Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Dignity, Options, and James

St. James of Bristol

A saint stopped here last night. His name was James, he walked here from Bristol, England. He was ill and ragged and really religious.
James has no money, no job, but lots of time and tons of zeal.

James writes each day in a little pocket diary, in teeny, tiny letters. He is writing a book, he says, and this is the book, right here. He says he doesn´t need much, long as he can write. I can dig it.
The Gospel of James

James appeared at the end of a long and costly month. I had a health problem, Paddy lost a good old friend to cancer. We paid taxes and lawyer bills and insurance premiums, we took a long weekend in the mountains to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. We had enough resources to cover it all. There are different kinds of "cost," and lots of different ways to pay them.  

During our anniversary spa holiday I lay up to my neck in swirling hot spring water in a garden of Japanese maples. The magnesium prickled the skin on my legs. A fine drizzle prickled the skin on my upturned face, and I thought about what all this must cost. I thought of the people whose faces were being peppered with the same rain because they were sleeping out in the open, and I saw the only difference between us was money. I have some  money, so I have options. I can lay down on the park bench, too. And I can also relax at home, or in a hotel, or once in a while, in a whirlpool under a maple tree.

I am not just talking about millionaires. Buy an airline ticket. You can pay more and get a seat that lets you lie down. That money buys you, essentially, a few inches of leg-room, a few hours of sleep. The poor folks in coach are packed in like red-eyed sardines.

Likewise, the guy with little money can eat fast food, or make his own lunch, or go hungry. The guy with a fat wallet can choose those any of those things, and a zillion more.

The Gospel reading a couple of weeks ago talked about the rich man who had a dozen lambs, and the poor man next door who had one, a beloved pet. And when an important visitor came to visit the rich guy, did he kill one of his flock for a fine dinner? No. He took the poor man´s lamb and slaughtered it. The rich guy had all those options, and he opted to take away the only one his poor neighbor had.
(I think this is a perfect illustration of why well-off pilgrims should pay for their rooms, rather than take up spaces in the dwindling number of donation-only albergues and refuges. They are slumming, stealing the only option meant for truly poor pilgrims, putting the poor into the street. Jesus does not like that.)

Here at the Peaceable we see a lot of Divine Providence, even though we are not poor. Providence sends us people like James, people in a jam, poor people who are stripped of their dignity and out of options. If they are not drunk or crazy or obnoxious (we have options, see) we slip them into the household routine -- We do these things anyway, and another person or two makes little difference to our little economy or rhythm. Like everybody else in the world, James likes to sit in a soft chair and hear some good music. He deserves a nice glass of wine, a cloth napkin, a table properly set.

Entertainment options abound, if you´re lucky
When you put his clothes in the washer and give him a bed with clean sheets and blankets to sleep in, when you show him a little dignity, he feels like a wealthy man. He is refreshed and restored.

We have options. We can choose. Compared to most of this world, we are wealthy people, and we owe it in part to the Jameses. When they leave here, I always ask them to pray for us. They continue down the trail to Santiago, and while they walk, consciously or not, they pray. Superstitious as that might sound, I think pilgrim prayers are powerful. Pilgrim prayers keep the divine providence flowing into the Peaceable. They keep our options open. They make our "unique lifestyle" a viable one.

And they give me things to contemplate, and stories to write. And long as I can write, I am alright.   

On holiday: Paddy encounters the natives
NOTE: I realize this post is not the most coherant thing I have ever written. I am trying to distill what we do into a "mission statement," and this is one of several attempts. Hopefully clarity will break through all the fuzzy thinking and Gospel readings one of these days... Meantime, enjoy a few random pictures of summertime.

Bella, in the garden
holiday: walking the Ruta de Cares in the Picos de Europa

Saturday, 20 July 2013

A Sky Full of Trouble

Hilario to the rescue!

Trouble came at lunchtime, about the time when the wind picks up out of the west.

The day was pure July, hot and dry. Combines swayed over the rye fields through the morning, swallowing up the grain and leaving a spew of straw in lines behind. The air was full of dust and flies.

Mari Valle saw it first, from her new pre-fab wooden holiday house on the lot next door to Bruno´s – her house looks out to the west, across the fields. Across the fields, when she looked out, stood a huge column of black. The horizon was smoke, and the smoke leaned east. The fields were aflame, and the fire was blowing toward our town.

Someone shouted, someone ran.
Edu had the church keys. He opened up the big door and grabbed the bell-pull. The bell sang out over the town and out to the tractors still in the field – something awful is happening! Your help is needed! Call home right away, come downtown!

