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.
Before leaving the States, when I was still just doing my own lazy version of researching the Camino Frances, I had discovered that there were quite a few labyrinths along the way. One of my goals was to visit as many as possible, so it probably won’t surprise you to find that I managed to miss all of them but two, both of which I found by serendipity alone on Day 16.
Natalie and I walked along in the woods outside of San Juan de Ortega, sharing anecdotes as we walked down the trail. I remember that she was telling me a story she had heard long ago in the Yukon, and I was completely engrossed – so much so that we were nearly on top of the bull before either of us saw him. There in the woods, in what we believed to be the middle of nowhere, was a GIGANTIC bull – nose ring and all – having a quiet snack in the undergrowth beneath the trees. It was a complete shock. We’d seen plenty of animals so far along the Camino, but had never run into anything this large without the comfort of a fence between us and it. I don’t know Natalie’s experience with cows, but I was terrified for a moment. We both stopped talking, and walked around the creature with great care. I expected him to run us down at any moment, but he was having a lovely afternoon in the woods, doing his own thing. He barely even registered our presence.
Soon, we were out of the woods, into a light-flooded clearing. We could see for miles over the rolling hills. The sky was so blue, the grass so green, the trail so inviting…and there were cows everywhere. This portion of the Camino wound directly through the pasture land, no fences, just a well-worn dirt path, and lazy cattle lounging about, enjoying a beautiful day. My original terror at seeing the bull was pushed aside, overwhelmed by a sense of wonder. I love animals, and cows are no exception. It felt a unique privilege to get to share space with them. I’d change my mind about cows a couple of weeks later, but for today, I was in heaven.
The first labyrinth was a tiny thing, up on a rise. There was already a pilgrim there, walking the old spiral, as we approached. I waited until he’d finished to take my own place there, and as I followed the radiating path, Natalie walked on along the Camino. I felt a twinge of panic as I watched her figure retreat into the distance, but forced myself to do the thing I needed to do, rather than follow my fear. It’s funny how you can learn and relearn a lesson. Mine has been – and continues to be – the art of letting go. This time I got it right. So many other times I fall short of the prize.
Labyrinth walk completed, I finally walked on. The old town of Agés wasn’t too far down the road, and I was sure that I’d find Natalie in a cafe there, just like before. Even though there had been plenty of pilgrims on the road during the course of the afternoon, Agés seemed curiously empty. The first place I thought to stop for a coffee was shuttered tight. I consoled myself with the fact that it was getting on into the afternoon, and it must be siesta by now, but the fact is, the town was dead. What used to be a bustling place in the Middle Ages had failed. There were less than a hundred inhabitants, many of them elderly.
With the failing Spanish economy, the tiny towns all across the country are dying. The younger population move away to the cities for work, and fun, and culture, leaving their tiny towns behind to fall into ruin. I felt a strong affinity with Agés, because it has much in common with my tiny hometown in rural North Carolina. I, too, had betrayed my home for the promise of a better life – a life that allows me the luxury of traveling to other countries. How could I ever begrudge the young of a tiny, dying town their need to see a bigger world? How could I see the similarities between my tiny hometown and this lovely place, and still feel no tug to hurry back to the place I’d left behind to die in my absence?
The town is pretty small, so I walked up and down the main strip, made a detour to the town church (locked and looking somewhat decrepit), and finally crossed someone’s backyard to head back to the only cafe that seemed to be open. There were a couple of pilgrims sitting outside, one of whom was a younger guy from California – let’s call him Dude – that I’d run into before, and was not excited to see again. He wasn’t a bad kid, just not too bright, and not at all shy about saying whatever came to mind. I’d overheard Dude criticizing various Spanish customs in that special, uncultured, particularly demeaning way that only we Americans seem to grasp with aplomb. I had no wish to be associated with that kind of behavior. If I’m going to be a stupid tourist, let me do it on my own steam, thanks. Today he was being generally loud and dumb near the front door, so I ducked inside to see if there was a spot out of hearing range at the bar.
The bar was empty, except for the required contingent of elderly local farmers. The bartender/owner quickly came over, and we discussed food and drink options in pigeon Spanish and a smattering of sign language. He very sweetly asked me where I was from, where I was headed, and what I liked the most to eat, and when he found out that I was from New Orleans, he was all smiles – he’d visited my city before. I ordered my old standby – a beer and a slice of tortilla, which he happily informed me was freshly cooked. When my plate was delivered, I was surprised to find he’d included a heaping helping of something entirely new to me – Pimentos de Padrón. He insisted I eat the first gorgeously blistered Padrón pepper in front of him, then laughed as I practically melted in delight. Move over, tortilla – my new favorite dish had arrived!
While I was eating, Dude and his walking buddy came in to get another drink and generally annoy everyone in the room. It felt like something out of an old western; had I not been annoyed with him, myself, I would have laughed at how obvious all of the old locals were being about staring daggers at this total outsider. The radio was on, and tension was broken when The 5th Dimension came on, singing “Aquarius,” from Hair. By then, Dude, the other pilgrim guy, and I were all drinking cans of Aquarius, the ubiquitous sports beverage of the Camino. I couldn’t help but giggle at the coincidence. Dude started to sing along and do a little routine with his drink can. The innocence of the scene diffused the situation, and soon after, both pilgrim guys sauntered off, leaving the locals and me in peace. A couple of weeks later, I’d hear that Dude drank an entire water bottle full of unfiltered water he’d gathered from a stream somewhere, and had to spend a couple of days in hospital. Gossip travels on the Camino, and I heard the story a few times, from different people. No one seemed too surprised.
