Sunday, August 17, 2014

Harold L. Graham - July 16, 1930 - July 12, 2014

Peregrino, "Harold from Houston," passed away on July 12, 2014.  He came in from his daily hike feeling great.  A little while later, he told his wife he was going to lay down for a bit.  A few minutes later, he slipped away across the threshold from this world to the next.

Buen Camino, Harold.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The End of the Earth

On the day it rained so heavily - the day we walked from O Coto to Arzua - Dad and I stopped about midday at a tiny cafe. It was crowded with pilgrims sheltering from the rain under a blue tarp stretched over outdoor tables and chairs. We greeted pilgrim friends as we sat down and turned our attention to our cokes and potato chips (the best sustenance on offer in the cafe).

The couple at the table next to ours did not appear to be pilgrims. They weren't wearing the 'uniform' of hiking boots and rain gear. The gentleman greeted us and asked about our Camino, where we started, when, and (of course) about Dad's age and health. He then told us that he was a taxi driver from Santiago and the young woman with him was his niece. He was driving her to Sarria so that she could start her pilgrimage there. We all commiserated about the rain and the walking, then he and his niece stood up to go. We said goodbye and joked with him, "See you in Santiago!"

People are so nice and friendly all along the way.

Three days later, the sun was out and Dad and I were in Santiago. We had obtained our compostelas, handed in our clothes for washing, and were standing at the concierge desk asking about the bus to Finisterre when we each felt a tap on our shoulder. "Hola amigos!" It was our friend the taxi driver from the blue tarped cafe. We were as delighted to see him as he seemed to see us; and the concierge said (pointing to our friend),"He is the best taxi driver in all of Santiago! You should have him drive you to Finisterre and Muxia."

So that is what we did. We arranged with Jose that he would pick us up at 10 on Sunday morning and take us on a day trip - a scenic drive winding along the coast up to Finisterre, then to Muxia, and back to Santiago. Then Jose offered to drive us for free to the travel agency where we could complete our travel and lodging arrangements for heading home.

The drive on Sunday was amazing. Jose pointed out and explained the importance of 'horreos' (órreo) - the ubiquitous and often ancient corn cribs that dot the Galician landscape.

Galician culture is essentially agrarian, which Jose pointed out is very hard work. He said that all households with even the tiniest plot of land will grow a patch of corn. Corn bread and a soup made with corn are staples of the farm diet. Corn also feeds the dairy cows. Galicia is a major supplier of milk and cheese. So, preserving the corn harvest is crucial.

The horreos are built on stone stilts that serve two purposes. They keep the harvested corn up above any flooding in the rainy, river-rich province and the shape of the capstones on stilts prevents rodents from getting to the grain. The sides of the horreos are slotted to allow for ventilation which prevents mildew in the damp weather. All of this, Jose communicated with slow, careful Spanish and hand gestures.

He drove us to a church dating from 1327 and showed us the ancient gravestones on which no names appear. Instead, symbols indicating the occupation of the deceased are carved into the ancient stone slabs. Footprints indicate a zapatero (shoe maker), an anchor in a circle indicates a sailor/boatman, and line drawings of the tools of the trade indicate carpenters and blacksmiths.

As we arrived in Finisterre, Jose spotted two peregrinas who were standing at an intersection trying to discern the way. Some pilgrims, rather than stopping their walk in Santiago, continue on foot to Finisterre - literally translated as 'the end of the earth' - where it is said that the pagans used to gather to worship the setting of the sun.

Jose rolled down the car windows to shout,"Buen Camino!" and point the way for them. He told them that his passengers (me and Dad) were also pilgrims. We asked the two women where they had begun their pilgrimages. One had started in Leon. The other, a young woman, had started in Switzerland. She had already walked 2000 kilometers and soon would reach the end of the earth. We congratulated them both and went on our way.

As we approached the shoreline, we passed a pilgrim family, a mother and her young daughter (about 8 or 9 years old) leading a burro loaded with packs, a toddler brother seated on top, followed by Dad leading a second burro, also bearing packs and an even younger child. They were carrying flowers and leaning into the wind that whips the coast.

We slowly drove onward and upward until, finally, Jose parked the car. We got out and he pointed the way for us to walk out to the edge. Dad and I walked on and were soon greeted by familiar faces, pilgrims we had met along the way. Some we had not seen for weeks, others we had seen the day before in Santiago.

