Excerpted from The Slowest Pilgrim ~ the story of my journey along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage road.
Foncebadon is a fabled village of wild dogs and even wilder fear. A village finally back in the mountains, a place of silence interrupted only by the whistling wind gently brushing the grass covered hillsides with her long, gentle fingers. A town higher than any other on the Camino, Foncebadon is little more than a relic. This is the final town on the ascent to Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on the entire path through Spain.
I have no idea what happened in Foncebadon, why this beautiful place is nothing more than ruins. Especially when one considers the tremendous number of thousand-year old houses that are still standing, this village is anomalous in Spain. It appears that Foncebadon was never a large village, perhaps twenty houses and a church. Today almost all of those stone houses have collapsed. A stone wall here and there, surrounded by stone rubble and fuchsia foxgloves growing wild. Some of the houses are nothing more than piles of stone. Others are partially standing structures with wood frameworks that appear ready to give way in the next strong gust of wind. One house even had a window frame moderately intact, however, it was misshapen from the stones settling over the years and looked more like a fun house window than one from an ancient village. The few modern houses seemed oddly out-of-place in this pseudo-gravesite, but the smell of wood fires in July was remarkably comforting as the surprisingly chilly evening breeze settled in with the night.
Foncebadon is a place of great peace, deep silence, and endless time. Nature has returned humanity’s structures to her womb, to be held and weathered and reborn. To have spent time here is a blessing, reminding me that nothing is permanent, that all of life is a sacrifice. With every step, water courses through my veins, washes my eyes and throat, pours out of my body as sweat, and is returned to the atmosphere. With every step, air moves through me, feeding my body and moving me into greater awareness through the aligned rhythm of breath and step. With every step, the earth meets my feet, reminding me that I can’t help coming into relationship with all that is around me, that the earth and I are intricately connected. With every step, I am asked to face my existence now, without any consideration of the past or the future, the fire that is my life force burns on even when my mind is unable to process any more. The cyclic nature of my place in existence, the cyclic nature of earth, the cyclic nature of life in every form, I can’t escape the reality of these things. Every step takes me further away from the notions of my life and closer to the pure current of life that is no different from the foxgloves pushing their way through the rubble of fallen Foncebadon.
As for the wild dogs of Foncebadon reported by Shirley MacLaine and Paulo Coehlo in their books, the only dog I encountered in the entire village was a large tan dog sleeping outside the albergue, a dog who didn’t move from the time I arrived until the time I left the next morning. On the Camino we all have different paths, different struggles, different fears, different demons to face. The wild dogs of Spain didn’t emerge as my experience. I believe that in some way we all created the obstacles we would face on our journeys. Mine didn’t involve devil dogs with gnashing teeth. Mine was a maddening struggle with the sun and the inescapable heat.
In Foncebadon, I began to understand some of the greatest lessons of my Camino. My journey showed me that there is no true escape, though I may often feel that I can escape from one problematic situation to the safety and comfort of another situation. In truth, there is simply one thing, then another, then another. To be cornered by the open sky, to be trapped beneath the bright summer sun, and to be unable to escape was the greatest suffering I’ve ever known. In the midst of such intensity and exhaustion, even my mind was no longer available as a playground of escape. My mind abandoned me on the Camino. I was left holding nothing but another step, another breath. The horizon wasn’t a goal, but a frozen moment of now. I was always safe, the ground was always there to comfort me, and occasionally there were trees to shade the way and fellow pilgrims to remind me that I was indeed absorbed in the flow of life.
After I finished my morning writing, I noticed Matthias standing on the hillside to watch the sunrise. I left my pack inside and joined him. We huddled close together in the freezing morning air, watching clouds of breath form. At first a deep, earthen color began to emerge from the horizon, illuminating a few deep gray clouds. A few others joined us, but the sunrise came slowly. I returned to the dining room for a breakfast of tea and toast, enjoying its cozy warmth. I stared out the window and watched the sky transform to a deep amber, then through a sequence of fiery oranges. When the appearance of the sun itself was imminent, I ran back outside to join the others. As I watched the sun emerge from the earth, I felt as if I was witnessing a miracle, the birth of radiance, of light from darkness. As my heart expanded, tears of gratitude welled up in my eyes and spilled down my cheeks.
After the sun had taken its place in the rhythm of the day, I went back inside and gathered my pack. Before harnessing my bag, I stuffed my hands in my pockets, exploring the contents within. In the right pocket, tangerine lip balm, as usual. In the left pocket, two small, smooth stones. Assured that everything was in order, I heaved my backpack onto my shoulders and wandered out into the bright July morning.
