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Spain Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela (2015)

Georgia & Zig

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5/30/15: Dublin to St. Jean Pied de Porte

Georgia and I were traveling to Spain separately. She was flying directly to Santiago via Aer Lingus while I was flying to Biarritz on cheapskate Ryan Air. Everything on Ryan Air costs extra. He wanted to charge people for bathroom privileges but the FAA wouldn’t let him. If he could have found a way, he would have charged us for the oxygen we were breathing! As it was, we needed a shoehorn to get into our extremely ungenerous seats. I was wedged in between a trim lady-pilgrim from Dublin and a hap-hazardly shaved French Basque. The Basque informed me that both the Spanish Basques and the French Basques think of themselves primarily as Basques, but doubted there would ever be a united homeland. The French Basques have no realistic path to secession, and the Spanish Basques are little different from those other regions of Spain chasing the illusive dream of independence. Like a dog chasing a car, you have to wonder what they would do with it if they ever caught it.

The fellow-pilgrim introduced herself as Anne, and said that she was traveling to Spain to walk the Camino with her friend “Phil,” (short for Philomena) who was also on the plane. They were both probably in their early 60s. I offered to trade places with her friend so they could sit together. “No thanks,” she said smiling, “Phil and I will be seeing plenty of each other over the next couple of weeks.” It was going to be a two-week Camino for them—Anne was getting a hip replacement and wanted to walk some now, in case the operation didn’t go so well. “What did your doctor say about that plan?” I asked. “He said I should carry a lot of pain meds with me,” she laughed.

She was the first pilgrim I met. I would eventually meet hundreds of them, but she was, in some ways, typical. We instantly formed a bond. I would come to find that when you walk 20 kilometers a day, 12 to 14 miles, day after day, and spend the rest of your time eating and talking with a constantly shifting constellation of fellow pilgrims you have lots of time to share the things that are on your mind—especially the important things, like why in the world you are out there walking hour after hour!

Most of the pilgrims I met were at some juncture in their life, some crossroads. Just finishing high-school and preparing to enter college, or just finishing college and preparing to enter the work-force. Or perhaps contemplating getting married, or getting divorced, or grieving the death of a loved one, or trying to get over a failed relationship. Some turning point in life. The end of one chapter and the anticipation of another. Me, if I live to be 100, then I would turn 66 and 8 months on Camino—exactly 2/3 of my life. I wanted the opportunity to look back, and look ahead in my life to see if a “course correction” was needed. In addition to this, I planned to pursue my deacon’s vocation on Camino, and make myself useful to the other pilgrims. That was my intention—to help those I met. It didn’t work out that way, and Anne was the first person who showed me what my pilgrimage was really going to be like.

“How are you going to get from Biarritz to St. Jean Pied du Porte?” she asked. I had to tell her that I had no clue: “I think there is supposed to be a train or a bus or something,” I ventured. I was planning to ask when I got to Biarritz. I’m a “wing-it” sort of traveler. She snorted. “We’ve made a reservation for a taxi to carry us. Perhaps it’s not full yet and you could join us.” I quickly accepted. Anne was the personal assistant to a high-pressure businessman and politician in Ireland. She was a take-charge person.


Bryon, Rita, Philomena, and Anne in St Jean

In the tiny airport I met Philomena, and Anne’s other friends: Bobby and Rosheen, Rita, and Bryan. All were from Ireland. Rita sent a text to the taxi driver saying they needed one more space. She got no reply. And when the taxi arrived Rita asked the driver if they had room for one more. The driver said “No.” So Anne took me by the arm and started frog-marching me to the place where I would catch the bus that would take me to the train that would take me to St Jean. Before we could get there, however, Rita came running up to say that there had been a mix-up. The driver had gotten her text, so when we’d asked at the terminal if there was room for another passenger the driver thought she needed two additional seats. She only had one, so I was in!

What a fun ride. Bobby and Rosheen were a young couple. Rosheen always took a retreat in June, and this year she decided to walk part of the Camino. She persuaded Bobby to come along. He was dubious but it was also obvious that he was completely smitten and would have walked across the sands of Hell if Rosheen had asked him. They were lovely together.

Philomena was also charming. She and Anne had been friends for years and often traveled together. She was a teacher in Northern Ireland and her face bore the lingering sadness of all that she had seen during the “troubles.”

Bryan was also a teacher—a teacher of 14-year olds in Dublin. Perfect. Portly, red-haired, and with a friendly open face. The perfect personality for teaching middle-school kids. Funny, and completely un-inhibited in his speech, but rock solid in his love for kids and his belief in the value of what he was doing—helping them become the people they were meant to be.

I expected to go off by myself when we arrived in St Jean, but the Camino always supplies us with what we need. I was caught up in this gaggle of Irishmen and swept along a very steep street to my first Albergue: Beilari. Joxeim (“Joseph” in Basque) welcomed us, took our names, and told us to come back after we had picked up our passports from the tourist office, which was just across the narrow street. It, of course, was closed since it was after 2pm and siesta had begun. We used the time to take a little tour of the village, to the castle at the top of the street, to the church at the bottom of the street, and to the bridge over that lovely babbling brook prominent in every single picture of St Jean. Someone had chalked footprints on the bridge overlooking the water, with the words: “Tenez-vous ici, Profitez de la vue.” (Stand here, enjoy the view!) Someone had put a line through “Vue,” and changed it to “Vie,” life.

The tourist office was bright and clean, with a collection of scallop shells in baskets and on the wall opposite the door. Down the center of the room from the door to the back wall there was a low counter with 6 or 7 people sitting in chairs facing the open part of the room. A friendly-looking 70- or 80-year old man motioned for me to sit. He asked me if I spoke English. I admitted that I did. He apologized for his English but said that his name was Paul and that he would register me. And the rudimentary questions began. “What is your name?” “What country are you from?” “Your address?” “Your passport number?” “Are you traveling on foot, on bicycle, or on horseback?” And then one that wasn’t quite so simple. “Why are you making this pilgrimage?” Indeed. Even before I’d begun: the big question: “Why?”

Anne had said on the plane that she had been intrigued by the Camino for years and had recently met a Spanish waiter who said “Everyone starts the Camino as a tourist, and finishes as a pilgrim.” She, too, was evidently at some crossroads and wanted some time away from her everyday world. She needed to slip into something like Shakespeare’s “green world,” for some time apart. She said it wasn’t a “religious” pilgrimage for her, but it was “spiritual.”

I certainly didn’t feel like a tourist, and “spiritual” felt too “Shirley-Maclaine” for me. I’m not her. I’m very Catholic, and the Camino is a very Catholic walk through very Catholic parts of Spain, visiting hundreds of ancient Catholic churches and Catholic cathedrals. So I told Paul that mine was a “religious” pilgrimage. He smiled. He started to tell me about how to call ahead to make reservations or call for a taxi. I told him I didn’t have a phone and wasn’t planning on using anything but my feet to get to Santiago. If I took a motor vehicle, it would be an ambulance. He smiled again.

He took out photocopies of tomorrow’s walk to Roncesvalles, up and over the Pyrenees and into Spain. It had little photos of landmarks I should look for. He emphasized that it was a difficult walk, especially if I was not in shape (he glanced at my doughnut-shaped middle) and that there are some dangerous parts—especially if a fog comes up. It was easy to miss the signs, and that would be dangerous. If I had any doubts I should turn back and double-check. But he was also reassuring: thousands of pilgrims just like me had started out from here, and made it all the way to Santiago—800 kilometers away. He said that even if I walked slowly, I should get to Roncesvalles in 8 hours. I thanked him, and asked him to autograph my shell. He smiled, and using a mechanical pencil, printed “Paul” in a very small and precise hand on the inside of my shell. We shook hands. “Buen Camino,” he said. I found there was something wrong with my voice. I couldn’t speak.

We all met again outside and went to register at the Albergue Beilari. That would become the norm. First thing to do when you arrive somewhere is to “find a bed.” Since I hadn’t been walking and wasn’t yet sweaty, I skipped over step number two “taking a shower and changing your clothes.” We moved directly to step three, “Finding somewhere to get a little ‘smackeral.’

Some of our number didn’t feel like they yet had enough stuff to carry and wanted to go do some shopping. I just wandered, taking some photographs. Then shopping over, we all gathered around a long outdoor pub table sampling the local beer-on-tap: Cervaza! It flowed freely, and life-histories were freely exchanged as well. I learned that in Ireland, America is called “Punckony,” and I learned that you can tell what part of Ireland someone comes from by how they toast each other: “Slainte,” Cheers! It could be “Sloynte” or “Slansha” or “Slawnta.” I laughed and laughed at the stories from the trenches of the Irish education system. A perfect start. It was Camino time. Which means no time passed at all until we were supposed to be back at the albergue for supper.

We sat around the dinner table and played silly games to break the ice with the other pilgrims. There were probably 18-20 of us.. We threw imaginary balls from one to another. When you caught the ball you needed to introduce yourself and tell everyone something about yourself, then throw the ball to someone else. There was Anne and Phil from Ireland, Kevin and Cerys, from Wales but now living in the south of Spain. Kevin was short and intense, and Cerys tall and mellow. There was Steven, their tall and slender friend with the comic face and sky-blue eyes, who’d come because they had praised the Camino so highly. There was Lars and Gitte, another Mutt and Jeff couple from Denmark, and several others. The world was well-represented at our little table. Throwing the imaginary ball some more, we needed to tell why we were on Camino. Seemed like there was no getting away from that question. Joxeim, told us that we were forming our first Camino-family that night, and we needed to prepare ourselves, both physically and spiritually for what was ahead. The Camino was not just a physical journey; the more difficult journey would be the interior one. We needed to start that one tonight.

Max, from Brazil, arrived late. He’d taken a train from Madrid to Pamplona, then had a hard time getting from Pamploma to St Jean. He arrived just as supper was beginning. He said that he was 47, approaching the halfway point in his life, and “between jobs.” He needed some time away to discern what lay ahead. I told the group that was my situation too with 2/3 of my life gone.

Supper itself was vegetarian. We started with a clear broth made with leeks and onions. an ensalada mixta, the first of many that I would have, though Joxiem provided some shredded ham for those dedicated carnivores among us. And we had brown rice with beans. Large white beans, cooked until they were very soft. And a tomato sauce that made everything taste good. Delicious crusty bread, of course. And wine, of course! How could one have a meal without wine?


My first bunk bed

After supper we helped clear the table and do the dishes. I decided to take a shower after all, and hit the sack. There was a co-ed room for the showers with 3 or 4 curtained cubicles. It was sort of hard to keep your clothes from getting wet but there was a little shelf in the shower-cubby where you could put things while you washed and dried. I used my handy-dandy microfiber towel for the first time. It worked! About the size of a large postage stamp it nevertheless soaked up most of the water on my body—leaving me just a little bit damp. Just enough for my tee-shirt to stick to my back as I tried to put it on. I put on clean undies and my Walmart-special “exercise silks.” I was planning to use three sets of clothes. One for lounging around in the evenings and sleeping in, and two for walking—alternating each night.

Joxiem, taking pity on my poor elderly feet, had assigned me a bottom bunk. There were 8 of us in the small room: four bunk beds. I think there were 3 or 4 other rooms. I thought I’d have a hard time falling asleep, but with my earplugs and facemask I was sound asleep before anyone even had a chance to snore.

(to be continued)
5/31/15: First Day walking: St. Jean Pied de Porte to Roncesvalles

Breakfast was at 7am. Joxiem had emphasized that the doors would remain locked until that time. No leaving early. “You need a good breakfast before walking the first day—you won’t get anywhere with just a cup of coffee and a croissant.” So we stoked up on ham and toast and granola with fruit, and lots of coffee in addition to the croissants.


In our wanders the day before, we learned that there was a pilgrim mass at 8am. Anne and Phil decided to join Max and me, and then Bobby and Rosheen did as well. It was a lovely solid little stone church, probably built sometime in the 12th or 13th century. There were only a few small stained-glass windows—the walls were massive in order to support the roof. This little church was built long before those flying buttresses were invented to transfer the weight directly to the ground.

I loved the mass—even in Basque. You always know what’s going on, even when you can’t understand a word. And afterward the priest called us up to receive a blessing. And as a final farewell there was a lovely organ postlude!

We six then started across the bridge and up the hill—stopping only in a little tienda to buy some snacks. Oh my gosh! What a hill! On the edge of town we started UP. It felt like 45 degrees. Thank goodness the weather was beautiful and the road was paved. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to start off in the rain, or in the sleet. I thought there would be the occasional flat areas where I could catch my breath. But no, on the Route de Napoleon each step was a step UP. After 30 minutes, I could hardly breathe. Everyone was in some level of distress, except Anne and Phil who were fit and quickly far ahead. I could tell that Max was hanging back to help me. And I was becoming his anchor. I thought I was going to be the one helping everyone else, and here again I was the helpless one. I tried to persuade him to go on ahead. I told him that my virtue was tenacity: I would make it to Roncesvalles, and I would make it all the way to Santiago. I would not quit. I might have to curl up in a tight little ball somewhere for an impromptu campsite, or spend several days somewhere recuperating, but I would make it. He wasn’t impressed. My labored breathing and red face persuaded him I was going to die on this first day and he would have to pay for another one of those little roadside crosses we kept seeing. Rather than that he said he was going to be my papparazo—documenting my Camino with his camera. That was his excuse for sticking to me like glue.

The morning haze had cleared away and the sky was now a lovely blue with puffy cotton-ball clouds, so close that if you stood on tiptoe, you could touch them. I borrowed some sunscreen from Bobby at one of our stops and did an absolutely pitiful job applying it to my legs. I ended up with the most unattractive blotchy sunburn I’ve ever had—even worse than those from my youth in Savannah. I looked like a leper wearing white sox for the rest of the Camino.

About 8 kilometers up the mountain we came to the Alburge Kayola, where Rosheen and Bobby peeled off and got a room. The view was amazing. St Jean was far down below and there were peaceful mountain meadows surrounding us. But the hillsides were so steep I’m pretty sure the sheep were bred with two legs shorter than the others so that they could stand up straight.

We’d been on the Way for about 4 hours. Another kilometer and Phil and Anne checked into the Alburge Orisson, where we stopped for an extended break. That was where I had my first experience of freshly squeezed orange juice: Naranja. There was a machine that would grab a fresh orange, squeeze and filter it pour into a glass, and pick up another orange. It was like drinking liquid sunshine.

In the coming days and weeks I decided that Anne and Phil, Bobby and Rosheen were much wiser than Max and me. At the time I thought they were stopping much too soon. I should have seen the circling buzzards as an omen. The next time I walk the Camino I’m going to remember to make first night reservations at Kayola or Orisson. We weren’t yet even at the top; it was thirteen more heartbreaking kilometers to Col de Lepoeder. And then came the downhill.

If I thought the climb up was horrible—my hips and thighs ached with every step—the trip down was purgatorial! My toes kept slamming into the fronts of my shoes, the ground was rough, and the trail was so steep. Thank goodness I had let Matt Coriale persuade me to bring two walking poles. I used them to lift myself up every uphill step and ease myself down every downhill step.

Over the top, in Spain, Max and I came to a fork in the path. To the left there was a “shorter” but steeper dirt track. To the right a sign said the Way was much longer, but along a paved road and not quite so steep. Max went left. I went right. We planned to meet again in Roncesvalles in time for supper. As I walked along by myself, I had the first inkling of what I had let myself in for. Joxiem had been right. This was going to be a pilgrimage with physical, emotional, and spiritual obstacles to overcome. But I was determined, God willing, to make it all the way to Santiago, and do it only on my two already-aching feet. But I had to confess that an ambulance seemed a real possibility now!

Memory is such a strange faculty. As I walked I remembered Yeats’ poem, “When you are old and grey.” I remembered reading it out loud to Georgia when we were courting at Mississippi State. What an odd poem for a courting poem, but there you go. And then in Dublin before we got on the plane for Spain, we found a WB Yeats exhibit at the National Library. They had set up a room where you could listen to the great man reading his own work. It gave me chill bumps to hear him read:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

And now the reference to the “pilgrim soul” and “pacing upon the mountains overhead” and “a crowd of stars” made me wonder if Yeats had ever walked the Camino. The word, compostella, after all, means “field of stars,” and referred both to a place where a meteorite had hit Spain in pre-history, as well as the Milky-way which marked the path for the medieval pilgrims. Our lives seem to be circles inside circles, patterns inside patterns.

Paul had told me that even if I walked slowly I would get to Roncesvalles in 8 hours. He was wrong.

I limped into the albergue in Roncesvalles at 9 hours and 30 minutes. And it was full, but they had put overflow portacabins out back, each with four bunk beds. After checking in (and getting my pilgrim’s passport stamped!) I selected a bottom bunk and went looking for the shower. I could hardly walk. Several toenails were red and swollen and one had turned black. After a nice hot shower I went in search of food.

I was too late for the pilgrim meal. So I ordered a sandwich and a Cervesa Grande at the bar and went outside to enjoy the evening. Bryan, from Ireland, saw me and waved me over to his table. He introduced me to 5 or 6 other people he had just met, from Hong Kong, Missouri, Denver, Canada, etc. I would see them all again and again over the coming weeks. We were all hurting, but no one was ready to throw in the towel. There was a lot of excitement in posing by the road sign that announced there was only 790 more kilometers to go!

As I was drinking my second (or third) beer someone came up behind me and gave me a bear hug. It was Max! He was so relieved to see me again. He had been sure that he would have to organize a search party to look for my poor dead body. It seems like there are a lot of people worried about me. Perhaps I should be more worried as well. Max’s path was supposed to have been shorter than mine, but of course, he had stopped along the Way to help three ladies who were having trouble. Yuyam, from the Arab Emirates and her two friends from Central and South America. He went to check in and get settled. I chatted with my new family for a while, then limped off to bed. Had no trouble whatsoever falling asleep. Dreamed I was trying to walk down the face of a cliff.

6/1/15: Second day walking: Roncesvalles to Zubiri

I woke up about 6:30 or so. I can’t really be sure since I didn’t have a watch and time was already starting to seem sort of irrelevant. I found that I would get up when I woke up. Eat when I was hungry. Stop when I was tired. And fall asleep when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more. Outside it was misty and hazy, but not really raining, thank goodness. First person I saw was Max. He was looking for his poles. He’d left them somewhere. As it turned out, I had found them and turned them in to the hopitaliare. I waited with our packs as he went to fetch them. We decided to skip breakfast for the moment and pick up something to eat farther along. That became typical. It encouraged us to get away quickly in the morning, and it gave us an excuse to walk fast—so that we could get to the next village for a café con leche and breakfast. The problem was that this morning I was in no shape to walk quickly. And yet, as I limped along behind Max it occurred to me that my toes were hurting so bad that I didn’t even notice how much my hips were hurting. Weird thing to be grateful for.

