Walking the Camino, Two: Street cats and other discoveries

If nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps the God of creation does as well, since there may be no difference between God and nature. Leaving old things behind makes space for the new. I kept my eyes open to this new landscape. This was important in order not to fall while walking. The ground dictated the journey: paved surface meant we could make time, inclines called for a slower pace, large rocks required attention to footing, smaller rocks and gravel taxed feet and legs.

The journey was a holistic, unifying one. Body, mind, and soul walked as one; everything was labor, sometimes easier, sometimes harder. I was my feet, and was deeply blessed in that respect. Most pilgrims asked one another: where did you start? How are your feet? My husband got big blisters that turned purple; I got none.

Pedrouzo, May 26: This is an opportunity to pay attention to bodily needs: gotta have a toilet! Don’t forget to drink! My feet tingle, my skin burns, my legs are stiff. Nothing super spiritual.  

One day before we entered Galicia, we stopped, and he asked me to go to a pharmacy (farmacia, ubiquitous along the route) for some bandages of a particular size. When I entered, I discovered a sizeable section devoted to foot care, with a dazzling variety of bandages, supports, and ointments for toes and feet. (This is one of many aspects of commercial support for the pilgrimage along the Camino.)

It was not possible to think about much beyond walking while walking. After five hours, walking generally became a burden, and my pack and I felt heavier. But usually mornings had a rhythm: walk early and rapidly, stop for coffee and juice, press on as the sun rose and the air warmed. The rhythm of the rainy days – there were two – was considerably more challenging. Walking earlier was always less effortful, as was walking under overcast skies or in tree-covered areas. Walking near busy roadways could be distressing because of noisy, speeding traffic. The ancient destination of Santiago awaits after you walk past the roar of planes at the Santiago airport. (What would Santiago think?)

The road determines the day. Because of this, simplicity is unavoidable and welcome. All I have to do today is walk X kilometers. The day is structured by a simple goal, and it becomes easier to imagine simpler times before workdays and automobiles existed. Walking each day, sleeping in a different place each night, made it easier for me to imagine the historic life of Jesus, walking up and down Galilee, getting his feet dusty, with no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20, Lk 9: 58).

Pedrouzo, May 26: If you walk, this is more or less as hard to do as it has been for centuries. Take out the paved parts.  

Leaving things behind makes for a simple day: walk, clean up, rest, eat, sleep. Repeat.

Every day was a circus of novelty: valleys filled with early morning mist. Cows trundling down village streets and leaving reminders of their passage as they head to pasture. Ancient trees, tall trees, riots of roses everywhere, the vigorous young grapevines in the sunlight of the Bierzo region. Dry stone walls everywhere, the oldest topped with moss skin. The rosy foxgloves of Galicia, brightening the shade. The hórreos of Galicia; a resident gave us the word but misspelled it, so it took a while for us to understand the function of these small granaries on so many properties. I was astonished the first time I heard a cuckoo sing; then I never stopped hearing them. Street cats: in Molinaseca someone has put out kibble for them, and four of them are eating demurely in a brick-paved alley.

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We stop for the night in Linares, which has no restaurants and more cows than people; our neighbors are cows, who stop vocalizing after their dinner.

Insights into essential simplicity and holism sound enviably profound. They came at a cost. The journey was hard. Some days we walked seven hours. Our first day of rain was miserable; the rain was cold and wind-driven. We stopped for coffee; I was stiff with damp cold and drawn in on myself. The trail underfoot was especially lumpy with scree that required careful walking.

I always found walking uphill challenging. My pack seemed heavier. My husband showed me a way of using my walking stick more effectively on ascents so make the climbs less effortful. Occasionally I simply begged God: You brought me here. Get me uphill! This prayer, in the vein of writer Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow essential prayers, always worked.

