Spain... the final frontier. A belated hello from Lagroño in northern Spain! Sorry for the omission last week & thankyou for the prayers & concern of those wondering where I was. It was simply a case of no internet available, so thankyou to Chris for posting a blog on my behalf (I should've known he wouldn't be able to not help himself to a few personal side comments). So, 2 weeks have past since I left Toulouse & it feels like a month has past. The first night out from Toulouse I had a young man, Nils, find me accomodation in the church offices (thanks mate) where I was able to quickly check my email. Confusingly, I discovered a stack of emails either congratulating me or questioning me about my engagement! I have a facebook account & I had, while in Toulouse, changed me facebook 'relationship status' to "Engaged to my backpack", but all that showed up on my facebook profile was "engaged" so I had to very quickly difuse the bomb! With that out of the way & my profile changed I headed on towards Auch where I met with a fellow called Charles & his good mate Jean. Charles is leading the Toulouse World Youth Day pilgrim group & had been notified of me passing through by Tim Davis & a french girl, Sophie, who work for the Melbourne Archdiocese. Charles was on the ball quickly & drove out to meet me for a restaraunt dinner 100km from his home. Jean lived down the road from Auch so Charles had called him up & organised for me to stay with him & his wife on their family estate. The estate was fantastic & their hospitality supurb. It was very close to being a holiday! Quickly back to the restaraunt dinner, Charles & Jean were keen for me to try some local produce so I had a choice of Duck's liver or garlic Snails. I chose the snails. And it actually tasted all right. Not sure I'll ever order them again but hey, if I ever have a desperate night out in the wilderness again perhaps I won't go hungry? So long as I have access to boiling water & a bucket full of garlic. Jean organised for me to meet the mayor of a town I was passing through the next day, Mirande, & so a little media attention was given to the walk & thankfully the oppurtunity to extend the inivtation to pray for unity went out just that little bit further. A gentleman I met at Jean's organised accomodation for me in Tarbes (the next town) with the Colonel family & Charles organised accomodation for me for 2days in Lourdes (the next town again). So all up it was one of the most spoilt weeks for accomodation since Montana & Canada. As I was approaching Lourdes I did have a bit of a slip up that could have ended worse than it did. As is normal when being human, I needed a toilet break, but with nothing in sight & a very steep embankment on both sides of the road with thick forest along them, I had to opt for the one path 'out of sight' that I could find - a steep, 10m high concrete culvert where the road passed over a small river. I left my backpack & poles at the top & began my descent. After about, say, 50cm, I got that sinking feeling that I had misjudged the steepness & with an inocent, "Oh-ohh" my feet shot out from under me & I slide on my back down the conrete slippery slide. The next problem was that the hole at the base of the concrete culvert where the water flows through was around 5m wide with only a 1m section of conrete actually touching down on the ground. As I slid down with greater speed I was slightly on target for the tunnel edge & so to manoeuvre away from a fall off the edge into the river I had to use my hands to steer myself. Concrete:1, Skin on my Hands:Nil. My hands weren't designed for steering down concrete slabs. Thankfully though, I touched down with a gentle thud at the bottom corner, away from the drop into the river & with only slightly bloodied hands. Yes, they were bleeding & may I say, I was left with quite a sting indeed! I tried to shake the pain out (it sort of worked) & then lamented my descent & how on earth I was ever going to climb back up. I quickly went to the toilet (that is what I'd gone there for after all) & then tried to scale back to me gear but didn't ever make it past the first metre. The option left for me was to walk back up through the steep blacberry-covered forest floor. Bleeding hands on the way down, bleeding legs on the way back up. Well, that was fun. What stupid thing can I do around the next corner? I bought a new backpack cover this week as my old one was no longer water proof. The only one available though was an army disposal's camouflage cover so I'm a little concerned about my visibilty from behind while it's raining. I'm wearing khaki trousers so from the back I look like not much at all (photo to the right). It has actually rained a lot over the past few weeks so it's come in handy & it works well so for that I'm very pleased. While staying with the Colonel family in Tarbes I had a late shower just as they were heading off to bed & in a moment of un-co-ordination managed to lose my grip on the soap & as if in slow motion it made a direct line for my enflamed, fleshy left big toe (yes, the toe is still there but only just). As it hurtled towards my constant agony I snatched my foot away to the side but only succeeded in smashing it into the shower wall with uncompromising