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From The Baxter Bulletin

"Travelers go through Spain


(Editor's Note: Mary Jo Augustine of Mountain Home, along with her sister, Louise, are on a 480-mile, 30-day trek along Spain's el Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. Periodically, she will update her adventure forThe Bulletin's readers.)

We are four days on the Way of St. James, and as official pilgrims we walked the walk; walking stick in hand, huge backpack and sturdy shoes.

It's hard to imagine we are in northern Spain walking west on a trail that is centuries old. Nothing we read prepared us for the immensity of this quest, but nothing seems more natural for us to be here. The first day of hiking was the real litmus test. The Way stretched endlessly through the Pyrenees, gaining in altitude up to 4,500 feet. It was a "slog," as the English so eloquently put it. But to be a proper pilgrim we also talked the talk as well, meaning we smile, encourage and continue uncomplaining.

The morning before, we had left the tiny suburb of Coslado where my exchange student Elias lives. Our travel day took us a short train ride into Madrid, where we switched to a regional train. It was an all-day ride through Northwest Spain that eventually took us to the French border where we changed trains.

The "Doodlebug train" was a one-car, one-engineer operation that slowly delivered us to our final destination that evening. The lovely French city of St. Jean de Pied de Port is the starting point for most French pilgrims. The first thing we did was register at the Camino office and picked up our official identification and passport as pilgrims. We will use this passport as we pass through cities on the trail. Each albergue stamps the passport to authenticate our stay.

Upon arrival into Comp"stelo de Santiago, officials review the passport and issue the certificate to those who have traveled the required 100 km (60 miles) of The Way. In the Middle Ages, this certificate carved some serious purgatory time off a roaming pilgrim's soul once it departed the body.

In a little over six hours into our first day, we had left St. Jean Pied de Port in France, traversed the countryside and made it to Spain, signified by a concrete sign reading NAVARRE (an early name for Spain). After 10 hours of constant moving (the last hour and a half a grueling, jarring battle), the canopy lifted from our enchanted forest, and we looked up onto a 12th century monastery.

The monastery is called Roncevalles, and we to have our first experience staying in an albergue and eating our first pilgrim meal. An albergue is similar to a hostel, only more beds. Bunk beds are spread throughout the open-air, arched brick monastery walls. More than 100 beds, closely spaced, provide respite for the pilgrims. Doors are locked at 10 p.m. and lights are out at 10:15 p.m. Doors are unlocked at 6 a.m., and pilgrims are already up to start their day. We came prepared for this close encounter: Eye patch, ear plugs and Vicks.

The next day, Louise and I were still in process with gear and backpack arrangement and through the course of the next three days our gear evolved into being compact and where we needed it, when we needed it. So, with a skip in our hearts and a slight limp in our walk, we began day two.

It was immediate love at first sight for both of us. A flat tree-lined path meandered into a village within 30 minutes, and in the cool of the morning we stopped for food and coffee. We traveled in and out of quaint villages that have seen no outward change except electric wires and automobiles. Every village has a history, and we tried to appreciate it by reading the guide book that every good pilgrim carries.

Our second day ended with another 10 hours, 16.7 miles under our tired belts. We made it to Lorrensoana, a medieval stone compound complete with bandito bridge to keep the bad guys out.

Day three — bones aching, muscles sore, but refreshed from our rest — we walked. We slogged to Pomplano, where the running of the bulls festival occurs every year. It was a short day, six hours, with a few hard climbs over several passes. Did I mention we were in Basque country?

The Basques are an ancient, distinct ethnic group who seriously believe France and Spain are illegally occupying their land. They have their own language, customs and costumes. The camino trail does not just hit the country roads and small villages. In some cases it traverses a city. When it does, we have to diligently watch for the signs that lead the pilgrim to Compestalo. A gold scallop shell on a blue back ground, a yellow arrow or a diagonal line mark the trail.

The last city for Pompland was Trinidad. We were faced with our first traffic concerns and, to our great surprise, stumbled on a Basque festival that celebrated Basque customs and culture. It was a great couple of hours as we listened to the music, ate the good food and enjoyed the dancing. But on we trekked to our final destination of Pomplano.

From a distance, we could see the huge stone wall that was once a Roman stronghold. The closer we got the larger it loomed, and we were amazed to walk through the draw bridge and see the moat. Once we entered into the walled gates, we discovered it was a city, a modern metropolitan city. Good luck came our way immediately when two pilgrims approached us and gave directions to the albergue where we spent the night.

This time, we had a semi-private room with four sets of bunk beds. The occupants were a Dutchman, an Englishman, a French woman, two French-Canadians and a Spaniard. It was a United Nations room, and that night we fell asleep to the sloshing sound of French.

