“Dearest Brian, I am praying for you to experience the most wonderful things on this adventure. I know God will put amazing people in your path and that you will find God in the strangest places, but He will give you the wisdom to see him. I will miss you but I am so happy for you. Love, Bonnie.”
This was a message from the journal sent with my by my church community. One of those amazing people was Nannette. And God– indeed, God was everywhere.
We began in the dark, 4:40 am, with the lights of the monastery around us as we hiked across the pavement and onto the path that led up into the forest. Darkness encompassed us.
“Do you have a flashlight,” Nannette asked, behind me. “Mine is nearly out of battery power.”
“Yes!” and I pulled out my miniscule LED which gave us a small ray of light, a small circle ahead of us. Once the light was lit, the dark got darker around us. It is interesting how a wood can seem foreign, fearsome even, when all you can see is the dark. Made me thankful that I don’t make it a practice to watch scary movies. I almost didn’t survive the scary monster that lived in the “Black Lagoon” from my youth! But there were many sounds around us. Night sounds. And we walked up, and up, and up and along the way we talked.
Nannette is from North Carolina — well, actually she is from Chicago so doesn’t sound at all like someone from NC! She is an artist in her own right, works with this incredible art institute, has her elderly, fragile mom living with her and her husband. They had had to remodel their home to accommodate her mom. Her husband is currently working in Denver, which adds stress to life, and their only son is in college. She was walking the Camino for many reasons, but from the life she described, one reason was to get back in touch with herself. I could relate.
I was seeking to get back in touch with my own heart. I had embarked on this journey so weary. Weary of the demands, the needs, the impossible schedules. I had laid down the pastoral identity and wondered if I would ever be ready to take it back up. I knew, if I did, I would need to approach it differently than I had. One thing the Camino had already taught me in these days was this: I had limits and needed to respect them.
Seeing nothing but the small circle of light in front of us, we found it precarious to follow. Much like life — it is tough to see the path we walk at times!
It was interesting to walk just seeing the next step ahead. It kept us from wondering about drop offs, dangers or animals. At one point we had to make our way down this staircase along a creek . We could “hear” but not “see” any of this that surrounded us, except the next step. I held the light and needed to make certain Nannette could see her next step as well. I failed at this at times: “I apologize Nannette for all the times I didn’t give you enough of the light!”
Along with sharing our lives, we had to keep looking for the yellow arrows, which were above us, often, on tree trunks. We lost the arrows a few times. One time the path ended and we came out onto this road, moonlit, no cars, no arrows. We began to make our way up the road, before we noted the absence of yellow arrows, so backtracked to the trail, and walked up and down until we found the arrows and were able to get back on the trail.
As the light began to dawn, we could make our way more easily. We came across a lamppost in the wood. Both of us thought of The Chronicles of Narnia.
“In about ten minutes she (Lucy) reached it and found that it was a lamppost. As she stood looking at it, wondering why there was a lamppost in the middle of a wood and wondering what to do next, she heard a pitter patter of feet coming toward her….” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis, c. 1950, p 6, ubp).
At one point, with billowing fog around us, I walked far ahead to see if we were on the right track, and finding that we were, walked all the way back to Nannette to let her know. Both of our feet were hurting. It had been a long hike in the dark.
We bumped into a mother and daughter during one section and walked with them for a time in the early morning light. I wrote more of them and this day in another post.
Friends had written in my journal, on a page with the verse:
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
“To you our dearest Brian. I chose this page because Jay and I feel strongly that … you are pure in heart and that you have been chosen to be our pastor, our leader, and teacher and we know you shall see God. We pray for a remarkable journey, that the Lord guide and that His angels wrap you in their wings to keep you safe. Go forth Brian – with your Lord! Rhonda and Jay.”
Coming to such statements in this journal so spoke to me. What care, love, devotion and encouragement! Me, pure in heart? And the prayers they were praying — how indeed God was answering as I was “seeing God” in relationships with people, in the surroundings, in the very steps of the journey.
Having hiked about 10 miles in six hours, it was 10:30 am and we had reached Gernika. Nannette had been chanting “Café con Leche por favor” with every step as we made our way out of the woods, across a field, over a bridge and into town, down the main street. We stopped at the first bar we found. We got her café and my green tea (por favor!), and an Aquarius, a soft drink that helped with electrolyte balance. There was a case filled with tapas – various food items – and we ordered several.
We had not sat there long when others joined us. Clearly hiking in the light went much faster! Whereas it had taken us 6 hours to reach this town, others had made the same trip in 3 hours. Perhaps leaving at 4:40 AM was not the BEST idea I had yet had!!! The gift had been, however, along with sharing our lives, we had hiked slowly, and my leg was not hurting even if my feet were.
