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Trail Day 9: Losing Track of the Days

Los Arcos to Viana, 18 km

Photograph by E O Foster

Photo by: J W Foster

Joe: I’m starting to lose track of the number of days we’ve been on the trail and the names of the towns we pass through. The only thing we tend to remember are the kilometers we’ve traveled and the kilometers still left ahead of us…..and the people. Our interactions with our fellow pilgrims and the local Spaniards seem to stick with us much more than any “normal” day at home. We’ll be walking down the road and a car will pass by and Elaine says, “wasn’t that the cafe owner from the other night?” I respond, “yeah, I think it is……why would we remember that?” Everyone we encounter seems to be so engaged with life. They are friendly and interactive in a way I’m not accustomed to back home. I eventually realize it’s not the people, it’s us! Yes, the Spaniards are a very friendly. Yes, our fellow pilgrims tend to be more open than the typical crowd in the grocery store, but the major change is within Elaine and me. Traveling in this manner makes us vulnerable. It forces us out of our typical comfort zone and into a “receptive” mode where our eyes and ears are attuned to the surrounding environment. We have to be! Our path meanders through villages, farmer’s fields, narrow wooded paths, and along major roads. Our Way can be easily lost with one wrong turn. So we watch, we listen, we ask, we pause, we question each decision to ensure we are not stranded on the top of a mountain at the end of the day.

This vigilance forced by our surroundings and the amount of time available to us to just think as we walk along has opened up another line of thought for me. It can be summed up in the old adage “we create our own reality.” The idea is that we each see and experience our surroundings and our lives in different ways and most of it is based on our attitude, our approach and reaction to the events unfolding in front of us. I don’t want to get in too deep here and start contemplating my navel so I’ll just use an example and move on. We walk into a village at the end of the day after hiking up and down mountains for the last 20 km. We are tired, we are sore, we are hungry. We now have to choose between a half-dozen different hostels for our accommodations. We can take one approach, which I’ll call “Reactionary.” It’s based on worry and anxiety. “Will we find a bed?” “Will it be quiet?” “Will it be clean?” “Will there be bed bugs?” “Will it be safe?” “Will they have hot water?” All these thoughts and more run through our heads and create stress and desperation. We seek out familiarity; we seek out our comfort zone and jump at the first place we find acceptable. Invariably, when we fall into this trap we later in the day find that there were much more interesting places to stay. We say to ourselves, “Gee, I wish we’d taken a little more time to check that place out before we settled.” The alternative approach is what I’ll call “Inquisitive.” It’s based on having faith. It’s based on having the courage, the strength to remain open to your surrounding with patience instead of fear. The Inquisitive approach would look like this: We enter a village and just relax, maybe wander around a bit, maybe we drop our backpacks and sit down for a glass of wine in the central plaza. This really requires some faith and courage because we are just exhausted and want to lie down and rest. Sooner or later though we get the feel of the town. We watch where the pilgrims congregate and where the locals congregate and allow events to naturally unfold. This method always, always works. We find an ideal place to stay; a standout local cafe with fresh food and good company. And when I say “ideal” I mean ideal for us based on our personal tastes, ideal in our own minds. We took the time to learn and explore. Could there have been an even better place to stay? Probably. Could there have been an even better place to eat, more interesting people to meet? Most likely, yes. Maybe the place we choose after taking our time would have been the same exact place as the the first one we saw and lunged for. But, the difference was in our attitude and that makes ALL the difference. Whatever happens is based on an active choice instead of a powerless submission to the pressures we perceive based on our fatigue, our fears, and feelings of vulnerability. We no longer feel like victims of our circumstances, we are active participants in how we want events to unfold and that’s what I mean by creating our own reality. We push aside our natural tendencies to seek out familiarity and comfort and keep our faith that things will unfold as they should.

The pilgrims of earlier centuries had no idea where they were going to lay their heads at night, no idea if they would have a meal available at the end of the day. They risked sickness, injuries, bandits, wars, extreme weather and religious prosecution. All they had was their faith in their God and in their fellow man to provide for them when the need came. We sure have it a lot easier in today’s world, and yet I find we often feel even more vulnerable because we have come to expect a level of security that they never had.

Arriving in the larger town of Viana around mid-day we started searching for a pension that was recommended to us by an old man that was putting out flyers. It seems that the capability of these folks to make maps that can actually guide a stranger to a specific place is still evolving. I think it comes with the village culture. Everyone traditionally knows the details of their town because they’ve lived there all their life. In many of these towns the number of outsiders has been limited until the recent explosion of pilgrims on the Camino. Now that there are thousands of pilgrims passing through each year, the need for additional accommodations and the competition between facilities has also increased. Thus an elderly man, obviously a farmer at one time by his appearance, is now laying out maps and printing out flyers to guide the pilgrim to a warm meal and a soft bed. As best we tried, we could not find the pension on his flyer. Meandering through the streets and alleyways we eventually found the building with the arrow marked on the map. We knocked with no answer, but suddenly a voice came over an intercom asking for an introduction. Elaine explained that we had used a flyer to direct us to this building. Seconds later the door was unlocked and we stood in front of a middle-aged woman, obviously in the middle of preparing dinner. We self-consciously explaining why we were attempting to make reservations at her private home. She was exceptionally good natured and within minutes we found ourselves being led back to the central square and cathedral by a tall teenager who, on the urgings of his mom, left his home (and dinner) to escort two perfect strangers to the visitor’s center. Once there, we found another couple, two Canadians waiting in front of a large door. The visitor center was closed for siesta.

Elaine: Coming from New York City, a town where our motto is “don’t make eye contact,” I have been brought up to believe that people are mostly prey or predators and if you want to survive, just stick with your friends and family–everyone else is suspect. This trip has revealed the same TRUTH I have witnessed on every single one of our journeys: having faith that things will work out no matter how scared I am will always leads me to places and people that change my life, for the better. Each time, I am provided some lesson or experience that makes me think, “I could die today and feel happy.” Take today for example: Joe and I had walked into the town of “Viana” and were feeling lost. There were so many buildings, people everywhere and so much unfamiliarity mixed with our own exhaustion that we decided to stop in at the tourist center and ask for information. While we were waiting, we struck up a conversation with some Canadians who had formed a line in front of the tourist center door which was closed for siesta. They’d completed their Camino and were hoping to get some information about their follow-on trip to Sicily. The couple grew tired of waiting and after some more chatting, they decided to move along. Now it was Joe and me at the front of the line. As we debated how much longer the Center’s door would remain closed, an elderly Spanish woman in her 90’s walked up to us. She asked me where we were from and if we were going to enter the cathedral which was right next to the tourist center. I told her we were not waiting to enter the Cathedral but rather waiting to ask about local accommodations. When we explained about the failed map this wizened and frail stranger offered to take us to her house and have us stay with her! I could not believe what I was hearing. This would never have happened in the Big Apple. I saw the compassion and trust in this woman’s eyes and I could not help but feel that we had been visited by an earthly angel. She was barely able to walk and was using a cane, but she gently touched my arm and said, “Don’t worry, I will take you to find a place to rest.” And she did! Now how does something like that happen unless both she and we had relied on faith and trusted that things would work out as they should? As Joe mentioned, this is not based on some blind faith, but an active choice we make to engage and to have faith that events will unfold as they are meant to be.

Lesson for Today: It is natural to feel worried, but feelings can be respected without surrendering our decisions to them. Our mind and emotions can work together in the service of our best interests if we use both to guide us through the vehicle of faith in God’s perfect plan.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” – Henry David Thoreau




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