In September, 2019, my husband, Dan, and I walked 200 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. We began in León and finished in Santiago 15 days later (which
included two rest days). Walking our Camino had been a dream of mine for around 30 years; I taught about the Camino’s importance culturally in my life as a Spanish teacher. After watching “The Way” (the movie about the Camino by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen), Dan was game to walk it with me.
To give a bit of background: El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain. The first recorded pilgrims walked in the year 821, A.D. According to legend, St James, apostle of Christ, was beheaded in Jerusalem and his remains were taken by sea to Galicia where he had spread the Good News while alive. His body is buried in the cathedral in Santiago. There are many, many Caminos all over Spain and Europe, all leading to this city.
Dan and I traveled the classic, Camino Francés, which goes from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees of France across Northern Spain to the region of Galicia and Santiago. The whole Camino Francés is 500 miles; we “only” did the last 200.
El Camino, which means “the way” and conveniently also means “the road” is a complete and brilliant metaphor for life. As you walk, there are many accidents—happy and otherwise—to deal with. Regardless of how you feel or what the “weather” is like, you must go on. There are people who briefly shine their light on your steps, never to be seen again. There are others who come in and out of your journey—joyously reuniting and waving adieu, only to meet up again later. Then there are the people with whom you bond on a deeper level who become part of your life. This piece is dedicated to those folks—some ephemeral, some more permanent—who made our Camino, ours.
We spent the summer training for our walk—breaking in our boots, selecting socks, learning how to grease our feet (although Dan never did this), and gradually increasing our mileage and hours of walking each week. What followed in September was at once one of the crowning achievements of our life together and one of the most intensely difficult. Luckily, we were surrounded by humanity in all of its goodness along the Way.
Mercedes and the Roasted Peppers
We began our pilgrimage on Sept 10, setting out from our hotel in León around 8:00 in the morning. It was brisk and blustery as we trekked the 3 miles to get out of town and finally entered the Meseta—that arid region in North-Central Spain with its rolling, wide open vistas. After a solid day of walking, we arrived at our destination in Mazarife and called our Casa Rural (a more full-service bed and breakfast) to come pick us up to take us the remaining distance to their establishment out in the country.
As we walked up to the 200-year-old mill-turned-casa rural from the car, we were greeted by Mercedes and her sister Eva who were sitting at a table in an open air workspace adjacent to a barn. They had just roasted dozens of red peppers on an open fire and were now stripping them of their seeds and stems. Sitting with a beloved female relative on such a fine day working on a project together, looked like bliss to me and I said so. Their rural idyll, the old mill, sat astride a swiftly running, clear river. We soon found out that it wasn’t a river at all, but rather the ingenious irrigation system that the Moors had built 800 years before in their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
To say that Mercedes and I chatted like our tongues were on fire would be an understatement. We learned that Emilio and Martin had stayed there during the making of “The Way” and that Eva had indeed just returned from visiting Emilio in Los Angeles. We talked about fishing in the water rushing under the mill; apparently the week before an otter had come and eaten all the trout. We enjoyed small, yellow, ripe plums from her trees and the jam that she made from them. We discussed her garden in great detail—admiring the baskets and baskets full of tomatoes. I regaled her with the fact that my dad had picked over a thousand cucumbers this year from his vines. We shared how long each had been married—us, 31 years, them—married 45 but together 50, since she was 15 years old. She said that she had only ever “had” one man! In the next life she would have 100’s! What a zest for life they had there in their little corner of the world. Heaven.
Félix and His Sister, the Helpful Hospitalera
Along about the third day or so, we had a REALLY tough descent from El Acebo to Molinaseca. We had started in Rabanal del Camino that morning and made the 12 mile climb and partial descent to El Acebo without incident, but we were tired. My left knee had begun to hurt a bit, but I thought I could handle it. Our hotel reservation for that night was another almost 9 miles ahead in Ponferrada, so we had to move on. After a lovely lunch and rehydration, we headed down the mountain. We were not prepared at all for what we encountered. The terrain resembled the glacial grooves of the rocks found on Kelleys Island, interspersed with great chunks of rock. It was very difficult to walk on, and each step had to be taken purposefully in order to avoid twisting an ankle or falling. Indeed, we saw folks who had fallen and had their faces all bandaged up. This descent aggravated my knee pain to the point that I felt near tears. Dan, too, was experiencing shaking in his left leg which he didn’t tell me about until later.
