On Sunday I went back to Liebana, to the great Picos de Europa National Biosphere Park where the Camino Vadiniense begins. I thought I went there to revisit the Camino Vadiniense Guide, a document I wrote a year ago that would enable English-speaking pilgrims to better tackle that tough trail.
But really I did not go up there for pilgrims, or guidebooks, or caminos. I went there for Me.
The first day´s walk got off to a late start. It began at Liebana, the 8th century mountaintop monastery, and continued at an angry stomp up a busy two-lane asphalt road that was not on the maps. I cursed the Vadiniense Amigos group that publicized and mapped and posted this "re-routed" Ruta Vad without, apparently, bothering to waymark the actual trail. After all that peevishness, I tucked myself into a lumpy hostal bed in Espinama, and let myself sleep with the window open to the nippy night air.
I woke to blue skies and birdsong, and started walking from Pido, a cheese-making village, up an unmarked trail to meet the high-altitude Vadiniense I walked last year. It is a medieval cart-track, full of switchbacks and holm oaks, grasshoppers and wide mountain meadows. Fred climbed up part of the way, til a bad ankle turned him back. I soldiered on, up and up. Gray mountain-tops glowered over me. A troupe of nine eagles circled. (They were not sent by The Great Spirit. No. They were waiting to see if I was fixing to die.)
Alone up there in the wide, bright air, it was not hard to forgive the Amigos. I wrote-off the Vadiniense Guide update as a project for someone else. I realized that stretch of mountain, that remote path, is one of my favorite places in the world. If I publish a guide, people will read it and try walking it. They will carry up the soft goat-milk cheese from Pido, they will snap photos and post them on the web, so even more people will climb up to see it -- or they will come in Jeeps, or on odious, fume-belching dirt-bikes or quads. Soon their Coke cans and cigarette butts will appear along the trail, and signs and waymarks and graffiti inviting more of the same. My pristine mountain will be spoiled by riff-raff. And it would be my fault, for inviting them there, for giving them directions.
So maybe it is a good thing the trail markers are bad, I decided. You have to be determined to do this hike. And determined hikers are not the same knuckleheads who leave a trail of NatureFood InstantNRG wrappers in their wake. I thought about trail guides, and pilgrim hostels, and pilgrims, and pilgrimages. I groused about the whiny middle-class tourists we´ve hosted recently, narcissists who have all the gear and credentials, but not a single clue about what a pilgrim is.
I started to say prayers, something I love to do when I am walking. I prayed for my friends, my family, my in-laws, for the Peaceable and Moratinos. I prayed that this person would find kindness in his heart, that that one would learn to believe in herself, that the other one will overcome her fears and make a better life for herself.
"I guess I ought to pray for myself, too," I said. And an answer answered: "You already are. Your prayers are all about You."
And so I reviewed.
Whilst exulting over this beautiful place, I had declared it all my personal property. This was MY wide, bright air. Those were MY eagles and hawks and crows, circling above a whiny narcissist, a tourist praying for HER friends, family, in-laws, house and village. Praying for herself, her needs, her her her, telling God who needs to be fixed, and how to fix them, is a person who needs fixing, who needs to find kindness in her heart, who needs to overcome her fears, to believe in herself.
A woman walking up 1,700 meters with all the right gear and credentials, and not a single clue. Apparently I have to climb up pretty high to be brought low. I apologized.
At the top of the pass I turned the whole way around and looked over the shoulders of the Picos, horizon to horizon. Mountain after mountain, above the eagles, the sky unspeakably vast.
And me, me me. Unspeakably small. I shut up for a while.
The cold wind blew over the ridge, just like it does every day, with me, and without me.