#28 ~ musings from along the camino #2!
“Never lose hope, my heart, miracles dwell in the invisible.” Rumi
We headed out into the blue gray pre-dawn, walking – carefully at first, noting where each step fell as we followed the glow of distant headlamps – between silent rows of corn, sentinels guarding our way on the first stretch of lonely country lane. Everything – thoughts, sounds, the knowledge that millions of peregrinos had tread this path before us – pulled in close and though we were well bundled, it was cold, and our breath frothed in the air around us.
Well into fertile land, more verdant than that of the last bit of Meseta, we could hear the rush of water and mutterings of wrens, crows, thrushes and magpies revving up their morning songs over fields of autumn crops. Color came first as a golden sheen, then tinged with rose, and when we could begin to see the horizon were driven to stop to watch the first rays of the slowly rising sun fan out over the countryside. The air smelled of those organic processes I remember so well from time spent in Nebraska as a youth … the scent of earth, rich and dark, alive, the clear air so freshly charged. By the time the sun had crested in the distance, the birds were in full throat and I felt electrified by all of the life around us.
Headed from Mazarífe for Astorga, we were in wonderland! The terrain at first was flat, the tracks had gone from red clay to gray and autumn wildflowers livened the green with a wash of color. Steph and I were able to walk together much of the morning, sharing thoughts, impressions … funny how already ‘home’ was not much a part of our vocabulary. We both were grateful to be away from the crazy, pre-election cacophony one couldn’t escape back in the states. Here, it was just one step at a time, measured breath, just us together, or each alone with our thoughts, and of course there was the occasional new friend we found along the way. We were both finding the ‘alone’ part of the Camino to be a catalyst, either for emptying out to embrace the stillness and to take note of the beauty all around … or for the uptick in the clatter of creepy monsters coming out from the shadows to clutter ones head.
So far, for me, the stillness and beauty were winning out.
It was a long day, for us – only 10.5 miles, but much of it on a very rocky track, without many stops for refueling and airing one’s hot and sore feet. Those few villages we did pass though seemed deserted but for the sounds of children playing in the distance. After crossing the sprawl of farmland on deserted roads and alongside train tracks, past fields of sunflowers, summer-spent and bent as if in prayer, and over shallow rivers spanned by quaint stone bridges, we ended up in Villares de Órbigo, a small village a few miles short of Astorga. Wandering through the town we found an appetite for a bocadillo and a beer, and on an otherwise abandoned street were waved over to the only open bar by a very old woman dressed only in a tattered blue bathrobe, wearing dusty slippers, her hair in curlers. “¡Ven!, Ven…” she cackled. It had to be ‘the’ place, right? Here were tables and chairs set outside in the sun, very kind people and delicious, warm bocadillos – and cold beer! Sated and sleepy, we half heartedly accused ourselves of abdicating our path and called for a cab to take us the rest of the way to Astorga.
Apparently our taxi driver thought beer was a good idea too, for when the owner of the bar brought us our meal, he said “No hurry! The driver is inside, drinking!” We both may have looked a bit worried. When our driver was finally ready, he staggered out from the bar and careened over to us – before bursting out, “Just kidding!” He was lovely, and not drunk, and we arrived in Astorga in one piece.
Astorga is another very picturesque town with a palace designed by Gaudí on one side (another for a Bishop) and a huge Catholic Cathedral, an intricate piece of amazing architecture, albeit quite menacing, on the other. (Steph said “these places were built to intimidate!”)
But unlike the ruined Abbeys and ancient places in England and Ireland – and in Greece – these Cathedrals didn’t inspire, in me, a breathtaking, wondrous awe. Reflections of ages of war and domination, their auras spoke nothing to me other than isolation, as if nothing had ever come before, or after them…
Before settling in I found a tree-lined café in the main plaza where I sat with wine and journal in the shadow of both the cathedral and the palace. In a whipping wind. under steel gray skies, I watched old folks chatting on benches, people walking dogs, lovers embracing in whispers and laughter, and many peregrinos greeting friends they’d met along the Way and when the skies threatened rain Steph and I took a quick ‘stretch’ to explore the town. We enjoyed an excellent pilgrims’ meal in an old café filling quickly with locals, and finally ended our day in a lovely hotel in the old part of town where we treated sore muscles to hot baths and luxuriated in comfy beds.
I found along the Way that the Spanish courses I took as a kid-along with brushing the dust off a bit with the great language app, ‘DuoLingo’ – really paid off. We both were able to communicate quite well there in rural northern Spain where, unlike places I frequent in Greece, very few people speak English. But my Spanish was very complicated by having to share my brain alongside my limited knowledge of the Greek language, evidenced by my answering almost every question posed to me – in Greek! I quickly changed my ‘neh’ to ‘si’, and my ‘ti ehis’ to ‘que tienes, ‘pos se lene’ to ‘como se llama’ but always heard Steph – who speaks Greek fairly fluently – chuckling at my shoulder. And I chuckled when I found that she had the same problem, though she fared far better with her Spanish than I did with mine.
