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A Pilgrim’s Feast

By Andrew McCarthy

3-14-11

It had already been a long slog. I’d started in the south of France, walked over the Pyrenees Mountains to Pamplona, trudged through the wine district of La Rioja, made my way in and out of Burgos, across the high and barren central plains, and past Leon. I was more then halfway into a five hundred mile trek along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient Pilgrim route across Spain. The trail ended in the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela, where, according to the 8th Century Catholic Church, the bones of Saint James had been discovered. Religious dictate proclaimed that any pilgrim making the walk would receive a plenary indulgence and get half his time in purgatory knocked-off. Throughout the Crusades, this proved a very noble and popular pass-time, and then the pilgrimage began to fall out of favor. Centuries later, my reasons for walking the Camino were purely secular. I just needed a good long walk—or so I told myself.

After three weeks I had made few friends among the other pilgrims I encountered along the way. My schoolboy Spanish had proven woefully inadequate. I was lonely, tired, and unhappy. Yet I trudged on, knowing that failure would bring a disgrace even more unbearable than my current misery.

The talk along the route for several days had been of a steep gain in elevation that was to come, said to be even more challenging than the Pyrenees— which had nearly ended my journey almost before it began. I heard talk of Pilgrims hiring locals to transport their backpacks up to O Cebreiro, the small settlement atop the mountain. Some were rumored to have even hired a taxi for the climb (sacrilege for a true Pilgrim).

Just past dawn I set out alone—as usual—from Vega de Valcarce and began to make my way toward O Cebreiro. The terrain was rolling and lush. By mid-morning I arrived at a small village, beyond which, I knew from a glance, the mountainous climb began. Hungry, I searched for food and found a solitary restaurant. I pushed on the heavy wooden door and entered a deep, unlit room with dark furnishings. A small bar lined the wall to my left. I saw no one and called out. A man stepped through an open doorway behind the bar and I explained my needs as best I could. He told me the chef had yet to arrive, the restaurant wouldn’t open for a few hours. My pack sagged heavy on my back. It would be a long climb on an empty stomach. I turned to go.

As I reached the door he called after me. “Espera,” he said. I stopped. With obvious reluctance he told me he had just returned from a morning of fishing, would I care for some trout? I disliked fish but appreciated his generosity. I sat down to wait in the dark. Twenty minutes later he reappeared and presented a plate of two small, whole trout, with crisp Serrano ham wedged inside. The rest of the plate was bare. “Trucha a la Navarra,” he said. “A local dish.” He left me, and without enthusiasm I picked up my fork.

The white flesh literally fell from the bone. The ham was as dense and rich as the fish was light and moist. I ate slowly and with great care. Alone in the shadowy room, over an early lunch, I felt myself finally arrive in Spain.

Finished, my host returned and we chatted. My Spanish suddenly had a confidence it had lacked for weeks. We talked of the Camino, of fishing, of America. We parted friends and I marched up to O Cebreiro without strain. I felt like the man I would have liked myself to be, but rarely was. The next two weeks passed in a blaze of synchronicity and fellowship and I strode into Santiago de Compostela filled with a gratitude and joy that I haven’t forgotten in fifteen years.

 

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