Camino de Santiago

Beginning the Camino Aragones

First, if you’ll humor me a bit, I’d love to share my latest felt “painting”:

A felted wool painting of the valley of the Rio Aragones

West of the Pyrenees

In celebration of the wonderful time I had on the Camino Aragones, I needlefelted one of my favorite photographs from that section of my walk across Spain.  I’d taken the photo midway through the Aragones, as I enjoyed a last view of the snowcapped Pyrenees rising above arid grain fields.  Felting from photographs is my favorite kind of felt painting; I try to capture the details and mood of a photo by using a special needle to poke strands of dyed wool into place on a “canvas” of wool I’ve made from our pet sheep’s last haircut.  It always takes a while to get a wool painting just right, but the result has lots of color and texture.  I’m quite pleased with this “painting.”  (If it strikes your fancy, here’s a shameless plug:  Please feel free to check it out on the Etsy shop of our family’s fiber studio: https://www.etsy.com/shop/heartfeltfleecefiber.)

Anyway, the Camino Aragones was the second route I came to in my dabbler of Caminos.  Almost from the moment the Camino began descending the Pyrenees at the France-Spain border, it took on a different flavor.  The misty, muddy path gave way, on the other side of the rain-shadowed mountains, to a drier, hotter trail.  The wildflowers were different, and the forests of the French side disappeared.  The first few towns on the Aragones seemed more bustling than the sleepy French mountain villages I’d gotten used to.

But, as the PCT taught me, arid lands have a distinct beauty of their own, and I soon found myself appreciating the brushlands of eastern Spain.  Unlike on the PCT, water carries weren’t an issue, as it was easy to ask a kind baker or bartender for water in the towns along the way.

A sundog above the trees

A sundog above the trees

By the time I arrived in Jaca, the Spanish sun had already begun working a number on my skin, and I’d been lucky to be a witness to a spectacular sundog, a rainbow-like phenomenon seen on sunny days.  I hadn’t yet glimpsed the “lunar landscapes,” the badlands for which that region of Spain is known, and I was excited to think that they were just around the corner.  But first, it was time for a zero day — and a field trip to the cliffside monastery, San Juan de la Peña.

Panorama from a vista near San Juan de la Pena

Panorama from a vista near San Juan de la Pena

Politics on the Camino

In the United States, it’s a long-standing tradition among long-distance hikers to celebrate the Summer Solstice by hiking naked.  Because it didn’t quite seem appropriate to walk through tiny Spanish towns in the buff, I decided to commemorate the longest day of the year by taking a zero and heading by bus to San Juan de la Pena, a monastery built into the side of a cliff a millennium ago, with additions built onto it and onto it again, a testament of faith through the various architectural styles of the last 1000 years.

From the old monastery, I hitched a ride down to the sleeping village at the base of the mountain, where I enjoyed talking to a local ceramic artist and looking around two small churches.  When the couple who’d given me a ride into town were done their supper, they offered to take me back to Jaca.  It was perhaps a 30-minute drive, and, in broken English and more-broken Spanish, we spent the time talking about the upcoming Spanish election, where (just as in the then-upcoming elections in the US and UK) the country had the potential to set off in a very different direction.

With the US election results in, I’m reminded of the many Europeans I spoke with this summer who — without fail — asked some variant of “How could America support Donald Trump?”  Many asked why we couldn’t elect Bernie Sanders.  (I explained that I’d tried.)

As I wasn’t able to describe abstract ideas in Spanish, French, Italian, or German, I had to save my more elaborate responses for pilgrims and hospitaler@s who spoke fluent English.  I explained the dissatisfaction in our country and the fission of the traditional parties.  (Once Brexit happened, it was easy to point to other examples of conservative undercurrents.)  The response from my conversation partners was often something along the lines of hope and faith, a certainty that our young but powerful country would be wise enough not to give the nuclear codes to a volatile demagogue.  I wasn’t so certain.

Lacking wealth (and, often, health), straightness, and maleness, I’m afraid about the future of our country, especially now that our highest branches of government share one political party, making checks and balances far less likely.  Like many other liberals, I’m appalled that our next president will be a man who has mocked just about every minority in our nation, from women to Muslims to people who are disabled.  Presidential elections aren’t, as some take comfort in claiming, distant races free of repercussions for us average Americans.  Obama’s choices helped give me health insurance, helped keep a gas pipeline off my employer’s land, and helped ensure my friends could get married.

