During the long overnight flight from New Orleans to Biarritz, France, I have plenty of time for reflection. I recall first reading about Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, some 20 years before.
The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, together with the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the top pilgrim destination because it was the earthly place most closely connected to Jesus. These walks are undertaken by pilgrim believers who travel to a holy place, a place where God seems especially close, to ask for pardon, to beg a favor or give thanks for blessings received.I don’t know why it is so important for me to make this journey, but here I am.
After landing, I clear customs and pick up my backpack, which is known in Spain as a mochilla. It is to be my constant companion for the next two-and-a-half months on my more than 500-mile walking journey to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Arriving in the tiny French village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Porte set high in the Pyrenees Mountains, I wander about the cobblestone streets searching for the Saint Jacques information center. I register and pick up my credentials, which are nothing more than an accordion-type pamphlet with spaces to imprint “sellos,” the stamps from each place I spend the night. The “pilgrim’s passport” credential serves as proof to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that I have actually walked the official road as claimed. It is also a requirement to gain entry into each hostel, albergues or refugio, as they are called in Spain, in order to get a bed for the night.
A scallop shell is selected for me, and I am told the grooves in the shell represent the various routes pilgrims traveled on the way to the tomb of James in Santiago de Compostela. A metaphor is shared with me: “As the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up onto the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago.” Later, on the Camino, this shell, being the right size, will serve a practical purpose for dipping into water. I tie the shell onto my mochilla, and I am officially a pilgrim. I get a secret warm rush when I am called “peregrino” for the first time.Across the street is the L’Esprit du Chemin hostel where I spend my first night as a pilgrim. It is a typical Basque house built toward the end of the Middle Ages. The hostel is run by Arno and Huberta, one-time pilgrims from the Netherlands. I meet my fellow peregrinos. There is Ian, whose teenage son was murdered in a South African church by terrorists. Ian has spent many months making tiny crosses to leave as he walks the Camino in his son’s memory. Judy from Colombia is walking in honor of her mother. Others share their reasons for hiking the Camino, the most common of which is that they seek faith, that God will help them in dealing with life’s tribulations.
Arno inspects my mochilla and pronounces it substantially overweight. He begins by tossing out a guide book, sewing kit, first-aid kit, all sorts of vitamins, pain relievers, ace bandages, etc. He advises shipping home the extras and traveling as a peregrino.
After an uneventful night with seven other pilgrims, some snorers, I pack my mochilla and go down to a more-than-hearty pilgrim’s breakfast. Arno tells us the Route Napoleon is closed due to heavy snow blocking the pass even though it is mid-April. I follow behind two French women who appear to know where they are going. Big mistake. After two miles, I realize they are hopelessly lost, and I return to take the other fork in the road on my way to Valcarlos, Spain.
To follow the trail, you simply follow the arrows, called “flechas.” They are everywhere. Or you can follow the scallop shell markers through towns that point you in the direction of Santiago.Sometimes, the markers are concrete pillars with the ubiquitous scallop shell carved thereon.These markers are often covered with small stones left by pilgrims in honor of a loved one, for retribution for sins, for the unborn children or for those intentions known only to God.
The temperature is cool and hiking is pleasant with my Gortex jacket and gloves. I travel through the “Witches’ Forest” of beech trees over a quiet country road, then up and upwards. The altitude is becoming difficult for me. My mochilla is grinding into my shoulders.I have been told training in the New Orleans area for hiking is like planting banana trees in Alaska. It is not at all productive and certainly not rewarding. This is a baptism by fire. Up, up and up. I hike over fields and streams, with beautiful wildflowers everywhere. I express deep gratitude for my boots, that the sun is not baking hot and that I have a warm jacket, gloves and face warmer. My legs are “giggling.” I exchange “Buen Camino” greetings with passing peregrinos.
Eight hours, many prayers and 12 miles later, I arrive exhausted at the albergue and fall into a bed with my clothes on. After a fitful sleep, I am up and out early.
I pass through small villages, each with their own particular character. A woman stands out on the Camino with fresh-cooked pancakes; when a Euro is proffered, out pops the sugar shaker from her apron pocket. And up the Camino I go. Day in and day out, through Espinal, Zubiri and the beautiful Larrasoana. I arrive in Pamplona, where I buy a chicken bocadillo sandwich for my lunch tomorrow. Then I fall into bed and am immediately asleep. Tomorrow is a big day.
