Christina Has a Meltdown – Just One More Day Until Santiago

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In my mind’s eye, Dear Reader, I see Christina leaping across the  desk, grabbing the clerk by his t-shirt, and giving him a slight, yet intense, shake, as she says, between gritted teeth:

“I. Need. A Bed. And I Need. One. Now.”

She gives me a look out of the corner of her eye, looks back at the clerk, her eyes narrowing, and adds,”

“No. I Need Two. Two Beds.  PRONTO!”

How had we come to this uncharacteristic turn of events? We would be in Santiago the next day. What was happening???

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This crisis had begun earlier in the day. Christina and I had separated during our walk, as usual. We knew we would run into each other later in the day. I was the faster walker and prone to long, leisurely stops for bocadillos and beer,  she was slow and steady.

We were Camino family.

As we got closer to Santiago, there were fewer and fewer beds available. The crush of pilgrims who began their Camino in the city of Sarria was surprising and overwhelming. There were the same number of albergues, but there were more pilgrims to accommodate. Survival belonged to the fittest. And the fastest.

Christina and I were neither.IMGP4520

At lunch time, I had pondered (over my bocadillo and beer) the real possibility that there might not be any beds available for many kilometers. The weather was blisteringly hot and sunny.

Christina came along as I sat there eating and drinking. We considered our options.

I had noticed the warning signs of no room ahead and was thinking about getting a taxi to take us to the nearest available albergue. Christina would have none of it.

She reminded me that catching a ride at this point would betray weeks of  decisions to walk rather that catch cabs, buses, vans, etc., as so many other pilgrims had done.  Walking had made us a family.

She was right. I could not give in this close to the end.

(blubbering like a baby) “I can’t do it, Sarge! I just can’t do it (sniveling). I wasn’t cut out for this (wailing, moaning)!!”

(slap) “Snap out of it,  Private! (slap) You’ll do it ’cause it’s your mission!! (slap, slap) It’s what you came here to do!! Now get back in there!! (slap).”

I snapped out of it.

By hook or by crook, we would continue walking and, somehow, we would find an open albergue for our last night on the Camino.

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We set out in the hot midday sun. This was why people got up at 0430 and left before dawn – so that they would not have to walk in the middle of the afternoon.

But, you, know, it just wasn’t our style.

So we walked.

As always, we split, me ahead, her behind.

I walked along highways and villages, beginning to see more and more of the trappings of suburbs and not of abandoned villages. More stores, fewer dogs lying in the sun.

I passed an albergue which looked inviting. There were young people lying on the nicely mowed grass as their clothes dried on the nearby clothes lines. I heard music. There was  gentle conversation and laughter. I think I hallucinated people playing badminton in the backyard while a little white dog got a belly rub.

I approached the door and saw the dreaded sign which filled me with a sadness that I was becoming accustomed to – “Completo.”

Full.

I trudged on.

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It was later in the day than I had ever been walking. There were few pilgrims on the Camino now. Most had stopped for the day. But I, and I knew Christina, still hadn’t found a place for the night.

I came to a small town with a tourist information booth. It was a small log cabin with a bulletin board outside, brochures, postcards, and a friendly young man getting ready to close for the day.

I asked him if there were any albergues in the area that might have beds available. He didn’t know but there was an albergue a few kilometers down the road. If that one was full, there was another a few kilometers from that.

I began to consider the possibility that I might be spending the night under the stars, in the suburbs of Santiago.

As I looked at maps and brochures, in walked a very exhausted Christina. We were happy to see each other but we looked bedraggled and faced a serious problem.

I told her that there were no albergues in the area and no guarantee that there were any beds available down the road for many kilometers. It was so late in the day, you see, Dear Reader, that most beds were already taken.

This is when Christine had her virtual meltdown.

This is what I saw in my mind’s eye. Nostrils flaring. Eyes widening. I saw Christina’s spirit reach across the counter and grab the innocent tourist information clerk.

What Christina actually did was politely ask if there were any places in the area which might have space.

I heard the tiny twinge of desperation in her voice (she kept her hands to herself).

The clerk must have heard something and seen the “Don’t-you-DARE-give-me-an-answer-I-don’t-want-to-hear” look in her eyes.

Uhm, yes, the clerk replied, there was a hotel up the road.

She looked at me. I had been standing at the other end of the counter, flipping through brochures but mentally weighing my options.

She and I were both on a strict pilgrim budget. We could not afford to spend more than the usual 5 or six euro for beds, especially this close to the end. She had a plane to catch so she had time constraints. I would soon have to pay some to-be-determined dollars for a t0-be-determined way to get home.

We both knew we couldn’t afford to spend a night in a hotel.  And we couldn’t afford to waste time.

And then, Christine pulled a silver bullet out of her wallet.

