Monday, February 23, 2015

Our Camino, Chapter 7: León to the Cruz de Ferro

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

While “The Way” paints a fair picture of the Camino de Santiago, the Emilio Estevez–Martin Sheen film fails to make a significant point. This 500-mile (800 km) pilgrimage from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela is damn hard, not for the faint of heart, much more difficult than it looks on film.

Marian and I heard of three people dying on the Camino while we were on it. And every day we passed monuments erected to the memory of Camino martyrs past. People show up for a hike and find themselves on a death march.

Our first day’s climb over the Pyrenees alone was a baptism by fire. Estevez’s film character dying between St. Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles is not a screenwriting twist. It happens. Not infrequently.

From the perspective of our first day of full rest—on our twenty-first day and third Sunday—the 500-km walk to León had been a trial. And Monday morning, to begin our fourth week, Marian and I set out at 4:45, walking seven hours to Villar de Mazarife.

Just another average day on the Way of St. James.


The following morning, Tuesday, June 5, we headed west with the rising sun at our backs. Our shadows stretched out far in front of us through grain fields toward a blue line of mountains 60 kilometers dead ahead and directly across our path.

Somewhere on that ridge, beneath a full moon suspended in rosy mist, lay the Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on the Camino, which we hoped to reach on Thursday. But as we came within 30 kilometers of the mountains late on Tuesday and entered the town of Astorga, all we would see on the ridge ahead were wind turbines—enough to baffle a whole cavalry of Quixotes.

We’d had fun along the way, though. “Sometimes,” Marian had said after a long silence Tuesday morning, “don't you just want to, like—” Then out of nowhere she began humming the song “Tradition” from “Fiddler on the Roof” and broke into the Tevye shimmy. You know the scene where Topol or Zero Mostel extends his arms and shakes his shoulders, stomping and striding in time with the music. She found the song on her iPod and played it: “The fathers! The fathers! Tra-di-tion! . . . . The daughters! The daughters! Tra-di-tion!”

Tevye says that tradition is what tells us who his people are, and what God expects of them. Without tradition we are as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. It is a good theme song for the Camino de Santiago, where you walk literally in the footsteps of a thousand years of Christian tradition. Playing disk jockey, Marian seguéd to Alfred Drake, from the original Broadway cast of “Oklahoma!” singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!” And our day was off and dancing.

Our father-daughter conversations were a highlight of my Camino, and this day’s were best so far. We began talking about tradition in various forms. We talked about the tension people feel today between obedience to tradition and their own “inner voices”—if indeed they are pulled by tradition at all. I thought a lot on the Camino about the need to follow something, anything besides our fickle appetites. What did I follow and did I really follow it?

We passed on to other subjects. Marian began explaining about strategic consulting, which she had studied in business school. She talked about decision trees, and I asked her to illustrate by helping me answer a personal question: What were the ways I could earn money as a writer at this stage of my professional life, with the condition that the work be spiritually fulfilling? She suggested I look at a 2x2 matrix.

After a while Marian brought up her own life-and-work situation, which was as undecided as my own. She said that she had been trying to visualize, not the perfect job, but the ideal living conditions at this time of life. Where? With whom? In what community? I asked her to apply a matrix to her own situation, but she said she wasn’t ready for that. I realized that at my age and my situation, it was easy for me to visualize, not the ideal working model, but the best living conditions. They were exactly the conditions of my life at home: with my wife in our house north of Boston, being a member of our parish community, working out of my home office . . .

There was nothing about my life I wanted to change!

We talked about God's will for us and how that might be revealed on the Camino. And we agreed that this did not have to come in the form of spiritual insight only. It seemed enough to know more about how to live our lives from day to day. God’s plan for us is revealed in the day’s details. God wants us to be happy.

When we took a break from walking, the conversation took a 90-degree detour. Marian went inside a bar to use the bathroom. “That's a strange bar,” she said coming out. “It has an Indian toilet and a booby calendar.” I knew that she meant the kind of toilet where you squat plus a pin-up calendar. So then why did she suddenly launch into a summary of the film “Role Models”? A young man on probation performs community service by taking care of a child. The child describes himself as a booby watcher. OK, I got it now.