Just outside Roncesvalles, the path was unpaved and ran parallel to a beautifully moss-covered ancient stone wall. On the other side of the wall were open woodlands and beautifully manicured fields. At first the path meandered generally downhill. We stopped at a little tienda about 3kilometers along the Way to buy some food and coffee. The proprietor was playing opera classics on an old phonograph. Loud! I envied Max’s ability to talk with him pretty easily. Max’s Portuguese was close enough to Spanish, I guess, for them to communicate. He spoke with just about everyone on the Way—either in Spanish or Portuguese or English. French gave him problems, but even then he would find some way to communicate. Amazingly outgoing, friendly, and helpful. I’m sure he’ll be the President of Brazil some day.

As we walked we tried to figure out the Camino signs. There were arrows, of course, but a scallop shell on a deep blue background was often used. But looked at in another way, it also looked like a shooting star or meteorite. We came to a little village, Espinal, about 6k from Roncesvalles, where the path joined the village streets. The scallop shell was attached to the façade of the building just ahead of us. The “hub” of the shell was on the left. We thought that meant to go left, so we did—up another hill. At the top of the hill we saw two women sitting in lawn chairs outside a small tienda. They looked at us curiously. It was another intersection, but one without any arrows, or shells, or red and white bars that the French use to mark the path on the Camino Frances. Max asked them which way we should go. They smiled and pointed back down the hill—the way we had just come. Only the first of many detours.


“So,” we said to each other, “the ‘rays’ of the shell point in the direction of the path!’” At the bottom of the hill we met some other pilgrims also wondering which way to go. We imparted our new-found wisdom proudly, and walked (or rather limped) into the center of town—stopping only to have our picture taken in front of the village church. At the outskirts of town we met a car driving toward us. It was the village postman I think. She rolled down her window and pointed back the way we had come. We’d again misread the signs and passed the turnoff. Pretty humbling to get lost twice in such a small village. There is a saying that on Camino one person won’t lose their way; but two people will. We proved it true—walking and talking and not paying attention to the signs.

Outside Espinal the Way went back up again, then down steeply. My poor toes. I used the poles with each step trying mightily without success to keep them from hitting the insides of my shoes. From Alto de Erro to Zubiri we walked down the back of a dragon—stones poking up through the ground like spine plates, and at just enough of an angle that you were always on the verge of twisting your ankle. It truly would have been impassable without the poles. A 300 meter downhill torture chamber.

In a little wooded glen we found a picnic table and met up again with the three ladies Max had helped on the trip down the mountain into Roncesvalles. Yuyam saw me trying to bandage up blisters that had formed on the bottoms of my feet. She became my first medico. She punctured the blisters with a needle and thread to drain them, then leaving the thread in the blister, bandaged them with something called “esparadupo,” much like “mole skin” that you find in the States. They felt better, but my toes were starting to look really bad. Red and angry looking. She lanced blisters that had formed on them as well then showed me how to correctly tie my shoes so that my toes wouldn’t keep hitting the front. And then for good measure she showed me the correct way to use the poles. I had been using them to lift me up and ease me down each step. I was supposed to be using them more like an extra “leg” so that I could take some of the weight off my hips and feet with each step. Sort of like crutches helping each leg in turn. This was her second Camino. I doubt I could have finished had I not met her. Using the poles correctly absolutely revolutionized going uphill!

We had planned to walk all the way to Larrasoana, but after 9 hours on the Way, I was whipped. Poor Max. Zig, the anchor was holding him back again.

(to be continued)
6/1/15: End of the Second Day walking: Zubiri

We found a room at the municipal albergue in Zubiri. But even better, we found a washer and dryer! The warden at the albergue was grumpy. Too many pilgrims for her, I think. Too many stupid questions. When she reluctantly gave me change for the washer I was too scared to ask her about soap. I didn’t see any near the washer, but there was a small kitchen and dining room where 10 or 12 pilgrims were lounging and snacking. There was a small stove with pots and pans, and a sink with DISH WASHING LIQUID! Our clothes came out sparkling clean with no waterspots at all! And our hands were smooth and lovely too!

As I was heading for the shower I saw Bryan and Rita. She introduced me to a couple she had just met. Joe and Amy and their two teenagers, Molly and Sam. They were from Oregon. Amy was recounting the joys of trying to stay up with (and hold back) a 15-year old boy in the middle of Spain. I learned later that Bryan and Rita decided not to stay and went on.

After my shower Max told me we were invited to join Yuyam, Diana, and Ruth for supper. I loved it. The food was spectacular! A delicious green soup (peas?), little rice cakes with tomato sauce and broiled fish. And wine. Did I mention wine? We also had lots of wine to celebrate our second day surviving the Way. And exhausting conversation. Exhausting because of all the languages flying around the table.


Yuyam was born in Bolivia and now lives in Dubai. Ruth was born in Central America, has lived in Japan, and now lives in Nice in the south of France working as a chef in a sushi place! Diana was born in Columbia and now lives in Cannes. Three other nationalities were at the table. I was hanging onto the conversation by my fingernails. Did I mention that we had a lot of wine?

We somehow made it back up the street to our albergue. I think. I don’t actually remember going back, but somehow I woke up there in the morning.

6/2/15: Third Day walking: Zubiri to Arre

We were supposed to have breakfast with the ladies this morning. I told Max I just wasn’t up to it. I’m not used to that many words—especially when I can only understand about every 10th one. I needed some alone-time. So on this third day walking Max and I were walking together, but not right together. We stopped for coffee in Larrosoana, at a little tienda called Amari.

The amazing thing about the Camino is that because you are just walking you are never very far from the other people who began about the same time you did. Some walk faster, and some walk slower, but everyone has to stop for some length of time to rest and recuperate. That means there are any number of opportunities to meet and re-meet the same people. And that means you have the chance to talk with each other. For hours if you want. Max was the most naturally friendly person I’ve ever met. He spoke with everyone we met along the way, and introduced them to me, and photographed them, and learned where they were from, and how many children they had, and what they had for lunch yesterday. Well maybe not that much. But he did learn a lot from everyone we met. It wore me out.

Even with skipping breakfast we hadn’t gotten away from Zubiri until 7:30. And I felt pressured to get to Pamplona—the first “big” city on the Camino, where I hoped to buy a flip-phone with a Spanish “chip” so I could call Georgia. Not that I actually knew her phone number. She was going to buy a flip phone in Santiago and somehow we would have to get our numbers to each other. Interesting chicken-and-egg sort of problem. Maybe smoke signals?

As I walked along I thought. Before coming on Camino I thought I would use the hours of solitude to think deep thoughts. It didn’t work out that way. At least on this third day I spent all my time thinking about my sore feet: the “dragon scales” from yesterday, and the “stepping stones” today. Hundreds of thousands of people walk the Way each year. With that many feet the ground gets packed down and the grass is killed. Then when it rains there is terrible erosion. So, on this section of the trail they had laid large flagstones for us to walk on. I know they meant well, and perhaps it really did help with erosion, but it was terrible for blistered feet. And I didn’t bring hard-soled shoes. I just had my black walkers with rubber soles. Like the princess and the pea, I suffering with each and every stone under my (very tender) feet.

And while I’m complaining let me tell you about bicyclists. They generally travel in packs, and there are two different tribes. One tribe makes a lots of noise—whistling and singing—as they woosh up behind you. The peace and quiet of the Camino is first spoiled by their racket, then the falsely cheery “Buen Camino!” is like the jab of a sharp stick as they go blowing past.

But, honestly, the second tribe, those bicyclists who don’t make a sound are worse. When you walk for hours on a lonely dirt path you invariably meander back and forth. This third day was the first time I was very nearly run down by a stealth cyclist. They missed me, but only just barely. I decided that a group of bicyclists, not a group of crows, should rightly be called “a murder.”

We walkers decided that “bicycling a pilgrimage” was related to a real pilgrimage about as closely as a day at the amusement park is related to a silent retreat. There are people who just can’t stand the quiet. And feel a need to quickly be somewhere else. There were even a lot of walkers with ear buds in their ears. They were being somewhere else too. “Can you hear that bird?” I wanted to ask. “No, I bet you can’t.” Thomas Merton talked about “Now Here This,” rather than “Now hear this.” Now, not the past or the future. Here, not there. And this, not something else. His emphasis was the present. Being really present. And walking the Camino without earbuds or a radio was the first time in my life that I was really forced for hours on end to be really present.

On the Camino you learn that people come and go in your life. Some of them, like the cyclists, come and then go very quickly. But other walkers cross and recross your path. There are new people as well, of course: You catch up with some who were once ahead of you, and people who were behind you might pass you. And you learn to appreciate them all while you have them. They are all special. They all have their story, if only you have the ears to hear, and the courage, like Max, to ask. Some of them you like so much you grieve when they’re gone. Others, not so much. But they are all special. Even the cyclists. I guess.

Max and I arrived in the little village of Irotz, 14 or 15 k from Zubiri. It was tiny. There was only one road in the place. But, unfortunately there were two sets of arrows. One pointing the way to Arieta and one up a hill to Zabaldica where there was supposed to be an interesting church. As always, Max stopped to talk with one of the locals as I walked past. I thought he saw me go up the hill to find the church. I expected him to catch up with me at any minute, as he was walking much faster than I was. But, he didn’t, and so without even being able to say good bye, Max was suddenly gone.

It was quite a climb to the church, about a kilometer, straight up. There were three or four pilgrims sitting at a picnic table when I arrived. The church itself was locked. I went looking for the office to see if there was anyone who could open it for me. Sister Sandra, from Ireland came with a key and showed me the proper way to drink from a bohjo, a peregrino’s clay drinking pot. It looked sort of like a teapot. You were supposed to hold it over your head and just pour the water out in a long stream into your mouth—not all over the front of your shirt the way I did, to her amusement.

Inside the church there was a lovely carved crucifix—almost life sized—with thousands of lime green post-it notes stuck all around it. On each was a petition or prayer of thanksgiving. Pilgrims leaving some of their emotional or spiritual burdens with Jesus. That was another thing about the Camino. There is a Spanish adage that “you don’t need anything for the Camino—you only need to pick up what others leave behind.” It is axiomatic that everyone takes more than they need, and they get sick of carrying it all after a while. That’s why the trail is littered with shoes and shirts and clothes. I think these post-it notes reflect the troubles and concerns that people finally get tired of carrying as well. They leave it with Jesus, knowing that he does care—and he will take care of them.


The walk after St Estoban’s church was very quiet. No other pilgrims, and a very lightly traveled path, almost overgrown. But eventually it joined up with the path Max must have taken, and went through a tunnel under the N-135, a four-lane highway that roughly parallels the Camino. At the village of Arre I crossed a lovely five-arched stone bridge spanning the river Ulzama. It looked like the bridge where Martin Sheen loses his backpack in the movie “The Way.” Even though it was early, I decided to stop at the Albergue Hermanos Maristas just over the bridge. Run by the Order of Marist Brothers, there has been an albergue there since the 11th century. The town was lovely and I would have liked to walk around more but my feet just hurt too badly. I just couldn’t deal with the middle of Pamplona yet. I did manage to make it to the library though and found that I could use a computer there at no charge. Sent Georgia an email telling her where I was and that I was going to try to get a phone in Pamplona.

Saw Joe and Amy and Molly and Sam again—just coming back from the grocery store. It was too far away for me to attempt a walk so I sat on a low stone wall in the park beside the library and watched the Spanish families enjoying the beautiful weather. It was a simple green-space with a couple statues and a few trees with sidewalks and benches around the perimeter. The children were all playing with tops. No kidding. Not an iphone in sight. Nor a video game. Little wooden tops. They would wind them up with string then throw down on the pavement, then pick them up spinning with a loop of string. My father would have been so proud. He so wanted me to learn how to play with a top, since that had been his favorite toy in 1915. In 1955 I wouldn’t have been caught dead with one, but now in the 2015 they were “in” again. At least in northern Spain.


Tried to find a restaurant close-by with no luck. I resigned myself to no supper, and turned back toward the albergue. On the way I met a Frenchman named Jacques, heading into town. He told me that he had learned of a nice restaurant one block over. I told him I’d love to eat with him but that he was going to have to stroll very slowly if I was to keep up. We each had a three-course meal with a nice wine, a glass of scotch, and dessert costing 26 euros each. It was sublime. Even better than the supper with the ladies; and certainly much better than anything I could have picked up at a super mercado!

Walking back to the albergue using my poles I could tell that my arms and legs were getting stronger. If only my feet would heal I think I could make pretty good time. But the blister on the sole of my left foot was now a flap of skin and threatening to get infected. It was about the size of a silver dollar and sore as all get out. Almost as sore as my black toenails and swollen little toe. My arms and legs were ok, but I was afraid I was going to have real problems with my feet.

(to be continued)
6/3/15: Fourth Day walking: Arre to Cizur Menor

Arre is located on the outskirts of Pamplona so this began as the easiest walk so far. No hills or valleys, though I did manage to get off the recommended route. I ended up walking along a busy road instead of the tranquil river my guidebook spoke of. It is so easy to lose your way. Especially in the cities. The cars rushing past. The crowds of pedestrians. The strange looks you get with your backpack and wrinkled clothes. You feel self-conscious. You try to watch for the signs. You see some of them, but can’t always tell if they are marking the “recommended” path, or just one of the paths. And after going a kilometer or so the wrong way it is really, really, hard to go back. Much like life, doncha’ think? We just keep bulling our way through and hope for the best.

And then sometimes through pure grace the wrong way does turn out to be a right way. As I walked through the suburbs looking for a telephone store I bumped into Anne and Philomena from “my first Camino family” in St Jean Pied de Port. It was like meeting up with long lost relatives. We tried to catch up with each other with a torrent of pedestrians flowing by on either side. We compared blister-stories, and talked about others we had met. They said they had seen Max, and that he was trying to hurry on ahead so that he would make it to Santiago in time to see his wife, who was flying over from Brazil to welcome him. I told them I needed a phone to call Georgia, and so we hugged and parted again. But instead of saying “goodbye,” we said Hasta luego, “until we meet again.” That became our preferred “farewell.” I found a phone store, bought a phone for 25 euros and put 25 euros worth of minutes on it, then sent a text message to Max, who would never travel anywhere in the world without his smart phone! He told me that he was on his way into Villaturerte, which was at least a day ahead of me, and told me I needed to stop and see the campus of the University of Navarre, located in Pamplona. They gave a lovely sella. Those are the stamps we had to get in our “Credencial” each day to prove we were walking the Camino. We’d get it verified when we reached Santiago.


And as I was walking along I happened upon a glorious monastery, Convento S. Valentin de Berria Ochoa. There were monumental dalle de verre windows sometimes called “faceted glass.” In the United States the largest 1” thick blocks you can find are 12” x 8”. Some of the blocks in these windows were 2’ x 2’. I can’t image where they got such blocks, or how they were able to work with pieces that heavy. The matrix holding the glass was impregnated with sand and tiny seashells. Hard to believe that concrete would be strong enough and resilient enough to support that kind of weight. I photographed some of the rebar you could see imbedded in the matrix. The design was modern—probably 1960s or later—and I stood for quite a while studying the panels from the outside. The door, however, was locked. As I stood there, wishing I could see them from the inside, the chapel door opened, and a white-robed Dominican friar motioned for me to come in. He was tiny; just over 5 feet, white-haired and slender but with a beatific smile. So welcoming. In broken Spanish I told him that I made stained glass windows like these but have never seen any using such large blocks of glass. One of his other elderly brothers was practicing the organ but my kind host just showed me from panel to panel throughout the chapel, talking the whole time as if I could understand Spanish. And I did understand enough to know that he was explaining the symbolism in each one. Then he showed me the signature block and gave me to understand that the design and fabrication was done by one of their brothers. The name was Domingo Iturgaize OP (order of preachers), and the date was December 1984—to May 1985. I was very impressed with the design, skill and use of color. I wish I could have access to blocks that size. I learned later that Brother Domingo had died just three months earlier. But God Bless him, he made the world a more beautiful place with his glass, and mosaics, and paintings. It’s something we can all aspire to. Leave the world a more beautiful place than we found it.

The Cathedral in Pamplona was also beautiful, especially the alabaster windows and ancient carved saints. The stained glass was good—as you would expect in such a place, but having seen so much old glass in so many places I’m becoming quite jaded. I’ve seen windows like these in many other places, but not windows like Brother Domingo’s.

Just as I crossed the Puente Magdalena in the park near the Cathedral I saw two old women trying to step off the curb. One of them stepped wrong, and down she went, shopping bags and all. She landed on her hip. I’m almost sure she broke it, but she absolutely refused to let anyone call a doctor. I gathered up her bags while several other bystanders half-helped, half-carried her to a park bench. She sat there ashen-faced but stoic. She had a scrape on one of her arms. I put some of my triple-antibiotic ointment on the scrape and a bandaid. She smiled at me. But she refused to let anyone call a doctor. “No medcin!” She was emphatic. I guess there comes a point when the elderly are afraid of doctors and hospitals. Instead of being a place of healing, they come to be seen as the enemy, and bearers of unbearable news. Places where you go, never to return.

Pamplona’s ancient stone walls are enormous. One portal still has its working chain drawbridge. A sign said that it was used once a year to let the three kings into the old city on Epiphany. As I entered the old city the first thing I encountered was a mime—panhandling. Kind of creepy—couldn’t actually “ask” for money, but could walk along beside me being obnoxious. I can certainly understand now why some people have nightmares about mimes. I’m afraid that the falling woman and the discourteous mime became emblematic of Pamplona for me. I’m glad I didn’t try to spend the night there. On the outskirts I did stop to get a sello from the University of Navarre as Max recommended. Both it and the campus were beautiful.

But, I found that I was really glad to get back into the countryside. The path was flat and quiet and the weather was perfect. Not too hot or cold. I limped along happily and only struggled when I came to a slight hill into the town of Cizur Menor.