I wandered up the well-worn dirt path that led through the town. I passed by the ruined stone houses that I had spent so much time wandering amongst the day before. The foxgloves turned their bright fuchsia faces to greet the sun, and I nodded my greeting to them as I passed. A trickle of pilgrims wandered past the church, past the modern houses and up into the mountains. On the outskirts of Foncebadon, I paused between two small ponds teeming with frogs and other wildlife. Delicate grasses grew on their shores, softening the edges and partially hiding smooth stones that were scattered here and there. Before continuing, I turned around to glance at Foncebadon. From that vantage point, it was hard to believe that a village existed there at all. I felt deeply glad that it was there, though, offering pilgrims a peaceful place to rest and contemplate their journey to the Iron Cross. I honored Foncebadon in my heart, and after a few moments I turned and continued walking.
I walked alone that morning, holding a stone in each hand. One stone was mine, the other for dear friends who had asked me to carry a stone for them. I walked very slowly, appreciating every step. I breathed deeply and drank in the morning light. I gathered my thoughts during the walk from Foncebadon to Cruz de Ferro. What do I want my stone to represent for me? What part of my life am I ready to release? What are my prayers? I whispered these questions to my stone as I walked. That morning, I encountered many familiar faces, and while I greeted fellow pilgrims, my attention never left my contemplation. The path wound higher and higher through the sparse trees along the stone-strewn trail.
Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, is an unusual sacred place. A small iron cross is mounted atop a tall wooden pole, which is atop a mound of stones that’s more than ten feet high. The casual passerby would see just another Christian shrine along the Camino. But pilgrims know that this mound of stones is different. For centuries, pilgrims have carried stones to this place. An act more likened to Pagan tradition than Christian, pilgrims leave stones as a symbol of leaving their old lives behind. Some pilgrims pick up a stone along the way, and others carry a stone from home along the path to this place. A variety of rituals surround the surrendering of stones. Some pilgrims meditate in the fields next to the site, others climb instantly to the base of the cross and pray, some jovially take photographs with fellow pilgrims. But few pass this place without taking the time to honor their journey.
My eyes sought the Iron Cross, eagerly anticipating that first glimpse. Around every twist or turn, I hoped that its glorious image would appear on the horizon, but the trail followed the ridge in such a way that the shrine wasn’t visible until a pilgrim is upon it. Upon arriving at Cruz de Ferro, I was flooded with a wave of emotion so intense that it took my breath away. I walked around the base of the stone mound, trembling, barely holding back my tears. I squeezed my hands around the little stones within, taking in as much of the place as possible in those first few moments.
Along the Camino, there were many small shrines. Fields or steep hillsides were frequently covered with cairns, stones stacked in pillars. Fences were filled with twigs assembled in the shape of the cross. Notes were left on guideposts, held down by a stone, offering the finder wishes and prayers, but Cruz de Ferro was overwhelming. The stones were piled nearly fifteen feet high. Big stones, little stones. They somehow managed to remain stacked together solidly and the hill was sturdy enough to handle hundreds of pilgrims climbing it every day. Bigger stones tended to be further down on the mound, toward the bottom, and small stones and personal objects of every kind were offered at the base of the cross. The colorful array was deeply moving.
I walked to the meadow beside the cross and sat cross-legged, leaning against my backpack. The dry, brown grass was so tall that it was nearly over my head, but it was soft and cool. The wind rustled the leaves over my head, and the grass danced about, brushing up against me. A faint fragrance of pine filled the air. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, feeling the energy of the two small, warm stones that were encased in my hands. My mind was swimming with all the thoughts that had come to me during the morning’s walk. I first placed my attention on the stone I held for my dear friends. I imagined their faces and felt gratitude for their presence in my life. I felt honored that they had allowed me to carry this little stone, along with their prayers, to this sacred place. I asked the universe to bless them with joy, love, and abundance in every way possible as I held their small, greenish stone between both hands. I felt a wonderful warmth in the stone, and meditated as I held it. After a while, the energy shifted, and I placed their stone in my lap.
I picked up my stone. It was so small, so smooth, so round. It was beautiful. A smile spread across my face as I regarded the little stone, and I began to cry. I was alone, and I spoke out loud. I poured my heart out to my stone atop the highest mountain on the entire Camino. It was confession, it was prayer. It wasn’t poetic (or maybe it was) but it was pure and raw. I offered my entire heart and soul to that little stone, holding back nothing. I felt as if a raging river was rushing through me, beginning at the ground where I sat, and leaving through my words. When the words ran out, I sat in meditation for a while longer. Suddenly, I opened my eyes. I was ready to make my sacrifice to Cruz de Ferro. I left my pack in its place and walked in a straight line toward the cross. My pace was deliberate, focused. I felt pulled forward with each step. The tears welled up in my eyes, and I felt myself climbing the mound of stones to the base of the Iron Cross.
