I have to admit it; I’m concerned about Gaetan. Not worried, precisely — it’s not that strong a feeling — but I cannot but wonder. Did he make it all the way? Did he cope with the long slog up to the Cruz de Ferro, or the narrow rocky path after El Acebo? And what did he make of that muddy ford below Riego. He hasn’t said, and I’d like to know, just in case. I’ve been reading about him since somewhere around Astorga and I want to know.
I picture him as a first or second year undergraduate, 18 or 19 – 20 at most – and, like many young men that age, still catching up to himself in terms of growth. He trips over his own feet still, not entirely used to the length of his legs, and prone to knocking things off desks with his elbows. He watches the football with his friends, of course, but was never that keen on it at school – he prefers computer games or swimming – and he’s not really used to long distance walking. But all his friends want to walk the Camino this summer, and he’s known most of them since primary school, and, well, he really wants to walk with them, all these up and down miles to Santiago.
I don’t know where he started from. With his name he’s probably French, but there’s a chance he’s Spanish or even German and his parents just liked the sound of it. Perhaps, like so many pilgrims on the Camino Frances, he started at St Jean Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees and has already made his way over those steep mountains. Perhaps, like many locals, he began at Roncevalles or Pamplona. Perhaps, like Karen and me, he began in Burgos. I don’t know. I just know he’s somewhere, walking these same paths as we are, and his friends are sending encouragement via notes on way posts and signs. They write them in multiple languages – Spanish and Italian and French and Portuguese. His friends are polyglots or else from multiple countries and they care about him, even though, clearly, he has somehow fallen behind.
It’s August in Spain and hitting the middle 30s by early afternoon. Pilgrims rise early, walking out of small villages and towns at 6 or 7 in the morning, to get in as many kilometres as possible before the heat sets in. I’m here with my friend Karen, who has walked the Camino by several routes before, and we are only doing part of it this year – on foot from Burgos in the province of Castile y Leon to O Cebreiro on the edge of Galicia. It’s around 200 km, all told – about a quarter of the total route from St Jean to Santiago. It’s Karen’s favourite section and we’re doing it in short stages, because right now she isn’t very well. For the first week – the hottest, as it turns out – my partner Phil is with us too and we walk along the dusty paths of the Meseta Central, the great central plain, where, according to Alan Jay Lerner, the rain mainly falls.
Not in August (though, having been there in November and December on other trips I have got very wet indeed walking up to ruined castles). It’s arid and shadeless, wide fields of grain and sunflowers, though not always as flat as the name suggests. Villages are few, and of those we reach, many seem half-deserted, houses dozing behind shuttered windows. In Burgos, we got our Credencials — pilgrim passports – stamped in the great cathedral – before we began the first day’s walk. Now we are collecting new stamps, from occasional cafes and overnight small hotels and albergues. Hontanas, Castrojeriz, Boadilla, Fromista… In Castrojeriz Phil and I leave Karen at a bar and climb up in the full heat of the day to the great castle that towers over the town. Below, the plain spreads out on all sides, hazy in the afternoon light. Walking into Fromista, we spot an otter playing in the waters of the canal. Karen and I photograph wildflowers, with the vague intention of asking someone later what they are. I wonder, later, how Gaetan coped with the meseta and the long hot days, but at that point I haven’t yet heard of him.
Phil has to fly home, so we fast forward by road to Leon, with another cathedral, and a welcome hotel with air-conditioning. Then it’s onwards again, just Karen and I now, for another three weeks. She has seen these places before, and our walk is illustrated by her memories of who she met, what happened, what has changed. She likes the great skies and open spaces of the meseta: I meanwhile have developed a need to see as many of the churches on the route that are open. The Camino is, after all, a walk through time as well as space: these paths, these churches and villages persist, rocks in an endless river of pilgrims. We are tiny, in their memories: I find that oddly soothing as I walk. There is no rush, here. There is no need to feel burdened by huge matters of politics or society, or, at least, to feel personally responsible for solving them all the time. What there is is time: time less to think (though that element is there) than simply to be, breathing and walking and blending into the wider world. Villar de Mazarife, Villavante, Hospital d’Orbigo, Astorga. The Camino, says Karen, throws challenges, and in Astorga we find ours, with a mix up over hotel bookings. The town has pretty buildings and some wonderful ice cream, but I am unfairly pleased to see the back of it.
