As I sat on the rustic Spanish bench alongside the Camino trail, I looked down at my two bruised and blue big toenails, free at last to wiggle in fresh mountain air from the containment of my Vasque hiking boots. Then I thought “how am I going to do this for another 5 weeks?”
The combination of a lifelong interest in historical Spain, spiritual pilgrimages and a love of hiking led me to the obvious decision to walk the historical Santiago de Compostela (otherwise known as the Way of St. James) pilgrimage trail across northern Spain in the summer of 2001.
This pilgrimage route became popular, by necessity, during the Crusades, as a substitute for the traditional Catholic pilgrimage to Jerusalem, during the Saracen sieges of the Middle Ages. The Camino’s first “travel guide” was written in Latin around 1130 A.D. by Aymeric Picaud, a French priest. I first discovered it in 1996 after reading the Travel section of my local Sunday newspaper. Although I’d wanted to pack my bags right then and there, I was constrained by work and school obligations.
Five years later, I eagerly read Shirley MacLaine’s personal account of her pilgrimage in her book, “The Camino”. Then, serendipity provided the space and time that I needed. I was eligible for exactly 6 weeks of vacation, which I’d calculated was enough time for me to comfortably walk the 500 mile trail from the French-Spanish border across northern Spain to the province of Galicia, to the city of Compostela which held the relics of one of Jesus Christ’s apostles, Saint James.
I casually mentioned my plans to a coworker. She excitedly replied that her “snowbird” parents in Florida were looking to rent an apartment for four weeks just at the time I’d be in Spain. Would I be interested? In exchange for keeping my 60 odd houseplants alive while I was gone, the deal was set. Armed with my copy of Dr. Millan Bravo Lozano’s seminal guide to the Camino “The Pilgrims’ Road to Santiago; A Practical Guide for Pilgrims” , I attached a white scallop shell (medieval symbol of the Santiago pilgrim) to my backpack, which weighed 32 pounds and off I went to begin my spiritual and physical journey to Santiago de Compostela.
I began the walking part of my journey from the French border village of St. Jean Pied de Port, which marks the entry to the Spanish side of the “French Pilgrims’ Road”, across the Pyrenees from Roncevalles. I received my accordion style folded “carnet” or pilgrim’s passport”, identifying me as an “authentic” pilgrim, eligible for entry to any pilgrim refuge overnight along the Camino for a minimum fee. Without it, I’d just be another backpacker, motorist or bicyclist, looking for inexpensive travel accommodations and would not be allowed to stay at any pilgrim refuge. One look at the stamp from the previous night’s stay at a refuge and the refuge manager in the next town could tell who was walking and was “cheating”.
Walking the next day in cold wind and drizzle over the Pyrenees mountain pass to Roncesvalles proved more taxing than any other part of the entire journey, mainly because I had underestimated the amount of carbohydrate to consume to keep my body temperature constant and avoid a hypoglycemic reaction. Luckily, a group of French pilgrims spotted the well known signs of hypoglycemia; glazed eyes, unsteadiness of my feet and confusion on my face and fed me chocolate bars and cans of orange juice, standard fare to raise my blood sugar levels back to normal. They sat with me for a while and then accompanied me for the next two miles to the first Spanish pilgrim refuge at Roncevalles. I encountered many such kind and considerate people along the 340 miles that I walked, but none as seriously needed as those three French pilgrims who treated me as one of their own.
Pilgrims weren’t only human; they were canine too! Along the stretch from St. Jean Pied a Port to Roncesvalles, I encountered an orphaned, toothless, mangy but “doggedly” determined basset type hound, nicknamed “Mimi” by the French pilgrims with whom he tagged along. I learned that Mimi was very determined to be fed by any and all pilgrims along the way, and seemed to always get what he needed. Two separate sets of pilgrims, one French, the other Canadian, both told me that Mimi had tagged along with them from St. Jean to Roncesvalles, meaning that Mimi had crossed the Pyrenees at least TWICE in two days’ time. I gave Mimi some of my cheese and water. The last that I saw of him, he was happily tagging along with some pilgrims headed BACK towards St. Jean Pied a Port!
