Friday, November 19, 2010

Camino de Invernio: The Way of Winter -- or Thinking like a Squirrel

The highest point on the Camino Frances ascends to O'Cebreiro, a tiny mountain hamlet of slate roofs and stone houses. Lisa and I sweat buckets climbing up to O'Cebreiro. Once there, however, we put on every article of clothing we owned. On that late September afternoon, an autumn chill crept into the air before the sun set, and we huddled around vats of steaming sausage just to keep warm. A street festival was in progress, and Galician folk music -- Celtic with strong hints of the Middle East -- filled the streets. The air smelled of snow, and I tried to imagine how medieval pilgrims made it up to O'Cebreiro in winter.

They didn't. Most of them took the Camino de Invernio, literally "The Way of Winter," a route that heads south from Ponferrada to cross the mountains that border Galicia, the region of northwestern Spain where Santiago de Compostela is located. Galicia reminded us a lot of Ireland, with thatch, sheep, stone fences, and houses huddled together against the chill.

I feel like I'm walking the Camino de Invernio right here in Minnesota, only it's not the highest point of the journey -- but the lowest. Everything leans into darkness. The sun can barely lift its head above the horizon, as if it too were weighted down by the cold. Fall's rich yellow glow has already given up, ceding to that thin watery winter light. Runners along the River Parkway have a grim set to their faces.

And I need extra time to stop for stop lights, extra distance between my car and the one ahead, extra minutes to layer on clothing before I go out and to take it off when I return. The "What-Ifs" rent too much space in my head: What if the temperature plummets before I have to walk home? What if it snows/sleets/rains? What if I get stuck?

And it's only mid-November!

I need to think more like the fat grey squirrels that have been scurrying around the bikepaths. They seem energized by the winter's work of gathering. I'm taking note.

Gathering is the work of the Camino de Invernio, and it can be a work of quiet joy. I'm reining my circles in. I'll return to the manuscript that can only be written against the backdrop of falling snow. I'll cook that recipe that seemed too complicated for summer's distractions. I'll stockpile candles to match the sparkling stars.

This is winter's way.

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