Beaton: Still on the way
September 29, 2013
Editor's note: This is the second of several columns about Glenn K. Beaton's ongoing 500-mile pilgrimage-trek across northern Spain, a walk that dates back to the Middle Ages and is called the Camino de Santiago, or "Way of St. James."
There are as many caminos as there are apostles. This time I'm walking the Camino del Norte, the northern route along the Atlantic coast of Spain.
The terrain is complicated, rugged and spectacular. Bays, harbors and estuaries separate the sea from hills, mountains and canyons. Silver salmon swim cold, clear creeks. The rocky coast of the Atlantic lies to your right and the mountains of the Picos de Europa to your left.
The Way sometimes clings to a seaside cliff by a cable and sometimes just shoulders a four-lane highway. Sometimes you're on stone pathways laid by the Romans.
Mostly, it's dirt trails that have been walked since the Middle Ages through lush woods, vineyards, orchards, fields, pastures, hills and meadows. In the ancient villages, old men in the plaza look up from their dice game to mumble, "Buen Camino," children laugh and chase, women walking arm-in-arm nod, dogs bark, and once they rang the church bell 12 times to celebrate my noon arrival. It was so much excitement for the day that everyone then took a nap.
Pilgrims are rare in late September on this camino, and the silence between villages is broken by only the shuffle of your feet and the dinging of cowbells. I occasionally stop to pick wild blackberries. Untended boxes along the Way sell apple cider (it's fermented, I learned) on the honor system.
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A couple of weeks ago, I got off-route again. Walking through a gorge, I passed under a bridge that went my desired direction. I scrambled up the steep wall of the gorge to reach it.
I discovered that the bridge over the gorge was a train bridge. It was very narrow with a set of waist-high rails guarding each edge. As I reconnoitered from the hillside, a train came. It filled the entire width of the bridge from one rail to the other.
Some would have been discouraged by this sight, but not your correspondent. After all, if a train had just come, there wouldn't be another for a while, right? I started across.
It was more than 100 yards. The first half of the crossing went well. So did the last half. But between, another train came. I first heard a whine in the rails. It deepened. I felt vibrations underfoot. A train screamed around the corner onto the bridge. It charged directly at me, horn bellowing, whistle blowing and, I imagined, conductor cursing. It filled the space between the rails and was getting bigger fast.
From the time I heard the whine in the rails to the time it appeared was only four or five seconds. Quick math told me I would be under it in another two. The distance to the ground was more than 100 feet. I knew I would not survive the fall, but the thought flashed through my mind that it might be a friendlier end than under the train.
In those two seconds, I decided on a third option. I would lean over the rail. The front-to-back thickness of my body is about 8 inches, and my backpack stuck out another 7 inches, so it would be a real close call. Facing the rail, I held it with both hands, bent at the waist, and leaned over into the void. I remembered to tuck my toes under to save my heels, too.
The blast of wind from the locomotive pushed me even farther over, but I held on. In another instant, the train was shrinking into the distance.
• All of this trail-walking and train-dodging made me hungry. That night I ordered gambas, which we call shrimp.
They arrived grilled nicely and delicious. Exactly 20 of them were carefully arranged on my plate. But the entire animal was there — 20 of them — heads and tails and shells and multiple little insect-like legs. In their arranged formation, they looked like an entire battalion of crustacean toy soldiers staring me down with their ghoulish, garlicky eyes.
I was hungry and would eat them anyway. After all, I was outnumbered but had the mammalian advantages that I'm warmblooded and sometimes care for my young. But I couldn't decide if I was supposed to eat the whole critter or behead and peel it. I imagined the kitchen staff peering at me from the kitchen door. If I beheaded and peeled them, they would snigger, "Holy Toledo! Get a load of this girly Americano," the way we would see a person who can't eat an apple without peeling it.
But if I ate them whole, and was wrong, I also could imagine them. "Madre de Jesus," they would murmur as they made the sign of the cross and averted their eyes from the gruesome sight.
In the end I ate all 20, including one head and bits amounting to about three shells. It was apparently exactly the combination that one is supposed to eat, for the locals said nothing.
• Soon after the bridge, the train tracks disappeared into a tunnel. Quick learner that I am (even though Spanish is not my first language), I decided at that time to discontinue my rail travel. There is hope.
Glenn K. Beaton can be reached at email@example.com.