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Walking the Camino, 2015: Episode 8

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 in drugs.

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The walk was easy from San Juan to Atapuerca where I saw the standing stones put up by some prehistoric peoples living there 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. 

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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 this 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 Alburgue. 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 alburgue 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.

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I’ve think of myself as being open to the Spirit. She told me that’s what she wanted. 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.

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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 in a bank lobby and put on my hooded rain cape and discovered why real peregrinos carry rain pants and rain jackets instead. 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 lobby.

Finally arrived, drenched and exhausted, at the multi-story Municipal Alburge. After I showered and settling 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.”

Michelle and I ate supper in a “kabop shop,” around the corner from the Alburge, 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 sycamore trees pruned to within an inch of their life. Lots of buskers playing musical instruments, and another wedding party at the Cathedral. Tomorrow we enter on the infamous Meseta, sort of like the midwest of Spain—flat grassland, swept by sudden rains, wind-storms and notoriously unpredictable weather. Hail one minute then scorching hot and windless 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 to sleep-in; I was anxious to get on the way so we said “Asta Luego,” and I took off 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 without 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 heard several people say that they were going to grab a bus to take them around the Meseta. I’m glad I didn’t. It reminded me of a rocky Kansas. As I walked, I could see distant mountains, and from the low promontories I could see from horizon to horizon. For the most part the tiny villages are at the bottoms of little 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 lovely chirping pest control. DDT never did that!

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 Brierly 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.”

And it did.

 The land was flat as a pancake then suddenly I was at the top of a 1 kilometer plummet into the village. I slid down again and found a bed at one of the three alburges, and learned that I was sharing a room with 4 German walkers. 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.

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Got my shower and ate supper outside in the sun sitting in an Adirondack chair next to Phil and Ida. 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 eat without gaining a pound!

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

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

Today was a perfectly lovely, if chilly day! I was really fortunate to be so exhausted last night that I turned in early. That meant I plucked my drying clothes off the line before turning in. I draped them over chairs in my room to finish drying while I slept. The other walkers have had to contend with freezing cold, soaking wet clothes today. They have them draped over their packs and swinging from lanyards like flags.

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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 met-up 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 us. And so cynical people are very suspicious of people who seem to be un-cynical—they must either be stupid or hiding something. “And if I tear them down I won’t need to change my view of the world.” 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.

 Christine 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, a taxi when you need it. The discipline of the Camino ebbs away. No wonder some people end up taking taxies from one Alburge to another. And the whole concept of a pilgrimage falls away.

Amazing, the pontificating man I heard a week or so back passed me again today. 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 wedge a word in edgewise!  I’ve got a feeling I’m not going to be able to keep my mouth shut.


            (to be continued)

Walking the Camino, 2015: Episode 7

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 alburge 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. 

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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 desperately needed.
Again the Camino supplies what we need. 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 2000 years, even though technology has blossomed (or metastasized) in ways our ancestors couldn’t have even imagined. But 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. And so to bed early.
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 end up in the third region along the Camino: Burgos. The entire 500 mile trip encompasses 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 my wife and me 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 always 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? 
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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 alburge 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 alburgue. 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 so discouraging. Hobbled along with another struggling pilgrim, Franz from the alburgue 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 said 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 was Karen and Danny. IMG_3497 copy.jpg 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 alburgue 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 been 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 about herself 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! 

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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 are a menace—and decided that a group of bicyclists, not crows, should be called a “murder.” “Watch out! Here come 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 go back to Spain to have one, rather than a farcical “Tour de Camino.” 
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At the Monumento a los Caidos (Catholic pilgrims “fallen” during the Spanish Civil war) we happened upon Abby 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 some day by herself and enjoy the Camino.
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. If 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. 
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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)