From Roncesvalles, I walked alone (steadily now) towards Pamplona, famous for its love of American author Hemingway and the spectacle of the “running of the bulls”. I had been using a slender branch to support me as I walked the very muddy trail through the beech woods. I inadvertently left the branch alongside a water fountain in Zubiri at the end of a day’s walk and forgot all about it.
The next day, I resumed hiking towards the city of Pamplona. Along the unsteady, hardened mud path, I asked my Angels to provide me with another walking stick. Something urged me to look down and to the right of the trail. There, I saw a hardwood branch, with what appeared to be three “toes” similar to a dog’s hind foot and a curved, shaped “handle”! I picked it up. It was the right length for my stride and so I took it with me for the rest of my journey.
Invariably, I received many requests from pilgrims and townspeople alike about the unusual shape of my rustic walking stick, marvelling at how well it was formed for just the job I’d given to it.
Pamplona was a city grimier than I had expected. I soon learned early on that keeping a steady walking schedule was important. I had planned to send a quick email update back to my family from the University of Pamplona, however, at that time, the university’s library hours did not include Saturdays.
All pilgrims were eligible to receive free medical services, in the towns through which the Camino traversed, related to foot problems associated specifically with hiking. One common sight among the trail were pilgrims resting with socks and boots off, sporting blisters. Many blisters. Blisters the size of peas, others the size of grapes. Thankfully, I had purchased my hiking boots and socks very carefully to eliminate any chance of being hobbled by blisters.
But the Camino was not going to let me go that easily. Although my daily application of a homoeopathic ointment kept the inevitable foot swelling down to a minimum, the repeated motion of foot strike inside my boot’s toe box while walking downhill traumatized my toenail beds, turned them blue and eventually detached both nails, which fell off about three weeks later, thankfully, towards the end of my trip.
All along the Camino, I experienced highs and lows; mini miracles where and when I needed them, kindnesses from peregrinos and townspeople alike, as well as the occasional hostile verbal outburst at 7am from drunken passersby, usually young people heading home from a late night’s drinking.
I lost some items from day one, like my sunglasses in the pouring rain. I donated items to refuges for others to use, like an extra pair of socks and my straw hat. I also gained some prized items, like finding my “angel” sent walking stick and a gift of a small Lapis Lazuli stone from an Israeli pilgrim in gratitude for loaning him my Kabbala cards one evening, the only “extravagant” item that I could bring with me without weighing my pack down too much.
Although I had begun my pilgrimage alone, I rarely was now, once I had begun walking. Pilgrims somehow knew when to approach me or just let me walk in silence in tandem with them. Since I spoke Spanish fluently, and some French and Italian, I had no problem communicating with those who hiked alongside me. I met a number of Europeans travelling in pairs, groups of three and families, several horseback riders, many cyclists and even a French couple travelling by donkey in the rain. In response to divulging that I was travelling alone, I was met with an astonished but positive comment, “Brava!” (meaning “brave one” in Spanish).
My innate connection or repulsion to certain spaces and people was subtle, yet telling. I noticed that my best sleep occurred in refuges that had been converted from monasteries or convents. And my worst sleep occurred when I slept in a brand new refuge that had been built over a former graveyard. On three separate occasions, I was approached by nuns who happily chatted with me about my experiences along the Camino. They just began talking with me as if I was one of their own. On one of those occasions, I had to take a local bus to the next stop because of very sore feet. My seatmate, a sturdy Spanish matron, struck up a conversation with me based on my now famous walking stick. As it turned out, she had been a former Cistercian nun, a twice married and widowed woman who was now happily collecting her pensions and visiting her sister in a nearby town. She told me that her ”miracle” was that she had found steady employment and marriage after leaving the convent some 40 years ago, after having been “warned” that she was “too stupid” to support herself and “too old” to find a mate. Happily, she’d proven her naysayers wrong.