Somehow we managed to descend five miles of that hellish terrain amidst 90º heat to Molinaseca. Apparently, Molinaseca is a delightful, Roman town. We wouldn’t know. As soon as we arrived (at this point having walked 17 miles in roughly 8-9 hours), I poked my head into the nearest albergue (inn/accommodation). The hospitalera (pilgrim’s innkeeper) took one look at our sweaty, dust-covered selves and insisted that we sit down. I explained to her (in Spanish, of course—hardly anyone in Spain speaks English) that we had come from Rabanal del Camino and needed to get to Ponferrada for our room. She said—“I will take care of it.” Gracias a Dios! I heard her call someone and say, “Hi, it’s me. I have two absolutely exhausted pilgrims here who need to get to Ponferrada. Where are you? Can you come get them?”
The person she was calling was her brother, Félix, who drives a cab and does this kind of work daily. A word here about cabs/taxis: in Spain, taxis are without fail, clean, smoke-free, and safe. The drivers are competent, friendly, and in my experience very well-spoken and educated. They often drive taxis as part of a family business. So. Félix came to pick us up. En route to our destination, he reassured us that we had done the right thing by giving in and riding to our hotel—it wasn’t a mere 3 miles away, but more like 4. With us in the car, he was hailed by two female pilgrims on a corner. They had apparently called for a taxi as well, but theirs hadn’t shown up. Félix called 3 of his brothers in arms to get them a ride—all were busy. He said—“climb on in, I’ll take you after I deliver this couple.” I told him that I thought that was very nice and he said, very seriously, “We have to take care of the pilgrims.” It seemed to me that all the people we met that lived and worked along The Way, took that sentiment to heart. It wasn’t just for the economy, but rather because they truly see it as their calling, their service to God and their service to humanity.
Lost Among the Vines
One afternoon, as we walked through miles and miles of grapevines, laden with sweet, sweet fruit, we missed a turn of the Way—always marked with a yellow arrow and/or a yellow scallop shell, the symbol of St. James. Open bed trucks, filled to the brim with harvested grapes rumbled by periodically, regularly punctuating our view.
After taking some video of such a truck, we heard shouting back and to the left—“OYE! Camino!” I originally thought they were just waving to us as it is habitual for any and all to greet one another on the walk with a “Buen Camino”, but I was wrong. A family harvesting grapes out in the middle of the vineyard was desperately trying to get our attention. One of the women made her way over to us to point out where we had missed a turn. She directed us back, saying that we could have continued on the way we were going, but it would have been much longer. We were very grateful to her—it would have been so easy to just let us walk on. To be apathetic about another’s plight. But instead, like Félix, they took care of the pilgrims. This was a lesson in being alert and helping those that don’t realize they need it.
José, Rosy, and the Miracle of the Wounded Knee
As I mentioned, my left knee had really begun to bother me because of strain. I hadn’t done anything except overuse it on difficult terrain. Dan had K-taped me which helped, but didn’t really give the amount of support that I found I needed. A sassy, flesh-colored brace was what I was in the market for. Unfortunately, this realization came to me as either a) there wasn’t a pharmacy around and b) it was Sunday and the pharmacies were closed. Oh, and by the by, I had also developed the king of all blisters on my heel. I was hurting.
That Monday, September 16, we were slowly progressing our way to Villafranca del Bierzo, when we stopped to take a photo of some sheep, a shepherd, and his watchful canine companion. As we turned to walk on, we were hailed by a Spanish couple. The man, José, said, “I have been watching you” while pointing to his eye. “Can I help you?”
