Camino de Santiago – talk and slideshow

The Camino de Santiago — a talk and slide show by Glenn K. Beaton on March 12, 2014 at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

The Camino de Santiago, a half-thousand mile trek is an ancient pilgrimage dating back to 900 A.D. It starts at the border with France, climbs over the Pyrenees and then follows back roads, trails, paths and even the ruins of Roman highways across northern Spain.  Along the way are the ruins of medieval villages, monasteries, castles and the great cities of Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. All of which is interspersed with tapas, orchards, vineyards, fantastic local wine, rain, relentless foot-pounding and ridiculous stories.
Glenn Beaton, a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and a columnist with the Aspen Times has walked the Camino by two different routes in the last two years.  His most recent walk last fall was the subject of a five-part series in the Times. Join Glenn for an adventure through Spain.

Tea, donated by Two Leaves Tea Company and Paradise Bakery cookies will be offered during lecture.

Free Members $5 Non Members


Hallam Lake  7:00PM – 8:00PM

The Umbrella

My recent walk of the Camino de Santiago — the ancient 500-mile pilgrimage/trek across Spain — was not always as bucolic as I might have implied in my recent series on the subject.

One day, I took an off-Camino route (deliberately that time). It was a long, challenging, hilly route through obscure countryside that seldom saw a pilgrim. Every few miles was a half-abandoned town of a few pathetic buildings losing a centuries-old battle with nature.

It rained hard all day. Little droplets came down in sheets in the gusty wind. After a couple of hours, I was really wet and starting to shiver. My boots filled with water, which squished out with every step.

Every so often a car would roll past me on the potholed, one-lane road. Sometimes the driver would stop and ask who I was and where I was going since I was clearly not on the Camino and perhaps not of this planet.

In some of the dilapidated towns were the remains of bus stops, though quite obviously no bus had come through for decades. They were just rusted-out, weed-infested lean-tos of corrugated steel. I would stop at each so that I could consult my GPS out of the rain, mostly.

Then I got a break. At one of the bus-stop ruins, my guardian angels who always got me into and out of so much trouble, had left me an umbrella. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was a pretty nice one, too. I decided this rainy clime was like Seattle, where everyone accidentally swaps umbrellas on the bus (never mind that the bus stops here were obviously in disuse).

So I helped myself to the umbrella. I promised those angels that I would avoid overdrawing my karma bank by dropping it off somewhere down the way.

The umbrella helped, but I was already soaking wet, and besides, the umbrella did nothing to shield me from the portion of the rain that came down sideways. At one point I tried to calculate my elapsed mileage based on my elapsed time. When I was unable to perform the simple arithmetic in my head, I realized I was in the early stages of hypothermia. I considered knocking on a door of one of the rare inhabited houses and asking for a cup of coffee.

I also realized, however, that I looked irresistibly pathetic. I presented a shivering, drenched pilgrim with a backpack and umbrella bracing himself against the buffeting, wet wind as he shuffled along with water squishing out of his boots. Wearing shorts.

Surely one of the infrequent cars would stop and I’d be offered a ride. I decided I would allow myself to be talked into accepting one.

Sure enough, one stopped and I was offered a ride. I pretended to resist. We went back and forth in his Spanish and my Spanglish. I pointed to the umbrella and tried to assert that it helped a lot. He kept saying “no.” He didn’t seem to think the umbrella would help much. His wife was in the passenger seat, and his 6-year-old daughter was in back. He kept looking over to the wife, and they would talk fast between themselves, too fast for me to understand. The little girl just stared at me through the back window.

I finally decided that my pretended objections to accepting the ride had gone far enough to preserve my dignity, so I reached for the back door to let myself in. Just then, the driver finished an exchange with the wife. He looked right at me, pointed to the umbrella, and said slowly and distinctly and loudly:

“That ours.”

Mortified, I realized that he had no intention of letting me into his car. He was there simply because someone had stolen the family umbrella and he wanted it back. I stammered two of my most used Spanglish phrases, “gracias” and “lo siente.” He was unimpressed with my thanks and apologies. He just wanted his umbrella.

I shook the water off it, folded it up, handed it to him and again mumbled “gracias.” He snatched it, rolled the window up, hit the gas and spun into a 180 and roared back toward town. The little girl in the back seat was scowling through the window as if to say, “Filthy wet umbrella-stealin’ pilgrim.”

And I stood in the middle of the road alone in the wind-whipped rain.

Published in The Aspen Times on Nov. 10, 2013 at

All the Way

Editor’s note: This is the last of four columns about the writer’s 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.”

