly walkable for pilgrims with a high level of fitness, compass-reading skills, and good sense enough to pursue it in snow-free months. It is by far the most scenic and difficult camino I have attempted. I was foolish to try it with snow so deep and directions so vague.

I did it, I found my way, and I am very glad I didn´t get hurt or lost. ´Cause my carcass would probably still be up there somewhere. I am very, very glad to be done with it, and back here in my cozy house at a mere 900 meters altitude! (for the hardcore hikers I am posting complete trail notes on the CSJ site and Piers Nicholson´s Camino Santiago site, soon as I get the time.)

After the two days of channeling Heidi I was surprised at how well I still felt. Friday night I met Javier and Nieves at the pilgrim hostel in Pajares, the mountain pass... Javier is a jolly camino head from Madrid known far and wide. Nieves, his sister, is a ball of fire, full of joie de vivre. They were finishing the Camino Salvador, which they did in weekend stages.

We set out down the pass on Saturday morning.

There was no food or coffee for the first eight kilometers. And the first eight kilometers, due to the amazing rising and falling and ruggedness of the path we chose, took us four hours. (waymarking up there is very bad, not due to snow, but to neglect. We were lost for a long time. And when you are lost on the camino with Javier Martin, you are WAY lost!)

Still, it was more amazing beautiful scenery, in the deep green so distinctively Asturian. (when you cross Pajares Pass, you leave Castilla-Leon and enter Asturias – a transition they say is “starting in winter and ending in spring.”) The sky was perfect blue, the trail-sides lined with blossoming wildflowers and fruit trees. Waterfalls, abandoned stone mills, tiny wayside chapels, and cows, donkeys, sheep, and goats, wandering free. Some wore bells. Their music echoed down the valleys.

Javi and Nieves were full of beans, but I began to fade. My previous days of mountaineering had taken a toll after all. I let them pull ahead. We eschewed the scenic mountainsides for the more direct roadside route to Campomanes, the far-off truck-stop oasis. I went silent... speaking even bad Spanish became too much of a challenge.

And then, just after the medieval village of La Frecha, a miracle occurred. Two angels descended in a lemon-yellow sportscar: Milio and Yaya were their names. Milio is a hospitalero, a big figure in the Asturian Camino Amigos Association... and just a big figure all around. He´s one of Javi´s pals. His best girl Yaya had loaded up the little car with a monster picnic. There on the two-lane they tore open the paper over a tray of exquisite pastries and sent the three of us into a sugar ecstasy.

Milio got out and walked with us the next 8 kilometers or so. Yaya, God bless her, took my backpack with her in the car, and drove away. We´d meet her for lunch at Sta. Cristina, a tiny pre-Romanesque church atop a sharp escarpment. (another climb!)

And so we did. It was a magical picnic in a magical place. I could describe it for you but it would sound like one of those layouts in Food & Wine magazine, where the native cuisine (meat-filled rolls, tuna savories, local cheeses (one spiked with paprika!), sweet wine, and hard cider made by Yaya´s mom, And more of those pastries) and the setting (tethered goats, a friendly white dog, a jewel of a chapel, a lawn dotted with daisies) combine with beautiful people (we looked a bit more like Grateful Dead roadies than Beautiful Magazine Pod People, I fear) to make for nauseating reading.

I think it was something about the sunlight, though, that has set the scene forever into my memory. I still was not very verbal. I was struck dumb. Time stopped for an hour or so.

The next day was more walking, 33 kilometers... way too long, but much of it along another riverbank. After lunch, back into the heights again. An old lady in a mountain village gave me glasses of sweet water from her spring – which flowed from the rock face in the next room.

I got to Oviedo just as the sunlight failed. A crowd was gathered in a plaza, watching big men practice their parade steps with a heavy scaffold balanced on their shoulders. They´re getting ready for the Holy Week processions, when the platform will be loaded with holy statues and flowers, and the men beneath will wear hoods and robes.

I nipped into the cathedral to give thanks. I bought myself a glass of superb wine. I felt relieved, and strange, and proud.

By 10 p.m. I was asleep. I did not move for TWELVE hours!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Salvador is Callin´ My Name

Just when you thought I was going to lighten up a little fer Chrissake, I go off on a killer pilgrimage.

I´m leaving tomorrow to start on the Camino Salvador, one of the really minor pilgrim trails that cover the map of Iberia like so many varicose veins. This one´s just 120 kilometers. Four or five days´ walk.

But there´s a mountain range right there in between. It´s one of the hard ones, I am told.