“Yes! Yes! Please help me!”, I exclaimed.
José had some anti-inflammatory spray that he doused my knee in; this enabled me to get to the next largish town that had a pharmacy. There, I got some expert care from one of the pharmacists. A word here about pharmacies in Spain:
Pharmacists are legally able to prescribe medicine and are essentially like a physician’s assistant in the U.S. Every time I visited one (and it was several, let me tell you), they came from behind the counter, discussed my problems with me, and helped me obtain whatever medicine, bandage, therapy I needed. #didntremindmeofourmeijerzombiepharmacistsatall.
I walked out of the pharmacy with the afore-described sassy knee brace, a fresh spritz of the anti-inflammatory and was good.to.go.
A further epiphany about the pharmacy situation in Spain—we encountered several over-the-counter type medicines that we do not have in the U.S. (probably not approved by the F.D.A.), but found them to be wonderful. Apparently there are all sorts of wonderful products readily available in Europe that one can’t find in the good ole U.S. of A. But I digress.
When we met, José was sporting an Alabama hat. ??? Of course, sports fanatic Dan spotted this right away and needed to know why a Spaniard was wearing such a hat. It turns out that José’s brother emigrated to the U.S. five years ago and now manages one of the golf courses around Birmingham. We assured the two of them that when they come to visit Alabama, we Buckeyes can certainly drive the 8-9 hour drive to meet up with them. Then, since we had already shared a café con leche and/or cerveza with José and Rosy, we decided to walk on, but not before sharing contact info.
A few days later, in Sarria, we met up with them for a meal of pulpo (Octopus—don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!) and albariño, a delicious Galician white wine.
As we sat for hours with our friends, José said, “Marla. If you had not been injured and I weren’t daring, we never would have met.” This brought tears to my eyes. What a lesson that was. So many times in life, something really good comes out of something really bad. I was and remain profoundly thankful that I walked with such pain, because that brought Dan and me some of the most precious memories of the Camino and also a blossoming forever-friendship.
For our pulpo y vino lunch, José and Rosy had brought along a young friend that they had met in the intervening days, 30-year-old Juan from Colombia. That afternoon cemented our friendship with him and subsequently brought us 23-year-old Judit from Germany. We remain in contact with these lovely young souls and feel blessed to have walked with them from time to time over several days.
Charo and the Case of the Lost Passport
The most amazing episode of our Camino happened the morning that we arrived in Sarria (and before our pulpo y vino with J y R). Our walk to Sarria wasn’t a long one, but the degree of difficulty was still there. Therefore, it was with glad hearts that we arrived in Sarria and looked forward to a rest day.
We crossed the bridge into town and there was an outreach group of 20-30 somethings
who worked for the Correos (postal system) in Spain.
A quick word about Correos: Along the Camino, the correos perform important tasks like mailing things home, holding packages for pilgrims, holding backpacks for the pilgrims in Santiago (as large packs aren’t allowed in the cathedral), etc.
This particular group was promoting a “Clean Up the Camino” campaign sponsored by Correos. They had some swag to give out and you could take your picture dressed as a medieval pilgrim, etc. In short, it was light-hearted and fun. As we decided to take our pics, I set my pack on a bench and saw that while walking, the zipper had worked itself completely open. Not only that, but my WALLET was GONE! In the wallet were my passport, a credit card, and about 60 euro. Imagine my dismay as I thought I would be physically sick. The wallet could have been ANYWHERE in the last 11 miles. Going back to look for it was a physical impossibility.
Amongst the young people in the outreach group was a woman who was in more of a supervisory capacity. She was very sympathetic and was helpful in telling my shell-shocked face what I would need to do. She stopped and said, “How is your Spanish?” I replied that it was excellent, but I didn’t know where to go, what the process was, and that I was very upset and couldn’t even think. Bless her, she said, “I will take you and stay with you.” As I write this and relive this moment, I have tears in my eyes of thankfulness for Charo Calvo.
