Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Camino de Santiago de Campostela: Peregrinos and Peregrinations

by Craig Bernthal

          People on the Camino asked us, not infrequently, how we'd heard about it. Cole Thornton came up with the idea of walking the Camino after reading about a man who was attempting to walk around the world. (Apparently more or less possible, without walking on water—at least not the liquid kind.) In researching long walks, he found out about the Camino a year before the Emilio Estevez movie, The Way, came out. That was a relief, because in Spain it gave us an alibi. No, unlike most Americans, we were not completely directed in our lives by Hollywood, but had actually discovered the Camino independently. Bruce Thornton told people this so positively, I bet they believed him at least 50% of the time.
So Cole was the original peregrino in our group, his father Bruce was number two, his mother Jacalyn gets my vote for number three, since, although she didn’t walk with us, she did so much to set it up and was with us in spirit. I make the last member, as I was fortunate enough to be asked to go along. I doubt I’d have thought of it on my own, but once asked, I never thought twice: “When do we go?”
I should let Cole and Bruce speak for themselves, but I suspect that at the beginning, for all of us, the Camino mainly represented an adventure. Being in the only Catholic in the group, I chalked up another reason as well: Catholics are supposed to go on a pilgrimage, so, this was my pilgrimage—another box checked off. About a week before we left for Spain, I remarked to Martha Danks-Ferguson, who directs religious education at my church, St. Anthony of Padua in Fresno, that I had done nothing in any spiritual way to prepare for the trip. That will all come while you’re doing it, she said. Martha has a way of being right about these things, and she was right about this as well, but that’s mainly a subject for another blog. This blog is about the remarkable people I met and walked with, and Bruce and Cole were the first two: buoyant, happy, breathing in Spain by the kilometer, and quite content to have pared life down, if only for a while, to the basic elements.

(Cole and Bruce)

People come into your life and go out of it on the Camino, and some people stay in. I met a lot of Americans, a couple of Canadian women from Vancouver, plump and with peachy complexions, which were a painful looking red from the sun, who were having a great time, despite the appearance of being way out of shape. (I’ve been surprised by this body-type before; in Scotland, I watched heavy-set women go up the hill like locomotives while I gasped from behind.) I met Germans, Czechs, French, Italians, South Africans, Irish, English from Uganda, and of course, lots of Spaniards. On the third day out, we stopped at a beautiful café in Murias de Rechivaldo and I talked with the woman I mentioned from Marseilles, and we sang a snatch of the Marseillaise together: “Allons enfants de la patriiiiia, la jour de gloire est arrive!”

(Murias de Rechivaldo)

          In Rabanal I met an extended American family that was walking the Camino en mass, uncles, aunts, kids, all supporting their wife/mother/sister who had Parkinsons and was walking as much as she could.
Most importantly, I met Young Soo Chun, of Seoul, S. Korea, who after a couple of meetings, walked with me to Santiago. The first time I noticed him was at Tio Pepe’s in Mazarife, but simply took account of him as one of several peregrinos in the albergue bar. The next day, by chance we walked with two people we’d met at Tio Pepe’s, Fr. Dominic O’Hara and Mary Whitehead, catching up with them not far from Mazarife. Then, leaving them behind, we caught up with Young Soo, which was a surprise, since he kept a very even pace, walked at a good clip, and seemed quite relaxed while he did it, moving his legs more from the knee, whereas our style was more from the hip. My first thought about him was, this guy makes walking look like gliding. When he stopped for the day before Astorga, in Santibanez de Valdeiglesia, with Dominic and Mary, who had caught up with us, I thought that we’d seen the last of all three until Santiago; we made a date with all three to meet on July 12 on the steps of the Cathedral in Santiago.
As Bruce, Cole, and I pressed on to Astorga, I thought it might have been quite nice to pull up with Young Soo, Dominic, and Mary, have a nice cool drink, and get off my feet. It was hot, humid, and a few hours later, soaked with sweat, we were all running on empty, trudging to the top of a long hill. (Like the Scots, and Spanish do not believe in switch backs--waste of time, apparently.) At the top, by an abandoned building, shimmering in the sun, there was a juice stand. A free juice stand. Orange, apple, mango, pear, grapefruit, pomegranite—every juice imaginable. I couldn't read the words in Spanish but I could read the pictures on the labels. Ice. A big juicy watermelon. Peanut butter. Tahini. Water. Bananas.

Bruce and Cole at the Miracle Fruit Juice Stand
There we met one of the truly great characters of the Camino, a guy with a samurai top knot, no clothes but running shorts, skin burned brown by the sun, feet like a hobbit’s, who had made it his business to live in the (except for him) abandoned building and give away fruit juice to dehydrated peregrinos. Watermelon rinds and bananas went in the compost bin, which looked to be an old livestock watering trough. He did take donations, but he never even mentioned it—you just had to find the donation box on your own amid the juice bottles. I gave him 5 euros. I should have given him 10. He had a stamp for your passport: a big, red heart.

