(This is the fifth installment in my newly edited story of walking the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2012. The fourth chapter is here.)
Like a sacrament, the Camino de Santiago does things to you. At Kaserna in St. Jean Pied de Port, Monique had told me “the Camino makes you a pilgrim,” transforming your way of walking in the world.
Another thing the Camino does is to turn pilgrims into friends. The sincerity that can arise between two strangers is astonishing. From the first day, I did my level best to open myself for the sake of a broader community, to be more available to whatever graces this ancient pilgrimage might confer.
When we kept running into Simon and Sam from the north of England, against all seeming odds, and when we found that Alann from Canada had attached herself to the two of them, it seemed that the Camino was asking us to join forces, much as the four main characters do in the film “The Way.” Simon began calling us The Famous Five.
The picture below captured our group (sans me, the photographer) at its most relaxed and congenial (l-r, Alann, Simon, Sam, Marian).
But back in Navarette, André had advised that the pilgrim must “empty” himself, as a condition of being changed by the Camino. By applying the model of a movie to my pilgrimage, I was filling myself—bringing a preconceived notion to experience.
As I traveled along with the Famous Five, I found myself not emptied but filled with the good things of everyday life: comradeship, joviality, plenty of down time, leisure enjoyments, and especially the comfort of knowing that I was sleeping each evening surrounded by trusted friends.
The Famous Five became a security blanket, isolating me from other pilgrims. When you are traveling in a group, you are less approachable to outsiders. (If there are insiders, there must also be outsiders.) I think this weighed on Marian too. There were younger people she wanted to meet.
So Monday morning in the village of Rabé de las Calzadas (pictured at the top of this post), Marian and I parted company with our traveling companions. Telling the others was not easy, but I held open the possibility that we might rendezvous and walk into Santiago de Compostela together in about three weeks.
Setting out that morning (5/28/12) with only Marian for companionship, I felt like a pilgrim again. I walked with a thirty-something, Markku from Finland, while Marian walked five hundred meters ahead with a group of younger people: two men from Germany, two women from the States. As we climbed to the meseta, a high tableland where, for the first time, no hills were visible on the horizon, I could see how happy my daughter was, no longer isolated from such encounters by the comforts of family. Meanwhile, with my new friend Markku, I had a six-hour conversation both charged and fruitful—a faithful Catholic and a skeptic opening themselves to each other’s experience.
As Markku and I entered Castrojeriz, a ghost town during siesta, we found Marian, Anna, Caro, Fabien, and Johnny happily chatting over beers at a café. We brought our coffee to the table, and pretty soon Markku had decided to walk on past Castrojeriz with the four others. Marian and I had already decided to stay in town.
The Camino passes through a series of microclimates. Leaving the wine country of Rioja behind, we now set out for nearly a week across what looked like the American plains in high summer, passing through fields of wheat and barley with nary a barn or farm building in sight.
The weather was like Kansas too. Tuesday’s high temperature was about 28 Celsius, not a punishing sun but an unrelenting one. When you are walking on paved roads, not dirt paths, as we often did, 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.
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, for the second time, and we lunched in a grove near Mr. and Mrs. Kim from Korea. Otherwise, solitude.
We had supper with Mr. and Mrs. Kim Tuesday evening in Frómista. 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 in middling English. “I see her mind is very good.” He had observed Marian 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.
Wednesday morning I waited for Marian while watching kites and pigeons fly in and out of the belfry of a church in Frómista. Here in rural Spain, birds seem to make more use of churches than humans do. The church doors are locked but not the steeples, which storks use as nesting grounds. When Marian finally joined me, I told her that I thought we were probably reaching the halfway point of our Camino. She moaned. I don’t want to be halfway, she said!
It could be worse, I said. You could be halfway through life. I reminded her that I was halfway to 120.
We arrived at our next destination, Carrión de los Condes, by 1 p.m., and yet we were too late for any of the albergues. No room at the inn! Most English-speakers use the same Camino guidebook written by John Brierly and therefore often aim for the same destination each day. This causes bottlenecks and races for beds. Marian and I had chosen a scenic alternative route through the countryside, avoiding a track along regional highway, which meant spotting the bed-racers two kilometers. The bottleneck in Carrión was worse than many because of what was coming next. The following day’s stage (according to Brierly, natch) offered no stops for 17.1 kilometers. So it was stop in Carrión or slog on beyond nothing.
We stayed at the Hostal Santiago, down the hall from Caro, a creative writing instructor at UNH with whom Marian was becoming friendly, and Mike and Bernadette, a middle-aged couple from Perth, Australia, who just kept turning up, like the sitcom parents they resembled. On Thursday, Marian and I walked alone again through the morning.
I think I´d like to do this again, Marian told me as we headed through the pink glow of dawn. Maybe from Le Puy, she said. Le Puy was the starting point of the first recorded pilgrimage by a bishop in AD 951. Then my daughter looked at me. Don´t get me wrong, Dad, she said, but next time I want to do this alone.
I took no offense. In fact, I told her that if she wanted, I was OK with splitting up for a day or even a few, just to see what we saw. She didn’t say anything more, thinking her own thoughts.
We walked on, following the straightest path on the Camino so far. Imagine Kansas without private farms, just field after field of grain. We followed the old Roman road for 11 kilometers into Caldadilla de la Cueza, where we stopped for lunch, made with ingredients we had carried with us.
From there, as Thursday’s sun beat down with a purpose, we wound along beside the highway for the last 10 kilometers to Terradillos de Templarios.
For a while, we walked with our friend Christian from Lausanne, who warned us that the two albergues in Terradillos might be filled. Christian and his walking partner Martino had phoned ahead for reservations, a measure Marian and I refused to use.
As the two of us came upon the Albergue de los Templarios at the edge of Terradillos, I told Marian that I had no fear for the outcome. I said I was ready to walk on until we found beds for the night, that I was entrusting things to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. She smiled, but as I soon learned, she was still thinking her own thoughts.
She went inside the albergue to inquire and came out two minutes later with her head down. I figured, no dice, no beds. When Marian told me that, in fact, there was one bed left in a single private room, I immediately said that I would sleep on the floor. But no.
Don´t get me wrong, Dad, Marian told me for the second time that day. But what if you took the room and I walked on? She started to launch into an apology—that she wasn´t trying to ditch me, but—I cut her short. No apology needed, I said. It´s a great idea. She didn´t shrug this time, she smiled.
Then she told me that for the last twenty minutes of our walk into the village, she had been thinking, What if there´s only one bed? What would Dad say if I suggested he take it and walk on? She kept imagining this scenario, one bed for two people, and then it happened.
After I checked into a perfect monk´s cell (complete with private shower and toilet), Marian and I shared soft drinks and ice cream on the veranda of the albergue. Then kissing her on both cheeks in the Continental manner, I saw her off down the road, bopping happily. I felt secure in the knowledge that she had traveled in Asia for four months before meeting me in Europe, and that after all she spoke Spanish. I had warned her to take the first available place, not to arrive somewhere unknown after dark. I said that if I didn´t see her before then, I would look for her at the last Sunday Mass at the cathedral in Leon.
So four days after Marian and I broke off from the Famous Five, my daughter and I separated from each other. The following morning I hoped to leave before dawn, walking under the stars. Then maybe I would begin to understand what this Camino was all about for me,. At least, I promised myself, I would try to empty myself, as André had advised in Navarette.
As for Marian, I was sure that she would be fine in the care of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. After I had showered and done my laundry, I returned to the veranda and, looking down the road where she had disappeared, I said a rosary for her safety and her destiny.
(Continue reading Chapter 6 here.)