The fact that so many people were willing to do something that hurt them, to judge by the routine occurrence of foot and toe problems, gave me insight into martyrdom spirituality, which I had found foreign when encountering it in my study of Christian spirituality. I better understood the personal commitment to a purpose that made it possible to do difficult things. Pilgrims managed to overlook personal discomfort in forging on.

The number of people who undertake the Camino are considerable. In 2016, around 280,000 pilgrims completed a pilgrimage, according to the pilgrimage office in Santiago. My husband and I were two of 35,000 people to receive a compostela, a certificate of completion, in May of this year.

Within those numbers is much national diversity. The largest number of pilgrims comes from Spain, followed by Germany, Italy, the United States, Portugal, France, Ireland, and the U.K. We also met pilgrims from Australia and Sweden. The way is multilingual; a lot of signage is in both Spanish and English, and in Galicia many signs include the Galician dialect as well. The Camino was not the best place to practice Spanish, although it helped in checking in to the albergues. Many restaurant workers spoke enough English to specify a bill total in English, and sometimes menus were available in English or in Spanish, English, German, and French.

One aspect of the pilgrimage that I did not experience deeply, although my husband did, was cross-cultural conversation. He told me that he had sought out conversations with others during the solo portion of his journey. Couples, however, have a different dynamic and appear to relate primarily to each other. This was true for us. I am normally fairly ready to initiate conversations with strangers, but did not find much energy to do so on the pilgrimage. The change of language was somewhat intimidating, and I was frequently tired when occupying common space at the end of a day.

Santiago, May 27: I am so tired. I think the spiritual message is that it is not possible to have a disembodied spiritual message. 

This surprised me somewhat, since it confounded my expectations. I felt I missed some richness that I was aware of around me. People walked at different paces, however, making it hard to stay with a consistent cohort of pilgrims.

Related to this was my growing recognition of wanting living space that I did not have to share with others.

Linares, May 20: No private bath but just sharing with two others and no one in the bathroom when I showered and lots of hot water. … (In my dream) strange men kept appearing in my own home. Last night we only shared space with one person, a woman. Tonight there is a couple, like us. I had no idea I needed my own space this much. 

Staying in albergues is inexpensive because one buys shared space rather than a rom with a door. In Portomarin we had the good fortune to sleep in a two-person cubicle that had access to an actual private bathroom. But the amenity I missed most was a full-size towel, since I was traveling with a lightweight quick-drying travel towel that was smaller than standard size.

Pedrouzo, May 26: What I love most about furnished hospitality: towels. Clean sheets are nice, but the right size towel is a gift from Goddess. God might not think of it, but the handmaid of the Lord would.  

I reflected regularly on hospitality, since I stayed at a different place each night, meeting different hosts, seeing different facilities for the essential tasks of washing self and laundry, encountering kitchens (or not). Many of the albergues had guest books signed by pilgrims from different countries. Bill encountered a few characters (one he called Señor Grito –Spanish for “shout” – from his habit of shouting at guests) but the hosts I met were generally solicitous, some more skilled at English than others. We who walked daily were dependent on today’s innkeepers, who took us in for a modest amount (a bed was often five or six Euros). I was a stranger who did not speak the dominant language.

Hospitality may be a virtue and an attitude, but it is also a business. The World Economic Forum has ranked Spain 1st for the past two years in “travel and tourism competitiveness.” Spain ranks highly for tourist service infrastructure, cultural resources and their promotion, and the prioritization of travel and tourism. The Camino Francés and the routes of Northern Spain are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. People have been traveling the Camino Francés for a millennium, so the way is well-appointed. The pilgrim can find a café-bar every few kilometers, though they may seem farther apart in rain. Each time I felt like grumbling about the commercialization of the way, usually when seeing tacky souvenirs, I remembered Ian Reader’s helpful presentation in Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction on the inextricability of the commercial and spiritual along major pilgrimage routes. Santiago teems with souvenir shops, and we spent Euros in one of them.

 

 

Make America Smart Again

Once again, as with the women’s march, the signs were the best thing about the science march.

