Monday, October 19, 2009

De-mystifying pilgrimage: The pilgrims

We all look so happy. We'd been walking through forests all morning, and we were on the down-slope of the third "summit." The hardest part of the day was behind us -- and it was not yet even noon. We knew San Juan de Ortega had a wonderful round chapel that Queen Isabella built in 1477 to celebrate a longed-for pregnancy. Every equinox the sun shines directly on a stone column inside with a sculpture of the Annunciation. Mary is pregnant, Isabella is pregnant, and the spherical chapel feels pregnant as well. We've just visited the chapel, and we're toasting all that fertility.

Pilgrimage is a great leveler. Regardless of background, economic status, education, profession, pilgrims literally share common ground. Everyone in this group made the steep ascent out of Villafranca that morning in the dark. No one slept well the night before, because all the hostels hugged a road that truckers plied all night in their big rigs. And the tiny lyrical villages were beginning to blur for all of us. To a woman, we longed for Burgos and the Big City.

There was also the common ground of gear talk, pilgrim lore, and finding internet access. We shared food, first-aid creams, and strategies for dealing with tired bodies. It didn't matter what you did for a living, how much it paid you, what your relationship status was, or how many initials came after your name. On pilgrimage everyone is just another body in motion. There's something marvelously democractizing about that.

But lest this sound too utopic, pilgrims quickly develop their own class distinctions. "Where did you start?" becomes a loaded question: hard-core hikers started in France at St. Jean Pied de Port and crossed the Pyrenees. They were hiking every step of the way, including the hot, dry Meseta. I took to confessing that we'd "only" started in Pamplona -- and taken the train from Burgos to Ponferrada.

Super-Pilgrims carry all their own gear -- including cooking utensils and Thermarest mattresses. Averaging about 18 miles/day, they'll be in Santiago weeks before we will, having walked every step of the way. They are always in the hostel by 1pm, having roused themselves long before dawn to begin walking.

Then there are the Plodders, who hike about 13 miles/day, occasionally stay in pensions or B&B's. You'll find them in cafes have that second cup of cafe con leche.

Then there are the Partiers, most easily identified by the distinguishing breakfast ritual, The Breakfast of Champions: a beer and bocadillo, that crisp round roll filled with slices of cheese and Spanish ham.

Then there are the Tourist Pilgrims, who carry only a small backpack with water and raingear, the rest having been taken by car to the next four-star hotel. I always envied how well turned-out this last group was, fresh clothes at dinner while we wore the only other shirt we still had left. Clean or not.

Lisa and I jumped class a lot, which was fun and introduced us to lots more people. We carried all our own gear, but no cooking utensils -- and we abandoned our sleeping bags in the other Villafranca. We were not hell-bent on Santiago: it had been around for centuries; it wasn't going anywhere. While we veered away from The Breakfast of Champions, we always lingered over that second cafe con leche. We did hostels a few times, but our grant allowed us to find B&B's most nights -- and snore-free sleeping was a blessing. And we did have a grant behind us, knowledge of which quickly spread around our circle of fellow-travelers. As in, "..but then YOU have a grant."

Despite the common ground, literal and figurative, pilgrims create distinctions among themselves. Even pilgrims figure out how to look up at others -- or down.

But hey! we're only human.

1 comment:

  1. This past Sunday, the pastor who said the homily at a Cursillo clausura at the end of the Lake Geneva mentioned his experience as a pilgrim (in 2004 he walked from Switzerland to Finisterra). He identified a type of pilgrims that we all know well, those who walks 5-6 kms an hour. He called them PGV (Pélerins à Grande Vitesse) as in TGV (high speed trains) -- high speed pilgrims :-)