Our Camino – Oliveiroa to Cee – April 10, 2013

 

To Finisterre

To Finisterre

We went to bed early yesterday, exhausted from our journey, with wind and rain continuing to pound against our hotel’s shutters as it had pounded on us all day.  We ached all over and dreaded the day to come.  We awoke preparing to battle nature once again.  We’d even had the line we’d use as we walked head first into a turbulent wind that kept us from advancing.  “Is that all you’ve got?” we’d cry like Lt. Dan in Forest Gump.  We put on all the layers of clothing we could and got on the road.  We’d been walking only a few feet when we heard some calling out to us from behind.  It was the Irishman Andrew and his new companion Chris. We gained new troops in our lonely battle, we ready for the next 20km.

The clouds that had been threatening us all morning, soon dissipated as though nature had never had any intention of engaging with us.  The sun warming our bodies as our new friends warmed out hearts.  Soon we were pealing off clothing, pausing for a brief time to have a nice lunch and marvel at the glorious landscape.  We emerged from the trail to a remarkable view of the ocean.  As we neared the end of the day’s journey, we realized that our legs were not cramped and our feet did not ache.  They felt as fresh and light as though they had not been used and abused for the last 10 days.  A miracle?

The sun is out.

The sun is out.

The view from our lunch spot just off the road

The view from our lunch spot just off the road

 A church along the Way.

A church along the Way.

A picture of Gus at a shrine.

A picture of Gus at a shrine.

The ocean is in sight!

The ocean is in sight!

 

Our Camino – We get by with a little help from our friends – April 9, 2013

Keep Going

Keep Going

The Camino has a way of bringing things to you just when you need them, like the men who appeared to the group of young women to carry the wheelchairs for them. It was no different for us, when we most needed a boost, some levity, three Irishmen and an Argentinian walked into the bar. No, it is not the start of a pathetic joke, they really did.  Andrew, the tallest of the bunch was celebrating his 61st birthday, on this journey to Finisterre. He’d met, Chris the Argentinian at the outskirts of Santiago, the Camino throwing them together as walking companions.  Chris, who’d done the walk to Santiago the year before and spoke the language had somehow gone several kilometers in the wrong direction before realizing his error and retracing his steps, getting to the start of the Camino again, just as Andrew was beginning. They’d been walking together for two days.  The other two Irishmen, who’s names we did not catch due to their heavy brogue had only just met up with them.  They invited us for a drink, apologizing that the bar only carried Scottish Whiskey, we chatted, they joked, we laughed.  It was midnight when we all decided to go to bed, our new friends anxious about the difficulty of the next morning’s first ten kilometers, straight up hill they said, the whole way.  We divulged that we would not be joining them as our arrangement included a 10 kilometer transfer, they said we did not know how lucky we were and joked they might be begging for a ride.

The next morning, we could not help feeling a little ashamed as we rode comfortably in the cab while the few scattered pilgrims walked up a steep hill along the hard asphalt highway, their trek made even more uncomfortable by a steady downpour.  But, as the cab pulled off exactly at the 10 kilometer mark, we had another thought.  Providence had lightened our load.  Months before, when making the necessary arrangements for our journey, our MacTours booking guru Ewan had informed us of the transfer.  We balked at him, not wanting to cut any corners, but Ewan had simply said “trust me, you will want the transfer”.  After our experience the day before, the transfer was not only wanted but necessary, another hill would have crippled us for ever.  The total walking distance that day was 33 kilometers, we still had another 23 km to go, up and down more knee killing hills in the bitter cold and rain.  By the time we arrived at our hotel, exhausted and soaked, we were grateful for the head start.  We concluded that God often sends you help well in advance of when you may need it.  We thought back on all the people that were put in our lives well in advance of when we’d lose Gus and how much they’d help lighten our load as we went through the worst time in our lives.  We are forever grateful.

More hills, more rain.

More hills, more rain.

This tree looks like a hand holding a ring -

This tree looks like a hand holding a ring –

One of the few markers for a Gus rock.

One of the few markers for a Gus rock.

 God -Thanks for the help today.

God, thanks for the help today.

