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The Trek of a Lifetime Part Two

Oct 23, 2014 09:54PM ● By Jennifer Neys

By Lesley Stiles

We navigated our way across northwestern Spain by scallop shells and yellow arrows placed by international Camino freaks that volunteer throughout the year. When getting lost becomes a real possibility, you will be saved by a rock, ancient stone, or even a tree trunk on the far side of the road with a yellow arrow painted on it. We spent a good deal of time looking for markers by sunlight or moonlight and the Camino provides. Castles and monastic ruins appear around many a turn, each village boasting churches beyond plentiful, with astounding amounts of riches displayed on enormous alter pieces embellished with gold, carvings, jewels, gem stones, statues, and paintings depicting various scenes of religious deities over the millennium, precious even in decay. Initially, it caused uneasy ghoulish visions of labor from poor slaves and serfs, but chains of history along the Way provide a deeper understanding. The relationship between religion and people over centuries along the Camino de Santiago is fascinating.

A seven-day segment of the Camino is described as the Meseta, a high plain requiring a several thousand-foot climb. Once ascended, it unfolds into unrelenting flat, wide, gravel paths, brutal underfoot for miles, with little to no shade or villages, only endless fields of dry barley that disoriented us. Until now, we had been climbing mountains and traversing valleys, lush and green - filled with water, flowers, and many a village for resting and enjoying chocolate and diet Coke before moving on again. These long incendiary stretches are referred to as the “soulless senda” in map books. One of the flat paths unexpectedly escorted a wide canal that was used a thousand years ago to move grain and agricultural products throughout the region, with old locks beautifully still in place. Churches and villages on the Camino are centered on the pilgrimage and have pilgrim masses daily, with personal, hands-on blessings from the priest. We gratefully received any help we could get.

Food on the Camino is a pilgrim’s menu that someone sold on the albergue (hostel) circuit as a commercial venture, driven by locals who derive their annual income from pilgrims. The typical menu is three-courses for eight to ten euro. Choices are relentlessly similar and consist of what someone decided international pilgrims would want: spaghetti from Italy; weird mayo salad Russe from Russia; way overcooked mash of peas and other canned products from UK; French fries from France; and the one we ate every day -- salad mixta with lettuce, canned tuna, white asparagus and tomatoes, we think from the US. Sometimes there were olives or hard-boiled eggs, possibly carrots, but usually with valuably high protein. Second courses were just as bizarre, with even vegetarian dishes containing some sort of pork product. We found luscious fruits and nuts from pleasant shopkeepers from the Mercado.

One particularly difficult walk stretched the performance of my three liters of water with an hour of blazing sun before the next village. I had been preventing insanity from boredom by looking for a shot of the perfect heart cloud to send to my friend Jackie Hopkins, as I had been thinking about her and Kate all day and how Kate loved heart clouds. I was growing more agitated and parched by the second, when out of nowhere, this dude in a minivan with loud music and a huge smile rolls up and hands us all bottles of ice-cold water. Those bottles were painted with big pink hearts. Goose bumps covered me into the village as I felt her looking over us pilgrims trudging to our next destination. We spent a wonderful night in his albergue amidst rabbits and chickens, well fed and thoroughly quenched.

Camino De Santiago Pilgrims Salad Mixta

1 pound mixed market greens on a large beautiful platter. Add a couple quartered hard-boiled eggs. Toss on some grated carrots and a good handful of Greek olives. Slice on generous cucumbers and lots of halved cherry tomatoes. Flake on a can of tuna. Drizzle with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar; add a crack of sea salt and share with bread, loved ones and icy cold Albarino!