There are many special places and moments on The Camino. Cruz de Ferro (The Iron Cross) in the west of Castilla y Leon Province is perhaps the most spiritual for me. All three of my experiences there have been noteworthy, though this most recent one was a most powerful emotional experience.
Seven years ago, while traveling through Europe and after an 11 day warm up on the GR 5 around Chamonix, France, I made my way to St. Jean Pied-de-Port to start my first Camino de Santiago. I had not done any real research. A Spaniard had talked about it one evening after dinner in a Nepal Teahouse moths before on the Annapurna Trek and I had been drawn to The Camino ever since based on his words of it being less like a trek in Nepal and more a spiritual walk, part of a journey within.
Following The Camino south to Pamplona and then west to Santiago I first heard of Cruz de Ferro, at 1500 meters, the highest elevation a pilgrim will reach. Fellow pilgrims talked about carrying a stone from home or a stone from the start of their Camino to lay at the base of the cross. I had no such stone and pondered for many days what to leave. On the night before reaching the Cross, I stayed at the quiet, comfortable Albergue El Pilar in Rabanal del Camino. After 26 days walking, something made me clean out my backpack for the first time since starting, and found at the bottom of my pack a large coin imprinted with “One Day at a Time”. I was given this coin by my Dad’s first cousin Danny who was more like a brother to my father. Dad had lost his older and only brother in WWII. Danny’s coin was an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Token received after his 18th year of sobriety.
I recalled putting the coin in my backpack for good luck before a 4 month trip to South America 8 months earlier. Making this more special was thinking back to the first day of My Camino. High up in the Pyrenees there were two Frenchmen giving pilgrims water and cookies and a chair to rest on simply for praying with them on behalf of any of our own family members or friends that had addiction problems. I joined them but for some strange reason drew a blank on any specific people to pray for. But as I approached the Cross I thought of Danny and several others and prayed for them.
On my second Camino I had been traveling in Ireland for 2 months before starting from Le Puy, France and realized after about 1200 kilometers that I had forgotten a stone again. But remembering I had a single Northern Ireland coin in my wallet. Why not leave another coin as that seemed to be a tradition for me. Finding the coin had me thinking about my recent visit to Northern Ireland where I had met with four great Camino buddies from the previous year. They had accompanied me on a walk in Newcastle in the Mourne Mountains. Paddy and Darren and their son’s Padraig and Fiontan then took me back to their homes in Lurgan, about 30 miles southwest of Belfast, where they invited me to stay with them overnight and provided me with lovely home cooked meals and plenty of pints. One Saturday night dinner was followed by a screening of “The Way”(a movie about the Camino starring Martin Sheen) in Darren’s man cave where he watches that movie religiously every Saturday night. I saw and heard first hand that while the fighting has stopped, there was still a strong tension between the Protestants and Catholics that seemed so very unnatural after spending time in the Republic where people seem so much more at ease and free of spirit. So at Cruz de Ferro I left a coin and prayed for peace in Northern Ireland and their unification with the Republic of Ireland.
A year later, I completed my third Camino, Via De La Plata, from Seville. Afterwards I traveled from Santiago to the small town of Hospital de Orbigo on the Camino Frances to volunteer as a hospilatero where I would be working at Albergue Verde taking care of Camino pilgrims; helping with check ins, cleaning, and doing small things for the pilgrims to make their stay more pleasant. At the albergue there was a Frenchman from Paris, Alain, who had MS and was in a wheelchair. His friend Alice had to return to Paris for a week and would be returning in a few days with a friend as she would need help to push Alain and his cart over the mountains of west Leon and Galicia. I had no specific plans for after my hospilatero gig so I told Alain if he needed help I would be honored to assist.
The evening his friend Alice returned he and Alice approached me and accepted my offer to help. So a few days later I found myself nearing the Cross for a third time thinking with a smile that once again I had no stone to carry. Then I realized I carried my prayer stone and could leave it and pick up a new one. However, I thought, “This is not my Camino and I am here simply to help Alain,” so I would not leave a stone. Upon reaching the cross, there was a small hill at the base so we had to help Alain out of his wheelchair and assist him up the hill the last 25 feet. Moments later I had my arm around Alain on one side and my friend Maud had him on the other side as he held on to us and struggled up the final part of the hill. A few feet before reaching the cross it dawned on me that I carried no stone but was carrying a MAN up Cruz de Ferro. I emotionally broke down and stumbled and almost dropped Alain but recovered and held him as he left a stone for his son.
With over 400 days on The Camino now I have learned that it is much more than a walk. Magical things do happen here. As time passed since that morning at the Cross I have come to realize that it was not I helping Alain at Cruz de Ferro but all of us helping each other.