Monday, May 31, 2010

The Road Less Traveled....

...and the Chemin d´Arles is. Maybe it´s the time of year, maybe it´s distance from Santiago -- still some 800 kms away!, maybe it´s that Santiago himself simply is not the hero for the French that he is for the Spanish. But this chunk of the trail is definitely a road less traveled.

First, I noticed what´s not there. For a traveler whose first experience of the Camino was popular Camino Frances, I missed the ever-present, always open bistros along the way. In September Lisa and I came to take for granted that perfect cafe con leche about two hours into the day´s walk in a picturesque village right by the trail. Often people we´d met along the way were already there, lifting a steamy cup in greeting.

Here, that´s not been the case. Picturesque villages abound, but nothing is open.

I missed the other pilgrims, whose encouragement I needed more than I knew. A smile and a ¨Buen Camino" were worth about 400 mgs of Ibuprofen.

Here, we see few other pilgrims. Ten days into the walk, I could count the number of fellow travelers on both hands.

I missed the sense that we´re getting somewhere, and that "somewhere" is what this route is all about: Santiago de Compostela. And even if I wasn´t wedded to seeing the saint´s relics, Santiago represented a destination. We knew when we got there, we had accomplished something.

Here, that sense of having "arrived" is more elusive. We´ll get to Pamplona, where Lisa and I set out from in September. But Santiago will still be over 500 kms away.

So, yes: first, I first notice what´s not there, what´s absent. And then I notice what is there, what´s present.

Precisely because the trail is not so well-supported, we´ve had to think ahead and we discover a kind of self-reliance I hadn´t quite noticed in the first trek. We carry food -- and we share it. On a rough stretch as we climbed the Col de Somport, a high pass in the Pyrenees that would take us into Spain, we split a milk chocolate bar. It had been purchased long ago in some hotter, drier part of the trail, and it had melted and cooled into weird and wonderful shape. But it tasted glorious -- and gave us the push we needed to summit.

And then there was Barran, which we reached in the middle of a hot Saturday afternoon, in need of water. The only place open was Coiffure Bea, a hair stylist, and Bea herself served us instant coffee -- with sugar! -- and filled our water bottles. We sat on the street and toasted her -- Santiago in drag and with hennaed hair.

Precisely because there are so few other pilgrims around, we have gotten to know our hospitallers and innkeepers better. We talk a lot about hospitality, where we find it -- and where we don´t. We know what counts as good hospitality, how important it is, and how it manifests in the first minutes of an encounter. We resolve to practice it better when we come home. We remember fondly Nicolas, the initially reticent innkeeper in L´Urbe St. Christau, who kept telling us ¨"I am not a restaurant I am not a restaurant," but proceeded to ply us with beers and fine wines throughout the afternoon. That night Nicolas turned out a first-class meal, before we discovered he was a highly regarded pastry chef and spent winters rolling around the countryside teaching people his craft.

Finally, in absence of a destination like Santiago, we follow markers along the way. We walked up the Aspe River into the French Pyrenees; we descend into Spain along the Aragon River. Rapids and waterfalls release a lot of positive ions into the air -- and we´ve been drinking them all in. I watch the mountains, as they advance and recede. Their brooding presence blesses this journey.

I noticed first the absences -- of support services, of other pilgrims, of destination, but it was into that very vacuum that something else spilled, luminous, perhaps even more mysterious.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Getting Ready to Go Again: The Camino, Part II

There are two seasons for a pilgrim: walking -- and dreaming about it. I'm in the dreaming phase, which may be as delicious as actually walking. A colleague confessed to envy. If he were the one leaving, I'd be envious too.

I roll on my tongue the names of the towns we'll pass through: Toulouse, Gimont, Auch, Oleron Ste. Marie, Cette Eygun, Jaca, Santa Cruz de la Seros, and finally Pamplona. Could any of these be as luscious as they taste?

I study Jan's Gear List, graciously supplied by one of the planners of the trip -- and compare it with a growing pile of stuff in the corner of the room. Would I be happy to shoulder these things across the Pyrenees?

With Jan, Jan's Gear, Jan's daughter and two of his friends, I leave on May 17th to walk the Camino -- again. I tell people this, and they seem surprised: "Didn't you already do that?" I explain that there are as many roads to Santiago as to Rome -- and for the same reason. Like Rome, Santiago was a pilgrim's destination. Routes to Santiago spread all over Europe like a spider's web with the city at its center.

This time we'll begin on one of the outer whorls of the web, starting in Toulouse and picking up a route known as the Chemin d'Arles. We don't have time to walk all the way to Santiago, but my friends have mapped out a route that ends where Lisa and I began our trek in September: Pamplona. In fact, we'll spend the final nights in Spain where Lisa and I started out, a pilgrim hotel on the plaza of the mysterious Virgen de la O.

I feel like I'm completing a circle I didn't even know existed -- and in a Holy Year at that.

The year 2010 ranks as a special year in the Roman calendar, and from all parts of the web, thousands of pilgrims will be making their way to Santiago. Even though we're leaving before peak season and taking a less well-traveled route, the closer we get to Santiago, the more crowded the path will be. Indeed, the press of pilgrims, dirty, sweaty, grumbly pilgrims, will mean we're on the right track.

In September, Lisa and I got lost only once -- and it was not very lost and right outside Santiago. We must have been deep into conversation, because it took a while before I realized that no one else was around us. We were walking alone -- and that was the signal we were on the wrong track. In fact, we'd gotten lost in some park being prepared for a papal visit in 2010, so we weren't far off the beaten path. But there were only construction workers around us. Not pilgrims.

The workers helped us get back on track. Within a few hours we were in Santiago, waiting in line with a crowd of tired, happy pilgrims to get our credentials. We were surrounded -- no, swarmed! -- by pilgrims. From our various starting points, we'd made it to our common destination.

I was reminded of the metaphor one of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheos of Gaza, used:

"Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center: the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings....Let us assume for the sake of the analogy that to move toward God, then, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. But at the same time, the closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God."

The dear Dorotheos must have been a frustrated mathematician turned eremite.

Writer Tobias Wolff condenses his insight: "If you're a Catholic, the world's a very crowded place." He telegraphs the vivid presence of a communion of saints whose lives seem more real than our own. From the great beyond, they offer direction and a love that cannot die. He testifies to the camaraderie of fellow travelers whom we meet along the way. Along the gritty streets of this world, they accompany us -- with a smile, a shrug, and a "Buen Camino!"

I can't wait to walk: bring on the crowds.