In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
You’re not gonna like this, but I don’t have many memories of the walk from Puente la Reina to Villatuerta. Part of the reason for that is most likely because I’m writing this so long after the walk (I can’t believe it’s been nine months now, though symbolically, I guess I can, since it’s taken me this long to “birth” these journal entries). However, I also think that part of the reason I’m coming up short with strong memories for the walking portion of the day is that by the time I’d been walking a week, I started to Zen out a little while I was on my feet.
Weird thing is, though, I didn’t recognize it when it was happening. Me, with years of running and Bikram yoga under my belt, and no realization that my mind was heading off somewhere else as soon as I’d tied my laces and fastened my pack. Recently, I found myself reading through Belden C. Lane’s book Backpacking with the Saints, and having an “aha!” moment when I read a section on how the body has its own part in important spiritual work (he calls it “soul craft”). He says:
“One might best think of the soul, then, as the place where the body and the rest of the vibrant world converge. The German Romantic poet Novalis argued that the human soul isn’t inside the body, hidden and encased, like a ‘seed.’ Rather, he said, ‘The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet.’ Soulfulness is our ability to discover a vital connection with the ordinary details of everyday experience – what we share along our outermost edges with others…Whenever I plunge into wilderness, my body and the environment move in and out of each other in an intimate pattern of exchange…Where I ‘end’ and everything else ‘begins’ isn’t always clear…My ‘personal identity’ is stretched to include the aching beauty of an alpine meadow or the raucous cry of loons on the other end of the lake.”
As you can see, I cut the quote down considerably to get to my point, but if you haven’t read this book yet, I urge you to pick it up and enjoy. It’s a somewhat dense read, but an entertaining and rewarding one.
So yeah, I think that by the eighth day of my Camino, I was falling into the soul work I’d sought, but didn’t realize it. I know for a fact that my depression and anxiety had already begun to lift considerably. I was genuinely enjoying walking with my Camino sisters Natalie and Claire, and though it always takes me a while to remember names, I was starting to see more familiar faces each day throughout the day, on rest breaks and at cafes. Most memorable to me that day are two feelings – the physical pain in my legs, and a short dose of panic and emotional anguish when I briefly lost both of my friends near the end of the day, and thought for sure that I wouldn’t find them again.
A short look back through my photos reminds me of a few more little details from the day, though. I remember leaving Puente la Reina in the morning, and sharing in (and being slightly amused by) Claire’s irritation with the group of elderly Israeli orchestra members that had stayed in our room the night before. Besides their funny penchant for bursting into song together, they were a slightly pushy group of guys, something that seemed more a cultural difference than an intended slight, but was still annoying. They’d hogged the bathroom day and night, hung out in their skivvies, and one of the guys snored robustly. Then, as we were walking out of town in the morning, one of them stopped Claire to have her take their photo, but instead of asking her, he’d held the camera out and basically said, “Hey you, stop and take our photo.” In general, not the nicest way to ask a stranger for help. We were all a little put off by the less than great behavior, but I figured, what do we know about how old Israeli guys talk to each other and their loved ones? Maybe something that comes off as curt to us was actually a friendly familiarity to them, who knows.
I remember walking up to a town that I’d read had a thriving arts scene, and not feeling like I had time to stop. I felt rushed, and really out of breath on account of the very steep hill up to and through the main street of the town. I’m not sure if that rushing was coming from an external source or what, but I’d love to go back at some point to see if there are any potters selling unique Camino wares. Later that morning, we walked over a nice portion of Roman roads, including a bridge. I marveled at the cart tracks, and how sturdy the construction still was, and made a note to tell my father every detail on our next phone call.
On this day, we were all at different speeds. Generally, all three of us walked at a pretty similar pace, overall, but played leapfrog throughout the day. Natalie was still recovering from a pre-Camino knee injury, and every now and then that would slow her down, but usually she was the most efficient of us. Claire walked at a very tidy pace, sometimes using her umbrella as a hiking pole, often keeping a keen eye out for impressive old churches with unlocked doors (even better if they had a credencial stamp handy). My pace, like my thoughts, varied wildly. Hills were really difficult, and often resulted in lots of little sitting/water breaks. My calves and shins hurt, and my achilles tendon had been acting up for a year before the walk, so that wasn’t doing me any favors. At times, I’d get really into the rhythm of my hiking poles, and just motor down the trail, almost hypnotized by the repetitive sound. Other times, I’d get caught up in conversation with one of the girls, or meet a new pilgrim and talk for miles. But other times, I’d stop to look at a tree, or a rock, or a pile of rocks, or some graffiti, then another tree, rock, a bird, the sky, etc. Then I’d just get caught up in thinking about that one small thing, and shuffle along the path, knowing that there was somewhere I was supposed to be going, but otherwise not too concerned with all of the “little stuff” (you know, anything off of the physical Camino).