force. Blood interspersed with the shower's water immediately & I was left nearly convulsing as I silently screamed the worse shower scene scream since 'Psycho'. A silent scream because everyone was going to bed, but my mouth was agasp for at least 10seconds & my body didn't stop shaking for another minute. It was a long time before that soap block was picked up again. Once in Lourdes I settled in for a tightly scheduled rest day with a series of tasks needing attention. Firstly was a series of forms for a backstage pass at World Youth Day (I'm speaking on a few of the days) & then the processing of all the dvd's from this journey so far. The original camera, which used tape, was stolen in Costa Rica & replaced with a dvd camera. I didn't know that I had to formalise each disc before sending them back to Australia so poor Brendan (Mr Editor) had to bundle them all up & send them to me in France. I collected them, finalised them & bundled them back to him so hopefully something will be ready for World Youth Day. Lourdes is a fascinating place where a series of apparitions & thousands of miracles have seen people flocking to the place for nearly 150years. The basic gist is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a particular appariton, asked a young girl to do penace for the return of sinners to Christ. The act of penace was to drink from a muddy pool, which the young girl did, & from there burst a spring of natural fresh water, which continues to flow today. Like a modern day 'Serpent on the Staff' (book of Exodus) there have been thousands of healings attributed to pouring on or submersion in the water with the expectation of healing. There were people everywhere. Ten's of thousands of people; Young & old, walking, limping, in wheelchairs, on crutches, with problems left, right & centre. I fitted in well. I went to a Chinese mass first of all & then made my way down to the running spring. I'd washed all my clothes the night before & they still hadn't dried so despite it being only 8degC I was pottering around in shorts & flip-flops. I'd been very catiously making my way through the crowds trying to keep my toe out of harm's way but at last I was standing on the edge of the running stream. I actually didn't want to even try at first but after a quick prayer & a "Jesus, I trust you" I decided that I'd better get my toe in there if I was to finish this walk. I slipped my left flip-flop off & let the water pour over it... & waited. I'm not sure what I was expecting but nothing happened. I prayed again, that what ever happened I would accept, but that I would like it to finally be healed, please. I limped on from Lourdes towards the beautiful Pyrenees & at around that time you should've been hearing from me but it was the wrong part of the world to try & find internet access. I couldn't even find a mass that weekend!! I walked 20-predawn-km to make it to a possible mass on the Sunday morning only to find that it was being held in another town out of my reach. There was confirmation (baptism in the Spirit) that weekend so everyone had come together in one place. One place where I was not. Once at the foot of the Pyrenees I was told that my destination the following day on top of the mountain range had closed that very day for the rest of the season (it's a ski village). This left me with 2 options; sleep in my tent at 1800m above sea level or walk 53km across the Pyrenees to the first major Spanish town. I opted to walk & so with an early night I rose at 4:30am & started my ascent in the dark. It was fantastic. It was seriously supurb. The road I was walking along had an average of only one car every 30mins & it was surrounded by the most breathe-taking mountains, vallies & rivers I've passed through on this whole walk. The steepness of the road was also breathe-taking, literally. At around 1300m, while I was spending some time in prayer, I walked up into the thick clouds & continued upwards. I could hear cow bells ringing at times but nothing else. It was cool, damp, white & quiet. By the time I made my first stop at 11am I was sitting at 1804m above sea level & 27km from my point of origin. Not a bad first leg. It was getting colder by the minute though & without my Canada/Russia winter gear I resorted to wearing my spare socks on my hands as I commenced the downward section into Spain. Eventually I descended from the clouds & was met by an awesome view of a tree filled valley with rocky escarpments surrounding it & 5 eagles doing circle-work over the far mountain. Then the clouds swept down & I was once again surrounded by 'whiteness'. A few hours later I was back in sunshine & looking down a steep, winding section of road that wound back & forth for around 3km. The section in between the first 2 bends was cushy mountain grass so without too much hesitation (& obviously having already forgotten about my cement descending attempt) I jumped the saftey barrier & like one of those Frenchman chasing the roling disc of cheese down the mountain side & gathered speed with ease. Unlike the Frenchman who chase the roling disc of cheese down a mountain side, I did it with finese & didn't fall! I also did it slower, but it was so much fun. All the pressure was going through my heals so the toe was fine