At the very edge, there is a stone cross where some pilgrims leave tokens. There is also a fire-pit where many pilgrims burn something they have carried or used on the journey. Some burn clothes. Some even burn their boots.

Dad and I consigned nothing to the flames, but stood in the whipping wind and billowing smoke, and looked out beyond the edge of the earth. This was once the very last bit of the known world. What lay beyond the ocean's horizon was as much a matter of speculation and faith as what lies beyond death.

We bowed our heads for a moment, then turned back to the known world and a smiling Jose.

From Finisterre it is a short drive to Muxia, an even smaller village and another edge place. Again, we scrambled out on the rocks to see the ocean waves breaking huge and turquoise blue under a glowing gray autumnal sky. Deep breaths, and back to the taxi for the return trip into Santiago.

We had done all that we set out to do. Now we would make our ways home.

Friday, October 19, 2012


We left Arcos Do Pino at 8 a.m. It was still dark as we walked out of town to the point where the Camino left paved roads and turned off into a dark wood. Really dark. As we stepped forward into it, we were immediately presented with a fork in the path and no arrow or marker visible to indicate which way we should take.

Three other pilgrims joined us. A couple of us had tiny lights (a headlamp and a keychain flashlight) and we cast their beams about in search of a marker. All we could see was the beams glowing against the dense morning mist.

One of the others returned to the point where the dirt path met the pavement and came back to report that someone had drawn a supplemental arrow on that sign post which seemed to indicate the left hand path. So we struck out in that direction.

After going a few paces, we passed a blue plastic garbage pail which we took as a good sign. We had seen other, identical trash receptacles at intervals along the path the day before.

Eventually, we emerged from the dark and misty eucalyptus forest onto a road with a Camino marker. Rejuvenated and reassured, we walked briskly on as the sun rose in a clear sky and cool morning. Hurray! No rain in the forecast. We would be walking into Santiago in the sunshine.

There was an eagerness and optimism to the walking. We had walked longer distances the two preceding days so that the walk into Santiago would not be a strain. We climbed what we knew was the last hill and stood at the top looking for landmarks the guidebook said we'd find there.

Mist in the valley obscured the view - so we didn't see the spires of the cathedral from our hilltop. We somehow also missed seeing the famous statue of pilgrims overlooking Santiago which is on that hilltop somewhere. Apparently one must turn off the path to find it; and we missed the signs that might have directed us.

I have to admit that I don't really mind missing a side trip at that point. I was pretty focused on getting to the Cathedral and (figuratively) setting down the back pack for the last time.

Downhill and down stone steps, we came to the edge of the city and plunged into a world of crosswalks, roundabouts, traffic, and noise. Constantly scanning for signs pointing the way, we steadily walked our way deeper into the city.

For a long time we saw no other pilgrims and were beginning to worry that we had lost our way. We had no choice but to follow the path of scallop shells embedded like brass breadcrumbs in the sidewalk. At last we spotted two tall, confident looking, Nordic pilgrims marching a few paces ahead. If we were on the wrong track, at least we had company.

Very soon we could see that we were indeed on the right track as the spires of the cathedral came into view between the buildings ahead. Alert to the subtle shifts in direction indicated by how each shell was oriented in the pavement, we worked our way through the ever older streets. We heard a bagpiper in the distance, then passed him as we descended into the square … and arrived.

There it was - the cathedral and the square full of pilgrims just leaving the noontime mass. We hugged each other and as we stepped forward heard a shout to our left.

A couple of pilgrims whom we had met in El Acebo were right there to greet us with hearty and joyful congratulations. Pictures were taken. Tears were shed (by me). Hugs all around.

They gave us advice about when to arrive to be sure we were able to get a seat at the next day's pilgrims mass (be there about 10:30 for the noon mass); and they gave us directions on how to find the pilgrim office where we could get our compostelas (certificates of completion of the pilgrimage).

I asked Dad if he wanted to go straight to the office for the compostelas or if he wanted to check in at our hotel first. He suggested that we go to the hotel and get their stamp first, then go to the pilgrim office.

I had made the arrangements for our hotel so it was up to me to lead the way. I turned and headed across the square, pointing to large, historic building along one side of the plaza. "That's our hotel."

"You did great" he said, "that's easy to find … oh my … it's the Parador."

"My treat."

We checked in to our luxury accommodations, dropped our day packs and headed back out in search of the pilgrim office. We found it with little trouble and joined the long line of pilgrims.

