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Linda Roy Cross

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Copyright 2017 © by Linda Roy Cross

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Disclaimer: Names of pilgrims have been changed unless stated otherwise.

Ebook Formatting by Mario Carrasco Teja

Songs: “Walk On.” “One Step At A Time.” “Beyond The Tears.” By Juan Jose Aguirre used by permission.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Cross, Linda Roy, 1945 -

Alone on the Camino: non-fiction / by Linda Roy Cross.

Ebook ISBN 9781370238385

1. Pilgrims and pilgrimages - non-fiction. 2. Spain-Santiago de Compostela. 3. Cross, Linda Roy 4. Travel-Spain, Northern. 5. Catholic authors. 6. Inspiration 7. Spiritual. I. Title.

Manufactured in the United States of America

Library of Congress Control Number: 2017905512

In memory of John and Olive Morin Roy

Dedicated to Randy Cross,

David Monarchi, and Christopher Cross

Table of Contents

Introduction and History of the Camino and St. James the Apostle

Day 1. May 16, 2012. Heading to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, France

Day 2. May 17. St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Day 3. May 18. Roncesvalles to Pamplona

Day 4. May 19. Pamplona to Puente La Reina

Day 5. May 20. Puente La Reina to Lorca

Day 6. May 21. Lorca to Monjardin

Day 7. May 22. Monjardin to Logrono

Day 8. May 23. Logrono to Ventosa

Day 9. May 24. Ventosa to Granon

Day 10. May 25. Granon to Burgos

Day 11. May 26. Burgos to Hornillos

Day 12. May 27. Hornillos to Castrojeriz

Day 13. May 28. Castrojeriz to Boadilla del Camino

Day 14. May 29. Boadilla del Camino to Villalcazar De Sirga

Day 15. May 30. Villalcazar De Sirga to Carrion and Leon

Day 16. May 31. Leon to Villadangos del Paramo

Day 17. June 1. Villadangos del Paramo to Astorga

Day 18. June 2. Astorga to Rabanal

Day 19. June 3. Rabanal to El Acebo

Day 20. June 4. Acebo to Ponferrada and Train to Sarria

Day 21. June 5. Sarria to Mercadoiri

Day 22. June 6. Mercadoiro to Hospital de la Cruz

Day 23. June 7. Hospital de la Cruz to Ponte Campana Mato

Day 24. June 8. Ponte Campana Mato to Arzua

Day 25. June 9. Arzua to Arca O Pino

Day 26. June 10. Arca O Pino to Santiago de Compostela

Day 26 – Continued. June 10. Arrival at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Day 27. June 11. Santiago de Compostela (Day 2)

Day 28. June 12. Santiago de Compostela to Fatima or Finisterre

Days 28 & 29. June 13 & 14. Finisterre to Santiago de Compostela to Paris

Heading Home. June 14 & 15. Paris to Tucson

How Did the Idea of My Camino Begin?

The Preparation: Recommended Equipment and Training for the Camino

Travel Arrangements

Camino #2. July 6-26, 2016. Camino Portuguese Coastal Route

Statistics on the Camino for 2012

My Website

About the Author


Introduction and History of the Camino
and St. James the Apostle

After I made airline reservations, I thought of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and regretted the short time I allowed for walking the Camino de Santiago. Would this be a type of silent retreat for me? A time set apart to focus on, to ask, to consider and respond to basic questions of the spiritual life? I live in, hike and love the Sonoran Desert. However, a new environment would be as much a part of the retreat.

In recent years, in certain circles, it has become politically incorrect to profess a religious, or spiritual reason for walking the pilgrimage route. Some now claim the Camino is an adventure, a walk with nature, or a physical test of endurance and willpower. That is partially true, but this isn’t just a Sunday stroll in the park.

Before leaving, I purchased books and read religious history on the Internet of the more than 1,000-year-old Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, across northern Spain, to honor St. James. Camino means “the way”: Santiago translates to Sant Iago, or Saint James.

Among the first of the 12 apostles were James the Greater (the Elder), and his brother John the Evangelist. The brothers were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, for their fiery tempers. Their father, Zebedee, was a wealthy fisherman; their mother, Mary Salome, was the sister of the Virgin Mary. James and John were cousins of Jesus.

Jesus commanded his disciples to go far and wide to preach the gospel. After Jesus’ crucifixion, James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula where he spread the Christian gospel. It is written in Acts of the Apostles 12:2, Herod Agrippa the First had James beheaded, in 44 A.D., after he returned to Jaffa (Palestine). James’ disciplines (Athanasius and Theodore) carried his headless remains, by sea, back to the Iberian coast (Ira lands) near Padron. Following Roman persecutions of Spanish Christians, his tomb was abandoned in the third century.

The legend continues: In Spain, the hermit Pelagius rediscovered what is believed to be St. James’ tomb in 814 AD. Pelagius witnessed strange lights in the night sky, or had a vision of a star, or a field of stars, a galaxy called the Milky Way, leading to an ancient tomb containing three bodies. The Bishop of Galicia claimed these to be the remains of James and those of two of his disciples. The same Bishop then named St. James the patron saint of Spain. The path of the Milky Way became The Way.

In correspondence, with my friend, the Vatican Observatory astronomer, and Jesuit priest, Father Christopher J. Corbally S.J., he explains the strange lights. “Galicia, Spain is at latitude +42.5 degrees. The Northern Lights (Aurora) have been seen down to +35 degrees, and I saw them once as a faint colored glow to the north from Star Island, New Hampshire, at +43 degrees. So my guess, as to the ‘strange lights,’ is that the Sun was particularly active when the hermit Pelagius was about to rediscover St. James tomb. The strange lights are ‘a star or a field of stars’, but there is no explanation why these should be consisted strange. A massing of planets could be the reason. It is like the Star of Bethlehem: several theories, and not sufficient evidence to choose between them.”

