We are all just walking each other home. Ram Dass
It is easy to follow a river, especially when a path traces its fertile banks from town to town, easier in some ways than walking along the ocean which is what we had been doing for the whole week before this day of river-walking. Don’t get me wrong, our seven days of following the shores of the Atlantic on promenades and cobblestone country roads, on sandy beaches and boardwalks and grassy dunes, through coastal forests of eucalyptus and pine, into villages of friendly folk and back out again into the wilds as we traveled on our own amazing feet northbound from Porto, Portugal to the border of Spain at Caminha, had been among the most magical of my life. It seems as though it would have been easy enough, this ocean-time, keeping the sea with its magnificent thundering waves on our left, and the noontime sun, which was a nearly constant presence each day as it warmed up our backs and nudged us north, but for many reasons, we found ourselves more than once befuddled and backtracking and adding kilometers to already long days on our journey up the coast of Portugal toward Spain.
We were on a pilgrimage, my friend Mary and I, a three week October trek with an end-point of significance, a pilgrimage following the Portuguese Way to Santiago de Compostila, Spain, to a magnificent cathedral where the remains of St. James, a preacher of love and forgiveness who traveled these same roads, lay interned. For over a thousand years, people of the Christian faith, from wherever their place of dwelling in Europe, journeyed forth on the trek to this cathedral in Spain, and, before that, many of these routes sacred to the Christians, were highways of granite for the ancient Romans and were special Pagan routes leading to the sea beyond Santiago. And today, people of all faiths and nationalities, for as many reasons as there are pilgrims deciding to take such a journey, travel these many different ways which all lead to the same end-point. St. James is often depicted carrying a scallop shell or wearing one around his neck, and, the scallop, a common dweller in the sea off these shores, and grooved with many lines leading to its winged collar, has become one of the symbols and markers for this journey to Santiago. And, indeed, the routes leading to Santiago are well-defined with scallop shell markers and brightly-painted yellow arrows on the sides of buildings and street corners and the trunks of trees. So why is it that Mary and I, during the ocean part of our journey, found ourselves wandering and wondering even as those magnificent ocean waves pounded the rocky and sandy beaches on our left?
We had made a decision before leaving our homes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that we wanted to take the path less traveled, the route closest to the sea. Mary is a Pisces, an ocean girl who dives deep into its waters and I am a gal from coastal Maine who was weaned on the juice of lobster and the salty sea air. And we never regretted our choice of routes. The ocean air was brilliant and replenishing and every step brought a vista of delight. But the path, the one marked with the scallop shells and the yellow arrows sometimes wandered inward while we clung to the shore, and, other times, we had to leave the ocean vistas and walk the village streets because the shore was too jagged and rocky to provide an easy path forward. For us, the markers were few and far between that first week, and we were constantly seeking help. And this is what we were remembering now, on Day Nine, as we moved forward with ease on this path for walkers and bikers that ran along the banks of the Minho River, this path that provided a clear and steady forward focus toward the Portuguese city of Valenca where we would meet up with the more traditional Portuguese route to Santiago.
It was damp on this particular day, the clouds billowing over the lush hills of Spain on the river’s opposite bank and the downpours unexpected and heavy. We were prepared, with size extra extra large three dollar men’s long plastic raincoats we had bought at the Chinese market earlier in the morning in the town of Vila Nova de Cerveira, raincoats generous enough to fit over our more expensive and less waterproof jackets and the back-humps of our packs. But we barely had to use them. The one cafe on this stretch of river path showed up and we walked in just as the heavens opened and poured down in a rainfall like no other, and stopped again, as we paid for our leisurely and perfect lunch and walked out into the sun breaking through those billowy clouds. And again, an hour or so later, just when we were feeling the urge for a snack, a plastic shelter appeared on the river’s bank, perhaps a fishermen’s makeshift hut, and we crouched into it and sat on its bench and ate our snack of clementines and apples as the rain poured down once again. And that’s when we began to remember and appreciate how it always had been this easy, even when the path hadn’t been as clear, how we always had been watched over and cared for even when we were labeling ourselves lost, how we wouldn’t have traded a second of it, how it was when we were lost that we found our greatest gifts.
There was the time that we were wandering the windy cobblestone streets of a village about three kilometers inland, one on the other side of a small granite bridge over a river too deep to cross, trying with some desperation to find our way back to the sea and the beach and the waves that we could hear in the distance. It was then that we noticed the family outside their house and stopped for directions. This led to a deep conversation with a charming teenage girl who spoke impeccable English and a Sunday lunch of cabbage soup and beet salad and the most delicious octopus casserole in the world with her family who took us in like the best of friends and later showed us a shortcut route back to the sea. And this wasn’t unusual. We were befriended each time we asked for directions, sometimes beckoned forward by drivers in their cars, chattering to us in Portuguese and pointing wildly to make sure we took the right turns. We made friends, time and time again, many times a day. It didn’t matter that we knew only one word in Portuguese, “thank you!”, that many of the villagers knew no English. We were led by the arm to outdoor markets and shown the best of the local clementines and pears, and the special gifts to bring home that were the the most authentic. The perfect person always showed up when we needed them, the perfect bench when we needed to sit. Our hosts at hotels and hostels went out of their way to find us a place for the next night twenty or thirty kilometers down the road. Kindness prevailed and we drank it in. And more often than not, in the midst of it all, we laughed long and hard and easily.
So maybe there is no getting off the path. Maybe it is all a pilgrimage and we are all pilgrims. And sometimes, it is clear and well-marked, the trail along the river, the boardwalk by the sea, and, sometimes, it is convoluted and windy, like the maze-like streets in the villages of Portugal and Spain. And maybe it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter because, even when the scallop shell markers are nowhere in sight, the signs are always there and the helpers ready to help.
The Portuguese Way: Mary and Helen on their journey, by the sea, with new friends, along the river, the path leading them forward.