Part 4 of A Pilgrimage Journal.
The first time I ever went backpacking, travelling by rail around Europe nearly twenty years ago, before everyone had mobile phones and internet access, never mind both in the same device, more experienced backpackers told me that it tended to take about a month before you really got detached from home and focused on where you were. It took that long, they said, for you to leave aside your domestic preoccupations and habits.
Isaac Alvarez Brugada CC
The Camino, I think, works much faster than that, possibly because the routine and rigour of the day force pilgrims to focus on the brute realities of walking, washing, sleeping, and eating, keeping them always in the present. It didn’t take long before home seemed very far away from me, and were it not for the discipline of praying for people, I’m not sure I’d have thought of it much at all.
There was, however, no danger of that. Before I’d set out, dozens of friends had asked me to pray for them on the Camino, and especially when I got to Santiago, and I knew so many others – family, friends, and even just people I knew of – needed support, so whenever I dropped back or walked ahead on my own, or even just fell silent in company, I had work to do.
The Rosary, in the end, proved the best tool for the job, as it so often is, and I was able to group intentions together by decades, keeping the mystery in mind at all times but naming the intention as I offered up prayers for the recently bereaved, the dead, expectant parents, godchildren, the ill and the recovered, those discerning vocations, people who had helped me and people who had hurt me, my former brothers in religious life, and so many others, including those who’d asked me to pray for them with the cryptic assurance that God knew why. I didn’t dwell on home when walking through Spain, but I carried it with me every day.
After León the road continued along flat and dusty paths under a blazing and almost wholly shadeless sky to lonely little Vilar de Mazarife, where our nine-strong "Camino family" was together for the last time. The long trek to Astorga the next day took a toll on us, with Carlos and Steve falling behind and most of us who made it in arriving late, some just in time to sleep in the chapel attached to the municipal albergue, and the rest resorting to hotel rooms.
The following day saw Chris, Suus, and me walking by the roadside in the morning, making up songs as we went and then subjecting Hannah and other pilgrims to them over lunch. The terrain began to change after that as we moved uphill through rough paths amongst scrubby woodland, passing by hundreds of small wooden crosses made from twigs and woven into a wire mesh fence, something I’d last seen outside Logroño. Eventually we caught up with Sorren, Diana, and Jeanne at Rabanal del Camino, where a man dressed as a knight sat by a tent with his pet eagle, Julie. We all posed with the bird, donated money to go to a local hospital, and made sure to have our credencial stamped.
Despite having originally planned to stop at Rabanal, we climbed further uphill to Foncebadón, an old pilgrim village that even a decade ago had been almost dead, but which is being restored to life by the extraordinary growth in the Camino’s popularity – barely 60,000 pilgrims walked to Santiago in 2000, for instance, but more than 200,000 reached the city last year. If the previous day had drained us all, somehow this one had revived us, and as we sat in the lush green grass outside our albergue, surrounded by puppies, goats, and horses, it was hard to believe that we’d left the Meseta behind.