Stayed at the first place I came to on the left: Sanjuanista run by the Knights of St John of Malta. Beautiful red Maltese Cross on the door. Took a welcome shower, washed my clothes and hung them out back to dry, then went to look for a mass. Found one at a stone church at the top of the hill. Hurt like the dickens to walk there but the view of the little town was glorious and there was another alabaster window inside. After mass I went looking for something to eat. Learned from another pilgrim that Philomena, Anne, and the others were staying at an albergue nearby and went in search of them. Anne was exhausted but decided to come get a bite with me anyway. We sat outside and talked. Steve came by and joined us. Anne left to go get some sleep and Steve and I continued our conversation. He was miserable. Frustrated at having to walk so slow to keep pace with all the others. Seven of them were trying to stick together and Steve, with his long legs and fast pace, was hobbled. I suggested he pick his own pace and plan to meet the others somewhere along the way. He said Anne was afraid they’d all get separated and Cerys, who’d first persuaded Steve to walk the Camino, was hurt that he would want to walk on ahead of them alone. Poor guy. First time I realized that everyone should walk their own Camino—not the Camino someone else wanted them to walk.

I had heard that the walk was entirely different at night with all the stars so decided to get up early and walk in the morning. I said good-night and went back to the albergue to lay everything out for an early morning walk.

6/4/15: Fifth day walking: leaving Cizur Menor

The church bells woke me up at 3am and I started walking by 4:00. Would have started sooner, but got dressed in the dark trying so hard not to wake anyone else I left my poles in the room and had to go back for them, then realized I couldn’t lock the albergue door after me. Waited for someone to get up to go to the bathroom and asked them to lock the door behind me.

Luckily there was a three-quarter moon, but it was still really dark. Haze hid the stars. Had a little flashlight that mounted to my hat. It gave enough light to walk by but not really enough to be sure of the signs. Ended up walking down a path through a forest of weeds. Came to a junction with an arrow painted on a small stone. It pointed one way, but for some reason I thought someone must have moved the stone, so I went down the other fork. I walked a hundred yards or so then decided I must be wrong—there were too many weeds growing in the center of the path. Surely the number of pilgrims on the Way would have trampled any weeds, so I went back to the intersection and started down the path indicated by the arrow. It seemed much more like what I’d come to expect. My pig-headedness and lack of trust in my fellow pilgrims should have warned me that today was not going to be a good day.

As I walked, climbing toward the Alto del Perdon, (the Hill of Pardon, where the famous pilgrim statues are located) the sky began to lighten. I loved watching the moon and clouds playing hide and seek behind the waving cypress trees. It was like walking into a Van Gogh painting. Magical. And then the reddest dawn I’ve ever seen: “Red in the morning, pilgrim take warning.” Another indication I should have paid more attention.

Arrived in Zariquiegui, halfway up the slope to the hill of Pardon at 6am before the local tienda was even open. I begged him to get me something to eat; he grudgingly made me a delicious cup of café con leche, and a perfectly burned piece of toast. Nevertheless it tasted good when I scraped off the charcoal, and it felt so good to sit down.

About an hour and a half later I arrived at the statues and had someone take the obligatory picture of me hiking along with the iron-plate pilgrims.


Donde de Cruza el Camino del Viento, con el del las Estrellas
Where the path of the wind crosses the path of the stars.

And where I managed to get horribly lost.

The Brierley guide warned me that right after the statues I would: “Descend [!] carefully over the loose stones and through the scrubland to the rich red earth . . . .” Unfortunately I didn’t read that passage until I was about one and half kilometers down the road that ran perpendicular to the path I should have been on. In my own defense I can only plead that the Camino should have followed the base of the wind turbines I was following. They were like the Don Quixote’s giant windmills, and their constant hum and faint clanking was a perfect backdrop along this “path of the wind.” And the views from the ridgeline were gorgeous in the lifting fog. In my arrogance I congratulated myself for having found the “real” path. It was sort of hidden in the brush and I was sure that all the other losers were probably hiking along the gravel road. They weren’t.

By the time I suspected I might have gone the wrong way I had come down several hundred meters in altitude but thought I was probably now on a road that was going to carry me Uterga, one of the villages I was going to have to walk through on my way to Obanos, where I planned to spend the night. My feet were killing me. The soles of both feet were blistered and I had several blackened toenails. The little toe on my left foot was inflamed and horribly swollen. I was afraid that I might be doing some serious damage to it. The thought of walking back up the hill to get onto the right path was just too disheartening. I would make my own shortcut. I’m good at pig-headedness.

My shortcut didn’t pan out. White arrows are not the same as yellow ones. The road I was on carried me across a high bridge over the A-12—a Spanish superhighway—then continued for miles along the base of dozens of other wind turbines. I thought it was probably a main country road and would carry me somewhere, but it kept getting smaller and smaller, and was obviously just an access road for the turbines. There were no signs. No arrows. No people. There were beautiful red poppies and other wild-flowers, and beautiful views down into the valley below, but that was cold comfort as I limped along.

Eventually I came to a tall rickety watchtower and a sign with a large arrow on it, but the sign had fallen over and there were several spooky looking overgrown paths radiating out from here. I have no idea what it was. Maybe a campground of some sort. Didn’t look like a Camino arrow, and the paths were obviously little-traveled. I rested, tried to re-bandage my aching feet, drank the last of my water, and felt sorry for myself, then continued down the narrowing road. Surely it would lead somewhere.


Around the next corner I could see the A-12 in the far distance and from my map I could tell that I was on the wrong side. I was north-west of it, and the Camino was south-east of it. The road continued in a northwesterly direction and would carry me farther and farther from where I wanted to be, so I felt I had to turn left, go down the mountain and find some way back to the Camino. So down-hill I went, over rough rocks, loose gravel, generally following an eroded gulley. It was agony.

At the bottom I found myself in a field of what I later learned was called Avoine, a cereal grain fed to cattle and livestock. The field was enormous. Surrounded on three sides by steep hillsides of scrub pines. The field was actually a finger several hundred yards across. I had no choice but to walk through it. The grain was just over waist-high and the ground was hard-pan, but with ridges left by the plows and rain storms. Like walking on dull knives. I tumbled down in a ravine thinking it might be easier to follow the little creek bed. Wrong. There were brambles and fallen trees and broken limbs. It was impassible. I climbed out the other side and found myself back in another gigantic finger-field. There was no hope for it. I would just have to walk until I came to something. I walked for about 45 minutes before the terrain changed. The grain became more stunted and looking down I could discern tractor treads running perpendicular to the direction I was walking. I turned and started following the tractor tracks. They lead me to a narrow farm path—obviously made by farm equipment traveling to and from the field. And then to a small farm road, and then past some tumbled-down outbuildings, then to a proper gravel farm road. Civilization! I wasn’t going to die in the woods after all! After another 30 minutes of walking I saw a car up ahead emerge from a cloud of dust. I was saved! I was ready to give up my resolution against riding. I would gladly accept a ride some place where I could sit down for a while and get some water. I waved in excitement!

The lady smiled and waved too as she barrelled past me.

(to be continued)
6/4/15: End of the fifth day to Puente la Reina


I have no idea where that lady was going. I didn’t even have an idea where I was going. The gravel road was still narrow, but at least it was wide enough for two cars. It was obviously used to access all the fields around me. Lovely rolling agricultural land. If I weren’t so sore, hungry, and thirsty I would have loved it. And there were many smaller roads joining it, but naturally none of them had any yellow arrows or road signs. Anyone needing to use one would certainly already know where it went. I hated to, but I climbed a small hill in the middle of one of the fields to try to get my bearings. Standing in the middle of little shoots of grain I could see the highway still far off to my left and knew that I had to get over it somehow, so tried to head in that direction at each little intersection. I felt helpless. So I turned to my secret weapon: St Anthony! “Tony, Tony, turn around, something’s lost and must be found. It’s me!” and I decided to go to the right at the next intersection. As I rounded a little hill I saw the highway right in front of me. AND A BRIDGE! I couldn’t believe it! It had obviously been built for tractors to move from one field to another over the highway—or for crazy peregrinos who couldn’t manage to follow the arrows!


On the other side of the highway I could see a paved road off to my left but the (now) little gravel road I was on seemed to head up to the top of a little hill where there was some sort of construction. I didn’t want any part of the shoulder of a busy paved road, so I headed for the top of the hill. When I got there I saw two workmen mixing concrete. They were building a patio for a new apartment complex. I told them in French that I was lost “Je suis perdu.” Not surprisingly Spanish brick masons don’t speak French, but they did understand my signing that I really needed some water. I must have looked pretty scary. “Would it be ok for me to drink out of your hose?” The younger one shook his head and motioned for me to follow him to his truck where he handed me an enormous bottled water. Oh my goodness. That was the most delicious drink I have ever had. Seriously. The Best. “I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.” I finally “felt” what it was like to be that thirsty, and also that grateful!

I opened up my Brierley and pointed to the map. “Donde?” Where? I asked. “Puente la Reina,” he replied and pointed down the hill on the other side. Oh Lord, I was kilometers past where I had intended to go. I thanked them profusely and limped down the road on the other side that lead me straight into the city-center where the Municipal Albergue was the first building I came to. But there was a line of young pilgrims queued up to sign in. I decided that if I ever deserved my own private room with a bath it was tonight, so I headed down the street looking for the Casa RuralHostel BideanBrierley mentioned. It was 40 euros, a princely sum, but that also included supper and breakfast! I gladly paid. There was no alcensor, elevator, but the hostess took pity on me and carried my pack up the stairs to show me where my room was. Man oh man, what a day. 4am until 3pm. 11 hours walking. My feet hurt like you wouldn’t believe. I filled the tub with hot water, peeled the bandages off my feet, and just soaked myself until the water got so cold I had to get out. Washed everything in the sink then went down for a very nice supper, sharing the table with a lovely French couple. We talked about our grown children in “Franglish.” Seems like parents of grown children all over the world have the same joys and sorrows—and we never stop worrying about our grown kids.

6/5/15: Sixth day walking: to Villatuerta

After breakfast, walking out of town I heard singing coming from the Convento Comendadoras del Espiritu Santo. Had to stop. The women’s voices echoing in that ancient space was mesmerizing. To me, it seems religion brings beauty into the world. To incarnate it. To cloak it in flesh. And that is what these sisters were doing. I guess beauty is more than just a giver of pleasure—it is also a proof for the existence of God.

The way out of town went over the bridge, Puenta la Reina, for which the town was named then uphill (ugh, ouch, ouch) to the little town of Maneru 5k away. Took me more than an hour. Rested in a little park in the center of town, then downhill (oof, ouch, yow!) a bit, then back uphill to Cirauqui, an especially lovely little town in the distance. Took lots of photos across the fields and vineyards. Ancient olive trees, and lovely dry-stone walls. When you move at a walking pace you are able to really study the road ahead and be sensitive to the sights, sounds, and smells around you. I carried a recorder with me to record my thoughts and one of the things most noticeable to me now is the sound of the birds. They were everywhere and in full voice. There are probably “industrial farms” in Spain, but not along the Camino. These farms are small and diverse and apparently in harmony with the wildlife. There were beehives and dairy cows and small grain silos. Inefficient, I’m sure, but more humane somehow.

Leaving Cirauqui I followed a rocky path down and across an ancient Roman stone bridge then across a modern steel bridge over the A-12. Easy to wonder if it will last as long as the one the Romans built. I doubt it. As I was struggling down the hill a murder of bicyclists “Buen Caminoed” me. Why do I find them so irritating? They break the silence of course. And they will be in Santiago days and days ahead of me. Is it jealousy? Or is it a reverse pride? “I’m on a real Camino, and they are just on a long bike trip!” Snobbish, I guess. Like my disdain for the “day-trippers” who have their bags ported ahead. But then I meet people who have been walking SO much farther than I have. From Scandanavia, and Switzerland, and Paris. And what about the people who sleep outside—eschewing the albergues? Which of us is really on Camino? And which of us is just a tourist?


The way between Cirauqui and Lorca carried me under a modern aqueduct towering overhead then across a medieval bridge over the Rio Saldo. It was here that Aymeric Picaoud in the 12th century wrote that a pilgrim mustn’t try to drink from the water—it is poisonous, and Basques hid nearby to skin the horses of pilgrims foolish enough to let them take a drink. There were a load of Norwegian pilgrims splashing and playing. Hoped they weren’t trying to take a drink.

Walking on I passed huge hay-bale skyscrapers.

Another couple hours of walking and I knew I was finished. I decided to stop in Villatuerta, 3.7k short of Estella. There was another lovely stone bridge into the town spanning the Rio Iranzu. I think northern Spain has cornered the market on lovely stone bridges over picturesque rivers. Who should I see as I came into the village? Max! He had been more than a day ahead of me but his feet were hurting so much he decided to rest for a full day in Villatuerta. He showed me where he was staying and they had a room. It was a room large enough for 5, but there were just three of us there: me, a Catholic from the USA, Max a Catholic from Brazil, and “Mattias” a Catholic from South Korea. He couldn’t speak very much English or Spanish, but he used his smart phone to translate into a broken English that was (with a vivid imagination) understandable.

Supper was a vegetarian Paella, made with eggplant, white asparagus, red peppers, onions, and prunes (no kidding), olives, cauliflower, saffron-rice (of course), and raisins. The appetizer was a delicious salad of potatoes and another vegetarian dish with the same delicious tomato marinara sauce we’ve had served with rice at one place, and with fish at another. Not spicy, but very flavorful. Delicious local wine and a wonderful company with the addition of Laurence a lovely French Catholic who started walking in Le Puy, and Sebastien, a Swiss Catholic who started walking in Strassbourg. English, Spanish, and French were the chosen languages, and as the wine flowed our tongues became more and more loose! We finished with a nice light vanilla pudding dessert in its own little ramekin with a vanilla cookie sticking out the top. I thought a ginger snap would have been even better.


We slept in single beds rather than bunks. That made a nice change and I slept very soundly.

6/6/15: Seventh day walking: to Los Arcos


Leaving Villatuerte, Max said he wanted to walk to Monjardin, where there was nice view, and I wanted to walk the “Green path,” which was supposed to be more scenic. We decided to walk together as long as we could before the way split. That carried us through Estella, another good sized city I would have preferred to miss, but it wasn’t bad—not as unpleasant as Pamplona had been. They have a massive “Star” statue in the center of town.

We walked along enjoying the morning. Saw street cleaners with a fire hose cleaning the enormous stairs in front of the Church of San Pedro de la Rua. On the other side of Estella we passed though the little village of Ayegui where I was supposed to cut off to take the scenic walk and Max was to continue on toward Villamayor de Monjardin. But my guidebook showed another cutoff at “Monasterio Irache,” one of the most famous locations on the Camino. That is where there is a water fountain where you can get fresh water—but you can find them all along the route. This particular fountain also had a spigot for red wine! We decided we were particularly thirsty and would go our separate ways afterwards. It was delicious and reinforced my feelings that the Camino does supply all our needs.


My path lead off to the left and Max’s route lead to the right up one of the many hills. On Camino you are forever saying goodbye. But not really “goodbye,” Rather, “Hasta luego.” As I walked along I remembered the day I was so very lost. And remembered that I kept hearing a coo-coo bird: “Coo-coo, coo-coo.” At the time I wondered if it was trying to help me find my way, or whether it was just telling me something that I already knew—that I was really crazy to have mis-read the signs so badly. And now today my way lead me through a tunnel under the highway, and as I emerged I start climbing up this gravel road in the sun. I was SURE that I was on the right path, but I heard a “coo-coo, coo-coo,” and thought that maybe I better check. I walked back down the hill 50 yards and found a small sign marking that the Camino cut off the gravel road and into some woods! It was so shady and cool and the ground was so much softer and easy on my poor feet. I thought “Maybe I’m learning,” or maybe I need to listen for the “Coo-coos!” The bird kept me company for hours.

As I walked I decided that a pilgrimage had to have a goal—a someplace special—you are heading toward. If it didn’t then you were just on a long walk. Likewise our lives. And for so many people without a goal, their lives do become “pointless,” full of sound and fury, perhaps, but signifying nothing.

Speaking of which, two men and a young woman passed me for the second time today. They seemed American—at least the tall “talker” did. I could hear his pontification from 50 yards behind me to 50 yards ahead of me. I don’t think he even took a breath. The shorter man, walking with him, made apologetic eye-contact with me as they passed. I think he recognized that there sure was a lot of sound, if not fury, in his friend. It must be amazing to know so much. The friends seemed beaten down by the constant yada, yada, yada. And as best I could tell the topic was always “money:” How one could get it, how one could keep it, and why the US government was so terrible for wanting to tax it. It reminded me of Charles E. Wilson’s claim that whatever was good for General Motors was good for the country. But the Pontificator was less modest: whatever was good for him was what was good for the US.

When I finally arrived in Los Arcos I was thrilled to meet all my original crew: Max, Anne and Philomena, Bobby and Rosheen. We sat and had a beer in the main plaza outside the Cathedral before Mass. The retable inside was gorgeous, but there sure was a lot of “smiteing” going on back then. The reconquista of Spain from the Moors was definitely not bloodless. Makes me wonder about the current Re-reconquista of Europe by Islam—whether or not it will succeed, and whether or not it, too, will be remembered as bloody.

6/7/15: Eighth day walking: to Viana

Today was the start of my second week walking. I’d hoped to be in pretty good shape by now, but I wasn’t. My feet were terrible, with black toenails and huge blisters. And I was making terrible time. Logrono was my goal for the day and it was 29 kilometers away. At the pace I was limping I wouldn’t get there before dark. But the terrain started off pretty flat and Max and I made good time to Sansol and Torres. I recorded a lovely early-morning serenade we got from the birds along the way.

After Torres, the track climbed sharply through a “graveyard” of remembrance stones and balanced-stone “statues” holding down little scraps of paper memories and heartbreaking mementos of loss— such as little pacifiers. All of us, I guess, need the opportunity to lay our burdens and sadness down somewhere.


At the top we saw a small hermitage and then the path started down. And I mean “DOWN.” A ten-percent grade on a gravel path is difficult, even without blisters. But with my feet it was torture.

At the bottom I could see Viana in the distance. What an amazingly welcome site that was! I knew that was where we needed to spend the night!

And it turned out to be another example of the Camino supplying what we need.

6/7/15: in Viana


It was Corpus Christi, “The Body of Christ,” a very important holy day. There were beautiful temporary altars built in front of all the different churches and the bishop and priests carried the monstrance from one to another in procession. Little children showered rose petals on us all.


