Basque Country

Happy pilgrim on the camino near Pobena
Happy pilgrim on the camino near Pobena

Waking up before the sun but after the first wave of super pilgrims who walk with headlamps before first light, I shook up a packet of instant coffee with cold water in a plastic bottle and set out on the trail, leaving the tiny beach town of Deba behind, a beachy valley in the middle of rolling mountains. The camino led me up through the forest and to a tiny pueblo, still asleep and wet with morning dew, rain clouds in the distance giving it a dark glow. Far below sheep grazed the blazing greens and all I could hear was their bells and the crunch of my own feet.

House near Deba
House near Deba

Tears came, and I let them fall for once. Not for loss or change or hurt but for the deepest gratitude my small soul has ever felt. How good God was to bring me to this place, to answer the call of my heart. And for a few minutes I forgot what it took to get me here, the loss of dreams and the battle cries, the broken hearts and the nerves of steel. I was here, in Spain, walking though the stone streets of this tiny town watched over by a very old bell tower, which was pretty much the best thing I could think of in this whole world to do.

Coastline near Pobena
Coastline near Pobena

Passing through vineyards and orchards, past milk cows and horses, the trail would dip back down toward the sea at the end of the day. Those cows sure had great views from up there. The ocean and I were at war at that time so I didn’t feel like swimming. That salty stuff had betrayed me and I was not about to forgive her. So I sat on the sand while my new friends, a lively group of twenty something guys who’d taken to calling me “mom” dove in and out of the breakers before the wind whipped up in the afternoon.

Vineyards along the camino near Zarautz
Vineyards along the camino near Zarautz

One morning I had coffee from a vending machine on the beach at sunrise in the rain, soaking up those misty rays before they hit a still, gray ocean. A hot afternoon I sat in thick moss by a cold creek and ate chorizo and bread until my feet shrank to normal size, trying not to worry that the horses grazing nearby would suddenly charge me. Drank a glass of rose for one euro in a plaza where the entire town must have come out to enjoy a perfectly sunny evening.

Coastline near Zarautz
Coastline near Zarautz

I met people from Germany and Hungary, France and Spain. Got to know a pair of Irish guys who smoked and drank beer the whole day yet managed an impressive pace, some meditating Dutchman, a Pole who’d been saved by Jesus the year before on the camino, and an American who runs a movie theater. A crazy Dutchman who lived in Spain fed a group of us coffee with brandy one night just before curfew, then refused a bed to sleep outside. We joined him and looked for stars though the clouds before the rain came.

Sheep farm near Markina-Xemein
Sheep farm near Markina-Xemein

In Bilbao the group of us celebrated the festival of St. James, in honor of pilgrims, with wine and snacks at the albergue. Sometime in the past week we’d all formed a bond. It must be the sleeping together in close quarters, or the commiserating over blisters and snorers, or maybe it’s the kinship over doing a weird thing like walking everyday for over a month. In any case, all of a sudden it felt like these folks were the closest of friends.

Door and shell marker, symbol of the camino
Door and shell marker, symbol of the camino

My last day in the Basque Country was in the beach town of Pobena. The Aussie and I were some of the first to arrive even though we got lost leaving Bilbao. The albergue was packed and they were asking for volunteers to sleep on the floor, so of course we gave up our beds as there were others that clearly needed them. I spent the day on the sand, eyeing the ocean but still mad at her before joining some friends for dinner at an outdoor table set back from the beach. My heart was picking up a steady pace as the sun sank down casting a pink light over the laughter and clinking of dishes. The ocean and I had a score to settle. I thrust my bag into the hands of a friend and ran down to the sea, knowing our 10 o’clock curfew was coming soon.

Countryside near Zumaia
Countryside near Zumaia

The tide was way out and little waves slapped the shore gently and constantly. Walking into the sea was warm and the water was shallow even 100 yards out. An orange and pink sky chilled the air and my footsteps were the only ones in the sand. It was just me and the ocean. I let my tears stream out as I dove in, and over and over the little waves washed them away. She warmed me and washed me and we forgave each other.

As I stepped out of the water toward the boardwalk, a Hawaiian ulu print pareo wrapped around my shoulders, one of the meditating Dutchman was there, sitting on the flat rocks.

“You finally swam.” He said with a sheepish grin.

“I had to.” I answered, shivering.

We walked backed together to the albergue, knowing we were late and not really caring.

“Come one, come on!” The host said, pointing to his watch as we approached.

We scurried in.

“You,” he said, pointing to me, “you speak Spanish, you get a bed.”

And so began the camino miracles.

Camino marker near Gernika
Camino marker near Gernika
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