Pilgrimage: Day Nine

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Something I forgot to write about a few days ago – from the day of walking that was worse than childbirth. We had not seen anyone else walking that day, and so, besides the cold wind and fatigue, there was also a loneliness around us. My son suggested we play games of GHOST and Botticelli to keep our minds off the cold, but really he was just trying to help me stay focused. I think he may rightfully have been worried that I wouldn’t make it. When we approached the town of Cruces I told him to go ahead and find an albergue and get warm. He did walk ahead, because he couldn’t have possibly matched my snail’s pace, but at turns on the camino he would wait until he saw me so that he could point the way and I wouldn’t get lost. We were in a maze of ugly new apartment buildings at this point, but were led eventually into a very small, nearly extinct village. I was so cold, truly chilled to my bones (I might remind you, this is May!), head down against the wind, and sometimes I would look up and see what would turn out to be a large recycling bin, instead of what I had thought was my son in his blue rain poncho. I think I might have been close to hallucinating, but we were led to Pedro and Virgen de Guadalupe and all was well. Or was that a hallucination too?


This morning Sibyl and Basil – okay, you know these weren’t really their names – fed us a typically worthless Spanish breakfast before bidding us buen camino. The day was not too long – 24 km – but so strange. Lots of climbing – we must be quite high, now in San Juan de Ortega. Along the way a memorial to some of the victims of the Spanish Civil War in the middle of a long, desolate walk through mud, pine forests and moss-covered deciduous trees that had not leafed out yet only added to our unease. It felt and looked like late winter, and the memorial was as stark as the landscape.



Pilgrimage: Day Eight

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

In the night I realized our host reminded me of “Doc” in the Back to the Future movies. He awoke us at 6:00 am or so, and had “breakfast” on the table for the pilgrims at 6:30. HUGE cups of cafe con lecheat least three times the size of a normal coffee mug. The cups were from a matching set of mugs with Disney, Looney Tunes, and Warner Brothers characters on them.  You cannot make this stuff up.  (As a friend commented after last week’s post, thank goodness I wasn’t imagining us in a Tarantino film).

We walked seven and a half hours today, nearly 30 km to Belgado. Today’s walking was difficult…but not worse than childbirth! Warmer temperatures helped. We walked that distance, however, on very little food. Spanish breakfasts of coffee and toast are not enough to walk seven hours on. We wanted to stop on the way for fruit and a sandwich, but somehow never managed to be in any of the small, blink-and-you-miss them towns during the 45 minutes a day that stores seemed to ever be open. There was no food to be found, and a Cliff Bar discovered in the bottom of my backpack around 2:00 pm was the most delectable treat imaginable, divided between us and savored .

We decided to shuffle our weary bodies past the first albergue in town, since it looked like something from Gatlinburg, Tennessee with hillbilly peregrine cut-outs pointing to the entrance (have I mentioned that you cannot make this stuff up?).  Too cheesy even for our bone-tiredness. We got into the town proper and saw another albergue next to a church, but an elderly Korean couple outside didn’t give it a ringing endorsement, so we dragged ourselves another block further and discovered an albergue run by the couple from Fawlty Towers, known here as Albergue Caminante – Basil obsequiously showing us to our (private!) room, and his wife Sibyl at the desk in a mail-order medieval dress. I know it was mail-order because I have one very similar. Neither speaks English, but they are funny and charming and I’m so glad we found our way here.

The pilgrims’ dinner was cooked for us by a Romanian woman and served by our hosts. Paella, meat, and vegetables. And lots of wine of course. We shared a table with a couple from Innsbruck who set out last year to walk from Austria to Santiago, but didn’t make it and so are finishing the trip this year, a woman from Romania who works at her country’s embassy in Holland, and a man from Ireland who looked like a jockey. A silent group, which forced me into the role of social butterfly. I don’t love it, but I’m not bad at it either. In retrospect, though, maybe everyone was just tired and enjoying their food and silently hoped I would be quiet!


