It was Tuesday, September 1st around 8:15 when we left St Jean and crossed over the Pyrenees into Spain. Our first ascent of 12 km. and 800 feet into Valcarlos took us until 4:15 that afternoon. Martes or Mardi or Marsday, became a day of war, no matter what the language. The unrelenting rain, and the unending climb hammered me into an oblivion of misery, and the end of my strength and resolve.
I had a breakdown, and met a wall of weakness in my body and soul that nailed me to the ground, and made me crawl over the remaining rocks of this final hill. Sobs shook me out of control until I cried out, “I don’t have the strength! I can’t do this!”. Still I wouldn’t hand over my backpack to John, who was obviously shaken by the depth of my suffering. He had never seen me like this, and went ahead to secure our lodging.
When Marcos the innkeeper saw me enter, he said to John, “I can see she’s a fighter”. Those words poured over me like oil. How could he say that? Couldn’t he see I was undone and beaten? I sat down on the bunk, and John helped me take off wet clothing and boots, grateful for a warm place to stay that night. Surrounded by a group of strong muscular women pilgrims, I felt like a whining whimp. Marcos assured us we didn’t have to leave at the customary 8:30 the next morning. We had dinner together with him at a local cafe that evening, and encouraged him to return to faith in Christ.
As we sat around that table, John said, “Mary, this is Our Camino“. He reminded me about times of conquering and overcoming when we hiked the John Muir trail, Mt. Whitney, and Mt. Shasta. “Those days are over, sweetheart. Nothing, no goal or plan, is more important than our marriage. This is a different season, that needs another kind of strength”. And so we changed our focus, and planned our next steps.
Typically, my desires have always trumped my abilities. And that’s when God would step in for the rescue. It was obvious I couldn’t tackle the steep ascents that remained, and the slippery slopes they entailed. The last thing I wanted to do was fall, or sustain an injury that would upend the joy of our 35th Anniversary celebration.
The next morning as we waited to take a taxi to Roncevalles, we noted an older white haired couple trudging up the path. If they can do it, I can do it, was my immediate thought as I watched them rest on a bench. When they came over to say hello, I noticed an Irish brogue. Charlotte blessed me by her remark, ” I’m not here to be a heroine, but just a pilgrim”. We invited them to share our taxi, much to their delight, and they in turn, invited us to stay at the hotel they had booked. Their method of Camino-ing helped us to refocus. Charlotte and Peter sent their luggage on ahead to hotels, and traveled only with a small daypack. From then on we sent our backpacks ahead for a small fee. We joined them in a special pilgrim Mass, and dinner that evening. Their light-hearted humor lifted me out of the doldrums of defeatism.
What’s a pilgrim to do after she’s met her Waterloo? Since we are free from the burden of doing penance for our sins, and punishing our bodies, we can enjoy this, keep our spiritual antennas up so God’s love can pour through in joy and peace. One day we met these Chinese pilgrims on an ancient Roman bridge who insisted on taking my picture, wild and wooly though I be.
Many God moments and Divine encounters later we met Emily, who had celebrated her birthday the day before mine. She was exactly 20 years younger and had been injured descending the Alto de Perdon, a steep outcropping of loose rock and shale, taken to a hospital by ambulance some 20 km away to Pamplona to receive her mark of honor in the form of 8 stitches. We linked together and spent the next few days on the Camino since her speed had been reduced to ours. Together we visited ancient churches, a hermitage and monasteries, and became soul sisters on the way. Our heart-to-heart meeting became the spiritual high point of our pilgrimage.
Then one day John asked me, “Do you want to go home?’ We had been planning to exit at the half-way mark at Burgos, and prayed for the Lord to direct our steps. But John had received a different burden: the Syrian Refugee Crisis across Europe, and was reluctant to share it with me. I was ready to make a change, so we took a bus to Madrid and waited for direction. It was a paradigm shift in our thinking when we received a welcoming email from Bryan Miller and his family who lived in Berlin, Germany, the epicenter of this historic ethnic upheaval, and who were reaching out to Muslim refugees. The next day we flew out.