Gruen pauses for a picture near the outset of her journey across Spain. (Photo courtesy Laura Gruen, AB’67, AM’68)

One pilgrim’s promise

Laura Gruen, AB’67, AM’68, sends dispatches from the pilgrimage route across Spain she walked this spring.

From April to June of this year, Laura Gruen, AB’67, AM’68, walked the Camino de Santiago, a traditional pilgrimage route from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela cathedral in Spain. The church, where the apostle Saint James is said to be buried, has been a pilgrims’ destination since the Middle Ages. Following are selections from the electronic journal Gruen kept of her 500-mile journey, sending entries to friends as she made her way across Spain.

April 2

I began planning this pilgrimage last spring, when I realized that my 70th year would be the time to contemplate some unresolved parts of my past and get ready for the future. For the last 10 months, I’ve been reading, planning, and walking. It’s been good to have this dream at the center of my life. Now we’ll just see how well I can actually step out alone on pilgrimage. Mother Teresa said, “God did not call me to be successful; He called me to be faithful.” Those of you who are of the praying persuasion might ask that I find the strength to be faithful, wherever my path leads.

April 15

It took two days and three buses to get from Madrid to Pamplona and then from Pamplona to Saint Jean Pied de Port to start my camino. Even though I stopped at an albergue (hostel) half way up, the walk was the hardest physical thing I’ve had to do in many years. The second day was trudging through snow and mud and snowmelt streams and then a steep descent into Roncesvalles. I was so stripped down, all the pleasant distractions that mask reality in daily life were gone, and there was just the trail and effort and the beauty I was moving through. Very uncomfortable, but also wonderful.

April 21

The walking is resolving itself from a misery into a rhythm. I don’t trip over my poles anymore and my pack is coming to seem a necessary extension of myself, which it is.

Today I walked on a section of Roman road and crossed a Roman-built bridge around Lorca. I tried to avoid wading a scummy patch of trail by going up and over but fell coming down and got heaved out by a cheerful French couple. I walked through a half mile of newly hatched gnats that were impossible not to breathe in. I saw lots of scarlet poppies—met the first ones yesterday—and chewed on wild fennel.

April 27

I am sitting in the kitchen area of a massive and very clean and modern albergue run by a Spanish confraternity in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Saint Dominic (b. 1019) was a humble man who wanted to be a monk, but the nearby monastery wouldn’t take him so he decided to help pilgrims. He built a pilgrim hospital and a bridge and a church that is now a cathedral. One of his miracles is commemorated by having a cage of live chickens hung in the cathedral. It is said that if the rooster crows as you walk in, you will make it to Santiago. Once I get rested I’ll be off to the church to see what the chickens think about my prospects.

It rained off and on yesterday and walking in my poncho felt like I was sharing a tent with someone hot and fat and sweaty. Today was windy, cold, and full of mud. The Rioja dirt produces the best wine grapes in Spain and is also famous for sucking the boots right off your feet. I came in muddy to the knees with half a pound of extra weight on each foot.

May 4

Tomorrow I will climb yet another hill and arrive on the true Meseta, the flat land of wheat and wind and birdsong and not much else. This will suit me fine.

Already the landscape is changing. Before I would see a church steeple on a distant hill and know that it signaled a chair and a cold drink and a toilet and also that there wasn’t anything I could do to get there except put one foot in front of the other. Now I walk along and don’t see anything on the horizon except more wheat. The towns are tucked into dips in the landscape, and I just have to have faith that they are actually there.

May 12

The food offered for a pilgrim budget gets pretty repetitious. First course is a choice of mixed salad with iceberg lettuce and tuna or white bean soup or pasta; second course is some kind of fish, some kind of baked chicken, or pork cutlets—always with French fries. It will be a long time before I relish French fries again. Dessert is custard or flan from a plastic cup or ice cream or a piece of fruit. Sometimes there is a welcome variation (paella!) or the food is prepared beautifully and is a treat. The wine is automatic, red, and universally good.

May 14

This morning was cold and the wind was blowing, and I made it to the highest point on the camino in record time (for me). At the peak was the Cruz de Ferro, where pilgrims bring the stones they have carried from home to represent the emotional or spiritual burdens they hope to shed. There were just a few other early risers around. Standing with my stone and thinking what it represented for me, reading the traditional prayer, and then climbing the mound to place the stone were all very moving. I walked away feeling much lighter.

Here’s the prayer:

Oh, Lord, may the stone that I bring to this holy place be a symbol of my pilgrimage to Santiago. When I reach my final judgment, tip the balance of my life in favor of my good deeds. I lay down this token which I carry from home. Please forgive my sins and help me carry my burdens in life. Amen.

May 21

Here I am in Sarria, 100 kilometers or 60 miles from Santiago. This is the closest place to Santiago you can walk and get a compostela (the certificate that proves your pilgrimage). From here on I need to get two sellos (stamps) per day in my pilgrim’s credential to prove that I am walking.

May 27

This morning I arrived at Santiago cathedral, so grateful and relieved I hardly knew what to do with myself. Luckily I ran into a friend who had arrived yesterday and knew her way around. She took the obligatory photo in front of the church, covered in scaffolding, and then showed me the way to the Pilgrim’s Office, where I presented my credentials, filled with stamps for each walking day, and received my compostela, with my name in Latin. I was in time for the noon mass but not in time to get a seat so I leaned against a column. I am always astounded when someone notices I’m old, but I was very grateful when a man got up and insisted I take his seat.

Now I am clean and resting. I think I could sleep for a week.

I’m so glad to be here!

June 4

Thought you’d heard the last of me when I raised triumphant poles in front of Santiago cathedral, didn’t you? Wrong. After a couple days I got tired of being in a city and took a bus to Finisterre, the “end of the earth” where pilgrims collected the scallop shells that symbolized their journey. The place I’m staying is on the shore beside the walking path into town, and from early morning to late evening pilgrims stream by below my window. Some are skipping, some are dragging, some are weeping, and a few are transported.

I set myself down here for a week because it’s quiet and beautiful and because I needed time to sort out my experience. In no particular order, here’s what the camino has given me:

Faith in my endurance. I now know that I can walk day after day in heat, cold, rain, mud and keep going day after day because I made a promise, no matter how discouraged or pissed off at myself I am.

Gratitude. A mouthful of water, a warm shower, a place to sit down, an albergue that has a bed for me, all take the dimensions of enormous gifts, as indeed they are. Plus the beauty of the landscape (how can a country be so glorious across its whole width?) and the kindness of the local people who day after day cheerfully help clueless pilgrims like me.

Perspective. Early on my guidebook advised, “worrying is praying for what you don’t want.” I tried to take that to heart and stop obsessing about whether I’d make it up the next hill or get lost in Pamplona or find an open albergue at day’s end. Life without obsession is very restful.

The luxury of simplicity. Living for two months with only what I could carry on my back, washing clothes under the cold water tap and hoping they’d dry by morning, having my entire beauty regimen consist of putting hand cream on my nose so it wouldn’t peel: this has been an immensely freeing lifestyle.

Peace with my past. My long life has been full of mistakes, some I could hardly bear to think about. The camino gave me time and space and courage to come to terms with them, and the rituals at the Cruz de Ferro and the cathedral in Santiago brought me peace, as they have for millions of pilgrims before me.

After many years working in the UChicago Alumni Association, Laura Gruen, AB’67, AM’68, retired to Pennsylvania, where she teaches English to immigrant women, plays with her grandchildren, reads, and walks.