(Transcribed and slightly edited from an e-mail I wrote in the midst of an eight-day walk in northern Spain at the end of May, 2017.)
Uncover the courage that lies beneath your fears. Joan of Arc
We are here to love each other. That is why you are here. That is what life is for. Maya Angelou
Body work is soul work. Marion Woodman
It is early morning in this five-hundred-year-old farmhouse and the sun has not yet risen over the fields and the woods on the outskirts of the mountain town of Gernika, Spain. I wonder what we’ll be eating for breakfast. It is not the most exciting meal of the day here in the Basque country of northern Spain. It is usually just bread and olive oil and a piece of fruit, but this lodging is an organic farm run by a sweet couple in their forties and I am hungry and I have high hopes. And right now, before the family rises to greet us, I have the time to write. But what do I want to write? I am still digesting the wisdom from the gifts I received seven months ago when my friend Mary and I trekked north on a three-week pilgrimage along the Atlantic coast of Portugal and through the medieval towns of Spain to Santiago Compostila. And now, here I am again, on another Camino adventure, this time with my husband Cam, in the midst of an eight-day walk following the yellow arrows and sea shell symbols on the first leg of El Camino del Norte from the town of Irun on the French border to the Basque capital city of Bilbao where we’ll fly back home again after more than a week of carrying all that we need in packs on our backs.
I’m thinking now of the words a fellow pilgrim shared with Mary and me last October as we sat at the breakfast table in the Spanish town of Finisterre looking out over the Atlantic Ocean on the day we were preparing to catch a bus, then a train back to Lisbon as our three-week walk was winding down. He said with the smile of one who had walked many a Camino that our pilgrimage wasn’t ending, that this was just the beginning. And we both understood what he meant. We got it, that life, every day of it, every step of it, is a pilgrimage and it is our job to stay present and aware, to look for and appreciate the miracles, to do our best to love this world we inhabit. So, in some ways, this current eight-day pilgrimage is no different, just more opportunity to expand into love. And yet, it is different, too, than our day-to-day-at-home living. It is an adventure with clear intention, and few distractions. It is ordinary life on steroids, magnifying for us what is possible if we pay attention.
I think that Cam, who hasn’t experienced the magnifying-glass effect of a Camino before, is more astounded than me by the way our needs are provided with ease and perfection. When we are parched, desperately craving water, out of the blue sky and thin mountain air, there it is, around the next turn in the trail, a tavern selling the coldest best-tasting agua con gas (sparkling water) you could imagine. When Cam and I tell a day-long pilgrim companion, a twenty-year-old from a small village in northern Italy, that Italian food is our very favorite, and, our young Italian friend replies in detail about the wonders of his family’s cooking, it has to happen. In the middle of a mountain hamlet — not even a town or a village, just a few sheep and cow farms — a restaurant appears, in the golden light of dinnertime, after a long day of climbing up and down mountains in the heat, right in the midst of Basque country where Basque food seems to be the only fare served up, an Italian restaurant, where the chef prepares for us the most sensual meal of seafood pasta and grilled vegetables and homemade bread and local olives and garden greens we have ever tasted. When we walk into a bar for a drink of cold water, a group of older men are watching a sport event on the television screen, a world-class bike race, and the American who Cam has followed for a decade is crossing the finish line in first place, right at that moment. When my pen runs out of ink, I don’t even flinch. One is handed to me by the young Canadian pilgrim leaning against the post in the seaside town of Getaria. It is like that when we are present and allowing, the world opens up with its generosity — and a pilgrimage reminds us of this.
And then there are the people. Mary and I experienced it on our Portuguese Camino last October, the kindness of strangers that was palpable and heartbreakingly beautiful. And now, Cam and I are experiencing it also. Towns are farther apart in the Basque country of northern Spain, but when we approach one, the people show up for us, as if by magic. On our most strenuous day of hiking thus far, over mountains with very little shade and blazing sun and heat rising above ninety-degrees, our water supply was waning in the late afternoon and Cam was ahead of me, rounding a corner toward the downhill that would take us into Markina and the promise of something cold to drink and a place to rest our overheated bodies before continuing the journey uphill again to our destination. I was whining to myself and frankly wondering whether I would whither or wilt or just give up, when a shirtless man, my age or older, came dancing down the trail behind me, a local resident of Markina out for a walk who spoke Basque and Spanish, a little French, but no English. And he walked with me, and somehow we communicated as he perked me up and kept me going until I caught up with Cam. And then I, in my broken Spanish, asked him his name. “Sante,” he said. “Like Santiago!” His name was saint, and he was my saint, one of the many that we have met along the way.
And the fellow pilgrims have been a joy. There is the British couple in their forties who are writers and funny and kindred spirits. And the Polish couple our age. He doesn’t speak any English and very little Spanish, but this doesn’t stop him. He plunges into huge conversations with gusto and an abundance of joy and you get the gist, that he loves his wife and his family and the students he teaches, that adventure feeds his spirit. He has tied a pine cone onto the bottom of his pack and it wags like a happy tail as he marches ahead of us. There is the twenty-five-year-old police officer from Frankfort who is wearing Cam’s knee brace and walking slowly and filling us with hope for the future, with his world view that is expansive and his kindness that knows no borders. There are people from Germany and Australia, a French family, a Danish and American walking together. There are three old men from Barcelona and two young women from the south of Spain. There is the tall handsome man from Paris who stepped out of his home and hasn’t stopped walking for nearly two months, some of it along the sea where he has allowed himself to be polished smooth. He is a bright light and I felt the glow of it in his presence. Cam and I are appreciative beyond measure to meet these people, to hand them one of my angel cards, simple cards with a single word of inspiration, appreciative to connect in big and small ways.
And our days!!! They stretch out long and are filled with an openness that just can’t be contained in an embrace or a game plan. We study our route in the morning at the breakfast table, decide where to stay for the night, then abort the mission when something better comes along. We have walked farther than expected twice. Three days ago, we arrived at our agra-touristo house in the mid-afternoon, cancelled our reservation and the certainty of a room of our own and walked out into the sublime early evening sun shining over the mountain farms. And, three hours later, with some trepidation and a good dose of delight plunged into our very first hostel bunk- room experience. We have moved through a landscape of absolute beauty — the sea, the mountains, the country roads, the woodland paths. And it all has been an adventure, an adventure under the magnifying glass of life lived with focus, a breathtaking adventure. And it has taxed our breath, this breathtaking adventure, up and down, up and down, all day, sometimes through relentless heat. And perhaps this is the most spiritual part of all, how our bodies, our beloved bodies have risen to the occasion. The first two days, my quad and calf muscles hurt so much that I could barely climb the stairs at night. Now it is no effort. And I have learned to dunk my head under the water fountains that occasionally show up along the way, to wet my whole body down. My pack is feeling lighter. We are persisting!!! And now, I am feeling bittersweet. Two more days of walking and then we’ll be flying home. I don’t want it to be over. And it’s not. This day is opening up for us, opening up with the light pouring in the window and a rooster crowing and birds singing their Spanish bird songs. It will be a long day of walking, cooler after last evening’s thunderstorm. And there will be magical moments and human kindness — I just know it. And there will be beauty around each corner if we are open.