[Editor’s note: I was surprised when I awoke this morning with an email from Spain, sent to me by the author from a breakfast bar in El Toboso. So enjoy this bonus letter from the Camino. The next episode will appear in the usual Monday slot, “If God wishes it,” as the author tells me the guest-sister seems to say after everything she says in El Toboso’s Trinitarian convent! — ML]

The pilgrimage is now looking good, but not easy. Distances between towns on this route are sometimes hard and the accommodation is problematic in September with many hostels closed for a break, after their usual busy time during the August holiday season. I have now met seven other pilgrims—either while walking on the Camino or seeing them pass through San Clemente on my rest day—and this experience was common to all of us. We spend much of the day phoning ahead trying to find a bed for the night and wondering if we will have the strength to continue walking that far.

Ruins at Casa de Torrecillas.

After a rest day, I was on the Camino de Levante again, putting the town behind me and stepping out on the trail at six o’clock—in the light of a full moon—to make headway before the heat of the day. The vineyards on either side of the road were already busy, with migrant workers picking grapes, blinking in the glaring white light from the tractors they were serving. After an hour, the sun rose behind me and I watched the full moon setting between the houses of the abandoned village at Torrecillas. On these great flat spaces, even a gentle rise of a few meters seems like climbing a mountain and I struggled up a short incline to look back at the rising sun in the east, then turned to see the moon sink from view in the west. The sudden thrill of watching a sunrise—a daily occurrence rarely noticed at home—becomes a major moment of revelation on the Camino, as the pilgrim is thrown back into a true feeling of dependence on God and His creation, not knowing what the day will bring.

Camino de Levante in the dawn light.

This day brought Jean-Noël. While I had stopped in the middle of the wide Camino to take out breakfast from my rucksack, I heard the sound of boots crunching on the gravel behind me and the steady tak-tak of a metal pronged walking stick. The bearded Frenchman joined me and we continued together: now there were two elongated shadows on the road in front of us, not one. As I ate the bread roll that I had bought the night before and filled with ham, we were already in conversation about the usual pilgrim topics: where we had set out from, where we were going, how far we had come overall; then much later, exchanging names and nationalities. A Frenchman and an Englishman, talking fluently in the language we had in common, Spanish. Such is the Camino.

Waymarking is good on this section of the Camino de Levante but the stage distances are long.

We passed the ruined castle of Santiago de la Torre, once a stronghold of the santiaguistas, the knights of the Order of Santiago, which was next to another abandoned village, but my new companion and I were not too concerned about Camino history. After an hour of gradually teasing out a topic for conversation we were already engaged in a detailed conversation about Africa. From climate change, the environment, and our experiences of seeing the migrants working in the fields alongside us, we ended up talking about Nigeria. Jean-Noël had worked there, attached to a French agency, and before I retired from teaching I had taught my senior geography students about environmental degradation in the Niger delta.[1] It was not long before I brought Laudato Si’ into the conversation because the message of Pope Francis is that the many and various environmental problems faced by mankind need to be tackled globally: it is not enough to simply identify one issue and seek a technical fix.

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet. Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest. For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas.” (LS 48) [2]

This theme occupied us for most of the 24 kilometers (15 miles) to Las Pedroñeras, where our thoughts turned back to our pilgrim concerns, and the big question of how far we must walk in order to reach lodgings for the night. The answer was that we needed to walk another 20 kilometers for there was nothing in the intervening three towns and villages. There was nothing else for it.

Jean-Noël and I pause in Las Pedroñeras to phone for lodgings 20 km ahead.

Fortified by two large glasses of beer we continued for the entire afternoon, walking at a pace set by my companion who was younger and more energetic than me. (He reaches the age of seventy in December this year, and I reach that age before him in November.) Rule Number 1 on the Camino de Santiago is to walk at your own pace and you ignore that rule at your peril. By the end of the day—as we were received into our hostel accommodation in Mota del Cuervo—I was ruined. I had no blisters but my shins and toes ached. We limped across the road to the nearest bar for more beers and food, after settling into our rooms, and the other customers looked up and listened to our Spanish conversation. Why were two Compostela pilgrims talking about environmental degradation in the Niger delta?

Yesterday, Jean-Noël continued on his way with an early start and I will benefit from his news of accommodation up ahead—Whatsapped to me by mobile phone, a new pilgrim solution!—while I slowly limped the 11 kilometers into El Toboso, the village made famous by Cervantes in Don Quixote, and found lodgings in the convent of the Trinitarian sisters. I finished reading Laudato Si’ and went to Mass on the other side of the village in the church of the Poor Clares, where I had my pilgrim credencial stamped by the sister who acts as sacristan and meets the public. She gave me a small Franciscan Tau cross on a thin three-knotted cord, which I put around my neck before returning to the Trinitarian convent for my supper, walking through the streets of El Toboso that Cervantes described so well in the world’s very first modern novel in the 16th century.

The Camino was working its magic again. Not in some supernatural way—though pilgrims on the Camino sometimes talk of such experiences—but in everyday encounters and in reconnecting with the Catholic presence along the way. The discussion with fellow pilgrims about the practical realities that we collectively face in our life’s journey is always part of the experience, and for that, Pope Francis provides perfect Camino reading in his encyclical Laudato Si’. It is good to return to reading it and considering it in the light of a new day on the Camino, as I file this episode for WPI from a bar in El Toboso—where it is now dawn outside as I drink my morning coffee—and another long day’s walk begins.


[1] The people of the Niger delta have been campaigning for several decades in a long-running international court case to get the Shell petroleum company to pay for the cleaning up of the environmental disaster caused by oil extraction since the 1950s which has ruined the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers and polluted thousands of square miles of rich delta territory.

[2] Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican Press, 2015.)

Images: Header photo: The full moon setting over an abandoned village at dawn. All photos taken by the author on 21st September 2021.

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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

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