Carol (France/Barcelona), Danny (Spanish, Basque), Lorenzo and Claudio (Italy, obviously!), Benny (Germany, Berlin), Leon and Isabella (Germany) all arrived. We settled into two tables outside on the sidewalk, all our packs piled up nearby. It was a great gathering of friends. Whereas we had just met, it was like we had known one another for years. The local temperature was over 100F at 1030 am!
Several of us were planning to hike up out of Gernika to reach the Albergue Eskerika for that night. They had a kitchen there, so part of the conversation around the tables for the six of us planning to stay there was around what to do for dinner. We each decided to buy some food for the meal, and then cook together. We parted, went shopping and then began the hike out of town.
My guidebook promised a 2.6 km walk through the town.
After buying our groceries, we began to follow the arrows out of town and passing a park, spotted two friends, Maja and Petra, whom Nannette had helped care for another evening. It was a joyous reunion. Petra had nearly fainted two days prior with the heat and strenuous walk. She and her daughter Maja were planning to bus to the Frances route and walk to Santiago on that route together.
At the edge of town we began what was promised in the guide “a pleasant 4.6 km hike along wooded tracks.” Omitting the fact that this “pleasant walk” was straight up the mountain out of the town, became our ongoing complaint. It was a hot, dusty, steep climb. No “pleasant walk” in sight. I’d added so much weight to my pack with the food for dinner. My shoulders and back hurt as much as my feet! At one point we stopped, shed our packs, sat in some shade and drank some water laughing about how opposite from the description our experience had been! Nannette’s pack had added insult to injury, as it had rolled back smashing the plums she had tied to the outside. Plum jam ensued.
As we trudged, Claudio and Lorenzo cheerfully, easily, hiked up and stayed with us as we made our way to the peak of the hill. Those two had a way of making me realize I was no longer in my 20s!
As we came over the top and began to walk along a road, we came to this roadside stand. The sons of the man who lived there were officially running this pilgrim ministry. He had recently sent them inside to watch a movie in the heat of the day while he “manned” the stand.
Cake, goodies, and all kinds of ice cold drinks were on display. We asked how far we had to go to reach the albergue and were told about 3.5 km. As we stopped in the shade, drank our drinks, and paused, the line from an entry by Susan in my journal returned to me:
“Welcome all aspects of this journey. Receive them with grateful joy. God is with you. Emmanuel.”
I had some work to do to “welcome all!” But it was a good reminder. What is it about welcoming? It is easier to welcome the things that seem light, joyful, easy, rather than the long hikes, heavy packs, sore shoulders and sore feet aspects of life!
“Welcome. Welcome. Welcome,” I chanted to myself, drinking my cold Aquarius.
The boys hiked ahead as Nannette made our way through the wood at the top of the hill, down, down, down to the road, under the highway, and back up the other side of the hill. This cross in this stump was a fitting emblem to pass. “Welcome!” It was one of those “never ending paths,” for me. I began to feel weary to the bone, unable to move forward, simply “done.” This didn’t help! 710 km to go!
I started telling the Martha and Mary story from Luke 10 to Nannette. We were both too exhausted to do anything much. I asked a question about Martha, and no sooner was it out of my mouth, but Nannette was struck with the humor of it. Here I was voicing a reflective question about a story as we were panting, walking uphill, and feeling like we would never arrive. She burst out laughing, rather than answering, and that proved a huge gift. The joy gave us energy and we kept walking.
We came up out of the wood, around some houses and there on the pavement was written “200 meters to the Albergue.” At that point something snapped inside of me. I shouted to Nanette ahead of me, “I cannot take another step.” She called back, “I’ll send the boys to help,” and hiked on. This experience I’ve described here.
I dug out a peach from my pack, pulled out my clothes bag and the food bag, to lighten my backpack, figuring it would be simpler to carry those in my hands then on my back. As I ate the peach life and strength flowed back into me. There was blue sky overhead, a wide open pasture across the street, and a breeze blowing. Really there was much to notice, to breathe in, to enjoy, to welcome.
As I shouldered my pack and stood, I saw Claudio and Lorenzo heading toward me. I stood and walked toward them, with them signaling for me to stop. But I felt so much better. Seeing them gave me such joy.
We arrived at the Albergue after 12 hours of hiking. It had 15 beds. Just us six and Mark from France were there. The boys and Nannette worked on dinner, fixing this amazing Italian meal. I took a shower, washed my clothes and slept for about an hour. I awoke feeling so much better.
The food was amazing that night, even over Mark’s complaints that they had done several things improperly! Apparently there are some food rules for the French that do not apply for Italians. Nannette was ready to throttle Mark with his comments, his “tsk, tsk, tsks” at the process. But the boys ignored him, stirring, mixing, laughing and cooking like professional chefs and we encouraged Nannette to do the same.
We sat at the table enjoying wine, the food and a time of fellowship that was this immense joy and no doubt, a little taste of heaven.
That night we all slept well … all the way through the night.