Day 35 – Vega de Valcarce to Fonfria

Since Juan Carlos, Andres and I had spent the night in our own house, we slept as late as we wanted and were out on the road when we felt like it – 0830.

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We hung around the village to return the landlady’s house key and thank her for a great stay in a nice home. As we lingered over breakfast, who should wander up but Christine, our Camino family member who had decided to stay someplace else the night before (missed out on those Spanish movie musicals, tsk, tsk).

Then, we were off. Up, up and away.

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The walk to O’Cebreiro was challenging but not impossible. The weather was great – I began to wonder if I had seen the last of my wet Camino and should consider zipping the bottoms off my pants. But I also knew we were entering one of the wettest regions of Spain, so, no.

Juan Carlos kept me laughing as he continually underestimated the distance we had to walk – two kilometers when it was actually four, four kilometers when it was ten!!

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Welcome to Galicia.

The countryside reminded me of weeks earlier when I had been a novice pilgrim, making my way through the rolling hills of Navarra.  Alone, alert to the yellow arrows  along the way, I remembered the vineyards I walked through and the mud.

I remembered looking through rain dripping off the brim of the baseball cap I wore under my rain jacket hood as I tried to keep my glasses dry and fog free.

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I remembered the determination as pilgrims, strangers to each other, encouraged each other to the top of the hill which we promised was just around the bend up ahead, and which never was.

Now I was dry and following the arrows was second nature.

I no longer noticed my backpack anymore than you, dear reader, notice the shirt you are wearing right now.

These strangers whom I was walking with could crack the right jokes to make me laugh out loud. I knew I would be missing them all too soon.

We crossed into Galicia and found the stone markers that would lead us the final kilometers to Santiago. Was it possible? Were there really only that many kilometers to go?? Had I really walked all that distance? I still felt so good!

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O’Cebreiro was beautiful, an unexpectedly active village on the top of a mountain, full of pilgrims and souvenir shops.

I was told that the church, Santa Maria la Real, was said to have held a relic of the original Crucifix. I prayed accordingly, wondering if my Saints had traveled with me all this distance so they could get to this place. I told them I was grateful for all the help they had given me on this journey.

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About 15 minutes later I learned that, um, no, there weren’t any cross relics here.

Wrong legend.

It was the resting place for Don Elias Valina Sampedro, (1929 – 1989). He was the parish priest who gave birth to the modern Camino, as a way to help his tiny little parish.

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He knew his village was on the route of the ancient Camino and wanted to try to bring people back to, or at least through, the village. He brought his idea to the local leaders and they said OK, but you’re on your own. So, he went to the public works guys who were working on the roads and got their leftover paint.

That ubiquitous yellow paint.

With permission, of course, he painted arrows along the way to help pilgrims find their way from one end  of the village to the other. Slowly, the arrows extended to the other towns along the way and, well, here we are today, more than  200,000 pilgrims this year alone.

I was ready to call it a day at O’Cebreiro but the family insisted that we continue so on we went.

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I hadn’t expected Alto de Poio to be the highest point on the Camino Frances – I had thought that was O’Cebreiro. But it is, with 1,330 meters compared to O’Cebreiro puny 1,300 meters. Done on the same day at O’C, it is just as challenging.

We stopped for drinks but all we could find were sodas from vending machines. But where was Juan Carlos? We couldn’t find him anywhere. Christine and I waited outside, cooling off, while Andres went to find his wayward brother. Finally, he found him and ushered us inside the local pilgrim office.

There was Juan Carlos, happily surrounded by dozens of old ledgers. He had looked through many, many of them to find one particular one. Years earlier, on another Camino, he had signed his name in the books kept by many places, and this was one of the few places where he could find that book again if he was lucky. He was, and we gazed at his signature and notes from way back then, his past self giving a note of encouragement to this, his future self.

We found the new book and added our names and notes. Maybe one day our future selves will climb this mountain again and remember this moment in time.