Our Camino – Santiago to Negreira – April 8, 2013

To Finisterre - To Santiago

To Finisterre – To Santiago

Less than ten percent of pilgrims who arrive in Santiago continue on to what was previously thought of as “the end of the world”, Finisterre.  This is true from what we’ve observed, as we’ve only run into a few pilgrims since leaving Santiago, mostly solitary men.  The journey is more difficult, on this side of the “Camino”. The distance between towns is greater, the road more treacherous and less kept. So far, we’ve ducked under fallen trees and the rocks that have always littered the path are boulders not pebbles. We’ve spent a great deal of time therefore looking at our feet, reminding us of that Indiana Jones movie line that says that “only the penitent man may pass”.

When we left Santiago we felt like Camino pros, looking forward to the next 25 km, our legs anxious to get going again, but as the day wore on, we became physically and emotionally wrecked.  Before arriving in Spain, we had practiced going up and down a steep hills, judging the steepness of the maximum hill by our John Brierly guidebook.  What we had not anticipated or encountered before was a hill that was not so much steep, as it never seemed to end.  Every time we rounded a corner thinking we’d finally reached the zenith we’d only found more hill. Our legs wore out taking our hearts with them.

I personally grew angrier and angrier as I continued to climb the hill.  My thoughts going from “will this hill ever end?” to “why did I ever agree to go to Finisterre?, then to “why did I even want to do this walk?” and finally to “why God had taken our beautiful boy!”  I was sobbing by the time I reached the top and with no one else to be angry at, I blamed my husband for failing to warn me about the length of the hill. So I left him, nearly sprinting down hill as quickly as I could..  As I reached the bottom, furiously wiping the tears from my eyes, I came upon an “ass” in an open field, eating grass, minding his own business. I could have sworn that in that moment, the rain clouds parted and the sun illuminated the donkey as though God was saying “stop being such an ass”.  Even angrier, I gained speed. I was galloping now, trying to leave my grief behind.  I stopped only when I arrived at a medieval bridge over an expansive river, the water rushing underneath, mirroring my own fury. I softened just a little, thinking how literal God could be when he is trying to communicate.  I sat and waited for my husband, my sobs being carried away by the current.

My husband came along a few minutes later, he’d been wrestling with his own pains, one in his heart and one in his leg having pulled a muscle trying to catch up to me. I did not need to apologize, he said, he understood and felt the same.  He was only worried that I’d get lost or be kidnapped by the truck that kept driving back and forth.  I apologized anyway and the thought of a scrawny little man trying to push me, amazon woman, into a truck with all my gear, as furious as I was made us laugh.  We were still laughing when he asked if I’d noticed the “ass” along the road, informing me that he’d taken a picture of it just in case (God still trying to make a point). The bridge loomed before us, like the rest of our lives without Gus.  If we were going to make it, we’d need to cross the bridge of grief together. We collected the pieces of our heart, stuffing them into our pockets with the hope of piecing it back together later and crossed the bridge.

Leaving Santiago

Leaving Santiago

Starting up the hill

Starting up the hill

Still going up.

Still going up.

I know - I was being an ass.

The ass.

Crossing over.

Crossing over.

Arrived!

Arrived!

Our Camino – Arriving in Santiago – April 6, 2013

 

Santiago here we come.

Santiago here we come.

The excitement of arriving in Santiago that day got us up early.  We stuffed and strapped on our packs quicker than usual, getting on the road well before 9 am.  The steady downpour that had characterized our walk since the start was replaced by a clear sky, the sun smiling upon us as we prodded along.  Pilgrims who once chattered along incessantly, grew silent, uttering the “Buen Camino” greeting only when absolutely necessary.  We were carried along by a cool breeze that rustled the trees softly making it sound as though they were applauding.  We covered a full 10 km in two hours, we were no longer walking but running.  At that pace we’d be in Santiago in two more hours.

Just outside of the city, we reached an imposing monument that mirrored the enormity of the journey, while we might have only been walking for five days, some had been walking for almost forty, others even longer.  From our vantage point we could just make out the tops of the Cathedral’s spires in the distance, they were waving at us to hurry.

