Monday, 21 September 2009

Mountain Goats

It´s official now. The Camino del San Salvador -- pilgrim trail that goes from Leon northward over the Picos de Europa and on to Oviedo – is now my favorite camino.

I walked the last four of this five-day camino this past week, and enjoyed it immensely.

Not that it didn´t try to kill me again. I think the difficulty and danger is part of the reason I like it so much. When you roll into beautiful Oviedo and have that big glass of wine and touch the foot of the Jesus statue in the cathedral, you know you´ve really achieved something. (And my Protestant soul finds it pleasing that Jesus is the star of this show.)

The impact of what you´ve done doesn´t hit you til the train ride back down to Leon: the mountains! The 20-percent grades! The 5,000-foot altitudes! Oooh, I feel downright heroic when I finish up this hike in one piece...

But first, Piers Nicholson.

Piers is a certified character. He wears a halo of wiry white hair. He is an MIT and Oxford-educated entrepreneur who lives in Epsom, England and knows all about rare elements and their industrial applications. He designs and builds latitudinally-correct sundials, is on the board of the British Sundial Society, and maintains almost 100 websites, including the leading sundial information site and a Camino de Santiago photography site that qualifies as one of the oldest and most comprehensive. He the upcoming Master of the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers. He is 74 years old, and on Monday night came bounding up the steps of the little pilgrim hostel in Buiza singing “To Be a Pilgrim.”

He bristled and buzzed with electronic gadgets: a mobile phone, a book-reader screen, a Spanish-English translator, two each of GPS navigational units and digital cameras, two battery chargers, and all the related wires and converters. We were in search of The Lost Trail, a four-kilometer piece of Camino that escapes the notice of just about every hiker out of Buiza bound of Poladura de Tercia. Except me. I found it when I walked back in March. So I was enlisted to show the way to Piers, who intends to use his marvelous machinery to map its mysteries.

That is what we did. He stuck close over two days of very tough terrain, very high altitude bushwacking, freezing rain, three nearby lightning strikes, hypothermia symptoms, barbed wire, and a couple of falls. (While shivering inside a stormcloud I saw a miracle occur before my eyes, all around me: the water drops, condensing out of the mist like silver slivers, then blow away downward as ice crystals. Beautiful. And cold as hell!)

Piers took a licking and kept on hiking, at least till, at long last, bedraggled and soaked through, we got down to the highway just south of the Pajares Pass. We split up there. I walked 4 more kilometers down the truck-infested, fog-bound 17-percent grade to the pilgrim hostel. But Piers? No. Piers stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked south, to pick up his rental car.

I am tough. Piers is tough and smart.

At Pajares hostel we met up with Kathy Gower, yet another tough person. She came to us fresh off a flight from her home in San Francisco, California, USA. She said she´d slept on the bus from Madrid, that she´d taken herbal jet-lag pills, that she was just fine to walk on in the morning. And so we did, she and I. (Piers had to go to Burgos in his rental car.) We took the very best path imaginable: down the sunny western side of the Pajares River, all the way to Pola de Lena.

A river path, I thought... low-altitude! We might get our feet wet, but I was ready for a break from the heights. It was not to be, however. This path, like those before, climbs upward and tracks along the faces of the mountains alongside the river, which roars and trickles far down the cliffs below. Woodland paths, sometimes paved with medieval skill, passing through apple orchards and fig trees, cow pastures and tiny stone villages. The sun shone bright all day, the blackberries were ripe and ready for snacking, and we closed each pasture-gate we passed through. It went on for hours, for two days. We drank local cider and ate döner kebab. I got a tetanus shot at the health center in La Pola, where the barbed-wire cuts on my left hand were all the ID I needed to qualify for free treatment. (They didn´t even ask to see ID. I was in and out in five minutes. Viva Socialized Healthcare!)

Kathy and I chatted, but spent plenty of time on our own, too. We petted kittens and donkeys, and chatted with a young evangelical, a forest warden, the bread delivery man, and several lonely old ladies. Most of them offered us water or food or fruit, or the use of their bathroom. I think this is how the Camino Frances was, before the great pilgrim flood overtook the place. It is rarely traveled, tough, and extremely beautiful.

It is too difficult to ever become another Camino Frances, but who knows? It was once rather popular, if legend holds true. Back when pilgrimage was all the rage, in the 13th century or so, travelers to St. James´ tomb in Compostela were lured off the main pathway and northward to Oviedo with the promise of relics from Jesus Christ himself, along with a big collection of assorted teeth, hairs, and bone fragments from a crowd of holy folk. “He who goes to Santiago and skips Oviedo, honors the servant and neglects the master,” the wags used to say.

Nowadays Oviedo sees pilgrims from the Camino del Norte, too, and those embarking on the Camino Primitivo start there – King Alfonso II of Asturias followed that mountainous way west to Compostela, and was the very first Santiago pilgrim on record – thus is his pathway dubbed “the primitive,” or the Original. I must attempt it sometime. I feel if I can survive the Salvador, I can probably thrive on the Primitivo!

But by sheer accident, Kathy and I arrived in Oviedo in time for St. Matthew´s Day festivities. Because we prayed at the cathedral during a certain span of days, we got for free a full remission of all our sins! Almost as nice as a free tetanus shot, eh?

We were too worn-out to stay out late and start running up a new tab. We luckily found a room quite near everything, ate some famous fabada bean stew and some wild-mushroom scrambled eggs, and went straight to bed and to sleep.

We are home again now at the Peaceable, where the roof is now going onto the Hermitage and over by the bodegas the ever-toiling Segundino family is squeezing grapes into wine-making juice. Kathy is up ladders and down trails, always looking for a way to lend a hand. She has been a part of The Peaceable from its very start – she visited here two weeks after we bought the place, and has been a steadfast supporter through all our dark valleys and bright mountain-tops.

She is a fine friend, a great hiker, almost like a sister to me. When she is around, I feel like anything is possible... at least after the aches wear off our ankles and backs!


Amawalker said...

Inspiring post Reb. You've made up my mind for me. El Salvador and Primitivo are now definitely next on my 'to do' list.
Planning for 2011.

Anonymous said...

Check Kathy's bag for signs of Barrios. We are in countdown until Brussels and I need her input on Theosophism.


claire bangasser said...

First, bravo, and second, beautiful.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

If you can catch her, say a big hello to Kathy for me!

Marion (CSJ)

45N93W said...

Beautiful area an beautiful post! I can't wait to do that stretch of "El Camino" and we'll have to thank you for it. You never cease to amaze your readers. BTW, I haven't missed a single entry of your blog. Hi from MN (still warm) for you and Patrick.


verena said...


Anonymous said...

Ah those lovely, generous ladies along the camino. I've a picture of one such saint as my desktop background. She filled my water bottle from the freshest of wells and offered me oranges to boot.