01 Nov Passing the Threshold of the Meseta: Dispatch from the Camino, Part 2
This is part two in a four part series from writer and author Beebe Bahrami as she spends the fall of 2017 making her way along the Camino de Santiago. (You can read Part 1 here.)
It took a long time to arrive at the meseta, Spain’s central plateau. It was several days from Pamplona through the northeastern Rioja province to central Castile, and three more days of endless rolling hills, climbing steadily in altitude, before I would get to the meseta’s eastern edge of Burgos.
Just before the city of Burgos is Atapuerca, Europe’s oldest site of prehistoric human remains, some dating back over a million years. Walking along the smooth ground of the site, I thought of the Swiss-cheese-like limestone world that preserved the past beneath my feet. Many had passed this way before; I was but one more set of human feet over a passage of a million years. That was sobering.
Once past Burgos and firmly in the high plateau of Castile, the meseta felt unmistakably like another physical threshold that had deep lessons to teach. Exposure was the rule and there was nowhere to hide from the sun, the wind, and on this particular walk, the swirling dust and incessant flies.
I did not recall it ever being so dry on my previous Camino crossings, not even out here on the meseta. This vast yellow-tan plain, dotted here and there with trees, has been considered Spain’s bread basket ever since the Romans planted large fields of wheat here.
But on this trek there was no relief. The poplars and maples that had been planted to offer shade along the path were casting their shadows near their trunks. The wind stirred up the Dust-Bowl-dry earth and stuck it to my sweating skin. The flies loved this cocktail of sweat and dust. Under the hot sun they swarmed and stuck to my skin, making me pick up my pace to end the misery.
“Why am I doing this!?” I shouted to the wind. After, I turned to be sure no one had heard me: Madness was descending.
– – –
Some hundred and forty kilometers in to the meseta, just after passing through Bercianos del Real Camino, I saw a woman approaching. She was walking, stick in hand, tap-step-tapping on the trail, in a rainbow-painted sweatshirt pulled over a plaid men’s shirt and a tweed wool skirt, her wool socks running from her knees down to her well-worn running shoes. She had no backpack but an empty cotton shopping sack slung on her arm, heading in to the village for bread and milk.
“Buen camino, hija,” she called to me as she neared. “The water in our village fountain is safe to drink and you should be sure to fill up.”
I turned to see the fountain to which she pointed. All the creeks and rivers noted on my map were bone-dry beds. But here: Water. It felt like a miracle.
I asked the woman how long it had been this dry. She shook her head and put her hand on my arm.
“In all my 80 years, I’ve never seen a spring like this year’s, where it did not rain once. Now, the aquifers are empty. We’ve altered the world too much; I don’t know what we are going to do.”
I thought of the ancestors laying under the earth back in the limestone crevasses near Atapuerca and wondered if they ever saw this day coming but it seemed impossible: back then we humans had been nomads depending on searching the earth for natural food, water, and shelter; we had not yet become the species that altered the planet so dramatically that it risked no longer sustaining us.
The woman then told me she grew up on this earth, and raised her family here. She still loved living in this small village of her roots.
Next, just before arriving in Sahagun, the dust and flies still agitating toward madness, I met a man in the village of San Nicolas del Real Camino who saw me swatting away the flies as I sat in his cafe to have a refreshment and a break.
“Normally,” he said, “we have a cold snap in October that kills the flies. But this year, it is still hot and we don’t know when the cold will come. It’s a very unusual year.”
But, like the woman I had just met, he told me he loved living here, on this earth, on the Camino, with new people walking through each day, never a day the same. He told me that his village of 26 people was celebrating El Pilar, the patroness Mother Mary of all of Spain, that day. I had never seen anyone work as hard as he did, on a day of seeming rest, as villagers poured into his cheerful oasis cafe and began ordering lunch.
– – –
As I approached the next village, El Burgo Ranero—walking the same endless, dusty path with its shadeless poplars and maples—I thickened my skin to the dust and flies. They too had something to teach me: There was a great, boundless connection, between the wind, the dust, the drought, the kind villagers, me, all life—even the flies—from a million years ago in Atapuerca to now.