We had arrived at the cathedral at 1 p.m. By 2 p.m. we had our compostelas. By 3 p.m. we had delivered our clothes to the hotel laundry and received assurances that we would have clean clothes by 8. Bliss.

Tomorrow, we'll attend the mass and visit with other pilgrim friends who have arrived or are arriving in Santiago. On Sunday, we have a trip planned by car to Muxia and Finisterre (the end of the earth).

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


From Portomarin, we walked to a tiny place called Eirexe. Rain was falling all day - a steady drizzle with occasional drenching showers. Then, the next day, we got up and walked another day in the rain. This time stopping in O Coto. O Coto is so small that the only thing there is the B&B we stayed at. The proprietress was a raspy-voiced, belly-laughing soul who asked how old dad was. When I told her she exclaimed," Ay, que guapo!"

Yes, he does look great.

She fed me chicken soup (I have sniffles from days of damp) and fed Dad a thin steak and fries - all the while patting one or the other of us on the arm and bellowing out some jovial comment we could not understand.

In wakeful moments during the night, I listened to the rain coming down in sheets. My socks were hung on the heater in hopes they would be dry by morning. Looking at them, I suddenly realized the practical logic of stockings hung by the chimney - it's not just about Christmas presents.

The rain was still falling heavily as we ate our toast and drank our cafe con leche this morning. Our hosts shook their heads and waved their arms, fingers fluttering to demonstrate just how much rain was falling as they shouted, "Lluvia!" (Rain).

Yeah, we knew. Rain. Lots of rain.

We pulled on waterproof rain pants, panchos and hats and set out. It rained all day again. We walked up hill and down dale along muddy woodland paths. Beautiful, soggy landscape. By the time we reached Arzua, today's destination, we were soaked through.

Our boots are stuffed with newspaper so they will be dry in the morning. Our clothes are draped over the heaters so we can pack or wear them tomorrow. We plan to walk to Arca Do Pino (Pedruozo, Galicia) tomorrow (Thursday the 18th) - about 20 km.

The day after tomorrow, we'll arrive in Santiago. The weather forecast taunts us with pictures of suns overlaid with raindrops. What does that mean? Hopefully, it means - rainbows.

Very few pictures. I can't be pulling the iPhone out in a deluge. The structure is a grainery - traditional to Galicia - built up on stilts to protect the stores from vermin (and flooding, one supposes). The lace was a project of our jocular hospetalera in O Coto. The roll-y bags belong to one of the tour groups that stayed at the same hotel with us in Portomarin. They had nice clothes to wear at dinner.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

O Cebreiro > Tricastela > Sarria > Portomarin

We walked to O Cebreiro in the rain and arrived soggy. We changed into our dry clothes and then spent a rainy afternoon and evening walking from shops to cafes and visiting with pilgrim friends. By the time we fell into bed, we had very little dry clothing left and even less hope that any of our damp things would dry out overnight.

It rained all night but morning greeted us with nothing harsher than a cold mist. So we fortified ourselves with cafe con leche and hit the trail.

The guidebook promised we would start the day on 'a delightful downhill path winding through enchanting woodlands.' Reality proved to be a steep path climbing a further kilometer (or two) before descending for the remaining 12-14 kms into Tricastela The good news was that though the descent was often steep and rocky, the rain had stopped so we were not contending with wet and slippery.

Our B&B was on the westernmost edge of Tricastela. Happily, it is a small and level town. We checked in, took our showers, hand washed our clothes and hung them out on the balcony before going in search of our meal. While it was not raining, the air was heavy with humidity and temps were quite chilly. We were not optimistic about the likelihood of dry clothes by morning. Two straight days of clammy polyester shirts - ick.

We woke to more mist and chill, dressed in our still damp clothes, and lashed soggy socks to our packs (hoping that there would be sun to dry them on our backs as we walked); but it continued to drizzle, so we tossed our ponchos on over top of the whole shebang and squelched our way out of town.

This day's destination was Sarria. Sarria is the last town of any size on the Camino that is more than 100 km from Santiago. Consequently, it has long been a traditional starting place for pilgrims who wish to walk only the final 100 km required to obtain a *compostela* (certificate of completion). We have been joined by tour groups of peregrinos, fresh to the trail, chattering and stopping often to photograph one another. We veteran pilgrims just shake our heads, exchange knowing glances, and keep walking to a steady rhythm.

