Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 9: Navarette to Santo Domingo de la Calzada

Refreshed by a hotel stay Sunday night and a short 12-kilometer trek on Monday, Marian and I made a push on Tuesday. We were out the door of the friendly father-son albergue in the small village of Navarette by 6:15. It was just light enough to see the ubiquitous yellow arrows marking the Way of St. James through Spain.

We headed west through the vineyards of La Rioja (left), a million rectangles juxtaposed like a retrospective show by some modernist painter with a thing for green. Beyond the wine fields in every direction lay clayey red hills and above a cacophony of clouds. We have walked in and out of rain since Saturday, and the skies tried to clear all day to make way for a forecast of sun and warm weather. By midafternoon, grapes gave way to grain as we approached the boundary between La Rioja and Castilla y León. After eleven and a half hours and 38 kilometers (24 miles), we arrived in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a town famous for the chicken in its church.

Now, on Wednesday morning and 24 hours after setting out from Navarette, I am writing in the common room of the new, large refuge here as the first pilgrims rise and stagger past my eyes in various stages of bathroom dress. An Asian woman passes in a full bathrobe with her eyes averted. An overweight man follows her across my field of vision scratching his pale, baggy chest with his gut hanging over skimpy striped briefs, or what my dear friend and colleague Jen would have called a banana hammock. He is probably from central Europe.

What distinguishes one day from another here on the Camino, other than the changing landscape of northeastern Spain? For me, the one constant is the joy of walking with my daughter, Marian. The two main variables are the people we meet and the condition of my heart and soul.

“On the Camino,” André told me Monday night at supper in Navarette, “you must empty yourself.” Yesterday's 38-km marathon, the longest distance I have ever walked, emptied me after a fashion. In the late afternoon, my gaze seldom rose higher than a meter in front of my plodding feet, which beat out a steady rhythm for the Jesus Prayer on my lips. While waiting for my pilgrim meal last night, I looked at myself in the mirror. The tanned, bearded face looked healthy indeed and the eyes had a becoming sparkle, but inside, behind the eyes, I knew there was no one at home. The best I could think to do from moment to moment was whatever is necessary now.

Our day featured encounters with two financial controllers—the European term for a corporate accounting type, . In the morning we walked with David from Bern and in the afternoon Arjan from Amsterdam. Of these, Arjan was the most striking.
We overtook him on the way into Azofra, a small town about 17 kilometers short of Santo Domingo, but practically the last place we could expect to find lodgings before that town. Marian and I had decided to go for it, the full 38 km, while Arjan when we met him was planning to stop at Azofra. When we told him our ambitious itinerary, he asked if he could walk with us. Talking helps me keep going, he said. So for the remaining four hours–plus Marian and I alternated walking alone and walking and talking with Arjan.

I developed an affection for him, a smart, kind, smiling Dutchman who, while walking ahead with Marian, was considerate enough to stop, turn back, and shout to me, “You OK?” He is 35 and has a girlfriend. He used to work for an American company, which explains his excellent English. He likes bicycle racing, which is to say that he is Dutch. Like many Europeans of his generation, he is apparently completely secularized. Traditional religious morality is empty to him. Whether he marries his girlfriend or not doesn't matter, he said. Children? We'll see. He scoffed at the notion of Mother’s Day, even after I had said I wanted to arrive in Santiago de Compostela on Father’s Day, June 17. Why do we need a holiday to tell us to be nice to our mothers?

I pushed his logic. What musts are left for you, I asked? Just don’t kill anyone, don’t damage the environment—the last two Commandments? He laughed and said that, well, of course, that wasn’t enough. One had to be nice.

Confronted with a young person for whom religion is bosh, how can a Catholic be a useful witness? I have no answer, only a desire to engage. As I do so, I am aware that my daughter is listening to me, too.

At one point, frustrated by my logic, Arjan turned back to Marian as if pleading for help with her old man. She shrugged and shouted, “You're on your own!” She was smiling, though.

[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]

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