The Hard Way

Editor’s note: This is the third of four columns about writer Glenn K. Beaton’s ongoing walk of a 500-mile pilgrimage/trek across northern Spain dating back to the Middle Ages called the Camino de Santiago, or “Way of St. James.”

People ask, “Why?” Why walk 500 miles across Spain? Isn’t it hard on the feet? Isn’t it boring?

Yes, it’s very hard on the feet. And ankles, shins, knees, thighs, hips, back and shoulders. No, it’s not boring. It’s fascinating and beautiful.

As for “Why walk?” that question takes us down a path to bigger ones. “Why do anything?” In short, “Why are we alive?”

On my first Camino a couple of years ago, the walk was hard. It was the coldest and wettest April in decades. A fierce headwind drove rain, snow and sleet into my face, tormenting my bad eye for a month as I slogged through deep mud and slush. In my journal, I wrote that people who say God is all around us don’t get out much: It’s really the other guy who is all around us. I screamed and cursed at the demented wind.

Also taunting me was the knowledge that pilgrims have been doing this for 1,100 years, some barefoot and diseased. Old cemeteries and the ruins of medieval hospitals reminded me that many died along the Way. They pilgrimmed themselves to death.

For them it wasn’t adventure travel, but a war for their mortal lives and eternal souls. How could they be so strong and I so weak?

One day, I quite literally stumbled onto answers. Physically and emotionally exhausted, I stopped fighting. I surrendered. I decided that I would let go of the pain and the cold and the worry, and my vanity and pride too, and simply put one foot in front of the other till he stopped me. He didn’t.

My surrender accidentally succeeded, and that day by grace this pilgrim pretender was made a real one. Weeks later, half a thousand miles of walking behind each of us, humbled faces wet with rain and sweat and tears, I stood with other pilgrims before the Catedral de Santiago.

This time a different challenge presents to me. If last time the challenge was to answer the question, “Why do we live?”, this time it’s to answer the question, “How?”

Upbeats

The Celts dominated Europe at one time but were overrun by Romans and Germanic tribes. They wound up squeezed into a few remote corners like Ireland, Scotland and this spot in the northwest corner of Spain that they call Galicia. Red hair is common, and the style in women’s fashion this millennium seems to be the same as the last three: long legs.

The Celts went into battle wearing nothing but paint. They had no written language but were the finest metal-workers in the world, especially in silver, an artistry that survives in tiny jewelry shops. Many people here understand the ancient Gaelic tongue and some speak it as their first.

I was accosted by one such person a few towns ago and allowed him to drag me into his restaurant for dinner. What a dinner. Thick Galician soup, grilled chicken, cheesecake, another incredible local wine, all in a stone building that has been hosting pilgrims for a thousand years.

Blue eyes twinkling, the accosting owner talked and talked as he served me. Boar haunches hung from dark timbers. Though I understood not a single word he said, I gathered from all of them together that he runs his little restaurant because that’s what he enjoys. I told him he has a bueno restaurante.

After dinner he insisted that we throw down shots of grappa at the bar. As a person whose grandfather immigrated from Aberdeen, I like to think he recognized in me a fellow Celt, but he might have just recognized in me a fellow drunk.

Whatever the reason, we drank till the wee hours. Well, till 10:30 anyway. Others apparently lacked the capacity for alcohol of us two Celts, for they kept laughing and pointing our direction.

He invited me back for deseyuno at 10 a.m. the next day so that we could get an earlier start on his hydration schemes. But I had a date with the Camino, most of which is now behind me. There is hope.

Published in The Aspen Times on Oct 13, 2013 at http://www.aspentimes.com/opinion/8451020-113/beaton-walk-camino-celts

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