Justi and Oliva jumped in their little car and drove straight at the flames. They have a crop out there, a field of standing sunflowers. José fired up his tractor, two of his uncles loaded into the cab with him.  José Maria from San Nicolas was already working a field nearby. One of them called in the firefighters. Firefighters must come here from Villada and Palencia, a good distance. But until they arrived, this fire was our problem.
I heard the bells, I ran to the gate, I hit the driveway running and looked up and saw the cloud, it had turned white by then, it disappeared against the white light in the sky. But the wind was blowing, and inside the white cloud I saw a thread of black. A spinning dark thread, like a little cyclone. A great hot breath of wind came up the driveway then, and the stink of burning. I shouted for Patrick. I took off down Calle Ontanon.

The blood runs cold

Tractors emerged from the barns, some with plows, some with front-end loaders. They slowed to scoop up men with shovels and rakes, then they roared up the road to the tumberon. Their rooster-tails of dust vanished into the heat. A carload of young harvesters came flat-out from San Nicolas, their lunches left standing at La Barrunta. I thought I heard bells from San Nicolas, too, but could not tell for sure. Milagros and Esteban, Esther, Flor and Angeles, Mari and Joaquin, Pin and Feliciano and Modesto stood in the shade of the pumphouse and pointed and shouted. Hilario appeared, a pitchfork in his hand, pedaling furiously up the road on his bicycle. Every man, the able-bodied, the relatively young, was needed up there, and every one went. 
Modesto knows all about firefighting

“The plows. They´re plowing a fire-break. They´ll stop the fire before it can follow the road down to here,” Angeles explained.
“The others, they´ll rake, they´ll shovel. They´ll get in front of it. No doubt,” she said, but her face was worried.
“How did it happen? How´d it start?”
“We don´t have anybody around here who´d start one on purpose.”
“Yeah. This isn´t Galicia, or Valencia. No one around here.”
“A cigarette. A spark off the machines, you know how many moving parts there are. And look at the fields, dry dry dry.”
“This happened before, I remember. Same time of year.”
“The bomberos will be here soon. They come quick these days.”
And as if they heard us say so, a helicopter appeared in the sky. It flew straight into the great smoke-plume, and touched down at the brow of the hill, where Justi´s little car was parked. It took off again right away, with a great canvas bucket slung from its belly. It headed for Villada, for the reservoir.
the professionals arrive

The wind shifted, the smoke disappeared. For a moment we thought it was over. A siren wailed in the distance, a big four-wheel-drive fire engine roared up the road from Fuente de San Martin. It slowed as it passed us. A man opened a door, shouted at Pin to get the hell in the truck and help.

“I have lentils on the stove!” he wailed. Many hands pulled him up into the cab, and the vehicle vanished up the road into the smoke. The helicopter came back, its water-bag bulging. It emptied itself over the hill, where we could not see. It went again for more, we could hear shouting from above.

I wanted to go there, I wanted to see. I was a news reporter for many years, I have marched right up to to dozens of bad fires, but this one I let go. Asthma. Kidneys. I would only be in the way. No one pays me to be nosy any more. If it started blowing wild, I would have to see to saving my home, my cats and dogs.

But no. The fire-break worked, the buckets of water, the firefighters, they worked. Soon the tractors reappeared, the cabs stuffed with shirtless men, guys here for the weekend, in-laws and brothers. Lucky this happened on a weekend, when Enrique and Victor and Hilario were here to help out, lucky there were extra hands around for the harvest, those boys from San Nicolas. Two thoughtful ladies even saved Pin´s pot of beans. 

No one hurt. Fields burned black, but most of them were harvested already. Only the straw was lost, and maybe the tenant farmer at San Martin lost a half-acre of rye. The men were hungry, late lunches were laid out, families settled into an afternoon of fresh stories.
charred remains
Two hours later, Patrick and I drove up to see the damage. The tumberon, an un-excavated Paleolithic tomb with a navigational mast on top, is blackened. It is one of Paddy´s favorite places, he walks there often with the dogs. It made him quiet, seeing it that way.

We went to the bodega and discussed the day´s events with Milagros. We stopped at the church, where Fran and Julia were mopping, getting the place ready for tomorrow´s Mass and guitar concert. They´d missed all the excitement. They´d been on siesta. They didn´t know about the fire, and nobody told them til I did.

Remarkable, Julia said, how the church was full of flies yesterday, and now they all were dead now. We´d left the doors open when the pilgrims were visiting, and dozens of flies came in out of the heat. Today, they all lay dead, dozens of them. We swept up their bodies and threw them into the street. Weird.

