Friday, May 18, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 5: Uterga to Estella

Some days, do you ever feel like you’re just putting one foot in front of the other? Like it’s all you can do to finish the work in front of you and make it home in one piece? Like what you’re doing couldn’t possibly be meaningful in itself but you go on doing it anyway—because you remind yourself that you really are headed somewhere—and for the sweetness of companionship?

Welcome to Day 5 on my Camino: a 30-kilometer walk after which Marian and I felt like survivors of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. If not for each other, and for the intermittent graces of friends on the Way, I don't know how we would have made it from Uterga to Estella. Even the names of these unnoteworthy towns in Navarra suggest a meaningless slog from birth to death. (Our albergue in Uterga is pictured above.)

We had agreed to accompany Alex, a young man with a Yankees hat and a bad case of blisters, as far as a certain bridge, where he planned to rendezvous with his friends. To cover the 15 kilometers to the bridge by 10:30 am, we planned to leave at 6 am. Marian and I waited for Alex beneath a slowly lightening, overcast sky on the patio at the Way of Forgiveness. It was the earliest we had set out in our five days on the Camino, and it was beautiful to walk in silence, the three of us, through the dawning farmlands of Navarra, where the hilly landscape is like Tuscany, complete with vineyards, but more spread out.

As we passed through Puente la Reina, 6 kilometers along, we had our daily run-in with Simon and Sam. Ebullient as ever, Sam looked particularly worn out, through some combination of pubbing and sleeping in “one more damn pilgrim refuge.” She said she and Simon were going to stay in a hotel tonight, “to have some us time.” Then she pointed to the bags under her eyes and said that what she needed more than anything was hemorrhoid cream. 

En route to the bridge, Alex engaged me in a discussion of the Catholic Church. Catholic-schooled as a boy growing up in Edmonton, Canada, he said the only vestige now of his Catholic training then was the Lord’s Prayer. We turned to an honest talk about the Church’s position on social issues, and I was struck by his openness to my point of view. By the time we reached his friends at the bridge, I rounded into a point that has become clearer to me this first week on the Camino.

Whatever any of my fellow pilgrims might think of the Catholic Church, whatever their non-Catholic motivations for walking the Way of St. James, there is a fact that none can escape. This thing we are doing, this “pilgrimage,” is a gift of Catholic culture. Whether they like it or know it or not, each pilgrim is in some sense following the Church and therefore Jesus Christ. For the graces they receive they may credit anything from endorphins to their own willful perseverance, but they have received these graces while walking to the resting place of one of the twelve men who most closely followed Our Lord.

Alex, an honest man, admitted to me that he understood this.

We took a break at the bridge and then headed off, just Marian and I, for the second half of the day's trajectory. Alex and his friends bombed ahead, although we finally passed them 5 kilometers from Estella, as they lay in the grass, exhausted and nursing their wounds. It was on this second half of the day’s journey that I began to realize that the Camino Francés—the traditional 800-kilometer route from the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela—does not last three days or even three weeks but something like five weeks of daily slogging at the average clip of about 23 kilometers a day. That translates to 15 miles, all with a 20-pound pack, up hill and down.

My body ached, while Marian was suffering from some blisters on her feet, which ranged from “I know it's there” to “That one kills.” My daughter mostly keeps a chipper attitude, and it is great fun to hear her bopping along, especially early in the mornings when the stiffness retreats from our backs and legs, singing songs to herself or just going off about friends, family, funny stuff—whatever comes to mind.

At one point, she said out of the blue, “You know what I'm going to do when I get to Madrid? Have a pedicure.”

I asked her if she wasn’t maybe getting ahead of herself. Was she sure that by the time she reached Madrid, she would still have toes?

We pulled off the path, still 9 kilometers short of our goal, so that Marian could tend her wounds. Who should come along but the remarkable Dr. Ricardo Reis, the Brazilian oncologist? Trained for much more advanced work in medical research and treatment, Ricardo asked his three Brazilian traveling partners to go on ahead so that he could care for Marian. He spent the next ten minutes rebandaging the little toe on her left foot, then prescribing some things to pick up at the next farmacia we ran into. It was a bit like watching Christ wash the feet of his Apostles.

The temperature rose past 25 degrees Celsius. Having set out at 6 am, we finally reached our destination at something like 4:15 pm—a 10-hour day at the slow but hardly surprising rate of only 3 kilometers per hour, including rest stops.

“OK, I'm feeling like something that resembles a human being,” Marian said after we had both resurrected from a tomb-like one-hour nap at our pension. We headed out to buy supplies for tomorrow’s walk, which will be shorter but will offer almost nothing in the way of food or drink en route. We have to carry our rations with us.

We had come into Estella near the end of siesta, when businesses were shuttered and the streets were all but empty. Now, as we walked from the market to a restaurant, the city was a riot of activity. We settled into outdoor seats on a plaza, where several dozen children ran around with soccer balls, untended by their parents. The adults sat at café tables for drinks; the shadow of sunset rose on the face of the church in front of us; and the temperature dropped into the low teens. Beginning to shiver, mostly from exhaustion, Marian and I ate our salad and tortilla (for her) and paella verdura (for me), then rose and walked down the street for a treat at a chocolate store. It was already closed.

We headed back to our pension on the Plaza de Santiago, stopping for a couple of Snickers at the local equivalent of a 7/11 convenience store. By the time we arrived at our door, the church bells had rung nine and the streets were empty again.

[NOTE: The next post in this series about my Camino is here.]

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