Hard to say which one was my favorite, but “97 percent of scientists say Donald Trump is a dumbass” made me laugh every time I saw it. The knit hats that looked like brains were also nifty, but you didn’t really need them on a sunny April day. In Chicago I was one of an estimated 40,000 people who walked and waved mostly homemade signs. The one my heart supported urged: Make America Smart Again – Support Public Education. It’s truly not normal when people have to make a statement in support of real facts as opposed to alternative ones. At least alternative facts have inspired many a satirist.

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The Chicago crowd was very family-friendly. My friend Kate and I stood behind a family of four with two boys, one stroller-age, and there were plenty of young scientists among the marchers. Also people wearing lab coats, and I overheard science teachers talking shop. My guess is the crowd was a mix of professionals and tree-huggers. My son is a scientist; I wrote that on the back of my sign, a picture of Mother Earth. Science saves medical patients and keeps the air we breathe and the water we drink clean (except when it doesn’t, as the people of Flint know). We take this for granted. The proposed funding cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency means we shouldn’t continue to assume this. No one seems to have pointed out to the current occupant in the White House that jobs will be lost if he has his way. Research employs people as well as makes lives healthier. I know this; my son works as a research assistant.

The speakers – whom we actually heard this time – were diverse, and I especially appreciated hearing the African-American neuroscience PhD Garry Cooper. African American boys have a graduation rate of 57 percent from Chicago public schools, according to CPS figures. That’s in the overall context of improving graduation rates in the system. That rate is dismal. We can and must do better. I happened to be reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited on the train ride to the city. What Thurman says (he wrote in the 1950s) about the responses of people without social power is relevant to understanding this structural discouragement and disadvantage.

Make America Smart Again – Support Public Education.

Getting ready for the Camino. 3. Physical.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with 20,000 steps. Doesn’t it?

Today was my first long conditioning walk: 10 miles at Waterfall Glen in southern DuPage County. It’s a circle – actually, more like a quadrilateral. Waterfall Glen features a waterfall, not a natural feature but one constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It is not named after that feature, however; it honors Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, an early president of the Forest Preserve District’s Board of Commissioners.

The main trail has its ups and downs, its prairies and woods and of course the main waterfall. The trees of the Bluff Savanna include white and black oaks and shagbark and bitternut hickories, some in the range of 200 years old, young when this area was first settled by white people. Kettle Woods is undergoing restoration that has removed most of the invasive understory of buckthorn and honeysuckle (grrrr…..). Now, as shrubs are just beginning to leaf out, the view through Kettle Woods is impressively clear.

Water was standing around in lots of low-lying areas after this week’s rains, making plenty of suitable spaces for spring peepers. We heard them but never saw a one; they are little ones, so that is not surprising. We also saw plenty of runners, dogs, families pushing strollers, and a few hikers wearing backpacks, as we were.

IMG_1370 We chatted with a man who told us he was conditioning for the John Muir Trail in late summer; I guessed he was half my husband’s age. When did we get old? I asked my husband later. Yesterday, he answered. Good to know.

I got tired about five minutes before our hike ended – reasonably good timing. The temperature rose from 50 degrees F to 60 degrees in the four hours it took us. Perfect, in other words. I started to think without dread about walking in Spain, which I do not expect to look like a suburban forest preserve. We have already begun chatting in a friendly way with fellow hikers; there will be much more of that, my husband observed. And the crunch of unpaved trail underfoot. What kind of birds, I wonder?

Travel Anxiety

I had a period earlier in my life when I was fearful about flying. I remember having some exceptionally turbulent flights that might have been the cause. It took a few years for that worry to recede. But I begin to wonder if it hasn’t been replaced by pre-travel anxiety. I notice I dread getting ready for traveling.

