(A long overdue letter of thanks to the lady with water and sandwiches in Galicia...)
Dear kind Señora in remote coastal Galicia near Padrón, Spain,
Since I met you back in the early spring of 1995, I have met many trail angels, but you were my first. It was you who made me a pilgrim, possibly you who fueled this obsession, to walk long walks in sacred space and time. I have thanked you many times in my heart. I am pretty certain you have long forgotten what you did. Isn’t it remarkable how one seemingly little act can alter a whole life?
That spring was nine years after I first heard about the Camino de Santiago. In 1986, those three words lodged into me and I knew that one day, when I could, I would walk it. But despite the long years, you would think that I had a plan for it. Instead, when the moment arrived, I was utterly unprepared. In fact, I hadn’t planned to walk it just then.
I was coming up from southwestern Spain where I had just finished doctoral research for my dissertation. My husband, Miles, met me midway in Lisbon and we took the train north through Portugal and into Galicia, destined for Santiago de Compostela. I figured I had a few days to see the glorious city of legend and myth and then one day, a year or two later if providence allowed, I would return with more time to walk the whole trail from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
But just before reaching the train’s terminus in Santiago, we heard the train conductor announce, “last stop, Padrón.”
Padrón, right? Where Saint James first arrived by stone boat? Where this whole Santiago thing really begins?
Miles and I looked at each other and knew it had to start here. Just as the train was beginning to pull out of Padrón, we grabbed out packs and jumped. I heard an explosive, “¡Coños!” erupt from behind us, accompanied by the well-justified arm pumping of the conductor. But we landed well, knocked the dust off of the hems of our pants, and after visiting the town where Saint James’ stone boat purportedly moored nearly two thousand years, we began walking.
We had no map, no food, and no water. My thesis, all 500-pages of it, was strapped to the hood of my pack. We took the scenic route, a roundabout detour to walk along the coastal finger of land between Padrón and Noya. Only when we were out in the middle of nowhere did we realize what royal idiots we were. We entered a natural protected park, a rare place in Spain where there are no cafés.
“Don’t worry,” Miles said, “This here is a pilgrimage. Let’s trust the path to give us what we need when we need it.” With that sketchy plan, we pressed on.
Three hours later, seeing no one and no café, feeling an increasingly dry texture in my throat, I began to doubt Miles’ optimistic approach. But it was right then that you appeared, driving past us and serendipitously stopping you car on the roadside to check on something. I rushed over to you to ask you where we could find water and food.
“You’re in the middle of a protected natural park,” you’d answered, “so not very near here, except…” You smiled and opened your trunk, rooted through several bags, and then pulled out a large unopened bottle of mineral water and two sandwiches. You told us to take them, that you had just come from your grocery shopping, and, thinking of going for a hike later in the day, had on a whim picked up the water and bocadillos. You insisted and refused any payment. “This is pilgrimage,” you’d said and drove off.
This is pilgrimage.
Those three words reverberated in my mind and rewove my body and being. Christening us pilgrims, out there on that wild finger of land in the middle of nowhere, was a game changer for me. It was the very moment I turned into a lifelong pilgrim.
Your one act also seemed to have opened a magical door, one flowing with serendipity and synchronicity. The rest of the day, people showed up right as we needed guidance, sustenance, and support. By night, coastal villagers gave us a place to sleep and shared their dinner, just-caught fish and just-plucked vegetables from their gardens, along with homemade sparkling white wine.
Thanks to you, I became a pilgrim. Thanks to you and your many brother and sister Camino angels since, I have remained a pilgrim, and I continue to learn from you about grace, magic, generosity, and kindness with each step of the Way.
Mil gracias por todo.