Trail Day 34. The Iron Cross and Hope


Photo by: J W Foster

Elaine writes: That morning when we left Astorga, we’d stopped at a cafe for the morning ritual of cafe con leche, toast and fantasies about the day we would go the furthest. The Camino feels very much like a Spanish version of the Wizard of Oz because each new day introduces us to a new individual with  unique thoughts about the Camino and their reason for walking. That day was no exception. We had barely ordered our “cafe cargado” (coffee loaded, meaning strong, less milk more coffee) when we met Therese. There is an interesting phenomenon that occurs when you are in a country and not completely fluent in the language. It is a natural, even unconscious tendency to scan for others who look like they might be from your country. Therese wore a backpack with a US brand and BINGO, she answered, “I’m from Wisconsin” when asked where she was from. She said she had started from St Jean Pied de Port just like us, only she had started about a week later. Despite having left a week after us, she was worried she was falling behind schedule. She worked in hospice medicine and had set aside 5 weeks for the Camino. “My plan is to be in Santiago by the 28th of November so I can celebrate my 40th birthday there,” she confided as we sipped our coffees and waited our turn for pastries and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Most of the bars here in Spain have a special machine that will squeeze a full glass of fresh juice from four oranges. I had been consuming mega-doses of vitamin C in the hopes of reducing my unrelenting foot pain.  As we all know, misery loves company and I refocused my attention from the swiveling orange crusher back to Therese, who had been engaging in another daily pilgrim ritual–talking about a foot/ankle/knee/shoe problem. She was afraid she would not be able to walk her projected 25 km because her ankle had twisted on some rocks a few days back and never healed. I didn’t know her well enough to suggest she employ my daily mantra, “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” So, I kept it to my inside (head) voice and let the guys minister to her. Joe went into his Dr. Kildare monologue about how she should take 600 mg of ibuprofen three times a day to reduce pain and inflammation, and Dan began working on her hiking boot laces. We debated waiting for the pharmacies to open but the kindly bartender informed us that all pharmacies in Spain must post which pharmacy is on “guardia” or call which means it must stay open 24 hours. Therese was able to get a bandage for her ankle and off we went as if we had known each other for years instead of seconds. I guess being from the same country carries more weight than I had realized when I was back in the States. Considering she was from Wisconsin and I was from New York City, we should have felt like foreigners to one another but instead, we started off with instant trust and a desire to share our journey. We made it to Rabanal that day for a total of 22 km. The hospitaleros there were two Brits with quick wits and such great warmth and caring, we decided to stay overnight. I already wrote about that night from inside my sleeping bag so I will move onto the next day, Cruz de Ferro.
This is very difficult to write about because it had an extraordinary impact on me and not for the reasons I thought it would. Cruz de Ferro translates into “Iron Cross” and it is where pilgrims leave a rock or some other symbol they consider meaningful. The idea was that you carry this rock as a sacred intention. I had purchased my rock back in August when I visited my friend Gregoria in Vermont. I stopped in a local artisan store and found it– the rock I would carry over 3000 miles and wrap up all my desires for my life and the people I love–it had the word “Hope” inscribed on it. Since my life had changed in so many ways over the last two years, I felt like hope was one of the only things I still had to hold onto. Ben and Andrew, my two babies, had left for college. The empty nest is kind of like eating hot peppers: you start off thinking “This isn’t so bad,” but shortly after it hits you with a sting that brings tears to your eyes. I had also left my job and I’d left the military, which is another way of saying I left the only life I’d known for the past 25 years. Finally, I left my home to move up North to support my parents who are in their 80’s and just can’t take care of themselves anymore. I can’t describe the degree of upheaval I’ve experienced in such a short period of time. As I type this, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that I have lost so much of my identity as a mom, a military officer, a doctor. On the Camino and in my new life, I am just Elaine. Who is that? All I have now is my past and this Hope of mine. This sets the stage for the Cruz.
It turns out that the iron cross was moved so that the tour buses could have better access. It looks nothing like I had imagined it. The area surrounding it is strewn with all kinds of things from big brick-sized rocks to cards and notes and trinkets. There are people coming up to the cross and picking up some random rock and holding it up for a picture before randomly tossing it toward the cross. I feel my heart and my mind racing…”this isn’t what it was supposed to be like!” “This can’t be right!” How can I leave my rock of hope here in all this chaos and commercialism? For an instant I considered picking up another rock and substituting it for my valuable rock of symbolic hope for my children, my father, my family.  But then it hit me. Despite all the disappointment that life brings us, it is our capacity to find meaning in the face of adversity that allows us to endure. I could hold onto that rock and look for a “better” place, or just keep it in a special box or drawer but that was not my intention for buying it in the first place. My intention was to hand it over to God on the Camino and to trust that He would know what to do with it even before I put the words into prayer. I decided to release that rock, and when I did I knew I was releasing my tendency to cling to how I think things are “supposed” to be and my indignation when they are not. I was releasing my desire to control things that are not within my control and my belief I must always be in control. I was tranferring the hope in my heart directly to God and relieved to have the connection again.
I miss that little rock because it was a symbol of my hope in the purest sense. But, I think God understands what it meant for me to give up that rock where I left it, warts and all. This faith gives me a greater comfort than a simple rock, despite all it’s symbolism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *