By Karla Haworth, Guest Blogger
Friday was a difficult day for many of us, as we walked our longest hike — more than 14 miles — and navigated a trail that was at times badly marked. We’ve all marveled at the hospitality of the people along this trail, the kindness of strangers, how locals and other hikers on the trail greet each other with “Buen Camino” as we pass.
I am moved by what seems like a mission for some of those living along the camino, to point wayward pilgrims the right way. Our first day, coming out of Tuy, I was deep in conversation with a hiker from Holland and missed a trail marker. The community, it seemed, jumped into action, saving us from ourselves. A man ran from his bus stop, pointing us back in the direction from which we’d come, yelling “Camino! Camino!” We turned around, and a moment later a woman in a car stopped and honked, pointing to the turnoff for the trail. Lost pilgrims? Not on their watch!
I find myself deeply touched by this sense of duty, of helpfulness, especially in this age when it seems the human impulse is to grab onto all that is dear and clutch it close, for fear it will be taken. To avoid strangers, not reach out to them. To view the “other” suspiciously.
I’ve noticed a shift in myself, too — trust more, worry less — and remember, as Bob Marley sang the other day in my cab ride from Valenca to Tuy, that “every little thing is gonna be all right.” I am awed by this uncharacteristic willingness, this faith, this trust, but I see it blooming all around me between townspeople and pilgrims, and among pilgrims themselves. It’s the way of the Camino.
On the long trail today, I found myself wondering what it must be like to live along the Camino, how easy it must become to be bored by the endless trail of hikers and cyclists pass by their doorsteps each day. (We certainly help the “ferocious” little guard dogs earn their keep as they zoom along their fences, warning us off!)
I think about home, and how annoyed we Washingtonians often are by the tourists who clog the left lane on Metro escalators and walk four abreast on the sidewalk, so nobody can pass. I felt a little shame, trying to remember the last time I ran out into the street to point an obviously-lost tourist in the right direction, although this might cause tourists visiting the nation’s capital a bit more angst than it would for us here on the Camino. How easy it is to become blase, distracted, wrapped up in our own lives, forgetting to notice — and help — others in need.
I like how my mind has wandered like the curves of the Camino these past two days as my feet rise and fall, rise and fall. I’ve thought of the multitudes who have walked this trail before us over Roman bridges and roads more than 2,000 years old. My boots touched the same earth as San Temlo, a pilgrim who became sick and died near a beautiful brook in 1251, as one monument proclaimed, and I feel a small part of the rich history of this road.
I wonder about the pilgrims of 100 — or 1,000 — years ago, who made this journey without the benefit of GoreTex boots and telescoping hiking poles, water bladders and blister treatments. What did they hope for? What were their fears? Did they find the same hospitality on the camino, and did it mean as much to them as it does to me? Were they REALLY doing it for God, or was it a good excuse for a vacation?
I also like how I’ve leaned into the challenge of the Camino in my two days on it. The first day — my first real hike of any consequence — was full of trepidation, and questions: Will I be able to do this? Will I find my way? Back home sitting in bed, walking 70 miles in six days didn’t seem such a challenge, but the reality is, of course, different. I was anxious to be alone on the Camino that first day, but yesterday felt more confident — or perhaps more faithful — that I would find the path. I wanted to focus less on the mechanics of getting there, and more on appreciating the scenery unfolding around me. I decided to walk alone part of the day, unleash my mind and see where it would run. To stop in beautiful places and write in my journal. To really see the scenery, “to remember this well,” to stop and look and hold the sights in my eyes and mind, instead of in my camera.
As I started out in the morning, I remembered one of the first sermons I heard Rob Hardies deliver at All Souls (Point Thank You) about gratitude, in which he talked about starting his work week writing thank you notes, how the weeks that he began with this practice this were markedly different from the ones he didn’t.
One of my issues on this road is grace — how to find it, receive it, give it, how to be a more grateful person. I decided (though it’s a bit out of character) to greet everyone who crossed my path, and warmly, like I was really glad to see them. I said “Buenas Dias!” to old men walking their dogs and to women cutting vegetables in their gardens, to workmen digging ditches and children at the school bus stop. To other pilgrims, I gave the traditional greeting, “Buen Camino!”
I said hello to dogs, to shopkeepers, to the mist rising from the mountains. And I meant it. It didn’t matter if they responded; it felt like my greeting was a small gift. I stopped at the top of a steep hill to cheer up a pilgrim on a bicycle — “You’re almost there! Come on! PEDAL!” — and clapped wildly when he reached the top. It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak Portugese and he didn’t speak English; it was the spirit of the thing. He grinned sheepishly and said something in Portugese before riding off with a smile. How good I felt! I marveled at how the simple act of encouraging a stranger up a tough spot on the trail felt better than any material gift I’ve ever given.
Maybe this is how it works on the Camino: Give, and you are given. This ancient road seems to give us just what we need when we need it. One member of our group ran out of water yesterday just as he reached the foot of our hotel. It was as if, he said, something knew exactly how much sustenance was enough.
For another in our group, the companionship of another pilgrim made her day, the conversation making the steep hills and declines less arduous. For me, it was a few moments of gratefulness, of grace, which I’ve struggled so hard to find. I’m generally a “glass is half empty” kind of gal, but I was infused with hope. Even when I was lost at the end of a long trail, feet aching and traipsing along the narrow median of a busy highway, I looked up and saw a beautiful expanse of blue water, crowned with a an elegant suspension bridge, and I thought: If I were going the right way, I’d have missed this. I noticed gorgeous flowers, poking their heads up between metal guardrails and asphalt. And I learned a chant from another lost All Souls pilgrim that we sang together to get us up a long incline.
In the end, exhausted from the long day, we took a taxi to our hotel. It wasn’t how I wanted to arrive. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.