I am up and out in the early morning fog. Already I am exhausted. I trudge along in my own little world, thinking, “What am I doing here? I live in a nice town; I have a warm bed; I have family and friends who love me. I can go to Mass every day with the Carmelite nuns on River Road in Covington. Whatever possessed me to do this thing?” I begin to have a pity party. A sign appears on a bridge that reads, “What are you walking for?”
Then, out of nowhere, the Fuente Reniega, or the Fountain of Denial, appears in the fog. Legends say a medieval pilgrim, upon arriving at this very spot, found himself very dry and thirsty. The devil appeared to him and offered him a spring of fresh gushing water to slake his thirst if he would first deny his faith. The pilgrim denied the devil and was rewarded by Santiago with fresh water from the spring from his own scallop shell.
I continue, albeit slowly, up the side of the mountain. I struggle toward the summit along a ridge of mountains called the Alto de Perdon or the Mountain of Forgiveness. I begin to bargain. I tell Jesus, “I do not ask for easier, but I ask for strength to help me up the mountain.” Some hours later, I change my pleas to Jesus, telling Him, “OK. You win. I am begging for easy; I am groveling for easy.” I ask forgiveness from all whom I have disappointed or injured in some way in my life. I contemplate my regrets. I pray another Rosary.
A woman dressed in hiking clothes coming down the mountain toward me slows and says, “You will need courage for the Montana.” She puts her hand over her heart, taps it several times and asks, “What is your name?” I tell her, and she pulls me to her, hugs me, then kisses me on each cheek and says, “Courage.” She has an accent, not American, not British. Who is she? An angel? My guardian angel?
The one thing I know about such a physical long-distance challenge is that it is 50 percent physical and 50 percent mental. The mind is the most powerful tool of the human body. Mine is stretched to its limits, particularly as my body surrenders to the trail. It tells my prosthetic left knee to move that leg, and then tells the prosthetic right knee to move the right leg. Never mind that the left knee prosthesis is less than four months old. Keep moving, fellas! My mind tells my sea-level lungs to quit gasping and to try to relax. It further reminds me that in a special pocket somewhere in my mochilla is a note that Divine Providence Sr. Barbara gave me to read when the “going gets tough.” A fellow peregrino calls out as he passes, “Walk with the saints.”
Finally gaining the summit, I find myself atop the windswept mountain, where I promptly take off my mochilla, boots and socks and massage my aching feet. I ask forgiveness from God for everything bad I have ever done and for all the good I could have done and did not do.I replace boots, socks and mochilla and follow other peregrinos down the steep, steep path filled with loose boulders and slippery rocks. To lighten my mochilla, I discard rubberbands, paperclips and a T-shirt. There are no trees here; the altitude is too high. The flechas guide me down the mountain path toward Santo Domingo de la Calzada. I have wonderful garlic soup, a specialty of some local monks.I’m getting tired of the baptism by fire of walking in deep, muddy ruts; some lateral slipping and sliding. My left knee does not like this. Sue from Australia with toes black from abuse and wearing worn-out boots passes me like I am standing still, all the while singing out, “Buen Camino.”
Many days later, I arrive in the beautiful city of Leon with an aching back and decide I am still carrying too much. I tear out the pages of my guide book of the towns I have already passed; I throw away my small towel. I discard my compass and ask Jesus to guide me. The yellow flechas are replaced by shiny brass conchas, or shells, embedded in the city’s sidewalks that will guide me onward on the Camino.
Most people here have smart phones. When you can find it, Internet is available mostly in bars or in alburges where you have paid to spend the night. The computer is down a dark hall, and the only light is sensor controlled. You type awhile, the light goes off; you wave your hand and the light returns. I am ecstatic. Today is my 80th birthday. My daughter, Barbara, has emailed everyone asking that birthday wishes be sent to me. There comes a flood of emails. I sit here crying and waving my hand for the light to come back on. A fellow peregrino has produced a chocolate cake. Life is good, and God is great!It is another tough day. It is bitter cold, with blowing rain. I lean over so much into the wind that I almost fall when the wind quits gusting. The countryside is covered with acres and acres of beautiful wild flowers. The locals report this as February weather. There are fences with miles of crosses made by peregrinos that are woven into the fence and left in memory of someone or something.