Georgia and I have often been traveling during Corpus Christi. We’ve been in Rome, and in Assisi, and in Munich. Now in Viana. One of the joys of being Catholic is being with fellow believers all over the world. And I always love a parade!

And as I joined the throng I saw Anne and Phil having a little bit of something along the parade route. I joined them and learned that they knew where Max was. We found him and headed into a quiet little side street to look for an albergue.

After food and photos we headed for the main plaza where there were some other pilgrims they’d met. One of them was Laurence, the young woman from Villatuerte who shared our vegetarian prune paella. She’d begun her Camino in Le Puy in France and had already walked an entire camino before I even started at St Jean. So much for my conceit that I was on a real camino.

The other couple was Danny and his wife Karen from New Zealand. Danny would be the life of any party. Karen was about to become my second Camino “Doctor.”

(to be continued)
6/7/15: End of the eighth day in Viana

Danny and Karen were from New Zealand. They were both retired and loved traveling. Danny was what you might call “excitable,” and absolutely full of stories. (“I have a friend so lazy he takes a taxi to his car in the driveway every morning.”) This particular trip had begun in England (I think) and then to Italy and now to Spain for their second Camino. Karen was the steady one of the two, and especially adept and dealing with problems and irritations (read “blisters” and crabby people) I told her I was suffering and she insisted on seeing my feet. Poor Laurence was completely grossed out. Squeezing my foot, Karen took a small pair of scissors and using one of the blades started drilling through my black toenail. It hurt like the dickens! But then sploosh! She made a hole and blood gushed out. The relief was instantaneous!

After several beers (to keep up my strength) we headed back to the albergue and crashed. I just didn’t have the heart to drink Danny’s favorite drink: Red wine mixed with Coke. I remember taking photos of a little white dog napping on a sofa in the alley. But nothing else.


6/8/15: Ninth day walking Viana to Logrono and Navarette

Oh, today started out gloriously. Because of Karen’s doctoring today was the first day when I was able to take a normal stride. My feet still hurt, of course, but at least I could actually “walk.”

There is a tradition that you bring a stone from home as a representation of burdens you want to leave behind. I had offered to bring stones for some of my friends and this was the morning, outside Viana, near the border between Rioja and Navarre, when I left the stones I had been given.


I still had a few that I planned to leave at the Crux de Ferro, the iron cross, several days ahead. But dear Bob and Connie, Tim and Babs, James, Georgia, Ellie and Larry: We are all gathered on this little milestone, with grapevines on our right and wheat fields beside us, with a beautiful old stone farmhouse just behind us. Our burdens are going to just rest there. Rest in peace.

And then I tried to walk faster to catch back up with Max. The silence was broken by the frantic cry “Peregrino!” “Peregrino!” I looked back to see Fabio, an Italian pilgrim I’d met pointing frantically down a path that cut off to the right. I reluctantly walked about 40 or 50 yards back to see what he’d been pointing at. There was a Camino marker someone had used for target practice. I’d completely missed it. Another lesson in humility. Thank you Fabio!


The walk from Viana to Logrono was so very pleasant. This is prime La Rioja land and vineyards and farmland were everywhere. Not as many trees, of course, so it was a hotter stretch as well. Still, it was a great walk and Max and I arrived in Logrono before noon. On the outskirts of the city we came across 3 pilgrims we’d hung out with in Roncevalles. That had only been a week and a half ago, but it felt like a lifetime and we hugged like old friends at a class reunion. Logrono was one of the more major hubs of the Camino and they were just on their way to the train station to head home. They, like so many, did the Camino in stages—a week here, a week there. We wished each other well: Buen Camino. Once you’ve started your Camino, I guess you never really stop.

The murals and graffiti around Logrono were special. I believe that they represent the “Stained Glass” palaces of the current age. They are the “public art” for the common people—and present their hopes and dreams and fears and worries. And they reinforce the secular message of today—as the stained glass windows of the past represented their sacred messages. It’s just that our new sacred doesn’t seem to believe in the old sacred.

I think one especially fine mural mocked our pilgrim’s obsession with getting Sellas, those little stamps on our passport that “prove” we’ve been somewhere. I think the point was that a pilgrimage is supposed to change you on the inside not provide you with a bunch of tattoos. It is so very easy, in so many situations to substitute the appearance for the reality.


Logrono was a beautiful city—much more friendly than Pamplona had been. It’s a place I wouldn’t mind visiting again.

As we passed an albergue down a quiet side street who should come out but Bobby! Rosheen’s boyfriend. He was all packed up and ready to head home. Hellos and Goodbyes seem to be the essence of the Camino. I had learned that Bobby was seriously sick and that this pilgrimage with Rosheen had been a real sacrifice for him. We shook hands. “Buen Camino,” he said, and I found I couldn’t speak. There was something wrong with my voice.


A hundred yards down the street I stopped in a small chapel to light a candle for Bobby and all the pilgrims and saw the inscription of the wall behind the altar: “Yo Soy El Camino, La Verdad, y La Vida.” It brought me hope and reminded me that even before we were “Christians,” we were “Followers of Jesus, The Way.” The idea of pilgrimage is as old as the Church.

It was now lunchtime and west of the city we found a very nice café beside the reservoir called Pantano de La Grajera. While we were eating, Laurence arrived. We hadn’t seen her since Viana, but she was a much faster walker than we were. At least much faster than I was. I think Max was still holding back because of me. And I was starting to become concerned about his timetable. He was supposed to be meeting his wife in Santiago on a particular day—and at the pace we were traveling he wasn’t going to make it. But we three still managed to get lost in the beauty of our surroundings. Max took pictures of everything, of course, and said he wanted to play a beautiful piece of music for us. So as we three walked along, uphill, we listened to Clair du Lune, by Debussey. Max and I spent the night in the beautiful little Maltesian village of Navarette.

6/9/15: Tenth day walking from Navarette to Najera then Azofra


As we left Navarette we came to a small crossroads. A young man in a very expensive car accosted us and asked in passable English if we spoke “Enhlish.” I admitted that I did and said that Max’s was also very good. He asked if he could walk along with us and practice. I said that would be ok. So for the next hour a never-ending stream of Enhlish washed over me. I think Max was disgusted with the constant chatter and sped up to put some separation between us. When the man heard that I had once been in publishing it came out that he was hoping to market and sell an English-language web site dedicated to the history of the Camino. By the time we arrived in Ventosa my ears hurt as much as my poor feet. I wished him well and he latched on to someone heading in the opposite direction—back to his car I suppose.

Max and I walked on in blessed silence. Then we happened upon Anne and Rosheen and Philomena at a little mobile snackbar. We walked on in companionable conversation for the rest of the way to Najera. By the river we saw an outdoor bar with very inviting tables. We all got plates of tapas and pitchers of beer and shared. At the next table sat a couple from Arizona, Phil and Ida. And at yet another table sat a very sad-looking young lady named Abby. She was here from some U.S. mid-western college with her boyfriend. Abby was short, and evidently her boyfriend was tall, and their two strides could not have been more incompatible. Abby had hyper-extended her knee trying to keep up with him and had needed to take a bus on ahead to wait for him. Her Camino was not working out the way she had envisioned it. And evidently he was angry with her for getting hurt, because now his Camino wasn’t playing itself out the way he had pictured it. He obviously cared about his self-image more than he cared about her. Maybe that was a good thing for her to find out.


Met a woman named Andrea, from California. Her husband had died five years ago, and she’d retired from her non-profit work, and begun a series of “clean up” projects around the house, then around the city where she lived—volunteering in various worthwhile endeavors. She’d completely reshuffled her old life. Now she had decided that maybe she needed to do some “deeper cleaning” of her own soul, so she’d come out on Camino. I asked if it had been what she hoped it would be. She smiled and said that it had been that and more. Wonderful solitude, but wonderful new people as well. God bless her.

Not everyone I met along the way was so happy and it made me think of a little dialogue: “We are both grown-ups, but I am a happy grownup and you are a sad one. I think that’s because I let my Father carry my load for me, and you continue to struggle along under the weight he would carry for you.”

Najera was an interesting town with neolithic sandstone caves dug into the surrounding hills. We walked around a little, but I really did need to save my feet as much as possible. There are just so many interesting places when you slow down. And still, there isn’t time to see everything, or hear everyone’s story. I guess that’s why heaven has to be eternal—so we can catch up on everyone’s Camino.

After Najera we all walked on to Azofra, a little crossroads town, population 250, where we stayed the night in a very nice albergue, with outdoor foot-baths. After checking in and showering we found a little restaurant, where we saw Laurence again in her Rugby Woman teeshirt. For supper I had something they called “Cuban rice.” It was white rice ringed by a moat of plain marinara sauce spiced with Tabasco. In the center of the rice “mountain” was a fried egg. A very simple meal, but it sure tasted delicious to me. Topped it off with a large glass of Sangria, and then off to bed in our luxurious “semi-private room” where Max still snored like a sawmill. Thank goodness for earplugs.




(to be continued)
6/10/15: 11th Day walking: From Azofra to Santo Domingo

We heard storms during the night and woke up to a gray and lowering day. Trying to raise our spirits, Max launched into his best imitation of “Singing in the Rain!” and “Follow the yellow brick arrows!” We agreed that we’d been very fortunate on the weather so far. This was the first day of rain, and it wasn’t a driving rain—more like “spitting at us” from time to time. But my feet were really hurting again and I was afraid that wet shoes, wet socks, and wet feet were going to be bad.

And they were.

As we approached Ciruena I could tell that both Laurence and Max were anxious to move on ahead. I was seriously slowing them down and knew that I was toast. As we passed the Rioja Alta Golf Club (who knew there’d be a golf-course on the Camino?) the rain picked up and my spirits sagged even more. It was another 6 kilometers of pain to Santo Domingo de Calzada. When we arrived at the municipal albergue I told Max to go on without me; I was finished. Laurence was already far out of sight. It was a sad goodbye, but one last picture together and then Buen Camino!

I registered, got my bunk, then hobbled out to see Santo Domingo. The Cathedral wanted to charge me to see the famous “live cock and hen” in the sacred coop. I decided to pass. It was not out of disrespect for Santo Domingo, who in the 11th century built the hospital and church that evolved into this glorious cathedral for pilgrims like me, but because I was so sore I just wanted a peaceful place to sit. Chickens have never struck me as peaceful, and those commemorating the miracle of the “Sheriff’s supper coming back to life to save a pilgrim wrongly accused of theft” are still chickens. A small chapel right across the plaza looked somehow more inviting.

Inside was the most amazing stained glass window I’ve seen so far. The chapel was called the Ermita de la Vergen de la Plaza Santo Dominigo. There are lots and lots of lovely ancient windows all along the Way, but this contemporary window was stunning. It was the Virgin Mary executed in glorious blues and oranges. My photographs don’t do the colors justice. And the painting shows a very earthy young woman—not the “ethereal Mary meek and mild,” portrayed in so many saccharine windows. The hands cradling her obviously pregnant belly are rough and used to work—the hands of a peasant. And yet, the face is serene—a serenity I felt I needed.


Again the Camino supplies. I sat for an hour in this lovely little chapel and felt my spirits rise again, even if my feet didn’t feel much better. I knew I could make it to Santiago. This lovely young woman gave me courage. And that, I believe, is what art is supposed to do—especially “religious” art. We’re not supposed to hyperventilate over technique—we’re supposed to connect with the art on a human level. And that is why each generation probably needs to produce their own “religious” art. The artworks handed down to us from previous generations often speak to different concerns. Yesterday’s concerns. But then, it’s also true that “human” concerns probably have not changed very much in 20,000 years, even though technology has blossomed (or metastasized) in ways our ancestors couldn’t have even imagined. We still worry about our children. We still worry about being abandoned by those we love. We still act as if we had all the time in the world, and we are all still surprised at how quickly our time flows away. Human nature provides fixed points in a kaleidoscopic technological background. Our religious art must somehow speak to both.

6/11/15: 12th Day walking: From Santo Domingo to Belorado

Today I start in the second region of Spain, La Rioja and if all goes well I’ll end up in the third region along the Camino: Burgos. The entire 500 mile trip encompases 7 regions. I’m roughly a third of the way.

Stopped at a tienda to buy 10 euros worth of “compeed” and iodine. Compeed is a marvelous material, much like what we call “moleskin” here in the States. You cut it as need-be and cushion blisters and hot-spots with it. I needed a lot of it. The iodine stings like all get out, but it does seem to be helping dry-up my blisters.

I’ve noticed that some of the workers in the tiendas are surly. It might be that they are just sick of rude pilgrims who complain about everything. But I found myself wondering if there might not also be a bit of jealousy there as well. A constant stream of people “going somewhere” might rankle someone who’s afraid they are stuck in an out-of-the-way, dead-end, hole-in-the-wall tienda on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. They don’t see how amazing it is to have the whole world coming to visit you.

About 10 kilometers outside Santo Domingo I crossed a small country road and found myself in a little rural tourist-information shop. It had been raining steadily for a couple of hours and I wanted to sit somewhere dry for a while. And then I saw that they had a public computer as well! Cool. I thought I might as well check my email and see what was going on back in the “world.” I had found a message from a young friend of ours that her mother had died suddenly. The mother was a bit younger than us and I had no idea she had been ill. Her funeral was scheduled for tomorrow and our friend was hoping that we could be there. I sent her what condolences I could from a few thousand miles away and then just sat there thinking dark thoughts.

The thunder and lightning matched my mood. When it subsided I started walking again.

Another 7 kilometers and I reached Vilamayor del Rio. The rain had finally stopped and blue sky appeared over-head—though there were still clouds on the horizon. Why can’t the weather automatically match our moods? Why do awful things happen on beautiful blue-sky days? I still remember the lovely skies on September 11, 2001. And why are there joyful events on gray, overcast days? You would almost think that Mother Nature didn’t care about our happiness at all. That’s a tough lesson to learn. We all star in our own home movie, after all. Shouldn’t the world recognize our centrality?

Another 5 kilometers and I arrived in Belorado, where I stopped at the first albergue I came to. I registered, then since it was going to be a while before supper I headed for the central plaza to see what was happening. Danny and Karen were there! What fun to catch up with them again over many bottles of beer and bags of beer-nuts! We also shared the table with Ron from Denver, and his friend Kirra, from San Diego. Ron was religious. Kirra was not. On Camino you hit it off wonderfully with people you’d never even meet stateside. Fascinating.

I headed back to the albergue for supper. Sat next to Franz from a small town near Cologne, Inez from Argentina, Michelle from Brazil and Jim from Northern Ireland. Jim told me he was on his way to a little town a few kilometers ahead where he was going to oversee the municipal albergue. I asked how an Irishman came to have that job. He said he had volunteered. He felt a need to “give back” for the wonderful experiences the Camino had given him. I love hearing all the reasons people “go’un on pilgrimage” as Chaucer says. Slept well and had a night full of alcohol-fueled dreams of walking, walking, walking, walking . . .

6/12/15: Thirteenth day walking Belorado to San Juan de Ortega

Started the day walking alone and had such trouble with my feet. It was discouraging. Hobbled along with another struggling pilgrim, Franz from the albergue in Belorado. His home was a little town near Cologne. I asked him why he was on Camino. He said, “For me, it is a religious pilgrimage. I wanted to thank God. There are so many wonderful things in my life: My children, my career, my health. I am 73 years old and I need to thank God while I still can.” He was the only one I met on Camino who came out and admitted that it was a religious pilgrimage for them—though I suspect that many of the others I met saw it that way as well. Franz had an enormous pack and was struggling. He said that he had some sort of medical equipment in it. It may have been something like a CPAP. He was quite overweight and worried about the path ahead. Between kilometer 10 and 15 today we would be climbing 200 meters then coming down a steep slope for 100 meters, then back up 100 meters, then down a gradual slope to San Juan. It was going to be a tough day. I asked him what he was his post-Camino life was going to be like. “I’m going to take up fishing,” he grinned. I thought he might be kidding, but no. He said he had signed up for a class on angling, and had already bought his rod and reel and made plans for fishing trips. It’s always good to have plans.

I stopped in Vilafranca, 11 kilometers out, right at the start of the serious climb. I needed to adjust the bandaging on my feet. And there on the porch were Karen and Danny. They had spent the night here—knowing that the climb was going to be tough, and they wanted to be as fresh as possible. Karen took charge of my bandages again. My feet felt so much better after she finished. Michelle, also from the albergue in Belorado, stood by watching—her face full of sympathy, (or was it horror?)

We started up the hill together and she told me about her reasons for the Camino. She had always felt timid and didn’t like that about herself. Her husband had walked the Camino and encouraged her to do so as well. It would give her a boost to learn that she was capable of doing it.

Like me she had blown it on the first day—doing too much. But for her it was her knees. She had been suffering ever since. We walked together slowly, but steadily. Wins the race every time!


And it was a wonderful day. Birds chattering; wind sighing through the trees. Pleasant conversation. Pleasant silences. Shared dreams and fears. We found we even shared the same prejudice that bicycles were a menace—and decided that a group of bicyclists, not crows, should be called a “murder.” “Watch out! Here comes a murder of bicycles!!” As a group would whoosh past shouting “Buen Camino,” she would shout, “I know, I’m trying to have one!” We wondered if they would ever come back to Spain to have one, rather than a farcical “Tour de Camino.”

At the Monumento a los Caidos (Catholic pilgrims “fallen” during the Spanish Civil war) we happened upon Abby (of the blown knee) and her (extremely) tall boyfriend. I’m afraid he was just what I was expecting. Oblivious to the pain he was causing her, and irritated that she wasn’t able to keep up with the “seven-league” pace he was setting. He told us he was putting her on a bus to carry her to the airport and then home. I hope she manages to rid herself of him. I suggested to her privately that she come back again someday by herself and enjoy the Camino, “It really is an amazing adventure.”

The time went fast and Michelle and I arrived at the Monastery of San Juan de Ortega, (St John of the Nettles) about 2pm. That’s the perfect time to finish walking. If you start about 7 or 8am you have a good long walking day and yet you stop early enough that the rooms are not all gone. You can usually find a bed easily. And when you stop later in the day those last hours walking are painful with the sun in your eyes. The trip is always westward. In fact, if you find that the sun is not on the back of your legs in the morning and not in your eyes in the evening you KNOW you are lost! Anyway, we registered, staked out our bunks, then took a siesta, planning to meet again at the 6 pm Mass, with supper at 7pm. Outside it was again spitting rain, but we had managed to dodge it all day.