Was it my imagination that when I accepted this, the flies stopped swarming me?
I understood too that on this ancient walk, the meseta’s stretch was usually the most testing section of the Camino. I understood the lore of the Way that considered this wide and flat terrain to be the stretch that worked the mind, pulling out ideas both mad and sane.
As I stepped onto the main street of El Burgo Ranero, I passed three octogenarians, seated in a row on their front stoop, who greeted me. Their road, their stoop, was the very same one that had greeted pilgrims for centuries since the Middle Ages. I wondered what it was like to live on this old road, and stopped to talk.
“It’s a lot to have the whole world pass through your town,” I said, “day after day, for a thousand years. What is that like?”
“Yes,” one of the two women said, “it is a lot, but we like it—”
Before she could finish, the other older woman added, “No one day is the same—”
And before she could finish her sentence, the elderly man finished it, “—because of all the pilgrims who walk though. It’s far more interesting than television.” We all laughed.
I felt the fatigue of the meseta drain out of me and had a spring in my step as I went to find a place to sleep for the night.
I could see here too that we are all interconnected, that we pilgrims might give something to the villages that give us so much.
I knew why I was here. Yes, to learn these wonderful lessons of connectedness and walking in beauty, yes. But also for the stories that people shared along the path.
I thought about the family of five from North Carolina that I had recently met: a son, his parents and his aunt and uncle. When I asked what had inspired them to walk the Camino and together, they said that their home and business in the Smoky Mountains had burned down during the recent fires there and that they had lost everything. They were walking the Camino to regather their spirits and see what to do next in life. Hearing them be so positive after so much loss, I felt a hope in my heart, and a spring in my step. I felt optimistic too.
I thought also of the grandparents and their two granddaughters out in the middle of the plains on the Camino, who maintained a shrine dedicated to Mother Mary, who greeted pilgrims and opened the church so that those passing through would have a place to rest. I could see that the grandparents were transferring to their granddaughters—ages three and six—the duty of caring for the pilgrims and their sacred chapel. They would take each pilgrim’s credential and show the girls how to stamp it with the symbol of the chapel, how to carefully note the date in numbers they had just learned to write.
“This Mary,” the grandfather told me, “is the protector of our fields and of our village.” As he spoke, his wife and granddaughters nodded their heads. They were deeply connected to this land that I walked.
And so I fully forgot the flies. They stopped hounding me or I stopped minding.
– – –
As I wrote in my first dispatch: They say that the first stretch of the Camino across Navarra and Rioja engages the body, that the middle stretch across the hills and plains of Castile engages the mind, and that the hills and mountains of Leon and Galicia to Santiago de Compostela engage the soul. Thus far, the saying proves true.
From the Pyrenees across Navarra and La Rioja and into the beginnings of Castile, I did indeed test my physical strength and capacity. I learned to be fully in my body and lighten up, no matter what others might think—to push my own limits, but gently.
From Burgos to Leon, entering a new geographical threshold into the meseta, I did indeed feel my mind being challenged by the endless road, and the madness-inducing heat. But this stretch also offered beauty: Through the tan-ochre dust of the path, I saw the maple and poplar trees begin to turn their autumn color; I saw metallic-toned dragonflies zip across my line of vision; I saw butterflies—stunning lemon yellow, black and white, and rust-toned with black and tan patterns. And I gathered stories of transformation, from villagers, from pilgrims, and most surprisingly, from myself.
I now find myself just two kilometers from the Cruz de Ferro, the cross of iron where pilgrims ritually leave stones they have carried with them, releasing the past, and embracing the present and future. Now, the meseta gives way to the rising mountains of León, the place in Camino lore where one’s spirit comes more into play than ever before. Soon, we will reach the highest altitude of the entire pilgrimage, even higher than the path through the Pyrenees: Monte Irago, 1,515 meters above sea level.
All last night I heard the wind howl and bang on my window, once waking me up so suddenly, I had to get out of bed and make sure all was well.
It was. It had just begun to rain. With luck, the aquifers will start to replenish, along with all the life along the Way. The blessings, too, are all interconnected.
To be continued…
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