Saturday, February 21, 2015

Our Camino, Chapter 6: Terradillos de los Templarios to León

(This is the sixth installment in my newly edited story of walking the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2012. The fifth chapter is here.)

With Marian moving on alone Thursday evening, I decided to begin walking before dawn on Friday. I told Carrie, a young Canadian woman with a past, that I would be leaving at 4 am if she wanted to tag along, but she didn’t show. So after starting a rosary while an angry dog took up a cry against me from behind a fence, I set off alone under the stars.

I wore a trekker's headlamp to shine a light on the yellow arrows marking the Camino. It was spooky walking alone on a path I didn't know. I shook off the ancestral fear of wolves and bandits, and eventually I began to think about faith. Walking the Camino in the dark is exactly as reasonable as Christian faith. One does it with confidence, knowing that generations of Catholics have walked it before.

As I moved west through darkened farmlands, I walked parallel with a highway to my right. I became aware of a stroboscopic effect, as what seemed to be lights on the edge of the highway flashed off and on in no particular order but without let-up, like flashbulbs going off in a small theatre when a celebrity steps on stage. Only later did I learn from a fellow walker that the lights were on the rotors of wind turbines on the distant hills, warding off unwary pilots.

After 3 kilometers, I came into the first small village just as a cock crowed. I checked my watch: still before five with no hint of dawn. How did the cock know it was time?

I passed through the village and out the other side, but not before passing a pilgrim with headlamp moving in the opposite direction. Was he returning to the head of the Camino? Another possibility slowly dawned on me: I was lost! I doubled back just as three more pilgrims were exiting an albergue and heading in the same direction as Mr. Headlamp. I followed the five of them around a corner I had missed and into the dark again.

As I came abreast of them, I tried greetings in several languages but discovered that they were Italians. That's what the phrase Buen Camino is for. It is the one greeting we all share, wherever we are from. I went on past them, but throughout the morning we would continue to pass each other. First they passed me when I stopped to rest; then I passed them because the eldest of the four had a sore foot and they had to slow down for his sake. By the time we all reached the village of San Nicolas del Real Camino (St. Nick of the Royal Way), the pink glow of dawn was making silhouettes of the cars coming west on the highway. I rolled into Sahagún, a regional grain depot, about 7:15.

Checking my e-mail I found a message from Carmen San Diego, alias Marian Bull. Where in the world was she? Her message was non-specific, perhaps to prevent paternal surveillance. All she said was that she was taking the “alternative route” toward León in the company of Fabian and Sara. I knew those names as a German man and woman we had met four days before and realized that she was in good hands. Over café con leche at a bar in Sahagún, I met John-Paul. When we discovered that we both spoke French, we agreed to walk together toward the next stop. Since Marian was taking the alternate route, I told John-Paul that I wanted to take the less scenic one, which runs parallel with a regional road all the way to El Burgo Ranero. And so we did.

I realized the value of a feminine presence beside me when I remembered I had forgotten to apply sunscreen. Fortunately, I have had enough exposure that I was not burned to a crisp. Then I nearly lost my one-liter water bottle twice—saved both times by John-Paul. Together, we staggered into El Burgo Ranero under a beating sun. Shut out of the two hostels by reservation-makers who hadn't arrived yet, we found ourselves first in line at the Albergue Domenico Laffi, named for a 17th-century Italian pilgrim. And so we continued joining hands with our ancestors in faith.

Cultural Differences

At the albergue in El Burgo Ranero Friday night, Jean-Paul and I shared a room for six with four Italian men, including three in their 60s and 70s. At supper in the common room downstairs, these Italians shared homemade spaghetti and much red wine with some Spaniards, who then “tried to get to sleep” in the next room, which wasn’t a separate room at all, since the wallboard dividing us from them ended ten feet above the floor well short of the rafters, with no ceiling in either “room” to insulate us from their sound, or vice versa. It was mayhem.

From 8:30 p.m. until after the 10 p.m. curfew, one of the Spaniards told a sequence of jokes and his roommates guffawed in sympathy while the Italians around me, doing their best to get to sleep while upholding national pride, launched volley after volley of what I can only assume were jokes and slurs about Spaniards. The French Jean-Paul and the American I could only raise our eyebrows at one another from across the room. Anything more would have risked an international incident.