I’m going to walk the Camino de Santiago, a millennium-old spiritual pilgrimage route in northern Spain, in late spring with my husband. I keep waiting to get excited. Instead I’m worrying: what if he gets sick? What if I get sick? What if the accommodations are dirty? I don’t know very much Spanish. Will the cats be OK without us? I hate cold showers. My backpack is too heavy (six pounds).

I started googling. “Travel anxiety” got 54 million hits. The first aha: I’m not alone. You mean I’m not the only one who worries about going to a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and I’ll be walking 250 kilometers and wondering what to do if it rains as I walk? My first step down a path of many kilometers is a small one of relief.

Lots of help pops up when I research the Camino, which I have already started. I may be anxious, but I am also preparing: Tickets bought. Walking with weighted pack. Reading guides. And worrying.

Anxiety about the unfamiliar is normal; this I know, and I know concrete things to lessen anxiety, all of which have to do with reducing the unknown to the extent I can without becoming a control freak: find a cat sitter. Figure out what I will carry and weigh it. Keep up with conditioning.

Some of it is fear of finding out things about myself: I expect to be able to do this. What if I can’t? Then who am I? The farther I go down the road of what-ifs, the more I detour from the main route of learning, planning, hoping. This particular journey is intended to make demands. The Way of St. James is supposed to be hard. It is also voluntary.

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It is also a spiritual journey. For me that means my husband will not be my only traveling companion. Jesus, whom I have gotten better acquainted with over the past six years at seminary, lived a life on his feet, going from town to town. One of his best known journeys took place after the resurrection, when he went unrecognized by two walking companions going to Emmaus. Jesus on the road inspired a lot of Western artists. Carl Jung regards the much (re)told story, stuck in the imaginations of so many, as an instance of the “magical traveling companion.” I plan to remember that while walking.

Under Development

My husband and I own vacant land at the very edge of far west suburban Chicago. We presently live 40 miles west of the city; the acreage is another half hour further west, just a little bit past a few scattered subdivisions but before you get to the extensive corn and soybean fields and fields in Illinois’ flat northwestern quadrant. It’s wooded land that adjoins the Fox River and a state park. We’ve been dithering for years about building a home on the property. We’ve had dozens of excuses over a dozen years for not doing anything: Can’t commute from there. Too remote. Not sure the schools are good enough. The neighbor’s house is too blue.

The kids are grown, the end of the commute is in sight. The river is still there, and you can see it in the winter when the trees are bare. You can also see the neighbor’s big blue, also still there.

My husband and I have been talking to a builder, and today, on an unnaturally mild February day when it was 65 degrees out and sunny, we walked our vacant land. We interred a cat out there years ago and paid our respects to her; Harley is pushing up weeds and wildflowers now. Under layers of leaf litter and fallen limbs (not all the trees are standing vigorously upright on our wooded land) little green things are emerging, maybe confused because it’s been so warm. We find something that looks like rue foliage. Here’s a black walnut; we look up to see which skinny tree has yielded it.

Scrubby understory is everywhere, brambly bent berry branches I recognize and varieties of weedy junk I can’t recognize without leaves. I let out a deep gardener’s sigh. Bill says he’ll bring a chain saw later in the season to clear a walking path to make it easier to descend to the river, which is downhill, a blue ribbon we see through the lanky trees. We need educated eyes to help us figure out what to keep and what to remove. Surely we’ll never need firewood. Two boulders halfway down to the river could make good sitting spots or points of orientation.

We leave a rope that outlines one possible edge for the house, one tiny dent in the uninhabited woods, a little wedge for the imagination: here’s where the house would stop, so this is what you would see. That is helpful; my mind’s eye can’t see much beyond this raw patch of skinny trees and leaf litter.

img_0002 At the edge of the property, close to where development has laid in the road we will someday be using to get home, my husband installs a birdhouse. It’s designed for bluebirds, and we locate it at the edge of where the trees begin; bluebirds prefer the open. He mounts it; we hear, one, two, three chickadees overhead. Hard to say if they are just being their nosy selves or eying the new real estate development.

We’ll see who moves in.