During Middle Ages, pilgrimages began from near and far, at the front door of wherever the faithful lived, to the site of Santiago del Compostela. (Compostela can have two meanings: field of stars, or burial ground.)

Many miracles, large and small, were attributed to the site then and are now to this day. Pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, and to Rome and Jerusalem, have the same result in plenary indulgences freeing those from penance due to sins. Legends hold many contradictions, but that did not stop pilgrims in centuries past or present.

Medieval pilgrims were known as Peregrinos, a term still used today. Over the centuries and along the way, infrastructures were established with the building of hospices (places of shelter for travelers), the beginning of hospitals.

For nearly a year, I trained for this strenuous journey. It’s not unusual for most people walking the Camino to sustain some injury; some die. I managed to hurt myself before the trip; I injured my right foot from over-training, resulting in a possible stress fracture. The constant pain is an unpleasant companion throughout the long walk.

In Spring 2012, I took a trans-Atlantic flight from Tucson, to Paris with a fixed return date. After taking two trains, I arrived at night, in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. The next morning, I began the French Route, which traditionally traverses the Pyrenees and in days after the cities of Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and Ponferrada, as well as medieval hamlets, until reaching the cathedral honoring St. James the Apostle, in Santiago de Compostela, in the region of Galicia.

Upon returning home, my body healed while the mind and spirit churned after a solo journey of a lifetime. I placed the training, and planning part of my Camino, at the end of this book. However, if you are in a hurry, and have not prepared yourself - let the walker beware.

For now, come along as this adventure begins. Have a nice day, a good walk, or Buen Camino, as pilgrims say to greet each other along the way.

Day 1
May 16, 2012

Heading to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, France

Aren’t you afraid?” Friends repeatedly questioned my sanity before I left, knowing I’d have nothing but the clothes I’d be wearing and a backpack weighing 20-pounds, including water. “I’ll tell you when I return in 31 days,” I said with a bit of trepidation. I plan to walk alone and know little Spanish, except for basic words such as: bano, vino tiento, cerveza, and donde esta.

Prior to walking the Camino de Santiago, I lived in my comfort zone. I led a busy, predictable, everyday life. I came to understand that periodically it’s good to break free, slow down, and experience the unpredictable, which can open possibilities. What am I looking for on this journey? What will it bring me?

After flying to Paris and riding the high-speed TGV train to Bayonne, a local train carried me through the Basque countryside overlapping France and Spain.

More than 24 hours earlier, I had left my home in Arizona to be a pilgrim for a month. Tonight, I’m unable to see the steepness of the Pyrenees, which I will face tomorrow. Closer to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, I see the dim lights of distant hillside houses.

The train, scheduled to arrive at 10:27 p.m., is a few minutes late. A quick headcount counts six pilgrims getting off. The entire town appears asleep. Because no taxis will be found at this hour, I must find my way alone and walk from the train station to the village. Quickly, I spot a mother and son who look confident. I hurry to tag along and learn they are from Koblenz. I ask whether they have reservations for the night. No. Neither do I. As it turns out, the youth-hostel-like shelters, albergues, do not take advance bookings.

The two ahead of me are fast walkers and I drag behind with my aching foot that I damaged shortly before leaving and would haunt me throughout the Camino. Nevertheless, I don’t dare let them out of my sight, otherwise I will be lost.

It’s impossible to consult a map in the dark. After several wrong turns, our party of three arrive in the village proper. The German mother spots a sign: Albergue and knocks loudly on the door.

The hospitalaria (female innkeeper) comes out, and shushes us to be quiet much like a scene in the movie, The Way. “Everyone is asleep. Everyplace in town is full,” she insists.

We walk to a second albergue and are told the same. We walk to a third albergue where one of the few people, awake in town is chatting with several pilgrims. We tell the hospitalario our dilemma. The Basque man replies in English, “Get in the car. I think I know someone who might have space.” Once we fasten our seat belts the man remarks, “You are trusting to accept a ride.”

I’m in the front seat and blurt the first thing that comes to my travel-weary, addled mind, “We are pilgrims. We think the best of people.”

The friendly man, who took pity on us, drives across town and, upon arriving, knows his way around the as-promised dwelling in the dark. He opens several bedroom doors and turns on lights. Sleepy travelers, who will be pilgrims come morning, moan from the disturbance. After trying several doors, our midnight-angel finds an empty room with three single beds. After two days of travel, with an international flight and riding two trains, I consider this a small miracle. Our encounter with the driver took less than 30 minutes and, to this day, I remember his kindness by going out of his way for us.

I quickly learn of the Germans’ hardy constitution. The mother and son open the window to let in the chilly night air and I realize it was a mistake to purchase a lightweight silk Sleep Sack, instead of a heavier sleeping bag. I don’t sleep well; nevertheless, my spirit soars in expectation of the days to come.

Day 2
May 17

St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Awakening to the sound of other pilgrims stirring, I dig out supplies and wait my turn for a quick shower. A posted sign encourages pilgrims to conserve water and clean up after themselves. Washing up the night before would have been too disruptive to the sleepers we had already disturbed; the last warm water touching my skin was 50-some hours ago.

As I head out the door, I’m in surprisingly good spirits. I trail behind long strides of the German duo heading toward a Pandaria (bakery) where I discover the delights of local pastries. I would have shunned these sinful calories back home, but soon realize I won’t have to worry about counting, or consuming calories on the Camino with the amount of energy burned.

I follow the mother and son to the Pilgrim’s Office where I show my U.S. passport. A volunteer makes a notation in the permanent Camino record book, returns my passport, and issues me a pocket-size, accordion-shaped Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim’s Passport). In the days to come, and upon showing the document, I learn pilgrims are allowed to stay one night, per albergue, for a minimal fee. We pilgrims receive more than we give on the Camino, and I rarely spend more than $25 a day for food, shelter, and incidentals.