I am carrying my pack again, having been pack-free since leaving Astorga; and this day would test whether I was back to full strength. While it was a long walk, I found I was able to keep up the pace and we arrived in Sarria weary but in plenty of time to find shops still open and to purchase the
bits and pieces we needed to replace dwindling supplies.

As we were climbing towards our albergue - literally climbing several flights of stone steps - a pilgrim woman we had never seen before came running up to Dad and asked,"Are you from Texas?" When he replied in the affirmative, she said,"I've heard about you! A Canadian lady showed me your photo and told me about you." Yes, his fame is spreading up and down the Camino. Now that there are photos, there are also 'celebrity sightings' of Harold from Houston.

We had a good rest that night at the albergue (where they offered laundry service-oh the rhapsodies that I could sing about clean, dry clothes!). We left Sarria about 8:35 a.m. and by noon had passed the marker indicating the point at which Santiago was only another 100km away. A truly important (and literal) milestone of the journey.

Coming into Portomarin, we crossed a long and dizzyingly high bridge over the river Mino, only to find at the end a tall set of stone steps leading up to town. Dad marched up them without hesitation. I took a picture as he started the climb and then followed him up. The view was spectacular. The rain had stopped. We were dry and now within 90 km of Santiago.

We found our hotel, rinsed out a few things and then checked our maps. If knees and weather hold, and if all else goes as expected, we should walk into Santiago this Friday!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ponferrada>Villa Franca de Bierzo>Vega de Valcarce>O Cebreiro

Leaving Ponferrada was a bit tricky. As the days are shorter now, we often find ourselves walking out of town in the pre-dawn gloom. In the larger urban areas, the path is not well marked. Dad and I lost the way for a few blocks and were given remarkably bad advice on how to get back on track by two different people. Happily, we did not follow the misleading directions. Instead, we pulled out the incomplete map in our guidebook and made our best guess about which way to wander. We were back on the right path in fairly short order and soon were away from city streets and traffic.

Cloudy skies overhead kept us cool as the sun rose and provided a lovely rainbow on the hilltops as we turned onto a track that took us through the vineyards.

It is harvest time. The leaves on the grape vines are turning. Families and communities are out in the vineyards picking the grapes together amidst conversation and laughter.

We arrived in Villafranca de Bierzo a good three hours before our albergue was set to open for the day; so, we parked ourselves in a nearby cafe and enjoyed some cafe con leche. Later we wandered around town, located the supermercado and met up with fellow pilgrims. Together, we hatched a plan to all get together and cook a shared dinner in the albergue's common kitchen.

We checked into the albergue and discovered that the private room with two beds that we had reserved was a private room with bunk beds. I was going to have a top bunk experience, enhanced by the fact that the rungs on the ladder spun when I stepped on them. The need to call on my acrobatic skills was counterbalanced by the fact that the albergue offered a laundry service. Dad and I put on our rain gear and handed over every other stitch of clothing we had. Clean clothes are the basis of civilized society (that and hot showers).

We met our pals back at the supermercado at the appointed hour and were delighted to discover that one of the young men in the group was a chef. Did we like chicken scampi? You bet! We donated our Euros to the cause and stepped out of the way. Young people have so much energy at the end of the day.

They called us to the table to have guacamole as starters then chicken scampi with a lovely fresh salad. We also shared two bottles of local wine, one white and the other red. Both were lovely.

Leaving Villafranca the next morning put us on an immediate, long and very steep climb. Relentless. As soon as we were certain we had passed over the peak, the path would take a turn and up we'd go again.

Finally we were indeed on the way down just as sharply as we had ascended. By the time we reached relatively level terrain, we had spent four hours getting over the mountain. The remainder of the walk to Vega de Valcarce was a breeze by comparison. We were nevertheless very happy to sit down on the soft couch and chair provided by our B&B.

No wifi in V de V - so we cooked some spaghetti in the kitchen for our lunch and spent the afternoon napping and reading as a gentle rain began to fall.

When we woke this morning it was raining in earnest. We pulled on our rain gear and checked the guidebook to confirm that today would be all uphill -15 km with a 2000 ft increase in altitude.

We made frequent stops to rest, including a beautiful breakfast of farm fresh fried eggs and beautiful bacon in one of the little towns. In Spain, coca cola is made with sugar rather than corn syrup and it was my 'drug of choice' today as energy for the ongoing climb.