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That day, we didn’t arrive at the albergue until after 7 p.m. We each fended for ourselves for dinner and I ate something at the albergue’s  bar while I blogged.

Our big break, however, was in our accommodations.

Because we had gotten there so late and there were four of us, the bunk beds in the main bunk-bed room were taken. The hospitaleros generously opened the overflow room for us and gave us the pick of the beds. But these were not ordinary beds.

Now, class, if you open you IKEA catalogs to the teenagers’ rooms section, you will see those lovely bunk beds that are double beds on the bottom and twin beds up top. Since the four of us were expected to be  among the last to arrive, we were invited to each have a bottom, double bed, to ourselves!

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My bed is last on the left row, closest to the back wall. Christine has the bed across from me, the boys closer to the camera. One purple mat is in front of the shower, the other in front of the bathroom.

We had our own bathroom and shower in the room. This was lucky because I had gone to the crowded bunk-bed room to take a shower and went to the men’s shower room by mistake. You may use your imagination to figure out how I realized it was the men’s shower room (not by the tiny little man stick figure sign practically hidden away not in the center of the door).

The community room had comfortable chairs and a fireplace. Pilgrims shared a few bottles of wine. There were books about the Camino and about Spain. There were books about Galicia. The boys showed me a coffee table book of  Santander, their home city.

Night fell. I fell asleep in the security of friends and strangers. But sad.

I was so close to Santiago. Was the adventure ending??

Not by a long shot.

Family Movie Night – Day 34 – VillaFranco to Vega de Valcarce

What is a family? How do people come together? How do unwritten relationships develop?

Do you stick together always? Can you choose to become unglued? How do you find that delicate balance between being together and being separate?

People floated into and out of my circle of Camino family members on an almost daily basis. I would walk with people for days, then lose them for the rest of the trip.

My journal was full of names and incidents which would have been forgotten yet had made it into my journal because of their importance to me at the time. But some names were beginning to appear again and again.

My Camino family was coming together  –  Andres, Juan Carlos (the boys), myself,  and Christina, the bright, friendly college student from Virginia.

The four of us began to run into each other more frequently.

We usually split up at the end of the day since we had already decided where we each wanted to stay, for whatever reason (“This place sounds cool,” ” I heard this place has good breakfast,” ” I need a washing machine,”  etc).

Anyway, since we were walking the same basic plan (last one to leave the albergue, frequent stops for coffee and/or beer) we stood a good chance of running into each often.

But how do I explain the fact that, even when there were two or three choices of routes to take, we all seemed to magically pick the same one.

The Camino was pulling us together.

My albergue the night before had been glorious – clean, quiet, bright and  spacious.  I had seen several familiar faces and I was one of the last to leave in the morning.

On my way out, I asked the hospitalero which route he recommended I follow – there were three options. His answer, short, sweet,  logical – “The easy one, of course!”

I took his advice, again an alternative route, which offered some stunning views, avoided traffic, and was not uber-challenging.

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The route followed a river valley . The stream running on my left was peaceful and the bird songs were some of the most beautiful I had heard during the Camino. It was as if the Audubon Society played all their recordings at the same time.

After walking through such a Garden of Eden, I was surprised to stumble upon another place where the owners had decided to drop out of the rat race and start a new life on their own terms. Of course, at that hour of the morning, I was like a moth to a flame when I read the sign out front – “Fair Trade Coffee.”

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As I drank my coffee and ate breakfast, I enjoyed the peace, the music and the  really good food.

I asked the owners how they ended up here and where they got fair-trade coffee.

He was from the Netherlands and enjoyed cooking for people. They had local family who had told them about this spot. They pointed to the truck stop across the stream, next to a highway. They said that most drivers go to the truck stop but they did OK with the pilgrims on this side.

As I was finally leaving the coffee shop, who should come along but the boys, Juan Carlos and Andres.

