It's become almost a rite of passage, this solitary walk in the Pyrenees before joining the pilgrim masses in Roncesvalles. I don't mind the solitude, because I know by now that you're never really alone on the Camino. Even if you play the hermit, sleeping in the open and shunning other pilgrims, you are still walking a road that was won and made safe for you by fifty generations of pilgrims, warriors, farmers, kings, engineers, rogues and saints. All of them are walking with you, even when you feel most alone, maybe especially then. Never far away, either, is Saint James the Pilgrim, Santiago Peregrino.
There is no other saint quite like James. Where others wait for the faithful to come to them, James goes out to meet his pilgrims. It must have been sometime in the eleventh century, in some sculptor's atelier in France or Spain, that Yakob the fisherman of Galilee traded in his toga for an all-weather cloak, a broad-brimmed hat and a staff and became Santiago Peregrino. In early portrayals he looks like a humble pilgrim. Later, he is more manly and dashing, though always approachable. He has the air of someone who can sing a good walking song, put back a cup of wine or two, and perform a miracle when needed. The Liber Sancti Jacobi retells twenty-two tales of pilgrims miraculously rescued from snowstorms, floods, wolves, bandits, wily innkeepers and the snares of the Evil One by Saint James the Pilgrim. Disbeliever though I am, I must credit these stories, for I have met Santiago Peregrino. It was on my second Camino, on my way from St Jean to Roncesvalles.
That time I stayed in the clean, cozy refuge of St-Jean. There were only three of us, and when I woke in the morning the others were gone. The shops on the rue de la Citadelle were not yet open and I had bought no provisions the night before, so the prudent thing would have been to wait a bit to stoke up on caffeine and calories. But I had no use for prudence that day; I was taking the route of Napoleon.
After days of driving rain and lightning storms, it was a splendid morning for walking. I climbed and climbed, looking back often to admire the widening panorama of farms, pasture, green slopes. I felt alive, invigorated, light as air, though part of that was my empty stomach. That was all right. My map showed villages ahead (Othatzenea, Erreculuch, Untto, such gnarled Basque names) where surely I would find a bar or shop. In fact, by my figuring, I should be getting to – what was it? – Othatzenea any minute. I scanned the landscape for the village church spires, but there were only farms and cows. Finally I checked my map. There was no way around it: Othatzenea was the three houses back there on the left.
No worries. I'd be in Erreculuch soon enough. Erreculuch – now there was a name. I tromped along, burbling "Erreculuch, Erreculuch," like a happy parrot. After half an hour or so I came upon two farms and a barking dog. And that was Erreculuch. My stomach snarled. "Why didn't you buy some bread last night?" "Patience," I told it, "patience."
I had a saving grace: there was a pilgrim refuge in Untto, which surely meant somewhere to eat. I wouldn't be there till past noon, but it would be worth the wait.
In Untto, the cheerful sign on the refuge read Closed till May. There were no shops. There would be none now till Roncesvalles. There were doors. A pilgrim can knock on doors for help. But I was too timid, or too proud, or maybe I thought it served me right to go hungry. I went on. It was a beautiful day and I was crossing the Pyrenees. In six hours, when I sat down to my first meal of the day, I would truly appreciate it. Till then I was fasting. That put a nice spin on it.
The higher I climbed, the wilder and more lonely were the mountainsides. There was no one in sight but the occasional shepherd grazing his flocks below. The sun came out full, transforming the clumps of sheep dung on the grass into glistening clusters of grapes. I sat surrounded by cows, watching jet trails cross the sky. And sometime around three o'clock I drank the last of my water. It ran all the way down to my toes. I had been saving that gulp for the Fountain of Roland at the height of the pass, just after the waymark that says Santiago 765 kms. I could see the fountain now just ahead, a little stone cairn with a tap sticking out of it. As I drew closer, I could see the little sign too. It read Disconnected for the winter.
By the Fountain of Roland, I sat down and wept. Or nearly. I decided to count my blessings instead. Only four more hours to Roncesvalles. No rain, snow or hail. None of the wolves, bears or bandits that pilgrims of old walked in fear of. Really, I was quite lucky. If only I could convince my stomach. So as I sat by the dry fountain, I told my stomach the old story from the Liber Sancti Jacobi of a pilgrim who crossed the Sierra del Perdón in the pounding heat of summer. He'd eaten nothing for days and he could barely set one foot in front of the other. Suddenly there was another at his side, where no one had been before.