Anyone accusing me of cultural prejudice, doesn’t what they’re talking about. Believe me: Germans are the most efficient and self-absorbed pilgrims on the Camino, and Spaniards get loud when they drink. But no louder than Italians.

After falling sleep about 10:30, I woke at 2:30 when the entire Italian delegation took a pee-pee break together. (Note the above reference to “much red wine.”) The pee-pee place was out the door of our room, across a creaky floor, down a creakier flight of stairs—and reverse. Each of the Italians had a private flashlight. By the time the last of them was settled back into his squeaky bunk with grunts and unprintable invective, I knew there was no getting back to sleep for me. I packed and left, hitting the road at 3:05. This was an hour earlier than I had left Terradillos the morning before, but I did love walking alone through Spain in the dark. It proved to be the perfect time and way to plod west along one of the single most boring stretches of the Camino, straight straight straight through flat farmland along a dirt path beside a regional road.

A railway ran parallel to both path and road, and every half hour or so a passenger train went by in the distance, its windows illuminated like the skeleton of a serpent slithering with a purpose. Who was looking out into the night from those windows, and did they think of me? I stopped and knelt at a monument topped by a cross, asking God to help me live for his glory, not my own. It occurred to me that this day, June 2, was the 87th anniversary of my father's birth. If he were still alive and walking by my side, I am sure he would have knelt with me. Dad was the rare former Methodist who admired Catholics.

I paused after 12 km in Reliegos, where the café looks like something out of Haight Ashbury circa 1968, but it was closed, so I walked another 6 km to Mansilla de las Mulas for my first cup of coffee, a double. It was about 8 am when I arrived, and I had covered 12 miles since 3. In the square before coffee, I stopped to admire a sculpture that my father, a sculptor, would have admired as well. Beneath a crucifix, two very realistic pilgrims, a man and a woman, had stopped in stone, figures of exhaustion huddled beside a backpack.

Across my field of vision came a living pilgrim, a man of about 70 whom I thought I recognized. Was he the German from Pamplona? The Dutchman we had met on the road to Santo Domingo? He turned and called to a friend, André— And I knew at once that these were the two Belgians from the albergue in Navarette, and André was that most exemplary Catholic pilgrim. We had a joyful reunion, and I snapped a picture of them beside the stone pilgrims before they went off down the way, and I went for my cafe doble.

At my second rest stop along the continuing road to León, I was overtaken by Jean-Paul, my roommate of the night before, who had left at 4:30 and thus had made far better time than I had. We walked together a while, but it soon became evident that, given my fatigue and limited abilities in French, we had exhausted our list of topics during the six-hour walk together into El Burgo Ranero the day before. So when I said I was going to stop in a park pour me reposer, peut-être dormer (perchance to dream), he said he would walk on. We wished each other Buen Camino and I found a place under the road beside a bridge abutment, where I propped my head against my pack, covered myself with my rain jacket and sun hat, and promptly fell asleep.


As I gathered my kit and prepared to soldier forward, I noticed a man of middle years and strong build standing near a car and emptying his rubbish pails into one of the green communal garbage-gathering bins you see lined up in villages and cites throughout Spain. He looked at me and we both smiled. With body language, apologizing for my vagabond nap in a public place, I expressed my stiffness and fatigue. With adequate English he asked the obvious, Was I a pilgrim? Yes, I was, I said.

He then asked a more direct, less obvious question: Why was I on the Camino? I laughed and said I had no idea. I am a Catholic, I volunteered, and this is a Catholic pilgrimage, and I have no idea. He laughed and said, That's the right answer! No one knows!

He then gestured to the large park area on the far side of the bridge and told me that if I wanted to rest I could rest there. The park was his, he said, although that sounded unlikely. Really, he said, it was his. Please!

I told him that I had to walk on, that I was meeting my daughter in León. That's when he invited me for tea at his place. It was, he said, just there (pointing), on the way to León. Well aware of parental warnings both received and given about never ever ever getting into cars with strangers, I got into his car, throwing my pack and walking stick in the back and sitting shotgun alongside Nacho. That was his name, short for Ignacio. Like Loyola, I said. Exactly, he answered.