From a box on the floor, I select a scallop shell. This is the traditional symbol of St. James the Apostle, who was a fisherman. The shell represents the physical and the spiritual – both of which will be tested during the days ahead. I tie the shell onto my backpack from where it will sway the rest of my journey along the Camino de Santiago: The Way of St. James.

No doubt, the Germans’ brisk volksmarching pace was learned at an early age; I took up hiking a year ago, only recently. I part company with the two, or perhaps I should admit, they didn’t wait for me.

I plan to find Gale, an American friend-of-a-friend I had met the previous week in Tucson. She suggested I stay an extra night in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to have a relaxing meal and walk with her group of four, who will sleep in hotels along the way and have their luggage and backpacks transported by van. I’m not prepared to share my private pilgrimage experience with four women I barely know, even though they are only walking halfway. I stick with my decision to walk alone.

According to John Brierley’s highly regarded book, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, it’s recommended to make the long haul over the Pyrenees early in the day and descend into Roncesvalles before nightfall. Good advice, but I’m already late. Clearly, I do not have my bearings, but soon realize all I have to do is follow some determined-looking soul carrying a backpack and walking sticks. Pilgrims are easy to spot. I should have learned to ask, “Donde va el Camino?” Which way is the Camino?

Within minutes, I pass under the arch leading out of town and over the Nive River. I’m officially on the Camino de Santiago, a skip of excitement in my heart and suddenly light-footed, I begin my way up a lower ridge of the Pyrenees.

I read enough in advance to look for the ubiquitous, yellow scallop shell painted on a blue background, or common yellow arrows. These designate the path. In the days ahead I find the signs are typically painted above eye-level high on the sides of buildings, although I find them at knee-level, and occasionally behind waist-high weeds.

Staying in the moment is difficult as I walk the path of my dreams. Often, I think of the past or the future. A voice inside speaks and it’s tough to quiet. Trying to focus, and stay in the Now, I hum a few bars of a song I used to sing years ago to my young sons, “The bear went over the mountain … to see what he could see.”

Stripped of my material-girl possessions, with each step upward, I’m slowly getting in touch with why I’m here. There is nothing but adventure and beauty before me. I think mid-May to mid-June is a lovely time to be on the Camino because of the weather and blooming flowers. Pausing occasionally, I snap the first of more than 800 photos, capturing bucolic scenes of rolling hills, valleys, leaning fence posts, and fields so green I imagine Ireland. The elevation steadily rises. Cattle roam freely and share paths with hikers and bicyclists.

Higher still, I take a photo of the first of many cairns, which are monuments or tombstones along the route. One cairn holds a narrow, foreboding sign pointing toward Roncesvalles. An important scene comes to mind from the movie, The Way, where a fictitious pilgrim (Emilio Estevez) loses his way near here in severe weather.

Occasionally, I pause to catch my breath. It’s fortunate I’m content alone with my thoughts, because it seems my injured foot forces me to walk slower than everyone else. My ego is only bothered slightly when stragglers pass me by, with a Buen Camino. I realize this uphill climb is a metaphor for life. The downhill segments, too. This path will seldom be flat and, as in life, it’s the ups and downs that build our spiritual muscle.

After six miles, I pause at Albergue Orisson long enough to even out wrinkles in my socks. I discard the stiff, hiking boot insoles and change to a pliable, more comfortable pair. A pilgrim, who has the sense to stay here for the night, suggests I’d best be on my way because rain is forecast in the afternoon. I continue, not knowing I will see Orisson again.

I’m well trained and prepared for the elevation; still, I huff and puff. I figure this will get me in even better shape for the Himalayan trek I’ve planned for next year. Upward I go, amidst emerald pastures, as I snap more photos along the way of free range cattle. A few determined bicyclists pass; they are prepared for rain that does not come. Bicyclists can finish the 500-mile Camino in two weeks. Me? I’ve got a long haul ahead and have completed 14 kilometers, just over eight miles. I’m okay. I’m determined to do this. My foot hurts; I push on.

Sometime after noon, out of nowhere, the wind spins into a gale force. I stop taking pictures and suddenly find myself fighting Mother Nature and unable to gain distance. I’m pushed four or five steps backward, and sidewise, for each step forward. Even though I’m strong, I’m small at five-foot-three. I struggle to keep my balance and inch ahead.

Over the next hour, I gain some distance, but progress is slow. I notice a college-age woman ahead. She stops often. Perhaps to catch her breath. I can tell she knows I’m behind her, glancing over her shoulder when she pauses. I wonder; is she waiting for me? The mist is figurative and literal. Perhaps she is an angel in human form to protect and watch over me. Is this an unearthly experience? I’m a pragmatic sort, yet this is different, and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Two men, who alternate gaining distance and falling behind, as a result of the wind, are no longer on the path. They must have turned back, were injured, or got lost. My antennae go up. Battling the strong wind is brutal and its effect escalates from tiresome to exhausting. I’m vulnerable. Exposed. Weak.

I recall the Chinook winds in Boulder, Colorado where I used to live. It’s not safe to walk or drive for fear of flying debris. In Germany, these winds are called the Foehn and make people act strangely; craziness is the fault of the Foehn. Today is like that. The word Tramontana means anything exceedingly cruel or barbarous and is the name of a northern wind across mountains in Spain. Whatever the name, I can no longer take in the beauty. I’m humbled and awed by the powerful force of nature.

Near the peak of the Pyrenees, my loose-fitting, hooded rain jacket flaps wildly. The wide-brimmed sunhat, I wear to keep long, blowing hair out of my face, eyes, and mouth, is useless and, is at the will of the wind, and spins like a Tilt-a-Whirl at a county fair.

My second pair of shoes, strapped to the outside of my backpack, swing like drunken boxers. My hiking poles are no help as they whip from side-to-side. This isn’t baptism-by-fire; its baptism-by-wind; a pseudo-sacrament for which I’m not prepared. In all my research on the Camino, I never read about this type of hostile wind. The Hebrew word for wind is the same used for God. I find the connection frightening, instead of reassuring. Is this what fear of the Lord means?