“My Dad,” She explained to me, “gave me a credit card to use in emergencies. I haven’t used it yet. This is an emergency.”

I explained that I didn’t have enough money to split the cost.

“My Dad won’t mind,” she said.

The tourist office was closing in five minutes.

I said, sure.

She made the transaction, I thanked her, and said a big prayer of gratitude to my Saints. I also added Christina’s Dad to my list of people I say a rosary for.

She headed towards the hotel, and I stayed back to make a reservation for my time in Santiago. Christine and I would arrive at the Cathedral in Santiago the next evening, after dinner and I did not want to wander around without a place to stay,

I left the tourist information booth, having made a reservation in Santiago.  I followed the clerk’s directions to get to the hotel – go up, turn left  at the corner, and it would be less than five minutes away.

I misunderstood.

I walked out of the booth, the clerk locked the door behind me and took off in his car. There were no people in the narrow street, no voices, and no sign that said “Hotel this way, you idiot,” which was what I needed.

I walked to the corner, turned left and went straight ahead to a house with an open door.

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It was very quiet.

Too quiet.

I hesitated at the door.

“Hello??” I called from outside the doorway.

There was a bucket just inside the door with some cleaning tools, as if someone was in the middle of washing the floor and had left the door open.

This didn’t feel like a hotel. It felt like someone’s home.

“Hello? Christine?” I called again, still not entering the building. These were the directions, but this didn’t seem like a hotel. And Christine had only been about ten minutes ahead of me. Surely she would be on the lookout for me. I heard conversation in a back room.

Should I walk in? What kind of low-key hotel is this?

I slowly realized that this wasn’t a hotel but someone’s house, someone who probably did not speak English. Sweaty, smelly, dusty, with hat and sunglasses, I stood a very good chance of scaring the crap out of a family watching t.v. and eating dinner.

Imagine as I walk in, drop my backpack and say, in my faltering Spanish, “Hola! The gentleman said you have a room for me and my friend??” Imagine as their forks fall from their hands, mid-bite, dropping paella all over the just washed tile floor.

I decided to quietly back away from the door and look around town a little more.

I went back to the main road, went up a few more blocks and found the hotel. I went to the reception desk (real hotels have one) and told them my friend had just come in. They directed me to the room and there was Christina, stuff already spread out around the room.

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Within minutes it looked like our backpacks had exploded. Stuff was everywhere, airing out. Girls gone wild. We each crashed on our very own twin beds. No sleeping bags tonight!! Nice clean sheets, soft mattresses, and a bathroom we only needed to share with one other person. We didn’t even worry about leaving our stuff out while we each took turns in the shower.

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After washing clothes in the sink (yes, we still had to do that), we headed down to the bar.

We were handed a drink menu. It had been many weeks since I had seen one of those.

The day called for one particular drink.

Not beer.

Not wine.

The perfect drink for this most interesting day?

An icy gin and tonic.

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What Are YOU Waiting For?

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” . . . What then? Shall we sit idly down and say,

The night has come; it is no longer day??

The night hath not yet come; we are not quite

cut off from labor by the failing light.

Something remains for us to do or dare

(Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear) –

Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,

or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode 

out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn –

But other something, would we but begin.

For age is opportunity, no less

than youth itself, though in another dress,

And as the evening twilight fades away

the sky is filled with stars,

invisible by day.”

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Morituri Salutamos”,  1874

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How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?? – Day 39 – Melide to O Pino

 

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I’m so close to the end, it just doesn’t seem possible.

My head and my heart feel so full of thoughts and ideas that I hardly know where to begin.

The Camino is the perfect actualization of the idea of “Ask and you shall receive,” but not from God, from your fellow pilgrims.

“Can you grab my hat?”

“Can you get my water?”

“Do you have a euro?”

I have asked my fellow sojourners these questions at various times in the past five weeks. Strangers all. And the questions were always answered with an unconditional “Yes.”

I have been asked to adjust ponchos in the wind, to pick up hiking poles, to watch packs while the owner makes a quick dash into the woods for relief and, yes, to lend a euro to someone whom we both knew I’d never see again.

And I, also, had done all without a moment’s hesitation.

We are all strangers passing alone on a long journey together.

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I saw a person without legs biking the Camino. He was riding a recumbent bicycle powered by his arms.

I saw a blind person walking the Camino. He had two companions hold each end of a long – 10, maybe 12 foot – bamboo pole, one in front of him, one behind. The blind pilgrim walked in the middle, one hand on the pole, and the three of them walked along, chatting, fully loaded packs on their backs.

What a long, strange journey it’s been.

I arrived at the small town where I planned to get my cafe con leche and croissant for breakfast. The two lane road butted up against the narrow sidewalk of the bar and was just at the receiving end of a blind curve.