By this time I had forgiven them for introducing me to “Botillo” the night before, that classic local dish which was mainly a ball of meat parts and which had endured in my stomach long after the sun had gone down.

The marvelous bird songs,  great morning coffee, and dazzling blue sky and sunshine had put me in a wonderful mood.

I thought the sign said "Walk without dying." What it says is that the stream is "catch and release." Don't kill the fish. OK, so my Spanish still isn't that good.

I thought the sign said “Walk without dying.” What it says is that the stream is “catch and release.” OK, so my Spanish still isn’t that good.

Andres, Juan Carlos, and I walked together the rest of that day. We talked about every topic under the sun. They explained Spanish culture to me – history, language, geography, politics – with generosity of spirit and passion.

I learned they were brothers.

We talked about our families, our careers, our homes. I began to understand their deep love for their country.

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When we arrived at our stop for the day, we were crushed to learn that the albergue had only one bed left  If I took it, where would the boys go?  The small village had only one albergue and there were no pensions in town. Heading up the mountain so late in the day to find a bed in the next town was out of the question.

I did not want to leave them without a place to stay – it had happened inadvertently weeks earlier and I still felt badly.  We needed to find a place for three people.

The young hospitalero at the albergue was determined to find a place for us in spite of the fact that he had a full house of pilgrims to look after. He made phone call after phone call on our behalf.

He was finally able to find a local who had some empty rooms we could share, the double for the boys, the single for me. The problem was, the price of the single was twice the price of the double – way over my budget.

Then, the boys decided to split the total cost three ways. It would reduce the cost for me, but would increase the cost for them. But they did it anyway.

The Camino was gracing  me with undeserved blessings, this time in the form of a true Camino family.

The side door led to our home for the night.

The last door led to our home for the night.

The rooms were in a four-bedroom house being renovated and we had the house to ourselves. When we went there with the owner, she discovered that the last person to stay in the house had left the double room unmade.

The result was that each of us would get a single.

St. Julian, patron saint of hospitaleros – You Rock!

After I settled in.

After I settled in.

Heavenly!! Soft, clean sheets, flowers at the windowsill. A huge double bed. A bathroom – with a bathtub!

The kitchen had a wood burning stove which seemed to be in good working condition.

The kitchen had a traditional wood burning stove.

We went to the only restaurant in town and Juan Carlos was excited to introduce me to the tiny little fish which were now in season. Eat the bones or not eat the bones? It was an ongoing topic of discussion.

Being an adventurous traveler, I ate the bones. This time, the boys’ culinary suggestion was spot on. That meal was one of the  memorable ones of the Camino.

The end of a delicious meal

The end of a delicious meal

After exploring the village on the way back from dinner, we made our way back to the house. They managed to plug the right plug, switch the right switch and, for the first time in weeks, we had television!

They found a classic movie channel and they were appalled to learn that I had no clue as to the stars of the movie, their legendary status in Spanish cinema or their legacies that continue today.

That night, the three of us stayed up late watching Spanish movie musicals. Can you imagine hearing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” for the first time, unaware that it’s a classic? That was me, unaware of this entire aspect of great movie history.

We knew we had a rough day ahead of us but we stayed up late anyway. When we finally retired, and I crashed into bed, I slept like a person who had already climbed a  mountain., No traffic, no snoring, no animal sounds – I was out.

La Hija de Juan Simon (1957). Starting out as a traditional flamenco singer, Antonio Molina’s amazing technique and good looks made him a star.

Video? – Day 33 – Molinaseca to Villafranca

Still feel like a gorilla with a computer.

I’ve been working for many days on embedding this YouTube video into this blog. I still haven’t gotten it right.

Put on headphones if you’re watching this at work.

A special shout-out to my Camino family who inspired me and helped make the final days of my Camino so enjoyable and memorable. Still have many days to go, but everything is coming together at the end.

Video nerds – I still need help. This movie was done on Picasa 3 when Microsoft Photo Gallery became too unwieldy. Any thoughts??

