These are posts in which I relate the story of my walk on the Camino de Santiago with my friends Bill and Derrick in September/October 2019.
The day started early. 5:30 a.m. I wanted one last shower in a really good shower.
Then we quickly packed and said good-bye to our room near the Cathedral in Leon. We walked through the early morning streets of Leon to catch our 7:05 train. People were just leaving clubs and we passed dozens of young people on their way home while we made our way to the station. We made it in plenty of time and boarded our outbound train with 4 other pilgrims looking to get to Astorga, like us, as continue walking from there.
The tricky thing about not knowing the actual terrain of the Camino and traveling by train is that when you rely on the moving sign inside your car of the train, you might find yourself getting off one stop earlier than you ought to. 6 of us stepped off of the train and within seconds we realized, as the train sped on without us, that we had made a mistake. We got off one stop too soon and we found ourselves in a very small town several kilometers from Astorga.
Bill and I pondered for a bit, walked into town a little, wondered if there might be a taxi service but recognized that this town was still very much asleep and we could very likely walk to Astorga by the time people were stirring and starting their day. It was 8 am and our experience so far had been that Spain doesn’t get up until 10 am. I saw the steeple of their village church and we decided to walk to the church building. Two of the things we had learned on the Camino were that the Camino provides and that when in doubt, start at the church.
As we walked toward the steeple, we noticed a small car pull up outside a building with signage that made us think it must be a government building. A woman had exited the car and entered the building and as we approached her car, she came back out. We greeted her in our very best, very weak Spanish and we asked about the availability of a taxi. She told us we could wait for a very long time and we still wouldn’t get a taxi there in the village. Taking pity on two pilgrims – she could see from our packs and the shells we had tied to them that we were peregrinos – she offered to drive us towards her village and drop us off at the edge of town which would get us closer to Astorga before she turned towards her home. It would cut the distance we would have to walk in half.
Bill jumped into the back of her tiny car, smashing himself in beside her ironing board. I crawled into the front seat and off we went. We tried our best to cross the language barriers between us and learn a little something about each other. Her name was “Femma” and she warmed up to us very quickly. It was one of those moments on the Camino we could not have planned for but when you are in you realize that something beautiful is happening. We talked and talked and as we approached the turn off for her village she told us that she would go ahead and take us the rest of the way.
In just a few minutes we reached Astorga and Femma dropped us off right on the Camino, right beside one of our beloved yellow arrows. She put us right where we needed to be and our happy accident had saved us wandering around Astorga looking for the Camino and we had a delightful encounter with a very generous Spanish woman.
As Bill and I climbed the hill to another church building in Astorga along the Camino route, we came upon a man who was parked outside and albergue, loading pilgrim’s packs to transport them to where people would be stopping next. Back in Leon, I had managed to book the next few days of accommodations so we wouldn’t have to race for beds again, so we quickly decided to check our backpacks in with the carrier and go with daypacks for that day’s journey. The Camino was providing in the most unexpected and delightful ways.
We made our way through town from there and followed the yellow arrows back out into the countryside for a long walk.
Eventually we arrived in Rabanal del Camino and the Albergue Nuestra Señora del Pilar. Little by little the walking was becoming easier, my belt was tightening and there was an ease developing around albergue style accommodations, showers and meals. There were dozens of us sleeping in bunkbeds arranged inside of a large room. To maximize the number of beds there was very little space between them. When I rolled over during the night I was staring into the eyes of an elderly German pilgrim who had also woken up and rolled over (at least I hope he hadn’t just been laying there staring at me). We were close enough that it would have felt awkward a week before but that night I just closed my eyes and slept on.
We attended an evening mass with other peregrinos and locals in a very old building in which I was scolded for taking a picture as mass was about to begin. The priest was right to scold me. I’m very happy to have taken the picture as well.
Here’s an excerpt from my diary – this is why it was so helpful for me to have my friend Bill on this journey – if it didn’t bother him, I didn’t let it bother me. I wrote, “I have a rash on my right foot this evening. No idea. But of course I suspect the plague or something worse.” Bill looked at it, shrugged and didn’t seem bothered by it so I was able to carry on without anxiety.
On the downside, my blisters were starting to become epic. One substantial blister had to be drained, threaded and covered with a larger bandage.
I was feeling the distance from my family in the worst way. The Camino was getting me in touch with how much life I get from my family. My wife, my children and grandchildren. So much of my spiritual formation has actually happened through my relationships within my family that it makes the pain of missing them even more acute while on pilgrimage.
The promise of the following day was that we would finally reach Cruz de Ferro, a place that was almost mythical in my mind and to which Bill and I were both carrying something to lay down and leave behind there as part of our Camino journey.