There were photographs pinned to the pole, prayers for friends and family who were ill or had passed on, letters, jewelry, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Some were new and colorful, others were faded and tattered from exposure to the elements. Surrounding these offerings were stones of every kind. There was so much powerful energy on top of that mound of stones. My lips quivered as the salty tears spilled down my face, and I could feel my stomach begin to clench, holding back the sobs. I walked counterclockwise around the pole, feeling slightly self-conscious about the fits of sobbing that could burst forth at any moment. There were three or four other pilgrims there, but I didn’t make eye contact with any of them. I breathed deeply, searching for the best place for my two little stones. I selected a spot on top of a large, flat stone right at the base of the pole and offered a final wave of emotion as I regarded the two little stones. They’re just rocks, I thought. Or are they? I drew in a quick breath and brought the stones to my lips, kissing them quickly. Then, I kneeled down to my chosen spot and placed the two stones there. I arranged them so that they were aesthetically pleasing, making sure that they wouldn’t easily be knocked aside. I nodded my head, and without a second glance I walked back down the way I came. I could barely see through the tears as I found my way to level ground. I walked quickly into the edge of the pine forest and immediately burst into gut-wrenching sobs. I sat down on the ground and cried and cried. The feeling was not merely of letting go of the past, but also of creating a new intention for my way of life. It was a formal dedication. I felt light and serene.
The rest of the morning was a blur. Though I felt a little spacey and lost, I found my backpack in the grass and prepared to go, but something about this place made compelled me to linger. Once I began walking, my step felt lighter, the air felt fresher, and my heart sang out with joy as I walked in the mountains. The cloudless blue sky was an intense contrast with the dry, sage-colored mountains. Prickly, scraggly plants grew in the dust in every direction, intermingling with sharp rocky outcroppings. These were the most unusual mountains I’d ever seen, a strange mix of the dry American southwest and the gentle, rolling Appalachians of Virginia. I loved them, and felt their love flowing back to me. After only a couple of kilometers, a few crumbling stone buildings appeared along the trail. Manjarin, whose albergue was rumored to be run by an eclectic Spanish saint.
As I approached, a loud bell rang out, momentarily drowning out the warped sounds of Gregorian chant that was being broadcast from an out-of-sight speaker. Manjarin was a beautiful village, even more ruined than Foncebadon. Many dilapidated stone ruins were nestled into the steep hillside, but two ancient structures remained intact. One building was the refugio, a tiny, dark building with mattresses scattered about, all covered with heavy woolen blankets. There was no electricity, and in the center of the room there was a wood stove, the only source of heat. I wandered toward the main building, which was bustling with pilgrims. Again, the loud bell rang out. Next to it stood a wiry-haired, wild-eyed older man, dressed in a t-shirt and flowing pants. He spoke quickly and loudly in Spanish, guiding several young men in various tasks. I inquired about the bathroom, and I was directed to the fields next to the refuge. No electricity and no bathroom.
I sat down at a long, wooden table. This space was protected from the elements by a very basic wooden roof and felt much like a porch. Coffee and cookies were provided, with a box for donations placed in the center of the table. For a while, I simply sat at the table, drinking coffee and attempting to ground myself for the day’s walk. I was snapped back from a moment of reverie as a woman approached me. I had noticed her earlier, and based on her body language and interactions with the odd bell-ringing man, I had gathered that she was his wife. She stopped beside me, smiling beatifically. She gazed at me intensely, looking directly into my eyes. She then bent down and gave me a kiss on the cheek, then turned and left. I was deeply touched by her kind gesture.
As I sat at the table, various members of my Camino family wandered in. Matthias, Gemma, and I went into the main building where there was a small shop. There were various pewter pendants hanging on red string, all symbols of the Camino: scallop shells, images of Saint James, gourds. To commemorate the day, I purchased a large scallop shell pendant with the image of Saint James on the inside.
Manjarin was an oasis in the mountains and I didn’t want to leave, but the day was young and I continued along the path. I quickly developed a headache. Was it from the coffee? From too much crying? It became worse as I walked, and I stopped many times. The mountain vistas were spectacular. I pushed on, walking alone for a while, then meeting friends along the path. After a few kilometers in the high mountains, the path steeply plunged into a small village. My heart kept trying to jump-start feelings of joy and happiness, but my head throbbed. I wandered into town and spotted a row of familiar backpacks outside a bar. I heaved mine onto the ground with the others and entered.