This day, Natalie and I were together a bit more often. We left Claire behind at some point, but then when we stopped for a beer and some paella for lunch, she caught up and we sat with each other for a little while. Eventually, Natalie and I were ready to go, but Claire hadn’t finished just yet, so we walked on. But later in the day, we stopped for another coffee when she didn’t, so it turned out that while we were drinking coffees, she passed us on the road, and eventually we got to a town where Claire was already waiting for us at a fountain. Isn’t it great how the Camino allows everyone to pace themselves but still end up with their loved ones?
By the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted. The last towns we passed through were shaped somewhat like American suburban areas, with newer houses on a grid system, and less of the romantic older structures I’d grown to love. It was somewhere in here that I got separated from the girls and started to despair of finding the place we were supposed to bunk for the night. Earlier in the day, we’d made the decision to stop at a place called Casa Magica, mostly because it had great reviews for food, and the guide book said it also offered massage, which we all agreed would be an excellent option. I’m not sure why or how I got so turned around, but for about 15 minutes, I wandered around on the verge of tears, no clue if I was still on the Camino or where to even try to go to get back to the yellow arrows. Luckily, I eventually found a public square near a school, and ran into some German pilgrims who pointed the way for me. A few minutes later, I found Natalie, and Claire arrived a short while later.
The albergue La Casa Magica was everything I’d imagined and more. The place was empty when we first got there, so Natalie and I sat around, waiting for the owner to come back. His entrance was preceded by that of a friendly, humongous black dog named Thor. I was a bit sad to not have more time to hang out with him after we’d checked in, and I recently saw on the albergue’s Facebook page that beautiful Thor crossed the Rainbow Bridge this summer. Rest in peace, big fella.
As for the house, it was amazing. Nag Champa incense burned constantly in the cool, welcoming public foyer, next to a couple of lovely Art Deco chairs. A nearby lounge included a nice little beer and liquor selection, plus cosy seating, a book exchange, and the omnipresent coffee and snack vending machine. The outdoor patio was also extremely impressive, with room to sit at tables in the sun, or to relax in one of the gaily-colored hammocks strung up under the porch roof. There was also a washing machine – score!
Best of all, for a pretty large house, we seemed to have it mostly to ourselves. There were only about five other pilgrims staying that night, so we three girls got our own room. It was tough climbing up the vintage-tiled stairs to the room, but we were rewarded with what would be one of the nicest sleeping arrangements of my entire trip – a large bedroom with multiple beds, adjoined by two smaller rooms with a single bed, each. I thought of these smaller rooms as “sleeping cubbies.” Natalie took one of the beds in the large bedroom, while Claire and I both took one of the sleeping cubbies. There were thick, warm blankets available, making me feel comforted in exactly the way I needed that afternoon.
When we checked in, there was a pilgrim couple sunning in the back yard, but I don’t recall getting to know them. I took a shower in one of the best bathrooms of any albergue (Rain shower heads and plenty of hot water with great water pressure! Heaven!), then spent the afternoon drinking ales in the lounge, writing in my journal, waiting for the massage therapist to show up. Sadly, though I did get a massage, it was rather underwhelming. I needed some deep tissue action, and he was very light-handed. I was also feeling very chilly that day, a combination of the actual weather, the chill of an old house, and, I realized a few days later, the initial onset of the head cold that was gifted to me by the phlegmy bunkmate in Pamplona.
Dinner that night was nothing short of amazing. It was so beautiful and fancy that I forgot to even get a photo of the meal. The owner of the albergue is a great chef, and after all of the pilgrims had taken their places around the communal dinner table, he fed us a multiple-course vegetarian meal that would have been at home in a fine dining establishment. We had soup, an appetizer of cheese-stuffed peppers, and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous vegetarian paella that had dates (I was really impressed by those dates) in it. I wish I could remember every single detail of the meal, but all I get are flashes of how lovingly the plates were decorated, and the huge paella pan from which he served us. Also, I remember that the desert was my first time trying natillas de leche, and it was crazy delicious.
I wasn’t really up for extended dinner conversation, but we all introduced ourselves around the table, and one couple stands out to me. At the end of the table were a man around my age and woman in her late 20’s who had been walking together for the last few days. They seemed cosy, maybe a little romantic, but there was something in his manner that was off-putting. He talked a little too loud, maybe made a little too much of himself. I made a mental note to avoid him if we passed him again on the trail, and I guess his companion came to the same conclusion. At breakfast the next morning, she asked if she could walk with us for the day. So much for Camino romance!