We pulled up onto the road and drove about a kilometer through a settled area which I called very beautiful, perhaps to be kind. He laughed and said, Beautiful?! It's anarchy! Like the Wild West! Like Texas!

We pulled into a parking spot along the main road to León in an area with shops and apartment buildings. As we got out, he shouted across the street to his wife, Caroline, a native of Scotland, who was just putting two young children into a car to go shopping. As I later learned, this boy and girl were the youngest of Nacho's six children. All with the same woman? I asked indiscretely when we were seated upstairs in his kitchen and he was putting water on for tea. Yes, he smiled. Of course.

We spoke of many things in twenty minutes. Until recently, he had worked in renewable energy, but that was kaput, he said. In Spain, he added, everything was kaput. Now, he worked “organizing activities.” This (Saturday) afternoon, he had about 100 people signed up for paintball in the park beside the garbage bins, “his” park! I understood that this was why he had offered the park to me. He would be there soon, playing paintball, and he knew it was reserved.

We spoke about mortality. I asked him if his father was still living, and he said yes. He and Caroline and their children were living in his father's “flat”, and his parents had retired to a pueblo house, their country place. My father was my best friend, I said, and he died four years ago. I showed Nacho the entry in my journal for the day, which read, Camino Day 20 and Dad's 87th. I said that my father's death had been a big event in my life, and he indicated that he understood.

Life is short, Nacho said. I am 46, and a friend of mine just died. I could die at any time. I was 60, I told him. Yes, he said.

Then Nacho made it clear that it was time for paintball, and we headed down to the street again. We waved good-bye several times as he made a U-turn and headed back to the park, and I walked on to León, the weight of my pack lightened by a refreshing encounter.

I stopped in a small village on my way into the city, and as I swung back onto the Camino after 45 minutes, I noticed a threesome about 300 meters ahead of me. The one on the right had a familiar gait and as I got closer, I noticed that she was wearing red bandanas on her calves to protect them from the sun, and gloves on her hands for the same reason. When she turned in profile briefly, I recognized the bill of Marian’s blue ballcap. Then I realized that the others were Fabian and Caro, a young man from Germany and woman from the USA whom I had met and liked very much.

I would have let the kids go on without noticing me, I meant to do so, but they missed a turn and suddenly doubled back right in front of me. I couldn’t hide! I apologized, assuring them I was not following them, but Marian greeted me with a reassuring hug and kiss, and we four walked into León together. Then we parted again, Marian and I agreeing to meet at the Sunday 6 pm cathedral mass, as previously planned. I checked into a converted Benedictine monastery on the Plaza de Santa Maria del Camino and collapsed for an hour's nap. Then I pulled myself together for the Saturday evening vigil mass. When I stepped out of the cathedral afterwards, I ran into Marian and Caro again.

I stopped for a 9 euro pilgrim meal (gazpacho, pasta, flan, and water) before collapsing again. I slept for three hours until midnight, when I realized that the window on my balcony overlooking the square was shut and the air in the room was becoming close. I opened the window, and the sounds of partying poured in. A drunken man speaking Spanish shouted at the top of his lungs and a whole chorus of laughs rewarded him. He was not the only Spaniard in the large square beneath my window, nor the only loud one. But I left the window open for the air, and fell asleep to their music.

León, Just León

On Sunday, June 3, we spent a day of total rest, our first, in what was easily my favorite city along the Camino so far, a former Roman military garrison whose name derives from legion. I say we because Marian and I got back together again earlier than planned. She came by my table facing the cathedral at the end of lunch (as I was sketching the cathedral in my notebook, above). Then she showed no desire to be anywhere else.

I woke from a luxurious nap later in the afternoon to find my daughter in the next bed. So—good.

We made plans to leave before dawn Monday and head for Hospital de Órbigo, an ambitious 37 kilometers away. It was Marian's idea to “front-load” the week so that we could easily reach Foncebadón at the approach to the Cruz de Ferro by Wednesday and make that symbolic Calvary the heart of our week on Thursday morning.

At the base of the Cruz de Ferro, which stands at the highest elevation on the Camino de Santiago, I planned to leave three small stones I had carried with me from America. One was for my friend Donald, recently dead; one for my friend Randy, recovering from alcoholism; and one for myself, gratefully both alive and sober.

(Continue reading Chapter 7 here.)

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