Saturday, May 19, 2012
Camino de Santiago, Day 6: Estella to Torres del Rio
I feel great, actually. I did sleep five hours fitfully before Bluto woke me up. The one rule of survival on the Camino, I have learned, is, No matter how knackered* you are at the end of the day, wait until you see how you feel in the morning. I feel OK.
On the very hot final lap into Estella on Friday afternoon, we had stopped at a bar for gazpacho and Coca-Cola. Seated at the bar itself was a striking man of middle age, tall, strong, handsome with a grey beard and searching eyes, a dead ringer for my uncle Truck at that age. He watched everyone in the bar the way Strider does in an early scene of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” We did not talk with him then, but I pointed him out to Marian and said, There’s Strider.
Saturday morning, as we climbed out of Estella and blew without stopping past the famous Fuento del Vino, which dispenses free red wine to pilgrims 24/7, Strider came even with us. He strode along alone, pulling a sort of ergonomic stainless steel wheelbarrow with his pack strapped to it. Fortunately, he speaks French and so do I, so I learned a bit about him.
Christian lives in Lausanne, Switzerland, and is the father of four boys. He covered the distance from the Alps to the Pyrenees on bicycle, and is now walking the remaining 800 kilometers to Santiago with his contraption because he has a bad back. To look at him, you’d think he could carry packs for himself and his whole family, he’s that powerful. If no one engages him in conversation, he walks along, head high, eyes forward, like a man on a mission, a small smile on his lips.
Christian works as the administrator of a network of hospice-like institutions in Switzerland, where the clientele lives an average of eight months. Many of them are suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s, so much of his work is with the families of patients. He is walking the Camino now, at age 50, because his mother died three months ago, and he wanted to “take some time.” Like many people you meet on this ancient Way, he parts with personal details reluctantly. The reasons people walk the Camino are often very personal, and are not always the first reasons you hear.
That’s another reason the film “The Way” is so good. Each of the three people Martin Sheen’s character befriends has a stated reason for walking the Camino and a real reason. Joost wants to lose weight (and his wife doesn't love him anymore). Sarah wants to quit smoking (and she is still suffering deeply over aborting her only child). Jack has writer’s block (and he is horribly conflicted in his feelings about the Church). What is Christian’s real reason for walking the Camino? I will probably never know.
After our encounter with Christian, Marian and I began casting “The Lord of the Rings,” Camino edition. If Christian is Strider (Aragorn), then who is Frodo, who Gandalf, who Gimli the Dwarf? A couple of people have already compared me to Gandalf, with my growing beard, St. Joseph staff, and wizard-worthy sun hat. But Marian said she would like to be either “Liv Tyler or Samwise Gamgee.” So we decided that I have to be Frodo and she Sam since, as she put it so well, We are Americans and Americans are always the protagonists in their own stories.
If Marian and I are Sam and Frodo, then we were in perfect agreement about who should be cast as Merry and Pippin, the comic-relief hobbits: Simon and Sam. And if I am not Gandalf, then obviously the role goes to Ricardo, the oncologist from southern Brazil. Gimli? Legolas? Eowyn? Saruman? Casting is still open.
Following the ubiquitous guidebook by John Brierly, yesterday's sixth stage was a short 21 kilometers with only one serious climb, into the town of Villamayor. As we approached the peak here, hardly breaking a sweat, I joked aloud to Marian, “OK, Camino de Santiago, is this all you can throw at us today? Pah!”
After taunting the Camino on the way up, I got my just deserts on the way down. The sky turned black, and the thunder that had been predicted blew in. Within minutes we had lightning, hail, and high winds. Then just as suddenly the storm blew through, and ten minutes later, the sky over the mountains to the north had turned a perfect summer blue. We looked up ahead on the Camino and saw Ricardo half a kilometer ahead in his blue poncho. He turned back to us and raised both arms in an exultant hallelujah.
Later in the morning, we caught up with Ricardo, who was suffering from a bad foot. He and I began discussing the Camino as a metaphor for life, and I told him my latest take. Here in countryside of Navarra, where the mountains and hills always seem within touching distance, with wind turbines lining many ridges, the rivers and arroyos wind in an unpredictable maze. Thanks to the guidebook and the occasional signs, we always know what town is next ahead, but we are never quite sure what direction we'll find it in. Does the path wind left through that pass there, or right along that low-lying area toward what looks like a church spire? All you can see is the Camino directly in front of you. You can imagine you know which way it will turn there, where it goes out of sight. But when you reach that spot you are very often surprised. So with life. We think we can see far ahead in our lives, because after all we have plans, especially if we are Americans of the current cultural moment. But, as Marian again said so astutely, God laughs at our plans. We arrive at the horizon point, and there is something completely unexpected beyond it, and probably better than our plans.
We entered Torres del Rio (pictured above) just as another tempest was blowing in. We knew we had found the right place for the night—this damn refuge—because Sam came out onto the balcony of the room she was sharing with Simon just as we walked up. She waved joyfully, as happy to see us as we were her and Simon.
* Knackered is another term I have picked up from Simon. British slang for beat, tired, whipped.
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]