Joe writes: Today we are approaching the large and ancient city of Leon and soon afterwards the imaginary line that marks 500 km since we departed Saint Jean Pied-de-Port almost a month ago. With the deep concern for her father’s health Elaine has withdrawn into herself and is outwalking me as she powers forward down the path. We’ve mentioned in our past blogs the interesting people that we’ve met along the way and today I would like to expand on that. Everyone on this journey travels at different paces, some are on schedules and have to get back to the “real world,” some people, young and old,have no immediate commitments and are leasurely taking each day at a time. Some pilgrims are uncomfortable with the day-to-day search for a place to lay their head so have made room reservations for several days or weeks ahead of time. No matter how you go about it, it still comes down to putting one foot in front of the other with the eventual goal of reaching Santiago.
As we walk we pass, or are passed, by people we’d met days or weeks before. It’s a nice little reunion each time and we carry on our conversations for the next several minutes or hours as if there were no break since the last time we’d talked. About a week ago we’d walked to the top of a desolate hill in the countryside and found relaxing on the side of the path, two couples we’d met seperately several times before. Now there were six of us walking together, Steve and Beth, Lynn and Pat, and ourselves. Steve and Beth are Australians, both 69 years old, he’s a retired mechanical engineer turned bee keeper (big time, as in barrels and barrels of honey each year) and Beth is a relationship counselor. Lynn (he’s also 69) and Pat (she’s my age) are Canadians and own a large campground near Vancover. From our frequent meetings it was aparent that our progress along the Way was quite similar and we all got along together quite well so it was an unspoken decision that we were to travel together for a while. As we walked we’d learned a lot about each other. We talked about our backgrounds, our relationships, and why we were here. Elaine, being a natural-born therapist, asked those personal questions that draw people’s inner feelings and emotions out into the light of day. It was a fairly safe environment to talk freely, being separated from our normal routines with an abundance of time to reflect as the kilometers pass under our feet. These discussions eventually led to the deaths of loved ones. I explained how my Camino has come about due the death of my step-father on the Appalician Trail. Steve talked about the death of his wife several years ago and his struggle to recover from the grief and emptiness in his life. Pat reflected on the death of her ex-husband and Lynn described his difficulty accepting the loss of his mother just one year ago. Elaine was in her element as she gently prodded, used examples from her past and explained various psychotherapy techniques for dealing with grief.
I can’t help but be amazed from the openness and trust that we shared with each other in such a short period. We had only been together for a few days and yet we were discussing topics and shedding tears with one another in ways many of us don’t even experience back home with our closest friends and relatives. I can see now how “Camino Friends” as they are called can become life-long friends that touch our hearts and our spirits. Is that part of how the pilgrimage becomes a spiritual journey? For many of us, God is at the center; but perhaps this is His way of speaking to us directly. These pilgrims we meet helping to center and balance our lives by sharing the pain we often cover up with our daily activities back home. Here on the Camino they are splayed open with a faith that they will be held gently by our fellow peregrino and echoed back in reflections of shared losses mixed with empathy and compassion.
So back to our present day situation. As we headed off this morning Elaine has quickly outdistanced our new friends. I’d had breakfast with them a couple hours before and had told them about the news of her father and our need to walk on our own today. I know she just wants to be left alone with her worries and thoughts so I just quietly walk beside her. I occassionally look behind us and the increasing distance between ourselves and the group and wonder about their feelings at being left behind at a moment like this. After about an hour I noticed that Elaine’s pace has started to slow and her downturned head has started to look ahead at the horizon. She soon tells me she’s getting tired and wants to find a place to sit down. Up ahead I see some greenery in the barren farmland that indicates the occasional stream so we head for it. As we sit on the bank of the stream watching the fish dart back and forth in the current and the swaying water plants, Elaine opens up, “It’s not fair to leave our friends out of this”…….”they’ve shared so much with me”……”I feel bad for shutting them out at a time like this.” I nodded my head in agreement and understanding and said “Maybe we should wait for them.” She sits and thinks for a while and looks back down the dirt road at the rest of our group a kilometer behind us. She then stands up and starts walking back the way we came. “What are you doing?” I ask and she yells back “it’s not enough to just wait for them…….” We’ll, I’m going to sit and wait. It’s an unwritten rule, no wasted steps on the Camino, it’s just too damn long. I don’t think Elaine realizes it but deliberately retracing her steps like that carries a lot of meaning.
I’m going to have to paint a little more background before we carry on here. Even as a group, we each walk our own Camino. We have different physical abilities, take different strides, attack a hill in a different way. I tend to be the aggressive type and I’m long legged so most of the time I’m in the lead, whether it’s just Elaine and I, or when we are with a group of others. I’m also a natural born navigator so people are usually happy for me to lead the way. You might be thinking that our pace was pretty slow since half of our group is 69 years old. DO NOT BE FOOLED like I initially was. Lynn and Pat are the typical outdoor type of Canadians and they are tough and have more endurance than we do. To look (and listen) to Beth would bring back memories of your favorite platinum-haired school teacher. She’s gentle, soft spoken and just happened to be doing the Camino because she loved doing it so much LAST YEAR! I’m telling all of you right now……you will not be seeing me doing 800 km a second time. Then there is Steve, he turns 70 next week. Take Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee fame), double the size of his chest, triple the size of his legs and arms and you have this classic Aussie. He’s tough, worked outside most of his life, but the most gentle, polite, walking tree trunk of a man you’d ever meet. When he’s walking with his partner Beth you might be fooled by his slow, ambling gate. Once we all got together as a group the women naturally tended to walk and talk together and this allowed Steve to “open up” and I’m not talking about words. I’d be out in front of the pack as usual and the next thing I know Steve is walking beside me. A few minutes later I’m starting to notice my breath rate increasing as I’ve unconsiously picked up my speed. Another few minutes and I have accepted the fact that he’ll let me walk a half-step behind him. Every time I go toe-to-toe with him he takes it as an invitation to pick up the pace. Several times a day we would leave the pack far behind as we discuss the intricies of professional beekeeping, the design and construction of cast iron machinery and the differences between life in Australia and the US.
Now back to today’s events. Elaine headed back down the road towards Steve and, close behind him, Lynn. They stoped for a moment and talked. They then start heading back to our resting place by the stream. I can’t believe my eyes and ears as they approach. Elaine and Steve are in full-fledged crying mode. The tears are streaming down this big mans cheeks and I can’t understand a word either one of them are saying. Elaine turns away and again heads back down the road to meet up with Beth and Pat. As they return, all three of them are crying and hugging and laughing and crying again. Lynn nonchalantly pulls out his handkerchief and blows his nose, complaining of allergies. I’m actually feeling a little left out but at the same time relieved that I’ve been spared the emotional excitement. Who would have thought that just a few moments later we would all be happily ambling down the Camino together, talking about out next destination and our aching feet.