a wandering woman writes

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Riff on a tree along the camino

She's not an easy tree to find.

She stands clinging with everything she's got to the rocky slope of a painfully steep hill called the Alto de La Cruz, some 8 or 9 kilometers from the village of Monreal, in Navarra. It's not easy to put a label on her, figure out what species of tree she was, when she bloomed and grew and sprouted green. In a look you decide what sort of tree she is: proud. Tested. Generous. Strong. What sort of being could hold on to that tiny a parcel of earth with a pair of long dead roots? What sort would want to? Long after her sprouting life has ended, she is eager. Eager to play and participate, eager to share a bit of the road with each traveler who passes.

You see she did sprout green sometime; it's there in her confidence and the graceful wishbone reach of those two surviving branches. Is she long dead, you wonder? Did she have company - tree company - on this lonely summit when she lived and breathed and cleaned the mountain air sweeping down from the Pyrennees? What fragrance of her own did she loan the breeze that passed by then? Did she welcome birds? Mice? Maybe a pueblo of bees helped itself to her generosity. Has she met many villagers during her long stay atop this hill, you ask? Did her branches serve as fuel or fodder for homes and barns and necessary farm tools?

Now she greets you as a signpost. On her dry grey trunk someone's painted the red and white marks of the GR trail that crosses Spain, and below them the simple yellow arrow of the Camino. She has to hang on, she tells you; she's guiding pilgrims. As the only distinguishing feature of this harsh, scrub covered alto, she has work to do. No one walks the Camino Aragonés without climbing this hill. And so she clings. And waits.

As you watch, she leans hard over the edge of her stony cliff, bending her two stubby branches toward the green, flat valley below. Is she struggling to hold on, you suddenly ask yourself. Is that it, or? Could she be trying to free herself? She twists and bends like a pilgrim preparing for the day's hike. As if to say she'll be with you in just a moment, yes in fact she will join you on your walk to Santiago, if you go on ahead she'll be right along. It's that way you know, west. There. Have you spotted her arrow?

When you've finally left her alto behind you, you're genuinely surprised not to hear the dull scratch of wooden feet lumbering in your footprints.

Monday, February 25, 2008


The 45th best novel of all times is Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, according to the BBC.

Elizabeth I ruled 45 years, until her death in 1603.

largest city in the world is Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (population 5,068,000).

Number 45 on the American Film Institute's top 100 movie quotes list is Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire: STELLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

The anniversary gift for year 45 is sapphire. Feel free to send along gifts in keeping with this fine tradition; slight tardiness is perfectly understandable.

The 45th state to be admitted to the US of A was Utah, in 1896.

The 45th highest peak in the world is Changste in the Tibetan Himalayas.

+45 is the telephone country code for Denmark.

The 45th post on this blog was written June 26, 2005.

The 45th most livable city in the world according to Business Week is my kind of town: Chicago, IL. (Chitown seems to be tied for 44th with Washington DC, which leaves my home away from home occupying the 45th place on the list.)

The 45th speech on a list of the top 100 American speeches of all times is William Jennings Bryan, with a speech titled "Against Imperialism".

Forty-five is a triangular number, a hexagonal and 16-gonal number, a Kaprekar number, and a Harshad number. (I don't understand a word of that, but it sounds good, doesn't it?)

45 is the atomic number of rhodium, a rare, and (ahem) silvery white transition metal. (Highly appropriate, says the new 45 year old.) It is also a precious metal and one of the most expensive.

Hoy he cumplido 45.
Liking it, so far.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

195 Km

This treat landed in my inbox this morning.

I have exactly one photo of myself in my own Camino de Santiago photo collection - me at the 100 kilometer mark. Yet Kilometer 195 was just as memorable.

One day late in October, I shared a day's walk, her last day on the Camino, with the española you see above and the young Camino angel who sent me this photo this morning from Bucharest. It was an all girls day - three nationalities, three women, each in a different decade of life, no one language shared fluently all the way round. The day was magic, with roses for all three of us as we savored good conversation, the scent of rosemary, and the breathtaking beauty of fall golds and browns in the wine country of El Bierzo.

Cheers to a friend in Bucharest this morning for taking me back to the Camino today.

Choose a life

Found on a set of stairs along Salamanca's riverside trail:

Choose a life
Choose a car
Choose a television
Choose a house
Choose a dream
Choose a mate
Choose a beer
Choose a toaster
Choose a team
Choose a game
Choose a drug
Choose savings

Stop thinking about what you choose
and begin to live


I've had company this week. Fellow americana Kathleen escaped from Madrid to the quiet banks of the Río Tormes (rechristened the Río Mel Tormes by a visiting New Yorker) for a few days this week and checked in for her first stay at Casa Wander.

I do love showing off my lovely town, almost as much as I enjoy watching a first time visitor widen his eyes, shake his head and call Salamanca "simply magical". New Yorker friends were in town with Kathleen, which provided the opening for two perfect Salamanca evenings complete with full moon, glowing golden sandstone, delicious Riberas and impecable pinchos. Farinato was the undisputed favorite of the pincho tastings, although huevos rotos, a very tasty bacalao en salsa at Casa Paca, and anything Bambú's straightfaced grillman wanted to throw over his coals (costillas, chorizo, morcilla and panceta this trip) all held their own.

