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Camino Blog 8 – Alone

Alone. Today was about being alone.  Most of us have never spent time [recent] alone.
My close friend Derek was honest about it – when faced with being alone on the vision quest.  “I’ve never been away from my situation!”
Separation – from one’s tribe, one’s family, one’s familiar world – it’s not something sought for.
Some come to it naturally = they’re introverts, sufficient unto themselves.  A good day is a day away.  From crowds, interactive others, demanding that they say something, do something, to fit in.
Extroverts are more social. Drawing off the energy of those surrounding them.
Here, as we walk, we can choose.  There are many many opportunities to spend time with someone, as I said yesterday, on a far more intimate basis than is our convention.  You’re always coming in the middle.  No preliminaries, just right into the guts of lives.
But you can also walk alone.  For all the number of pilgrims – a river, really, of people – you can saunter along on your own.  If you give off that vibe, folks will pass, or you will go by, with no more than a ‘Buen Camino”.
Today, there was a natural coherence.  We all faced a dramatic test – the ascent to O Cebriero.  Now this is a climb I’ve been building up in my mind for a few years.  It is daunting.  You push on up a river valley, intoxicating – mixing water, birds and greenery, all the while dreading, knowing the hill awaits.  Past the mountain villages.  Past the horses you can hire if you want to finesse it and make them work.

Then, at Herrerias, the road tilts up.  Now we’re into it.  We follow the road gradient for a while
:  everyone in their private, but shared world of exertion.  600 meters to 1400 in just over 5 kms.  It’s a grunt and we all banter about it.  The sun warms as we turn off the road onto the pilgrim trail, rock embedded but moist, flattening at first then really on the incline.  A quiet forest, alpine style flowers peeking out from the verge but always the clack clack of the tips of the poles pounding to give additional purchase.  Breath, blowing hard, the vapor of the lower reaches evaporated.
Then, a hint of blue sky drawing us on.  Gradually emerging into, – the village at the bottom on the next pitch.  Not so hard as the first, but still relentlessly up to the next interim, incongruously termed Laguna.
Still 2 + to go.  Dry determined folk, quiet now, no banter, no fun, until we reach the boundary marker admitting us into the very different Spanish province of Galicia.  Virtually summiting, we drive along an old stone wall and pop into Cebriero.
And I mean pop!
After all this alone time, struggling against our physical limits in company with a very specially committed group, we suddenly are in a “quaint” stone town full of tourist busses of citizens here to get their tiny dose of the Camino, here at its high point.  They are performing for each other and we are suddenly in society – not the unique one we’ve forged to this point.
After lunch with our ragtag bunch of loosely affiliated pilgrims, I take a very unique option – presented on notice boards throughout the town.  in typical stilted English “take advantage of the slope – Cebriero to Triacastella in 2 hours.  One way bike”.
Well, they got me.  I’ve been over this stretch twice before and here’s an opportunity to glide all the way from the top to the bottom with ease.  I took it.
Right away, I could sense how alone I was in that choice.  No one else bought in.  But I launched.
I’m rocketing down the main road, not the pilgrim route.  Ends up in the same place but I started to feel wistful, knowing some of the sweet little spots I was missing but could still sense as I zoomed by.
And the guilt, flashing past hardworking, hard striding walkers condemned to take every stride while I rolled.  Then I had to surmount two passes, the Alto San Roque and the Alto Poio, the latter at 1335 meters.
I felt dumb, I couldn’t get the rented bike into its lowest gear, so had to walk it up the last of both inclines to the passes.
And then it truly was all downhill.  Scorching down, eating up hard won distance I’ve traversed in the past, maundering over scenes I’ve spent hours revelling in, all flashing by in a nanosecond of breeze and bugs.  Down down and suddenly, I emerge into Triacastella:  back to normal life after being excluded from the tribe – voluntarily.
Tonight, dinner in the ultralively paseo flanked by packed pilgrim restaurants all serving a hell of a deal. 3 courses for 10E with wine and water.  The conversation is high, greetings are fierce as folks who have been together here, or there, have caught up to each other.  Folks limp by to the usual enquiries about the health of their feet or knees, particularly after the summit.
And I am talking to Mary Ann about the Catholic Church.  She, Jesuit education, speculating about whether the promise of the church was that people would never be alone, particularly at the end.  We talk about pilgrims who have perished along the way, and say how good that would be.  But the other thread of the faith, was that if you were engaged in good pursuits, you went to heaven.  There to join other worthies.
The promise of faith – you will not be alone.  You will meet the father.  He will, and does, enfold you.  Existential aloneness – it’s a challenge, one we often don’t contemplate until near the end, when being alone is very hard to deal with.  It’s one thing to be alone:  it’s another to be vulnerable and alone.
This walk we do together in brotherhood.  Perhaps that’s as good as it gets…

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Doug Bouey, President
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Calgary, AB // Phone: 403.777.1144


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