In the far distance below, I see a Basque sheep-herder’s hut and consider finding my way down the steep hill to ask the shepherd if I may seek shelter for the rest of the afternoon and the night. I’m barely alert, but enough to gather my wits and understand my thought process is severely hampered. I have plenty of water, but I’m rapidly becoming delirious because of exertion. Judgment clouded. Thinking confused.

Still, I alternate between determination to reach the mountaintop and continue on the downhill side of the Pyrenees, versus the practicality of heading for safety and finding shelter from the wind. Other than the hut, I see no shelter in sight.

Some distance back, I recall seeing 15K painted on the road. I’ve only walked nine-plus miles in seven hours. During training back home, I could have walked 20 miles in seven hours. Considering the elevation adjustment for the climb, I still have over 10 miles to go, with no energy left and still battling a gale force wind. But, I’m not ready to give up. The wind has to die down before long. Fortitude has brought me this far, but I’m uncertain of my options.

All who call upon me I will answer. I will be with them in distress.

Psalm 91:15.

I grew up on a farm, the seventh of ten children. I know how to work hard and carry a load, yet a silent voice reminds me that more pilgrims are seriously injured on this first day downhill stretch than throughout the entire remaining Camino. What if something happens to me halfway down? I’m already injured. With one simple twist or stumble I would be unable to proceed. It’s still mid-afternoon, but with the potentially dangerous combination of slow walking speed, physical exhaustion, and distorted mental condition, I fear being stranded. A pilgrim died from hypothermia in 2007. There is likelihood I will not reach my destination of Roncesvalles by nightfall. Would I be a morsel for wolves and bears?

In my delirium, I keep trudging like a robot. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch something blue in a distant field of weeds. It is bouncing with the wind. I recognize this object is likely a sleeping bag lost by some poor soul. I whirl with the wind to the right, off the natural path. I’m blown 15 yards, or so, into the overgrowth and retrieve the precious bundle. A fellow pilgrim would surely want this back during the nights to come on the long journey ahead, but there is no one to return it to here and I could surely use the warmth.

Even this early on, I intuitively understand pilgrims take care of each other. I clip on the stuffed sack to my backpack. The blue bag bumps in the wind along with everything else. This simple act connects me with the sane world.

Here I am Lord, I’ve come to do your will.

Psalm 40: 8-9.

I’m certain the two men, who also struggled against the wind and behind me an hour or so earlier, are no longer there. The young woman, I saw earlier, continues to stop and keep on eye on me without speaking. I suspect we are the last two on the mountain. I catch up with her and over the deafening wind she tells me she is from Denmark. This girl-woman, barely out of her teens, is having her difficulties. If I decide to continue, she will be my only lifeline. Or I will be hers. I don’t know if she has a cell phone. I’m aware that without a European chip, my iPhone will not work up here even dialing #112 for emergencies. I ask if she thinks it safe to hitchhike up here; all the guides caution against it. She shrugs. What if something happens to both of us? Her story continues the next day.

A car passes; I’m distracted and fear I’ve lost my last chance to safety. (Weeks later, I learn for a short distance GR65 parallels this part of the Camino, which otherwise is just a path beaten by pilgrims. Is this a minor miracle, or coincidence?)

Without an audible warning, two ambulances zoom past in the direction we’re headed. I wonder if one of the bicyclists I saw earlier has fallen. I continue fighting against the wind. Several minutes later, I come around a curve to see these ambulances blocking the dirt trail. The young woman and I stop.

Paramedics kneel on the ground above a man wearing an unbuttoned shirt and wind jacket; pads are attached to his chest. A Defibrillator. A woman stands above him. Her body language seems remarkably calm, without emotion, and I’m certain the man is someone she had not known for long. Weeks later, I learn the standing woman met the man just hours before.

Over the roar of the wind, I didn’t hear the helicopter raising from the village below, until I see it land near the ambulances. In the northern foothills of Tucson where I live, I’ve come to suspect the worse when I see search and rescue helicopters flying overhead to retrieve injured hikers in the Santa Catalina, and surrounding mountains.

In our hearts, the young woman and I suspect the outcome but neither can say the words. She cries. I recite, “Hail Mary … Holy Mary … Pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Death on the Camino is possible, but I did not expect to witness this on my first day on the Camino. God rest his soul. I will carry his memory throughout the miles and days ahead. I suspect he suffered a heart attack during the brutal uphill struggle against the wind.

A second car, forced to drive around the ambulances and helicopter, slowly rolls on the wild grass alongside me. Oftentimes in life we plead, “Lord, I don’t know where to turn. Please send me a sign.” The wind should have been enough of a sign for me to turn back. A man lying dead on the road is an unmistakable sign, neon, flashing, urgent. It could not be clearer as to the direction I must take. I surrender my will.

Even though hitchhiking is ill-advised, I weigh the fear against the only practical solution in sight. I flag down the car. A woman in the passenger seat will not lower the window. She must be afraid of this crazed, wind-blown pilgrim staring at her. Surely, I look like I feel. I remember some French from college long ago, but my mind is paralyzed and I can’t even remember the name of the village I passed earlier this morning. The French family does not speak English. The husband quickly assesses the situation and realizes this older, frazzled American woman is harmless and needs help. The young mother heads for the back seat to protect her young son from me. I take the wife’s place in the front seat and mumble a few words, but otherwise not a word more is exchanged until they safely deliver me back to the albergue at Orisson where I stopped over eight hours ago to adjust my socks.

I wonder if the unnamed Danish girl is safe. Perhaps she is halfway down by now. Hopefully, the weather has calmed on the other side of the Pyrenees.

Once at Orisson, I’m still in the car and traumatized. My French rescuer steps inside the albergue and learns the two American men, who at one time were behind me on the Camino, turned back and are inside.