And that is where we meet – or, at least, encounter – Gaetan. His name is written in black pen on one of the signs that mark the route. Benga, Gaetan, benga! Come on, Gaetan, you can do it. Somewhere over the last days, he has fallen behind his companions. It’s a long way from St Jean or Roncesvalles to Astorga, and he has blisters or shin splints, or maybe picked up an infection, and the others had to move on ahead. But they know he’s still walking, and even as they cover their own miles, they send him encouragement. Vas-y, Gaetan, vas-y. From here on, we see the messages almost daily, words of kindness and help for one man which somehow cheer us, too.
There are a huge number of books about the Camino. Nearly everyone who walks it blogs or journals, so it seems. In Villafranca del Bierzo, we meet a young man who is collecting answers from other pilgrims in a small notebook. Why are we here? What do we want from our caminos? What is the meaning of life. He’s serious and charming, and will go to a monastery once he finishes his walk. I am here to learn stillness, I write, and to teach myself patience. I don’t know about meaning, but it helps to be kind. I am here to try and let go of some of my own bad patterns. After Leon, the Camino leaves the meseta and starts to climb; the days are cooler, but the paths are noticeably steeper, too. In the mountains above Foncebadon, the route passes the Cruz de Ferro, the iron cross, where pilgrims traditionally leave a pebble brought from home. Some bear messages in ink, commemorating loved ones. Some are plain. I bring a small piece of flint from near where I live now and place it down in symbol of something I no longer wish to carry. Karen speaks her words as she places her stone; I am silent. To each their own. Somewhere, I think, as we climb down the piled stones below the cross, Gaetan too has left his token.
Our last walking day, I walk alone: this last section is steep and Karen’s feet are painful. I’m out early: as I walk out of Las Herrerias, I pass other pilgrims eating breakfast in cafes, or fastening their boots. The path winds up through trees: another older woman and I pass each other multiple times and smile and wave. She is from Madrid, but studied in Cambridge where I live. I don’t get her name, but I meet her again that night in a bar. There’s nothing open at the top of the first steep section, but after the next, the bar-albergue in La Laguna is open and every other pilgrim I met that morning stops there for coffee or water or beer. An elderly German cyclist asks me to take a photo of him and his mountain bike, to commemorate the climb. And there, on the edge of the village, that familiar black writing, this time in English, Come on, Gaetan, come on.
I hope he made it, not just up that particular steep path, but beyond, on through Galicia to Santiago itself. I picture him in the square in front of the cathedral, his backpack on the paving beside him, laughing and smiling as he hugs his friends in triumph. You made it, Gaetan. Well done.
This is where, if I were to write a conventional camino memoir, I would point out some deeper meaning. But, as Karen says to me, several times across the walk, we each walk our own camino. Mine is not complete: I still yearn to walk those 600 missing kilometres from St Jean, on to Santiago itself. And there are other caminos: later this year I will walk the shorter Camino Ingles, from Ferrol on the northern coast of Spain. I will be looking out for Gaetan, and all his companions and friends and kin.
And, Gaetan, if you chance to read this, let me know how you got on, please. I hope it went well.
Kari Sperring is the author of two novels (Living with Ghosts [DAW 2009] and The Grass King’s Concubine [DAW 2012], the novella Serpent Rose [NewCon Press 2019] and an assortment of short stories. As Kari Maund, she has written and published five books and many articles on Celtic and Viking history and co-authored a book on the history and real people behind her favourite novel, The Three Musketeers (with Phil Nanson). She’s British and lives in Cambridge, England, with her partner Phil and three very determined cats, who guarantee that everything she writes will have been thoroughly sat upon. Her website is http://www.karisperring .com and you can also find her on Facebook. Her latest novella, Rose Knot came out from Newcon Press this summer.