I need to find a refugio. I am so cold and tired. Thinking that the drizzling rain will stop, I keep my rain poncho inside my mochilla. Now I am soaked and my pants stick to me. No use to put on the poncho now. The sign says there is a refugio in Rabe de las Calzados, which is another two hours, at least. I trudge on and finally locate the refugio and it is FULL. I take off my hat, and with my grey hair all over everywhere, I plop down in the nearest chair. A fellow peregrino tells the proprietor he should find me a bed. He produces a cot and puts me in a room with four bunk beds. My cot is against a wall, and I collapse onto it. A man comes into the room from the shower wearing only a towel while another in the top bunk is singing O Sole Mio. Whatever. I am grateful for a place to sleep.It is impossible to describe the beauty of today. I walk through massive fields of purple heather, down paths of rock that make it impossible to know where your feet are going. I struggle up to the highest point on the Camino to the Cruz de Ferro, or Cross of Iron. Pilgrims bring mementos from home and leave them at the base of the cross. It is a very emotional time. With the wind blowing and me gasping for air, I make it to the top where I place a very fine arrowhead in memory of my deceased brother. Crying, I read the pilgrims prayer, “Lord, may this stone, a symbol of my efforts on the pilgrimage that I lay at the foot of the cross of the Savior, one day weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds when the deeds of my life are judged. Let it be so.”
I keep asking Jesus what He wants me to learn from this journey. He is silent. Help me remember it is the journey and not the destination. Help me to listen. What should I do with the rest of my life? For it is said when one comes to the end of life’s journey, they regret the things they did not do more than the things they did do.
I am less than 65 miles from Santiago de Compostela and four miles from Sarria, where I am to meet Barbara, who will walk the last 100 miles with me. She is such a joy to be with, always happy, always laughing. Barbara arrives, and we immediately make plans for an early departure on the Camino. We choose the route that follows the road less traveled. We have magnificent views of grape vineyards and fields of lavender through forests of beautiful eucalyptus trees. We go up one side of the mountain and down the other. I tell Barbara, “If I get to the top of this mountain and look out, I had better not see another mountain.” There is another mountain, and I want to cry. Instead, we find a flat spot with green fields and throw off our mochillas for a well-deserved rest. My feet burn, my legs ache and my back hurts. I reach a point where I cannot go one more step. I’m a mess.
We detour off the Camino to Santa Lucia Ermitage, where tradition instructs the pilgrim to wash one’s face and eyes in the fountain water provided by a mountain stream. It is purported to heal all eye ailments. This is particularly meaningful to me as I have been diagnosed with central vein occlusion in my right eye; without monthly injections in the eye, I will eventually be blind. Having had several injections in my eye, I wash my eyes and dry with a Kleenex that I leave behind as instructed. I pray the water washes away my sins along with the tears of remorse at past wrongs so that my spiritual and physical blindness be healed.
We are blessed. The sun doesn’t go down until 9:30, and it doesn’t get dark until after 10. We are both drained. After having walked 18 miles, we are in sight of Monte del Gozo, which is located on a hill overlooking Santiago de Compostela. It is an albergue housing 400 pilgrims at a charge of 10 Euros, or about $13, per bed. We are more than grateful as we collapse onto our bunk beds.Early morning finds us making our way down the hill into Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the martyr St. James is buried here. We follow the ubiquitous pilgrims to the stunning Plaza del Obradoiro. In silence I behold the baroque façade of the cathedral and Santiago himself perched in its uppermost niche looking down on me. We make our way to the “0 Kilometer” marker stone with the image of the shell carved into its surface. I have come more than 500 miles for this moment.
We pick up our Compostelas, the official certificate of completion, and hurry back to the cathedral in time for the noon pilgrims’ Mass to begin. It is exuberant and beautiful. The organ blares. As the Mass ends, a 100-year-old ritual takes place. Eight priests in heavy robes act as a counterweight, pulling a thick rope while a massive silver thurible, familiarly known as the botafumeiro, sweeps through the gothic arches overhead and richly scented incense pours from its sides. I ascend the stairs behind the high altar and hug the apostle, St. James. I go down the stairs to the crypt and reliquary chapel located beneath the altar. Here, I kneel before the casket that contains the relics of the great saint and offer my prayers.
The two months it took to get here is like a dream, something I will never forget. We met people from all over the world doing the same thing. Getting to know people intimately is an intense experience, so saying goodbye at Santiago is not easy.Someone once said, “There is an invisible thread that connects each of us destined to meet.” For those special angels who helped me along the way, I am grateful for your having walked with me to Compostela. Thank you for being in my life.
A few days after returning to Louisiana, I visit my Ochsner retinal specialist, Dr. Laurence Arend, in New Orleans. After an examination of my eyes, I am told I have 20-20 vision and no injections are needed.Filed under: Front Page Feature, November-December 2013