As I put my backpack down, I heard the loud squeal and angry honking of a heavy eighteen-wheeler, braking just in time for a car that had blindly entered the road. My fellow pilgrims and I looked in the direction of the noise but, hearing no crash, thud, or cries, returned to our activities.

The doorway was crowded as people entered and exited. It was a beautiful morning but threatened to get extremely hot in the full sunshine of the cloudless sky.

I noticed something odd as I headed for the entrance.

A chicken was strutting in front of the doorway.

Chickens and dogs had been the most common domestic animals I’d seen on the Camino. It was fitting that I should see a chicken one last time before reaching the metropolis of Santiago. But I worried about this one wandering into the road. The road was clearly problematic for cars and no doubt for pilgrims (the Camino continued on the other side).  I’d be foolish to take bets on any chicken crossing this road.

Yet, I was transfixed by what I saw next as I waited for the bird to move so I could get my coffee.

A pilgrim leaving the bar picked the chicken up. That’s when I noticed the string  on the bird’s leg. The man put the bird in the top pocket of a backpack which was leaning next to the doorway and which the bird was tied to.

The bird went in – plop – not protesting, with its head sticking out and happily looking around.

Another man came out and lifted the pack to help his friend get the pack on without losing the bird. Then he put on his own. They belted themselves up and, apparently in good spirits from a good breakfast, carefully yet nonchalantly crossed the road.

The chicken was bright-eyed and alert, almost cheerful, as it looked around at the world from the top of the pack.

Poultry in motion.

I stood there, pondering what I had just seen. The chicken literally crossed the road.

Why were they carrying a chicken? Did they find it? Was it a pet? A gift? Had they been carrying it for a long time? Did they always travel with a chicken? What did the bottom of his pack look like? What would they do with the chicken when they got to Santiago? Take it into the Cathedral? Take it home? Set it free? Eat it?

I had walked for 38 days. I had only about 48 more hours on the Camino.

I thought I had seen everything the Camino had to offer.

But the day would still be full of surprises.

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This Time Last Year

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My DH and I were a few months away from celebrating 38 wonderful years of marriage. The children were grown and our lives had taken us to many places around the world, places I had never dreamed I would see, much less live in. We had recently moved to another country and were enjoying the adventure of getting settled. We were working on where to store Christmas items in our new apartment.

But I had other plans also and I knew they wouldn’t include him. I was going to walk the Camino Frances soon.

I didn’t know exactly when or how. I didn’t know exactly where. I especially didn’t know why.

I hadn’t made any transportation arrangements because I had no clue how to get from where I was to where I thought I might need to be. I didn’t believe in hiking poles – too dorky. I was a good (what’s good about it?) twenty pounds overweight and I’m being kind. I didn’t have hiking boots.

The only thing I had going for me was that I liked walking although I sometimes found it boring.

I had decided to walk the Camino Frances and I had broken the news to my DH just after Thanksgiving. Would he be OK with it? It would cost us money and time. Lots of time but I had no clue  how much.

Not even my children really knew what I was up to.

“Mom’s thinking about going for a long walk.” What did that mean???

You don’t choose the Camino. It chooses you. And I had been chosen. But try to explain that to people who want to know why you want to walk across the top of Spain.

The ancestry of the Camino Frances sits squarely on a pilgrimage. But I’d never been religious enough to feel drawn to religious sites. I’d never felt compelled to visit places noted for miracles. And my life was relatively happy – no need to do penance or suffer to set things straight.

I was an older woman, inactive for many, many years, suddenly possessed by an idea that no one I knew had ever done before or even heard of.

It was time to give this some serious thought.

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.

They Walked Together – Day 29 – Leon to Mazarife

IMGP3832I was sorry to leave Leon, in the end.

I had experienced many more mind-blowing incidents than could be covered in a reasonably lengthed blog post. I had met people from my past and my present and seen unique sights, some large and touristy, some small and personal.

I had renewed my joy of being on the Camino and excitement began to build – the next major city I would hit would be Astorga and then, Santiago.

Santiago! Had I really gotten that far following my rain-soaked guidebook?

The sky was gray as I started out in the early morning (up earlier than usual, that’s the sense of excitement kicking in). I left the money for the room on the dresser since there was no front desk. I hoped for the best in honesty and charity, that the money would get into the right hands.

The walk out of town was slightly uphill and went through a few more interesting sights. One of the most modern churches on the Camino was on the outskirts of Leon, Iglesia San Froilan, La Virgen del Camino. Do I like the contemporary architecture better than the old Gothic? Maybe, but maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. Contemporary was a refreshing change of architectural pace.

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La Virgen rises above the Apostles.

Shortly after the Church, there is a choice to be made – take the recommended or the optional path? For a change, I decided to go the recommended route. It seemed to go through more countryside and I was feeling strong and confident.