As we came into Hospital de Órbigo, we stopped to take photos of each other on the remarkable 13th-century stone bridge built on the foundation of a 2000-year-old Roman bridge. The bridge has 19 stone arches and is probably 150 meters long.

Onto the scene came Constant and Lucille from Paris, a couple about my age and the only black people we have met on the Camino. I had enjoyed dinner with them a few nights before in Terradillos, and I had bantered happily with them ever since, whenever we ran into one another. Now, seeing me posed for a photo, Constant kidded me, calling me Henri Plantagenet, or King Henry II of England. We pretended to joust at each other with our walking sticks before he and Lucille, former sprinters, moved on ahead.

This prompted Marian to ask me about Henry II and the British monarchy. I explained about Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons Richard the Lionheart and King John, of Magna Carta fame. We quickly jumped four hundred years and six Henrys to Henry VIII, who he was, who he married, and who he killed (the martyrs Thomas More and John Fisher, notably)—some of Henry’s wives ending up martyrs as well.

We moved on to the evolution of the English language, with its Viking and Angle and Saxon influences followed by the Romance strain brought with the Norman Conquest. I explained about the Welsh, with their aboriginal Celtic language pushed into a corner, much as the Irish were pushed west on their island. This led to Dylan Thomas and my recitation of his great poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London.” I recited once, then again with annotations. When I broke into a third rendition, imitating Thomas's declamatory style, Marian kindly asked me to stop.

Soon afterward, and it was just about time, we drifted into our separate silences at last. Over a long wave of three hills—where I finally listened to iTunes for the first time on the Camino, for just the inspiration I needed—we finally came into Astorga at 5pm.

To The Cross

Marian and I walked together out of Astorga Wednesday morning, but said little. This stretch of the Camino, roughly since we split up in Terradillos last Thursday, had become more of an inner journey—less about the people we met and more about the thoughts and feelings we were having. So we walked together and talked about personal questions (as on Tuesday) or we walked apart, either literally or in silence (as we did Wednesday).

I thought a lot about Randy and Donald, two friends, one living, one passed, for whom I was carrying small stones to the Cruz de Ferro. I thought more of my writing life, a subject of yesterday’s talk with Marian, and I had a new insight about how my writing might serve my faith.

I thought how tired I was. After 31 kilometers Tuesday, we had set an initial target of Rabanal (21 kilometers) with a possible goal of Foncebadón (27 kilometers) for Wednesday. Though I dearly wanted to reach the latter village, which is only 2 kilometers short of the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross), I was pretty sure I didn’t have 27 kilometers in the tank.

At a noontime bread-and-jam stop Marian said that she was thinking about going on to Foncebadón. She didn't ask if I want to go with her. She was thinking of doing it herself. Apparently, she had talked with some young people back at the last village and there was a cool hostel in Foncebadón where they served vegetarian dinners and where presumably some of her friends were planning to spend the night. I kept my counsel.

On our final approach into Rabanal we passed a shepherd and his flock—the first sheep we had seen on the Camino. We had seen horses, cows, storks on churches, packs of dogs and cats, but until that moment, no sheep and definitely not in a flock of 150 or 200, as these were. It was such a striking sight that two other pilgrims ahead of me had stopped to take pictures. A grey mongrel bitch stood beneath the shepherd’s staff, eying the sheep warily, ready to pounce on strays. I thought of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and I had a moment's reflection.

If, as I deeply believed, my Camino was guided by a power greater than myself and wiser and more loving, why should Marian’s Camino be any different? She and I were both sheep from the same flock, both baptized, both Catholics, both within our personal limits observant. So when we sat for lunch by the side of the road in Rabanal, eating food that Marian thoughtfully had bought for us, and she paused to say grace after I had already started eating, I kept my counsel again. Then when she said that she thought she would go ahead to Foncebadón, I said that she ought to get going, so that she would have a bed in the hostel her friends were staying at.

