A Writer Writes — Roland Merullo (Micronesia) walks the Camino de Santiago
A note from Roland Merullo (Micronesia 1979-80)
Dear Friends and Readers,
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people walk the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route that stretches from the Pyrenees to northwest Spain. Some make the 500-mile walk for religious reasons (the body of St. James is said to have been buried in Santiago, at the end of the route); others for exercise; still others simply to have a break from the rush and mental clutter of modern life. Our daughter, Alexandra, walked the Camino two years ago, and our other daughter, Juliana, plans to walk it next spring, at the end of her gap year and before heading off to college.
Amanda and I decided to walk the first 100 miles this summer. I should point out that Alexandra carried a backpack the whole way and slept in hostels, while Amanda and I, walking one-fifth of the route, shipped our bags from one town to the next and slept in hotels. Still, it was a physical and mental challenge: we hiked twelve or fifteen miles most days, and in the midst of one of Europe’s worst heat waves of recent years (it was 104 the day we hiked into Pamplona).
I’m not sure exactly why we did it. Alexandra’s very positive experience and her many stories had inspired us, that was surely part of the reason. But I think there were other reasons, too. With the girls on their own, or soon to be, Amanda and I feel ourselves moving into a new stage of life. We’re not quite ready for the rocking chair on the porch, but the focus of our lives has shifted from raising our daughters to. . .something else, and maybe we wanted to time to contemplate that. I’m sure another part of the motivation came from the sense so many of us share that the modern world is too hectic, too full, often too spiritually superficial.
In the first year of our marriage, we’d made a 1,000-mile bicycle trip around New England, so maybe this was an echo of that first adventure, almost 40 years later.
Whatever the reasons, we left Italy–after the wonderful writers’ conference at Locanda Rosati, and some time doing book research in Naples–flew to Bordeaux, took a train to St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France, and the next day tied on our walking shoes, hoisted tiny day packs onto our shoulders, lit candles for our girls in the church in St. Jean that marks the official starting place, and set off.
We walked for ten days, between six and fifteen miles per day, with a day’s rest in the fantastic city of Pamplona. There were some tough climbs over the Pyrenees, and some brutally hot, six-mile-long, unshaded stretches through northern Spain’s wheat fields and vineyards. In the small cities along the route, there were caffe con leche, croissant and fresh-squeezed orange juice breakfasts, gazpacho and ham-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch, modest three-course “platas” for dinner. And there were literally gallons of water consumed to stave off dehydration.
We’d arrive in each town or small city–Valcarlos, Roncesvalles, Zubiri, Puente la Reine, Pamplona, Estella, Los Arcos, Viana, Logrono–utterly exhausted. Sweat-soaked. Dead-legged. Road-weary in the extreme. We’d have a shower and sometimes a nap, then wander through town in search of dinner (often $10 or so) and a glass of wine (usually about $3). Amanda speaks Spanish well–a good thing, or I’d still be lost somewhere in Basque Country, bumbling from one farm to the next asking directions, sleeping in hayfields and chewing on wild berries. At 65 and 63, we were among the oldest people we saw, but there are octogenarians who make the pilgrimage, and while we went along at a decent pace, there were lots of fellow travelers with younger legs, hearts, and lungs, who breezed past us.
We didn’t care about that. It wasn’t a competition. We encouraged and were encouraged by people from Korea, Italy, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, France, Great Britain, Croatia, Canada, and we spoke with some other Massachusetts residents, too (one of whom assured me that writing for a living was “just like being retired, right?”!). We sweated through the night in hot hotel rooms just large enough for a bed, watched the incredible U.S. Women’s soccer team win the World Cup. We taped up foot blisters, went very carefully along rough Roman roads to avoid twisting an ankle in the middle of nowhere, passed a man with a guitar sitting in the shade of a field singing “Hallelujah”, went out before sunrise one day to get some miles in before the heat came on strong. We enjoyed the magnificent tapas (called pincho) in Pamplona cafes, shared ribald jokes with two eighty-year-olds in a bar on the French-Spanish border, climbed some of the steeper hills very slowly, with rest stops every hundred feet, saw lizards and small snakes, mountain goats, falcons and cranes, horses, cows, dogs, flies, bees, ants, snails, and every manner of wildflower. Amanda took hundreds of photos; I took mental notes.
We finished in Logrono, caught the train to Madrid, and spent two nights there in a comfortable hotel, embraced by the craziness of the modern world again–the advertisements, the traffic and crowds, all the duties and errands we’d temporarily set aside.
Our mini-Camino felt like a cleansing, and we’ve promised each other to do a ten-day walk every year for as long as we are able. We returned home to the ragged inefficiency of Logan Airport, the smiles of our daughters, the company of friends, a stack of bills and notices, a list of household chores, the political wars, the angry drivers, the $10 glasses of wine. But behind all that we knew we’d filled up a small reservoir of something that’s hard to label. An expanded sense of our own abilities. An appreciation for our many comforts and blessings. During those ten days, we touched a place of peace we won’t soon forget.
In other words, the walk was worth it.
I’m always a little sad on July 15th, the day I count as the exact middle of summer, the point where it begins to feel like we’re heading downhill toward fall. I love summer’s long hours of light and mild evenings, the bats doing their acrobatics over our yard at dusk, the fresh food and minimum of clothing, the golf, the swimming, the greenery and birds. I know that some of my southern friends, sweltering in the heat, are aching for October, but I want time to creep slowly along right now. I could have ten months of this.
Peace to all of you,
Link to: Roland Merullo’s GoodReads Page
2 CommentsLeave a comment
Absolutely wonderful piece. Makes me think of all the hikes/walks my husband and I have taken through the years: hiking the high peaks of Yosemite, two weeks total wilderness hike alone in the Bitterroot mountains of Montana, walking from Florence to Sienna, day hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, five days hiking through the bush in South Africa, but NOTHING as arduous as your hike! I’m so impressed and at the moment, envious. Thank you for allowing me to live vicariously through your essay. Marnie
Dear Rolando and Amanda,
I’ve been a long time fan of Rolando’s writings; especially the Buddha books. And wrote a review on this site of one of your early books. I’ve long been intrigued by the Camino de Santiago. I’ve seen signs directing pilgrims to it from France and Portugal, as well as Spain. And also loved the film, “The Way.”
Thank you for sharing your escape from so-called civilization with us.
Leita Kaldi Davis