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Letter from Santander

PAS - Trip overview thus far

Written 5-days ago in a small 1/2 star hostel with barely perceptible wifi in central Santander and a glass of good, 7 EUR Rioja in hand. Candace sleeping cozily next to me on the full bed and me with the kind of day-ruining strained neck-vertebrae situation that only comes from sleeping on a stiff pillow in a very wrong way for too long last night.


Here we are in another of Cantabria's lovely north-coast cities. Bilbao was the last major stop and Castro-Urdiales was the most recent memorable smaller stop, but overall we have loved this excursion across Spain's (though don't tell the Basque's say I called it that) northern limits. Terrain has been a mix of small dirt roads and sometimes outright highways (or whatever passes for a "highway" in Europe). Though we are constantly in the midst of beautiful old towns in varying states of elegant disrepair, rustic decrepitude or the "too-modern" style that connotes some 20th century-style disaster that would have necessitated a total rebuild (Guernica). People are, almost without exception, kind and accommodating to us foreign pilgrims. America has long lost (or at least placed on the "endangered list") its small agricultural institutions and heritage. Whatever your view of industrial-scale farming and economies of scale, small agriculture makes for brilliant, life-affirming abundance and scenery and we are so fortunate to be moving through and over it now. My cross country drives took me past US cattle ranches of unbelievable size where the cramped, over-medicated animals created a singular black mass of livestock and metallic structures shuffling on into the dusty horizon. Here, the gentle, placid cows are of a healthy size and complexion unlike any bovine specimens I have seen before. The disrepair of the older, partially reclaimed structures indicates less poverty and lax upkeep to me than a blend of man and nature that shines in the people, animals and produce. I don't mean to wax pastoral, but it is striking to see and it is everywhere.

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Sometimes we camp and sometimes we stay at the hostels specially catering to pilgrims such as ourselves (have to show proper credentials) which only charge between donation-15 EUR a night with a little extra if we want to spring for breakfast or dinner. Fine crew of people from all over the world hike with us and we meet new faces every day. Many Canadians oddly (including two wonderful Quebecois brothers who are specimens of smart, dead-pan, backwoods Canadian humorists), but plenty from all over Europe. Very few Americans (only 2 come to mind so far). Many seasoned hikers in the mix. Candace and I are fiercely budget-conscious now that we lack incomes, but sometimes splurge after a week of particularly nasty terrain on a proper hotel.

Spent last night at an Albergue (special pilgrim hostel) run by a man named Ernesto and a band of international volunteers who came about as close to a utopia-style commune as I can imagine. Donations only (in fact they did not even call it a donation), with full dinner, showers, bathrooms, beautiful terrain etc., Ernesto, now 78, grew up in the house. Family moved away following WW2 and civil war here with family to seek fortune. Went to Theology school, finished, was sent to some utterly remote mountain town (think Tibetan mountain village type) here in Northern Spain with 200 people for his ministry where the villagers schooled HIM on having mental toughness, caring closely for one another, and basically being a "tribe" of sorts, though most all illiterate. After a few years here he signs up for 1-year sabbatical, jumps in old Land Rover with some friends and tours 20 some countries in Europe, North Africa and Americas for 27 months. Comes back, restores his family's old, dilapidated building as a sort of community center for the local villagers. 18 years ago a pilgrim comes a knocking and he knew he had found a new calling. Since then the place has expanded, solely on donations etc from the community and pilgrims (no money from govt., church, town etc.) and is now a beautiful, peaceful place of solace and security for pilgrims along the route. In fact, he is something of a celebrity along this particular camino (Camino Norte - rougher, wetter, less travelled camino to Santiago than the more famous Camino Frances, which has become something of a victim to its own celebrity).

So that is the general report from yours truly here in Spain on the trip so far.  More specific topics to be covered later on. Comments, questions, topics to cover etc. welcomed.