One Year in One Day – Day 33 – Molinaseca to Villafranca

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Walking the Camino solo gave me time to think about the pleasure of choosing a family.

A Camino family.

As you walk, you pass, and are passed by, many pilgrims. Some of this occurs on the road. You stop for coffee and find yourself sharing a table with a stranger whose pack is close by. A conversation starts, and, presto, you find yourself walking together for miles.

Other times, your walking companion continues on, while you settle into a bar for lunch. Will you see each other again?

Maybe, maybe not.

Sometimes, you pass, and are passed, when you end the day.

In the albergue, you throw your sleeping bag on a bunk next to someone you’ve seen a few times over the past few miles. You talk and decide to have dinner together – maybe at a restaurant, maybe pooling resources and making a meal in the tiny albergue kitchen. The next morning, you get up and they have gone, their bunk empty without a trace that they were ever there.

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There are people you keep running into again and again. At lunch, in town, leaving an albergue you discover you shared the night before. Since everyone is walking a similar route at a similar pace, it is not surprising that you run into the same people.

I had discovered that, although I enjoyed/needed people to talk to at the end of the day when settling into a town, I enjoyed walking solo. I liked getting lost in my thoughts for hours at a time. I didn’t have any particular problems to work out. I simply found that walking solo gave me lots of time to really see and enjoy my surroundings.

Walking solo made me available for adventures and experiences that would never have happened if I had been with other people, lost in conversation. The woman on the trail outside Leon? The old man and the cherry tree? Elisa and her gift?

None of those experiences would have happened if I had been with other people.

Not to mention my strange yet not uncommon “Saint-sightings.”

As I walked along, I came to appreciate the  pilgrim friends I was meeting again and again. I was comfortable with the idea that we could go separate routes and, when we met again, it would be like family coming together at the end of the day.  If we decided that we wanted to see different things, it would be OK to split up because we might meet again soon.

In a real family, there are actually few certainties. You can be fairly certain that your parents and your children will stick with you no matter what. But you can never be completely certain about your spouse, in-laws, others who have chosen, or have been chosen, to be part of your family. You never know for certain what is going on in the mind of your husband or wife, do you? You have faith that you do, you trust that you do. But you have no way of knowing for sure.

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Your Camino family becomes a family of choice. People chose to be together. Knowing that the family has a definite end point – arrival at the final destination – your Camino family choses to stick together and to give each other space and support as needed. You allow each to accept or reject advice, conversation, insights, whatever, and not take offense.

I’ve come to the conclusion that every day of walking with someone on the Camino is the equivalent of knowing that person for one year. So, if you walk with someone for three days, it is the equivalent of knowing them for three years.

As I go through my photos, I am surprised at the number of times people who ended up being my close Camino family would be somewhere in my photos. Usually not center stage, usually in the background or a half profile here, their stuff on a bunk bed there. But circling the periphery of my relationships, nudging into my consciousness.

The Camino provided what I needed. Food, shelter, companionship, solitude, beauty, kindness, strength. All in the proper dose and at the proper time.

For me, my goofy, ridiculous, delightful, FREAKY Camino family was the manifestation of that providence.

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Jeremiah Johnson Would Never Have Lost his Pants – Day 32 – Rabanal to Molinaseca

I’m feeling kind of “Jeremiah Johnson” today.

The latest in pilgrim attire, circa 1870.

The latest in pilgrim fashion, circa 1870.

Jeremiah Johnson was a character played in the movie of the same name by Robert Redford. This character started out as a pretty “green” newcomer to the American frontier, planning to make his way as a trapper or trader or some such thing in the American Rocky Mountains.

There were few people who lived in the frontier at this time, except for the native Americans who were wary of the newcomers who were slowly but surely crowding into their space. Also, the old timers who were doing what he was just starting out to do, and had been doing it for a while.

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Over time, Jeremiah Johnson learns how to fend for himself alone in the mountains. He becomes proficient at trapping and shooting. he can build his fires and keep warm as needed. He becomes a grizzled mountain man, respected by the Natives and the locals.

