The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes … but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects … they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.
— From Walt Whitman’s original introduction to “Leaves of Grass”
Today is the day I found the path between reality and the soul.
To say that the path we walked was simply the most beautiful in all of the Portuguese Camino is difficult. There have been many remarkable sights. None, however, affected me quite like this one.
Not all of this walk between Caldas de Reis and Padron is magical.
Some of it is pretty dreadful — criss-crossing highways, smokestacks, industrial parks, back alleys through towns. And some of it was quite ordinary — the pleasant country scenery we’ve come to expect.
Midway to Padron, we left all that behind — and entered a fresh stand of forest, as the ground rose gently before us.
This was not my first walk in the woods, obviously. But for the first time, I felt the poetry of it all. In the way branches bend in chorus. The rusty hue of a vast fern patch. The lichen that shimmers in electric green on a stand of ancient trees. The light breeze that sends leafy shivers up and down a single tall tree. The stream that dances over rocks and rotted tree limbs — pooling, rushing, swirling, meandering — teasing us by brushing against the path then scurrying away to disappear around a sharp bend.
This wasn’t just a hike through some trees.
Specific trees stood out from all the others, as if they insist on being noticed. Changes in the mood of the forest are noticeable. The autumn colors are freshly brushed on to the sylvan canopy. Folds in the land rise and fall like Shar Pei flesh.
The whole story of life, growth, death, and rebirth is expressed at every turn in the trail. I feel the footsteps of the five century’s worth of pilgrims who had trod this path before me. I see where they might have paused to soak in the splendor.
My eyes were finally seeing. All my senses are finally alive at once and recording every moment as if my body knows this fleeting experience must soon end. The mind slows down until it matches the slow pace of my steps. The breathing grows soft. The nervous system becalms.
Everything becomes specific — like noticing the way the eucalyptus bark strips away from the trunk and drapes itself over the shorter pine trees, like Christmas tinsel. Noticing how the low, leafy ferns flourish when the density of the trees is just right. The way certain trees bend to the light, hungry for its life-giving succor — while others grow tall, straight and defiant — piercing the fragile canopy to command the sky above. The stand of old-growth trees, aloof to the surrounding upstarts and saplings that seem to vie for their approval.
The way a fallen tree opens a hole in the canopy and enables the ground scrub to rise up and proliferate, providing cover for small animals, while drawing strength from the freshly admitted light. The way epiphytes and vines latch greedily on to trees and piggyback their way to the top.
Scenes on the Way, between Caldas de Reis and Padron, including a group of French women, a group of Brazilians, Rose with pumpkins, and two horreos — one traditional and one double-wide:
Near the end of this walk stood the decaying stump of a once-powerful tree. Water from a spring trickles down the hill and flows over and through the exposed roots. Over time, the water had carved away the weakest wood and burnished what remains into a stunning abstract sculpture.
I have never seen anything like it.
Walking through the forest with all of your senses on fire feels akin to what photographer Keith Carter calls the “poetry of perception.” His admonishment to “look for the hidden meaning in ordinary things” is only possible if you are fully engaged with the world around you.
Though, being engaged does not mean you have access to all the answers.
“The forest is really a struggle for dominance,” I observe. “The strongest species prevail.”
“I don’t see it that way at all,” says Rose. “I think the stronger species lift up the more-fragile ones and help them to survive.”
Are we talking about nature or the differences between men and women?
When we leave the forest at San Miguel de Valga, it is as if awakening from a dream.
Has it all been as beautiful as I imagined? Or had my senses simply awakened to what was always there around me? Will I ever be able to recapture this sensation again?
Perhaps I had found a hint of Whitman’s path between reality and soul — the same path trod by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, and Dianne Ackerman.
All I know is that I am left with a profound sense of gratitude and a peacefulness my heart has rarely known.
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
— Henry David Thoreau
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
As we reached the apex of today’s climb, Rose hands me her earplugs and iPhone.
“Here’s your song for the day,” she says.
Once before, on a sunny morning, she handed an edgy version of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from the latest “Oklahoma” revival — and it was the perfect fit.
This time, as we descend into a fertile river valley, a choir of nuns sings something so ethereal and graceful and ancient that it must have been written by angels for a choir of cherubs.
“This is amazing!” I exclaimed. “Who are they?”
“Nuns and Roses.”
This is the moment that I completely lost it on the Camino.
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Walking toward Padron through the good, the bad, and the ugly:
To reach Padron, you must first walk through Pontecesures with its belching smokestacks and apartment buildings that look like college dorms on steroids.
It isn’t the most attractive gateway but by comparison, Padron feels like an oasis.
And it is.
As in Pontevedra, vehicles are banished from the historic center. You can walk narrow cobblestone streets, among Medieval buildings and shops, and feel the rich history, without dodging bumpers and side mirrors.
Discovering Padron, where the apostle James first set foot on Spanish soil:
You follow the river Sar into Padron, past the long and stately looking open-air market buildings. As in Ponte de Lima, the city’s entrance is framed by a wide, plane tree-shaded pedestrian boulevard. You walk through this cathedral-like splendor to reach the bridge which takes pilgrims to the Auberge Padron Xunta, wedged up a hill, between a convent and a Carmelite monastery.
The Auberge Padron Xunta and the Iglesia de Santiago. And one guy in tights and short pants who looks very angry:
We arrive well-behind the pilgrim vanguard, but there are still four beds remaining. We accept our “tickets” with gratitude and climb the stairs to hunt for bunks 43 and 44. They are nowhere in the spacious dorm.
Tired and a bit confused we stumble back down the stairs where the clerk is posting a “closed” sign on the reception door. She points down the hall, through the kitchen and lounge area, to a private room with only two bunk beds — and a private bathroom.
The magic is still working …
We share the room with two German women and none of us can believe our luck. Nor can several of our Camino friends who are bunked upstairs in the dark and steamy dorm.
Settled in, we walk back across the bridge and find the lively cafe Rossol on a public square for lunch. I return there to write for a couple of hours. Rose joins me for wine and a light dinner. We walk up and down the nearly deserted pedestrian streets and stop in a market for snacks and another shop for ice cream cones.
Just above the auberge is the towering Iglesia de Santiago. Inside, a priest is finishing evening Mass for an audience of six people, at most. Curious, as the town is filled with hundreds of pilgrims.
I wonder how many of them understand that it is on this spot that the apostle James first landed and began his ministry in Galicia? In all the Caminos, Padron must be the most significant place, next to Finestre, where the saint’s body was reportedly landed from the Mideast for his final return to Santiago.
The church plaza looks out over the river Sar and the Padron center. There is a chilly breeze and darkness has settled overall as we retire for the night.
In the morning, most of the pilgrims will rise very early to reach Santiago de Compostela before noon, a hefty 25.6 kilometers away. Not us. We’ll stop 7 kilometers short of the end goal and spend the night at a small hotel.
We want to arrive in Santiago fresh, like conquering soldiers at the end of a long and glorious campaign.