“The Plaza del Grano brought me images of thousands, maybe millions, of citizens and pilgrims doing their thing for hundreds of years before me. I felt a part of that plaza like few other places along the Camino.”
“I’m a section hiker, and have covered entire long paths like the Camino Francés over several one-week sections. I’m working my way through the Appalachian Trail in the USA, and I’m not based too far from the GR-11, the gran recorrido that traverses the Pyrenees Mountains. I’ll do that one day, too. Sectional hikes break up a long trail into manageable stages, but at the same time, these little one-week jaunts aren’t the long voyages of self-discovery that thru hikers have. But hey, I discovered myself long ago and I’m happy with myself. Still, as I was doing a section of the Camino de Santiago in 2014 that passed through Léon, I saw a few beautiful things, and I had a run-in with an interesting fellow, and I thought I’d share something about them.
In León, I stayed at a hotel to get a change from the daily life in albergues. It was located in this brilliant old plaza, Plaza del Grano, filled with undulating cobblestones that must be hundreds of years old. In our new cities where we marvel at new modern construction, clean lines, and perfect right angles, we forget – the earth’s movements, rain, weather, plants, and our own feet will eventually change those perfect lines into imperfect, weathered surfaces with some character. Even the most glorious buildings, columns, and stairs of ancient Rome are now weathered, rounded, and I think they have more character now than they did then. We spend all this time on the Camino and other big trails out in nature, and when we get to ‘civilization,’ it feels sterile sometimes. The Plaza del Grano brought me images of thousands, maybe millions, of citizens and pilgrims doing their thing for hundreds of years before me. I felt a part of that plaza like few other places along the Camino.
Another special thing I noticed was in León’s Plaza Mayor. Nearly from the start of the Camino Frances, you see poppy fields all over. Green fields with strong, bright red flowers standing up to the Spanish sun. And again, when you get inside these cities, your visuals change and we temporary nature-hikers who have these trappings of civilization immediately go right back to city life. We take showers, go to restaurants, sit in chairs instead of on logs. I saw in Plaza Mayor something that took my breath away – simple restaurant umbrellas that, at first glance, resembled the poppies I saw all along the trail. It was simple. It didn’t mean all that much. But it made me feel close to the trail – and not like I was just inside some city. Did they intend for their bright red umbrellas to do that to pilgrims? Or was that just the color of that restaurant’s beer sponsor? Who knows. I’m going to stay with my vision.
The final memory I have from this trip is of a nice young man I met in an albergue a few nights before arriving in León. He had had a tough time so far on the trail with his feet and his shoes. But it was his birthday that night and it looked like a couple friends gave him a pep talk. He cut loose and had a hell of a fun evening – thanks to a nice supply of wine. But it looks like he ticked off our albergue’s very un-fun hostess, and she had a few choice words for him. The next morning, the guy was busy thinking that he had done something horrible, that he was somehow betraying the spirit that brought him to the Camino, that he somehow hadn’t done the right things in life, and all kinds of weird thoughts that people have when someone gets us down. The Camino’s not the place to be thinking like that, and I wanted to let him know! Naturally that morning he got a late start, and I took off before him. At my first coffee break on the day, I sat down and e-mailed him the poem ‘What Then?’ by W. B. Yeats.
His chose comrades thought at school
He should grow a famous man.
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil.
What then? sang Plato’s ghost, What then?
Everything he wrote was read.
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed.
What then? sang Plato’s ghost, What then?
All his happier drama came true,
A small, old house, wife daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and wits about him drew.
What then? sang Plato’s ghost. What then?
The work is done, grown old he thought,
According to my boyish plan.
Let the fools rage, I swerved in nought,
Something to perfection brought.
But louder sang that ghost, What then?
I thought it would set his mind at ease – help him shake off the unsatisfied ghosts that push and prod us all the time. I told him, ‘don’t let anyone knock you off your stride. You are a fine fellow of strong capacities. If you remember those two things you will make your mark on the world.’ These trips, whether they’re section hikes or thru hikes, should be about having fun, about enjoying the journey, and if we want, learning something about ourselves – but in a safe place, not judged by others. I hope that in the future this guy remembers that. I hope everyone remembers that, and doesn’t let anyone’s judgment or sullen attitude be what ruins their day or their trip. That’s not what the Camino’s about. That’s not what life’s about.”