The trail goes straight north, from the city of Leon to the city of Oviedo, where a great hoard of old Christian relics was taken to hide them from the Arab invaders coming up from the south. Back a thousand years or so. You may wonder why Oviedo never gave the stuff back after the Arabs went back to Africa -- .And the caminos would be part of your answer. Pilgrims went way out of their way to Oviedo, where they could see a thorn from Jesus´ crucifixion crown, or the burial cloth he was supposedly wrapped in (with his full-body image miraculously imprinted on both sides!) It was a sort of theme park for medieval Christians, full of amazing and mysterious and exciting things that made you realize Jesus really did live and breathe and walk on the earth, just like us, except with crowns of thorns. And angels. And virgin birth and all that.

So sure, what´s a couple of extra days of mountain climbing? Millions of pilgrims have walked the Camino Salvador on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Nowadays, just about nobody does. There are no maps or guidebooks to the route. Places to stay are irregularly spaced, and you have to carry in your food and water a few times. And lately, one section of the trail is almost lost to memory. The painted-on yellow arrows that guide hikers and bikers safely to the next coffee bar are faded away or covered-over in sagebrush and scrub, I am told.

Somebody needs to find that trail, and take its picture so the pilgrims to come can walk it, too. Otherwise, it will be abandoned after a millenium of use, left to the wind, the wild thyme. The bears, even.

So sure, I´ll do it. I´ll give it a shot, anyway. There can´t be THAT many paths out there. And I have a compass, and a Michelin map, and a really good sense of direction... and a note from a Spanish guy named Mario that says you´re never out of sight of at least one of the several towns in the area. There´s the website from the Leon-Asturias Friends of the Camino group, with a crude sort of map...

And then there´s Piers, an English guy who´s dying to know where that Lost Path got to. He sent me to Google maps of the area, and suggested I walk the whole way down the path, and if it dead-ends I ought to double back until I do find the right path, or walk the long way ´round via the highway and find where the Real path meets the road, and then WALK IT BACKWARD. Oh, and take at least 10 photos of each landmark. For the website, OK?

At 1400 meters altitude. With a 6-kilo pack on my back. Yeah, sure Piers, old friend! Shall I pick you up a fruit basket while I´m at it?

But seriously folks, I added an extra day to the trip so I can get lost if I have to, and find my way back out. If the weather is questionable I´m ditching Adventur Trails and following the highway. And if I get lucky and find the right path straight away, I have some yellow paint in my pack, so I can double back and freshen up the old, lost waymarks. So maybe the lost old path isn´t so lost after all. It´s just waiting for me to find it. (famous last words of amateur mountaineers everywhere.)

And if I do find it, and I do end up in Poladura de la Tercia, I have a reservation at La Posada del Embrujo for Thursday night!

On Friday I will follow a gas pipeline up another mountain to the Pass of Pajares, where there´s a ski resort and an abandoned fancy hotel straight out of "The Shining." Up there I will meet up with Javier and his sister Nieves. We´ll walk down the other side of the mountain on Saturday, and into Oviedo on Sunday. God willing. If anything is open on Monday I will go see the Thorn and the Shroud and some churches that date back to 800 AD! I will update you on the trip as I find computer access. IF I find computer access.

So now that I´ve gotten my gardens dug and my flower seeds planted and a new telephone (my new Spanish cell number is 648 854 765. Write it down. There will be a quiz later), I can leave this workaday world behind and once again don my scallop shell and backpack and take to the trail.

Because if the truth is known, Peaceable Kingdom and hospitalera stuff notwithstanding, I really am nothing but a pilgrim down inside. An aimless hobo drifter who can´t stay at home -- no matter how wonderful Home may be.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Dumps and Chumps: A Rant

Yesterday we worked our butts off spring-cleaning our little living room. I will not bore you with the appalling details of that hours-long, exhausting ordeal, as it was a mess we created ourselves. We made the mess, we clean it up.

Today, however, we went "ditch-pigging," our bi-annual cleanup of two pilgrim picnic spots on the Camino between Carrión de los Condes and Calzadilla de la Cueza. We picked up things left by other people, as we´ve done for a couple of years now.

It should not have been so hard.

It´s been a good four months since we drove down that rocky road, four months of winter. There aren´t many pilgrims out there in winter, so we did not expect too much work.

What we found was nothing short of amazing. Not just trash. Not even gross. We are talking filth here. Layer after layer. Shameless. It went right down past stupid to philosophical, people. Philosophical. And that, my friends, is as low as it goes.

Not that Plato and Aristotle and John Stuart Mill are lowlifes. No. It had to be this kind of inexplicably lowdown, lowlife sewage that made them take up philosophy in the first place – the search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless chaos.

The trash. It was, well... so MUCH. Remove a layer of yogurt cartons and water bottles and lunchmeat trays, and there underneath is another LAYER of grocery bags, juice boxes, and wine bottles. The more we cleaned, the dirtier it was. It defied reason. It went beyond Good and Evil. It wore on the soul, even.