By the time I left the cafe, it was seriously late – going on 2pm, at least. Any other day, it would have been time to start wrapping things up and finding a place to bed down for the night, but I had plans to keep. Just outside of the bar, there was a sweet little cat napping on the sidewalk, so I bent down to pet him. When I straightened back up, who should I see but Terry, walking out of a door just a few feet down the block. It was a seriously wonderful surprise, since that morning it had been pretty obvious from our varied plans that our paths wouldn’t cross again this Camino. I hurried over to give her a hug, and before I knew it, I was tagging along to try to find an artist that she remembered from her last trip here. We wandered around, looking for this particular house she remembered, where an old man made perfect little miniatures of real architecture from the town.
As it turns out, we didn’t find the artist in question, but as we were walking down a particular street for the second time, in retrospect most likely looking completely lost, a door opened down the way. A wizened old woman walked out, pointed our way, and started to yell. At first, I thought she might be angry, but then I realized she was just slightly deaf and asking us a question. Terry spoke enough Spanish to understand, and yelled back an answer. The lady ducked back into her little house, then came out a minute later carrying a gigantic iron key – the thing was at least as long as my forearm. She started off down the road, beckoning us to follow her. Terry filled me in: the woman was the guardian of the town’s church key, and had offered to give us a tour. We followed along, feeling so blessed to be offered the opportunity to glimpse the interior of the town’s precious worship spot. It was plain, but beautiful in its stark interior.
Once we stepped inside the building, our guide started to chatter along happily. Her presence somehow brought the holy space to life, giving it color I wouldn’t have seen without her. She knew that we couldn’t understand much Spanish, and she didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop her from telling us everything there was to say about the church. Somehow, between Terry and I, we picked up enough words to fill each other in on the basics. Our guide had been baptized here, and married here, as had her children. She showed us the timeworn baptismal font, and a beautiful figure of the Virgin Mary. We left donations with her for the church’s upkeep, and she gave us each a blessing, hugging both of us and kissing our cheeks. It was a moment of such shining kindness. It happened beyond words, and escapes my explanation, even now. I felt like a real pilgrim in that moment.
When I left Terry behind in Agés, I refused to say goodbye. I knew that it was the last time I’d see her, but I’d also known that earlier in the morning, when we’d said goodbye the last time. So really, what could I know? Instead, I told her, “See you later.” All the better, since I’d actually see her a couple more times!
I’d heard that I should spend some serious time in Atapuerca, the famous archaeological site just outside of Agés. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s the home of some of the earliest human remains currently known. Before leaving for the Camino, I’d been positive that I’d spend a day there, so of course I didn’t spend any time there whatsoever. I walked through the town and right back out, even though I saw that several pilgrims I’d met over the last few days were sitting out in front of an albergue, boots kicked off, having the first lovely beers of the afternoon. I still had about 6km left, which meant more than an hour and a half of trudging along, maybe even two hours, given my current pace. I mentally kicked my own ass as I walked out of town. I didn’t want to walk any farther, so why was I pushing myself to keep up with this schedule?
The walk over the hill at Atapuerca was grueling and a little creepy. The entire path was strewn with large rocks, making every step a chore. I spent a majority of the time I walked over the hill thinking about the many ways I could get hurt, and mentally rehearsing how I’d get in contact with emergency services if and when I broke a leg. After leaving town, I didn’t see another person for quite some time, and it seemed likely that I might not meet another pilgrim. Even so, I finally did, just around the time I saw my second labyrinth of the day.
The night before, in Villafranca Montes de Oca, I’d briefly run into a man and woman traveling together. In their early to mid-30’s, they had a strange intensity, moving as a solemn singular unit, not exactly inviting of outside interaction. Here they were again, despite not having seen them at all today. I was so relieved to see new faces that I instinctively just started babbling along at them, not really considering if either of them spoke English. Luckily, they both did. They were kind enough to walk with me for awhile, brightening my afternoon and giving me a love story to think on for years now. I wish I could remember their names – maybe Terry can remind me, because I know that she met them once, too – but we’ll call them Raul and Minka.
Raul was a Spaniard, and Minka was from Eastern Europe, I think the Czech Republic. They’d met a year before, on the Camino. She spoke no English or Spanish, and he didn’t speak Czech. He said that he saw her from across the room, and fell for her instantly. He endeavored to speak to her each time they saw each other, and though she thought he was weird at first, she began to see the charm in the situation. Eventually they figured out how to communicate, and despite the language barrier, fell in love. She went back home to her country and started learning Spanish (and a smattering of English, evidently, since she told me some of their story while they walked, though he was the talker of the duo). He went back home and started learning Czech. He visited her, and she visited him. Even though it was difficult trying to figure out living situations, they were both sure that this was the right choice, that they’d found The One. They got married, and now they were on a second Camino to celebrate their honeymoon. Unfortunately, they were short on money, and only had the budget to stay at albergues donativo (donation-based hostels), which were few and far-between. They would be walking all the way to Burgos today, even if it meant walking in the dark. Eventually we parted ways, since they needed to pick up speed in order to reach the city.
After the hill at Atapuerca, there was another nearly abandoned town, Villalval, where I was shocked to see an abandoned church in ruins. I stopped and investigated the church for some time, walking all over the church grounds, attempting to look in windows, and wishing that I had the guts to try to break in. In case you didn’t know this about me, I’m a total goody-two-shoes, not because I want to be, as much as because I prefer to avoid unnecessary conflict. So no breaking in, just some photos, and then on my way again. Towards the edge of this tiny village, I started to feel someone watching me. I’m sure that more than one dark window had a lonely little old lady behind it, and I was marginally more exciting than whatever was on TV that afternoon. Still, I thought I heard someone call my name once, just one faint, “Anna!” floating across the rooftops. My imagination ran wild. Needless to say, the last couple of kilometers were completed at a trot.