Monday, September 30, 2013

Day 3

Saturday, May 4

A cool and drizzly morning turns into sunshine so slowly I barely notice. Norm and I trek together for hours as old friends, cussing and discussing interspersed with comfortable silence. I stop a pilgrim and ask him to take our picture, proof of a newborn eternal friendship.
Entering Pamplona, the city known for its "running of the bulls" festival, we turn down a crowded street and encounter a throng of late-middle-aged people (not your usual flash mob types) singing Basque folk songs. Couldn't understand a word, but felt their patriotism and heartbeats in the songs, and am grateful that we humans can have group identity within a culture that bonds us to each other beyond  mere geographic chance.
Norm's wife is meeting him in Pamplona, so he prearranged their hotel accommodations. I glance toward the first albergue, then decide I will splurge and stay at the hotel also, dreaming of a long, hot shower. Turns out it is Pinchos Week in Pamplona (another random gift from God)! Pinchos is the Basque word for tapas, and it's kinda like Restaurant Week in the States: all the bars compete for the title of best pinchos. After showers, we visit 3 of last year's winning bars, washing down their amazing concoctions with local beers.

Back to the hotel for Norm to meet up with his wife, and I take my second long, hot shower and wash my clothes. Seeing all of the dirt and caked mud and small stones and grass and stuff coming off of myself and my clothes as it settles into the white caulked tile floor of the gloriously large and clean shower make me realize just how dirty I have become. My guilt over the mess I leave for the maid service (I try to clean up, but it's still quite evident a homeless person has been here) make me think of my dirty heart. It's so easy to rationalize: I'm not an evil person, I'm not mean-spirited, I do good deeds. I don't seem too bad when I compare myself with other dirty people. But when I enter the presence of God, like this modern immaculate hotel, my filth and stench is revealed for what it is: real and deep-seated. I thank God for chipping through the protective coating of my heart to reveal to me my need for him. It's a relief to know I stink and God still loves me. I pray for forgiveness and vow to quit comparing myself to others, but to compare myself only to God and true holiness.

Then, I meet up with Mr. and Mrs. Minnesota and we go hit a few more bars.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Day 2

Friday, May 3

Lights and classical music turn on at 6:00 am, and we pilgrims are out the door soon after, with no breakfast available in the small town.

Cold and wet again, I stop after three hours to relax and warm up with a glorious cup of cafe con leche (aka Cappuccino). Although I'm not usually a big coffee drinker, I believe I will appreciate coffee greatly on this journey. I keep on walking through lush green fields and muddy trails, listening to the occasional cow bells (and horse bells) clanging gently.

As there are a fair number of other pilgrims on the trail, I learn surprisingly quickly how competitive I must be. Why my instinct requires that I be in the lead, walk faster, stop less, I have no idea. It's high time I squelch this self-judgmental attitude and attempt to find satisfaction in my own pace, whatever that may be. Who cares if it's erratic? Who cares if I want to stop and take pictures here and there, and the same pilgrims pass me whom I passed awhile earlier? Who cares if I want to sit my butt on a wet stump and catch my breath? Who cares if I speed downhill and drag uphill? I need to learn to be content in all things, especially in myself. My limitations provide room for growth, and my successes provide ways to praise. All is good.

I realize that I judge others too. One man has his backpack on a roller cart he's rigged from walking sticks and who knows what else. Most have backpacks bigger than mine, and some handle them with ease, while others keep shifting them up and down, side to side. Some have only a tiny daypack, and send their gear with a transport service. Some have ponchos, some have rain jackets, some laugh and talk loudly, some smoke cigarettes as they walk. Why should their choices affect me at all? The answer is that they don't, and I shouldn't criticize them or make assumptions, even in my mind. Live and let live. We all have our own journey to make and do it as we should -- that's it.

