If I could for a moment, bring you on a journey to Santa Catalina de Samoza. It is on the French Way of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain to the body of St. James. It is Monday, June 16th, 2014. It is hot; while I walk carefully along the dusty trail with tensor bands on my knees and walking sticks in my hands I spy with my little eye a church steeple.
This is fantastic because I had strained my knee and each step was hard. To ease the walk I had sent on my backpack on with a delivery service for the first time. Highly recommended if you are injured.
My destination for the day was right ahead of me on the dusty one lane road. I weighed the strain of walking with the joy of reuniting with friends I met. The strain faded when I saw the word BAR on the building behind the church and I sighed in relief when I saw the word ALBERGUE underneath. I had set out that morning from Hospital de Orbigo, a beautiful town with a long bridge and a historical jousting arena. I had been with a group of pilgrims having a great time on our way to Villafranca del Bierzo to arrive by my friend’s birthday. Birthdays on the Camino are special because pilgrims are so friendly and sharing.
So when I hurt my knee in Hospital de Orbigo I thought, oh no! I had strained my knee before in the first days in the Pyrenees and I had to totally re-plan my pilgrimage. I looked forward to rejoining the group. One was an Irishman who was writing for “The Irish Catholic”, one was from Holland who had battled cancer, two from New Zealand setting a new path from a previous one in nursing, and the other going to Chile to become a teacher, another from Spain who lived in Ireland, two Americans, a med student and the other was raising money for an ex-slave children in Ghana.
As I walked into the small town, it turned out the church was closed, the bar was no longer serving and there was no room at the inn. My backpack was there, and with newfound resolved, I hit the road. The closed church reminded me of the 800th anniversary of St. Francis doing the Camino and Pope Francis’ choice of him for a name.
The sun shone in the sky and I felt like a cowboy with my wide brimmed hat. Setting out past the stonewalls of the countryside, I thought if my backpack is too heavy for my knee, I could sleep along the fence line, but it gets down to 6’C at that time of year and a bunk bed was what I was looking for. I continued on the distance of 4.5k to El Ganso, it tested my will. Signs along the path read “Cowboy Meson”. Which means Cowboy Bar. It looked like it would be a perfect fit; it turns out the bar was more of someone’s converted garage. In cowboy fashion, I dismounted from my “horse” I set my walking sticks by the entrance of the bar and ordered a beer with a classic Bocodilla Tortilla, which is a long sandwich with potato omelet filling. It was priceless. I enjoyed the rest feeling the relief to let things go.
There were many on the trail as we approached Cruz de Ferro. It is custom to put a rock from home at the base of the cross. It stands at the highest place in the French Camino. I picked up a stone from 50 feet back and placed it down on the top of the pile under the cross. It represented my intention to be open to the infinite. Coming down from the base with me was a man wearing a t-shirt with FAKE on it. I said to him, “Wow, a fake t-shirt!” We became Camino buddies and traveled together, down the rocky slopes of El Acebo and
Riego de Ambros, to the gorgeous town of Molinaseca, and onto the Templar town of Ponferrada. The stretch onwards past Camponaraya was long and dusty. He was a nightclub manager and had done the Camino before and wanted to help others. We stopped in a museum of religious statues and my memory was triggered.
The Gin Blossom song, “I will follow you down, but not that far” was shortened to just, “I will follow you down.” The moment arrived when we entered the town of Villafranca del Bierzo. We found a place to stay the night, and I to find my “long lost” friends and the Birthday celebration. There was a steep descent into town square from the Albergue, I had to be extra careful with my knee. It was fantastic to see them again and the birthday boy Chris, who bought me a beer!
The group had made up two songs and sang them at supper. The supper was outdoors in a cozy back alley with one long table for everyone. Chris had said what he had appreciated about his friends, his Camino family. This time of the Camino I really appreciated the time alone and time together with friends made along the way. The journey in the days to come had involved the friends I had met and the friends who had left the Camino who were still in my thoughts and prayers two from England and two from New Zealand. We are all part of the human family it is great to be reminded of it once and a while!
God bless y’all, Steve Eckert.