For the most part, the route was on a plateau with few places to stop for refreshments along the way. Also, few pilgrims. The wind was strong and a little chilly but the sun had come out and the only real challenge was mental, not physical. My rain jacket, which doubled as my windbreaker, came on and off several times.

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I met a woman named Gabby and we walked the rest of the day together.   She was about my age, a little younger, and was also walking the Camino for the first time. She was walking solo. We chatted for several kilometers, comparing notes and experiences, asking why each was walking.

She told me of a dream she had had the night before. She dreamt that, for the first time, her ex-husband’s wife wanted to talk to her. Why ? She had no idea.

She told me her story.

She and her husband were happily married for 30 years and had several children. When she turned 50, she decided to do something different.

She decided that she wanted to give a recital.

She was a very amateur musician (practicing music had long since taken a back seat to raising a family) yet this was something she had always yearned to do – play her cello for friends. She shared this idea with her family, who were all supportive.

She practiced diligently for the next year in preparation for her performance. She hired a hall and sent invitations. She got an accompanist and, with her teacher, selected a series of perfect pieces. She learned them well.

She gave her recital on her birthday to a hall crowded with friends and family. It was a success! The applause and congratulations, the respect and admiration of the audience of well-wishers were more than she anticipated. She felt honored and successful. She felt empowered – who wouldn’t? She was a novice who pulled off giving a successful recital. All the planning and hard work had paid off. Her children were especially proud of her.

Describing the event to me, as we walked along the Camino, brought an energy and happiness into her voice that was infectious. I realized I was smiling and my heart felt full of joy for her success. I couldn’t help but be delighted for her “chutzpah” at pulling off the event and pulling it off well.

A week after her recital, her husband told her he wanted a divorce.

I was dumb-founded and stopped in my tracks. We were walking an area known as the paramo. wide open with the horizon going off as far as you could see. The Camino was silent except for birds in the distance and the breeze in the nearby pasture blowing through flowers.

She walked on a few steps, then stopped and turned back towards me, silently urging me to continue our Camino.

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I took a moment to process this strange turn of events in her story. Then we began walking again.

She says she had had no clue and was totally taken by surprise.

He had begun an on-line relationship with an old flame from his high school days. Their correspondence had rekindled that old flame.  He decided that he needed to take that relationship to the next level. Gabby, of course, would have no place in that scenario.

She was stunned, hurt, and felt very betrayed. Her children were as taken by surprise as their mother.

He was insistent. Long story short, she was now a divorced woman after 30 years of marriage to a man she loved and a family she doted on.

She didn’t, of course, have much to do with the new wife (yes, he married soon after) but she was shy and introverted, not belligerent and one to rant. Her children stood by her all the way and she was grateful for that.

Now, she was walking the Camino. When I asked her if the divorce was the reason why she was walking, she thought about it a moment and said that she honestly didn’t think so. Five years had given her time to get her bearings and she was doing well. She had settled into her new life and was happy.

She had never spoken to the other woman. I asked if she was angry with her and maybe that was why she was dreaming about her. She said she didn’t think so, she really was at peace with the way her life was, at that point. She walked comfortably and surely along the Camino. Quietly confident but not over-bearing and strident.  Friendly and charming, capable and realistic,

And, last night, she dreamed that the new wife wanted to talk to her.

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A Kick in the Heart and a Very Short Post – Day 26 – Mansilla to Leon

How do I write about this day?

This was a day that would take me from the tiniest and emptiest of villages to the huge city of Leon. I would walk solo for the longest stretches, and also have some of the most meaningful conversations with strangers I’d had yet. I would wind up staying in the oddest pension I’ve ever stayed in, and walk away with a lump in my throat and a souvenir that I will always treasure.  Family would join me with an unexpected kick in the heart.

My saints would be with me, and I would need them.

Looking over my journal for this day, I realize it would make several chapters of a book. How to condense it for a blog?? What do I cut out? What person do I shortchange?

I planned to stay in Leon for two days because I had heard about the Cathedral, because most pilgrims stayed in Leon for two days, and because I wanted to take a rest. But this day alone covers six pages in my journal even though my notes and photos are only designed to jog my memory.

  • Unexpected news from home, which I share with my new family
  • Theresa gives me the guts and I earn a thumbs up
  • I stop carrying around other people’s fears
  • Mr. Coffee rescues a bar
  • My “language skills” help an Australian get a ride to Leon
  • I have an unforgettable talk with a local
  • Raneros, in the flesh
  • Irony at a bus stop in the city
  • Many unnecessary kilometers of walking in the city, searching for necessities
  • I expire on the road
  • Dad sends me a message, although he passed away two years ago

Seeing the Cathedral is the least important thing that happens this day. And day 2 in Leon is another 7 pages.

I am daunted as I try to write. I’m not blocked. I’m overwhelmed.

Any suggestions??