I didn't say what I would do, but after lunch I followed her to the top of the village to see her off with a hug and a kiss, and a promise that, come what may, I would meet her for breakfast tomorrow in Foncebadón. Then I sat on a bench and thought some more. Then I sketched the picture shown here. Then I found a bed.

I left my posada in Rabanal at 5 am, almost making a monumental blunder. Packing my knapsack in my hotel room, I failed to account for my battery-powered headlamp. Only at the last moment, when I was hoisting my pack on my shoulder and my foot inadvertently kicked under the bed, did I feel the lamp against my boot. If I had left the posada without it, locking the front door behind me as you must when leaving early, I would have had to climb the steep, narrow, rutted trail to Foncebadón in the dark, or to wait until first light at about 6:30. Instead, I walked with my lamp forming a circle in front of my feet.

A light rain began to fall. The drops looked like a meteor shower as they passed through my shaft of light. I was startled to see a tiny salamander cross the path in front of me as I walked, like a plenarian worm slithering across a slide in a bio lab. In that circle of light, an extension of my night vision, the cosmic and the microscopic blended. Like Walt Whitman, I contained multitudes.

The path passed through woods and up rocky inclines past a couple of stone troughs fed by natural streams and constructed to cool pilgrim mouths and feet. I suddenly emerged from the trees into a clearing. I looked up to my right and saw clouds that seemed to race toward the rising sun in the east. Then I looked dead ahead and saw what looked like the Cruz de Ferro on a ridge directly above. Then I thought I noticed a second, more slender cross just behind it. I should have remembered one of the Camino's first lessons: Never try to look too far up the road.

As I emerged onto grazing lands populated by a herd of cows just outside Foncebadón, I realized that the entire landscape was chock full of “crosses.” They were cell-phone towers and electric towers running high-tension lines across the ridge. Another cross in neon flashed off and on on the face of an albergue in Foncebadón. The munching cows seemed unimpressed, and still I had not seen the Cruz de Ferro.

I arrived at the hostel for breakfast with Marian, a yummy, crunchy assortment of breads and jams and cereals with plenty of hot coffee and hot milk and spoonfuls of sugar. We stepped outside and admired the village, which has been effectively resurrected by the Camino. Marian told me that, in addition to the cows, only two people lived here year-round. The village lived and moved and had its seasonal being thanks to four albergues built in recent years. Otherwise, Foncebadón looked like an abandoned village in the west of Ireland, with stone walls like bombed-out shells where cottages once had been.

Having arrived from the relatively gentrified Rabanal at this wilder mountain village, I thought that in some ways the entire Camino teeters and totters between a haven for latter-day hippies and an Elderhostel outing for all of Europe. But the face of Christ is never wholly absent.

Nervously I walked with Marian along the hillside to our left, then doubled back until finally the Cruz de Ferro came into view at the end of a long path. We could see several pilgrims gathered in colorful rain slickers at the base and another posing on top of the cairn, his arms outstretched before the cross like a crucified Christ.

The Cruz de Ferro represents one of the better photo opportunities on the Camino, but to judge by the thousands of stones and other mementos left at the foot by fellow pilgrims, it is also a shrine of deep significance. Pilgrims bring everything from 30-pound rocks to family snapshots. “In memory of our beloved Christine” was the caption on a color photograph that had been signed by at least twenty people. Many rocks and tokens had hand-written messages, like slips of paper inserted in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Marian and I each had brought our own small tokens—for family members, friends, and ourselves. I knelt at the base of the cairn and said a short prayer for my two friends, Donald and Randy, before tossing their stones on the hill, followed by my own.

A rainbow, cast by the sun behind us on the clouds ahead of us, formed a perfect arch over the Cruz de Ferro. I have photos of Marian beside the cross to prove there was a rainbow.

(Continue reading chapter 8 of this narrative here.)

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