Day four, and we now are sitting behind an albergue in Puente la Reina, watching our laundry dry. The pilgrim's life is not all glamorous. Fewer clothes mean more washing. But we had a chance to sightsee the city and buy products from the local market. The river Arga runs through the city, and a bridge was commissioned by the mayor's wife. She took pity on the pilgrims as they had no other means to cross except to pay the high price for the ferry. This bridge is one of the most distinct in all of Spain.

So, if you are counting and following the chart, clock us to Puente la Reina and give us a total of approximately 60 arduous but fascinating miles, which puts us at 12 percent of our total distance.

Ultrega (Onward)."
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Episode 2

Local woman completes 274K of trek


(Editor's Note: Mary Jo Augustine of Mountain Home and her sister, Louise, are continuing their 480-mile trek along Spain's el Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. She has been updating The Bulletin's readers periodically on their adventure. In her last entry, they had reached the city of Logrono.)

Big cities always seem to confuse and depress us. Even though Logrono seemed to be a progressive, upscale city with a large university, we meandered out of the city on a confused route.

Once on the outskirts of the city, we picked up a planned hiking path and joined a parade of local residents taking their morning exercise. The trail rose to a wall where you think there will be a canyon below. Instead, a beautiful lake with swans graced the landscape. Our route led us completely around the lake before it took us out into the heat of the day and the village of Navaratte.

Once out of the city, we followed the highway, then we diverted to the fields again. It was early afternoon, and the sun became our enemy.

Even though the map showed only six kilometers, we slowed our pace to accommodate our lethargy. If you are wondering whether we have any brilliant streams of consciousness, we had one on the 6K — never assume the road you are on leads to the village you see on the hill.

Twice on our final onslaught, a church tower appeared to raise our expectations only to swerve in another direction. And the sun continued to press on us like a hot iron. After two hours, we straggled into Ventosa, following the yellow arrows to our albergue (hostel), which led straight up the top of a hill. We had to rest on a chair before we could walk inside to register.

The albergue, although remote, was clean. There were only three bunk beds in the room that we shared with a tired Italian, two Dutch bikers and a German. Dutch is a language we do not hear very often, and as they were speaking I was struck by how their language sounds so similar to ours when played backwards.

That night, we went to bed early because our departure time was 7 a.m., in the dark.

Meeting another friend

It doesn't get light enough for us to walk until 7:45 the next morning, and, as l mentioned, we are night walkers. We left when we could and soon felt the cool morning air. As we traveled the sun rose slowly over the mountains and our shadows appeared in front of us. It was the first time our shadows had graced our walk in front of us. Usually they trail behind in a slow pace at the end of the day.

Although we had no roads to travel, the route was boring and industrial. A concrete plant was a jarring reminder of civilization. Vineyards gave way to the bread belt as all we saw later in the day was fields of cut wheat. By noon, we hit our second city, stopped for a snack and ambled up hill past the church and out of the city.

Going up the hill, we hooked up with a solitary pilgrim named Eduardo, a 70-something Spaniard on his fourth camino. Even though he walked with a shuffle and two walking sticks, he kept a steady pace uphill and had a ready smile. I learned from Eduardo a valuable lesson. He told me the secret to not forgetting things at the alberbues.

The secret phrase was in Spanish, but it translates: Gypsy Glance. I would remember his advice after realizing I had left one of two pairs of socks behind.

Our goal was Santo Domingo Calzado, a 30-kilometer walk that took nine hours. This was the hardest hike because the camino threw in another penance — wind, a hard, in-your-face wind. It was so hard we had to walk with our bodies diagonal to the earth and all the while gaining altitude.

After two and a half hours, we crested a hill and saw the city below, deceptively close. We picked up speed and were able to reach the city in 40 minutes. In another 15 minutes, we were settled into another albergue.

Santo Domingo de la Calzado to Belorado.

The next day, we walked out of our medieval setting, and I thought someone had dropped us into the Kansas wheat belt on top of rolling Ozark hills with Oklahoma wind thrown in for good measure. The depth of the landscape was immeasurable, except to say it seemed to go on forever.

As far as you can see wheat, more wheat and even more wheat. But it didn't matter because the wind was so relentless we could not look up. Our trail progressed up those endless hills to an altitude of 2,400 feet. The one pleasure was reaching tiny villages spaced at short intervals, between two and seven kilometers apart. Although the wind challenged our strength, we enjoyed the five stops before setting into the next albergue in Belorada.

Belorado is a 13th century city that appears down on its luck, but we observed an incredible number of bars and cafes. A medieval castle with a good view sits above the town. There are caves below where religious hermits once lived to escape persecution.

Louise continues to be fit as ever and pushes me. My condition is good thanks to Dr. Ronald Bruton and his western medicine, but I am still chasing blisters.

If you are keeping score, 274 kilometers down, 526 kilometers to go. Buen Camino.

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