So. She and her friend who had a car drove Dan and me to the Guardia Civil (police) to file a report. As we started the process, the officers asked if I had any other documentation—so into the police car Dan and I piled (Charo stayed at the station) and we were off to the hotel with fingers crossed that our bags had arrived with my driver’s license in them. Dan decided to stay at the hotel to check us in, etc, and back to the station I went with the officers. Through all of this, the gentlemen kept reassuring me—you WILL get your passport back, please don’t worry, this happens ALL THE TIME. They even offered me a couple of unclaimed passports in jest—I said I’d consider one of them if they were for a young, thin woman. #laughingthroughmytears.
A female officer started all the paperwork for me to take to Madrid to the embassy to get papers to be able to leave the country. Loyal Charo was busy planning for every possible outcome—if the passport gets turned in here in Sarria, could the police send it to her at Correos in Santiago? Then when I got there I could pick it up? etc, etc. About this time, the phone rang. As the officer listened into the receiver she locked eyes with me and said, “¡Tu esposo tiene tu pasaporte!” Charo, the officer and I all let out a shout of happiness and there were hugs all around!
Meanwhile…back at the hotel:
You will recall that Dan was sitting with the receptionist at the hotel “just in case.”
As they were sitting there mulling over where the zipper on my pack had possibly given up the ghost and all the other worrisome natter that folks go through when they are essentially helpless, one of the regular taxi drivers entered the vestibule with one of his deliveries of suitcases for the day. The receptionist said, “Hey, Francisco, have you heard any word of someone finding a lost passport?” According to our receptionist, Francisco always has his thumb on the pulse, ear to the ground, and Gladys to every Kravitz. Today was no exception.
His eyes got big—“Is it black? With a zipper? And a belt attached?”
The receptionist repeated this to Dan, who said, “Why yes! Yes it is!”
Francisco had apparently been driving into Sarria when he saw it laying on the sidewalk—not too far from where I discovered it missing! He picked it up and turned it in to a tourism office nearby. He started to explain to Dan (who has no Spanish) where it was and then said, “I take you!” So off they went.
Entering in to the tourism office, Francisco and Dan discovered the employees simultaneously scanning my passport and trying to find me on Facebook to see if they could locate my whereabouts. They happily returned the wallet to Dan, I happily returned to the hotel, and we both happily shook our heads in amazement at the inherent goodness of people. Angels among us, indeed.
Some will say, “That’s the Camino for you! People are always experiencing miracles on the Camino!” I will say, “That’s people for you—miracles are all around us if only we will look.” I truly believe in the goodness of my fellow humans and that there are angels among us every day.
Hasta la próxima (Until the next time)…
After a lovely farewell dinner with us, our dear José and Rosy headed elsewhere from Sarria to enjoy another week of vacation. We had lost track along the way of our Irish and Scottish ladies and two special groups of Aussies after they stopped earlier than Santiago. Our Camino ended in Santiago a few days later, capped by another small farewell party with Juan, Judit, some of their Camino family, and two other German ragamuffins, Rene and Mariano, with whom we had become friendly between Sarria and Santiago.
Our friendship with Rene and Mariano was solidified over several meals that contained more laughter than calories. We laughed so much my head hurt after. I’m still sure that if I ever get to Germany, that some words that Rene taught me are definitely NOT what he said they were! #ornery
The Way = Life
Sitting here at home, I reflect on the wonderful experience that was the Camino de Santiago. In life, as on The Way, there are so many lessons, opportunities for kindness, and evidence of God’s grace. I think what makes the Camino so special to people is that they walk with their eyes wide open—open to new people, open to new experiences, and open to kindnesses—both given and received. If there is any take away from our weeks spent walking, it is this: you don’t have to abandon the way you felt on the Camino; you can live The Way every day. The Camino isn’t just a geographical place, or even an experience. It is within each of us if we just dare, as José did, to keep our eyes and hearts open to its light in others.