I stood in the entry area of the albergue in Oreo. The bare lightbulb above me cast its glare across the three walls and out across the yard. There across the gravel and lawn I could see the single dim line of light along the distant hills, as the sun barely lit the sky. I looked, knowing, somewhat dreading the climb to cross those hills later that day.
Strewn around my feet were my sleeping bag, stuff sack, open backpack, boots, socks, and the clothes that had been drying on the end of my bunk. My second pair of socks, of course, was still wet. This was my daily reality, so I would have that pair of socks drying on my pack!
I checked my bunk and beneath it for anything else with my lit cell phone screen, seeking not to disturb the others, and then went back to this outside porch and packed things up. Steve was there ahead of me, had expertly packed up and left.
I shouldered my pack which felt heavier today and walked out into the dark streets following the arrows that led through the town, and then led me to climb up the first hill along this paved road out of town. The sun rose as I made my way through town, and then reached the road that climbed up, up, up the hills I had seen from the albergue out of the community.
As I hiked, a car approached me. The passenger window was rolled down on this already hot, hot morning, and this sweet woman with this big smile bid me “goo Mage” which I took to be basque for buen camino! Who knows what she actually said, but best assume the best and thus her greeting encouraged me.
Eventually I was again walking along the sea. The waves crashed below me and the sun beat down from above me. The taste of salt was on my lips from the sea air. I stopped and journaled: “I love this!”
I arrived in the beach town of Geturia at 11 am and decided to stop for a swim. I went down to the beach, positioned my backpack there and stripped off everything but my quick dry shorts and went into the cool, clear refreshing water. Ah! So wonderful. I swam for a while. It so refreshed me. Then stretched and rinsed off at the showers along the beach, washed the sand from my feet, and donned shoes and clothes. Walked on and my shorts were dry within a couple blocks.
It was another long uphill climb from there again. It took me by one of the oldest churches in Spain and through vineyards and open countryside. Beautiful. Then over a hill dropped back down into Zumaia. Another ancient city with streets paved with square stones. Old and new side by side. I stopped here and bought the rest of my lunch and more fruit. Figs! I love fresh figs! Then I asked the woman in the stand how far to the convento where I would stay that night. She knew what I sought and said with joy “one minute up the road.” It helped to know this. My feet were hurting. My left calf muscle felt like it was a rock filled with pain. Man.
I had one blister forming so when I arrived at the convento I took off my shoes and rubbed down my feet. The blister never fully formed.
The convento had not yet opened. The sign showed it would be a few hours yet.
At the doorway waited four pilgrims from France. They spoke limited English. We gestured and smiled and I sat down. I wasn’t walking another step. I’d hiked six hours that day.
Soon three Americans arrived from Chicago (That’s what they’ve been telling everyone- since no one knew where Massachusetts was). Claudia. Jane. Jill. They were Grandmas and all in their 60s. Two were sisters, the third a cousin. They wanted to go find food. “Would you watch our stuff?” They asked. “Gladly,” I told them.
Soon again three Spaniards arrived speaking no English. They came on their bikes. They too left their bags for me to watch. One of them gestured and spoke, making a big deal out of how important I was watching the bags. Then Helmut and Gunda arrived. They had been at the last night’s albergue.
So there I sat in charge of eight backpacks beside this ancient convent, in this cobblestone-like street as the sun blazed down from the heavens.
Soon after Steve came. I began to realize how unusual the previous night had been. Six of us around that one table. I realize I’d lost my one opportunity to “redeem the air,” as I termed it in my journal. I wrote:
“I am aware how weak my personality makes me. Dear God! How pitiful! How do you love me still?”
I got this immediate response:
“Your mistakes will never thwart My Plans. You will grow.”
Sitting by that walk, surrounded by backpacks and bikes, I read passages from the journal from the church. The church had found this blank book, and then been passing it around the three weeks before my departure. I’d decided to only read the messages as I came to them.
At this point, I read:
“My dear friend, May you open yourself to receive every rich blessing God is waiting to pour out upon you.”
Another had written:
“I love you because… you immerse yourself in Jesus; you believe one of your purposes is to bring joy; you give your spouse support yet space; …”
“We send you off with prayers of safety and an experience that is life changing.”
“I love you and will miss you but am so excited for your adventure with Jesus.”
And from Karen,
“If there’s a smile that melts my heart and brightens my day, it’s yours. If there’s a friendship that brings joy, incredible joy and comfort to life, it’s ours. If there’s a love that can strengthen what we have and make it stronger, it’s His. You and Me and God And love. What a beautiful pricelist gift we’ve been given. So thankful for you every day.”
And from another brother:
“May you learn to love yourself the way God loves you.'”
I was struck by this line. Love myself the way God loves me. It had always been easier to focus out. But clearly this journey would also be about self acceptance, for God loved me.
The hour for the albergue to open arrived and the large metal interior door swing open. The hostess spoke only Spanish, welcomed us warmly (me with my eight backpacks), and the others who had arrived.
She gathered us and told us everything we needed to know about staying there but I couldn’t follow her Spanish. So I just did what the others did. Got out my passport and money, took off my boots and placed them on the rack, then received my room assignment.
This ancient building once was a convent, filled with the voices of a community dedicated to God, filled with prayer. The deep hard wood floors and stuccoed walls seemed to hold those prayers. Built around a center courtyard I walked all the way around the square building to my room with two beds, #16. I entered to find another pilgrim already there. Markus Koch from Switzerland.
He’d grown up in a village close to where I had lived one summer while in high school and had my wife’s maiden name for his last name. Instant connection.
I did my laundry, showered, and then we walked a short distance to a local grocery for Markus to buy some dinner, returned to eat, and chatted outside in the garden of the convent until bedtime. Markus seriously loves ancient history. He once visited the British museum in London and had been so enthralled with the place, he was confused as to why they were closing right after he had arrived there, only to realize he had been wandering the museum already for 12 hours! Who does that!
Markus hooked me up to his hotspot in the room so I could text the family. I felt like God had sent him just for me. Bedtime came next for us both. We had opened the window to let in some night air. I slept well.