These are two little stops along a pilgrim trail. The people walking along here are, supposedly, in search of a spiritual truth. They are (one would suppose) thoughtful, decent, lean, strong, upright folk. They pay their way. They consider what they put into their bodies, judging from the number of Carbohydrate-balanced Electrolytic Protein Supplement containers they leave on the ground as they pass. They carry what they need on their backs. The waste they produce, they dispose of in a responsible manner.

So you would think. Until you pulled up here, where the Camino intersects with the Real Cañada Leonese. Here, for meters leading up to the single concrete picnic table, are weeds and ditches woven with every kind of pilgrim trash: Water bottles, yogurt cartons, sanitary pads, cigarette packets, napkins, toilet tissue, spoons, knives, forks, and food containers of every kind. Pilgrims carried these things here on their backs. They stopped for a few moments to rest. And then, pilgrims left these things here, scattered across the fields and waterways.

We, Rebekah Scott and Paddy O´Gara, are the chumps who come and clean up after the assholes. (Yes, I am calling them nasty names. These are very nasty, evil people.)

After an hour of work Paddy gets disgusted. He swears at all these pilgrim SOBs and parks himself in the car and quits cleaning up after the %¢@s, after whatever municipality ought to be doing this, after the morons who put the overturned trash bin here in the first place, and then all-but abandoned it. “Enough!” he says. “The more you clean up, the more the lowlifes toss down to cover it. There´s no hope for it. No end to it!”

I keep going, just because it´ll be a while before I come back. And after a few minutes Paddy calms down and comes back and starts chucking trash into the bin again. I am glad, but I say nothing. Paddy has more dignity than I do. I can deal with that. In picking up after them, I am as shameless as the assholes who trashed this lovely place.

Nobody wants this job. Nobody does it. Except lowdown volunteers like us. It´s lowdown work, so lowdown it circles right back to righteous. It´s noble, I tell Paddy.

It´s crap, he says. They need to get the chain gang from the prison out here. This is a penance.

And if we don´t do it, who will? I ask. That´s what “noble” is, no? Standing up to the lowest of the lowdown when no one else can be bothered?

We both know that´s also the definition of “chump.” But I don´t say so.

I am not self-righteous, not usually. But I hate this trash as much as Paddy does. And I love this Camino. There´s nobody else out here doing this filthy, mindless job.


God help the poor pilgrim we see throwing litter on the ground.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Mortified Wine

Time goes by, and I keep myself busy, but I am doing, apparently, nothing.

"Nothing" means working out our taxes, whilst waiting for all the right forms to arrive from America. It´s editing a UK Confraternity Guide to the Camino Portuguese, and chatting encouragingly at a US Marine who wants to write his memoirs. And a lonely Scotsman who is pondering his cradle Catholicism. And a guitar-maker who thinks America is doomed. I plant peas. All these things are important, but I am not paid for any of them, so in the great Capitalist mindset, they are Nothing. Worthless. A waste.

Lots of pondering going on out there. Maybe it´s a symptom of Spring, or maybe it´s all the Lenten reflection. I am doing some of that, too. Having given up all beverages but water, my thoughts turn often to the substances I use to prop up my ever-waning consciousness. We drink lots of wine here, probably too much. And coffee.

It´s the coffee I long for. The Spanish do wonderful things with coffee. I cannot really believe it could be bad for me. I know the moment I am finished with this fast I will brew myself up a big fat cuppa Joe and knock it right back!

Alcohol is another thing. Booze is an everyday event in these parts, where the bar is also the community center. Sit down at a café at lunchtime and the bottle of local red is plonked down with the glasses -- if you want water you have to ask. Stop in after the Saturday veg market downtown to chat with a neighbor, and a beer will appear next to your hand. Finish your dinner, and the bill will arrive with a "chupito" of liquor in a cute little glass. (Spanish men of a certain age are known to order a chupito with their morning coffee. It´s called "cafe con apellido;" "coffee with a surname.") Order a bag of seeds and some potting soil and some weedkiller and the farmer´s co-op guy throws in a bottle of aguardiente for free.

When I think back over my adult life, I conclude that I have drunk to excess. I´ve only half-enjoyed some good things because I was too bleary or beery to really take part. This is not good. And so, I suppose, this Lenten sacrifice is healthy, if I do indeed proceed to behave with moderation in the future.

Interesting how I only miss drinking when someone else is doing it. I do not think about wine or beer or other drinks until the scent comes to me... Paddy had a gin and tonic the other day at the Bar Deportivo, and wow did it smell wonderful! I picked up a glass of vino tinto this afternoon and took a sip, a reflexive action. It was thick and strong and delicious.

I put it right back down, though.

When I am not mortifying the flesh, I am plotting fun for the future. I found a $466 roundtrip airfare that will bring my Mom to visit me in May. In the middle of next week I will take the train to Leon, and start walking north along the Camino Salvador -- a medieval path through the mountains to Oviedo. It should take four or five days, and it should be plenty tough! I love to do a camino in springtime, before the big waves of pilgrims start washing up.

