At long last, here I am in St. Jean Pied de Port, the semi-official start of the Camino for pilgrims doing the French route. The journey here was long and arduous, for there is not an easy way to get to St Jean. I met up with Lisa Bartges and got my Camino “passport”. Lisa had arrived the day before and had a chance to tour the town. She told me that in St Jean Pied de Port, one eats trout. And so we did, at the Cafe Pip. As the town settles into evening, I will settle into my bed at the Villa Esponda. If I dream at all, it will be of tomorrow’s adventure.
Camino Planning, Antigua-style
Much of the physical Camino de Santiago has its origins in pre-Christian times when people of the Celtic tribes made their way from central Europe to the mountainous region of Galicia on the Atlantic coast in the final centuries before Christ. Some continued by sea to Ireland, but for Celts who remained in Iberia and called this isolated highland stronghold their home, following the sun and watching it set over the endless waters must have been a spiritual experience. The Romans, arriving later and controlling the entire region by about 75 BC, built roads to exploit the silver and ore mines in Galicia but could not dislodge or overcome the Celt-Iberians; nor could the Visigoths who came as the Roman Empire decayed, nor the Moors, who never posed a real threat that far north.
As the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain pondered the Reconquista, legend has it that in the 9th century a Christian hermit saw a glowing light in a forest in Galicia. He alerted the religious authorities who discovered that the aura was emanating from a spot holding the remains of three men, one of whom was beheaded. It was revealed that these were the remains of Saint James and two of his acolytes. After all, when the apostles spread out across the known world to preach the gospel of Jesus, St James apparently came to Galicia. On returning to Palestine, he was beheaded by Herod. Thus, the legend was born that the body of St James was returned to Galicia where eventually it was found by the hermit. A religious shrine was built and dedicated to the apostle. It was rebuilt after being destroyed by the Moors, and by the 12th century the Cathedral of Santiago was attracting pilgrims from all over Europe, who travelled along the well-constructed Roman highways built centuries earlier.
With the Protestant Reformation, wars in Europe and the isolation of Spain during the Franco years, the number of pilgrims decreased. However, since the 1980s there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the Camino attracting those seeking a religious or spiritual experience as well as tourists looking for a new adventure. I began to give it some serious thought in the years before retirement and after returning to the US after many years overseas, it was only a matter of determining when I would depart.
When my original plan to walk the Camino in April 2020 was ended by the Covid pandemic, I lost some of the passion I had for it. Sometime during the “lockdown” I mentioned it to Lisa Bartges, who had always been keen to give it a go, and my desire was rekindled. We decided in October 2021 that we would walk the Camino in September and October of 2022.
Thus it was, that on Wednesday, February 23, 2022, Paula and I flew into VC Bird International Airport, Antigua, and found Rodwell Henry and his purple black van. He delivered us to the Antigua Yacht Club for our rendezvous with Lisa and John for the purpose of planning our pilgrimage to Spain in September.
You would not be out of place to ask why we had to spend 10 days on a sailboat in the Caribbean to plan a journey to northern Spain half a year in the future. Well, as Lisa said, “It’s more fun to plan a trip when you are on vacation.”
El Camino de Jaime
“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”Miguel Cervantes
Paula and I were visiting Maureen and Stephen at their country home in Chapell Hill on a rainy day in November 2019. We were on the way to San Antonio to spend the weekend with Michael and Chappell Hill is almost right on the way. Even in the drizzly overcast weather, it is a beautiful place and their home is very warm and comfortable. Maureen has furnished it with some items Mom and Dad left behind which brought back memories of my childhood. For example, there is a round leather-covered coffee table with six similar stools, all engraved with Incan motifs. As children we would spend hours waxing and polishing that table.
By the way, their home is nestled on high ground surrounded by trees and gently sloping land. We commented that it was a very special place, surrounded as it was by gently nodding trees in which dwelled the protective spirits who welcome them to live together in harmony.
