Mark La Porte: Camino Pilgrimage

By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 01:35

mark la porte 3Another FANtastic
Tale of Adventure

By Mark La Porte

It was raining and muddy as we started climbing out of LePuy en Velay as we began our trek to Santiago in Spain. In the Spring of 2013, I had just become eligible for Medicare and Peggy was not quite there. It was not long before we began to question our sanity after struggling through knee deep mud in the pastures of rural France.

After six hours of effort we reached our first Gite or French guest house some 15 kilometers from the start. We were joined in this converted stone barn by a half dozen fellow hikers and enjoyed the first of many simple but wonderful dinners prepared by our host.

That was the first day of 75 hiking days in our quest to complete our 1,000 mile Pilgrimage to the Cathedral and final resting place of St. James near the Atlantic Coast in Spain. We had both retired from teaching in 2010 and the Camino trek was on our list. We felt that the journey would help us in the transition to the retirement phase of our life. We were experienced backpackers and we believed we could handle the challenge.

Every day was an adventure as we climbed over the mountains in the center of France and descended into the lush valleys and farmland of southwest France. We walked with our 12-20 pound backpacks relying on our trusty hiking sticks to explore the depth of mud holes and provide balance crossing streams. Each night we found a dry bed, a shower, a fantastic meal and bon companions.

Our French speaking skills are rudimentary. Usually the French asked us to use English since our attempts at French hurt their ears. We found the French to be kind, caring and generous. The dinner meal usually lasted two to three hours and we had many opportunities to show pictures of our home in Columbia. The French were fascinated with pictures of the Douglas Saloon and its rattlesnake skins. They love the American West and know almost every Western film ever made. We would make friends and meet them the next night or somewhere down the road. We became minor celebrities as the vintage Americans with backpacks. People we had not met before had heard of us. It was both amusing and encouraging.

It was spring and the wildflowers were glorious and the landscape varied and changed every day. The countryside was so green and vibrant that it almost hurt your eyes. We crossed the Pyrenees into Spain following the same route that Charlemagne used long ago. By this time our legs were used to the daily trek and we found that we needed only four to five hours to complete our daily hike. That gave us time to explore and enjoy the towns, churches, sanctuaries and a nap during Siesta. The number of people on the Camino increased dramatically in Spain. We would still run into a number of our French comrades and enjoy an afternoon beer or glass of wine with our friends.

While hiking in France we had not entered a city larger than Oakdale. In Spain we wandered through large metropolitan areas like Burgos and Leon. The stupendous cathedrals made the trek through traffic worthwhile. As a former teacher of European History and Art History, I was in my element. Peggy was kind and said she appreciated having an English speaking travel guide.

The walking became actually pretty easy but we resisted the temptation to push the miles. We started to encounter other Americans and refrained from giving advice. On the Camino, it is the rule that everyone hikes their own hike. It is also the rule to always friendly and generous. It becomes quite pleasurable and locals cut you a lot of slack when they see your scallop shell, the Pilgrim symbol.

mark la porte 2As Protestants, we participated in the church services as etiquette and custom allows. Fellow worshippers were quite accepting and seemed to be pleased with our effort to complete the Pilgrimage. Since most Americans start on the French border near the Pyrenees, they were surprised that we had been on the Camino from LePuy. This usually earned us a thumbs up or a hearty handshake.

We found the hike across the high plains which is known as the Meseta to be much like walking from Modesto to Bakersfield. Thankfully, the lavender and other flowers were in full bloom. As we reached the mountainous west of Galicia, we began to climb again. Centuries of Pilgrims dropping apple and other fruit pits and seeds resulted in a veritable Eden of wild fruit trees that we could sample as we walked. The landscape reminded us of Ireland. The natives are Celts and relatives of the Irish. The bagpipe is the local tradition. The restored thatched roof, stone houses were identical to those in Ireland. The people were just as friendly as the Irish.

As we crossed through these mountains, Peggy made the observation that she now knows what heaven looks like. The beauty and serenity were amazing. So were the people we encountered such as the last Knight Templar who maintains a hillside guest house. We were more inclined to stay in pensions with showers and warm beds. We did manage to spend two nights in luxurious Paradors, which are converted palaces and monasteries. We had no problem justifying the treat.

As we neared Santiago, the foot traffic increased dramatically. A Pilgrim is entitled to a Compostelle certificate with the completion of 100 kilometers or 60 miles. By this time, we just enjoyed the morning parade out of a town that quickly dispersed after a few miles. As we entered Santiago it became somewhat surreal to realize how far we had walked. Our standing in front of the cathedral was accompanied by a cascade of tears. We encountered a number of our fellow hikers and exchanged hugs and email addresses.

As tradition dictated, we burned our worn out boots on the Atlantic coast the next day.

Retired teacher Mark La Porte lives in Columbia, California.

 To read our Tales of Adventure Contest winners’ stories, see the Winter 2014/2015 issue
of Friends and Neighbors Magazine, available at these locations and by subscription.

By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 01:35
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