Slowly, he realizes how much he has learned during his time in the mountain, although he does not stop learning and, yes, making mistakes.

My Camino Family Portrait.

My Camino Family Portrait.

I’m feeling a little Jeremiah Johnson today.

I’ve met an unusual number of new peregrinos today. I’ve also run into groups of people starting out. “I just started in Leon.” “We haven’t had a day of rain!” “Wow! We’ve been walking for two days and it’s so much fun!”

Is it so wrong that I feel like smacking them?

Many of them have sent their packs ahead to the next town so they don’t have to carry them (OK if you have a legitimate physical need),  Walkers arrive by taxi (ditto for physical need).

They carry light little day packs and swing big bottles of water in their hands, spritely jogging up the hills, chatting and laughing.  They’ll get to the albergue long before me and I will, therefore, be unable to find a place to stay.

Yep, I’m feeling grizzled. I could just grunt in answer to their “dumb” questions. I could roll my eyes as they stop along the way and complain about their newly developing blisters. I could smile to myself as they race up the hills, knowing that I will pass them on the way down as they begin to nurse slowly disintegrating knees.

You call that a blister?? I know babies that have bigger blisters than that! And you call yourself a pilgrim.

You call that a blister?? I know babies that have bigger blisters than that! You’re a disgrace to pilgrims everywhere.

I could, but I don’t. Because, like Jeremiah Johnson, I’m still making mistakes.

Let’s put it in another way. The Camino is keeping me humble.

1.   It’s a long, challenging day, 25 kilometers, all of it mountainous.  To add to the challenge of the terrain, which includes lots of loose scree, the temperature goes from 5 degrees to 32 degrees Celsius today.

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It was really cold this morning.

2. I reach the impressive Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross).

El Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross

Shortly after, I come to the highest point on the Camino Frances, the Punto Alto, a heavenly 1,515 meters high and I celebrate the gorgeous view with some water, I spend several extra minutes up there. Why? Not because of the view , which is majestic, but because I can’t figure out the way down. I seem to have temporarily lost the trail. Thanks alot, St. Christopher.

I'm at the top of the world. Now how do I get down?

I’m at the top of the world. Now how do I get down?

3. I run out of money. Not cyber money, but real, honest-to-goodness, hold-in-your-hand, cash. And without cash, you can’t get into an albergue or buy a meal. The only cash machine in town has run out of money. I used my last euro at a wonderful lunch in Acebo. I planned to get more at the next cash machine.

St. Phil, the jokester, whom I haven’t mentioned in a while, decides to play a little trick on me instead and lets all the cash machines along the way (there aren’t many) run dry. Ha, ha.

4. My greatest tragedy happens today. It involves my beloved rain jacket.

Rip my heart, why don't you?

Rip my heart, why don’t you?

5.  After getting some money (several weird turns of events including a *gasp* ride into a city in a real car) I am enjoying my first communal meal in an albergue since day one in France.

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Suddenly a guy bursts into the dining room and frantically exclaims at the top of his lungs “WHO STOLE MY PANTS!!!???”

In the moment of silence that followed, I realize that the pair of pants he is holding up as an example of his stolen pants are MY pants, which I had washed and hung to dry outside. Then, he disappears, along with my pants.

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My goodness, my goodness.

Thank you, Camino.

Thank you, Saints.

How dreadfully boring my journey would be if I actually did have everything/anything under control. Instead, I chuckle as I write in my journal and review the day’s events.

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Two Thousand Year Timeline – Day 31 – Astorga to Rabanal

Today would be a day to ponder man’s lasting impact. From Roman dynasties to twentieth century abandonment, I would glimpse them all today in 21 short kilometers.

Since I had stopped the night before at the first albergue I had come to in Astorga, I would walk completely through the city this morning as I  followed the Camino.  I packed easily and, although I was the last to get out of bed, I was not the last to leave.