That evening, after dinner, the conversation turned to my planned walk on The Camino, the ancient pilgrim’s trail in northern Spain. “Why in the world would you go all the way to Spain to walk 15 miles a day for 35 days?” Stephen asked. I had not been asked this question before and I don’t think I came up with a very convincing reason. Why does anyone write or paint or cook or travel? There are some things you do because you have to, but when you are free to chose, you do what you want to do. For many years I have wanted to walk the Camino.
Earlier that year— it must have been in March— I was chatting with Katita about doing the Camino. We thought how interesting it would be to follow the lead of Jonee, who, a couple years earlier, had forged, at least on behalf of the Carroll clan, the trail by walking for several days along the Camino. Katita and I thought we should definitely do it the following year. Well, about a week later she announced she was not waiting any longer and was leaving in a week! We got word she had landed in Madrid and soon I was excitedly and enviously following her blog and vicariously walking the Camino with her, meeting her friends and sharing her morning coffee and croissant.
A couple years have now gone by, and I prepare for my Camino. Hopefully, this blog will help refresh my memory of the experience in the years to come. For example, the following passages were written prior to my first attempt at the Camino in 2020:
“…I write these words at a coffee shop on Sukhumvit in Bangkok, arriving from Shanghai a couple days ago. I have been fascinated by the Wanderer, the Traveller, the Seafarer, and all those fellows whose goals may be lofty or noble or misguided or foolish, but who will live or die or find happiness or misery as a consequence of their actions, which may be selfish or altruistic, taken in the name of God or made under the deception of some trickster. I sail with Odysseus upon the wine dark sea and I share a saddle with Sancho alongside Don Quixote. And soon, I will join a one-thousand year old trek of pilgrims who have gained some kind of inner experience, perhaps quite unexpected, after reaching the bones of St James.
There is one more thing that must be mentioned here. As everyone knows, Paula is the walker in this family. As I originally contemplated the Camino, I was certain this would be a joint effort and if anything, I would be holding Paula back. However, she does not want to walk fifteen miles a day for thirty days. She also prefers to help JP and Jen with Juliette [and Jemma and Joelle]. When she told me, I knew that was the way it was meant to be. I will travel the trail alone but for unknown pilgrims and innkeepers, at my pace, unhurried, discovering my path and accepting its destination. And at the end, when I reunite with my Penelope, my Dulcinea, my Paula, it will be a moment to rejoice and celebrate and, copa de vino en mano, share stories.”
(Written in 2019)
Nothing happens in an instant. Biologically, one might argue, there is a specific moment in time when we are created, when our spirit and flesh magically burst into pulsating, vibrant life. Like the Big Bang. But in our consciousness — which is really all that counts — our lives begin as a blur, vague memories strewn together, like a long darkness broken up with sporadic flashes or glimmers of light, until at last, day breaks and we begin our journey, rich with twists and turns, leaps and stumbles, joys and disappointments, friends and foes. And so it will be when we breathe our last: a graying of the day as our consciousness dims and our memories vanish, and our spirit and flesh part ways.
And on that bright note, Sancho, while spirit and flesh remain somewhat intact, I prepare to set off, with the noble intention of sharing at least some my experiences.
And is it only a coincidence that today, October 28, 2019, is the feast day of Thaddaeus? Thaddaeus was one of the Twelve Apostles, a brother of St. James the Less and a relative of Jesus. He is the patron saint of desperate cases. Thus, I ask St Jude, as he is also known, to send a blessing my way that I may do this blog justice and that he deliver my plea to the patron saint of good deeds and worthy causes, none other than his brother.
I have one final point to make in this introductory chapter: My initials are JPC, and if you speak the letters, it sounds a little bit like you are saying “gypsy”. Okay, you have to use a little bit of your imagination, but I have been aware for a long time that I have “gypsy” blood — not in the sense that I am of Romani extraction, but that the desire to visit and live in different places around the world has influenced my destiny. An Irish friend once spoke of the gypsies in his country, calling them Travellers, which is actually a bit of a derogatory term, but so descriptive of my life that I felt an odd bit of comradeship with them. Home, as they say, is where the heart is, and I have made my home around the world. Final caveat: If you are expecting a travel blog, best look elsewhere. If you want to follow my adventures, come along, my fellow gypsies. We have giants to slay!