The Camino de Santiago (or the Way of St. James) is a major Christian pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where the remains of the apostle James are believed to be buried. On October 18 2013, RMM worker Pablo* and two of his Spanish friends, Jorge and Timoteo set out on the pilgrimage…
The whole idea began last May while walking with my friend Jorge. We’d had some good talks about faith and such things. He wants faith, but finds it difficult to get there, maybe because of his disillusionment with Catholic tradition and practice, in which he was brought up. Maybe also because of his intellectual capacities, which make him ask hard questions and demand clear answers. Somehow the idea emerged, since walking was becoming more fun and we were getting fitter, to do the Camino—not only for fitness, but also as a spiritual pilgrimage. October was targeted as the month to do it, and I told Bruce (the director of the academy where I teach), before school was out in the spring, of my intentions to take a week off in October. That goal motivated me to do daily walking routine of five miles or so each day all through the summer in the USA and after getting back to Granada. Shoes were purchased in the States, backpack and other necessary gear were purchased in September, so there was no going back! Also in September, Timoteo committed to going along and started preparing as well.
We left on Friday, October 18 at 10:00 for Burgos, our starting point. We’d chosen Burgos partly because the terrain was flatter which was better for Jorge because of his poor vision. We also chose it because from Burgos to León was just about a week’s walk, and because I’d wanted Jorge to meet Dennis and Connie Byler, Anabaptist workers there. Dennis, who is a seminary professor and has written books, is more on Jorge’ intellectual level, and I felt he could be of help in answering some of Jorge’s questions.
On Saturday morning we had a nice breakfast with Dennis and Connie, and talked a good bit about faith. Dennis talked about the similarity in Greek of the words ‘faith’ and ‘faithfulness’ and how faith was built by acts of faithfulness. This seemed to make a lot of sense to Jorge and he talked about that several times during the week. Timoteo also mentioned an issue he’d had with one of his grandchildren and Connie promised to pray for him.
DAY ONE. Sunday morning at 8:00 we were hustled out of the hostel by the host, not the most gracious of people. Our walk took us along the river to the edge of the city where we stopped for breakfast, then out of town into our adventure. The part of the Autonomous Community (in Spain, usually several provinces grouped together) Castilla and León where we were to walk that week could be described as a smaller version of the ‘Great Plains,’ largely devoted to agriculture typical of those regions: wheat and other grains. There were wide open spaces, some flat and some rolling terrain, with only a few hills to negotiate. The Camino sometimes goes by itself through the countryside, sometimes follows country roads, and at times goes alongside major highways. The first half of the week it was more country roads. The first day led through the little towns of Tardajos and Rabé de las Calzadas, then Hornillos del Camino, where we stopped for the night, after some 20 kilometers. The hostel was privately owned. Most towns have one municipal hostel, several others privately owned, plus a small hotel or two depending on the size of the town. The municipal hostels are a bit more rustic, and because the cost was roughly the same and the reviews better, we opted for private hostels. Food is readily available in the towns; a ‘pilgrim menu’ usually cost 10€ or so. If we got to our destination early in the afternoon, we would eat a bigger lunch, then something light for dinner. We were hungry, so the hostess made us French fries with fried eggs and sausage (Jorge’ favorite).
DAY TWO. The pilgrimage took us through some fantastic views of the plains, through the town of Hontanas, past the ruins of an old monastery, then on to Castrojeriz for the night. The towns so far were made up largely of stone dwellings that are quite old, some dating back to Roman days. Castrojeriz is a picturesque village at the foot of a small mountain.
DAY THREE. We donned our rain gear, as it was raining when we left. It only rained for an hour or so. There was also a hill to climb, the longest one of the week, with some incredible views. Upon getting to the top, there was another table-like plain, something typical of the terrain we’d encountered over the past two days. At Puente Fitero we crossed the Pisuerga River into Palencia province, where the scenery immediately took on a different look. It was more like the agricultural areas of central Indiana or Illinois. By the time we arrived at Itero de la Vega it was time for a big ham sandwich, which held us over until arriving, again through the rain, at our overnight stop, Frómista. This was probably our favorite hostel, with nice accommodations and pilgrim-friendly attention. Here we visited a pharmacy to treat Jorge’s foot. A tendon was tightening up on him, requiring a short rest every hour or so to ease the pain. The solution seemed to help some, but not too much. Timoteo also had had some aches and pains in the first couple of days, but they eased up some as the week wore on. Thankfully, I escaped that kind of thing. The most concern beforehand was about feet—we’d heard that blisters often cause serious problems, so we’d all gotten good shoes and socks to combat it, and it worked. One interesting thing in Frómista was the trees that were trained to grow together, providing a canopy in summer to shade the walking areas. What a neat picture of the body of Christ, working together to bless the world we live in.