And back at home, out on the patio, more strangeness continued. The wind blew from the wrong direction, the trees creaked, but there were no clouds in the sky. Something was up there, shimmering. I called to Patrick to see – a flock of birds? Insects? Locusts? Whatever it was, it was coming down to earth.

From hundreds of feet up in the blue sky, hanks of straw came floating, spinning and flickering in the long sunbeams. The dogs barked and ran beneath the patio table. Straw rained down, pelted, even, carried on the wind. It carpeted the patio and orchard and driveway. Then it stopped.

Such a strange day: Fire, flies, and a straw-storm. Plagues. 

I hope the sun goes down soon, before the frogs arrive. I do not know if our insurance will cover that.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Big Bella Goes to Town

No good me writing blogs. I am still hurting, cranky, and not very thoughtful. And my hit-counter tells me my crabby new attitude is not popular with readers, either. (Or maybe you all are on holiday?)
Maybe it is time for a gut-check, time to review my methods, renew my spirits, examine what´s working and what is not. 


What the heck. There´s a perfectly good writer sitting across the patio from me, with a much better attitude, at least this week. Name is Patrick O´Gara, another retired hack, who in his own words is doing "f--- all in technicolor." So today he will do a "Guest Blog." 

A "slice of life." About a dog. Who´d have guessed? 

Bella, our newest dog is still a puppy. She´s a year old. Still a baby.
A big baby. I tried to pick her up to weigh her on the bathroom scales, and just couldn't. So I will guess.
Bella is a Leonese Mastiff. She weighs at least 60 pounds, and maybe 80. She is big, beautiful, clever and potentially - if not properly trained - dangerous. Not because she's vicious -- she's not. Just big.
I decided we must do a little work on her social attitude. So the two of us walked together, to Sahagun. Just us, with no others to distract us.
Sahagún, the "big city" of 5,000 inhabitants, is about six miles away. The day was hot and cloudless. I donned my stylish straw hat and carried a bottle of water. We got out of Moratinos with no trouble, despite a gang of men digging a ditch and making a bit of a din. We arrived in the next village  half an hour later walking nicely, side by side in reasonable and peaceful harmony. 
This is news. When I go out each morning with all five dogs, I'm heading up a wolf pack. Any little dog or cat that dares show its face meets five potential murderers. But on her own, without the ravening pack around her, Bella is a different kind of dog. 
In San Nicolas del Real Camino, an amiable local Spaniel lounged contentedly against a sunny wall, and
not a growl was heard from either dog. A brief mutual tail-wag of greeting, (between them, I did not participate) and on we went. A stop at the Rio Seco for a good slurp by Bella and a swig of the bottle for me - then off alongside the N120, headed for the border with the Province of Leon, about a mile on. A  long stretch with no shade and nowhere to sit down.
All went well. lla responded to my suggestions about walking alongside me instead of pullead, bribed by a string of treats ankind words. 
Suddenly, silently, a Brazilian cyclist (he had a big, dopey flag) appeared alongside and out of nowhere,  spooking the pair of us. Bella tried to jump into the ditch alongside. I spoke sharply to the buffoon, first in Spanish and then more harshly in English for good measure and added fluency. I admonished him to give notice in future by ringing his bell, or else I would wring his neck. 
He cycled off  at great speed, without saying a word in any language.
Next stop was Virgen de la Puente - a site made famous by Reb's novel -- a scant couple of miles outside Sahagun. There an old Roman bridge crosses River Valderaduey, a handy watering spot for Bella.
Refreshed, we hiked together along a broiling cinder track, under a road bridge, onto the odorous alley behind the shuttered "Hotel Posh." Alongside the railway station, over the rail bridge, and into Sahagun. A small dog came from a car repair shop to inspect us. We were duly approved, and sent  on with a woof and a wag. Not so much as a gurr from Bella. 
But as we wove down the sidewalk of Calle Constitución into the town centre, the noise and traffic and people increased. Bella was decidedly skittish. When children veered near to pet her, she ducked and dived away. 
I realised myself, listening through her ears, how incredibly noisy and frantic even a sleepy little town like Sahagún can be. Doors slid and banged, cars and trucks shrieked and beeped,  machinery whined and throbbed. The tumult of people talking, shouting, coming and going - it's unnerving. We humans are inured to it all, and hardly register it. But young Bella lives in a quiet town, indeed in a very Peaceable Kingdom. The community howl, a morning wake-up ritual for  most of Moratinos´ canine population, is all the hubbub she knows.
I had to hold her on a very tight lead and soothe her into the Plaza Mayor, where we both gratefully slumped down at a shady table outside a bar and ordered refreshments. I won't say the first sip of my gin and tonic made it all worthwhile. 
But it did. 
The walk was good for us both. 
We will do it again.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Pain on the Plain

I have been to the mountaintop, yeah. And I came back to earth with a kidney-punch. I am still recovering from the hike up to Espinama, detailed in the blog entry below. Seems the carsickness and the ensuing daylong dehydration pretty much shut down my left kidney. Kidneys do very important work, quietly and in the dark. Take care of them, I warn you, treat them with care and respect. Once insulted, they do not forgive easily or quickly.

I will not bore you with the details, but suffice it to say I have had several massages this week, two by David the Sahagun Strong-Arm Man, and two by Civita, a gentle Reiki-style healer pilgrim from Italy who stayed a few days in Moratinos to help Bruno. So my chakras now are all spin-balanced and my energy channels are blown open and dusted out. I have a splendid little map of bruises on the left side of my lower back, where a softball of pain still nestles. I will recover. But it will "hurt like a blow to the balls" for a while, David says.

Meantime, I should go to the thermal spa as often as I can. Doctors´ orders.

I love deluxe self-indulgence as much as anyone, but this week of rubdowns and water therapy is, sadly, not as fun as it should be. It is very much a treatment for a physical ailment. "Blow to the Balls" pain takes the pleasure quotient way down.

Nothing is more dull than listening to other people talk about their aches and pains, so I will stop here with the kidney business.

Life at The Peaceable is strangely cut-up lately. The heat and the harvest have finally set in, with tractors roaring in the fields well into the hot nights. We keep the blinds down, so the upstairs does not become a greenhouse. The flies are moving in, and thunderstorms. We sleep at odd hours, wake up in the middle of the night, read and write and chat, then go to sleep again. It is a bit like living on a submarine.

Pilgrims find us, but only a few. Enough. There are not so many pilgrims out there just now -- they are all in Pamplona chasing bulls, one wit told me. I returned to Moratinos last night at dusk, just after a thunderstorm had passed through, and found a half-drowned bike pilgrim making camp on the church porch. I brought him home. He snored like a lord all night downstairs. Or maybe that was the thunder I heard.

Today came in bright and clear, our 10th wedding anniversary. I put on a nice dress and we went to a party at the albergue in El Burgo Raneiro, where a friend is hospitalero-ing -- it´s her birthday today. We celebrated with volunteer hospitaleros from Bercianos and El Burgo and Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, Dutch, Americans, English, and Basque, Valencian and Asturian. Nice people, jolly and dedicated. Outside the pilgrims lined up and peered into the windows, watching as we cut the cake and poured the wine.

Paddy and I went on to Mansilla de las Mulas, to a fine fancy anniversary lunch at La Curiosa, our new favorite eatery. I am not eating much these days, and I am drinking even less where alcohol is concerned -- but the Albariño sang sweet harmony with the goat-cheese blini. (Paddy had a steak. He said I am the best wife he´s had in the entire last decade.) 

And then the medicine wore off. We came home, and the sky filled up with spectacular clouds like the titles from The Simpsons. A storm came roaring in with a tide of tractors and combines, and the power went out. There was nothing to do but take a nap, so that is what I did.

I woke up a couple of times when thunder cracked close, but slipped back again to dreamland. I woke up finally. It was 8 p.m., and the storm was still blowing, the house still dark. Paddy dozed on the sofa, Momo Cat draped over his shoulders. Lightning flickered. I lit candles, but blew them out again. The kitchen clutter vanished into shadow.

It was fine in the dark, with the rumbling of snores and thunder. I sat still. I did not feel any pain.  

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Tough Times on the Mountain

photos by David, whose last names I must find

The alarm went off at 6 Sunday morning. I rose before dawn, put on my boots, and clomped out to the car. My lunch bag was already out there, my hiking poles, my little backpack. I headed up to the Picos de Europa to hike with the Amigos de la Ruta Vadiniense, the people who (kinda) waymarked and mapped the trail from the mountain fastness of Potes down to Mansilla de las Mulas. We would hike the first day of the trail. Because (I´ve gotta say it) the waymarks on that first stretch are still somewhat nonsensical or non-existant, I wanted to hike it with the experts, to ensure the trail guide I wrote last year is accurate.

I should have read the warning signs: a bad night´s sleep, an aching back, a dead fox in the road. In a village under the streetlights I dodged another new carcass, this one a cat. Another cat stood over it, heartbroken.