For once John Brierly was right, walking on paved roads is much more tiring than walking on dirt even when that dirt is sludge, and those last five kilometers exhausted us more than the one hundred five kilometers that preceded them.  Our feet grew heavier with each step and we thought seriously about by-passing the grand entry to the Cathedral for the comfort of our hotel bed, but just then, the spires re-appeared from behind the buildings, encouraging us to keep going.  When we finally emerged onto the plaza, we just stood there, incapable of thinking, talking, or even crying alternating between staring at the church, each other and even our feet. Had we really just walked here?

We were still standing there, when a small group of french girls (more women) led by their teacher came up to us looking for an interview. “Were we pilgrims?” They asked, practicing their English.  We said “Yes”.  “Can we interview you?” they continued. We hesitated, wondering what we’d say looking at each other.  We mumbled, “yes”.  First question, “Why are you walking?” Since landing in Madrid, despite the number of people we’d met and chatted with along the road or over dinner, not once had we mentioned why we were walking.  We took great pains to wait until others passed before attaching our Gus crosses or leaving our Gus prayer cards.  We did not want to cause others pain or illicit any kind of pity.  We were survivors, lucky to have had Gus, to be in Spain and have each other. There were other pilgrims in the plaza, yet the group of students had made a bee line for us, in that moment it was clear that “these” people were not asking the question for themselves but asking the question for God himself.  So we answered God, saying “We walked for Gus”, while handing over a Gus cross and prayer card, no further explanation necessary.

Our feet no longer hurt or we forgot they hurt, so we continued on to the Pilgrim Office to request our Compostela.  We presented our passport, filled with more than the necessary amount of stamps and were questioned.  “What was the purpose of your Camino, cultural, historic, or spiritual?”  Spiritual we answered in unison. Before leaving the Pilgrim Office with our Compostela in hand, we left a rock in a basket hung for that purpose over the stairs, it read Wito, Nana and GUS.

Next stop the “End of the World”.

 

A cool sunny day along the Camino.

A cool sunny day along the Camino.

The Church is just a little further now.

The Church is just a little further now.

We made it! - Cathedral Santiago de Compostela

We made it! – Cathedral Santiago de Compostela

Pilgrims Passport

Pilgrims Passport

One of our Compostelas

One of our Compostelas

Our Love Rock at the Pilgrim's Office

Our Love Rock at the Pilgrim’s Office

Our Camino – Arzua to Rua – April 5, 2013

Everywhere I look - Mothers and Sons

Everywhere I look – Mothers and Sons

The walk from Arzua to Rua was 20Km, just one kilometer more than what JB advised in his guidebook but we cursed him anyway. A kilometer IS a kilometer. The distances between our stops have shortened from the original 25 kilometers to only between 15 or 20 now, but it feels the same or our pace has slowed. Perhaps we just don’t really want to get there.  Either way the last 5 kilometers reduced us to petulant children, repeating every few steps, “are we there yet?”

We joined up with a large group of pilgrims and then collectively cursed JB as we all practically barged into a random Spaniard’s home having taking a wrong turn along the road.  To be fair, it was not JB’s fault, we all just missed the marker clearly visible below the cold beer sign (HELLOOO) but he seemed like a reasonable target for our exhaustion.  We came across memorials for fallen pilgrims along the route or for those in whose name someone else was walking. We left Gus’ prayer card or his cross in their care as often as we could.

The teenagers we’d seen yesterday was even more impressive today as we met up with them only to discover that the group had only ever consisted of six women and the three young men in wheelchairs.  Their chaperone told me that the men we’d seen with them the day before had materialized then like every other time they were in most need of upper body strength, to carry the wheelchair across a swollen creek or to help push them up a particularly steep hill especially because one of the wheels had broken. So it was our turn to help them for a while.  We’d just happened to catch up with them at the foot of another steep hill.

We practiced being cute, holding hands and taking our picture while we walked down the hill (it only took five tries). Santiago is just another 20km away!

Holding Hands

Holding Hands

Along the Camino

Along the Camino

Adding Gus to a shrine

Adding Gus to a shrine

A Gus cross at another shrine

A Gus cross at another shrine

Remembering a fellow pilgrim

Remembering a fellow pilgrim

Our Camino – Melide to Arzua – April 4, 2013

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The walk from Melide to Arzua was “short” considering the number of kilometers we’d been logging per day. It was only 15 km or 9.3 miles, but it was up and down hills most of the way.  The challenge was not just physical but emotional.  We had taken it easy that morning, savoring the thick and foamy hot chocolate and crunchy churros as though they were our last meal.  We’d left at 10 am, in good spirits, eager to finish the day’s walk.