A little before noon, I run into Norm Minnesota again, so we walk into Zubiri to eat lunch together, and continue on, chatting together about our expectations for the Camino, our fears, our freshman feelings, all afternoon to Larrasoana (27.4 km). The albergue is full, the next pension is compleato also, and yet we find one last pension that rents us a room with four actual twin beds in it! No more scrambling down gracelessly from the top bunk without a ladder! We meet Lena Ireland and Egge Netherlands, our roommates for the night. I share dinner at Perutxena Taberna (Basque) with Norm, Egge, Erik Netherlands, and Philippe France, while carrying on heated discussions on such vital topics as fluoride in water, living in Russia, and Texas music. Filling ourselves with pasta, beef stew, the omnipresent pan (bread), two bottles of wine, and boisterous conversation, the day winds down with a perfectly communal ending.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Day 1

Thursday, May 2

After breakfast and a packed lunch (an entire French baguette with eggs, ham, cheese and basil), I headed out into the cool, light rain. I'm glad I took pictures of Saint James' Gate yesterday, as I was so excited this morning, I blew right through it without noticing!

Excitedly, the Napoleon Pass is open as I leave, so I took the high road over the Pyrenees. There was light rain the first 2 1/2 hours or so, and I wore all the gear I had. As I followed the path steadily into the mountains, the town receded below me, the clouds came within reach, and the temperature got colder. I quickly realized I had forgotten to pack any gloves (or was it a decision made in the warmth of a Texas Spring?), but God blessed me with no frostbite.

As I walked, I passed other pilgrims, some of whom in turn would pass me as the path steepened and I slowed. I saw enormous slugs patiently working their way across the path, relishing the moisture, and I felt a kindred spirit in them, calling them my brothers wet and slow, but happily living the life they were created to live. I reiterated to myself that this walk was not a race, not a competition, and that speed was irrelevant; it was my perpetual movement forward that mattered. I realized that's a hard lesson for me to learn, so I prayed for the other pilgrims as we smiled and nodded at each other, mostly too shy to utter the words "Buen Camino."

One of these pilgrims was another lone woman, about my age, but sturdier and stronger than I. As I reached a recognizable milestone, a shrine and statue of Mary and the baby Jesus on the boulders, I meandered over to see the statue closer, and offer my prayer of thankfulness for safety so far. I came across this woman huddled beside a huge rock, shaking from cold and fear. I approached and asked if she was okay; she said no. I then asked if I could pray for her; she misunderstood and replied she had been praying. I laid my frozen hand on her wet poncho-covered head and prayed for God's courage, wisdom and peace to fill her. Her name was Jean Ireland, and she was experiencing a panic attack due to the heights. She arose unsteadily, and we walked on together, now and then in slight conversation, walking within sight of each other, always in awareness of our connection. It was quite foggy and drizzly, sleeting occasionally with a mixture of snow. The path itself became more rugged, due to leftover snow cover, runoff, and mud. 

At some point, a new pilgrim joined me, Norm Minnesota, and we talked easily about the Camino, the weather, family, and the trail before us. We arrived at a rough spot covered with snow, patches of earth showing through here and there. We had to decide which way to turn, but the way ahead and the way to the right were both blocked off by yellow caution tape stretched tree to tree, post to post, warning us to not go that route. The problem was, there was no path to the left, and we were definitely not turning around and going back. Norm, Jean and I decided to try one path, only to end up circling right back to our beginning. We watched a group of about eight pilgrims decide to go another route, only to see and hear them sliding down a steep hill into mud and snow. It turns out Norm had a handheld GPS device, and he used it to find a road that we hoped would lead us in the right direction. We three ventured past the warning tape, and before too long, we could tell that we were on a real road, and followed it. After about two hours, Norm realized he had lost his GPS device! It had fallen out of his pocket into the snow somewhere. He turned back to search, and Jean and I went on to Roncevalles, another few hours away.

 That night, after my first pilgrim's mass, in my bunk in a cavernous medieval building resonating with the backdrop of murmurs, laughter and classical music, I saw many miracles of the day. Not the least was that God sent me to help Jean, and he sent Norm to help us both.

Thus is the Way: God blessing every pilgrim through strangers that He intentionally weaves into our journey.