Rabanal to El Acebo: Little Switzerland
I love the smell of cowshit, at altitude, in the morning. I’m not being glib here. It’s earthy and real, but most of all it reminds me of many of the happiest times in my life, at my uncle’s hotel-restaurant in Braunwald, Switzerland. The mountains between Rabanal and El Acebo, across a narrow valley, were shorter and below treeline, but somewhat reminiscent of Braunwald, one of my favorite places on earth. For nearly the entire day, we would walk high up on the other side of the valley ourselves, for long stretches on the ridge line.
More modern windmills on the ridges of mountains in the distance. Cold. I have on three layers, Icebreaker wool 200 weight and 320 weight, which I ski in, and a light windbreaker. Light wool gloves and a skullcap. Only my toes are cold, in spite of the five-toed wool socks. When you separate toes, as with fingers, you lose heat.
We stopped near the top of a ridge to watch the sunrise, a brilliant orange orb sending its warm light over the cold landscape. Mom was wearing a white scarf over her head. For most of the rest of the day, I would walk behind her, imagining myself supporting her, willing her upward.
We stopped in Foncebaden for Second Breakfast. It’s one of my favorite times of the day, Second Breakfast. Foncebaden itself is crumbling down. Of the few stone homes, about half are abandoned, their roofs stove in, the rocks in their walls straining to fall out like an old man’s teeth. I found out later that the albergue in Foncebadon offered – wait for it – a yoga class in the mornings.
As we walked, I asked Mom if she wanted me to dial up Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” for her on my iPod when we reached the cross.
“No,” she said. “I’m going to be emotional enough. I’ve got all sorts of emotions going on.”
“Well, first, I’m just grateful I’m here. It still boggles my mind. And I feel hope. I see that tumor just hanging by a thread, and maybe when we reach the cross it’ll just fall off. All the research I’ve done says fresh air is very important in curing cancer. And exercise. We’re getting a lot of that. And no sugar. I should have already starved it by now. But I’m trying not to have expectations. Just drop the analysis and let it be. And then sometimes I get a frog that comes and sits in my throat. He’s there so often that I’ve given him a name.”
Carrie and I waited for the name. Mom was climbing, huffing.
“Well?” I said. “The name?”
“Timothy,” she said. Carrie and I laughed. We kept going up, scanning the horizon for a tall cross, the Cruz de Ferro.
Carrie was now up ahead. Mom went on. “I’m also thinking of all those who’ve passed. I think of Candy, that she has the courage to make a happy life for herself. I pray Brianna will find her way. For Kaleb to continue on his great path, but whatever he does is okay.” She walked some more, still going uphill on the rocky single-track trail. “For you, to have peace and contentment and be able to let go of anything from childhood that may still be with you.”
I sang to her a bit of sing-song that she used to sing to me in the car when I was a boy, when we drove with my grandparents through Germany and Austria on the seemingly endless trip to my uncle’s hotel-restaurant in Switzerland. “We’re almost there, we’re almost there.”
She nodded. “Schiab’st a bissl’, schiab’st a bissl’”. This was my grandmother’s Nieder-Bayerisch for “push a li’l”. “Oma’s here,” she said. “That came right into my head.”
“She’s been here all along.”
“Yes, she has. They’re all lining up now, all of them from the past.”
Scrub oak, yellowing, growing brown. The trees are short as far as the eye can see, a sign of harsh winters. Some pilgrims say they’ve heard it can snow here in summer. An Italian couple walks ahead of us. Heather lines the path, some of it already dying. My toes are still cold. My nose is running, sprinting, hurdling, as I once did not so long ago, and in the far-away past.
The path goes all the way up. It’s all single-track now, and rocky. We are gaining 1000 feet in 5 miles. “I’m going to have a heart-attack before I even get to that stupid cross,” Mom said.
I’m suddenly struck by the thought, What will I leave behind? I hadn’t bothered to think about it. I didn’t even bring a stone, or anything else, from home. I have had some thoughts come into my head. Is there anything remaining from my marriage or divorce? Any regrets, guilt, resentments? Should I let go of the fear of committing myself to writing, and all that implies? I walk on without having decided anything. I had a few more kilometers. Maybe something would come to me.
Suddenly we saw it. About two hundred yards ahead. The cross was made of a 25-foot tall wooden beam with cross-beam and stood atop a 15-foot pile of rocks. I had read that the original pile was created by Pagans. Just as many churches were converted from or built on top of Pagan temples, the Christian symbolism here was built on the rubble of Pagan religion.
More than a dozen brightly-colored pilgrims milled about the rock pile. I could see them
posing for pictures. A handful of bikes were parked next to the pile. My heart sank. This was the space we would try to make sacred? But Mom was forging ahead, walking toward the cross as if pulled by a magnet.