The Earth is located about two-thirds from the centre of our galaxy, commonly known as the Milky Way. When we look at the night sky we see a small part of the universe, but unless you have a powerful telescope only stars within our own galaxy are visible. On the Way of Saint James (more commonly known to pilgrims as, The Camino) – the Milky Way is visible overhead and has been used as a guide by pilgrims for generations to assist in the journey of some 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela. Early one morning on my Camino experience in the summer of 2004 I left the albergue (hostel) and walked into some aluminium plates carefully laid upon the ground by a French teacher anticipating breakfast for his soon-to-be arriving students. In the darkness I had accidentally stepped on a plate while kicking another into the air. The resulting clatter and French invective followed as I continued on my way. I glanced back at the chaotic scene I had left moments before to see what I thought must be a contrast in expressions on the faces of both pilgrims.
Shortly after this serious set back in international relations I was alone with nature once again. I looked up to see an astronomical number of stars shrouded in a pale haze. I had never seen the Milky Way before but on this cold pre-dawn summer morning a cloudless sky revealed thousands of stars and offered some reassurance for the day’s peregrinations ahead. I walked more enthused and sure-footed than before until arriving somewhat abruptly at a steep hill. As light increased I noticed others nearby who appeared to have found a more suitable route to ascend and so took this path into the immediate unknown. When preparing for a walk on the Camino or any very long walk it is advisable to consider the prospect of blisters. It goes without saying that to walk in pain is not much fun and best avoided if at all possible. Armed with this gem of infinite wisdom it is therefore advisable to wear socks which reduce the chance of blisters developing. This can be achieved by wearing two pairs, ideally a thin pair of lambswool socks inside a thicker pair. The friction of the socks avoids friction against the skin thus reducing the likelihood of blisters. Even so, blisters can still occur no matter what precautions one takes so it is prudent to pack a small first-aid kit containing plasters and bandages.
Tents set up along the way are open to walkers who wish to receive medical attention for peregrinations but I found these facilities located towards the end of the Camino Frances – the most popular of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela – and one ought not to rely on such things as everything changes in this world of ours and who knows what facilities will be available on your walk? Some people gave up their pilgrimage citing injuries as valid or convincing reasons for not continuing further. Indeed this happened on my second Camino when knee strain thwarted further progress. However, this afforded an opportunity to explore other regions of Spain. Nevertheless, I did wonder at the time, whether my refusal to continue was due to my not being as fully committed as I had been on my first Camino when I vowed that nothing would impede my progress – not even my job. In a room at a remote hotel I wrapped a bandage around my foot. I resolved that if I could no longer effectively walk an alternative way of reaching my destination would have to be found. If I could not walk, I would cycle, and if I could not go by bike, I would find whatever transport was available.
Whichever way I travelled, by whatever mode, I would arrive, no matter what. I have rarely felt so committed to a plan or objective. In so doing I discovered that life tends to support those who follow such a path. The Camino is not best suited for those who seek a bus or a taxi to get from one place to the next but the crucial point is a determination to achieve one’s goal. Faith in one’s destination can invite an advantageous outcome and I discovered that such resolve has its own gravity and that I would continue no matter what the inconvenience or impediment. As if to endorse these thoughts I encountered a German by the name of Wolf further along the route. He lived in or near an albergue in the small town of Mansilla de las Mulas, just over halfway along on the Camino Frances. It was in this setting that I experienced healing for an injured foot and the story is told in a book published in 2014 entitled, No Sacred Oxen. Suffice to say it meant that I could complete my journey thereafter unimpeded and free to enjoy the walk of my life.
When walking on the Camino one becomes accustomed to the sight of nature. Swallows swooping down for insects made lower by atmospheric pressure meant rain was imminent. When the flight of swallows took them on a course just above ground level I knew that rain was about to fall and made whatever preparation I could in an effort to remain dry. In observing the habits of birds I found that it made one feel more in touch with nature during an otherwise overcast afternoon. Being able to predict an event as prosaic as the weather has been done before. But there is something satisfying in noticing changes in ones immediate environment independent of any form of technology which furthers an understanding of that environment. Such observations often occurred when approaching or leaving a small hilltop town in northern Spain. Such towns are scattered along the Camino especially in the formative stages when walking beside numerous Rioja vineyards. In the height of summer one may stumble upon a festival and find oneself immersed in the celebrations surrounded by crowds that blanket the main plaza where local people form bands or processions in a convivial atmosphere of colour and sound. Further on I ambled into an old town and slumped down on a black iron bench located at the furthest extent of an open space and opposite an ancient church. Its appearance resembled that of a Norman church in England except that its highest point was more reminiscent of the familiar Romanesque architecture. At the top of the tower two storks attended to their young on a large nest composed of long dark twigs. Gigantic white wings swooped down and then up beyond the tower. I watched for what might have been hours as each pair took turns in leaving and arriving on what seemed a perpetual search for food.
It was good to rest after a day’s long walk which often meant getting up out of a bunk bed at 6.00am or earlier and to walk for about six hours before the heat of the sun felt too oppressive. In temperatures approaching 40C it was wise to wear a hat and always keep a spare bottle of water handy. Without a hat one is liable to get sunstroke, without water, worse. Only once did I forego usual preparations and leave early in the morning without water anticipating that somewhere along the line there would be a place to fill up empty bottles. On walking a zigzag path up a large hill with a six kilogram rucksack on my back the need for water grew especially in arid conditions typical of a Spanish summer. The weight one carries is a very personal thing and it all depends on how much you are comfortable with carrying and the fact is you never really know until you do it. The need for water is something no-one can avoid. Without chancing upon the generosity of another pilgrim I would not have been able to quench my thirst and continue much further.
On this journey, it was essential to carry water, a rucksack and a hat and a not entirely straight stick. I bought the latter in Burgos as if to remind myself of Kant’s description of the crooked timber of humanity. If it is possible to be fond of an inanimate object, I was. I took this stick everywhere like a dog on a lead. Although, it did not bark nor need food, it stuck by me through thick and thin. I would instantly recognize it if I saw it again; walnut, slightly knotty, shades of dark and mainly light brown, polished and finished with a ferrule to add strength and longevity. The newly acquired staff had a practical value in providing leverage up or down hills or mountains but it also became something of a talisman. Some pilgrims became temporarily distraught after losing their stick. I recall some pilgrims not wanting to talk much about it. One day, during the last week of my journey, I was dismayed to realize that I had set off without mine having changed my routine, which had usually meant sleeping in low cost communal accommodation. The search for somewhere to stay the night is an ever-present concern while walking on the final part of the Camino when thousands more pilgrims join this ancient path.
My walk began in the Pyrenees in mid-July 2004 and continued for 32 mainly sunny days. The weather broke upon reaching the mountainous region of Galicia in North West Spain when it became much cooler and overcast with occasional rain. Early on in the Camino and on the way to Logrono I contracted sunstroke which meant a day to recuperate from exhaustion after walking about twenty miles in a temperature of 39C. In my experience, and contrary to rumour, the rain in Spain did not fall mainly on the plain, it fell mainly on the mountains and hills of Galicia. So remember to pack an anorak if you plan to walk all the way to Santiago.
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