Every sort and condition is found on the camino. From baby Olivia to young school children on holiday with their parents, hippie wannabes in their 20’s, and couples of every age. Some met while walking the camino, some have walked from their homes in France or Holland or Germany, some have grown old together and walk in a way that suggest they truly are two parts of a whole. People of many nationalities, but not many colors. People of all shapes and sizes too, from the long S-shaped bodies of the bicyclists, to paunchy and frumpy middle-agers, to wiry old-timers. Many would surprise you as potential pilgrims, and those hobbling on sore feet aren’t always the ones you might expect.


Pilgrimage: Day Seven

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

“Windswept” in books sounds poetic, rather romantic, and perhaps just a bit glamerous. Windswept for 8 hours on the camino is none of those things. People in the towns are wearing their winter coats, while people on the camino are wearing everything that they packed. Heads down against the unrelenting wind, each day colder than the last.

We arrived at an albergue around 3:30, and after a few hours in my sleeping bag I am finally feeling warm again. It seemed that we might be the only guests at the Albergue de Virgen de Guadalupe, run by an artist who signs his paintings “Petrus.” At first I thought we might be in a Hitchcock film, because this is a strange place. Perhaps it used to be a barn? Our host has an odd, unblinking look that was scary at first, but then we were joined by a German named Thomas at our nearly silent dinner and I thought we might now be in a Bergman film. Then four more pilgrims joined us – a jolly German named Holger, a severe-faced, tattooed Finn named Janne, a very young Brazilian, Pedro, walking his second camino back-to-back, and a German who spoke flawless English named Jaclyn. Janne, Pedro, and Jaclyn are traveling together, she on a bike and the others walking and running. It’s an odd trio, and now it seems that this might be a Fellini movie.  Different languages, slapstick comedy, non-sequitors. It was surreal, and got only more so.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503Our host offered to take us down to the village church after a dinner of lentils and barley. The churches we had come across during our days on the camino were almost always locked, so I was glad, now that we no longer appeared to be in a Hitchcock film, to take him up on his offer. Using his own key to let us in, he lit the altar candles, told our little group to hold hands and asked that we say The Lord’s Prayer in our own language. He then gave us communion from reserved sacrament. Possibly none of this would have been approved by the local priest, but it was actually very lovely. My first religious experience on the camino.


Pilgrimage: Days Five and Six

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Bit of a dismal day, so windy and cold – an unusual weather system is moving through apparently. My bunk bed doesn’t allow me to prop myself up to write, so I lay on my back and write holding my journal over my head.

Last night we stayed in Viana, after a day of walking a mere 19 km. My legs are/were incredibly sore and I just couldn’t do more. In Viana we stayed at a hotel-like hostel. Private room, private showers. Such luxury! On the pricey side at 40 euros, but so nice to not be in bunks, and it was very quiet. We somehow found ourselves at a pilgrim’s lunch, which then precluded a pilgrim’s dinner, and I missed the camaraderie of being with other pilgrims over dinner and a bottle of wine. Lunch was rabbit – too many bones – and chard with almonds. I can truly say that there was nothing recognizable about this food. Nothing chard-like or almond-shaped to be seen. We’ve eaten lots of Spanish oranges though, and they are amazing.

We went out around 6:00 pm to buy a little food, see the church and look around the town. Sleepy and empty, like every smaller town we’ve been through so far. Around 7:30 pm, however, I decided to go and get some more fruit and something to drink.  Well…it was a different town! Children playing everywhere, grandmothers watching babies, every store open, an art gallery revealed just across the street. Energy and life in abundance. I bought a bottle of grapefruit juice (1.95 euros) instead of the large box of sangria (1.05 euros). As we had been told, wine is plentiful and cheap.