I offer to pay the young family for going out of their way and saving me. They will not accept money. More small miracles and large kindnesses accumulate. I’m dependent on the sympathy of strangers, appropriate for a pilgrim, but disconcerting anyway.

First, I accept a ride with a stranger, in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, who helped find an albergue last night. Second, I beg for a ride, from the young French couple, who save me on the mountainside. For the third time, in less than 24 hours, I share a ride with people I do not know.

Upon arriving, the men asked for a taxi to be called to take them on to Roncesvalles. Between the two men and myself, we each pay €25. It’s the best money I spend on the entire trip. Our taxi driver safely delivers three humble pilgrims to the Spanish side of the Pyrenees at the albergue in Roncesvalles.

Offering 184 beds, this is the largest, of 30, in which I will stay. We three show our pilgrim credencials and are promptly checked in. I never see the two again on the Camino. Still dazed, I walk across the street to La Posada and pay in advance for an evening meal.

Returning to the albergue, and after a warm, comforting shower, I lie on a narrow bed for a short nap. I still have the found sleeping bag in my possession. I could use a real sleeping bag. I pray for wise counsel and right judgment. After the nap, I turn the prize over to Lost and Found.

Back at La Posada, pilgrims are seated at long dining tables. First course: lentil soup. Second course is fresh-baked trout so delicious it’s as if this is a five star restaurant in a dark, humble, centuries old, stone building. Before leaving home, I re-read The Sun Also Rises, and remember a character fishing for trout at nearby Burguete, where Hemingway once stayed.

French fries, bread and dessert are also served. Yoghurt seems to be the pilgrim’s dessert of choice. I prefer flan, but I will eat plenty of that in the days ahead. Bottled water is offered, but not necessary because drinking water from fountains along the Camino is safe. This is the first of a bottomless supply of delicious local wine I sample. A bottle on each table, is included in the price.

Exhausted, and with a full stomach, I could easily fall asleep. Instead, the pilgrim’s evening mass in the Iglesia de Santa Maria next door begins in five minutes. Surely, I can stay awake long enough and offer thanks for my good fortune and return to safety. Following mass, con-celebrated by three priests, all pilgrims regardless of denomination, faith or no faith, are invited to approach the altar for a special Blessing. I believe I’ve received my blessing with a safe delivery off the treacherous mountain, but learn to not turn down any prayers and help offered.

After mass, I return to the co-ed sleeping room and overhear a man, three beds away, tell his friends, “I nearly converted to Catholicism tonight after my sleeping bag was turned in.”

I approach him. “I found the bag shortly before seeing a dead man on the ground.”

With a start, the man identifies himself as a doctor, who came upon the deceased before I arrived. He, and another unknown pilgrim/nurse briefly tried CPR, without success, and confirmed the man’s death. With nothing he could do, the doctor left the body in the care of the man’s walking companion, who had telephoned for help.

Of the thousands of people walking, or riding bicycles on the Camino that month, I would later encounter separately, and a second time, the doctor and nurse again. Coincidences were accumulating. Whether one wants to call these supernatural is up to the reader; however, I am a believer in the Divine.

Day 3
May 18

Roncesvalles to Pamplona

My inexpensive Timex, with illuminated dial, shows 4 a.m. I awake again at 5:45 to a ringing cell phone. I dig around half asleep, locate my Apple iPhone and realize it’s not mine ringing. Surprisingly, it still has power. I realize someone else has the same ringtone. This nuisance continues for several minutes. Pilgrims begin to stir and some rise and dress in the dark. Lights will be turned on at seven. With few exceptions, we must all be out the door at the latest by eight.

With not an inch left in my backpack for a microfiber nightgown, I considered, for a nanosecond, sleeping nude among 100 or more pilgrims, but I’m not that crazy. The previous night, I slept in my clothes and black hoodie jacket. I notice others do the same. I’m still chilled from yesterday’s misery and challenges.

Less than eighteen hours ago, I faced some dark moments. If those experiences happened early in the journey, I worry what is in store for me during the rest of the Camino? I want my Camino to be a safe, quiet, and supportive place to think about what matters. It’s to be a mystical journey away from the busy, but only occasionally chaotically day-to-day life I lead at home.

Already, I see these fellow pilgrims as a community of thousands … no, millions before, who walked these same paths since the twelfth century, for many of the same reasons I have. Honoring my late parents. Gratitude for many blessings. Asking forgiveness from those I’ve hurt. Forgiving those who have hurt me. Forgiving myself.

The majority of us relate to the Almighty in much the same way, although a percentage of pilgrims walk for non-religious reasons. Regardless, we each carry hiking poles and wear windbreakers to guard against the forces of nature.

Last evening, I discovered my only two changes of clothes were wet because I hadn’t properly sealed the Platypus, the water bladder in my backpack, and it leaked. I draped my walking clothes and extra clothing over a bed railing to dry. One might think I would learn from this; however, similar episodes in the days ahead show I’m slow to catch onto the fine points of being a modern pilgrim.

This morning, all are still damp and by necessity I wear the same zip-off hiking pants and shirts I’d worn the previous 75 hours, changing only socks and underwear.

Downstairs in the kitchen, other pilgrims appear fully prepared with their breakfasts of fruit and bread. I only have protein bars, but these are enough for now after last night’s delicious pilgrim’s meal.

Hardy Europeans trek off into fog and drizzle. They must have thicker blood or perhaps they have better gear than mine. I’ve never worn rain pants or a poncho, so I didn’t know what to expect, or whether they are truly rainproof. I ponder the steady stream of pilgrims leaving from the opening and closing of doors and am already chilled from the draft. The steady drizzle turns into a heavy rain that doesn’t let up after 20 minutes. Having lived in the arid, Arizona desert for 15 years, I don’t easily tolerate the cold and I’ve been cold since Paris. I make the decision to not walk the Camino this morning.

