“The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works, is the family.” ~ Lee Iacocca
“A man that hath friends must show himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” ~ Proverbs 18:24
One of the best parts of family is how it functions as a unit. One member falls short, another picks up the slack. One becomes weak, there’s strength in the group. Disagreements abide, but kin always cheer one another onward. The family is the original cheerleading squad.
Ten years ago when I developed a passionate interest in travel, it was mostly about exploring those places I knew nothing of, and learning cultural ways about which I’d never heard. And indeed, I’ve learned so much. But for me, the unexpected benefit of distant travel is the family connection it’s created. Doing difficult things in far-away places inevitably creates a special relationship with others most akin to brothers and sisters. I’m a 50-year-old only child. I longed for siblings as a youth, and wonder what it might be like to have them now. As I’ve traveled different places and experienced different things I’ve filled that void with brothers and sisters around the world. And I love these people as my own.
After 28 days walking, my Camino family was loose, but unbeknownst to me, coming together rapidly. It came in the unexpected form of two sisters. Naomi and Aida.
It’s a long, downward descent from Cruz Ferro, easily an entire day of negative grade. It sounds easy enough until you actually do it. Walking down miles at a time with a 24-pound pack jars the knees in potentially dangerous ways.
Twelve miles in, the small village El Acebo (population 37) looked like an inviting place to end early and break up a hard day, and it was the beginning point of a long stretch where the vistas became gradually more thrilling. A restaurant/bar, nice beds, and wifi for 7 euros at Mesón el Acebo made the decision easy.
Awaiting a patata tortilla and cold beer I checked online messages and noticed a social media post from Naomi. She was nearing Cruz Ferro several miles behind but still connected to the internet. I sent her a quick message to catch up and told her I was done for the day. A nine-time Camino veteran, she knew exactly where I was. Her next message changed everything.
“See you there in a few hours.”
Just as unexpectedly as I’d found the unusual depth of certain Camino relationships, was the virtual relationship I now experienced with past and future pilgrims online. Regular posts – sometimes photos, sometimes videos, often just a metaphorical thought for the day – somehow resonated with certain people, and I had a list of virtual friends that grew daily. As I shared certain thoughts and feelings, they responded with amazing support. It was the strangest and most unconventional sense of family cheerleading and encouragement. And the way it affected my attitude and determination was amazing. Family is found in the least expected places.
A few hours later, Naomi arrived, and though we’d spent no more than a couple of hours together four days back, it was like seeing an old friend. We shared our experiences from Cruz Ferro and selected bunks for the night. After a good meal and a peaceful night’s sleep we woke the next morning, packed up and headed out together. We never spoke about it, but somehow understood, I think, we’d walk on together to the end. I sensed Naomi approached this undertaking much as I did. We were both just fine as soloists taking care of ourselves but knew the benefit of having trusted, at-your-side support. In the end, I probably got the better end of that deal.
Two hours short of Ponferrada, and after we’d discovered a mutual love for cooking, Naomi had an idea that produced one of our best times on the Way. She knew the donativo albergue where we were headed and how its accommodations lent themselves to a special sense of community.
“Why don’t we pitch in and buy some groceries and cook for everyone tonight?” she said. I laughed out loud thinking how I literally had nothing else to do.
“Okay, what’s the menu?” I replied. And so we thought it through for the next several miles.
The sleeping setup at San Nicholás de Flüe albergue in Ponferrada is much like that in Roncesvalles – small, pod-like rooms that sleep four pilgrims each on two bunks. We landed a pod near the communal kitchen and showers, and cleaned up before a trip to the mercado. Naomi was a stickler for backpack organization, and as we tidied up the room after showers, our bunkmate for the night walked in. It was a young, professional Spanish girl from near Barcelona who’d started solo at Leon a few days back. Relationship dynamics are often the strangest thing. We were a public school teacher from California, a hospitality industry professional from Barcelona, and journalist from Arkansas. Oddly, it was as if we were all immediately connected as a group.
We told Aida we were putting on a group meal for all interested pilgrims. Word spread quickly and we’d feed about a dozen peregrinos from around the world that night. Aida offered to wash our clothes in a group while we shopped, and my Camino family was finally born.
We were a unit now, walking one another home. I was the older brother with the funny accent, viewed often, I’m sure, as one sometimes the good-natured, good ol’ boy, and other times, a bit cantankerous. Naomi was the middle-child rock, the glue, with a deep understanding of where we were, exactly what we were doing, and furthermore how it might potentially affect each of us. Aida was the essence of our collective pilgrim spirit – professional, fun, strong-willed, with a little touch of rowdiness. We were quite the unlikely threesome.
Our dinner that night was completely cosmopolitan – one of the best experiences in my life.
Early the next morning, we moved on as family, bound for 10 final days of adventure, cheering each other as we walked.