Tag Archives: in memory of Michael

The largest scallop shell on the Camino de Santiago trail! Photo by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: the Scallop Shell

The scallop shell is a definite part of the el Camino and has been for centuries. Like many things unknown to me until I became entrenched in the walking of the el Camino, little did I realize the impact it makes each day. The scallop shell is the trail marker through all the cities and towns. It is brass, cemented into granite posts and under our feet on cobblestones. I saw scallop shells in iron fence designs in front of people’s homes. The scallop shell was painted on signs for places of business. One home, on a curve in the path through the village, stood out because the entire part of the building facing the path was covered with scallop shells, cemented into the walls top to bottom.

After the first day of walking the el Camino, when I signed in at the albergue in Roncesvalles, I bought an official el Camino scallop shell, with the tiny red symbol painted on the back; I tied it to the cover of my pack and wore it all across Spain. It was a visible sign, along with my well-worn clothes and trekking poles, that I was indeed a pilgrim of the el Camino.

One day recently I saw the largest scallop shell symbol on the el Camino. It was out in the country, on the side of a small, one-story building. A well-worn path went to the front door, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. It was a small trail café, and when my friend Jack and I entered, it was standing room only. People are so friendly and pleasant on the trail. I spotted familiar faces, and enjoyed a coffee and a snack there before moving on, with more scallop shells to follow.

The scallop shell made me think of the maintenance of the trail. The signs were always in good shape. The trail all along 500 miles was safe, hazard-free, and clean of liter. There was graffiti on the cement trail underpasses near the cities and larger towns and on a few signs there, too.

The scallop shell symbols also brought to mind the cruceiros along the entire trail. As I would be walking up a hill or near a mountain pass, there would often be a big cruceiro, which is a stone cross where pilgrims pile stones in memory of those they love. For my part, in memory of my son Michael, I had brought a very small bag of tiny black pebbles from the fireplace mantel of his home on the Maine coast. Michael had placed those on his mantel for a special reason—a memory of one of his adventures. As I walked along the Camino de Santiago, I took those smooth, tiny pebbles and placed each one at the base of a different cruceiro. One very tall cruceiro had wide beams, and I decided to throw a pebble on to that cross beam. After two or three tries, I landed my pebble on the cross beam, and there it sits as a reminder that special people are never forgotten. Now only one of Michael’s pebbles is left for Santiago—the finish!—and a few more scallop shell signs will lead me there.

(posted June 16, 2015)

Mountain view on the Camino de Santiago trail; photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Cruz de Hierro

It is amazing the wonderful people I meet on the trail every day, as I hike the Camino de Santiago in fall 2014. There are new faces–all are positive, motivated pilgrims on the journey of a lifetime–and then I see my great trail friends, happy to see a familiar pilgrim, all of us in this together. The Spanish countrymen are very pleasant and helpful, too. Wherever I am on the trail, they wave and shout out “Bueno” or “Buenos dias” or “Buen Camino.”

Today I was leaving Astorga and I walked with Jorgen, a Danish man. It was dark and we both had on our head lamps. As often is the case when leaving a town, the el Camino is on the highway until it diverts onto a path and goes back into the country, woods, or mountains. This was the case today.

We were walking along the road, looking for the el Camino signs, when there was a choice: take the path or stay on the highway. Ahead of us was a couple from California. They chose the path, and in the dark, it seemed safer than being on the highway.

This was the beginning of a mistake. The four of us walked quite a few kilometers until we came to a four-way split in the trail. We could find no markers. On the left was a deserted town. I remember reading about this in my trail book.

Ahead I did not know, to the right seemed wrong, and we had just come from the other way. Jorgen and I decided it was safest to go left, and away we went, leaving the California couple with their GPS. They were sure they knew the way, but they were new on the trail.

We said goodbye and wished them well. We never saw them again.

Jorgen and I walked through this completely restored ancient town, with all up-to-day living, but the lovely stone homes were empty. The government had poured in millions of euros, hoping people would come back here to live, but it is too far from good jobs.

After a few minutes of slowly walking through the only street in town, I saw one woman standing by a car, and I asked her how to find the Camino. She said, “Derecho.” Pointing straight ahead, she continued, “Y izquierdo!”

I knew to turn left at the end of the town. After this we walked and walked. Finally I saw rooftops over the horizon, then a good omen: two deer walked in front of me. I could have almost touched them.

Then, in the distance, pilgrims were walking. Perhaps 10 or 20 in all, none in a group, simply spread out along the visible trail, the highway, and the same road we had decided not to continue on early that morning. We were relieved to be finally on the trail again. It was an exhausting extra few kilometers not knowing where we were.

Not long after we came to a town, Jorgen stopped for breakfast, but I kept walking. I met an Englishman and we walked part of the day together. It was a day of hiking uphill through several ancient towns and near the old Roman gold mines.

That night I stayed in Rabanal del Camino, the last resting place before tackling the high Cordillera Cantábrica mountains. It was cold and damp at the Nuestra Señora del Pilar albergue. This is Iberia, wolf country, and the land of the Maragatos, ancient muleteers, Spanish mountain people. It is an area also known for legends of Charlemagne and his knights.

