Monday, 20 December 2010

Good Medicine

It was a walk of 110 kilometers, or about 70 miles. We took just over four days to do it. For us it was a spiritual discipline, so according to some people we were not supposed to have any fun on our way. (in their opinion we should not have gone at all. We should have stayed curled up at home in the dark.) Thankfully, our lives are dedicated to God, and not the opinions of "some people!" So we went anyway, because the Church says that making a pilgrimage for the souls of the dead is a Work of Mercy. There is enough darkness in the world anyway, with or without us... 

I refer to "us" in this story, but I really mean "me." I cannot speak for Paco or Julia. We all walk our own trails. I´ll keep it general, and tell you about my own experience.

From the very start, in the misty hill town of Sarria, we attended Mass every evening, starting on St. Lucy´s day. Then and there a Mercedarian priest told us about how a blind woman used light and darkness to describe our lives here on earth, and how someone who has a light within doesn´t even need to  "see" in order to get on with her life. He blessed us after the Mass, he stamped our pilgrim credentials and said he would say a Mass the next day for Juli.

And in Sarria a restaurateur (at Restaurante O Camiño, right at the start of the town) gave Paco a book he´d written about the Camino, its culture and pilgrims and legends. Throughout our trip it provided a background for what we were seeing and walking. It was more light for our way.

Then your prayers started taking effect. Several of you said you prayed for us while we walked, and I gotta say you are some powerfully well-connected people. The week before we began,  this trail was a nightmare of snow, sleet, mud, rain, and wind. But from the moment we set out it was blue skies and green fields, a bit of water, some mist and clouds, and one morning of drizzle. Nada mas que primavera. Someone was smiling on us.

We made good time, and good friends. Carmen and Ana, two women from Palencia who now work together in Valladolid, sparked up a conversation with Julia and walked with us off and on right the way to Santiago -- Paco carried their backpacks along with ours in the car, seeing as Carmen broke her shoulder in a car accident a year ago, and was struggling to continue. We made friends with a corps of pilgrims we met at Mass or dinner or along the trails each day. Once word got out about our "mission" they forgave us our status as lightweights who use a support vehicle. When we stepped into the restaurant or the bar for a break, our fellows greeted us as brothers and sisters, even the ones who´d walked with heavy packs all the way from Paris and Roncesvalles and Sevilla. We were not many, but we were family.

Julia, Ana, and Carmen
 And almost to a man we were Spanish. Only two of us were from other countries, or spoke other languages. And so it was a full-immersion Castellano experience, one that reminded me over and over just how much I need to buckle down and finally master those verb forms!  I was one of the only people who ever walked a Camino before, and in answering questions I found myself tripping over the complexities of subject pronouns, locations, conjunctions, and shifting past and future tenses as I tried to deal with daily logistics: "if Angel and Geordi met us at this place, and Paco took your bag to that place, we then can meet up at the intersection of this and that place and make plans for later, like we did yesterday." It seems simple until you have to shift into another language!   

But it all worked out. Things tend to do that on this trail.
I had not walked the Camino from Sarria to Santiago since 2001. It has changed almost beyond  recognition. In December it is strikingly green and beautiful, even though many of the trees are without leaves. Ever-thoughtful Kim, who was in the neighborhood, left behind one of her trademark hand-painted signs on a mile-marker, wishing us Godspeed. The streams are full, the cows and sheep are calving and lambing in time to provide baby-tender meat for humans´ holiday feasts.  Villages that nine years ago had dirt streets ankle-deep in dung and mud are now beautifully paved with flagstones, and ancient stone barns now feature built-in Coke and Doritos-vending machines. Tumble-down barns and houses are reclaimed and occupied. The ox-drawn wagons with heavy wooden wheels are gone now, replaced with shiny tractors. Sic transit rustica.

And the trails, nicely set aside and safe from vehicle traffic, are peppered with candy wrappers, water bottles, cigarette packets, tissues, and human shit. Some of the most beautiful stretches are unspeakably polluted with pilgrim trash. I found a big 40-gallon bag in the blackberry bushes at one point near Ligonde, and filled it to the brim with empty plastic bottles and cans within a half kilometer. Disgusting. I suppose this is the price we pay for walking the most heavily-used portion of this very popular hiking trail. I wish something could be done, though. (Something to thoroughly shame to perpetrators.)

It was a beautiful walk in many ways, and very good medicine. But it was not a "fun" camino. It was a purposeful walk. I very intentionally used the Christian infrustructure that was put there over the years to achieve a spiritual journey, and it worked beautifully. The Camino is not just spectacular scenery and lovely people, it is chapels, shrines, crossroads-crucifixes, monasteries, waymarks, and memorials, all of them calculated to bring the traveler´s mind back from its wanderings to the Eternal Verities.