Today, we’ve walked 23 km to Navarette. Again, my sore legs wouldn’t go any further. I think my son is tired too, so I hope I’m not too much of a drag on this enterprise. Along the way, at the top of a windy hill we saw a young man with a table on the roadside. How entrepreneurial! Flasks of tea and coffee, fruit cookies. No charge, pay what you want. I found this to be an excellent business model, since what we took was worth far less than the 2 euros I gave him. We talked for some time with him and learned that he had been in Poland, but had come back to Spain to escape the cold, only to discover it was colder here. Not many pilgrims today.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503Several times I have wanted to draw what I see. That’s not an urge I have felt before. Photos can’t capture what interests me – the expansive vistas and magnificent wildflowers in such array and abundance. The rolling hills almost appear cartoon-like in their simplicity. Photos are too small, or too literal. My drawing efforts are not worth reproducing, but I did try.



A Pilgrimage: Day Four

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Every muscle in my body hurts. Every one. I am so tired and agonizingly sore that I wondered at one point, imagining one of my children on the railroad tracks with a train speeding towards them, if I would have the energy and strength to run and push them out of the way.  That is really tired. More pain than I can ever remember feeling, except perhaps (and only perhaps) childbirth.

But it was all worth it! The scenery and weather today were absolutely glorious, even if we were dragging ourselves, step by silently labored step, to Los Arcos, which is a mere 14 km from the previous town. The very first albergue we hit had a room. A huge relief! A dormitory with seven bunkbeds, all full now, I think. I am prostrate on my upper bunk, finally finding a little strength to write this mess, after lying still and aching for the last hour or more. My son is below, reading and not feeling much more energetic than me, though I his young muscles are probably not screaming with the same outrage as my now-beyond-middle-aged ones.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503But I want to write about someone else we met last night at the albergue in Lorca. As a group of bedraggled pilgrims sat in the sun, a young woman rode into town on a bicycle with a baby strapped into the back seat. Most of us expressed some shock – who takes a baby on the camino? and where was the baby’s helmet? I learned soon after that the baby and her mother were to be in our room. My displeasure must have shown (I needed sleep!), because the young mother quickly assured me that her baby slept very well and wouldn’t disturb us, which was mostly true that night. In fact, baby Olivia was utterly delightful, teetering around our room and checking on each of us. In the morning, as we said our goodbyes, I asked why she was biking the camino and she said that she wanted to experience the generous and kind side of people. That traveling with a baby was so difficult and people were often not very nice about it (oops), but that on the camino she had only experienced generosity. She told me about one young man who had helped her through the mud of the previous day, and a group of girls who handed the baby from one to another and then the bike itself through a particularly treacherous spot. I looked at Olivia and asked, “are you helping others to be kind? How good of you to do that.” She had already helped me to be kinder.


The pilgrim’s dinner tonight was not particularly good, but the long table was full of interesting people. Four Canadians, two of whom were retired firemen and another who had walked the camino five times. And I was seated next to a mother and her son – there are lots of mothers and daughters on the camino, but this is, so far, the only pairing like us that we’ve encountered. I have to admire my son for being brave enough to walk with his mother. I gave him lots of chances to say no, but maybe it helped that I was paying for everything! Oh, and the woman I sat next to is an Episcopal priest from South Carolina. Of course.


A Pilgrimage: Day Three

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

A difficult day for walking – rainy and lots of hills – but apparently we traveled 27 km and ended up in Lorca. The sun appeared and a row of cold, damp pilgrims lined the road on the sunny side of the street, across from the albergue where we had found a room. It was in fact, despite this introduction, a wonderful day. Mountains in the mist, fast-running rivers, masses of wildflowers (notably, fields of poppies), birds and frogs, medieval villages and bridges.  

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503We had company early in the day with three Brits from Hereford, and then company again late in the day when we joined a sweet couple from the Netherlands.  And we met a man named Stefan from Germany, who had recently spent three years in Washington D.C. and now lives in Sweden.