One life lesson on my list of things I’d wanted to experience was learning to receive. I had been a giver most of my life, which was really a control issue in disguise, and it was time to balance the scales. I met up with a Spanish woman and her Italian companion, which I took to be her boyfriend of sorts. The Camino did that with a number of men and women, seeming to pair them up, if only temporarily, for the length of the pilgrimage that one hiked. I came on the Camino alone, but I never felt lonely. By the time I’d reached Burgos, however, I’d begun to pray for a hiking companion, since I did begin to feel a bit isolated, even while bunking down with dozens of peregrinos each night, and usually never the same ones twice in a row, due to differing walking tempos. According to tradition, the Camino presents the pilgrim with opportunities for love or lust. It was interesting dinner gossip in the pilgrim refuges as to who eventually succumbed to these opportunities.
As I entered the central plaza of Burgos, a provincial capital, I happily came across the Italian and Spaniard pilgrims again. They were seated at a bistro table, eating lunch in the shadow of the truly magnificent Burgos Cathedral, which gleamed in the sun from its recent limestone sandblasting. I shared the table with them, and the Italian commented on my hiking stick, the same one I’d used to defend myself earlier against a pack of four loose dogs guarding a mechanic’s garage in a rural town along the pilgrim route.
The pilgrims’ life is simple: get up before sunrise, eat breakfast as you’re walking, follow the pilgrim signs, walk before noon, eat, take a nap in the midday heat, wash clothes, dry clothes, maybe see the local sights before eating dinner, go to sleep, wake up before sunrise, ect….I became accustomed to the regimen, and it was very easy to do so, especially when others were of like mind and will.
I revelled in walking on the flat Meseta (plains) of central Spain’s Palencia and Leon regions. Blue skies with puffy clouds stretched for miles and greeted me each day. There had been a brief rain three days prior to my descent from the foothills of Burgos, and the cool breeze was delicious. The dry air inspired me as I walked. On average, I hiked more miles on the Meseta than on any other terrain of the Camino. I encountered many butterflies, mostly white, some tiger spotted, a few two-toned black and white and other pure black, flitted around me as I walked. According to the Ancient Greeks, it was said that butterflies were the souls of the deceased. They constantly surrounded me, keeping me company. I have never seen as many before or since, in any other areas that I have travelled.
In another incidence of the act of being a grateful receiver, I arrived in mid-afternoon to the city of Astorga. As I waited for the refuge to open in a few hours, I sat on a bench, my backpack in tow, in a small plaza in front of a museum dedicated to the Spanish artist from Barcelona, Gaudi. A musician, playing his guitar for passersby, noticed my singular pilgrim attire. He began to reverently sing a song about me, the “pilgrim”. I should have acknowledged his wonderful, impromptu tribute, but I was still working on my life lesson of being a grateful receiver. In my embarrassment of being singled out of a crowd, I simply stood up, threw a few pesetas into his guitar case and left him singing to the onlookers in the plaza. I never said that the Camino had completely changed me, but it was a beginning!
Coming out of the plains of Leon, I began my ascent into the foothills of Foncebadon, where I came across a pilgrim refuge not run by the government of Spain, but by a former advertising man who claimed to have had a vision of Mother Mary
By the time I’d reached the medieval city of Ponferrada, in the province of complete with its own restored Templar castle open to the public, I finally succumbed to the terminal pilgrimage ailment; inflamed heels and contracted calf muscles due to excessive hiking. I’d walked about 340 miles, minus the bus trip, and my calves contracted in pain if I even attempted to step down a stair. Some pilgrims were told by the local doctors who treated them to rest for a few days; others were admonished to stop walking altogether and return home.
Since my six week time frame was coming closely to an end, I decided to end my journey in Ponferrada. I took the train through the mountains of Galicia into the city of Compostela, arriving the day before the national feast day of Saint James on July 25. The time had come to say goodbye to my singular spiritual journey, and hello to reentry into the world of trains, planes and automobiles.
Anna M. Larotonda, Ed.M. is an Inspirational Lecturer, you can find out more on the website Awakening You to the Spirit Within