I began to walk. Next to the albergue was the Iglesia San Francisco. It is believed that Saint Francis stopped here during his pilgrimage to Santiago in 1212.

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I walked a few steps further slightly uphill. The city was asleep except for the pilgrims on bikes who began to speed by me in the empty streets. A powerful Roman city once covered this hill, making it the most prominent city in the region.  The remains of one of the houses in that Roman city are today carefully protected as a cherished reminder of the  past.

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This city was a crossroads where several ancient roads and pilgrim routes intersected. Although not as populous as other major cities on the Camino Frances, its high vantage point made it vibrant as an international marketplace two millenia earlier.

The city center houses a delightful clock which, even in the near rain, draws a crowd every hour on the hour.

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Several blocks further, I passed another landmark. I had had a chance to sample the architecture of Antonio Gaudi during my visit in Leon, but the building there didn’t stand out in my mind as being particularly mind-blowing. Perhaps that was because, in Leon, it was competing with so many other examples of architectural styles that my untrained eye couldn’t see what I was seeing. In Astorga, that was not the case.

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Gaudi started construction on this Palacio de Episcopal in 1889 at the request of the Bishop, who needed to replace his private residence, which had burned down. Sadly, the Bishop died before it was completed so it was never used as a residence. It is now the home of “The Museum of St. James’ Way.”

IMGP4020 Peeking behind the Gaudi building is the back of the city cathedral, the grand Catedral St. Marta. I would walk pass the ornate front of the cathedral soon on my way out of town.IMGP4059

Luckily for me, the city was shut tight as a drum at that hour or I may not have gotten out as early as I did. The Gaudi Palace. The Cathedral.  The monasteries. The ancient Roman walls.  I’d have dozens of photos. Not to mention a backpack full of chocolate, which the city prides itself on.

The road out of Astorga entered the region known as the Maragato. I didn’t experience it as completely as others who had gone before me. Perhaps it was too early in the day? There were no traditional foods to smell or taste, nor costumes to be seen.  The Camino took me from one rustic village to another. The overcast sky added a touch of gray. I would have enjoyed a morning cafe in such a quiet place but I couldn’t find a bar, open or closed, as I walked through these towns.

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The hospitalero at the albergue in Astorga had suggested that I try the detour through the village of Castrillo de Povagares, which I did. It was very quiet and seemed medieval to me. There were absolutely no people or sounds. Even the dogs were silent.

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Since the detour was off the regular path, there were few pilgrims. There was simply a feeling of stillness. Yes, here were some flowers outside a door, there was a car. The windows and doors were all shut tight. Perhaps life was going along behind the grayish brown stone walls and iron gates. But I felt suspended while walking through town, like a swimmer floating on her back.

The next town actually had crumbling walls and houses. According to one estimate, it had a population of 50. The Army was running an orienteering exercise and small groups of young soldiers found their way from the brush to the meadows to the road to the one bar in town, the only landmark, Glad to find their fellow soldiers, they enjoyed the end of their trek and waited for their vehicles. The few pilgrims also there, having a beer and bathroom break, would continue.

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Eventually I arrived in Rabanal after a short hike uphill in mud and scree. This town houses a monastery where an order of monks from Bavaria are working to restore the Church and revitalize the town. They have a retreat house which welcomes pilgrims to stay for a minimum two days.

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I met up with Dave and Rena, the newlyweds from my first day on the Camino and whom I’d been meeting on and off throughout my journey. They had decided to spend time at the retreat house and were staying for two more days.

Dave was one of the readers during the Pilgrim Mass that evening.  The monks sang Gregorian Chant.  The homily was in English for the benefit of most of the foreigners who were (always) present, and the tiny space was packed with pilgrims, many of them college age students traveling with school.

I thought of the people I had run into that day. I thought about how close I was getting to Santiago. I thought about my family and my Camino family.

Who have I lost? Who will I meet? Who will I meet again?

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