for once but after a few succesful traverses I was faced with a thickening pine forest that offered new obstacles. As I crossed the road into a very thick section I wondered if this was bear territory (the Pyrenees are home to many bears). I thought it unlikely & continued on, weaving through the trees. There a fewer things that get me out of a happy 'mountain descending' frame of mind than trotting past enormous foot-prints that have made a 30cm depression in soft ground that I'm only making a 5cm depression in. So... looks like it's the road from here! I shot out of there quicker than you can say, "You idiot" & found myself standing on the edge of a 4m drop down to the roadside. Hmmm, my dumbness surrounds me. The road had been cut into the mountain side for that entire length of road so after a quick contemplation of walking back up the mountain side through the soggy 'what are those footprints' ground I thankfully found a pine tree growing from the roadside up along the face of the road cutting. I reached out, grabbed hold & climbed down. Note to self: Let go of the walking poles before climbing down a tree - two hands makes it easier. How on earth am I still alive? Anyway, I was on my way again & still enjoying the whole 53km. I continued to pray & of course, sing (great echoes in places). It was a very easy place to give thanks to God. Spain was imediately different to France with the forests & green pastures giving way to dry, thorn bush covered slopes. I'm now on the Camino de Santiago for the final 3weeks of the journey but I've had trouble with accomodation over the last few nights. I have with me 5 offical letters of recomendation from christian leaders but it counts for nothing here. They want to see a pilgrim's passport with stamps from the visited churches in it so I've actually been rejected from a few places for not being a proper pilgrim. No, I'm not here for the same reason everyone else is but I still need a bed. Thankfully, each rejection has been followed by the person calling me back & at last offering me a bed. I wanted to make a stand & not aquire a passport but I remembered a certain teaching about chritianity not being about self-assertion, so today I found a priest, Fr Carlos, who, after I'd explained my predicament, was very happy to issue me a pilgrims passport & send me on my way with his blessing. The place I stayed in last night has had 900 people pass through it in the last 2weeks so I am meeting many, many people on the road. I spent the first few days taking the quiet country roads, avoiding the crowds, but today I mustered up the courage to actually walk on the pilgrim route with other people in front & behind & I quite enjoyed it. It's probably a good one for my doctor of psychology sister, but after walking alone for so long, the stream of people on the camino was actually a bit threatening. I've met some great people in the last few days though so I'm warming to the idea of having others around me while I walk & pray & I spent some time walking with a Korean man this morning followed by two young gents from Laramie, Wyoming (I passed through Laramie 7months ago!). Last night I sat at a table with an Episcopal from Austin, Texas, & a Free Evangelical from Norway & we discussed life, walking & eventually unity. The Norwegian fellow asked what the theological differences between christians really were & so piece by piece we each started listing & discussing areas of difference & thankfully all with an air of lightness. The Norwegian fellow made an insightful comment at the end though, "Wow, we actually have a lot more in common than not." That was a good place for us to wrap up & head for dinner. I went to mass a few days ago & just as the celebration started I stood up (as is normal) & in doing so slid my feet forward under the pew but cracked my left foot into one of the pew's stands. The corner of the stand under the pew connected right on the wound on my right toe (I was back in flip-flops) & as everyone else sang the opening hymn I was left once again convulsing in agony as every vein in my body protruded further & further out. From behind it must have looked like I was having a seizure. The pain was intense & when I eventually looked down I saw a small pool of blood forming on the church floor. I can tell you, I didn't move much for the next 30mins & communion was a slow & taxing affair as the blood trickled under my toe & began to stick my foot to the flip-flops. Here's the deal though. The last 2days have been the first since my toe gave way in Italy where it has not hurt during the days walking at all. It's actually healing over. I've averaged over 40km a day this past week but the toe has actually began to heal over even though I've split it wide open twice. No more pain, no infection... less & less blood at the end of the day. All in God's good time. Now this is a 'graduation' (end of the journey) gift indeed! Onwards from here to Burgos & hopefully in 23days time I'll be wrapping this journey up on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Sorry for the long blog but it was 2weeks worth :-) God bless & please keep praying for the unity of the body of Christ. Sam.
"He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." Revelation 21:4