Food. That’s what I decided would cure my headache. They offered empanadas, which looked delicious, but the bartender informed me that they had just sold the last one. I ordered a Coke, paid, and sat down to sulk at a table with my friends. After looking over the menu, I settled upon a bocadillo con queso, half a baguette with slices of deliciously mild Spanish cheese. I ate part of the sandwich, which was dry and bland, and made my way back outside.
I wandered to the next town. My stomach began to churn as my headache pounded. I dropped my pack next to a stone wall that was shaded by an olive tree, and lay down beneath it. The town’s refuge was right across the street. I contemplated ending my day’s walk right there, but decided that a nap would help to clarify my decision. I drifted off into a dreamless sleep. I awoke and found two other pilgrims sitting near me on the stone wall, but I was feeling too miserable to engage in conversation with them. I wandered through the rest of the town and found Mette and Brigid reclining in the shade. We chatted for a few minutes, and I continued walking.
My headache continued to pound, and I stopped to relax in the shade of several very tall trees. The grass was soft and inviting, and the glade was perfectly serene. I dropped my pack and leaned back across it. My headache began to subside. Before long, I heard singing. Brigid approached, and she was walking alone. She joined me in the shade for a while, and shared stories from her childhood. My headache gradually disappeared. I lingered in the glade for a while after she left. The next part of the trail meandered through beautiful woods, and I wandered through a stand of giant chestnut trees.
The path emerged from the woods and the afternoon was very hot. My headache reappeared. The earth was red and a trail of dust billowed behind me. The scent of the dry, dusty earth mingled with hot pine, and the trail flanked narrow ridges. I walked with care, for the narrow trail was full of rocks and roots that could easily trip a pilgrim lost in thought. It was a long way down those steep cliffs.
The trail emerged alongside a crystal-clear river, and a charming village appeared. Molinaseca. A picturesque stone bridge led into the center of town, and in the river below, people were laughing and splashing in the water as they swam. A shout rang out from below, and Claire and Gemma waved to me as they waded into the river. The others were sitting in the grass nearby. My mind wandered to the sparkling stream, dreaming of the delight of immersing myself in ice-cold water after a hot day of walking. I met the others on the far side of the bridge. The refuge was full in Molinaseca. Even the porches and tents had been filled. The next refuge was in Ponferrada, over an hour’s walk away. I glanced down at my watch. It was already late in the afternoon, and the sun was roasting the dry earth, everywhere except on the banks of that cool river.
Suddenly I knew there was only one rational thing that helps in a moment of deliberation such as this: eat ice cream! I shed my backpack on the sidewalk next to a bar that offered helado con chocolate and as I walked back toward the river, I contemplated my options. I could walk to the next town, following my day’s walking plan, or abandon the plan completely and spend the rest of the day relaxing by the side of the river. Matthias, Tom, and Irina were planning on camping right there for the night. Gemma and Claire wanted to continue to Ponferrada.
In retrospect, I can clearly see that this day was pivotal. It was the day that my Camino family began to fall apart. It was inevitable, really. The fact that we had continued together for so long was extraordinary. I had walked with these people since I had met them in Najera three weeks before. Day after day, we has shared each other’s stories, often over a hearty dinner in a bar or town park. We had embraced each other’s joys and sorrows. We had nurtured and supported each other physically, emotionally, spiritually. The bond that formed between us is difficult to describe. We were bound by our common journey, by walking, by suffering, by laughter, by sweat, by tears, by moments in time that might appear rather ordinary under everyday circumstances. Like gazing at the sunrise. Or placing a stone at the base of an old shrine. With the trappings of modern life set aside, all of life became infinitely precious. Indeed, standing silently beside another human being, simply alive in the light of day was the greatest blessing. To walk in the company of others while becoming more and more deeply aware of this was profound and experiencing this depth of community for weeks along the Camino was a beautiful experience.
There seemed to be two choices at Molinaseca. The first seemed to beckon me to go with the flow, to luxuriate in the beauty of the moment. The second asked me to complete the task I’d set out to complete, to push on at any cost. I hardly noticed the deeper question that was presented to me in Molinaseca: will I choose now or will I choose then? Will I live in the moment or am I bound to the goal? My mind was reeling with heat and exhaustion and a lingering headache. I felt a deep connection with Claire and Gemma and I didn’t want to fall behind, succumbing to my feared role as The Slowest Pilgrim. I listened to my mind, not my heart. Then, I heaved my pack onto my sunburned shoulders and began walking toward Ponferrada.