I woke up early and went exploring. There really were no other buildings to speak of. Just the Monastery (part of which was being renovated), the guest house where the pilgrims were housed, and the church. The church had a barrel-vault and was made of lovely warm-colored stone, built in the 12th century. No stained glass, but with amazing alabaster “windows” that let in this heavenly golden glow.

Mass was ravishing. I sat between Michelle and Ron, the man from Denver I’d met in Belorado. The priest had different nationalities lectoring. He asked me to read Matthew 25 in English. That’s the one with the piercing passage: “If you have done it for the least of my brothers, you have done it for me, and if you have not done it for the least of my brothers you have not done it for me.” Amazing acoustics. Hearing my voice reading that gospel in that place, echoing where that gospel has been preached since the 12th or 13th century was very moving.

Then after Mass we came forward for a blessing and received a San Juan de Ortega cross on a black cord. I loved it. I put it on immediately and swore I’d never take it off again. That first night, the cord came untied and I found the cross inside my tee-shirt in the morning. That should have been a warning to me, but I’ve always been a slow learner.

At supper I talked with Christina, also from Denver, Fiona from Washington D.C., Mini and Theresa from Croatia, and Mutsuko from Japan. She was amazing. Traveling alone with no foreign languages at all. No Spanish. No English, No French. No Italian. Talk about leaving yourself open and vulnerable. But she was also joyful. Maybe there’s a lesson there.

I’d been given a top bunk, and it was very painful trying to climb up the ladder with my bare feet. But Christina, wonderful young woman that she was (everyone under 45 seems young to me!) offered to switch places and let me have her bottom bunk. I fell instantly asleep.

(to be continued)
6/13/15: 14th Day walking: From San Juan de Ortega to Burgos

Started off this morning to the sounds of the coo-coo. Hope it doesn’t mean I’m going to be getting lost again.

Had a chance to walk along with Ron, from Belorado, who sat next to me at Mass last night. His friend, Kerri has some sort of lung infection, perhaps pneumonia, so she took a taxi on ahead to Burgos. I saw him lighting candles in the church. People on Camino do that—even non-believers. It’s a lovely way to remember someone—living or dead. And it brings comfort. Ron said that he has been lighting candles at each church he comes to for his daughter, who died at 28. She would now have been 35. She evidently got entangled with drugs. I think the pain of losing a child never goes away.

The walk was easy from San Juan to Atapuerca where I saw the standing stones put up by some prehistoric peoples 900,000 years ago. But then the route got serious. Very tough climb to Cruz de Matagrande—our high point for the day. Rough rocks and scrub trees. Lots of loose stone. Found Michelle resting at the top. We started down together but the trail split into several different tracks toward the bottom. I took the “shortest” route along dirt tracks through fields of grain. She took the one that headed for the nearest village and seemed more clearly marked. As I walked along, I saw fewer and fewer people and the track got more and more narrow. It was deja vue all over again. Now I knew why the coo-coo had been talking to me.


Let me interrupt this narrative to present a brief commercial for compasses. You should always carry one on European trips. And one is especially important on a walking tour like the Camino. Maps can be wrong, or at least confusing, and a compass can lead you out of dead ends and wrong turns by at least keeping you in the right general direction.

And so it was this day. As the track got smaller and smaller there were little paths leading off to the right and the left. But my compass told me to keep straight on. So I did. And Mirabele dictu, Miracle to tell, it lead me to another pilgrim-bridge built for idiots like me. It carried me over the highway again—just like before. BUT, when I found the airport on my left, instead of on my right as the map said it would be, I realized that I had missed the “scenic route” into Burgos along a “peaceful river.” Instead, at a little suburban town called Villafria I found myself smack dab on the sidewalk running parallel to the main road leading into Burgos. It was about lunchtime so I stopped in a diner to get a bite to eat and “study the situation,” as my dear-old-dad used to say. When I walked in and set my pack down I saw that Christina there getting a little smackeral too. She was the woman who surrendered her bottom bunk for me in San Juan.

We sat together. She too felt like she was at a crossroads in her life. She was 40 and finding it hard to surrender her youth. She said she was waiting for the city bus. The man behind the counter had told her she could catch it right out front—so that’s what she was going to do. And some “older man” had told her he had a great place to stay, and had handed her a card, so that’s where she was going to stay. She asked what I thought. I told her I was staying at the Municipal Albergue. She said “Maybe I should do that.” I didn’t know what to say.

When I got up to leave, she decided she wasn’t going to pound along the pavement through the industrial section of Burgos when there was a perfectly good bus system. And she wasn’t going to stay in the municipal albergue when strangers hand you a card. It’s fate! Me, I told her I was going to be a purist. The only ride I would accept would be in an ambulance. I saw her wrinkle her nose as she caught a whiff of my self-righteousness.

And it was a boring walk past soulless tire factories, parking lots, and repair shops along a busy 6-lane road. But I told myself, “life is going to have its boring bits; we need to learn to live with them.” So I had 6 or 7 kilometers of “life-lesson.” I hope Christine saw my virtuous self as she motored past in her air-conditioned bus to her fate-selected accommodations.

I’ve thought of myself as being open to the Spirit. She told me that’s what she was doing. I should have told her that, even so, you don’t want to be a ping-pong ball in a hurricane—being blown all over the place. Yes, be open to the Spirit—but don’t be guided by every spirit. Some of them don’t mean us well. And the latest opinion you have gotten is not always the best one.

Stopped at the Church of San Lesmes where I sat on the benches with the other homeless men and watched a wedding party form up outside the door. It looked like it was going to be quite an affair but as it was threatening rain I decided to push on. And then the sky opened up and buckets poured down. I sought refuge under the eaves of a bank and put on my hooded rain cape and discovered why real peregrinos carry rain pants and rain jackets. The cape was useless. It didn’t really cover that much and the wind whipped it up over my head when I ventured back out on the street. And then the torrential rain turned to hail. Whee. I quickly found another bank awning to hide under.

Finally arrived, drenched and exhausted, at the multi-story Municipal Albergue. After I showered and settled in, Michelle arrived. She had been assigned the very next bunk. Cool. The building was very modern and the bunks were built-in, as were the lockers beside them. Had a sudden urgent call of nature and forgot to check on the availability of papel igenico before commencing. That’s a big “Ooops” in a Spanish bano. I didn’t want another shower so it was essential that I find some other way to clean myself. My clean, white linen handkerchief had to take one for the team. It was softer, at least, than the usual papel even if not quite as “desechable.”


The rain had stopped. Michelle and I ate supper in a “kabop shop,” around the corner from the albergue, then went to take pictures of the cathedral and the famous statue of the Peregrino studying his blisters. Burgos is a lovely town, and the parks in the old city have hundred-year sycamore trees pruned to within an inch of their lives. Lots of buskers playing musical instruments, and another wedding party at the Cathedral. Tomorrow we enter on the infamous Meseta, sort of like the Great Plains of Spain—flat grassland, swept by sudden rains, wind-storms and notoriously unpredictable weather. Hail one minute then windless and scorching hot the next. I had no trouble falling asleep. I was seriously tuckered.


Sunday, 6/14/15: 15th Day walking: From Burgos to Hontanas

Michelle wanted a sleep-in; I was anxious to get on the way so we said “Asta Luego,” and I left at 6am. The day was perfect for walking. There was a brisk cool breeze at my back all day long. And it was cloudy but with patches of blue and no rain. Walked more than 30 kilometers. A new record! It’s very hypnotic walking along for miles with only the sound of the stones crunching under your feet. I had heard several people say that they were going to grab a bus to take them around the Meseta because it was so boring. I’m glad I didn’t. It reminded me of a rocky Kansas. There was the soft greens of the newly planted fields of grain. And wonderful golden fields ready for reaping with glorious red poppies providing accents. As I walked, I could see distant mountains, and from the low promontories I could see horizon to horizon. For the most part the tiny villages were located at the bottoms of shallow valleys carved into the plateau by small streams and rivers. The “walk” into Hornillos was more of a slide down the gravel path. A wonderful cup of café con leche though, and I was ready for more walking. Gorgeous skies, distant vistas and cheerful little swifts flying out over the fields keeping me company. Natural pest control! And a lovely chirping pest control at that. DDT never chirped!

Six kilometers more and I decided to stop at a little one-building “village” called San Bol. But it looked so remote and God-forsaken I decided to push on to Hontanas, a major metropolis of 70 hardy souls another 5k away. As I walked I could see fields in all directions. And distant wind turbines far off to my left, and far off to my right. And storm clouds dropping rain far, far, away. There’s no way weather could sneak up on you on the Meseta. But, boy-howdy, my Brierley said I was close to Hontanas, and I didn’t see a thing that looked even remotely like a village. Normally, you can see your intended stop up ahead and gauge how long before you arrive. A young couple breezed past me, and the young man, a veteran of several Caminos told me to take heart—“Hontanas will sneak up on you,” he said.

And it did.


The land was flat as a pancake then suddenly I was at the top of a kilometer-long plummet into the village. I slid down the hill and found a bed at one of the three albergues, and learned that I was sharing a room with four Germans. And they were wound up! Couldn’t follow a word, but it was all evidently hilarious. And they had already staked out the bottom bunks. My poor feet. They need to invent bunk-beds with elevators.


Got my shower and ate supper outside in the sun sitting in an Adirondack chair next to Phil and Ida from Arizona. Stuffed myself with those wonderful “Magnum” ice cream bars. I think one of the things I miss most about the Camino is eating as much ice cream as I want. Walk for eight hours a day and it’s really quite remarkable how many calories you can consume without gaining a pound!

That night it stormed and hailed. That distant rain I saw had finally arrived. I wouldn’t have known (with my earplugs) but I was sleeping under the skylight. Like sleeping inside a snare-drum. Spain has some serious rain storms!

Monday, 6/15/15: 16th Day walking: From Hontanas to Boadilla del Camino

Today was another perfectly lovely, if chilly, day! I was fortunate to be so exhausted last night that I turned in early. That meant I plucked my clothes off the line before turning in. I draped them over chairs in the room to finish drying while I slept. The other walkers now have had to contend with freezing cold, soaking wet clothes today. What they aren’t wearing they have draped over their packs and swung from lanyards like flags.

Given the nature of the Camino you see the same people over and over again and yet often walk with different people each day. That gives you the opportunity to learn what people think of each other. And there are as many different personalities on the Way as there are walkers. And many different reasons for walking 500 miles or so, from one side of Spain to the other. One friend confided in me that she didn’t like another couple we often walked with. I didn’t tell her, but I suspected she didn’t like them because she was a bit cynical and they weren’t cynical at all. I tried out the idea with another walker (without mentioning names!) and they wondered if it might be that all of us have a tendency to think that other people are really very much like we are. And so cynical people are very suspicious of people who seem to be un-cynical—they must either be stupid or hiding something. “They’re just pretending to be nice. At least I don’t pretend!” Maybe that’s right.

As I walked along I decided that this should be “Lessons from the Camino.” And one of the lessons should be “Whenever possible walk with a normal stride—even if it hurts.” Because if you limp, eventually other body parts start to hurt too! You start off with a blister, so you limp to keep the weight off your left foot, so your right ankle and knee start doing double duty, so they start hurting so you start leaning on your sticks more and your shoulders start to ache as well. For lack of a blister-pad the Camino was lost! So even when it hurts, try to take a normal stride. Maybe the same is true for emotional and psychic pains as well. As much as possible “suck it up, buttercup.”

Christine, from the outskirts of Burgos, ended up sharing the same room with the Germans and me last night. Heard her suggest to a friend this morning that they should rent a bicycle and bike a hundred kilometers or so. The little compromises we make tend to grow. A bus here, a bike there, then a taxi when you need it. The discipline of the Camino ebbs away. No wonder some people lose the concept of a pilgrimage. And yet I keep judging others as to whether or not they are “real Pilgrims.” What a crock. Comfortable shoes, a “credit card,” a “semi-private room” away from the other (snoring) pilgrims. Where do I get off trying to decide who is and who isn’t a real pilgrim?

And then I met up with a nice young man who was trying to decide whether or not to break up with his girlfriend.

(to be continued)
6/15/15: 16th Day walking: On the way from Hontanas to Boadilla del Camino

This was outside San Anton, the ruins of an ancient monastery decorated with Tau crosses: a simple vertical bar topped by a short horizontal bar. It was the symbol for Augustinian monks, and was used to ward off diseases in the 11th and 12th century. Several peregrinos seem to have adopted it as their Pilgrim’s cross. The young man’s name was Carlos and his command of English was excellent. He was a junior officer in the Spanish navy and on Camino during his leave time so he could walk and think. He, like so many, was at a crossroads and wanted to pull back from his life to think more clearly about what he should do. He saw a promotion in the offing, but if he accepted it he was going to have to move. He had a girlfriend with a young daughter and he cared about both of them a lot. He just wasn’t sure he cared about them enough to forego the promotion or ask them to follow him. I suggested he try to picture his life without them. If that thought caused him pain then he should ask her to marry him. I swear—the new sexual freedom seems to have made it hard to commit. That can’t be good for children. Love is commitment. And Love is self-sacrifice. Evidently Spain is not immune from the “Me!” philosophy. We got separated at Castrojeriz, and I’ve wondered ever since what he decided to do. Another reason I think life is like a Pilgrimage—so often we interact with people and never get to hear the “rest of the story,” at least not here below.

Speaking of stories: I love to ask people from other countries for jokes that are popular back home. I think the things that make us laugh and the things that make us sad say so much about us. Here’s a Brazilian joke from Michele: “What is the difference between someone falling off a first-floor balcony and someone falling off an eleventh-floor one?” From the eleventh-floor you hear “Aaaaaaaagh! Thump!” From the first floor you hear “Thump! Ahhgh!”

From Simone, a German lady I walked with: Two old Germans met in a bar and started speaking to each other in absolutely dreadful English. One of them finally realized that they were both German and said “Ach, I never would have guessed that you were German—your English was SO Good!”

After Castrojeriz there was a strenuous climb to Alto Mostrelares, a plateau on the Meseta. Then there’s a flat walk over undulating hills. Along the way I saw Fabio again, (he’s the one who warned me “Peregrino, Perigrino!” when I missed an arrow) who suggested we stop in Itero de la Vega for the night. It’s just over the border from the region of Burgos to Palencia. I told him I wanted to press on. I’m so glad I did, and continued the additional 8k to Boadilla del Camino. It became the most memorable place I stayed. Everything about it was perfect. I was exhausted. The grounds were covered with magical rustic works of art (and a bevy of young people strewn about the yard, laughing and enjoying being young!); the bed-rooms were comfortable and located inside a wonderfully rambling house. And best of all: at supper I met up again with Michelle, and Ida and Phil, and Laurence! A perfect supper—full of laughter and languages flying around the table. It just has to be a precursor of Heaven! The Matriarch who presides over this piece of paradise also paints, and her artwork was displayed on all the walls. She provides a living testimony to the joy of living a life of cheerful non-conformity where success is not measured by bank accounts, but my memories given and received.

Visions of sugar-plums danced in my head.




6/16/15: 17th Day walking: from Boadilla del Camino to Carrion de los Condes

Amazing! The pompous man I heard a week or so back passed me again this morning. This time with just the shorter man. The young woman was missing. And, my God, he was still pontificating at excruciating length about monetary policy, public debt, and fiscal responsibility. And the shorter man couldn’t slip a word in edgewise! I hope they pull farther ahead. I’m afraid I’m going to say something rude.

At this point I’d like to say something about my favorite Camino lunch: Ensalada mixta, mixed salad. Each little place along the Camino has their own particular version but typically there’s a little iceberg lettuce and/or young spinach, lots of olives and tomato slices, hardboiled eggs, bell peppers, and always a spoonful of tuna fish. Not tuna-fish “salad,” just tuna, no mayonnaise. And oil and vinegar dressing. Sometimes saltine crackers, but usually just a couple slices of crusty bread. With a Cervasa or a café con leche it is the most refreshing lunch you can have. Doesn’t weigh you down but gives you all the energy you need to continue your walk. Mid-afternoon Magnum Ice Cream Bars are also a staple of the Camino lifestyle. The evening meal is a heavy one to put you to sleep.


Evidently my lunch gave me a bit of pep. I caught up with the Pontificator climbing one of the hills. He was still going on about “regulatory structure,” and “derivatives blah blah blah.” His minion wasn’t saying a word. I couldn’t stand the suspense. I had to ask his name and what he did for a living. Turns out his name is Reed and he’s a mortgage banker (what a surprise!) at a very prestigious bank. His “minion” is a professor of computer science at a prestigious institution and not really much younger—he just doesn’t seem to have as much to say—or the opportunity to say it.

I remarked to Reed that we had been passing each other several times since May 31st when I started walking. And each time we do “you are talking about the economy in one form or another, like ‘interest rates’ or ‘prime lending rate’ or ‘derivatives and money supply.’” He just chuckled.

“It’s hard for me to imagine talking about such things for an entire Camino.” I said. He didn’t chuckle.

I asked his companion, Jonathan, why he was on Camino. He said he’d lived in Barcelona for a year while on sabbatical and in driving around Spain he’s seen the Camino signs and been intrigued. He decided he wanted the chance to walk and think. I told him I loved the opportunity it gave us to dive down deep into ourselves.

By this time Reed had sped up to walk several steps ahead of us. I suspect that he was uncomfortable with this kind of conversation. Perhaps he was afraid I was going to ask him why he was on Camino. Jonathan said that he’d been the one to ask Reed to come along and Reed now says “And I foolishly said ‘yes.’” You know how people often speak the truth ‘in jest?’ I guess this could be another example of how each of us has to walk our own Camino. Sometimes people are not physically mismatched, but spiritually or emotionally out of step with each other. There are lots of people who don’t like spending much time taking personal inventory. Not ‘real’ enough for them.

And yet, if you stop to think about it money is the most imaginary thing there is. Someone takes some metal or some paper and puts some scribbles on it and suddenly it has “value,” and you can use it to buy “things.” Buy a tree. Or buy another human being. Or buy ‘you-name-it.’ How is it possible that a human being, who might live 70 or 80 years if they’re lucky, can ‘own’ a tree that’s going to be there a thousand years if you leave it alone? Or buy a mountain that’s been there a million years? And where do they get the ‘right’ to destroy that tree, or that mountain, or that person? How can a stack of paper with scribbles ‘buy’ that? It doesn’t make any sense.