Astorga to Rabanal was a bit difficult, very cold before dawn and gaining 1000 feet in altitude and 12.8 miles on rocky trails as we walked steadily towards the mountains ahead. The day began with a damp fog that turned pre-dawn lamplight into faint, ghostly orbs hovering in the distance and as we left the outskirts of the city for the countryside, with sunrise over the foothills revealing the coming of the mountains, we began to battle a fierce and bitter headwind. Wind – a big and constant cold wind – makes everything harder for me. “You have too much wind!” my dear acupuncturist Sam Wan used to tell me. It agitates me, and always keeps me in my head.
All day, we struggled with our darker shadows.
We walked solo, each at our own pace, and crossing one particularly long, rocky, windy flat, an interesting thing happened. I not only noticed the hot beginnings of a blister on one foot and my hip grumbling more loudly – forcing each step to be a meditation, a study in breath willing the pain away – but I also began to weep. The tears, though, weren’t for my aching body. I suddenly was doubting my ability to finish the 100 plus miles ahead, and I was angry. And vulnerable. The demons came swirling, especially that one that whispers to me despite my inner strength and stout heart, “You’re not good enough”. Faces came to me out of the wind, specters of people past and present, calling up all of those things I’ve used to hold myself back from just about everything since I was a small child, abandoned by my adopted mother’s choice of suicide over life. It was intense and they all crowded me as I maneuvered rocks in my path, the growing headwind always pushing me back.
And then I’d had enough. I called them all to me as I walked and one by one they came, and after silently venting anger and sadness I forgave them, and cut that infinite cord I perceived still allowed them to cling to me. Away they floated.
That’s all it took? After 62 years on this planet, allowing those accumulating bits to get to me – the words and abuses fraught upon a small child, the losses, all that I thought had made me feel small, not good enough, insecure, unable – I finally realized that it was all bullshit! These were all of their insecurities, not mine, those things they needed to manifest to make their walk through this life easier. Perhaps they were things I needed to manifest, in order to learn how to walk this earth as … me. Whatever it was, I gave thanks for the unintended gifts that had come to me in the litter left behind by each one of those people I cut loose – those lessons in self-sufficiency and independence and strength, those things that could harden me, or soften me, my choice. Once scary and always painful, these were My Superpowers now. They’d always been, but now I knew they always would be. Poof…
As I refocused on reuniting breath with step, a lovely thing occurred. My power animals arrived. The animals always came to me to fill those hollow places in my heart. After a dearth of 4-legged life so far on our journey, here they came now – first in the vision of a small black cat on the path ahead of us. That very real cat spotted me from a distance, recognized a kindred soul and immediately ran to me, yelling all the way, purred ecstatically as she rubbed on my legs, and jumped into my arms. We were in the middle of NOWHERE! She was thin, but the kind of thin that comes from youth, not from starvation – she was soft, sleek and healthy. This was not a street cat. She climbed all over me, and then my pack that was sitting now on the dusty path. While I rummaged through its chaos for the bag of Two Chicks Beef Jerky that was obviously, to the little cat, somewhere deep within it, I noticed a drumming in the distance. Coming closer, the sound of drumming transformed into the very familiar cadence of hoof beats.
“Hola Señora!” a man called, in deep, dulcet tones, warming in the bitter wind.
I turned, and through the dust there appeared 6 gorgeous Spanish horses ridden by 6 gorgeous Spanish men; the horses with long, full manes and tails, blacks, bays and grays, each handsome men fused to the equally handsome horse piaffeing beneath him … Here was a beautiful moment of peace, even with the little, purring cat doing somersaults on my arms. Steph caught up to me then, and with her soft heart exposed she worried about what would become of the kitten that was climbing all over me, now pretty excited by the scent of a decadent meal. “We’ll give her a pile of jerky – and then we’ll run!” I told her, and she burst into tears. “Run? We can’t leave her here!” But what will we do with a kitten and a hundred more miles to walk, and a long flight almost halfway across the world to home? Margarita, the street dog who inspired my first novel All The Little Graces, came to mind and I knew that if we didn’t feed and run, this kitten would follow us to the ends of the earth. I tried to assure dear, kind Steph that the little thing would be fine and that she was probably a pro who knew how to work the more kind hearted peregrinos along this path that, most likely, was closer to a village than we knew. I broke up bits of the jerky, made a healthy pile for the little sprite, gave her a kiss, threw my arms and heart out to the perfectly timed herd of pure magic passing by – and we both threw our packs on – and ran!
And yes, there was a village not far ahead, one with a stork church and a lovely courtyard surrounded by albergues and bars where we stopped for a rest and to air our feet, and caress the healthy cats that flourished there. I think those cats made us both feel better about deserting our little friend. She probably lived here and simply was an adventurous soul – like us.
When I set my purple pack down, I noticed that it had been blessed along the Way – it was covered with perfect, little, dusty paw prints. I couldn’t bear to brush them away for days.
We had heard about this strange Camino magic, something that works its way on everyone differently though always dredging deeply, and it can come to one at any time along the Way. Whatever you want to call it, it came to us both that day, in different ways and possibly with different outcomes, and by the end of the day we both were exhausted to our souls.
We made it to the foot of the mountains that afternoon, to Rabanal, a, tiny village made of stone and blasted by cold wind, where we warmed with vino tinto and enjoyed a great meal, took a stretch to see the town before dark descended and tended to the beginnings of blisters – dammit!! And then we fell into beds piled with blankets against the cold, and into a fitful sleep, dreaming of the mountains ahead – and hungry kittens.
photo credits ©Eleanore MacDonald