Soon, we will all live under a red president, a red Senate, and a red House of Representatives.  In Kentucky, we will also live under a Republican governor, with a red State Senate and a red State House of Representatives.  Our Washington Senators and most of our Representatives are Republicans.  In fact, there is one lone blue politician advocating for my county.

Wait.  Scratch that.  I just fact-checked myself and learned that, while our Democratic State Representative had won locally, he lost in the other counties.  So, that leaves Republicans, from Rand Paul to Donald Trump, attempting to protect our best interests.  We’re screwed.

I’m glad I got to see the AT while there were still mountains in Appalachia.

There are memes circulating about this election claiming that it was a case of hope vs. hate, but I disagree.  I live on the edge of Appalachia, in a state that went overwhelmingly red yesterday, but it’s not hate that I see everywhere; it’s a desire to be heard.  As Jonna Ivin wrote, “I know why poor whites chant Trump, Trump, Trump.”

Four years ago, I often said ruefully that when socially liberal people voted for Mitt Romney — oh, how I’d take him instead today! — they were deciding that their money was more important than other people’s rights.  Today, while the backing of Trump by wealthy voters is wholly unpalatable to me, I feel sympathy for — and even some empathy with — the poor who voted for Trump.

Classism is still very real in the US, and I have neighbors and coworkers who voted for Trump because they felt that he spoke to them, rather than about them.  He didn’t tell them they were uneducated hillbillies; he managed to inspire them and led them to believe that he’d change the narrative of their lives.  Like progressives hoping for a brighter future, their votes were also cast in hope.

That is the problem.

Yes, racism and bigotry may have bolstered Trump’s results significantly, pointing to insidious problems that we should make great efforts to solve.  However, hope for economic opportunity also figured into the results, and getting at the root of that is both more difficult and less complicated than eliminating hatred.

You don’t need me to tell you that our system is messed up, that our country is heading in a frightening direction; I’m certainly no authority, and I’m sure you worry about our trajectory yourself.  But, it is high time we reconsider who our opposition is:  There’s a whole lot more that my fellow impoverished Kentuckians have in common with seasonal Mexican farm workers than the election results indicate.

Amid all of the sadness and anger of yesterday, I saw the best side of America, too, when an 18-year-old waiting in line at the polls behind me gushed to her mother, “I’m about to vote for the President of the United States of America.”  Her enthusiasm, her hope, her passion choked me up.

In closing, I don’t have a conclusion — we’re all months away from that — but I have a beautiful quote from the Talmud:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

 

Impressions of the Chemin d’Arles

When I set out to walk the historic Camino de Santiago, I knew that I wanted to experience the primary route, the Camino Frances, but also other smaller, less traveled paths.  Spreading out guidebooks and maps all over the coffee table, I decided on a general route I would take, a dabbler of Caminos that together formed a continuous footpath from Pau, France, to the western coast of Spain.

Oloron St. Marie and the Pyrenees

Oloron St. Marie and the Pyrenees

First along my route was the Chemin d’Arles, known in Spain as the Via Tolosana.  This route stretches from its namesake in southeastern France up through the Pyrenees, where it crosses into Spain (and becomes the Camino Aragones) at the Col du Somport (Somport Pass).

The western portion of the Chemin d’Arles, which was my introduction to the Camino, was beautiful, and I’ve been told that the section from Arles to Pau is even more lovely.

Highlights of the walk included community and town forests, tiny French mountain towns, and sweeping views of vineyards and rolling valleys.  Especially memorable was the climb to Somport Pass through an evergreen forest and then the meadows, wildflowers, and mountain air that greeted me at the top.  But, it wasn’t just the natural settings that I loved about the Chemin d’Arles:  I also have fond memories of a night I spent in a monastery and the sweet, chocolatey scent of Oloron St. Marie, a town straight out of a fairy tale, where homes looked down on a chilly river and flower boxes adorned the windows.

A field of seedlings

A field of seedlings

Perhaps like some other Americans, I’d grown up conflating “France” with “Paris.”  I’d heard that French people were stuck up and obsessive about fashion and unwelcoming to foreigners.  While I had a difficult time reconciling that vision with the France of D’Artagnan’s boyhood, I suppose that, somewhere along the line, I’d just accepted it.  When I got to France, I was reminded of the fact that New York and Washington, D.C., are hardly representative of our entire country.  Perhaps rural people anywhere in the world have their own ways of being.