To get the “Compostela” (the official document acknowledging our walk), when we arrived in Santiago now just two days away, we’d have to prove that we’d walked at least 100 kilometers by getting at least two stamps per day at hotels, cafes or other official stops along the way.  Paul had turned this minimum requirement into a maximum challenge stopping at every opportunity to get a stamp.  The first opportunity that day presented itself almost immediately.

There was a poster along the fence with pictures of one man’s journey from Santiago Chile to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  The feat was impressive enough until you realized that the man had only one leg and that had he’d pedaled or walked for nearly a year.  I was translating the captions when we noticed that the man in the pictures was standing behind us and that he had a stamp, he was an official stop along the Camino.  He explained to us that he walked the world for charity, a campaign of “smiles” he called it and that is when the tears began.  Gus’ prayer card says “Smile, I am fine” because that is what he always told us when we lost our composure in his presence.  We asked how we could help and he informed us that all he asked for was 5 Euros for charity.  We gave him 10, a Gus prayer card and a Gus cross.  We all cried and finally left.

Further along, still wiping the tears from our eyes, we came to a little Church where the priest stood by all day just to stamp pilgrim passports.  He asked us if we were married, we said yes.  He inquired about the number of “tesoros”, treasures (children), I reflexively said three then corrected myself to two.  He looked at us as though we could not count so we had to tell him that it was that we’d just lost one to cancer.  We gave him a prayer card that he tacked onto the wall. We left sobbing some more.

As we were getting closer to Arzua, we took break at a cafe as much to rest our hearts as our feet and of course to get another stamp, when a large group of teenagers passed by pushing three wheelchairs, the young men strapped in clearly afflicted by cerebral palsy.  The young men were covered with plastic bags and ponchos, the rest of the group was muddy and wet, you could tell they’d had to carry their friends over the rocks and mud that characterized the road that day.  I cried some more, thinking that while we mourned our loss, we’d been privileged to witness such courage and strength. We arrived in Arzua more exhausted than ever before, our hearts bursting with pain and love.

Campaign of Smiles

Campaign of Smiles

The church along the way.

The church along the way.

The courage and strength of teenagers.

The courage and strength of teenagers.

Gus rock - we miss you.

Gus rock – we miss you.

Our Camino – Palas de Rei to Melide – April 3, 2013

Leaving Palas de Rei

Leaving Palas de Rei

It was supposed to be a short walk from Palas de Rei to Melide, only 15 km, a welcomed break from our 20 – 25 km daily average.  Alas that was not to be and for that we blame John Brierly, author of A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino: St. Jean – Roncesvalles – Santiago, the guide-book we read each night in preparation for the road ahead.  That day, the “guide-book” suggested a “quick” side tour to Castillo Pambre, a well-preserved 14th century castle just a few kilometers off of the Camino.

As a former boy scout, my husband prides himself on his navigating/map-reading skills and so although he never seems to be able to remember how to get from our house to the mall, when on vacation I let him navigate – all part of my need for adventure. For reasons I should really not elaborate on other to say he was distracted by mother nature not so much calling as it was persistently yelling, we missed the critical turn to the castle road. The book however, showed a second road we could take and my husband assured me (after a quick stop in the woods) that it would only add “a little” more to our walk assuming of course the road was where it was supposed to be – it wasn’t.  After walking back and forth along the same road for a while, while cursing at John Brierly’s lack of appropriate mapping, my husband decided to use his phone’s GPS to locate us and the road. Finally through the miracle of modern technology we found that we were standing right next to it.

This is the road to the castle?

This is the road to the castle?

Having spent more than two hours looking for this road, a little mud was not going to deter us from our mission and so we pressed on relying now on our GPS and not JB’s (what we came to call John Brierly) map.  The GPS said take the muddy road – so we did.  The GPS said to go up through the trees – so we did. The GPS said take the road long forgotten by man – so we did.  The GPS said it would be right in front of us in the next hundred yards and it was – ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER!