As always, I found myself conducting a Casa Wander orientation of oh-so-many and oh-so-necessary explications about my beloved rented home at check-in. Among them:

-Wriggle that door knob just a little more and I promise the door will open...
-Careful not to overpower the water pressure on that shower or you'll be chilly...
-That? Or that's just the neighbors, did I mention thin walls?

I know I've written about all of these quirks. Which gives me an idea.

I wonder if I should assign the posts about these little household quirks as required reading before an overnight visit here to Erin in wanderland?

Friday, February 08, 2008

A wanderer's lullaby

From the song Not Far Behind, by Dave Sills (from his CD The Waiting Room)

"You never know you're lonely
until you're not alone
And if it's where the heart is
how come you're never home?"

I've stumbled across a lovely lullaby for wanderers, especially those of us who have left 40 behind (says the soon-to-be 45 year old pilgrim) without putting down what most of the world around us sees as roots. This is a tune for lovers of the in-between:

As for your friends
Well they've all settled down
While some think you're lost
It's more that you're still unfound.

Destination seems to be
Something you can't require
You're always leaving
But you never do arrive.

I've been playing and singing this tune all morning, thanks to Laura, who sent it along with a entire care-packageful of words and songs to stir me and feed me.

Dave Sills is a singer songwriter from the Chicago area. You can listen to this whole tune, buy his CDs and read more about him on his website.

Let's hear it for one of the greatest gifts of living "somewhere else": care packages. Especially when they bear singing poets.


I can't resist continuing to post this:

Lying awake in bed, you can only dream of sleep
You are standing still, the sidewalk spins beneath your feet
Each day fades away slow into the night
The stars begin to fall, you're not far behind.

Night, wanderers.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A thought

No one can stop in his camino, because life pushes from inside.

Cardinal Martini

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Be careful what you ask for: thoughts on the Camino

Funny thing, that Camino de Santiago. Maybe it's not the Camino, maybe it's any pilgrimage, or any solo journey taken step by step, traveling as lightly as possible, lighter with every step.

Lots more than my clothes seem not to fit, now that I've returned from that walk.

I'd recommend the Camino de Santiago, or any journey like it, to anyone. If you stopped by this blog because you're thinking about walking the Camino, here's my sage advice: know the Camino will do exactly what you ask it to do. Ask it to simply buff your legs and I suspect it will. Give yourself over to it, and you're in for some bumps and big decisions. I asked for the full treatment, and it hasn't disappointed.

A lovely description of the experience, from Following the Milky Way by Elyn Aviva:

Pilgrimage: a setting forth, a leave-taking from the familiar, from familiarity. A trip into the unknown, both interior and exterior. A moving away from what is known into what is unknown but longed for.

The journey begins with separation leaving home and friends, leaving behind the well-known signposts of location and behavior, of expectations and rewards, conscious, intentional movement into an unfamiliar realm, both physically and psychically. Perhaps this separation is marked by a blessing ceremony; perhaps it is marked by pinning the scallop-shell emblem of the pilgrimage to Santiago onto your backpack, or by hanging the shell by a ribbon around your neck.

You enter into a time in-between, a "liminal" period named after the threshold at the bottom of a door, the threshold that the bride was traditionally carried over to signify her movement into a new state of being. Like the bride, you, the pilgrim, cross the threshold and enter into a new realm, one full of possibilities as well as challenges.

What lies beyond the distant mountain range? What waits behind the next curve in the road? What deep insight will be revealed after a day of walking in silence or after an afternoon of conversation with companions?

Your routine role and status get left behind. Blisters form, legs become weary, shoulders ache, regardless of your amount of education, your job title back home, your level of physical preparation. You become a pilgrim, sharing with fellow pilgrims the travails and pleasures of the journey.

Time itself becomes different, marked not by the clock but by the movement of the body through space. And space itself becomes different because you are walking through sacred space. You have entered a landscape punctuated by shrines and churches, hermitages and cathedrals, sacred springs and sacred mountains. Day after day, week after week, the longer the better, since distance and time help your body grab hold of the experience, help your heart open up, help your mind detach from old patterns, help your soul expand into itself. You move toward your goal.

And then the goal is reached. You may find, however, that it is no longer the goal, its importance having dissolved with every step on the Camino.....

....Finally, you return to your home community, your friends, your family. This may be an eagerly waited return or an apprehensive return, a return made with feet dragging each step of the way or with feet joyfully dancing toward home, a home that will never, ever, be the same again because you will never, ever, be the same again. The changes may be subtle or obvious, slow growing or erupting full-blown into your awareness. But changes there will be.

For you are now a pilgrim and you have been become a life-long member of a new community, a community made up of the millions of fellow pilgrims, living and deceased, who have walked the Camino before you.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


A bit of the view, hiking down from La Alberca to Herguijela de la Sierra.

A trip home

I love those moments that instantly and unexpectedly sweep me "home".

Like being told to wait,"just 30 seconds, love", when I called my mother at 630 am this morning.

Punsxatawney Phil was about to walk out of his winter home. There are things so American not even a call from an exotic foreign land (okay, okay, Salamanca) can interrupt them.

He saw his shadow, by the way. Phil's loyal fans, my Rhode Islander mother included, are in for a long winter.

That decided, the weekly catch-up began.