Tuesday, September 15, 2009


We sat last night in an outdoor cafe in a tiny town in the province of Leon, Triacastela. That means literally "three castles." I walked the town several times, which took all of five minutes. None of the castles seems to have survived.

Then again, maybe they got reincarnated as pilgrim hostels, because there are three hostels. When the hostels are all full, the population of Triacastela triples.

We watched as Triacastela´s newest citizens, pilgrims like us, limped up and down the street. Some had bandages on their heels, some on their toes. Some had knees wrapped, some wore ankle supports. One man´s left Achilles tendon had swollen to twice the size of his right. I looked at my feet: I fit right in.

On the Camino, pain becomes a constant companion. You get to know quickly what you can walk through -- and what you can´t. Happily, pharmacies crowd the trail, and these are staffed with helpful and infinitely patient people who listen all day to broken Spanish with a German, American, British, Aussie, Norwegian, or Korean accent. Then they supply just the right remedy. I watched someone simply bare his foot at one of these shops. The pharmacist contemplated the exposed foot without expression for a moment, disappeared into the recesses of his store, and returned with bandages, ointment, and tape. With great expression and no words, he motioned what needed to happen. His lack of horror was probably the best medicine he could have given the man.

So how do we keep going? The encouragement of people along the way eases the pain immeasurably. As we walk, we have fallen into countless conversations that have made an ugly industrial stretch on the outskirts of a big city suddenly vanish. At other times, the sheer beauty of the landscape takes our breath away -- and for a moment, the pain. We always greet passing pilgrims with an "Hola!" or "Buen Camino!" Sometimes that´s equivalent to about 400 mgs of Ibuprofen, which we´ve taken to downing like M&Ms. There´s nothing like ending the day with our feet up, downing a Vino Tinto or Coca Lite and letting the wind blow through our blisters. Which is actually pretty good for them too. The wind, that is -- not the Vino Tinto.

Lisa and I have weathered the end of several days by telling stories. We´ve currently got a long, shaggy dog story going about a American we met in Las Herrerias. We gave him a background, some dreams, some companions, and some history. Lisa starts, spins the story for a while in her own wonderfully quirky way -- then passes it off to me at a moment when things could go awry in any number of different ways. We´ve had fun -- and walked through a lot of pain like this.

We have no rules for this sport yet, and I´ve often interjected: "Oh, no! Bianca would never do something like that!" Then, we´re almost lying in the dust laughing at our investment in these lovely and utterly fantastic characters. We pick up our backpacks, dust off, and pick up the threads of the yarn. We´ve whiled away miles like this, along with parts of the trail that would simply have been hellish otherwise.

The genre of this tale is somewhere between Gothic romance -- and Jesuit science fiction. Think Mary Doria Russell meets Barbara Cartland.

That´s how we keep going. Then the question becomes: why? We have no other place to go but forward, to the next town. And, we´ve come so far, we just want to get there. While each step brings pain, each step also gets us closer to that destination. It´s intoxicating to be that close to Santiago. Now in Sarria, we are a little over 100 kms from the city, around 60 miles. We should be there in about five days, if we keep our current pace.

And we may not. There´s no rush, and here´s the final thing we learn about pain. A day´s rest, a good story, and a glass of wine are wonderfully restoring.

Now, why is it so hard to bring this kind of rest into our lives in Berkeley?

It´s Sabbath rest.

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