But then, he could reply. “You think ‘money’ is imaginary? What about ‘the body of Christ?’ a little bread wafer kept in the tabernacle? How is that a piece of a living body that died 2000 years ago?” Rank superstition. More imaginary than “money supply.”

No. Not really. It is, at least, real food. And the most simple food imaginable. Wheat and water baked. So simple, and for the Christian so very precious. And life giving—in all its senses. The most simple meal: bread and wine to give life and joy. I think that’s much more real than money.

On the other side of Poblacion de Campos I took the more scenic route along the rio Uclieza. The path went right alongside the water’s edge. The river has been turned into a navigable canal and irrigation system bordered with reeds. The frogs and birds were in full voice! Saint Monsanto has not yet driven them out, as they have done in much of the United States. Have I mentioned the storks? Seems like most of the 2 or 3-story buildings have stork nests on top. Good luck for people lucky enough to have a good nesting location. They all go together, doncha’ know? Frogs and songbirds eat the insects Monsanto doesn’t kill. Storks eat the frogs. And the songbirds make a lovely soundscape for everyone lucky enough to live in such a garden-spot.


Met Denise from Iowa who, as she approaches 50, came on Camino to consider a course correction. She teaches college-level Spanish and knows French and Italian as well. She’s now wondering if she should also pick up German. She’s most definitely a type-A personality. She talked to me over her right shoulder from two steps ahead of me. I could feel her anxious to zoom on. I was holding her back, so I intentionally slowed down a bit, and like a rabbit, zip! she was gone! She wants her career to zoom on as well. Good luck Denise. Buen Camino!

After such a refreshing walk along the river I was sad to have to head back toward the path bordering a rather soulless highway at Villalcazar de Sirga. At least it was only 6k to Carrion de Los Condes where someone “recognized” my shoulder.

(to be continued)
6/16/15 (continued): 17th Day walking:

In this area there were little hobbit houses dug into the low hillsides. One especially charming one had a little whitewashed patio out front with tiny table and deck chairs with a jaunty little “Pepsi” umbrella to ward off the sun.


The walk along the highway path, however, was not charming. The road was straight as an arrow for 6 stultifying kilometers. Telephone poles provided the only shade. Other “sendas” we walked along had rows of little sycamore trees planted. They may not have provided much shade yet, but you knew that help was on the way. This stretch was miserable on a bright, hot day in the middle of June.

Staggering into Carrion de los Condes I was red-faced, dry and grumpy and desperate to find a place to lay my weary head. As I came to the first intersection in this little village I stopped to try to get my bearings and heard someone hollering “Zig, zig!”

It was Bryan, my Irish middle-school teacher from St. Jean, who said he recognized “My shoulder” as I stumbled past. He and Lars from Copenhagen grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the bar where they were having a little “something wet.” Gitte, walking with Lars, was also there with several other of my Camino family. I had to wet my whistle, of course, and since they were buying it would have been churlish of me to refuse. I excused myself only long enough to find the albergue where they were staying. It was less than a block and it turns out that it was a Spiritu Santo convent. The sister in charge had a brother who teaches Spanish at the University of Kentucky. We had fun playing “small world, isn’t it.”


Back at the bar it was time for a quick supper because we wanted to make it to mass at St Mary del Camino. There was a large group of teenagers singing during the mass. I don’t think I could stand more little glimpses of heaven than this. It would kill me.


6/17/15: 18th Day walking: Carrion de los Condes to Terradillos de Templarios

As I was leaving Carrion, Matthias from South Korea passed me with his Japanese friend, Takai. They were moving fast.

The wind was blowing strongly all day, but westward so it helped us on our way. My feet were really bothering me again. I was pushing myself to try to get to Leon to meet Georgia on June 20, just three days away. Had to stop often at whatever rest areas I could find. At a strategically located picnic table I visited an interracial couple. They were both retired from jobs in Los Angeles and now living in Arizona. They were enjoying traveling as much as Georgia and I. Without the wind or the young trees they’d planted along the senda this would have been a tough day. But the view across the golden fields to the distant blue mountains was lovely and I felt strong. As always, the problem was my poor feet.

Crossing one little creek I just ran out of steam. I sat down on the curb of a little concrete bridge and took off my shoes to try to let my feet dry. (My feet sweat inside my shoes—I wish I’d brought sandals to wear some times.) A young Spanish woman stopped to ask what was wrong. I showed her my feet, blistered and red, with angry looking sores and missing toenails. Our body, said St. Francis is “Brother Donkey.” Loveable, but stubborn. No matter what our heads say, our body will be the one to decide what’s “really” going to happen to us.

She “tsked” and knelt down, opening her pack. It was full of bandages and ointments and sterile bottles of water. She began to clean and bandage my feet. I was shocked. It was such an intimate act of love from a total stranger. Yuyam had been my first medico, and Karen my second. This young woman told me that she was a nurse and that she comes on Camino each year to help people who are in trouble. That certainly described my situation. Her name was Amparo Alanso. She wouldn’t accept any money from me. I wish I had taken a picture of her, but I’m not sure that film can capture the image of an angel. How do you thank someone who helps you in such a personal way? I guess you can only thank God for sending such Christ-like people into our world and then try to be such a person to the other pilgrims we meet along the way.

Got passed by another murder of bicycles cycling the Tour de Camino. I got Buen Caminoed out the wazoo. Decided that the bicyclists are like the bankers who flip a bum a quarter and say “Have a Great Day!” There isn’t any solidarity there. One of them is only zooming marginally through the other’s world.

Stopped in a little drugstore and saw a young woman, maybe 18 or 19, buying some gel inserts for her shoes. She was trying to ask the pharmacist for something to numb the terrible pain of her blisters. I said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, you just need to go slower.” Her eyes filled up with tears and she said “This just isn’t working out the way I thought it would.” I suggested that this is what the Camino was all about: “To find out what to do when things don’t work out the way you thought they would.”

Limped into Terradillos de Templarios to the Albergue Jacques de Molay. Another way my life is “circles within circles.” When I was a boy in Savannah, my father was a Mason and he had me join the Order of Jacques de Molay, sort of an order of junior Masons. I only went to one meeting and told my father I didn’t want to go anymore. I thought it creepy, and my spirit warned me off.

There was a sign out front saying “complet,” no vacancy. In broken Spanish I told the hospitialier that I could not go on any more. I asked if there was a church porch nearby where I could sleep? She told me that she would find me a place, and asked if I wanted supper as well. Bien sur! Oh my gosh! And it was the best meal so far. Rabbit! After supper she took a mattress and threw it on the floor of the parlor. I laid down and fell asleep before I even closed my eyes. When I had my usual 3am call of nature I saw that I was completely surrounded by other mattresses. I had to tiptoe gingerly to the bano. I saw that Laurence had taken the adjoining mattress! At breakfast I found Christina and Sasha as well. They evidently didn’t hire a bicycle after all.

According to the maps we are now halfway to Santiago!

(to be continued)
6/18/15: 19th Day walking: From Terradillos de Templarios to El Burgo Ranero

As I left Terradillos Steve, Kevin and Cerys passed me. They must have stayed the night there as well. Don’t know what happened to the rest of their (too) large party. Must be breaking up into smaller groups. That makes more sense than trying to have six or seven people walk in lockstep. I’m glad these three are still together. The reason Steve was walking at all was because of Kevin and Cerys. It would have been awful to have the friendship break up over walking speed.

Sahagun is usually thought of as the halfway point of the Camino Frances—probably because it is the most “major” city near the middle. Stopped there for lunch and saw Cody, one of the young people lounging at the alburge in Boadilla del Camino a few days ago. He said he’s going to go to graduate school at the University of Georgia majoring in Spanish. Wow. I wouldn’t have thought it. He seemed like such a party animal. Though I guess those aren’t mutually exclusive categories. I remember now that as I was leaving the wonderful albergue in Hontanas he stepped out of his way to shake my hand and wish me good luck with my Camino. We never do get the full story with anyone here below, do we?

As I was resting, who should come out and sit with me but Bryan! He’s ending this year’s Camino here and heading back to Ireland. There’s a train station here in Sahagun. He will come back another year to finish. And then Carlos, the Spanish Navy lieutenant came up. Camino is so amazing. People drop in and drop out of your life.

As Carlos and I walked we met up with Laurence and her friend Francoise, who is actually pulling a little camper behind her car. She drives on ahead each day then walks back to join up with Laurence and then they both walk back to the camper. Ingenious, I guess, if you really want to walk but don’t want the “albergue” experience and can’t afford all the hotels. She’s also a very talented pastel artist and some days she just sets up an easel and draws all day. What a life.

Stopped at El Burgo Ranero. Had a very nice supper of Paella at a small outdoor dining room run out of someone’s house. Regina and Silvia from France joined us. Carlos got the last bunk in the albergue. So Laurence and I shared a tiny motel room with twin beds. There was a small swimming pool but there was no way I could keep my eyes open. Dreamed I was living in one of the little hobbit houses we saw as we came into town.

6/19/15: 20th Day walking: From El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla de las Mulas

Walking along another senda beside a two-lane highway. Brierley describes this part of the trip as “featureless.” I am so glad for the young sycamores they’ve planted. Without them this would be purgatory. In years to come this will be a nice walk. It’s not a busy road, but there are occasional cars. Yesterday was the same. The advantage of being boring is that I’m able to make good time. Good agricultural land with wheat and fields of strawberries. Off on the horizon the blue of the mountains that Lars said we’re going to be climbing before long. Not really looking forward to that, but “it is what it is.”

On Camino I’ve discovered that multitasking is impossible. Nothing more complex than “left foot, right foot, Left foot, right foot.” Whenever I try to do two things at once—like record an observation and walk, I end up stumbling over something—like a pebble, or a shadow.

Mansilla de las Mulas had a nice albergue with a large paved courtyard absolutely full of pilgrims grabbing some shuteye, or tending each other’s feet, or gossiping about what was to come. Went to Mass, had a bite to eat, then hit my (bottom) bunk and crashed for the night. I cannot believe that there was a time in my life when I was a night-owl. According to the milestones there are just 348 of the 804 kilometers to go to Santiago. Tomorrow, God willing, I’ll reach Leon and have a good long rest before the final lap.


6/20/15: 21st Day walking: From Mansilla de las Mulas to Leon

Walked with a woman named Coleen, whose husband died last fall and whose kids have all grown and flown. She’s struggling to find a “new normal” in the midst of all this upheaval. I promised to light a candle for her husband. So many chapters in our lives, where we have to end one, and start another.

The walk into the outskirts of Leon was very exciting. It is a large city but full of happy people—either the locals glad of all the pilgrims, or pilgrims happy to be off the Camino for a bit. Now to find Hostal Caldo, Casco Antiguo. It’s supposed to be near the Cathedral. In the main square I passed a large stage full of children and pre-teens practicing for a dance recital. So much energy and enthusiasm.


Found the Hostal and checked in. I am so looking forward to 3 ½ days of no walking! It was a short way down an ancient street from the Cathedral. First thing I did was clean up and take a nap. I’m supposed to meet Georgia at the train station in a few hours.

Such wonderful hugs! How glad I was to see my sweetheart again. And how good it felt to take off my shoes and walk around in flip-flops. We walked back toward the Cathedral to drop her bags off at the room and then went exploring. First stop was to see the building Gaudi designed: Casa Botines and the charming statue of him sitting on a bench out front sketching. And there was an enormous “lounging man” statue on one of the street corners as well.


Found a comfortable people-watching seat near a fountain and Surprise Surprise! Michelle came riding by on one of those little tourist trains. She hopped off long enough for a quick photo and catch-up on Caminio people. Her time in Leon was just about over and ours was just beginning. A walk around the outside of the Cathedral (which was closed) and we found an outside bar and had the first of many tinto veranos. After a bit the waiter said we’d need to leave, as they were setting up for supper. We asked if we could stay if we ate there as well. He said sure, so we did.

It turned out to be a great place to people-watch. There was some sort of parade forming and there’s nothing more entertaining than inebriated Spaniards and peregrinos stumbling around singing. And bands. And teenaged girls with daisy-chains in their hair. I love the way Spaniards celebrate everything.


6/21/15: 22nd Day: Leon

Slept late then relaxed while Georgia got ready. Very different from the start of each Camino day when people just roll out of bed and go!

Went to a beautiful Pilgrim Mass at the Cathedral then hung around to take pictures of the windows. Afterward we went for a little smackeral and ran into Karen and Danny. Danny was as hyper as always. Planned to meet them again for supper.

Then we went to visit the old monastery located at the Paradour. Beautiful cloister gardens and walkway. Then saw some more modern windows at St. Martins. They’re in what I would call a “Primitive” style. Afterwards we headed back to the main square for some ice cream and ran into Max! He’d already passed Leon then had a health scare and the medicos sent him back to Leon. Just in time to meet up with us! Wonderful visit. We’ll meet him at supper too.


Then Georgia and I headed back to an outdoor café I’d seen as I was walking into Leon. We saw a large number of teenagers waiting to enter a convent/chapel and followed them. Inside there was a blessing-service. The Sisters of Quinones were sending them out on Pilgrimage. Couldn’t follow everything but it was still very moving as these young people seemed to understand that what they were doing was going to be difficult—but important. And they sang. Wonderful young sound in a wonderful old space!

Met up for dinner with Karen, Danny, and Max. Laughter and happiness. Walking together for so many hours each day leads to some deep human connections. I’ve never experienced this kind of closeness with strangers before. There is a saying that whatever you need, “The Camino will provide.” And I didn’t even know that I needed close and loving friends from around the world.

What a lovely night sky behind the illuminated Cathedral and so off to bed.

6/22/15: 23rd Day: Leon

Toured the Cathedral again. The north side of the cathedral never receives the sun. That’s why the stained glass features the old testament prophets, who never saw the dawn of Jesus’ birth. The Eastern window, which takes the morning sun has the Jesse tree showing the ancestry of Jesus.



Max recommended we listen to Piazzolla’s “Adios Nonino.” Very latin and fiery with a lyrical middle section. Perfectly in keeping with Max’s temperament. I love the different musical and artistic traditions you find on Camino. In our everyday life we come to think that the way we see the world is the only way to see the world. Getting to really know other people, with different outlooks, puts that illusion to bed. That’s the essence of Camino. It seems that most Americans, when they travel, travel in packs and miss this experience of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

We visited the San Marcos Paradour, full of so much beautiful art, and yet also the scene of so much brutality in the 1930s. Victoriano Cremer testified to the concentration camp set up there by Franco. In “The Book of San Marcos” he vividly describes just how awful we can be to each other: “We knew what it was to die at night, because our guardians played at killing us in spectacular charades. They faked our execution against the walls of the courtyard. After these trials we returned to our cells dead.” And so many did die, of disease and fear and torture—all because they had wanted to form labor unions to protect themselves from the predations and exploitation of the rich.


Walking around we found a convent decorated with more dalle de verre. Very thick walls with large blocks of glass embedded. In the entrance there was also some fused glass—a rosary. Modern stained glass is alive and well in Leon.

Supper with Max and Karen and Danny was as laugh-filled and joyous. I loved having Georgia get to know these wonderful people too. And I tried to store up the memories knowing that the day would come when I would need them to warm my heart again. Off to bed with wonderful dreams.

6/23/15: 24rd Day: Leon

We spent the entire day sight-seeing and preparing for another separation. Georgia told me that today was the festival of St. John Baptist. This is what the kids in the main square were preparing for. We watched them twirl and sing and make their parents and grandparents proud. The museums were all free and we took advantage of that. And there was to be a large, very well-attended fireworks display in one of the parks. We “oooohed” and “awwwed” along with the happy crowd, and ate carnival food for supper, then stumbled back to the Hostal for bed. Tomorrow I start walking again.


(to be continued)
6/24/15: 25th Day walking: From Leon to Mazarife

Hugs and kisses goodbye. Then t seemed to take me a long time to get from the Hostal to the outskirts of Leon. There were lots of arrows pointing the way, but they didn’t seem to agree with each other. I suspect that various entrepreneurs “added” some arrows to direct pilgrims past their establishments and city streets are confusing anyway. The brass shells embedded in the pavement gave a more secure route, but I’m afraid some of them may have been “lifted” as souvenirs. Sigh. But eventually the streets gave way to open countryside again. I decided to take the alternate route—more scenic and not along a “senda.”

About an hour outside Leon I passed some more little “hobbit” houses built into the hillside. At the crossroads was a bar called “Tierra Media,” Middle Earth! I was ready for some café con leche but it wasn’t open yet. The way from here to Mazarife along this alternate route was especially lonely. The five-hour walk gave me time to reflect on process of Camino. I had put the Spanish equivalent of Moleskin on my left foot this morning. It burned somewhat but walking, at least, was possible and not excruciating. The three day’s rest made all the difference in the world.


Leaving Leon, getting ready to walk the second half of the Camino I was surprised how much it felt like the time I had to leave Georgia after R&R in Hawaii to return to Vietnam. You get used to the separation, then the time together feels so right and natural, and then you realize you’re going to have to get used to the separation again. It was an awful experience, and this renewed separation was similar.

I wish I could say that on Camino all your thoughts were deeply spiritual thoughts, but they’re not. And I wish I could say that all the land you walk through was beautiful uplifting land full of waving grain, beautiful landscapes and glowing sunsets, but that’s not true either. Some of the time you walk through industrial parks encircling the cities, or through scrub land that no one is doing anything with. But on such walks you do pass the common people, doing common things, living their common life. I passed a tiny bent old woman shuffling along a dusty path through scrubland outside a tiny village. She was counting her rosary beads as she walked along, eyes downcast, and 5 or 10 steps behind her was a tiny bent old man also shuffling along. “Buen Camino,” he said to me with an absolutely beatific smile. And I knew that they were also on Camino. Living their ordinary lives, doing the best they could, as was the restaurateur giving away free samples of some indeterminate greasy something like deep-fried bread pudding, trying to hustle some business for his little shop.

It’s just life—all around us. Everyone concentrating on what they need to concentrate on. And walking, you also concentrate on your immediate surroundings, such as your hurting feet, not some ethereal spiritual reality. Let your mind wander and you might miss an arrow or twist an ankle. I realized that five hours of walking along red-dirt paths through a featureless landscape was much like the pilgrimage of our ordinary lives.