At about the 13km mark we crossed from Castilla into Galicia. The music in the cafes was now decidedly Celtic and as we arrived at today's destination, O Cebreiro, it felt as if we'd hopped a continent and were in Ireland - rolling green hills in rain and fog being grazed by cattle with bells softly ringing. Our hotel is in an ancient grey stone building attached to the church. The rain and temperature continue to fall.

The town is packed with peregrino friends and we are gathering around fireplaces in the local bars, sharing stories and vino tinto (red wine).

Tomorrow is a gentle downhill with minimal climbing, so dad plans to carry his pack and we've agreed to walk 20 km to Tricastela. The next day's walk should get us to Sarria.

At Sarria we will be just over 100km from Santiago and, to get the compostela (certificate for completing the Camino) one must walk the last 100km. Taxis, buses, trains, bicycles and even horses are no longer an option.

Closer, ever closer.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Santa Catalina>Rabanal del Camino>El Acebo>Ponferrada

We spent Thursday night in Santa Catalina. Dinner was great fun because we were able to share it with a couple we had met on our first stop in Orrison and whose path we had crossed a few other times - Bill and Janice from Calgary. Together we celebrated that there was a wonderful cabbage and carrot soup on the menu Things get pretty simple on the Camino.

The next morning, we walked out of town early enough that the stars were still out; and I kept turning to look back and catch the sun rising.

Our next stop was Rabanal del Camino where we stayed in an albergue run by the most cheerful and kind family. At one point during the afternoon, I realized that my little blue sack containing my journal and watercolors and phone cord had been accidentally taken by another pilgrim when he packed up to move on after resting at the cafe where I'd been sitting.

I had not seen him. Our hostess had seen him and even remembered the little sack sitting amongst his things as he packed; but she couldn't recall what he was wearing, only that he was Portuguese. I could only hope that when he realized his mistake he would mail it all back to me at the home address I'd written on the cover of my journal.

Our hostess was less inclined to resign the sack to its fate. She dashed off to get her son who jumped in his car (with me in the passenger seat) and off we drove up the mountain track that is the Camino leading out of Rabanal. I kept wondering how we would find a person who's only known characteristics were his gender and nationality. My host/taxi-driver was not worried.

We drove all the way to the next village where he stopped in at every cafe and albergue to ask if they had a portuguese pilgrim and to tell them our mission. Names and phone numbers were noted and promises given that they'd watch out for pilgrim and sack. Then, the son's phone rang. His mother had found our pilgrim back in Rabanal and recovered my sack. We backtracked to each albergue and cafe calling off the watch and then drove happily back to home base. This is the way of things on the Camino.

That evening Dad and I attended Vespers in the ancient church (along with another pilgrim pal from our first night in Orrisson - Carol from Victoria). The priests and congregation sang vespers in Latin - a call and response gregorian chant.

Up again with the dawn, we had cafe con leche with Marcel from Quebec and headed out for El Acebo. Everyone was looking forward to the day's walk with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Today we would pass the Cruz de Ferre (iron cross) where the tradition is for each pilgrim to leave a stone, symbolically representing the shedding of some personal or spiritual weight. We also would be making a climb up and over a mountainside including a notoriously steep and rocky descent. Mindful of how difficult and dangerous had been the descent in the Pyrenees, Dad and I both had our packs ported and carried only day packs with weather gear and water.

We arrived at the Cruz de Ferre without difficulty. This is the place of the highest altitude along the Camino. The weather was cool but not cold, overcast but not raining. Perfect for the climb. We each took a moment to leave the stones we've been carrying just for this purpose since we started. Then we walked on - each a little lighter.

The countryside is once again green and we are enjoying the mountain views as we walk. The descent into El Acebo was even more treacherous and long than we anticipated and it was with quaking knees and fulsome gratitude that we arrived at our Casa Rural (B&B) on the eastern edge of town.

Shower, eat, nap, laundry, eat, sleep, pack, walk. We were up and away by 8 a.m.

Today we made the final leg of the descent - just as rocky and steep as yesterday, but not nearly as long - and arrived in Ponferrada about noon-thirty. We passed the huge Knights Templar castle at the edge of the 'old city', and made our way to the hotel. A good day of walking was appropriately celebrated with pizza and beer for lunch followed by an hour long nap.

Tomorrow we have another 15km to cover but it is relatively level terrain. Dad plans to carry his pack. I am having mine ported at least until after we've completed the last big climb up to El Cebriero (probably on Thursday). It looks like we are about two weeks away from Santiago at this point. Amazing.