The gulch

June 2010. The trail of pilgrims grew thicker and then stopped. Heavy rains during the past few days had transfomed a branch of the usually dry Arroyo Ferrerios into a fast-moving stream. Each one took his turn to cross using a tree trunk that served as a foot bridge to the other side. The muddy bank was too deep and slippery, and the waters were too cold to do it another way. And once across, one had to climb a steep ravine to rejoin the trail to the next major stop on the camino (way) to Santiago de Compostela – the Spanish town of Portomarin in Galicia.

The gulch marked one of the first hurdles for pilgrims who had joined the trail at the 100-kilometer mark. Anyone who walked at least 100 kilometers (or biked for 200 kilometers), with a properly stamped credencial (document), could earn a compostela (certificate) upon reaching Santiago.

Gone were the peace and solitude of the previous weeks. Pilgrims, many of whom had walked for weeks or months, were joined by others who, for lack of time or due to physical limitations, could only walk the last stages. One could easily tell them apart. The new pilgrims’ conversations were peppered with laughter and greetings of ‘buen camino’ while the veterans trudged on in silence. Like the other veterans, I focused ahead, knowing that the ‘early bird’ got the ‘best nests’ in the albergues (pilgrim inns).

Chance reunions among comrades who had lost each other along the way were getting rarer in crowded albergues and bars. It didn’t matter. We’d all see each other in Santiago. Life’s like that. One started off in the world with family and friends, only to lose touch with some through the years. Eventually, their paths cross, making the rendezvous much sweeter.

Many others we encounter are merely strangers who are also making their way through life. Some are young and fresh, eager for a challenge. Others are more grizzled and weary from the obstacles hurdled in the past, and wary of those that still lay ahead…

…like the gulch. A group of cyclists contemplated their route across. Some froshes dithered. Their clean sneakers were soon to be streaked in muck. My boots bore the marks of countless water crossings, dusty trails and muddy tracks. I balanced myself, walking steadily over the tree trunk, and then clambered out of the gulch.

I saw a few of the new ones in Portomarin later, happily recounting their first day on the Camino. They deserved their compostelas. As for others? A busload of able-bodied “pilgrims” filed into a bar outside Leiman, at the head of the trail, to have their credenciales stamped. They reboarded the bus and were whisked off to Portomarin or beyond. Some choose the easy way through life.

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