A short stroll takes me to the village café (called bars, but not the type serving alcohol.) While customers order grande café con leche, I request the first of many hot tea and croissant combinations, and inquire about the autobus to Pamplona, which cost €6 - about $7.50. It will be here in 40 minutes.

With ego safely tucked aside, where it belongs, I rationalize the bus will save a two-day, 30-mile trek. On the bright side, I will be ahead of schedule. Instead, my spirit is shaky after yesterday. If I came to the Camino to find my bliss, it won’t be found this morning, I’m rattled. I’m not pleased with myself. My imperfections and humanness are showing. I must reclaim my center before walking the Camino any further and upon boarding the bus, I keep my head down.

There was at least one person back home who looked at me askance asking, “Are you sure you can walk 500 miles?” My answer should have been, “How would I know? I’ve never done anything like this before. All I can do is try.” Instead, the seed of doubt is planted. Is the unspoken message, “I’m questioning your ability?” Is that person dumping his internal insecurities and lack of conviction onto me?

Another person suggested, “Jump out of an airplane if you want adventure. It takes only minutes versus an entire month.” That person is missing the point of my motive for the Camino. I’m not looking for an adrenaline rush. I know better than to listen to unhelpful remarks. Still, I feel guilty taking the bus and disappointed in myself after training with confidence for a year. Instead, I’m facing one of my life’s biggest physical challenges alone and with doubt. So far, the Camino has been sacred ground and seems to have spiritual powers where I can meditate. In the past, someone I love dearly asked the rhetorical,” Who do you think you are?” Yesterday brought that question to the surface. Now it’s time to reach deep inside and ask, “Who am I?” After mulling over the negative, I recall an original short essay by the author Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Within a few miles, on N-135, I see Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises village of Burguete, where he stayed. Soon, the highway parallels the Camino and I watch pilgrims face the elements. Woodland paths look soggy. I’m not ready for that and glad I’m not among them. Hunkered down against the rain with ponchos draped over backpacks, they look like a herd of upright turtles. Are they having fun? Must life always be about having fun? That’s another question that needs answering.

The clean, modern bus arrives on time. In the industrial center, at Pamplona’s Estation Autobus, I soon discover I’m not the only pilgrim on board. Among the many is the young woman I met yesterday battling the windstorm. With relief, I rush to give my Danish angel a hug, as I would a friend in the U.S. I tell her I was worried for her safety and ask what happened to her after I hitched a ride.

“I sprained my ankle on the way down. I’m going to be laid up for a long time. I’m checking into a nice hotel. With a big bed and a bathtub,” she said emphatically before painfully limping away.

I felt for her, and glad I made the decision to turn back. With my aching foot, a bad sprain and something worse could have happened to me. I never saw her again. No doubt her pilgrimage ended on the first day: but by the grace of God …

Today has been an epiphany amid the beginning of my emotional roller coaster of a Camino. Life is short and death seems to be around every corner. No doubt, other internal demons will need to be dealt with. I no longer face death, although yesterday I feared dying. If I had died, or became seriously stricken, it would have been a reflection of poor choices. Finally, I allow myself credit, take a deep breath, and applaud my sensibility. Another experience chalked up to self-discovery. Perhaps turning back, before reaching the crest of the Pyrenees, wasn’t so chicken-hearted after all.

My pat-on-my-back doesn’t ease the pain in my right foot. Walking into the center of Old Town takes me longer than I expect. I’m turned around several times, but keep asking “Cathedral?” Locals point and I walk in that direction for a while. Then I stop and ask again.

Previously, I read in the guidebook that Albergue Jesús y María is located near Santa María la Real Cathedral. From this day forward, I develop a habit of heading for large albergues, believing this increases my odds of getting a bed. I think this a wise, if not an un-adventuresome decision. I’m sure to have plenty of adventure without the panic of not having a place to sleep. These shelters are sometimes called refugios, but most often referred to as albergues.

Drawing near, I see the public square full of pilgrims and know I’m close. By time I arrive, I see a long line waiting to get in. The two-floored-albergue has 114 beds and in a good location to explore Old Town. For a deposit of €3, I rent a blanket and will get €2 back the next morning totaling an expenditure of a dollar to stay warm. Bunk beds are assigned regardless of age or sex. I haven’t slept in a bunk bed since my childhood during 4-H summer camp.

I’m surprised to find my top bunk surrounded by a large number of young Koreans. Later, I learn by the end of 2011, the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho’s fictionalized book, The Pilgrimage, had been translated into multiple languages and is credited with introducing the Camino and spreading its popularity among Asians.

Before striking out to explore, I make certain I’m able to find my way back to the Albergue Jesús y María, although the cathedral is within a block or so. Large cities hamper my sense of direction. At home, I have mountain ranges as directional guides. Not knowing the way is stressful for me; whereas, for others I learn it’s an adventure.

I spend several hours at the Cathedral, and could have spent days more reading, studying, and photographing. The richness of the interior, (including the elaborately carved tombs - the alabaster mausoleums of Navarre of Spain, King Carlos III El Noble and his wife, Queen Leonora) does not match its plain Greco-Roman exterior. Some of my favorite photos of the trip are of its stone arches and gracious and intricate work of the cloisters, the choir stalls, and fourteenth century retables.

Back on the street, I reflect how unlike today is from yesterday, which seems a lifetime ago. Now, I’m simply a pilgrim without the temptation to retrace my steps, or visit the shops that sell Pamplona bull souvenirs.

I was in Pamplona before; I came here in 1977 with a man I was dating who ran with the bulls during the festival of San Fermin. I remember being in the stands nervously taking photos as my friend, and other runners, ran into the bullring attired in the traditional white shirt and white trousers, red scarf and red sash. I recall cries of the spectators, myself included, when several were injured by bulls. One young man died after trampled by the frenzy of fellow runners.

Today, the main square, Plaza del Toros looks empty without a mob of cheering drunks. Looking around the plaza, I realize I’m too late for the Menu de Dia that ended at two o’clock. I don’t want to wait until seven to eat, so I graze on mango sorbet. Back at the albergue, I listen to Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder downloaded onto my iPhone.

