Stories from the Long Walk

Jumbled chronicles of a mother and daughter who chose to amble alongside one another… in Spain.

Charlotte Fertey // Columnist

It was October 2018. I was walking along a winding, dusty path into a small village in the northwestern region of Spain, where I was hoping to find a shower and somewhere to stay for the night. A little way ahead of me, my mother was saying something I couldn’t hear. My eyes followed her finger, pointing to a small cluster of buildings with a steeple poking out amongst the rusty shingles—finally.

We had been walking for thirteen days on the French Way of the Camino de Santiago—an ancient pilgrimage that snakes its way west for 800 kilometres from the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. It goes through a mountain pass, descending into Rioja vineyards and Spanish sunflowers, through whispering sun-soaked wheat fields. This northwestern part of Spain is made up of autonomous regions, further broken down into provinces, and overlaid by historic communities that predate the other two. We’d left behind Basque Country, rich with its cider and sheep’s cheese, and were now deep in the meseta (the high plateau of central Spain), with its blue skies and sparse trees.

As we walked the last few steps into the village, a woman on a bicycle with a basket pedalled toward us and met us, smiling, offering fruit. The dust settling around her boot as she put down one foot to steady her bike and welcomed us. A few steps further, we found what we sought: an albergue, a kind of hostel exclusively for pilgrims. We gladly laid down our 10 euros, claimed our beds and settled in. The village—or rather, the settlement—is made up of residents, mostly older, who have almost become one with the ancient structures that make up their homes; a small shop, operating out of the front room of someone’s house; and a church, which is the largest building in the village

This is Hornillos del Camino. Population: 70.

The rest of that afternoon was warm. We washed our hair and let the heat of the day settle into our bones and, as we rested our feet, the fragrance of saffron and onions wafted into the rooms. We wandered down towards the kitchen and saw our host, tending to a huge paella pan, expertly stirring the orzo and seasoning. She moved with ease as she chatted with pilgrims and answered their questions. She had a tea towel thrown over one shoulder. It was comforting.

Before dinner, we walked to Iglesias San Roman to attend the Pilgrim mass, where a small congregation—mostly made up of other tired pilgrims along with a few residents of the town—sat. The locals looked worn, like lifers, and if they were bothered by the strangers sitting in on their service, they did not show it. The priest was energetic and welcoming, and although I would not call myself religious, I felt a sense of connection with his words. He asked the pilgrims from all different countries to sing a hymn from their homes. The American pilgrims said they would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the priest politely refused this offer with a laugh as if to say, “try again” and asked for something else. The Americans settled on “Amazing Grace,” and my mother and I joined them. We couldn’t think of a Canadian hymn. We wondered between ourselves, is there such a thing? It was a bit embarrassing, but overall, it was all right.

A tiny woman from Japan, travelling alone, sang a hymn in Japanese. Her lone soft voice, so gentle and clear, felt holy. The priest, who struck me as a sort of embarrassing-dad type, was so excited to have everyone sing together that he suggested we stand at the altar at the front and sing Kumbaya. Yes, Kumbaya. I opted out, but my mother joined the Americans, Germans, French and Brazilians. As the third verse came up, the group went silent—no one knew the next verse, except, of course, my mother. Quietly and sweetly, her voice carried on alone as she introduced the next verse, “Someone’s cryin’ Lord, Kumbaya…” I felt my cheeks burn for her. The group joined in, and I saw her relax again. I was proud

Back at the albergue, we ate paella around a long table in the glass-enclosed sunroom. The red tile warm on my feet and the smell of flan permeated the hum of conversation, a gut-laugh breaking out now and then. This was the best meal someone prepared throughout the whole journey. Imagine that.

As we walked out of town at sunrise the next morning, our hearts warmed by the gifts of this tiny Spanish village, I saw a purple passionflower under the crescent moon.

We had plans to return this past spring to those lush mornings and hot, shiny plains, but 2020 had other plans, and like many, we had to cancel our trip because of the global pandemic. Some say the Camino starts as soon as you lock your own front door behind you and begin making your way. I would like to think that instead of our walk being “cancelled,” we are actually already on the way, walking together separately—hopefully towards a fork, roads merging, where my mother and I will walk together again.

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