The weather can be very rainy and it can snow any time of the year. The albergues are not heated, and some will close soon, for the winter is too severe here. Inside the cold albergue, I slept with layers of clothes and my sleeping bag. In the morning, I left the albergue, high on the mountain, in a heavy cloud cover and darkness. I knew others had gone out ahead of me, and others would soon follow, but it was still an eerie place when I set out, being able to see only a foot or two ahead of me.

I was soon joined by a 40 year old woman from Nova Scotia. She was happy to have a walking partner though this challenging area. The terrain was uneven, narrow, and steep. We took our time, checking carefully not to miss a trail marker or to lose our footing.

We stayed together until after dawn, and we reached Foncebadón, high up on the mountain pass. There were a couple of stone buildings, where animals stayed under the buildings, and the families lived above them. Several goats greeted me and waited on the steps of the homes like dogs hoping to be greeted by their master.

There was a tiny store/café: I opened the door and we went inside. It was a great feeling to come in, out of the cold, damp, and wind. We had a cup of coffee, and she wanted to rest awhile, so I went on along the narrow trail, alone. It was still uphill; two men joined me, and we continued the climb to Cruz de Hierro, one of the highlights of the el Camino.

I knew about Cruz de Hierro before I left home, and I had been looking forward to leaving two special pebbles here: one from my son Michael’s mantel, that he had collected on his worldly travels, and one from a hike in my hometown. These had been carried in my pack, in Belguim, France, and 21 days on the el Camino. I dropped them on the massive pile of stones.

This site marks the pass over Monte Irago and the border between La Maragateria and el Bierzo. It is known that Celts laid stones at these peaks and passes to calm the mountain gods and ask for a safe passage. Romans in this area followed the same tradition, calling the stones murias, after Mercury, their god of travelers. After I had taken a few photos of the tall iron cross, I walked up onto the pile and looked at some of the special stones with engraved names or scribbled writing on the stones; some had been painted. All the stones had been carried for many miles to be placed in memory of a loved one. This was a shared time with my son, Michael.

At Cruz de Hierro I met another Michael, a 25 year old man from Australia. We walked the rest of the day together to Molinaseca, and I found another albergue for the night. It had been a meaningful day. The scenery was magnificent after descending below the clouds, but my concentration was on the narrow path with sharp rocks. I was excited knowing that I was getting closer to Santiago, and I enjoyed every step along the way.

(posted April 21, 2015)

Hiking the Camino de Santiago trail in fall 2014 (photo by Madelyn Given).

El Camino: An Adventure

A journey that takes a month or longer of hiking every day will have a few unexpected adventures—today was one of them, I thought, while on my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in fall 2014. The night before, I had stayed in a new albergue, in a tiny village out in the meseta. Before I went to bed, the manager of the albergue explained the directions for getting on the trail. He was very clear in telling me not to go back the way I came; instead, go out of town to a fork in the road and take a left. This is a short cut and easy to follow.

At 6 am, I was out of town on the trail, alone. I took a left at the fork and walked 3-4 kilometers, until the trail dead ended out in a field. It was dark, and I didn’t want to retrace my steps. There were no trees or stakes with trail markers, or cairns like on top of mountains; the only markers were on small rocks and they were easy to miss, day or night. I looked around, tried to use my common sense, kept my wits about me, and thought: the worst case scenario is staying here.  The only sign of life was an interstate far off in the distance. I had crossed under it, by a tunnel on my way to the albergue yesterday, and my sense of direction told me the trail was on the other side of this highway.

I decided to walk in that direction. I walked through the pucker brush, being very careful not to step in a hole or on a snake, and hoping all the time to see the trail. I worked my way to the interstate and came to a high fence that kept out animals. I followed the fence quite a ways, until I found a place that was bent down a bit. With the help of my trekking poles, I managed to get up and jump over this high fence. I crossed a gully and got up on the side of the Interstate.

I was very concerned that a patrol car would stop and I would be in trouble. I had never done this before, even in my own country. There was little traffic: just a few trailer trucks. I knew I would get off at the first exit and find help. I walked as fast as I could, far over in the breakdown lane.

I made it to the exit and local road. The first car I saw stopped and told me the village was not far, and the trail would be near there. This was exactly where my earlier instincts had told me to go. As I entered the village, the only other car I had seen stopped, and a young woman driver rolled her window down and told me to go in the direction she was pointing. She kept saying, “Buen el Camino, Buen el Camino.”  I understood.

Five minutes later… I felt relieved, but at that moment, I wanted to quit! Nevertheless, I was walking the el Camino in my son Michael’s memory, and I felt he was with me all the way. However, the mistake had taken a lot out of me, and I walked slowly for the rest of the day.

After my adventure, I got to the next town, which was quite a distance, and by then it was late morning. As I was walking through the little town, I saw a few hikers, several walking alone, but they all seemed so tired just from the heat and walking that I didn’t stop to tell them my story.

But in this little town a car pulled up in front of me and parked. A man got out and ran towards me. It was the manager of the albergue where I had stayed last night. He had been worried about me, as I had left early and not stayed and had coffee with him this morning. He gave me a hug and was relieved that I was O.K. I didn’t dare tell him I lost the trail this morning! As part of the el Camino family, he genuinely cared.

Despite all the ups and downs, you always feel supported along the trail. The locals are friendly and helpful, and the trekkers go out of their way to make the pilgrimage a rewarding and successful experience. Even so, today was an adventure I didn’t plan to repeat.

(posted March 24, 2015)