Hiking the Camino Frances
Walking 502 Miles Across the North of Spain: Mountain Passes, sheep Pastures, 10,000 Acre Fields of Lavender and Vineyard After Vineyard.
The ancient Camino Frances pilgrim trail begins at the French border in the medieval village of Saint Jean Pied de Port. After a steep climb across the Pyrenees comes 500 miles of mountain pastures, vineyards, 1000 acre fields of fragrant lavender, the flat soul-less meseta and finally the rocky terrain of wild Galicia. You patiently walk 12 to 20 miles, day after day. Any notion of giving up is unbearable, because doing so would mean abandoning all the friends you've met along the way.
At day's end Pilgrims sleep in refugios jammed wall to wall with bunk beds. For dinner it's common to share a potluck of thinly sliced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, rice, beans, pasta and slices of ham, all washed down with vino tinto. Gathered together around a common table, tired souls talk about walking in the sun, how badly the feet hurt and why they're traipsing across the north of Spain. When one person can't speak the language of the moment, another translates. It's as if the Camino is a Rosetta stone.
The pathway is marked with yellow arrows painted on the side of boulders, the bark of trees, and buildings. Miss a waymark and a townsman or farmer will smile warmly and point you in the right direction. Pensioners warmly call out,
Pueblos line up on the Camino like rosary beads, each one to be prayed before moving on to the next. Walking a Camino is like following Napoleon's army on its retreat from Moscow. There are no dropped muskets or crates of small arms ammunition. Instead you see abandoned sleeping mats, cans of beans and other items too heavy to endure for even another mile.
By day seven you will have sung every song you have ever heard. Some days tears stream down your cheeks at the remembrance of a life's event that has stirred you to the depths of your soul. The simple act of peeling an orange and savoring in its delicious wet fruit can leave you speechless. Some days you walk alone, reveling in solitude. The next day you feel as lonely as if you were the last man on earth. More commonly the confraternity of pilgrims will fill your heart with the greatest joy you will ever know in your life.
At some point along the way you will experience an epiphany, coming to realize a pilgrimage is about your traveling companions: people like Mairead, the Gaelic beauty with flaming red hair and a dry Irish wit. Or, Daniel, the strong silent type from Mexico City, who lugged a five-pound bible that he read religiously every night. Maja from Budapest, who spent time in Indiana as an exchange student. Claudia the Italiana so beautiful she could be in the movies. There was Janny, from the Netherlands, whose stay-at-home husband thinks she's crazy for all her wild trips to Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, Thailand, and now this, her big fat Spanish Camino. Violette, a Parisian who can walk farther in a day than any man I've ever known, decided to become a clown and help troubled kids through Gestalt therapy. Ralph wore the boots of a friend whose dying wish was for him to walk the trail wearing his boots, dead Fred's boots.
I arrived in Santiago just before dark as the hometown orchestra began to set up in the plaza, dutifully lining up folding chairs, laying out tattered sheet music. The maestro took a deep breath, exhaled, stepped forward and tapped his baton. Obediently the crowd fell silent. Banker, plumber and shopkeeper, spiffed up in matching blue blazers, white shirts and brown and white striped ties began to play a medley of classical and show tune music.
Little boys and girls in blue jeans, soccer shirts and American sneakers worked to the front of the crowd joyfully dancing and swaying to the rhythm of the beat. After a song or two, young mothers, worried their kids might be considered undisciplined, came forward and made the little ones stop. Pity.
An old man tottered out of the wings to pantomime ballroom dancing with his invisible partner. In silent reverie, he lip-synced words to a song that had touched his heart when he was young. The pensioner, presumably a widower, had no mother to reel him in with a shepherd's hook. His grateful audience, neighbors, pilgrims and tourists, loved him at once. And pitied him.
About an hour after the concert had faded away, two young German women came straggling in from the Camino. They hunkered down in the middle of the plaza and popped the cork on a ceremonial bottle of cheap wine. These were university students from Hamburg with Kool Aid red hair and a dozen rainbow colored music festival bracelets draped on their wrists.
To celebrate victory the two chanted a Zulu warrior song they had learned somewhere along the way. Just like before, with the orchestra and the maestro, when the women began to make music, the world fell silent. Soft, sweet, powerful words echoed off the walls of the thousand year old cathedral of Saint James. While it's true I don't understand a single word of Zulu, that night in the shadow of the Cathedral, I understood every word they sang.