DAY FOUR. The path out of Frómista followed the highway just about all day, so we decided to take an alternate parallel route with less traffic, through Población de Campos and through the countryside and wide open fields. All these little towns have churches, most of them very old, whose bell tower is the first thing you can see as you approach the town. These towns sometimes remind me of little towns in rural Illinois, but there it’s the grain elevators, not the church steeples, that dominate the skyline. In Villarmentero de Campos we stopped for a rest and met the “candyman,” who stopped to give us some candies. This was his self-appointed job out on the main track of the Camino, to encourage pilgrims on their way. We decided to go back out to the main drag ourselves, as it was getting a bit muddy over by the river, stopped for coffee, then continued on our way down the road to Vellalcázar de Sirga, where we stopped for a short break before the last stretch into Carrión de los Condes. Here we settled into a hostel run by some nuns—a nice enough place with beds, not bunks, but kind of open sleeping quarters. A number of people from Spain and other countries shared the room. There was not a lot of mixing, as everybody was kind of focused on their own thing. Each person does the Camino for their own reasons, and I found that you don’t just go up and ask most people what they’re doing it for, unless they give you an open door to do it. We had a good lunch at a restaurant next door, then did some sightseeing in the town. This was one of the bigger towns we stayed in, and there were a number of churches, museums, etc. One church holds a mass for pilgrims every evening, which we decided not to go to. We had visited the church and a sign made it clear that evangelicals like me were not welcome to participate in communion. People who attended it later said it was nice—the priest blessed all the pilgrims. I guess that’s nice. During the night the dorm became a concert chamber for a symphony of snoring! I got up once to go to the bathroom, and when I came back Timoteo was snoring, so I tried a trick from way back at RBI days with Ralph Harshbarger, who used to snore heavily. I grabbed Timoteo’s foot and he sat straight up in bed, thinking it was time to get up! Earlier I’d tossed my hat over on him to quiet him down.
DAY FIVE. Began with a long, 17 km stretch to Calzadilla de la Cueza. The first part of it was through what looked like rural central IN, the last part ran along a highway, and it rained most of the day. Fortunately, I’d bought rain pants in Carrión, so that helped, though rain did seep through at places. But my feet stayed dry—thank the Lord for my New Balance shoes! We ate lunch in Calzadilla. The main attraction was the 15 Guardia Civil policemen who came in to eat. Jorge said (kiddingly) that half the police of Palencia were there and I suggested this might be a good time to rob a bank! We continued on, stopping for a bit to get out of the rain in Lédigos, then continued on to Terradillos deTemplarios, where we intended to stay for the night, only to find out the hostel was full. So we called ahead to the next town, Moratinos, to reserve space, and set out another 4 kms (they said it was going to be 2), and arrived tired and maybe a bit out of sorts. The hostel was run by an Italian, and I didn’t think it was too bad a place, but Jorge and T thought otherwise, especially after the host wanted to charge .80 for a banana the next morning. The dorm was cramped and a German lady told us at 9:00 that if we wanted to talk, we could go to the dining room. This was where I took two showers, the second one with my clothes on! Because it was tight quarters, I was putting on my clothes in the shower and inadvertently turned the shower back on. It rained lightly during the night, but fortunately the clothes dried (almost) inside during the night where they had turned on a heater.
DAY SIX. Was another long day, again with rain gear. We went through San Nicolás del Real Camino, then stopped for a good breakfast in Sahagún, a small city with a train station. From here it was long, straight stretch through Bercianos del Real Camino and on to El Burgo Ranero, our destination. We arrived late in the afternoon again, and hearing that the municipal hostel was full, decided to overnight in a neighboring cheap hotel. We had individual rooms and a decent meal in the hotel restaurant. It was good to be alone that night, especially after two long days of walking, a lot of it in the rain.
DAY SEVEN. We decided to start earlier—too early, I thought. The motivation was to get to the next hostel early so as not to be inconvenienced again. I thought this was unduly taking matters into our own hands in determining our fate. I was out of sorts, as well, due to messing up on the arithmetic of paying and not giving Timoteo 10€ in change that was due him. Starting out in the dark didn’t add to my joy, and the first hour of walking was spent dealing with my own feelings, and letting God tell me some things I didn’t particularly like, but necessary to hear. I was reminded of the importance of repentance. Maybe the Catholics aren’t so far off when they do this confession routine in every Mass. Maybe the routine has taken away the reality and importance of the act. Repentance should be for real. God’s correction doesn’t come without a healing touch, though, and by mid-morning my funk had melted away. We had a coffee break at Reliegos, then Thomas and his ‘train’ arrived in Mansilla de las Mulas by soon after 1:00. We were the first ones there! As it turned out, there would have been no need to rush, as the hostel was not even half full by evening. There was plenty of time to relax, eat, rest, then look around town a bit. Both Jorge and I had been keeping a running account of our trip via WhatsApp to friends. His group, consisting of friends from Granada and as far away as Colombia, kept up a constant dialogue, it seemed. Also, his wife Cielo was in Poland during the week, and he talked with her a couple times a day. My WhatsApp group didn’t comment so much, which was fine, but they all remarked at the end how helpful and fun it was to keep up with us during the week. I had fun that afternoon face-timing with grandson Noah about his soccer game, while walking through the streets of the town. They won! Also that night was the big Clásico match between Real Madrid and Barcelona, which we didn’t get to see, but heard the results when people watching the game in bars that we passed hollered when a goal was scored. We had an extra hour of sleep that night, as Spain went off daylight saving time, a week earlier than the US.
