Today´s trek (25 km) was shorter than yesterday´s (28 km), but harder. It began with a walk out of Castrojeriz, followed by a steep climb on a 12% incline for a full kilometer, up onto the meseta west of town. We crossed this high table of land in less than 10 minutes and then plunged back down toward the valley floor, prompting questions about, So why couldn´t we just go around?
But there are probably ancestral land rights involved, and anyway we are participating in a thousand years of Catholic culture when we take the prescribed route. This thought led to the one question Marian and I worked over during the morning walk: What exactly is the meaning of a pilgrimage today?
I understand going to Rome and to Jerusalem, but Santiago de Compostela? We Christians are no longer driving Moors out of Spain, like our fathers in the faith Charlemagne and El Cid. There´s no need to keep this route open for political or military reasons. We are walking to the purported final resting place of an Apostle of Jesus, St. James, when even many Catholic authors question whether his bones are even there. Why do this thing at all?
The Camino prompts this kind of question, especially during the long midsection of its itinerary on which we are now launched. That meseta this morning will be our last severe climb for about eight days, or until we begin the long, two-day hike up to the Cruz de Fero by the middle of next week. Until then, you can fairly imagine us walking across the American plains in high summer through fields of wheat and barley, passing irrigation equipment as large tractors pass us on the road. Today´s high temperature was about 28 Celsius, the mid-80s Fahrenheit, not a punishing sun but an unrelenting one. When you are walking on paved roads, not dirt paths, as we often did today, your energy is pounded out of you through the soles of your feet.
And for most of the day we had only ourselves to talk with, Marian and me. Having broken off from the Famous Five (see yesterday´s post) we were seldom accompanied by anyone today. At a rest break, we met Flores, a young business student from Holland who wants to be a car dealer. We ran into a Dutch woman, Tonia, again, and we lunched in a grove near Mr. and Mrs. Kim from Korea. Marian properly noted a good omen when we arrived at our albergue in Frómista: The Kims were assigned a bunkbed beside ours tonight. But otherwise today, solitude.
It would be quite easy to be cynical about this pilgrimage. The number of "pilgrims" grows each year, but how many truly are pilgrims? We´ve seen party kids camping out in village squares with guitars and wine bottles. We´ve walked with "pilgrims" who send their bags ahead to reserve scarce beds, or who jump into taxis and buses to avoid hard stretches or threatening weather. Many all-too-secular Europeans are here for a bit of "cultural tourism." Health nuts sprint by us, and an endless battalion of bicyclists zoom past without so much as a warning bell or hola. Bicycles are the single greatest danger for a walker on the Way. Finally, there are the frauds, who jump on 100 kilometers from Santiago, the minimum requirement, in order to "earn" their compostela, the diploma of the pilgrim.
The Camino is likely to grow more fraudulent, not less. Villages continue to build better tourist traps to skim off more visiting euros. A young German told me that when he comes back in ten years, he expects to find that a hotel chain has blossomed along the Camino. I suggested that Mickey Mouse might move here as a celebrity greeter.
OK, it´s not really that bad. Not yet. But the question remains, in such a context, what is the place of pilgrimage? It is a question Marian and I thrashed out this morning, and because my internet access is limited this evening, and because it continues to be a question that intrigues me with no final answers, I will leave our musings for another post. I have just a few minutes of computer time left for
We had supper this evening with Mr. and Mrs. Kim. Before supper, while we were taking our laundry off the line, they approached us with a gift for Marian, a lovely Korean bookmark made of gold and a traditional Korean fabric. "I see your daughter," Mr. Kim said to me. "I see her mind is very good." He had observed her at an albergue a few mornings ago, helping the owner clean up the breakfast tables after all of the other messier pilgrims had vamoosed. This had impressed him.
I have written previously that Mr. Kim is the first pilgrim I met on the way to Santiago, on the train to St. Jean Pied de Port. Tonight, for the first time, we spoke as friends. We are both 60 years old and have two children, and those are only the surface similarities.
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]