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Looks like no one has been on this road in a while – are you sure?

 

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A view from the BACK SIDE of the Castle. We are probably the first to see it from that side – EVER.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the Camino (4.5 hours later), like a sign from our Gus that he’d enjoyed our shenanigans and was beckoning us to take a break, the very first house we came across was called the “Casa de Agosto” – (August’s House) and conveniently attached to the local “taberna” (pub).  We took Gus’ advise, taking a break from our walk to visit the local church where Jesus appeared to be reaching down to hold us and lit a candle for our boy.  We then kicked up our feet and indulged in a beer (or two) before continuing on.

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Gus nod along the Camino

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jesus reaching down

 

 

 

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A candle for our baby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we finally arrived in Melide, 10 hours and 26 kilometers later, having traversed through mud, trees and beautiful little medieval hamlets in the off and on rain, we were greeted by some of the nicest people at our surprisingly modern hotel. After pointing us in the direction of a delicious pilgrim’s meal consisting of more octopus, potatoes and wine, the managers of the hotel promised that the next day’s breakfast would consist of a steaming cup of hot chocolate and the best churros we ever tasted.  They were right.  Thank you St. James!

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The Great Purge

Two weeks after the worst day in my life, I went back to work. That first day I hid in my cubicle for eight hours holding back tears, pushing papers from one side of the desk to the other and tried to remember what I did for a living. I found myself staring at the clock dreading for “three” to roll around. With our older boys in their twenties and Gus gone, it would be the first time in twenty years that I would not have to rush out to pick up a child from school, race to a practice or a play date, do homework, or in Gus’ case dash from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment. I stayed until four that day and then went home hoping I’d let enough time pass. I hadn’t. With nothing better to do I ambled around the house impatient and sad. At the corner of the family room was Gus’ bookshelf still crammed with his school supplies, books and toys. I decided it would make a great place for a permanent memorial.  Right there in the corner of where we ate and watched tv so that he was still in our midst.

I began by clearing off the shelves and collecting anything that Gus had ever used, slightly touched or even glanced at. I planned to organize it all and put it in his room which is kept closed and nearly like he left it – probably until I die. Since keeping all of his pencils, crayons or games would be ridiculous, I resolved to keep only the “special” ones -the ones he used the most. As I sunk deeper into my task I came across boxes of other things that with him gone we’d no longer need. The assortment of paints for the pinewood derby cars (apparently we’d bought more and more of them each year), boxes and boxes of crayons, paint brushes, coloring books, bottles of glue and stacks of long-forgotten games. As I tossed or boxed the many items that I thought were Gus’, I realized that many more were mine. Soon, I was organizing not just his shelves, but the immediately adjacent closet, then the cabinet across the room, the pantry next to it, the laundry room, the linen closet, the other linen closet, the outdoor tent, the garden shed and finally the two holiday decoration sheds. And so the great purge began.

I blame William-Sonoma for convincing me that I absolutely needed that express rice cooker I was always too afraid to use and a multitude of “specialized” kitchen gadgets like a mandolin (I might have used that thing once). I blame Pottery Barn for the collections of nick-knacks appropriately “grouped” and displayed throughout the house and for filling my linen closet with “seasonal” sheets and comforters. I blame Martha Stewart for the all the ridiculous “matching” holiday collections and decorations like the “mummy in a web” for Halloween and the Santa Clauses, Easter rabbits and wreaths that contributed to that special “a Holiday just threw up all over the house look”. I mostly blame myself for believing that I ever needed any of it to heighten our family experience. That my perfect family was somehow more complete in a expertly staged photo-ready setting. Over the year I made at least ten trips to the local shelter with the car filled to the brim (trunk, back seats and passenger seat) with neatly arranged boxes of the useless and irrelevant stuff that once crammed rooms, got piled on shelves and clogged up closets. At one point I was even asked if I was moving. At the time I blushed and muttered that it was a long story. The truth is though that I am moving – from the perfect family Gus era to the nearly perfect family “after” Gus era.

In this new era, it is not the setting that will take center stage but the memory of the experiences we had and the ones we are yet to have. The less “stuff” I have,  the more room I make to bask in the glory of  our family love (Gus’s love) and the love of the people that are still in our future. I expect the great purge to continue.