I´ve gotta get into some kind of shape, though. In the morning we´ll strap up Paddy´s ankle and take the dogs for a big long walk. And then we´ll start Spring Cleaning this place. It´s in a shocking state, what with dogs and cat and dust and soot everywhere, and laundry strung from the rafters, and pots of dirt on every surface.

A shambles. Chaos. Shabby and cluttered as anything worthwhile probably is. Time to get Mortified.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Really Surreal

It turns out that the "Other Side" the mysterious email came from was only the Pyrenees and the Alps. Soon after I wrote the previous blog entry a note came from the same mystical address, titled: "To Clarify Your Doubts:"

"Yo soy Julian no soy el que ha muerto, el qu ha muerto ha sido nuestro hermano Chemari hermano de Esteban, Paula, Tomas, y Julian .Yo sigo residiendo en Alemania. Muchos recuerdos a todos de MORATINOS.
Espero conocerles y saludarles pronto, Julian"

Which is to say: "I am Julian, and I am not dead! The one who died was our brother Chemari, brother to Esteban, Paula, Tomas, and Julian. I continue to live in Germany. Give my regards to everyone in Moratinos, and I look forward to seeing and getting go know you soon, Julian."

How embarrassed am I?

I need to get out more, get a hobby. I hope I didn´t make the Velasco family´s mourning hurt any more than it must. I hope sometime soon they can remember the silly foreigner´s blog and smile at my presumption!

Anyway, even though I feel like a dumb-ass, I feeling a bit more like myself. March came in here "like a lion," with squalls and snow, but with sun peeking through between storm fronts. It makes for beautiful morning walks. Snow lies in the plowed furrows, which dresses the prairie in a pinstripe suit...or maybe a corduroy jacket. The air is startlingly clear. When we top the hill by Segundino´s vineyard we can see all the way to Pozos del Rey, a good 12 kilometers south of here. Terradillos, 4 km to the east, looks near enough to almost touch. It´s surreal. Over and over, Spain shows me why Surrealist artists like Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí came from here.

Speaking of Surreal, some of my friends in the United States are beside themselves these days. They fear the financial system is teetering on the edge of collapse, that the government will fail, that all will be lost very soon. Unthinkable things. I worry about how my mother and my children will get along if the Prophets of Doom are right, but I don´t worry too long. I realize how lucky me and Paddy were, to sell out on most of our long-term investments back in 2006 and 2007, when they still were worth something. We took a beating, buying Euros with those dollars. But still... If we´d waited a couple more years, none of this could have happened.

Paddy credits my investment acumen. I hate to crush such a pleasant delusion, but I gotta admit it was all pure luck. We cash out. We find the right place within four months, at a knockdown price. And a week later our little house in America is sold... Three months later the US housing bubble goes bust, the dollar crashes, and Spanish housing prices jump a good 20%. It´s amazing timing. It´s scary. It´s... Divine Providence? It´s surreal.

It´s worked for me before. I can only hope the people I love are under the same kind of protective providence. (If they´re not, I can try to get them holed-up here, if airlines are still flying and money is still spend-able.)

Closer to earth now. Today I pottered for a good three hours out in the patio, planting rows of peas and broad beans, potting tomato and calla seedlings, and starting trays of marigolds and coriander. I am running out of windowsills to put them all on, and I am having a quiet and contemplative blast. I am plotting places to put all these nice things so the summer garden will be as aesthetically pleasing as it is productive.

Now I need a garden designer to re-imagine our patio and our orchard out back. I need someone traveling from North America to deliver my new guitar this spring. I need more Kraft macaroni and cheese.

But I want for nothing, really. Surreally.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Email from The Other Side

I am unwell.

I tried to write a blog last night about our wonderful local newspaper, but it came out all lumpen. It must be all the antihistimines.

Or maybe I really have lost my old ability to make any old story "sing."
For now I will leave that job to Bob, who was born to it.

Only interesting thing this week is related to this very blog.
I had an email on Monday from a man who says he is Julian, brother to Esteban, native of this very village -- the older brother who, like so many rural Spaniards in years past -- sought his fortune in Germany and still lives up there. He´s loving the blog, which he considers a refreshing visit to his beloved hometown.

Problem is, Esteban and Estebanito flew to Germany a couple of weeks ago. To attend Julian´s funeral.

Eerie, man. I haven´t answered the email yet, nor asked Esteban if he has another brother in Germany named Julian ... time will tell. Meantime, thank you Julian, wherever you are.

And now I´m having a plateload of Paddy´s steaming, delicious Dirty Rice, and watching big hanks of snow fall outside -- I am assured it is the last of the year. After my nap I will plant seeds in little pots, and put them in the little greenhouse to start off: brussels sprouts, poppies, peas. Hope.