My least favorite portion of my time on the Chemin d’Arles was a rather death-defying roadwalk along a curvy mountain highway.  Naturally, the day I walked that section was a rainy, misty one.  I found myself clinging to the cliff face when I was on the inside of curves.

A little snail

A little snail

A simple, unexpected pleasure of the Chemin d’Arles — and, indeed, of much of my Camino — was the number of snail sightings it afforded me.  I’d read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, a precious musing on chronic illness and life’s little pleasures, before my pilgrimage, and the snails I saw on the path, on fence posts, and on flower stems made me smile.

My time on the Chemin d’Arles was brief, especially considering that pilgrims who walk from Arles walk for a month.  However, I walked along the path long enough to enjoy my time, look forward to the rest of the Camino, and decide that walking the entire route should happen someday.

In a tangentially related note, I wanted to share that I’ve begun felting wool paintings from sights I loved along my Camino.  First up is this scene from the Camino Aragones.  I added the cairn to the foreground this morning, and I’m looking forward to felting the snow-capped Pyrenees tomorrow!

Lescar Rainbow

My First Night on the Camino

The first pilgrim I met on the Camino was an older man who’d walked years before.  I think.  He only spoke French, and I only spoke English; nevertheless, we talked for half an hour or so.

As a local caretaker of the “hostel,” he’d come to the refuge in Lescar soon after I arrived.  He added my name and stats to the register he kept — I learned that I unusually young, alone, and American — and encouraged me to make use of the beautiful country home Lescar offered pilgrims on their journeys.  Then, he gave me a huge, colorful scallop shell to carry to Santiago.

When he left, I went to sleep, still exhausted from London and the travel.  I was awoken by late-hiking pilgrims — young, American pilgrims!  We were all surprised to see each other and have easy conversation.

As we ate dinner and discussed our love for Bernie Sanders, the skies opened up.  So thankful for a roof over my head, I watched the storm from the windows.

By the time we were doing dishes, Arianna from California called the rest of us to look out to see a rainbow.  Sure enough, over the field next to the house stretched one of the most vibrant rainbows I’ve ever seen.  As someone who’d hiked more than 4,000 miles as “Rainbow Dash,” I couldn’t help feeling that the occasion was auspicious.

Rainbow in Lescar

Rainbow in Lescar

Finding the Camino

Just getting to the Camino was an adventure!

Mountain views from the bus

Mountain views from the bus

In Toulouse, I woke up at dawn, gathered my belongings, and headed out in search of the gare.  Following my downloaded map, I wound my way through sleepy city streets.  When I got to the station, I was grateful to discover that the bus to Pau was still running, seemingly unaffected by the bus strike.  After visiting the first of many French restrooms without toilet paper, I climbed into the bus, smiling and apologizing for my lack of French as I attempted to buy a ticket.  Eventually, I joined the passengers heading to Pau.

Hydrangeas in France

Hydrangeas in France

Especially given the last two data points, it appears that the success of a given hike is inversely correlated with the amount of preparation I’d done.  I spent months getting everything in order for the PCT:  I studied the maps, dehydrated all of my meals, arranged all of my mail drops, updated my gear, and trained extensively.  I left with lots of fanfare and returned just 1/3 of the trail later.  In contrast, I headed to Spain without more than a handful of people knowing and basically winged my wonderful Camino, as I had only a general idea of the route I wanted to take.

And, that’s why the bus ride to Pau left me awestruck.  I’d known that the Col du Somport was a pass in the Pyrenees, and I’d known that the mountains were grand; however, I had not expected to see them on the bus ride, to find them rising steeply from the horizon and covered in snow.  I couldn’t wait to walk among them!

The bus dropped its Pau-bound passengers near a roundabout in the center of town.  After orienting myself with the map, I began the journey to Lescar, where I would find the Chemin d’Arles.

The streets of Lescar

The streets of Lescar

As I walked to Lescar along a busy boulevard, I felt as though I could have easily been in any suburban setting in the US:  There was traffic, there were billboards, and there was even a McDonald’s.  I took a detour for a lesson in how impossible it is to use a post office when you can’t speak the local language.

On the road into Lescar, I got my first taste of the Camino:  Outside of town, there was a gated home, with a sign outside welcoming pilgrims.  As I paused to try to decipher the information, a local bicyled past, shouting, “Buen Camino!”  I didn’t know then how significant a part of Camino culture those words were; I had arrived!

Arriving at the refuge

Arriving at the refuge