We’re at the Albergue de Peregrino in Lorca. Mozart is blaring as we come in and an earnest young man seems to be in charge. I can’t help but wonder about his story. I did ask if he was a musician, but he says no.  I am guessing that “Mozart’s Requiem” and “blaring” have not been used in the same sentence before.  At least I hope not.

One more answer to the “why” of this trip…to see if I can. These two days have been difficult. No blisters yet, but sore shoulders and feet. Unhappy muscles and ligaments. I want the answer to be a resounding “yes, I can” though.  And I hope I can in 10 years and 20 years. We have certainly seen people in their 70’s on the camino.

Dessert was a choice of an apple or an orange. The sticker on the apple announced it is of the “Mozart” variety. Of course.


The albergue in Lorca was small and provided just the right atmosphere for conversation with strangers. The Stefan we met had decided only two weeks earlier to come to Spain and walk the camino. He has no time limit and a supportive family at home and we learn that only four months before he had been in a wheelchair after having had a stroke at age 49. He walks slowly now, with a limp and wonders what he will learn about himself by the time he reaches Santiago. A doctor from France joined our conversation, only revealing his profession upon learning about Stefan’s stroke, quickly making a few assessments and giving him encouraging advice. The doctor himself said he was walking because, at age 50, he knew it was time to shed some things.  He didn’t say what those things were.

Our new friend Stefan had clearly been a very successful executive in the car industry and had lived all over the world, a man of means and accomplishment in his field. His physical limitations, however, suddenly took a backseat to the ending twist in his story. He quietly tells us that he lost his job after his stroke and is now unable to find a new position. He didn’t present himself as someone defined by his job, but the pain was clear.


A Pilgrimage: Day Two

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Hard to know when anything, including a pilgrimage, actually begins. That moment when you go hmmm and nod your head with a slight tilt may be the actual start to any journey. In this case it’s the 9:30 train from Barcelona to Pamplona.

It was so easy to take Metro from our hotel to the train station, so easy to find our train and make our way to Pamplona. So easy for me to turn to my son as we exited the station and tell him that I had done all the planning up to this moment and that it was now up to him to find the camino. I was too eager to get started and we didn’t explore the famous narrow streets of Pamplona as much as we should have, because we soon found the first pilgrim’s scallop shell, which images-6pointed us on our way.


We walked until 4:45, stopping to rest in the tiny village of Zariquiegui. The cold water fountain was a welcome sight after a very hot, uphill walk. Wonderful views of snow-capped mountains behind us, fields and many moments of absolute silence all around us. Our first buen camino was called out to us on the outskirts of Pamplona, but we saw only a few other pilgrims along the way.

Not much hope of having a place to stay in Zariquiegui, so it seemed to us, but we met an older French-speaking couple who were on their 54th day of walking!  They said there was indeed an albergue just up the street, which had a room and we decided to stay. A quiet hour of reading, and smells of dinner in preparation.

Six courses! Soup, which tasted much better than the dishwater it resembled, beans, tomato and lettuce salad, fish stew, pork (we think…), flan and ice cream for dessert.  All ten of us at the communal table were pleasantly surprised.

Moments of absolute silence and dinner with strangers who feel like friends. These seem like reasons enough to have come here.




A Pilgrimage: Day One

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Authors of books about walking the camino want the pilgrim to have a clear answer about why you are doing this. I figured I might know the “why” of it when I got to the end, but am not very clear at the beginning. I can begin with two possible why’s, both true, if not the complete answer. First, a chance to spend time with my newly-graduated, cusp-of-adulthood son, and second, I walk in memory of my friend’s son, who died at 22.  My friend will never get to walk with her son and I am doing this in part because she can’t. I wonder if people who begin their pilgrimage with a clear idea of “why,” find that reasons change over the journey’s course. If our lives are pilgrimages, we can probably all agree, midway or more through our time on earth as we likely are, that our lives have gone in lots of unexpected directions. How can you possibly know the “why” of pilgrimage at the beginning?