Stopped at Tio Pepe outside Mazarife hoping to spend the night but they were completo. Went across the street and checked into Casa de Jesus. They didn’t turn me away, thank goodness, I was exhausted.

6/25/15: 26th Day walking: From Villar de Mazarife to Astorgas

Yesterday I had the strangest dream. Not last night, actually. It was yesterday afternoon after I checked in at the Casa de Jesus. I had fallen asleep for a much needed siesta. I dreamed that I was in some sort of hostage-situation with a lot of others. I moved around from person to person talking with them about how we make so many choices in life. Starting on large, well-traveled roads we come to a point where we need to make a choice. Right or Left. And when we choose the road is smaller. And as we continue along this way we have to make more choices with smaller and smaller roads and fewer and fewer options. But it’s not as depressing as it might sound. The choices don’t necessarily go down to zero; there is always the option of turning around and going back, or simply stopping where you are, and because God is always the God of surprises you have the option of turning things over to Him and seeing what vistas he opens up to you or what hidden paths he might reveal. A completely new beginning, perhaps.

Today’s walk was more interesting than yesterday’s and my feet felt better. I was able to make good time. In the distance I could just make out a line of faint blue mountains. I knew I was going to have to deal with them eventually but right now the path was slightly downhill for 15 kilometers or so toward “Hospital de Orbigo” with its famous medieval bridge.


The village itself contained a riot of yellow arrows directing you in all different directions. More busy entrepreneurs I guess. With my trusty compass I just took each alternative that was going westward and came to a fork in the Camino. According to Brierley you can travel along the road or on the more scenic route. I don’t really care for walking beside roads, so the choice was easy for me.

After Orbigo the more scenic route carried me up and down several hills leading toward Astorga. I felt good and knew I could make it pretty easily. But first I had to pass several small hermit-like dwellings. I don’t think they’re religious hermits, but they are interesting. Wish my Spanish was better so I could have learned their stories. One of them invited me to sit in the shade of his little porch. He’s built (or squatted in) a tiny adobe compound and set up an outdoor snack-bar catering to peregrinos. The Camino’s scrub trees don’t offer much in the way of shade—so his little porch is pretty much all there is.


It’s dry as powder around here and clouds of red dust flew up and coated my feet and legs, and my hair, leaving me looking like I was wearing a red powdered wig.

I finally arrived in Astorga in the early afternoon and checked in—finding Karen and Danny from New Zealand again. They want to go out before supper and visit the famous chocolate factories in town. I’m more interested in seeing the Gaudi house across from our Alburge. It is full of lovely art-deco stained glass. No furniture, but glass to die for. I take dozens of photos—close ups as well as whole views. It takes me forever because I constantly have to try to figure out how his craftsmen were able to achieve these effects.



Back at our Alburge San Javier I see that Karen and Danny have also stopped at a supermercado and bought steaks and potatoes, tomatoes, and broccoli. Karen cooks the veggies and I offer to fix the steaks. Danny makes sure we have lots to drink and it turns out to be one of the most memorable meals of my Camino which means one of the most memorable meals of my life. What a charming, open couple. I have the feeling that theirs is a nomadic life—visiting one wonderful location after another. They were in Great Britain before Spain and they’re going on to Italy after the Camino. They are poster-children for a life of experiences rather than things.


6/26/15: 27th Day walking: From Astorga to Rabanal

This was a hard day. It was consistently uphill all the way to Rabanal, and people I met along the way wanted to talk about a poor peragrina from Arizona who had recently been murdered near here. An understandable topic of conversation I guess, but not one I wanted to talk about. There are many more people killed in American cities every day than on Camino. This pilgrimage is taking on the character of a city moving at walking speed. I think there are several thousand pilgrims on the trail at any given time. There are so few crimes of any kind—let alone murder. Thievery is probably the most temping crime. Just keep your cash and cards in a belly-bag and don’t leave valuable things out. As much as possible don’t lead anyone “into temptation.” I heard someone complain about a prized pair of pants being stolen off a clothesline. That was the worst crime I contacted.

Ron, from Denver was with Theresa (Tinker Bell) and Monica, her mother. They heard about the Camino from a German comedian named Hape Kerkeling and his comedy film: “Ich bin dann mal weg” that persuaded them to come out. The English title is “I’m off then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino De Santiago.” Just watching the trailer makes me wish I spoke German. I don’t think there’s an English version or even one with subtitles. It seems to be another version of starting as a tourist and ending up as a pilgrim.

That evening, we all went to vespers and compline at the Benedictine Monastery of San Salvador del Monte Irago. It was a lovely and peaceful service. The priest offered confession after Vespers. The reading was about Jesus freeing us from the “law of sin and death.” The priest’s homily was about someone approaching him in the garden to ask if he really believed in the resurrection. The man had hit a low point in his life and belief was coming hard. The priest replied, “Yes I do believe.” “Why,” the man asked. “Because the disciples had also hit the lowest point of their lives with the death of their master, and even when threatened with torture and death they affirmed that they had seen the risen lord! And now, you are all walking the pilgrimage way to visit the tomb of one of those apostles. Like them, you too have heard the message of resurrection and responded. That too is an act of faith.”

Tomorrow we should pass the famous Crux de Ferro where pilgrims leave the stones or mementos they’ve brought from home.

Friday, 6/27/15: 28th Day walking: From Rabanal to Molinaseca

On the way to Cruz de Ferro I dropped my floppy hat at the bottom of one of the hills. It was one of the places where biting flies were driving me crazy. In going up the hill there was a musician honking out mournful sounds on his saxophone. I passed him without leaving a tip. At the top I stopped at a little tienda and bought a café con leche and piece of apple pie. Getting up to leave I realized I didn’t have my hat. I searched all my pockets and in the top of my backpack. But nothing. I decided I wanted the hat more than I hated the idea of going all the way back down the hill to look for it. So off I went. As each pilgrim passed me on the way back I asked them if they’d seen my hat, sombrero, chapeau. Several said that they had, but that it was a long way back. A kilometer or more. On a bush. But I really wanted that hat and kept going down. Two French girls were coming up and when I asked them about my chapeau they reached into their pockets and pulled out the little souvenir pins I’d put on it. They apologized: “Nous sommes desolee,” and said they wished they’d picked up the hat and brought it along too. I told them that was okay—that I was glad to have the pins back. They also emphasized that the hat was a long way back “La ba!” But now I really wanted my droopy hat back. So, on I went, past the still hopeful saxophonist, over the rocky outcrops and back into the midst of the stinging flies. And there in the middle of a swarm, hung on a bush beside the path was my poor little sweat-stained hat. Someone must have found it on the ground and hung it on the bush thinking it would be more visible for the poor sod who might be coming back to find it. So, I got my hat back, got my pins back, added an extra 2.5 kilometers to my Camino up and down a hill, but this time I gave the saxophone player a tip.

Walking this unplanned detour gave me a chance to think of another rule for the Camino. Don’t set a timetable. I remember a young woman I worked with years ago. She had a timetable for her life. She was going to be in the middle of a great career by the time she was 25, have her first child by the time she was 27, her second child by the time she was 29 ½ , and have her house all paid for by 40. If you try to walk the Camino on such a schedule you’ll be like the girl in the drug store in tears because her feet just wouldn’t cooperate with the plan.

The climb up to the Cruz de Ferro through Foncebadon was tough. The cross itself, though was sublime. Hundreds of years of rocks and mementoes at the base represented the hopes and fears of many thousands of pilgrims. I added mine gratefully and made an oil painting when I got home. You wouldn’t think so, but even an ounce or two of extra weight is noticeable in hour after hour of walking. And those distant blue mountains didn’t look nearly so distant anymore.


As I was standing around watching all the other pilgrims drop off their little burdens two enormous buses pulled up on the road beside the cross and hundreds of teenagers got out to gawk at the cross. They were about as quiet and reverent as you would expect hundreds of teenagers to be. I had no idea what they were about to do but thought I’d better get started back along the path in case they were heading that way as well.

(to be continued)
6/27/15: Leaving Cruz de Ferro

I’d only limped along a couple of hundred yards when the first of teenaged horde caught up with me. There they were, walking (mostly) side by side, chattering and laughing and loving being young. I was definitely holding them up. I came to a wide spot in the path and stepped out of the way to let them all stream past. Every once in a while there would be someone other than a teenager and they would typically scowl at me and roll their eyes as they also went past. Then one woman stepped off into my cul-de-sac and we both stood there watching the river flow. She was obviously irritated at having her quiet meditative walk spoiled by all this frivolity and teenaged joy.

I wasn’t. I was jealous.


I’d never had the opportunity to experience a living, breathing, international church—deeply connected to the history of my own particular country but also at one with the rest of the world. My personal childhood religion wasn’t “international,” nor even “national;” it was regional. Southern Methodist. The Anglicans broke away from the Catholic Church basically because King Henry wanted a divorce. The Methodists broke away from the Anglican/Episcopal church because we were in a new country and didn’t want to be controlled by the king of the country we were breaking away from. The Southern Methodists broke away from the Methodist church basically because we didn’t want to be told that it wasn’t right to own slaves. And I broke away from the Methodist Church (now called the United Methodist Church) because I was tired of having my religion “out on the end of a branch.” I wanted to move back closer to the heart of the Vine.

After the crush of teens passed, the way down to Acebo was a killer—slipping and sliding on loose gravel, but the views were wonderful. The mountains were much closer now, and the purple heather was lovely.


I was walking with “Tinkerbell” and her mother. They stopped in Acebo but I decided to slide the rest of the way down to Molinaseca. It couldn’t be that bad I thought. And it wasn’t that bad. But it was certainly pretty bad—downhill is much worse on the knees. And there had been erosion on the trail such that the underlying solid ridged rock was exposed and little pebbles acted like ball bearings. Hard, slow, careful walking/sliding.

By the time I arrived it was getting late and I was afraid I was going to be stuck sleeping on a church porch so I took the first place I could find. It was 40 euros for an attic garret you couldn’t even stand up in. And way too hot to stay right now.

The Roman bridge I’d crossed coming into town looked interesting and so I went back out with my camera. The river seemed to be the community swimming pool. I ate at an outside table and just enjoyed the locals enjoying the late afternoon sun.

6/28/15: 29th Day: Molinaseca to Cacabelos

Leaving Molinaseca I descended to Ponferrada, with its magnificent Knights of the Templar castle. It was the largest town in the Bierzo wine region. Grapes all around the town, but not on trellises. Here, the grapes are trained to grow on small, easy-to-pick bushes. The wine from this region is prized, but unfortunately it’s Sunday, so the “rest stop” they have for the pilgrims to try samples is closed. Drat. Thinking about the wine and how important it is in some people’s lives I wondered if maybe the people who take the bus to get through the boring bits of their Camino are like the people who take alcohol to get through the boring bits of their own personal pilgrimage.

Visited at another small church filled with dalle de verre windows—this time in a more primitive-realism style. The elderly deacon sitting outside collecting donativo was charming.

Walked for a while with Leslie and her mother, Allison, from Alaska, and with Jeanette from Switzerland. I asked what brought them out on Camino, as I ask everybody. They had read “Walking Home, A pilgrimage from humbled to healed” by Sonia Choquette, an unusual writer specializing in spiritual books with a supernatural bent. “Your intuition is like a clear, limitless pool. It’s a wellspring of creativity, health, and happiness.” Evidently most of us spend most of our lives stuck on dry land, afraid to jump in. And yet, even with intuition she was blindsided by the death of her brother, and father, and the collapse of her marriage. The Camino became for her a way apart—a way to be alone, but in safety. A retreat. And it became a time of healing for her, as it has been for so many others.

Jeanette had read the book “Ornament of the World” by Harold Bloom, and wanted to walk the Camino to understand more of the material background of the tolerance that flowered in Medieval Spain among the Christians, Jews, and Moslems. I think she too, was hoping to find some insight that might help our poor fractured contemporary world.


I had planned to walk all the way to Villafranca del Bierzo until someone told me that the climb into town was pretty tough at the end of a long hot day. And when I saw that there was an antique car show going on in Cacabelos, “Al” from Louisville and I decided to pack it in here. He was a graduate of Morehead State, and a retired school teacher. We bunked together in a desperately hot outside “cabana” at the municipal albergue beside the river. No one wanted to stay in their room. All of us visited the car show or the riverbank. It was the community swimming pool again with the more adventurous teens using the bridge itself as their diving board. The rest of the city watched from the river bank and caught a few of the late-afternoon rays. Happy families, Wonderful pictures. I had to paint one of the scenes when I got home.

Then we sat outside tending our various foot, knee, and ankle problems.

6/29/15: 30th Day walking: Cacabelos to Herrerias

This morning, about 10k from Cacabelos I happened upon San Jose Benedictine Convent in Villafranca del Bierzo. They were having mass in a small basement-like chapel. I made quite a racket trying to come through their small door with my backpack then stumbled down several stone steps into the holy darkness. I felt terribly conspicuous. Blushing, I sat at the back and tried to get my pack off as quietly as I could. Mass had begun but the Gospel had not yet been read. Even so I wasn’t sure whether or not I should take communion. I had stopped at other churches along the way to see if they were having a mass, but none were. Giving up, I had stopped for the obligatory morning café con leche and croissant. And now, here I was at mass. You’re not supposed to eat for the preceding hour. Should I abstain? My error was innocent. I hadn’t intended any disrespect. So I decided it was okay for me to commune with the other 15 or 20 communicants, mostly elderly nuns and novices. Sitting at the back, I was the last in line. The Priest had been using intinction for all the others, dipping the host in the wine then offering it, but handed the chalice to me saying “Le Sangre de Cristo.” That was the first time that had happened.

It was a very simple action but meant so much. As a deacon I am the “Minister of the Cup,” in honor of St Stephen, one of the first 7 deacons, and also the first martyr after the resurrection to spill his blood. It was very moving. The priest, of course, had no way of knowing who I was and that as a deacon the Chalice is my responsibility. I said “Amen,” and took a sip. It was a delicious sweet wine, probably one of the local wines I hadn’t been able to sample. Then I went and sat back down and they finished the service.

At the end he asked all the peregrinos to stand for a blessing. I was the only one, of course. He prayed over me and asked that this be a good camino for me. All the sisters and novices turned around to smile at me and waved. Ahh. All the elderly nuns, and the three novices. So deeply moving. Thank you God for such a family.

The rest of the day was just walking walking walking. The path lead through the valley and was nice and level. I was making good time. There were many tiny little chapels where, for a donativo, I could get another beautiful sella. There were millions of little birds and frogs and the path lead along the edge of a little stream. Wonderfully peaceful. I decided to stop before I got to the killing hill leading up to O’Cebreiero. When I saw signs advertising horses to rent I knew it must be a really serious climb

I stopped at Albergue Miriam where I met Janet and Granville. But I also met my dear dear friend “Jonathan Walker” of the red label! I have no idea why it is, but in these little out of the way places along the Camino Johnny is not expensive. I guess they don’t know what a treasure they have. I had a double for less than the cost of my morning café con leche and enjoyed it on the porch looking out over the peaceful meadow in front of my little slice of heaven. It was so nice I had to go back and get another double.


Back on the veranda I finally read my morning prayer. Psalm 42 (“Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God.”) The Antiphon was “When will I come to the end of my pilgrimage and enter the presence of God?” That I’m now struggling on my pilgrimage changes the meaning of “pilgrimage” for me. There’s no romantic illusion for me any longer, although there is romance and adventure involved. But there is also bone-tired and sore as well as cold and wet, and sweaty. Pilgrimage is more like “joy” than “happiness.” Happiness is all about ease and comfort. Pilgrimage just doesn’t really involve a whole bunch of that. And neither does joy. Joy is more like peace in the midst of the storm.

Talked with Janet and Granville about tomorrow’s climb. Janet did not look well. I found myself hoping they would avail themselves of a horse.

(to be continued)
6/30/15: 31st day walking. The Hill into O’Cebreiro

Janet and Granville left long before me. Hope they got a horse to help with the backpacks and the climb. Brierley, in his laconic fashion says this is “a strenuous stage, especially at the end.” It’s more than that! The hill is steep, and it is covered with loose rock, making it slippery. Without the poles I don’t know how I could have made it. They have saved me from falling so many times. Met a farmer with his herd of cows coming down the hill. I loved it.


Shortly after that I caught up with several pilgrims struggling up the hill. Granville and Janet were among them. Janet had given up the idea of carrying her backpack. Granville had it on his chest, and his pack on his back. He looked exhausted. They both may have been a little younger than me, but not much. I suggested that he let me help him carry one of the packs. We could walk side by side, each of us holding one of the straps—share the load so to speak. He gasped out a point-blank refusal. Laughing, I told him, “Well, let me know if there is ever something else I can’t do for you!” Later I was ashamed of myself. I think that carrying her pack was his labor of love. But it really does take charity to accept charity.

I did find another couple on the trail struggling. I passed them, put my pack down, and then walked back to pick up one of their packs to give them some relief. I carried it past mine and left it in the care of another pilgrim then walked back for mine. This really is the worst hill. Worse even than that first hill outside St. Jean, mainly because at least most of that climb was paved.

At the top in O’Cebreiro there is a famous natural phenomenon. In the region of Galicia the wind shifts from blowing westward to blowing eastward. So from now on I need to be prepared for the wind blowing dirt and dust in my face. But, here at the top there was also a spectacular view and a very welcome cantina—Some Cervasa and a sandwich and I moved on refreshed. So refreshed, in fact that when I timed my steps I found that I was walking 120 steps a minute. No limping. Not a lot of pain either. Of course, the way was mostly level with O’Cebreiro at the top of the mountain and the Camino following the ridge line from here to Fonfria, 12 kilometers away. At that point the path started down the mountain to Filloval, another 5.5k away. That’s where I decided to spend the night, even though the larger town of Triacastela was just another 3.3k slide down the mountain from there. Those downhill slides are really tough on my knees though, and carrying a backpack throws off your balance. You have to walk with knees deeply bent, and even so, I slipped down on my tush numerous times. The one thing you certainly don’t want to do is fall down headfirst! The albergue at Filloval was one of my favorites.