At the noon worship show in the Cathedral de Santiago, the highlight for pilgrims is when they swing a big smoky thing around, called a “butafumiera,” which is Latin for “big smoky thing to swing around.” (Yeah, it’s all fun and games till someone’s eye gets knocked out.)

Later I showed a church clerk my “pilgrim passport” with colorful stamps from Waystops spanning my 500-mile walk so that they could give me a certificate stating that I’m forgiven for my sins according to some guy from the 12th century who wore a lampshade for a hat.

The clerk pretended to inspect my pilgrim passport, asked some questions in Spanish that I didn’t understand, got some answers in English that she didn’t understand and then looked up “Glenn Beaton” in a book to get the Latin translation because they write the name in Latin on the certificate because, I guess, St. Peter doesn’t read English or Spanish.

The book had no Latin for “Glenn Beaton.” That made them suspicious. Continue reading

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?”


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

On the Way

I’m currently testing my dilapidated body and derelict mind on a 500-mile walk across northern Spain. It’s a cross-country route called the Camino de Santiago or, en Ingles, the Way of Saint James. This is the first of several columns about my walk.

This route began as a religious pilgrimage a thousand years ago. Now it’s a long-distance trek or, depending on one’s faith and mood at any given moment, sometimes it’s still a pilgrimage. Sometimes it starts as one but becomes the other.

Before leaving, I did a little looking into this James fellow whose way I will follow. He was one of the apostles. The apostles were the disciples of Christ (with the exception of Paul, who never met the corporeal Christ) plus Mary Magdalene and minus Judas. They were a ragtag band of fishermen, a tax collector, a prostitute and others of varying disrepute.

Insofar as I know, none was as low as a newspaper columnist, but several did publish stuff that became quite popular over the next 2,000 years.

All but one were martyred for their faith. James was said to have been beheaded, and his head is said to reside in Jerusalem. James, while alive, .had preached in what became Spain. So his colleagues, the legend goes, transported his headless remains back there. They interred the remains near a place in the northwest part that the Romans called “the end of the earth.”

The remains were discovered in about 900 A.D. The faithful soon began making pilgrimage to them. Eventually a magnificent cathedral was built to house them. When the Pope a few hundred years later declared that one could be forgiven for his sins by making this pilgrimage, the place became a regular medieval tourist attraction.

The pilgrimages petered out as the Middle Ages did. They resumed with the recent resumption of the Middle Ages, but in numbers that are still far less than in the original Middle Ages. The movie “The Way,” released a couple of years ago starring Martin Sheen on such a pilgrimage, might generate additional pilgrimages for a while.

The names of James and these other Apostles always have confused me. There was Paul, who was really Saul. There was Mark, who sometimes went by John. There was John, who always went by John even though Mark sometimes did, too. There was Simon whom Jesus called Peter even though that wasn’t his name and there was another Simon whom Jesus called Simon even though that was his name.

Jesus must have had the patience of Job, considering how many times he had to say “No, the other one.”

There was Mary Magdalene, whose skull was gilded and has been on display in a church in France since the 1200s but who is not to be confused with the Virgin Mary. There was Matthew, who also went by Levi, even though there was no other Levi and no other Matthew. There was Thomas, whose first name was Doubting but who ultimately became so doubtless that he founded the church in India.

It’s a miracle that Jesus could keep their names straight.

Which brings us to James, of whom there naturally was more than one. Of the apostles there were two Jameses, and altogether in the New Testament there were as many as seven, including the James who was Jesus’ brother (or perhaps half-brother depending on your flavor of faith) and wrote the Book of James but is not ordinarily considered an Apostle.

As mentioned, this particular James whose way I’m walking and about whom I’m talking went to the place we now call Spain. He became known as James the Greater. The other of the two apostolic Jameses became known — or rather, unknown — as James the Lesser, about whom we know much less.

James the Lesser is sometimes called Jim. (OK, I made that part up.)

In any event, I’m glad that I won’t be known for eternity as “The Lesser.” It’s bad enough to be known as a lawyer-turned-newspaper-columnist. On the other hand, “lesser” is relative. It’s probably no shame to be deemed less than the Apostle James the Greater, who 2000 years ago was beheaded for bringing good news to souls at the end of the earth.

Me? I’m just hoping to squeeze a few more miles out of this body that’s already a testament to modern medicine.


For a place of gastronomical renown, Spain serves a lousy breakfast. It’s typically coffee and pastry.


It’s easy to find a fantastic bottle of inexpensive wine. I’m changing my breakfast menu. There is hope.

Published in The Aspen Times on Sept 15, 2013 at