Cole and St. Juice
        Since then, I’ve just thought of him as St. Juice. But the scene did not stop here. Already at the juice stand there was an Israeli woman (our first meeting with Liat, who we frequently bumped into later on the trip). Then, up the hill came a pair of musicians: a guy from Australia using a piece of PVC pipe as a walking stick, which incidentally, he had also fashioned into a didgeridoo, and his buddy from Mexico who, in addition to his backpack, had a guitar with case in hand. They had some juice and the Aussie started to play the PVC/didgeridoo/walking stick. As Bruce summed it up, “We’re in a scene from a Fellini movie.”
This was one of the first of many astonishing and gratuitous acts kindness that I saw on the Camino.

        We spent the evening in Astorga at a nice municipal albergue, sharing a four-person room with Luca, an Italian ex-florist who had pulled up stakes because he got tired of delivering flowers. He was travelling with an attractive young Frenchwoman: no romantic attachment, he explained, but “We make a good team.” Again, we had regular chance encounters with Luca and the French lady whose name I never learned.
        Young Soo caught up with us the next day on the way to Rabanal, and we walked as a group through several stages to Villafranca and were joined along the way by Pamela Pollock, an artist from Eugene, Oregon, a raw vegan expert who talked over her kimchi recipes with Young Soo, told me of her world travels, explained the finer points of horoscopes (she was a Gemini and not surprised to find I was a Taurus), and about Shirely McLane's book about doing the Camino in the 70s.
Young Soo in Santiago
It is surprising how much you get to know about people if you walk with them, on and off, for even a day. Over the course of several days I found that Young Soo had his Korean army experience out of the way (he’d been a mortar man and a photographer), loved taking pictures, enjoyed reading Paolo Coelho, and wanted to start a school in Korea that emphasized critical thinking more than rote learning; on this extended trip, which had started long before the Camino, he had gone sky-diving in the Czech Republic (“because it is cheapest there”) and loved Florence. He’d worked with kids of mixed ethnicity in Korea, saying they tended to be discriminated against, and visibly lit up around children. He had gotten the full sky-diving package, with pictures of himself with a big grin, arms spread, in the Czech sky. “It doesn’t feel like you’re falling. It feels like you’re flying.” Pamela kept up with Bruce and Cole in evening games of Gin Rummy and photographed whatever might lead to artistic inspiration. She loved the huge, well-tended vegetable gardens we saw all the way through to Samos.

Cole, Pamela Pollock, Young Soo, and Me in Arco de Pino
A lot of what we talked about was walking, and how to do the Camino. I credit two fundamental principles to Pamela and another woman, Jen, from New Zealand. Pamela’s Principle One: walk at your own pace. Pamela had started with some very athletic hikers from Oregon, and was more comfortable with letting them go ahead. I heard this from more than one person: you have to set your own pace. I talked with a man from S. Africa, and mentioned that I wished I could do the Camino with my daughter Sarah, who would love it. He said, let her do it on her own, free from any parental pressure. His daughter had started with him, but was now somewhere behind. (She caught up with him, eventually, in Santiago, but had had a wonderful experience doing her own Camino.) Pamela was right. Almost anyone can do the Camino, if they go at their own pace.  Especially if you push too hard, it will only be an endurance contest. And you need to discover your own Camino.
Jen’s Principle Two: You’re doing the Camino, not sight-seeing. Jen offered this in rebuttal to my suggestion that it would be nice to spend a whole day in Leon and another in Astorga, looking at the cathedral, the museums, the Roman ruins, etc. She said it wouldn’t be a Camino experience, which is mainly walking on your own (yes, you talk to people, but mainly, you’re by yourself) and thinking. After a moment’s reflection, I could see she was right. Walking the Camino is a kind of meditation that you go into and out of; it has a distinct rhythm, and breaking it up with sightseeing would really work against what you are doing in the walking, which is, in one way or another, a pilgrimage.
In Villafranca, at the Ave Fenix albergue, our group had to split. Cole came down with 24 hours of stomach trouble, but no one knew for sure at the time that it wouldn't be worse. So, 5 days into the walk, we split up. Bruce and Cole ended up taking a taxi two days ahead to Triacastela, Cole felt better the next day, and they pushed ahead. We were about two days behind. At this point, I was very glad to have Young Soo for a traveling companion, because although I had done pretty well for a while, it was mainly because Young Soo had let me use his walking stick for three days. I was a little unbalanced: one long wooden stick and one shorter metal stick—but it was way better than just one stick, especially downhill. At Ave Fenix I was able to buy another wooden walking stick and so return Young Soo’s, though sometimes I must have looked like I was on stilts:

Crossing into Galicia
           My blistered feet and bad left knee were taking a toll, but I walked well for two days through the next two stages to Triacastela, into Galicia, into beautiful, mountainous country; but the next day, I clearly just couldn’t go, and had to pull up way short in Samos. Pamela, Young Soo, and I had been walking together. Pamela went on ahead, but Young Soo stayed behind with me, and this was the third great act of kindness I experienced on the Camino: St. Juice, Young Soo’s loan of his walking stick, and not just his staying back with me in Samos, but slowing down to my pace, which was very slow indeed, for that day and the next. Truly, it is easier to go at your own pace, and not much easier to go slower than faster. (Bruce and Cole had had their own adventure with kindness, but that story belongs to them. That's another Camino experience: you go with the surprises, which often turn out to be blessings. )
Staying in Samos worked out. First, it is home to one of the oldest and biggest monasteries in the western world, and we took the tour. And that night, I got to go to a mass with Gregorian chant. We had pulpo—octopus—for the first time. The next day, we got up early, walked to Barbadelo, found a nice albergue, and quit early. Those two short days were what I needed to get back on my feet. We’d taken two days to do one stage. In the next two days, we would do three stages and catch up, partly because I sent my backpack ahead by taxi those days and also acquired really good, light walking sticks at a hiking store in Sarria. In the end, we caught up with Bruce, Cole, and (surprise!) Pamela, in Arco de Pino, at the end of stage 32, just before Santiago, and I walked into Santiago with my backpack.
There were other peregrinos we met along the way again and again: Frances from Germany; Maureen, a librarian from the east coast; Jen; Paul and his wife,  Catholics from Uganda; Chris Bond, a Catholic seminarian from North Carolina, who was walking the Camino with his bishop’s permission; Liat, as I mentioned, from Israel; and finally Dominic and Mary, who we did meet, as planned, at the Cathedral. But there are two especially that I want to mention: Pavel, a mechanical engineering student from the Czech Republic, and Michael from Germany.
I first barely met Michael in an albergue in Gonzar. Young Soo and I left in the morning before he got up, but he caught up with us in the afternoon on the trail. “I think I’ve got your light,” he said, and sure enough, he did. I’d left it behind. “We got up when it was dark,” I said. “I know,” he replied. “I heard.” (Uh oh, I thought. My albergue skills need refinement.)
That night, in Melide, we had supper with him and Pavel, who Young Soo had met way back, before Leon. Young Soo, who was always thinking of everyone else, didn’t want Pavel to eat alone, and he’d zeroed in on the most famous pulperia in Melide: that meant more octopus, a major dish in Galicia and a favorite of Young Soo’s, who ate octopus in Korea. Here, the octopus was very good:

Pulpo in Melide
In talking over our tentacled dinner with Michael, I decided to take some conversational chances that I hadn’t indulged in before, and get into politics. “Do you think that the European Union, given it’s financial situation, can stay together?”
He looked at me quizzically. “I don’t understand the question,” he said.
“I mean, given the problem with debt, do you think Germany will keep supporting the Union?”
He still wasn’t understanding me.
“Do you think Germany should pay Greeks to retire early?” I asked, getting down to basics. He understood that, and before long, we were off and running. The answer was basically, “Hell NO! We’ve just spent millions incorporating East Germany and now we’re supposed to finance all of Europe?” After that part of the conversation, I got the sense that Angela Merkel had a very uncertain future in German politics.
Then Michael took a chance. “What do Americans think of Germany?” He clearly wanted to know if World War II and Nazism was still something Americans held against his country. I told him I didn’t think so, that, to tell the truth, I didn’t think most Americans thought about Germany at all, but of the ones who did, it looked as if Germany would economically dominate Europe, just because Germans worked so hard, and frankly, I couldn’t understand why they would work so hard to let Greeks retire early either. But then, I said, California is sort of the Greece of America. I said that outside of Hollywood, which always bet on Nazis as villains, that World War II was over. He seemed relieved, and I think it is a consummation devoutly to be wished, especially by Germans.
          "Every country has a little of the Hitler in it," Michael said. "Look at George Bush."
          I didn't touch that one.

I got to know Pavel better the next day, as we kept up with him pretty well the following day. He was the only person who asked me why I was doing the Camino. I explained that I’d started it as a Catholic pilgrimage, without really knowing what that meant. Then I said, “I don’t know if you’re religious—so this may sound strange—but what I found out is that I wanted to walk with Christ. And I’ve found out that he’s walked with me, through other people.”
          I suppose I was forthright because his question was so honest, and I had been thinking about this for days. “It doesn’t sound strange at all. I’m Catholic,” he said, “And at first, I wanted to go to mass every day. But I just couldn’t find the time,” he said regretfully. “I went out of my way to get to church’s that were even off the route. But there is so much to do at the end of the day, that sometimes I just couldn’t.”
  “I’ve only been to mass twice,” I said. “Once in Rabanal, and once in Samos.” I felt rather regretful about that too. But overall, I felt like I’d been in a mass as long as I’d been on the Camino, so I felt pretty good. In fact, I felt better than I had in years.

Near the Highest Point on the Camino: The Last of the Templar Outposts, Manjarin


  1. This is a very lovely account of walking the Camino and the people you can meet. Lots of good tips there Craig for when I go. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I've really enjoyed your accounts of your walk and will think of you when I go next year. I note your comments about the difficulties of going to Mass. I would ideally like to go every day and will search to see what time most of the Masses are in Spain. I went to Santiago de Compostela a couple of months ago just to get a feel of the place. I did envy the pilgrims. Thank you for a great account. Rove