Ensconced at a picnic table on the back patio I had two very welcome Johnny Walker blacks with just a couple ice cubes. Brandon, Mark, and their friend couldn’t find a room and had to press on to Triacastela. Had a nice visit with Katherine from Normandy, who wants to move to the Philippines to open a tourist hotel with her son. She told me I should visit Paray le Monial in France. It is known as the City of the Sacred Heart, and the church is spectacular. We had delicious ensalada mixta for supper with a very friendly sheepdog to keep us company. I learned later that Katherine had been so very nice to Michelle when she had been struggling one day. Very kind lady. I knew there was a reason I liked her!


Tomorrow I should make it to Sarria, the town where many pilgrims begin their journey. It is the minimum distance from Santiago that one must walk to be awarded a compostella. I’ve been told to expect a much more crowded path from then on.

7/1/15: 32nd Day: Filoval to Sarria

Today I probably made several poor choices. The first one had to do with the very large Spanish “farm dog” who gave me to understand that he really didn’t want to have his picture taken. When I pointed my camera at him he tried to eat the ski pole I used to fend him off. If you don’t want your picture taken, just tell me. You don’t need to bite my head off!


In Tricastella there was a place where the Camino split. One way continued toward Santiago and the other headed toward that Monasterio at Samos I’d heard was a beautiful “side-trip,” so I cut off the main path and added about 6.5k to my day. At the fork in the road I saw two Japanese girls discussing which way to go. I heard one say to the other “Oh no, not that way—it’s ten kilometers without anything to eat!” Ten kilometers is about 6 miles—two hours of easy walking. Oh the horror, six miles with nothing to eat! The “newbies” on the Way are funny. Glad I was never a newbie.

Then I had my first (and I hope my last) serious fall coming down a steep hill on an asphalt road leading to Lastires, which is on the way to Samos. There was a very slight misting rain that made the asphalt slippery and my foot just slid out from under me. I just sat on the ground for a while testing all my many “parts” before trying to stand up. Luckily nothing was broken. I had my knees bent, as I’ve learned to do up and down the hills.

The path to Samos was beautiful in places, but there were also long stretches of soulless highways. I felt my spirit sagging. “Lord, please help me stop getting so depressed.” Here I am in Samos at the Cathedral with two different statues of Spanish Conquistadors beheading Moors on either side of the altar in thanksgiving for the re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. That depresses me. And the Monasterio was founded in the 6th century, one of the largest in Spain, but now there are only 10 monks left. The monk in the gift shop said there was always a maximum of 90. Hard to believe that’s all they could have supported. In any event ten certainly seems like a scary small number. Most of the enormous structure was closed off. “Lord, please help me to trust that all will be well. That you have everything under control.” Then I couldn’t find a nice restaurant in the town, so after an unsatisfying snack and little look-around, I pressed on toward Sarria.

I managed to put through a call to Georgia. She sounded down and depressed too. I think this has been a long separation for us and it’s not much of a grand adventure anymore—it’s more of a slog. I guess that’s the nature of a pilgrimage. I’m probably just tired. I want to get there and get it over. It doesn’t seem right, somehow to say that. But it’s hard. Pilgrimage is hard. And yet, I did meet lots of interesting people. There was David who was pulling a little cart behind him, rather like a dray animal. He was wonderfully grumpy. Peter, from Brazil, was with him and as friendly as Max. I wonder if that’s a Brazilian characteristic.


Saw Leslie, and her mom, Allison with their friend Jeannette. Haven’t seen them for days. Walked with an Aussie who had toured Samos with me. His name was Bryan, and he was using the “ski poles” all wrong—as I had done at first. I showed him how to reduce the effort and increase the advantage they provided. Met young “Simon” and his elderly father from Italy. They were getting to know each other as adults.

And then there was Carolina, one of my favorites, who didn’t like the wonderful wild foxgloves growing everywhere because they “pointed down.” What a charming thing to dislike! Even depressed I love the Camino.


Passed beautiful ancient fig trees and a charming man sitting on a stone wall pulling the limbs down so we pilgrims could taste his wonderful cherries were. It was just what I needed to cheer me up today.


The weather was perfect and I made good time all the way to Sarria and checked in at the albergue Centro. It was crowded with new pilgrims, happy, anxious, and excited to start their walk tomorrow.

7/2/15: 33rd Day walking: Sarria to Gonzar

The land is really changing now (the forests are pine trees) and the farms are small family farms with stone outbuildings and raised seed and grain storage units called Horrios to thwart the rats. And there are many more people on the way. There was Carlo from Padua, Marcus from Atlanta, Fergus and Mooney, and Sylvia who live in Canada, and Hector from Argentina. It’s probably just my imagination, but I have the feeling that many of the new pilgrims are trying to cram lots of significance into this last week before Santiago. I guess I did that on my first day too.


Reminder to self: Take notes in life. Remember important milestones. Part of that is looking backwards—not in regret but to keep track of where you’ve been and how much farther there is to go. There are lots of reminders on the way telling us to “Listen to your body,” or “Respect your body.” The advice, it seems to me is quite similar to St. Francis calling his body brother donkey. The Greeks knew about this too. The head is in charge, but if the head said “Yes, we’re going to do something” and the feet said “No, we’re not,” then you weren’t going to do it. We need to learn how to give the body its due. Discipline it of course, but love it and care for it.

I slid down the loooonnnnggg 4k hill toward Portomarin and crossed the modern bridge over the gigantic reservoir where many Spaniards go to sail and motorboat. Peter, from Brazil, walking with me across the bridge told me that 200 people die on Camino each year. Most of those, I suppose are from collisions with automobiles or catastrophic accidents, but we also talked about the fact that a lot of people will start their Camino in their head. They’re determined to do it. The feet say “No.” and the head is not used to listening to what the feet say and insists. And the feet are damaged. Sometimes the head says “yes” and the knees say “no,” and the knees are damaged. Unfortunately there are also times the head says “Yes, we’re going to do this” and the heart says “No, we’re not.” And when the heart says “No,” the head has to pay attention.

We decided that men are addicted to the grand gesture. Peter is afraid that he is losing his wife. He says she wants to leave him. He knows keeping her means needing to change. “Yes, Lord, please change me.” “But not too much.” I don’t think he even knows what to change. Instead he’s performing a “Grand Gesture,” walking the Camino. I tried to persuade him that I think what women would rather have is company on the daily slog. Men don’t really like that very much. It’s much more fun to sort of fly in, fix things then fly back out.

Across the bridge I had to walk up the bazillion steps to town to see the extent of the reservoir and find a place to eat. Meh. Underwhelming. Spanish tourist traps are not much different from American ones.

I came down a different path to rejoin the Camino. On this section someone has drawn hearts and messages on the ground—obviously addressed to a girlfriend coming along behind. I’m thinking of Peter again: This girl probably appreciates the sentiment, but if I was her, I think I’d really rather have him walking along beside me instead of “mailing back” messages scratched in the dirt.

I’m not an expert but I think that when husbands and wives spend more time talking about each other than talking to each other you have a problem. Besides Peter, there was Marcus who was hit with a double whammey. His wife blindsided him with the news that she wanted to leave him and shortly afterward he learned that he had cancer. He was on Camino trying to get his feet back under him.

The ground I’m walking on no longer feels like an obstacle to be overcome so that I can be somewhere else. Where I’m walking right now is all the reality I have. It’s the Now, Here, This of Merton. This breeze I feel right now is the only breeze. That cow over there is the only cow. These flowers are the only flowers. This stretch of path is not particularly attractive, right beside a busy highway in the sun. No shade in sight. And yet, that bird chirping is the only bird. Those clouds, those magnificent clouds are the only clouds. This is reality. Right here, right now.

One thing I’ve learned is that the only moment I have is right now. If you have a rock in your shoe you don’t take it out in an hour. If there is a problem in your marriage you don’t say “I’m going to take care of that someday.” You say “Let’s talk about this now.” Poor Peter, I don’t know how you know what to change if there isn’t good communication between husband and wife. And judging by the couples I see walking the Way I’m not hopeful. Handsome young man and beautiful young woman walking along side by side. The man would grunt a reply every once in a while and the woman was just babbling. Like a brook, I guess. I honestly don’t know how someone can have so many words. And how can you go on Camino with someone you’re not compatible with. Maybe men and women are fundamentally incompatible.

Just saw Chris sitting in a café with Jeff and Marcus and another girl. Marcus says he walks medium, not as fast as Chris but not as slow as Jeff. I may be cynical but when you walk with someone 6 or 8 hours a day that’s a real chance for love to grow. I don’t know that I’d be happy walking several kilometers ahead of Georgia while she walked along with another man. It’s not jealousy. It’s that grand gesture versus the daily walk again. In religious terms you could not find a more grand gesture than Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and yet God knew that wouldn’t be enough to win and hold our love. And so the Father through the Son sent the Holy Spirit to walk with us day by day, listening to our concerns and keeping us company in our distress.

Stopped in Gonzar, where I shared the albergue with 40 or 50 giggling teenaged girls. Very entertaining but not very restful. Thank goodness for ear plugs.

7/3/15: 34th Day walking: Gonzar to Melide

Met a young Japanese girl with no Spanish. She emphasized that she was not Christian. When I asked why she was on Camino, in broken English she said, “I want to find me.” It brought tears to my eyes. I asked if she had “Found herself yet.” She said “No,” and I patted my heart and said “Be of good courage. You will find You.”

Now walking through sweet-smelling Eucalyptus forests.

You know those movie scenes where French Royalty are riding along a muddy road in their fine carriages and the wheels splash muddy water up on the poor trudging peasants on the side of the road, and the Aristocrats laugh?

That’s the bicyclists.

7/4/15: 35th Day walking: Melide to Xunta outside Pedrouzo

I know what I said, but as I get close to the end of my pilgrimage it gets hard not to see the miles as an obstacle to be overcome. When your feet hurt so much and walking 6-8 hours a day is just so tiring. Or 10 hours.

I saw would-be pilgrims today coming out of the albergues and putting their packs in the back of a rental car. I guess that’s always the way. People want to think of themselves as pilgrims but don’t want to walk. People who want to think of themselves as a writer but don’t want to write.

One of today’s highlights was meeting Jose and Elias, two wonderfully cheerful Spanish pilgrims. They were so pleased to have me want to photograph them. They asked that I send them the picture when I could. I ended up painting their portraits when I got home.


I offered to take a picture for 4 teenaged Spanish boys walking together. One boy said “I am thirteen!” I told him “I am sixty-six.” He didn’t look any more surprised at my being 66 than I was at him being 13. I’m the one who is surprised at being 66! I wanted to tell him to stay 13 forever. It’s a wonderful age. Those first confusing longings.


What nice kids. And they still think of the United States as the land of opportunity and a place where they could realize their dreams. Me, I actually think of Spain, and especially rural Spain as more humane. But then that might be because I don’t really know Spain well. They wanted to walk with me so they could practice their English. That was fun. I hope the US can someday become what they think it is.

7/5/15: 36th Day walking: Last Day Walking

Drat. Left my towel at the Albergue last night. One of the roughest nights trying to sleep. The albergue was right on the highway and because we were so close to Santiago the traffic on the highway was awful. Windows open, of course, and it sounded like there was some kind of motocross going on all night long. Ugh. Young Spanish men sure do love their crotch rockets. Zooming one way, then turning around somewhere and zooming back the other way proving the Doppler-effect over and over again. And drat, in the morning I forgot my micro-fiber bath towel. I left it hanging on the bed-frame to dry. Loved that efficient thing.

The walk into Santiago was pleasant but busy with lots of pilgrims. Saw many I’ve met over the past several days and arrived in Santiago about 1:30. I was so relieved. So excited. So many pilgrims milling around the plaza. Went in the Cathedral and lit candles for the fellow pilgrims I promised to remember, as well as for my kids, Jenny, Amy, Jason, and Emily. Beautiful holy place and surprisingly quiet, even with all the hundreds of pilgrims relaxing inside in their joy. Checked into the Monasterio San Martin Pinario that Georgia reserved for us.


The pilgrim mass began at noon. I had to stand because it was so crowded but I didn’t care. Tears rolled down my cheeks when we sang the Gloria. The giant botafumeiro swinging high overhead from transept to transept was just as thrilling as I knew it would be. And the cantor filled that enormous space with lovely sound. Picked out the place I want to sit tomorrow to take a video of the botafumeiro.

After the mass I took scads of pictures. The inside of the Cathedral was lovely. The outside will be lovely after they finish cleaning and refurbishing it and take down the scaffolding.



7/6/15: Monday: In Santiago

Georgia was not due to arrive at the train station for several more hours so I decided to go and pick up my compostella, my certificate for having completed the Camino. There was a line outside the office, but not a terribly long one and I did see some of the people I’d met in the past few days. We visited and congratulated each other while we waited. I think everyone was just as proud of their accomplishment as I was of mine. When I tried to tell the young woman who stamped my compostella how much it meant to me somehow my voice quit working.

I saw and visited with Simon again. He was troubled at the prospect of going home and back to work, but confident that he needed to be a teacher. I told him I thought he would make a great elementary-school teacher. He’s a born showman, and the kids will love him. He just beamed through his beard and dreadlocks. And he was wearing his celebratory purple kilt. People wanted to photograph him. He didn’t think it at all unusual to be a real Camino celebrity. I had some pictures made of me with my compostella in the plaza in front of the Cathedral.


Went inside to stake out my seat for the mass. I was in the left transept in the first pew on the right hand side. The botafumeiro was tied off on the column close to me. I was pretty sure it would be a great seat to video the censor. If they swung it on a Monday. I’d heard that they don’t.

What if they don’t? Will I be disappointed? And all the pictures I’ve been taking. It’s “touristy” again, not really a pilgrimage. But then I think the entire rest of my life will be “pilgrimage.” Living in the moment, whatever that moment happens to hold.

The babble of language all around is amazing. From east to west, from north to south, and all of them my brothers and sisters. Heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s more like the tongues at Pentecost than the Tower of Babel because we know what each other is feeling.

And now the mass begins and it is stunning. The Kyrie, the Gloria, everything sung. The entire service took place completely outside of time. And then the botafumeiro. I felt like the tiraboleiros were lifting me up through the incense-cloud to swing back and forth from ceiling to ceiling, drawing closer and closer to Heaven. And I viewed the people below and all the lands they represented. All loved equally by God. And I hung there just at the doorsill of Heaven longing to step over and enter. But no. Not yet. And then I felt myself slowing back down, drawing closer and closer to earth where I belong and where we all need to walk our pilgrimage day by day. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in the moment forever.


But I couldn’t. Life is not like that. A pilgrimage is not like that. A pilgrimage must have a goal, a destination, but we don’t get to stay there. And anyway, Georgia needed me to pick her up from the train station.

It was so good to be together again, and it felt so natural. And now that we were in Santiago she could show me her favorite places and haunts; she’d been in an immersion class here while I walked. We had a supper of squid, and beef with prunes, and those long mussels. And we caught up with where each other was again.


Walking back to our room we met Fabio, who introduced me to his father and I introduced them to my beloved. I’m afraid our Italian, which was never very good has deteriorated.


7/7/15: Tuesday Last day In Santiago

Sightseeing all day and constantly bumping into people from the Camino. Exchanged email addresses and knew we’d never be back in touch again. That first family, though, formed in St Jean was different. We’d been together from the beginning and I knew we’d stay in touch some way. I did find out from Leslie, Allison, and Jeanette that Granville, (who had definitely not wanted my help climbing to O’Cebreiro) had made it to the top. They saw them there. That was good news though we don’t know if they made it any further.

We had supper with Georgia’s friends from the school: Miriam and Eric. They are another couple who remind me of Danny and Karen, collecting experiences rather than things. We had a delicious supper of pasta with spinach, oyster mushrooms, pine nuts, dill and dressed with olive oil.
We told them of our plans starting tomorrow—to rent a car and drive to Finisterre for a few days then south to Toledo, Grenada, and Madrid.

So what did I learn?

I’ve always been someone who lived primarily inside his own head—very cerebral. But on Camino you can’t do that. Day after day, week after week of getting up at 6am and walking for 6, 8 or 10 hours, up and down mountains, through quiet woods or on gravel sendas beside busy roads in the full sun, or in a steady rain, or a hail storm, or through blowing dust you can’t live inside your own head.

In Burgos outside the municipal albergue, where hundreds of pilgrims slept each night there was a wonderful bronze statue of a pilgrim sitting on a tree stump bent over in extreme concentration attending to his blistered feet. That’s what the Camino taught me. The head can say “We’re going to do the Camino!” but if the feet or the knees say “No we’re not!” then most probably you are going to end up in the hospital or if (God forbid) the heart says “No!” then you’re liable to be one of the 200 people who die on Camino each year. Just on this year’s walk we heard about two 30-something young people whose hearts decided their Camino was over before their head thought it should be. You must learn to listen to “Brother Donkey”—refusing to work when it was too tired. You ignore its needs at a real cost.

I think this is something God learned through the incarnation. Jesus understood and loved his physical body and shares it with us in the Eucharist to strengthen and encourage us. He knows weakness. He knows pain and anxiety, and blisters I bet. Our God is not just a cerebral god divorced from our physicality. And a corollary of this main take-away is a concentration on the present moment. Inside my head I can live in the past full of regrets over things I did or didn’t do, and memories of past glories or humiliations and dreams of future triumphs. But the past and the future exist only in our heads.

Our bodies live only in the present moment. That pebble in your shoe. It is only in the present moment that you can remove it. If you don’t stop now the irritation only gets worse. When you pass a beggar that is the only moment you will ever have to respond. The loving action you “intend” to take can only be taken in the present. There is no physical past or future in which to act. There is always only now.

So that is my main takeaways from walking 500 miles in 36 days with hundreds of new family members. That is what I learned from the amazing kindness and generosity of Max from Brazil, Yuyam from the Arab Emirates, Karen and Danny from New Zealand, Michele from London, Laurence from France, Brian and Anne and Philomena and Rita from Ireland, Mimi and Theresa from the Czech Republic, Philip and Ida from Arizona, Leslie and her mother from Alaska, and especially Amparo, the Spanish nurse who found me sitting disconsolate beside the Way, with my shoes off, wondering how I was going to continue, and using her own supplies lovingly bandaged my feet saying “this is why I come on Camino, to help those who are in trouble.” How do you repay people who help you in such an intimate way? They won’t accept money. The only way I know is to be grateful to the God who sent them and try to help the others we meet “who are in trouble” on the Way, and need us.

The End
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I have read several books about walking this Camino and this trip report was just as interesting as the published books. I probably won't ever do this walk but I love reading the details of it. Thanks for posting this.

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