DAY EIGHT. This last day was relatively short, though it seemed longer than the 18 km it was supposed to be. It was a foggy morning, which had its own enchantment. We stopped in Puente de Villarente to eat some of our snacks, then continued on to Arcahuela. We were commenting on how the Camino had been so well marked and easy to follow when we suddenly realized we were not on the main Camino anymore. Now what? Well, a man suddenly appeared and told us how we could get back on, and led us there himself. A good picture of how we sometimes get off track, but Jesus helps us get back on. Not only that, but provides additional blessings. A French lady had followed us, and she and Timoteo struck up a conversation in French. Turns out she lives near to where Timoteo and María had lived in Toulouse for 17 years soon after they were married. We also met a Venezuelan couple after getting back on track. Getting into Leon seemed like it took a long time, but we did arrive around 2:00, got settled in, went out for lunch, then looked around a bit. The cathedral in León is grandiose, and they say the original stained glass windows inside are spectacular, but we were not able to get in, as it closes to the public on Sunday afternoons. So we had coffee, saw where the bus station was, went back and turned in for the night.
On the trip back, Jorge and I talked at length about some faith issues. He’s getting closer, I feel, and he himself said it’s getting time to make a decision. There are some pieces of the puzzle that still need to fall into place, but that will come in time. I’ve been reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and feel that would be helpful to Jorge, so I hope to be able to give that to him in the near future. Judi met us at the bus station and Alain, Timoteo’s son, took us all home. Good to get back, but also good to have gone.
I really didn’t know what to expect before going on the pilgrimage. I didn’t know how much I was doing it for Jorge and Timoteo, and how much I was doing it for me. I really felt kind of numb about it beforehand. But as the week wore on, it became more real, more meaningful to me. I looked forward each day to getting up and out on the Camino. The wide open outdoors gave exuberance to life, and my friends and I grew closer in close company. We sometimes acted like schoolboys, singing and horsing around—I guess that’s what guys do when they get together without their wives! It was good to do that with people of another culture and upbringing. It sometimes seems to be an unnecessary weight to carry, that of living the kind of life so that people would see Jesus in me. I hope that can happen, but if I try to make it happen, it often doesn’t work so well. I’m human, you know, and in many ways quite like many of the people I associate with who don’t claim to follow Jesus. Sometimes they’re even better than me! So what do I do? After getting over the idea that I must somehow be better than they, just try to follow Jesus, live with him, enjoy life, love others, be myself, and be honest. And when I get off the path, as we did the last day, look to Jesus to help get us back on.
An interesting footnote: The first day I’d played for Jorge a little recording that Kristin, our daughter, had sent on WhatsApp; a simple word of encouragement. It made him cry. He said his grown children in England never talked to him. So he was very happy when his son texted him on the last day to congratulate him on finishing the Camino. Today, a week later, he says that actually, his son had sent an e-mail the day we left, mentioning that he’d heard about the trip and was asking for some details about it. Jorge never saw the e-mail until a couple of days ago, and he’s now heard from his son, who is planning to come for a three-day visit on Dec. 20. I showed him the verse from Is. 65:24, “…before they call I will answer, and while they are still speaking, I will hear.” We’ve asked only recently for people to pray for reconciliation between him and his children, and here it looks like God was up to something before we even asked. How cool is that!
Ever since volunteering at a pilgrim hostel in July of 2012, I’d wanted to walk the Camino. However, back in April or May of 2013, due to health issues, I thought hiking days were over. God helped us find the cause of the problem, treat it, and that, coupled with exercise, improved my health dramatically. I’m extremely grateful for health and strength, and hope this is not the end of the story. We’re talking about finishing the Camino, maybe in April of next year. Who knows what will happen between now and then? HE certainly does, and we commend this all to him. It’s also motivation to keep in shape! We’d like for our wives to join us for the last 100 kms, so we’ll see where that goes, as well.
*Last name omitted due to security reasons.