Camino Santiago de Compostela.
My wife's lung transplant gave her another three precious years of life, after suffering a long time with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, which anyone can get, no matter how healthy, or fit you are.
I promised Tricia that if anything unfortunate should happen to her I would walk the 500 mile Camino across northern Spain, for both of us, and raise funds for the New Start Charity, supporting Wythenshawe Transplant Unit, Manchester U.K. This was a big challenge as I was physically unfit and over-weight but a challenge that would give me focus, and in some way help to conquer overwhelming grief.
The Camino Frances starts from the French side of the Pyrenees and ends in Galicia, Santiago Compostela, the north west tip of Spain, near Fininsterre. Thousands from all around the globe take part for different reasons. A chance to lift themselves out of the mundane, question their lives, and for some, to expand a spiritual consciousness. John Brierly, the author of 'A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino Santiago',says:
"Questions may arise from some crisis; diagnosis of a life threatening disease, death of a loved one, loss of employment, marital breakdown, or just deep dissatisfaction with life for no apparent reason. Existential loneliness will not disappear by finding or replacing partners, changing jobs, moving house. Of course, in discovering who we are these circumstances may change but it is our ability to observe the changing dramas of our life, and the life of others around us, against a larger backdrop that will bring a united purpose to all our journeying."
I take comfort when thinking about Tricia's determination to enjoy life, and take inspiration from her courage and attitude when she was ill. She often said, 'you can sit in a corner, hide and cry, or you can try your best and get on with it.'
So I decided to 'get on with it,' trained for a year to reduce weight and to get myself physically and mentally fit. I didn't expect it to be easy. I got tired from just walking to the shops. So, after walking in the Welsh hills for a year, I was able to walk two fourteen-mile treks a week, with a few long bike-rides, in between. Lost a stone in weight, became physically fit but wondered how I would cope with doing this alone and the loneliness of distance walking?
From the start, after a relaxing journey across France, I found no accommodation at St Jean Pied de Port. So, my Camino started at nine o'clock in the evening, walking in the dark with two Dutch lad's, hoping to find a small hostel for the night. My first overnight sleep was on a bunk bed, in a room with ten other people, waking to an early five a.m. cockerel, and witnessing a glorious morning, a fresh clear mountain vista, accompanied to the sound of walkers already on route.
This started thirty-six days of climbing up and down steep hills, walking for miles over flat countryside in varying temperatures, cold frosty mornings, thirty-degree afternoons, facing the unexpected, aches and pains, loneliness, meeting strangers, seeing wonderful sights, and experiencing the unusual.
It was like being a child again. No worries. My watch stopped and I lost track of time, day, and date. It didn't matter. Getting up to start walking at six am, walking, eating, and sleeping was the normal routine. Others came and went. Met at cafes, shops, bars, enjoyed a miss-mash of semi translated conversations and laughter at evening meals, offering help to ease blisters, strains, and a friendly ear when needed.
We came from all over the world with a common language of kindness, walking in the same direction, with our own reason for doing the Camino. I didn't need a map. Yellow arrows and pilgrim signposts directed the way across the countryside, up hills, towns, villages, and brass shells, the symbol of the pilgrim, embedded into the pavements. It was like following the yellow brick road all the way to Compostela.
Locals were very friendly and helpful and with no evidence of anyone trying to take advantage by overcharging for food and lodgings. On the contrary, locally produced wine is very cheap; one Euro for a glass that tasted divine and served with tapas. Just after the town of Estella, there is a tap for free wine beside a tap for drinking water. It's in the Rioja region and tasted lovely. Who said water can't turn into wine?