Later that afternoon, at a sandwich shop, I order the first of many bocadillos, crusty bread cut in half lengthwise with a salty, thinly sliced piece of Iberico ham. This is considered the finest ham in the world and cured for 12-48 months. I’m hooked. Next, I find a convenience-type market catering, most likely, to tourists and pilgrims. I buy a small canister of Pringles, one of the few American-comfort-junk foods I consume on my journey. I sit in the plaza near one of the many restaurants, where Hemingway must have hung out. In quiet reflection, I stroll to another square with playground equipment and watch parents and children run and play. This grounds me; I’m back on track, mentally and physically up to tomorrow.

Day 4
May 19

Pamplona to Puente La Reina

Walk On

Juan Jose Aguirre

Walk on through the stormy night

Stand tall through the bitter lightening

Rise up in the morning light

And sing your song

Hold on through the blowing wind

No day has a perfect ending

Reach out when you need a friend

You gotta stand strong

And walk on

Bad days have come your way

The tears stream down your face

You’re overwhelmed with a worried mind

But failure has no shame

You learn to run again

Can’t top a mountain without a fight

You gotta past through the river

And you won’t be swept away

You gotta walk through the fire

And you won’t be set ablaze

You gotta pass through the waters

While others lose their way.

Today offers a fresh start after a couple of difficult days due to one sore foot, high winds and general doubting my ability. The routine of stuffing the backpack the night before, to get an early morning start on the Camino, works well for me. Since I walk slow, pilgrims waking an hour later will easily pass me in a few hours. I can’t get used to how dark it is here even though it’s 6:45 a.m. Back home it would be light … oh never mind. I’m not back home. Upon leaving the albergue, I’m turned around, which I continue to be in large cities along the Camino. Even though I walked into the Old Town center of Pamplona yesterday, I don’t know if the yellow arrows are leading in or out of town. Parade routes seldom say, “Start here.”

In doubt, I pause for a few minutes to think things through. Along comes Roberto, an Italian pilgrim, and together we find our way, asking directions how to get through the city park. After we pass the university campus, and cross the stone bridge over the river, Roberto becomes chatty. He says he still lives where he was born in an exquisite village around Lake Como. “One of the top 10 best places in the world to shop,” he says and suggests I add this spot to my bucket list. His English is thick and broken. Roberto identifies himself as a pensioner, which means he is retired. He was formerly in the textile business and provided fabrics to the House of Balenciaga. I know enough about haute couture to be impressed with this unlikely namedropper. Eighty percent of Europe’s silk is produced in his corner of paradise. He tries teaching me Italian, but I’m a terrible language student and we both laugh.

Ahead, on the outskirts of Pamplona, a priest leads a German-organized group. He and the group make various stops; he reads a reflection, followed by the group praying the Our Father.

The next town, Cizur Menor, is obviously affluent, and in sharp contrast to the many humble, ancient villages, I will see ahead.

The Camino and the land around have a rich and varied history, adding another level to this already deep experience. Charlemagne left his footprint over this area. In 778, he invaded northern Spain, then controlled by the Moors. For more than 1,000 years, pilgrims have snaked through these tall grasses, following ancient footsteps heading to the tomb of St. James.

Understandability, during the Spanish Civil War, the Camino was not well traveled, nor safe for 40 years, until the 1980s, when its popularity and pilgrims returned. (As a side note: in 1986 the pilgrim count was 2,500. Now that there was no war, in 2012, the pilgrim count rose to 192,500. Political history takes a role in how this landscape played into the spread of Christianity.)

Despite the first day of hurricane-force winds, May and June are marvelous months on the Camino, with shrubs of Spanish gorse, patches of rapeseed, and field mustard coloring the lush landscape. Grasses and crops are such an intense green, gold and yellow they look photo-shopped, in contrast to today’s gray sky. In the distance are mountain ranges.

By now, my temporary walking partner, Roberto, has moved along and I continue alone. I see a pilgrim dragging his possessions behind, in a covered trolley cart about waist high, using a backward grip on two handlebars. Another pilgrim wears the smallest backpack I’ve ever seen with just enough space to carry one water bottle and a stick of chewing gum. I’m aware there are courier services for hire to transport backpacks. But never mind, I’m on a pilgrimage and intend to carry my own weight, which will have multiple meanings in the weeks to come.

Further ahead is a large cairn. These are found all over the world, and it’s suggested some go back to 200 BC to the days of the Druids. In stark contrast to cairns and wildflowers, I see a skyline of the first of many wind turbines, which seems an oddity and somewhat incongruent along this ancient path. Later, I learn that Spain is the fourth largest producer of wind energy.

I also remember reading Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe, second only to Switzerland.

Along today’s stretch, there are few trees and little shade. I face a steep climb before reaching Alto del Perdon where oversized, wrought iron cutouts, of medieval pilgrims fight the wind. The English translation of this location, Hill of Forgiveness, doesn’t seem to register with the silly antics of the two young men I see ahead. Instead, it seems more a photo-op for them, as for many pilgrims, but then walking the Way of St. James doesn’t have to be grim to be heartfelt. I accept the young man’s offer and have my own photo-op while leaning forward to demonstrate my fight with El Windo.

On the steep trail downhill, after the Hill of Pardon, I’m careful to watch my step on the path where loose stones could easily twist an ankle. I’m glad I’m not wearing sandals. I recall my fellow pilgrim-angel from the first day and don’t need a lame ankle added to my painful foot.

The brush becomes thicker upon reaching Zariquiegui, a village so small I can’t find a place to purchase food. Luckily, I have half an Iberico ham bocadillo from last evening. Outside Saint Andrews Church, I enjoy this make-do breakfast while observing the amazing stonework on each arch.