"You look thirsty, my friend," said the stranger.
The pilgrim thought his salvation had arrived. "Do you have water?" he gasped.
"I have water for those who can pay," said the stranger with a smile.
Then the pilgrim understood who walked beside him and what price he would ask.
"I will die before I drink your water," he said.
"Well you may," smirked the devil. "If you change your mind I won't be far off." And in a flash he was gone.
The pilgrim staggered on till at last he fell upon the baked earth. He didn't know how long he had been lying there when he heard the sound of hoofs. Opening his eyes, he saw a brilliance that was not the sun, but a rider cantering down the slope on a white horse. The rider wore a pilgrim's cloak. A broad hat shielded his face. He dismounted, took a scallop shell from his saddlebag and plunged it into the earth beside where the pilgrim lay. There was a sound of rushing water. Then the horseman knelt and offered the shell to the pilgrim's lips.
The pilgrim looked into the rider's eyes. He had seen that honest face before. Where? He fell into a faint, and when he woke, he knew: it was the face he had seen above the altar of every church, the face of Saint James. The stream still gushed from the earth at his side, and it gushes to this day. It is called the Fuente de Reniega – the Well of Renunciation – and every pilgrim should drink of it, for its waters fortify the spirit against the temptation to abandon the Camino.
My stomach had fallen quiet. It was impressed. "And when do we get to this fountain?" it asked.
"In three days. It's after Pamplona."
My stomach went back to growling. There should have been no one else on the path that day, yet all of a sudden I heard a crunch of boots. A stocky man in his fifties wearing a battered straw hat emerged from the trees. I stood to meet him.
"Henk," he said, shaking my hand firmly. "Just call me Henk." Henk came from Rotterdam. In fact, he had come all the way from Rotterdam on foot.
"How far is that?"
He knit his brow. "I haven't counted lately. Around two thousand kilometers."
"Did you see the sign back there?" I asked.
"Seven hundred and sixty-five kilometers to Santiago? Yes. I'm almost there!"
But where had he come from today?
"I was walking in the rain two days ago and caught a cold, so I stayed an extra night at a guest house in St-Jean. I didn't want to take up a bed in the refuge. This morning I still felt a little sick, but the day looked so fine that I decided to walk."
Henk was brisk – the sort who walks three thousand kilometers briskly, if that makes sense. He sorted out who I was with a few brisk questions, then said, "Well, you're Bob, I'm Henk, we'll see each other tonight in Roncesvalles."
He was about to launch himself up the path when I blurted out: "You don't have any food, do you?"
He stopped. "Food? Have you had no food today? That's not good at all. A pilgrim needs energy. Let me see." He opened up his pack and started tossing out edibles. "I've got these dried fruit bars – they have everything your body needs. And – oh! – here's a can of tuna. From Catalonia. In a tasty tomato sauce. And I still have half a loaf of French bread from yesterday. Not fresh, but I don't think you'll mind. Will you be okay with that?"
Then, without benefit of enchanted white steed, my sturdy Dutch benefactor took wing. I watched him vanish briskly up the path, meaning to wave if he looked back. He didn't. I sat down, laid out my meal, said thank you and dived in. The French stick was stale, the tuna swam in a salty, goopy sauce, the energy bars were . . . energy bars.
I've never enjoyed a meal more. After, as I sprawled among the rocks and wild flowers, gazing at the snow-capped mountains to the east, I wondered if the man who had helped me was really just plain Henk, who happened to be in the right place at the right time, or was he the Pilgrim James in the guise of a brisk Dutchman? Did it make any difference? Whoever it is, whatever it is, that walks with us on the Camino, and cares for us, and saves us from peril when all hope is lost – let that be Santiago Peregrino.
Robert Ward is the author of Virgin Trails: A Secular Pilgrimage, an agnostic's guide to the worship of the Virgin Mary. He has lived in Japan, traveled widely in Europe and Asia and can muddle along in several languages. When he isn't on pilgrimage, he lives quietly in Toronto with his wife Michiko. All the Good Pilgrims: Tales of the Camino de Santiago (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2007, $26.95) is Ward's latest book. In this excerpt he has just begun his fifth walk along the legendary Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. Visit his website for more information: www.robertward.ca.