I should have just gone home, but no. This was an opportunity. Maybe I would make friends. Maybe I would see something spectacular. It was not unfamiliar country --  I walked the 20-km. walk from Potes to Espinama two or three times last year, but kept losing the waymarks, finding myself trailing along the highway in the valley -- I never could find most of the footpaths that zig-zag along the mountain-faces. 

We met up in Cistierna, a mining town halfway where the Amigos are headquartered. There were 13 of us. We drove the rest of the way in cars. I am not used to riding in back seats. The switchback roads and the bright flashing light of morning sun between the peaks to made me very very carsick. Atop the Puerto San Glorio I had the man stop the car.

On the way down the mountain, just outside Potes, I had the man stop again.

While I hunkered along the highway I looked at my boots. Something was wrong. I had put one of my newer hiking boots on my left foot, and one of my old, worn-out boots on the right. One brown, one tan -- they are the same make and model, but Jeez. This is how people get labeled "eccentric," I thought. Or just "wierd."    

We started walking after a short coffee break. I probably should have eaten something, but my stomach was still unhappy. We walked uphill from the 8th century monastery of Sto. Toribio. We walked along those mountain faces, uphill uphill uphill. Wild cherry trees grew along the trail, we ate, we stained our fingers with blood-colored nectar. The man with the GPS unit, the man wo painted the arrows, he  took wrong turnings. He stopped the march and had us turn back. Not just a couple of times. We started to fall behind schedule. I heard grumbling.

We walked at a good clip, a lot faster than I ordinarily go. The people chatted and laughed and enjoyed themselves. Birds sang. A roebuck jumped up the trail ahead of us, his face hard and serious. We passed over little mountain towns, towns where I know they sell lovely goat-milk cheese, but we did not stop.

We passed over towns with fountains where hikers fill their water bottles. They did not stop, but I did. I need lots of water when I hike, and we were hiking in 90-degree sun. I fell behind. We stopped for a beer at a bar in Las Llanes, but not for long -- we were behind schedule, had to get going. I bolted my sandwich. I noticed my Spanish was not up to par, English kept slipping into my sentences. I noticed I did not need to use the toilet. I was drinking volumes of water, but not eliminating it, not the usual way. 
The GPS man, took me aside and apologized. "You walked this before. Tell me, are we going wrong again?" I looked him in the eye. "I followed the arrows before, and always ended up along the road. When it comes to the mountainsides, you and your machine are the experts," I told him. Or I think I did. "I am here today because I want to see where your trails go. You show me."

Maybe I was hard on him. But as time went on and the kilometers racked up, I ran out of compassion. I ran out of goodwill and curiosity and finally energy. We followed wooded pathways, saw vultures and eagles and massive 500-year-old chestnut and oak trees, and a ruined castle. Carlos and David, two of the company, realized I was struggling, and walked with me those long final stretches. They filled my bottle for me at waterfalls, tried to engage me in conversation, stopped with me when I had to stop and breathe. They made excuses for me, saying I live down on the plain, I am not used to the altitude. But I live at 900 meters. Their town, Cistierna, is only 30 meters higher up.  

We fell into "devil take the hindmost," a group dynamic that gives the people up front frequent rest breaks while the people behind catch up. Once we arrived, everyone jumped up and took off again. We laggers never had a rest. It made me think of capitalism. The bright sun through the tree canopy made me think of mirror-balls at a disco, until I started to feel the spin. I wondered if I was in real troubled, if I was having a heat stroke.

Then Carlos pulled an orange from his pack. He kept walking as he peeled it. He handed me half. "You are eating this," he said. And yes, I did. It was miraculous, that orange. It was the finest, juiciest orange I ever ate in all my life, and it hit my system like jet fuel.

I call all the blessings of heaven down upon Carlos, because he and his orange saved my ass.

After 30 kilometers we struggled finally into a tiny town called Pido, where I immersed my head and shoulders into a spring-fed water trough. My back screeched, but my head rejoiced. I´d made it back alive.

On the long drive home I was not ill. I saw a fox, a live one this time. It was a very dark night. The lights on my dashboard stopped working, then came on again. I stopped the car out in the fields. I looked right up through the Milky Way into deep, deep space. I said Thank You. 

That was Sunday. This is Tuesday. I slept through most of Monday, and this afternoon I will visit David the Massage Therapist, whom I hope can put my back back to right.

I am humbled. I have learned. I will join the Vadiniense amigos group, but I will not go hiking with them any more -- too late I learned that most of them are also members of a mountaineering group. They walk like mountaineers, straight on and up to a clear goal. And me, I amble. I stop when I am tired. I walk like a pilgrim, a person whose only goal is probably weeks away.