When I did research on the Camino Frances, the one thing that stood out to me was the amusing use of joyous superlatives to describe the journey. Sure, the Camino Frances is quite the experience and (for now), I have seen changes in myself since I’ve returned home. But to imply that the whole journey is a glorious mind-blowingly miraculous astonishment that will change your whole life 4-ever and 4-EVAH! … No. Just…no. At the same time, though, there are moments that are fantastic and I now have the bad habit of remembering them during work meetings. Here are five such memories:
Didn’t have the greatest of weather on this day but the Universe was kind enough to give us time at Eunate with no one else around! However, as I walked up to the church, mentally patting Universe on the head for a job well done, I realized it was locked! Both the gate in the chest-high wall around the church and the church itself were closed for the afternoon. I had committed to walking an extra 5km off the Camino just to see this octagonal 12th-century Romanesque church so there was no way I wasn’t seeing something! So I hopped the wall. And when I say hopped, I mean gracelessly clambered over the wall to splat onto the other side. While I didn’t get the Eunate sello nor get to see inside the church, at least I got closer than any law-abiding citizen would have!
2. Hornillos del Camino
The village is nothing to talk about and the albergue was one of the worst places I’d stayed in on the Way. I felt like I was going to pick up some sort of disease just standing in the room I’d been assigned with 11 other people. To take our minds off the situation, three others and I dumped our bags (though I did do a bedbug check and thank goodness none presented themselves) and promptly headed back out into the dreary weather. We passed the whole afternoon plopped on the church steps consuming bottle after bottle of vino tinto (to keep warm! I swear!). Too bad we didn’t have any thin wafers to round it off…
So my second language is French. Oui oui. Not the greatest at it but I get by. I did use it while on the Camino with random French and French-Canadian people who kindly didn’t laugh at me. But one day, while minding my own business in a mountain-top village (Rabanal del Camino), a monk in plain clothes came up to me saying he heard I spoke French. Some, I said, while wondering why someone was talking about me. Then I find out they needed four people to do that evening’s scripture reading – they already had people to do the English, German, and Spanish readings. Now they just need a French speaker. And you don’t say no to a monk. Never in a million years did I ever expect to read French scripture to pilgrims during an evening service in a tiny 12th-century church in a small village in the mountains of northern Spain.
4. Cruz de Ferro
This was a particularly great morning. The group with whom I walked were fantastically fun people. The weather, if it couldn’t be sunny and warm, it chose the next best randomly awesome thing – May Snow! We walked in snow, frost, fog, and temperatures just cold enough so that nothing melted. At the Iron Cross itself, the Irish priest in our group led us in a short sermon that incorporated prayers from various cultures/denominations, including a First Nations’ blessing. It was done in honor of our mixed group – all from different places and all have different beliefs. Then he offered to give each of us a personal blessing on which we all took him up. Then, effectively shattering the somber mood, one of the group exclaimed: “That was f****n’ rough!”
During the last 100+ km, there are more and more people on the Way but it is normally quite easy to tell the newbies from the veterans. There are even tour groups out for a day and it can be quite the test not to resent their presence. After one particular difficult morning of steep hills, I came across a large German group. I saw them in the distance and my heart sank as I had to decide if I wanted to hang back or try to overtake them. Then I realized, they were just standing there. As I drew closer, I saw one lady poke her companion and gesture towards me. They turned around to watch my approach and then the whole group turned. As I got closer, they parted like the Red Sea with delighted smiles on their faces, wishing me Buen Camino. I returned the greeting, struggling not to burst out laughing. I felt like I was unwittingly participating in a new Planet Earth episode. I passed them all and then rounded a corner to see a second group! I had to walk the gauntlet again as I tried not to notice David Attenborough saying, “And here is a Pilgrim in her natural habitat…”
P.S. Special mention to Ponferrada (forever be known the place one can find some Vino Tinto Hot Sauce). Who knew one could stay at a bar until two in the morning and then walk 22km a few hours later?