Back on the path, and alone with my thoughts, it’s difficult not to eavesdrop. I overhear two college-age Asians, and wonder why they are speaking English. Perhaps one is Korean, and the other Japanese, and English is their mutual second or third spoken language. One questions why the other is on the Camino. I detect it’s difficult for the young man, as he stumbles to find the correct words to express love for his mother, as well as forgiving his father for alcoholism, which brought on a divorce, and broke up the family. Or it’s possible the struggle is not with words, but holding down emotions the Camino seems to bring on. In days ahead, there will be more painful stories from pilgrims, although many choose not to disclose their reasons for walking the Way of St. James.

Beforehand, while searching the internet, I learn that asking another’s motive is off limits. Today, I feel the need to expand my purpose on this sacred pilgrimage. In addition to the obvious, what could it be? To repay a debt? Ask a favor? Give thanks? Seek the More life has to offer, and promises to hold in store? Invite the Holy Spirit to indwell and guide? Come to understand the Holy Longing? Learn to sit quietly and process without distraction? Experience the present? Learn to cope with and understand death?

Walking is meditation, triggering images that come to mind. I count my blessings for the green fields, birds, sunny days, cloudy days, blue skies, dry clothes, and kindnesses. I think of people who have distanced themselves from me. I recall their histories, their suffering, uniqueness, turning points, and day-to-day lives. I try to walk in their shoes.

In Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth, he explains the human need to tell and understand one’s story, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are. During the difficult and lonely moments on the Camino, I question what made me want to turn this pilgrimage into a silent retreat. Everyone else seems to have a walking partner. I’m torn between missing the camaraderie and knowing that solitude and reflection are the experiences I’m after.

Aloneness allows an inward journey and prepares for a spiritual transformation. I’ve read there’s nothing in the world that resembles God so much as silence.

Perhaps it’s a delayed reaction, following the Hill of Forgiveness, or overcast skies becoming a darker gray, or the solemn music on my iPhone, which cause my eyes to tear. I’m beginning to realize this walk on the Camino is also a sacred walk into me, my soul, and spirit.

Ahead, I see a way-marking sign. Peregrinos. Pilgrims. At Obanos, brass scallop shells embedded in pavers, mark the Camino.

About two miles before Puente la Reina it starts to rain. I spot a group of six or so pilgrims huddling under a tree seeking shelter from the downpour. I join them. The protective cover, which comes with the backpack, will not fit because of the sandals tied on the outside. I pull out waterproof rain pants tucked into a waterproof sack attached to my not-so-waterproof backpack. The sack is one less item swinging to and fro. I pull the rain pants over my muddy boots. Later, I wonder how the inside of my rain gear got so filthy. A kind man (another little angel) sees me struggling, and offers to straighten my poncho. I look like the rest of the group. Hunchbacks.

Regretfully, the leafy tree provides little shelter as the sky opens up with no break in sight. We slosh along, each following the other, with the Camino quickly turning into a muddy stream.

Walking ahead, three pilgrims hold umbrellas. What earlier must have seemed a smart idea, now proves fruitless as gusts of wind snap them inside-out, Mary Poppins-style.

We approach the outskirts of Puente la Reina (Queens Bridge). I’m cold, damp, and ready to stop. Several other pilgrims have the same idea and we walk to Jakue, the first albergue. We stand in line, outdoors under a lean-to waiting to pay for beds. When it’s finally my turn, the attendant asks if I would like to purchase an €11.5 ticket for the Pilgrim’s meal that evening. Sounding like a lot of money for a pilgrim, I ask if I can let her know later. “Yes, of course,” she says graciously.

I’m assigned the top bunk in a room with three men. Actually, this is one large room, sectioned off with screens to make it seem like we are in cubicles, but another pilgrim’s bunk is smack next to mine. We will be sleeping nose-to-nose divided only by a floor-to-ceiling thin, bamboo screen. Don’t complain. This is shelter and that’s good enough although I’m a light sleeper and will take Ambien again tonight for the fifth night in a row. I have enough for the entire trip. (More about the sleep-aid in one of the chapters at the end titled: Preparation.)

I know the albergue routine now. Boots are left outside. Later, I see others brought their boots inside. I go back out and collect mine. Because the overhang didn’t fully protect them from the rain, they are wetter than ever. With no other option, I place them under the lower bunk.

In the community room, I try the Internet several times, but the signal is down. That’s an annoyance encountered frequently on the trip. I smile inwardly at my modern problem – imagine the thousands of people who took this journey and were unable to contact family until they returned; if they had problems, they solved them alone – through ingenuity and prayer. Today, we Google and use the Internet.

I try to nap, but the fellow in the lower bunk is snoring like Papa Bear. Gingerly climbing down from the top bunk, I try to avoid stepping on his outstretched leg, or arm, or face, as I place my swollen foot on a rickety chair, hoping it doesn’t tip.

An enticing aroma wafts throughout the communal kitchen where I use the clothes dryer. This is the first I’ve been in direct contact with several Asian groups, who stir up the most elegant meals from fresh vegetables, poached eggs and secret seasonings. I’m tempted to ask if I can provide an ingredient and join them. I don’t know if they would have understood; I never saw them mingle with other pilgrims.

Interestingly, this albergue is in the basement of Hotel Jakue, a three-star hotel. Adjoining is El Peregrino, a four-star hotel, coincidentally where Gale, my Tucson friend-of-a-friend will stay in a few days. I scout out the €11.5 restaurant and learn it’s the same as the fancy hotels. I go back outside, in the drizzling rain, where the young woman is still braving the chill and I buy a meal ticket.

The dining experience spoils me early into the pilgrimage. How civilized. Chairs covered in washable, ivory-colored slipcovers and tables in various sizes. I take a seat, at a table for six, thinking someone will join me. No one does. Seeing other tables of pilgrims, I wonder if I should pick up my plate and join another table. The need for camaraderie versus being alone is front and center again: I dine alone. The Lord gives us what we ask for.

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