(Above: Heinrich’s reading the Pilgrim’s blessing before leaving Pamplona. It was one of the most special moments I experienced on Camino.)
“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” ~ J.K. Rowling
“The deepest of level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless … beyond speech … beyond concept.” ~ Thomas Merton
(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from my manuscript, #PilgrimStrong).
In all the research and pre-reading before leaving Arkansas for Spain, there were a couple of phrases that always sort of bothered me.
“Camino Magic” and “…the Camino provides” are the legendary pilgrim ideas about how something special can, and often does, happen on pilgrimage. The general idea is that if you find yourself truly in need of something along the Way, that very thing will likely find its way to you. Letting go of control is a rite of pilgrim passage.
I’m a no-nonsense journalist, realist, and one who many would say has a narrow view of “religion.” I don’t think it’s true, but in a progressive world I understand why many would believe it. The notion of a place having some sacred, mystical, magical power just didn’t fly with my belief system.
That is, until I met Heinrich.
If you’re walking the Camino Frances, your feet will let you know by Pamplona if they plan to give you trouble, especially with blisters. I was just a few hours short of the great city that hosts the annual running of the bulls when my feet let me know just that. Approaching a small picnic area on the outskirts of Zabaldica I decided to stop and pull my shoes off, afraid of what my eyes would see. And I was even more concerned about what it would mean in the immediate days ahead. Just as I’d feared, there were now full-blown blisters on, not one, but both feet.
I’d trained fairly rigorously in the flatlands near my home. I think it’s the combination of friction from ascending and descending elevations, and the reality of double-digit miles day after day that surprises many pilgrims with blisters they thought they’d pre-prevented. The picnic table was a welcome rest site and I snacked on some cheese and a Coke Zero allowing my feet to dry before I applied some petroleum jelly. That was about the extent of any effective treatment for the moment.
For the next three hours I walked into town knowing the skin damage was quickly mounting.
By the time I reached the eastern outskirts of Pamplona the plan quickly became finding the nearest albergue and getting off my feet. Tomorrow’s challenge would be an extended climb westward toward the famed peak of Alto de Perdón that I knew wouldn’t be friendly to fresh blisters. There’s really almost nothing you can do about it, but getting off your blistered feet helps your mind if nothing else.
Pamplona is the first major city you walk through on the Camino, and a bit of an adjustment after you’ve walked four days through open country. Crossing the Arga River I found myself in a beautiful park-like setting and turned left following directions of the first albergue sign I saw. The sign indicated the albergue as about a thousand meters down the street.
The structure looked more like an old 20th century home I’d see in my hometown, and I wasn’t altogether sure it was, in fact, an albergue. A man, who introduced himself as Heinrich was standing outside the door smoking, with a demeanor that conveyed he didn’t have a care in the world.
I returned the greeting and asked if this was an albergue.
“Yes, it certainly is, and I’d like to welcome you to Casa Paderborn. You are are first pilgrim of the day. I can see you are weary, so let’s get you comfortably situated,” he said.
You know how you connect with some people at first eye contact? Heinrich the German hospitalero was such a man to me.
Heinrich took my passport information, stamped my credencial, and spoke with me in such a way that made me feel right at home. I think it was the first time I’d actually felt “home” since leaving Arkansas.
He graciously grabbed my backpack, leading us upstairs, efficiently saving me extra steps and giving the nickel tour as we made our way toward the bunks. The old wooden floors creaked with every step and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say you could smell the history in the old house. Not an unpleasant odor at all – clean, yet just a bit musty, and familiar like an old 1909 house I bought many years ago.
I chose a bed for the night – one of about a dozen in the room, pulled up an old wooden chair, and moved quickly to the most immediate order of business. I pulled off my shoes and socks to evaluate the damage. There were now three blisters across two feet, and just a bit heartsick, I sat quietly, carefully considering the best course of action. It was bad news for tomorrow, and there was no way around it.
I inserted a clean needle leaving a small length of thread behind in each blister to prevent the buildup of more fluid through the night, and tried my best to forget about it, as much as the raw feeling expressed through each small step would permit. My feet really hurt. Shower stalls were just a few steps down the hall and I washed a few dirty clothes with shampoo while I showered. With only a few short hours of sunshine remaining there wasn’t enough time to dry clothes on the outside line, so I draped a shirt and some socks across an old-fashioned radiator used for heat, a practice that became common along the Way.
With chores for the day now complete I lay down on the bottom bunk and turned my thoughts to food. Famous for many things, not the least of which is its reputation for tapas, downtown Pamplona beckoned, yet the thought of more walking went against every grain of sound judgment I could imagine. The reality after eight hours of hiking, however, is the need for calories.
Heinrich’s directions to Pamplona’s old town sounded much further than I’d hoped to walk for food, but I was hungry, eager to both eat, and get the extra steps behind me so I could soon get horizontal in the bed once and for all. I slipped on my Crocs – maybe my single-best choice brought from home – and walked slowly in that direction, careful to minimize the foot friction as much as possible with each step.
