Several pilgrims I met before Burgos told me they planned to skip the Meseta, the broad central Spanish plain. They had heard it was long, dull and monotonous. They were going to take the bus to Leon, cutting out, at very least, seven days of walking.
I would not have skipped it for anything. The wide-open horizon, the long and lonely days, would allow me many hours of joyful solitude; the monotony would test my spirit. I was into my third week of pilgrimage when I hit this broad and wind-swept expanse.
The Meseta can be bleak, even boring, and the first day all I saw were endless fields of sprouting wheat, piles of white and speckled limestone, occasional clumps of trees (often clumped around the rock piles) and scattered pilgrims along the ruddy, dirt road. The terrain was flat in all directions, but the vast sky as wondrous as the ocean. The road headed off straight to a vanishing point on the horizon. It was still early spring, so the fields were more brown than green and it was all set against a dull sky. I only heard the wailing wind and the cries of the birds. The lack of scenery and sensory stimulation was a profound change from the previous weeks, where the Camino Frances traversed hilly and even mountainous country, full of vineyards, olive orchards, forests and charming towns and cities. In the summertime the Meseta is known to be treeless, with little shade, the sun intense, the heat merciless. In winter and spring pilgrims brace themselves against the strong, cold winds. Many of the small towns are just a single street, with few places to stop. Some villages are hidden in canyons, reminding me of Texas: you don’t even know they are there in the flatlands ahead until you find yourself descending a steep cut in the road, when they suddenly emerge.
Eighty kilometers to the north, I could just make out the Cantabrian Mountains, a range that parallels the sea, linking the Pyrenees in the east to Galicia in the west. They were a constant as I crossed the Meseta. A few days past Leon some of them curve south and then I would cross them, but I still had nine days of walking this vast, flatland ahead of me.
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Most days along the Camino, I started out alone. This was intentional. At various times during the day, I walked and talked and socialized with pilgrims or hospitaleros—sometimes at length, maybe even for an entire evening. But the start of the day was almost always in solitude. I am an introvert and have always enjoyed solitude, even in the midst of crowds, and the Camino afforded me all the solitude I might want. In fact, walking the Camino was the longest unbroken time of solitude that I experienced in my life. I love the early morning; in a large city I enjoy getting up and sitting out on the street/sidewalk before it becomes filled with people and traffic. At home (I live on the edge of the countryside) I head out onto my deck first thing, spring through autumn, to enjoy the spectacular vista of the Allegheny Mountains to the west. In winter I start by a fire in the living room. I need at least an hour by myself to enjoy a cup of coffee and let my thoughts awake to the day. It is a time to read, pray, journal and reflect. This assures that my day gets a good start.
Some mistakenly think that being an introvert means I don’t like being around people. It’s not true—what it means is that as an introvert I gain energy from being alone. Now I had lots of alone: hour after hour of alone, week after week of alone, alone with my thoughts, alone with the quiet, alone with the scenery, alone with God. I thrived in it, I reveled in it, I bathed myself in it. It became one of the most significant aspects of my pilgrimage.
The previous decades raising my family had been fulfilling, but in recent years the long hours of stressful work had depleted me. Now, walking in solitude, I was replenishing my inner life. Writer and Benedictine Joan Chittister wrote,
Solitude is chosen. It is the act of being alone in order to be with ourselves. We seek solitude for the sake of the soul. Even with easy access to other people we take time to be by ourselves, to close out the rest of the world, to concentrate on the inside of us rather than wrestle with everything going on around us… solitude opens us to the wonders of the world without noise, a world without clutter, a world purged of the social whirl, at least for a while. At least long enough to immerse ourselves in the balm of simply being… In solitude we wait for all the noise to quiet in order to find out what we are really thinking about, what we are really saying to ourselves underneath all the layers of other people’s messages that threatened to smother the words of our own heart.
Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years
The Camino was foremost a spiritual experience for me. I am by nature a contemplative, and during the journey, my mind and spirit relaxed and my thoughts clarified. On the wide-open Meseta, with more time alone than ever, with my head bundled up inside my hood against the stiff wind, all the thoughts, memories, dreams and ideas, all that I had mentally bundled up over a lifetime—even any gripes and grievances—were loosened and revealed themselves. To my surprise, the negative stuff dispelled itself pretty quickly; in fact, it vaporized. I was so entranced by beauty, by simplicity, by the blowing of the wind across the wide-open sky, by the movement of the clouds, by the path in front of and behind me, by the wonder of what might happen next, or who I might meet next, by having all the time in the world, that any painful thoughts from the past seemed hardly worth the time to ponder. They were puny in comparison to the beautiful grandeur of my experience.
My own need for solitude goes beyond my needs as an introvert. Modern, Western lives are noisy and the noise of my youth—radio, TV, newspaper and magazines—has been superseded by 21st century digital devices and the Internet, which allow us instant 24/7 contact with the world, an unbounded stream of limitless data. My inner life cried out for solitude as an antidote to digital overload. Antxon González Gabarain described the solitude of the Camino this way:
It’s a place where there is no room for the usual bombardment of boredom, superficiality, consumerism and violence. A place where I can hold the silence in my hands, and hear the melodies of air, stone, earth and grass. A place where I can dwell for hours and days with that part of me that is neither body nor mind, gloating over the privilege of having all this quiet to myself, all the time in the world, and pushing. I push, and push and keep pushing. I throw off all the ballast, I purge the demons and charge myself with spiritual energy.
Antxon Gonzalez Gabarain, The Great Westward Walk
As thoughts surfaced, I turned over the most fruitful ideas in my head, polished and preserved them. I felt a deep love and appreciation for the world well up inside, for life itself, for God who gives us all life, alongside a deep grief for injustice and ugliness, the over-consumption of the Creation. I felt connected to the past, to the present, to the world, to the ground I walked over, to my family and friends (even though I missed them), to my fellow pilgrims, but most of all to God.
As soon as I had an open stretch to walk, I took time to pray, beginning with my new personal reminder: “It’s a great day to be alive.” I had all the time I might ever need to pray, and it sustained and filled me. With hours of walking ahead, I engaged in a quiet, unhurried, listening attitude, contemplative prayer that was more of the heart than the head. I felt no hurry to get through it—I had all day.
Walking in solitude also clarified my mind—new thoughts and old dreams emerged—and that’s where I found God speaking to me the most. Dots connected. I felt like some pattern inside was being repaired, and I didn’t even know it was broken. As Chittister says, “It is here in the well of the self that our unfinished self, our real self, lies waiting for attention.”
As my mind became clearer, I started writing; at first it was just letters and postcards, but it expanded into written postings on social media for friends.Cam It was as if there was an abundance of creativity waiting for its opportunity to surface. The threads of wonder that I discovered along the ancient road—whether a wonder of nature, or of the culture or of history—were woven into a rich tapestry. Each day was, “a great day to be alive.” Life became richer and I felt an irresistible urge to express this through my lifelong dream to write.
The result of my urge to write was a book about my experience, The Walk of a Lifetime. This is excerpted from a chapter on Solitude. More about the book and a free download of the first chapter here. I also offer a signed copy of the book, shipped for free.