I kept a couple of disciplines. I carried a rosary, and I used it at the start of every morning´s walk to just get warmed-up and contemplative. I was not overly obvious about it (I am not usually very forthcoming first thing, anyway!)  The other pilgrims noticed, though, and respected my silence.

The only other overtly Christian thing I practiced was saying a silent prayer each time I passed a church, shrine, crucero, or other devotional spot. There were many. It was not only a spiritual moment, it was a physical break, too. I stopped walking then. It was a rest.

And walking with Julia, you need rests. The woman may have 15 or more years on me, but she goes like a moto! The final long day I was feeling pretty weary when we passed up Arco de Pino, at the 21 km. post. I pointed out the oversight -- it was time to stop, I said.

But no! It was still early! The weather was still so good! Everyone felt fine!
And so we walked on. We walked, ultimately, another 13 kilometers, right into Monte de Gozo. It was as long a day as I have every put in on the Caminos, and Julia was still full of beans at the end of it all.

And the following morning, after a breezy stroll down the mountain and through the city, we were there at the middle of the Plaza Obradoiro, just in time for the great pealing and banging and bonging of the cathedral bells! We were early, and got our official Compostela certificates at the pilgrim office, and walked through the Holy Door, and hugged the apostle statue and then, deep beneath the high altar, we stood at the tomb itself and laid down before the Lord all the burdens we´d carried there. Yeah, we cried. And yes, I´ll admit it -- we smiled, too. We´d achieved what we set out to do. Our mission was accomplished!

There in the cathedral, for the second time this year, I ran into George Greenia, an old friend from Virginia, USA. (this is extraordinary to the point of ridiculousness.) We met up with another old friend. Lunches were lunched, plans made, addresses exchanged.

Kim phoned me. Back up the trail, after Arzua, Kim had met a little dog. She´d spent her last dime on the creature, and the pilgrim albergues wouldn´t let them in. They were up against the wall.

Paco and Julia decided to drive on the Finisterre, the Atlantic beach where many pilgrims finally end their travels. There was no more I could add to their trip. So I headed to the Santiago airport, rented a car, and headed back up the trail and see what new gift Santiago had for us.

Her name, so far, is Rosey. She has a little black nose, a wiggly-waggly tail, and an underbite. If Lulu does not eat her she will fit in here just fine.

christmas gifts: critters and maple-leaf mittens!


Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

It is indeed a good thing that you have all done. It is an especially good thing that Julia was able to walk to Santiago now, before the year is out. And it is another good thing that Kim obviously 'had no idea' she wouldn't be able to have a dog with her in the albergues!!

emilene said...

Glad you had such a positive experience - you're a friend in a million!

ksam said...

'kay...having blubbed my way thru your I'm smiling! Of course you had good weather....Don't wanna hear some of the things I might have said if it'd been otherwise :-) And thank you for once again a reminder to let the small things go...and as they say it's all small stuff! So one of 'em won't be at our house for Christmas...he'll only be with "her" family....I still have shut up, self! I think of Julia every single day and wish her healing. And for the rest of us... wish for friends like you! God bless you all.

Laura said...

Your devotion, your adventures, your kindnesses, your humility, your willingness to welcome other people and creatures into your life and home...all these are blessings. So pleased to read about your Camino with Julia.

Anonymous said...

sweet girl,

sigh....blubbering my way through this post, and wishing I were there...yet happy where I am...this is GOOD,

love to all,

Ryan said...

A beautiful post Reb. And a beautiful tribute to Juli. I am happy to hear of your journey, and it makes me itch to get back. Some day. First I have to convince my squeeze that pork really is a vegetable when in Spain.

Sil said...

"You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should!"
Will be thinking of you in Santiago on the 30th.

The Solitary Walker said...

Great reading - a quite lovely, realistic, and brazenly spiritual post, Rebekah. I always love your blend of the understatedly sacred and the humourously profane.

Johnnie Walker said...

Hola Rebekah

Enhorabuena on another pilgrimage completed. But this one was so special. You and the people of Moratinos remain in my thoughts and prayers.

Love to all


FrereRabit said...

Well done, Reb. A memorable walk in memory of Juli, and a great post. I'm now in France with Barbara Reed doing my winter donkey training! Her donks are stabled up for the winter and I'm giving them loads of rabit cuddles! I'll let you know as soon as I set off from Burgos, and give you a time estimate for arrival in Moratinos. I'll try to follow the same discipline - Mass every day etc. in memory of Juli - but it may be less easy to find Mass on the meseta in winter. Happy Christmas... Ah! The donks are braying as I write, so that must be their Christmas greeting too!

verena said...



claire said...

Thank you for telling us how it went, how beautiful it was.

Thank you for being.

And a very very Merry Christmas to you and Patrick and everyone else at the Peaceable.

love xoxo