Food Lesson #1: Tapas aren’t served all hours of the day, and, in fact, aren’t generally available until about 6 in the afternoon. It was 4:30, and as absolutely amazing as the city sights were, I had no desire to wander around for the next hour and a half. Walking back toward home for the night, I passed a quiet Greek cafe, gobbled down a gyro with papas fritas and a beer, and returned. It was no less than an extra three kilometers for my blistered feet.
Heinrich was outside smoking again, and I sat with him on a bench before walking back up the stairs. It’s difficult to explain, but was as if Heinrich somehow knew me at a soulful level. He had a pleasant, peaceful voice and an aura I can best describe as simply calming.
“I’ll be going back into town for rosary at the cathedral tonight and it would be wonderful if you would join me,” Heinrich said.
I was completely humbled this man would invite me along for something I could sense was so important to him, but the thought of walking, yet again, into town was almost unbearable.
“I’d love to go with you Heinrich,” my lips spoke before my brain released my honest thoughts. And we agreed to meet back there at 6:45 for the walk to Pamplona Cathedral. Slowly, I pushed my legs back upstairs toward the bed, remembering I came to Spain to experience life more abundantly. “You can lay around in a bed and complain how much you hurt another time,” I heard a voice say. “Nobody asked you to do this thing. Don’t be a crybaby.”
Aside from a funeral years earlier, I’d never once been to a Catholic church service. I was born, raised, and live, in the heart of the Southern Bible Belt have held “membership” in both Baptist and Methodist Churches. My religious views are simple and very conservative, and yet I’ve always been fascinated by the Catholic church. I didn’t even really know what Rosary was, but knew it would be both an educational and cultural experience to share with Heinrich.
The cathedral was ornamentally spectacular and massive. I remember thinking every student architect in the world should have required study in Europe. The attention to detail in European architecture takes my breath away, and is a far cry from the simple country church where I remember Sunday school and Easter egg hunts as a pre-schooler.
As a non-catholic I participated only as an obvious observer and no one seemed at odds with my presence. The structured ceremony and what seemed to me like matter-of-fact routine was completely different from my own church practices back home, yet there was something special, and I could tell, very serious about it for all the faithful. Heinrich seemed especially prayerful and devout, now oblivious to my presence as his guest. You can tell when someone has a special spirit, a clear, unfettered line of communication with God. Heinrich is such a man. I just took it all in, grateful for the Camino moment.
After the service, he invited me to go for tapas and drinks, but it was 8 p.m., and I respectfully declined. My feet hurt badly, tomorrow was not an easy day, and Heinrich understood. With the assurance I knew my way back to Casa Paderborn, we decided to part ways. He reminded me of a “Pilgrim’s Blessing” he would lead at 7:30 in the morning before departure, and I asked if he’d consider allowing me a video interview beforehand. We agreed on a 7 a.m., interview and I looked forward to probing an important topic with him. My reporter’s intuition told me Heinrich was the perfect interview to discuss “Camino Magic.”
Heinrich and his co-hospitalero, Hans-Georg, prepared a light breakfast for me and the two other pilgrims who’d stayed overnight. They poured coffee as I set up for our interview.
I turned on the GoPro and warmed them up with a few softball preliminary questions to raise their comfort level – I’ve interviewed thousands of people and learned how important this transitional process is many years ago. You don’t just jump in with the big questions right off the bat. You have to make people feel comfortable. You have to help them understand they can speak from their heart without your ensuing judgment. You must give them permission to be transparent. This process is an art form and it’s a beautiful thing when journalist know how to use it properly.
After we reached that point, I moved to where I wanted to go.
“Heinrich, so many pilgrims who experience the Way talk about Camino Magic and how special things happen here, that happen during no other times in their life,” I led him to the pivot. “I’m just not the kind of person who believes in the ‘magic’ of a place. It’s almost contrary to everything I know spiritually. What do you make of Camino Magic?”
And while I already knew Heinrich was a remarkably thoughtful man, I never expected the exquisite way he put his answer into words.
“Yes, Steve, I can understand why you would believe in such a way, but here is what you must understand and think about,” he went on. “The Camino is a magical place and this is why: For a brief window in time, five or six weeks, you have people from every corner of the world, and they are walking together in the same direction, for the same purpose, and toward the same end. There is unity and togetherness on the Camino that perhaps exists no where else in the world today, and especially in these times. It is magic, indeed, and this is something for you to think about as you make your way toward Santiago.”
In the tens of thousands of interview questions I’ve asked people over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever been more amazed by the insight of an answer.
The Camino de Santiago is an international convergence of cheerleaders. We cheer one another on, and receive the benefit of our internal longing to be cheered. Something here permits us to get to the very heart of our design.