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

Still on the Way

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

There are as many caminos as there are apostles. This time I’m walking the Camino del Norte, the northern route along the Atlantic coast of Spain.

The terrain is complicated, rugged and spectacular. Bays, harbors and estuaries separate the sea from hills, mountains and canyons. Silver salmon swim cold, clear creeks. The rocky coast of the Atlantic lies to your right and the mountains of the Picos de Europa to your left.

The Way sometimes clings to a seaside cliff by a cable and sometimes just shoulders a four-lane highway. Sometimes you’re on stone pathways laid by the Romans.

Mostly, it’s dirt trails that have been walked since the Middle Ages through lush woods, vineyards, orchards, fields, pastures, hills and meadows. In the ancient villages, old men in the plaza look up from their dice game to mumble, “Buen Camino,” children laugh and chase, women walking arm-in-arm nod, dogs bark, and once they rang the church bell 12 times to celebrate my noon arrival. It was so much excitement for the day that everyone then took a nap.

Pilgrims are rare in late September on this camino, and the silence between villages is broken by only the shuffle of your feet and the dinging of cowbells. I occasionally stop to pick wild blackberries. Untended boxes along the Way sell apple cider (it’s fermented, I learned) on the honor system.


A couple of weeks ago, I got off-route again. Walking through a gorge, I passed under a bridge that went my desired direction. I scrambled up the steep wall of the gorge to reach it.

I discovered that the bridge over the gorge was a train bridge. It was very narrow with a set of waist-high guardrails guarding each edge. As I reconnoitered from the hillside, a train came. It filled the entire width of the bridge from one guardrail to the other.

Some would have been discouraged by this sight, but not your correspondent. After all, if a train had just come, there wouldn’t be another for a while, right? I started across.

It was more than 100 yards. The first half of the crossing went well. So did the last half. But between the first half and the last half, another train came. I first heard a whine in the tracks. It deepened. I felt vibrations underfoot. A train screamed around the corner onto the bridge. It charged directly at me, horn bellowing, whistle blowing and, I imagined, conductor cursing. It filled the space between the guardrails and was getting bigger fast.

From the time I heard the whine in the tracks to the time the train appeared was only four or five seconds. Quick math told me I would be under the train in another two. The distance to the ground was more than 100 feet. I knew I would not survive the fall, but the thought flashed through my mind that it might be a friendlier end than under the train.

In those two seconds, I decided on a third option. I would lean over the guardrail. The front-to-back thickness of my body is about 8 inches, and my backpack stuck out another 7 inches, so it would be a real close call. Facing the guardrail, I held it with both hands, bent at the waist, and leaned over into the void. I remembered to tuck my toes under the guardrail to save my heels, too.

The blast of wind from the locomotive pushed me even farther over, but I held on. In another instant, the train was shrinking into the distance.


• All of this trail-walking and train-dodging made me hungry. That night I ordered gambas, which we call shrimp.

They arrived grilled nicely and delicious. Exactly 20 of them were carefully arranged on my plate. But the entire animal was there ­­­— 20 of them — heads and tails and shells and multiple little insect-like legs. In their arranged formation, they looked like an entire battalion of crustacean toy soldiers staring me down with their ghoulish, garlicky eyes.

I was hungry and would eat them anyway. After all, I was outnumbered but had the mammalian advantages that I’m warmblooded and sometimes care for my young. But I couldn’t decide if I was supposed to eat the whole critter or behead and peel it. I imagined the kitchen staff peering at me from the kitchen door. If I beheaded and peeled them, they would snigger, “Holy Toledo! Get a load of this girly Americano,” the way we would see a person who can’t eat an apple without peeling it.

But if I ate them whole, and was wrong, I also could imagine them. “Madre de Jesus,” they would murmur as they made the sign of the cross and averted their eyes from the gruesome sight.

In the end I ate all 20, including one head and bits amounting to about three shells. It was apparently exactly the combination that one is supposed to eat, for the locals said nothing.

• Soon after the bridge, the train tracks disappeared into a tunnel. Quick learner that I am (even though Spanish is not my first language), I decided at that time to discontinue my rail travel. There is hope.

Published in The Aspen Times on Sept 29, 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