If one beginsimages-2 a pilgrimage by flying to Barcelona, then the journey must begin with some experiences of that city! Breakfast at our hotel, Hotel Lloret – faded elegance right on La Rambla. What a noisy night. Late night drunken shouts simply evolved into morning delivery sounds. A walk through the city’s Gotic neighborhood of narrow streets, and a tour of the beautiful Palace of Catalonian Music, which is a dazzling example of the Modernist movement that Barcelona is so famous for. The Palau celebrates music, Catalonian culture, and nature in equal measure, and it seems that maybe the architect wanted to bring nature inside. A local amateur choral organization commissioned the building in the early 20th century….could that happen now?

images-5We walked then to architect Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, Sagrada Familia. A cathedral-sized church of such strangeness that Gaudi is more aptly spelled gaudy, in my humble opinion. A woman sitting next to us at lunch across the street opined that Gaudi was surely manic depressive, that such a creation could only have come about during a period of mania.  And yes, she was a psychologist by profession.

440px-Σαγράδα_Φαμίλια_2941I admit, the place left me cold, but perhaps I’m too far removed from Catholic piety? The building soars, but in a bizarre, seemingly random way that looks like a creation from Dr. Seuss’s imagination.

In contrast, our visit to the local Dali Museum (not the large and better known one an hour from Barcelona) made me think that Salvador Dali was something closer to “normal.” Many drawings on Biblical topics, very few wilting clocks, lots and lots of horses, a fixation on Don Quixote.

My big disappointment of the day –– the evening’s treat of kiwi gelato did not taste very good! See, I’ve learned something already.


Next week: our camino begins

On Pilgrimage

We are all on pilgrimage – it’s called living your life.  And, like life, pilgrimages have beginnings and endings, are full of plans that go awry and serendipitous moments, boredom and hardships, times of confusion and others of utter clarity. Important touchstones to which we later long to return are created during this pilgrimage – our birthplaces and ancestral homes, places that nurtured us in one way or another, and others that we yearn to be part of.

Pilgrimages are usually made to holy sites that have called generations before us, but “holy” is in the eyes of the beholder. Tuscany or Machu Picchu or the Great Barrier Reef are holy sites for some. Six years ago I made one such pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela – the way of St. James in northern Spain. It was a gift – nearly four weeks of walking during a sabbatical period – and I kept a journal which I revisited not long ago. Over the next few months I will share those entries in this blog, affirming some of the lessons I learned and perhaps including some new insights too. We’re never not on a pilgrimage after all.

There is something about walking that causes us to clear out our minds and which allows us to notice what is right around us. Just as computers and air travel collapse the world, walking expands it again. As I walked that journey six years ago I felt that the world had slowed, and my place in the continuum of time seemed clearer.  The rootlessness of my sabbatical made me all the more aware of my rootedness in a life of family and music, and a belief that we can find our joy in simply being the connection between past and future.

A book that I read a few years before going to Spain, and again – with much more appreciation – afterwards was Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Walking from one end of England to the other, a man wounded by life finds that by living completely in the present as he walks, he is able to understand his past more fully and to have hope for his future. On the face of it, his pilgrimage makes no sense, anymore than walking the Way of St. James across Spain, or threading through the crowds at Graceland makes sense. Harold was walking because he believed that as long as he did so his friend would not die. Near the end of the book he wonders if what the world needs is “a little less sense and a little more faith.”

We don’t always know why we’ve gone on a pilgrimage, we certainly don’t understand life’s purpose most of the time, nor can we fully fathom the tragedies of our life or say that we deserve our good fortunes. Perhaps we need Harold’s words to take root in us so that we begin to need a little less sense out of our existence, and rely more on faith that our lives have meaning in ways we’ll never understand as long as we keep from getting stuck in one place, whether that be mentally, physically, spiritually, or emotionally.

Journey on!


Next week: Day one of a pilgrimage on the camino