It was here that I met a doctor working at the University Hospital Toronto who has connections with Wythenshawe Transplant Unit, was fascinated with my story, and genoursly donated to the cause. Unfortunately, he emailed me later to say his knee had swollen beyond the pain barrier and had to return home. He has already booked to do Camino again next year with his wife. I also suffered with a swollen leg from going down the steep hill towards Burgos. The gradient was about one in four for about a mile and strained my shin muscles. Limping into my digs was hard and was fortunate to have planned a rest day. So, it was feet up and wine tasting time. For the following three days I applied an ice pack at every stopping point and with the help of some anti-inflammatory pills, it eased. Fortunately, mine was a strain. It hurt but didn't stop me from walking, which was worrying, as I didn't want to let Tricia, donors, and supporters down.
I was greeted to the sounds of the cuckoo, and other birds, well before sunrise. There were lots of storks, sitting on their high nests, on towers. power line posts, and high chimney's. Most mornings started cold and frosty, walking for miles with no one about, except perhaps spotting another pilgrim in the distance. It was so quiet that I became conscious of my noisy intrusive footsteps. Wonderful. I thought of the insignificance of humanity, in the scale of things, yet responsible for so much damage to our natural environment. On the other hand, I marvelled at the man made irrigation system. A good flow of liquid gold piped from distant mountains for wheat and barley fields. A good natural resource, nothing wasted.
Evidence of Romanesque architecture is everywhere. Seen in old Roman roads, bridges, and in the magnificent Cathedrals in Burgos, Leon, and Compostela. Large bronze sculptures displaying mythological, religious, poetic, and contemporary references dotted the way, along with wood carvings and other metal monuments, with themes reminding me of the journey. Being hot and tired didn't stop the fun. I came across a pilgrim with her dog. She was throwing a ball into an irrigation channel for it to run and dive in from a good height, making a swim very tempting. That was saved for a few miles further on where my digs had a pool. A swim was a great relief for my feet and from the heat. Meditation may be one thing but an impromptu gathering, singing, laughing, and of course drinking was welcomed, and there was always one natural comedian finding the stage. No one talked politics, religion, or about their profession. Status was meaningless. I didn't shave, or comb my hair for weeks, very liberating. Some hostels didn't have hot water so cold shaowers were like jumping into the nearest stream. One lad did just that. He was obviously walking late and decided to sleep under a tree. I spotted him rising from the hedgerow and having a quick wash in a stream. He walked past me later on looking about twenty five something years old. I suppose I would have done that at his age.
The slower pace of walking made it so easy to see the sights, hear sounds, and soak up the atmosphere, and immerse into the culture wherever I walked, unlike travelling at speed in a car, or even on a bike. My Spanish was straight out of a holiday guide book, learnt the important questions and pleasantries, and for most of the time managed to understand the essentials.
My daughters met me at Melide, about sixty miles from Compostela. A very emotional moment and even after a short way, they have decided to do the whole Camino, in the future.
It rained hard on the last day walking into Santiago de Compostela. Water bounced off the pavements and flowed down roads like rivers and after five hundred miles I didn't care. And I was there. Compostela. Almost feeling the past five hundred miles had been a dream.
Everyone says it's hard to describe the feeling you get, when walking the Camino. No one knows what it is, but it's something special, and it's why so many return and repeat the journey. I know Tricia was with me and supported me when I needed her most and I've left a little of her ashes at various places along the way. As I said at the beginning, the Camino is a time for reflection, soul searching, and questioning.
I experienced emotional highs and lows and the journey has changed me. Some have said it will take time to get back to normal. But I don't want 'normal.' I feel as if my body and mind has gone through a washing machine. It has changed me, coming away realising purpose, and meaning to my life.
I've painted for years as an artist and had lost both the desire and skill necessary to exhibit after Tricia died, and didn't paint for eight months, even a year before walking the Camino. Trish always supported my work and was a driver in all I did, especially when returning to university to study art. So that is one thing I'm doing. Painting for Trish. The other life changing vow is personal.
I couldn't return to walk it again. It would be like trying to repeat a fabulous holiday. The second never matches the first. I was fortunate. I found myself and have no need to search again. I would recommend anyone to do it if you have the chance. 'Buen Camino.'
Walking alone for long distances helps to clear my mind and keeps me fit. The South West Coastal Path looks inviting!
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