In 2018, retired journalist Mike Gardner, from Calasparra, walked the Camino de Santiago, an 800-kilometre pilgrimage across the north of Spain. Mike was so moved by his experiences that he wrote a book called Miracles on the Camino. His blogs were followed by thousands of fans across the word.
Mike is saved from a lonely depression by Bruce Springsteen.
I have been in a dark place today on the road to Mansilla de las Mulas. I don’t know how I got there; it just happened and I want to share it with you. My postings are for my friends and family and without honesty they would be meaningless, but just like I knew it would, the Camino rescued me and the day has finished on a spectacular high.
Pepe, the boss of the albergue was present at breakfast, but he was a bit of a nuisance. He had some kind of model hotel on his table that he was constructing out of wood, in the way children in the UK used to make battleships and Spitfires back in the 1950s. It didn’t look up to much, but believe it or not, he switched on some kind of lathe that was in urgent need of servicing and proceeded to grind various bits of wood while we tucked into our toast a few feet away. At 8am, he pointed to his watch and then the door, rather impatiently I thought and five minutes later I was stretching my legs along the beautiful countryside.
I had a choice to make this morning. I could have walked along the Camino which follows the A-231; the route that everyone else I knew was taking and where 99% of pilgrims will be, but I decided to take the old Roman road; the longest in Spain and the exact route several conquering generals had taken, including Caesar Augustas and the armies of Islam and Charlemagne. It just seemed a cool thing to do, literally walking in the footsteps of history. The trouble was, not too many pilgrims were interested in ancient Spanish invasions after more than 400 kilometres on the road. I walked for five hours and saw three people.
Gloom descended on me like a black cloud and I didn’t see it coming. One minute there was magnificent scenery stretching out miles into the distance, and the next, all I could see was emptiness. The mountains of the Picos de Europa were more than 50 miles away, their peaks full of snow and glistening in the morning sun, but they didn’t interest me.
I had spent the first 18 days with my Camino family. They had built this impenetrable wall around me to keep me safe and positive, but now they were far away and I might never see them again.
My friend Mark warned me that the meseta can play tricks on pilgrims, but I wasn’t expecting this! He told me to play music. He said it would help. I played some tracks from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on my iPhone and my mood improved, but not much. Then She’s Leaving Home crackled in my ears and I was done for. It has always been one of my favourite Beatles’ songs and I reckon I must have heard it 5,000 times, but not like this! The genius of Lennon and McCartney leaps out from this melancholy song which leaves much to the interpretation of the listener. It is a haunting story of a teenage girl who loves her mother and father and they love her, but she is leaving her family to step out into the darkness and it was all too much for me.
I felt a tear on my cheek and then I realised, perhaps too late, that it was time for ‘The Boss’. Thunder Road blasted into my ears. I turned the volume up to maximum and Bruce Springsteen was right there alongside me with Clarence Clemens and the rest of the E Street Band. I felt strong again. There was a spring in my step and I kept churning out the kilometres until I reached Reliegos.
There are three or four different routes through the town which seemed to be bursting with albergues and bars. All I wanted was a coffee and he was there. I could see his blue hat from 100 metres away. My best friend, my Russian son – Kazim. The celebrations were quite something, but they didn’t end there. Kazim went to his bag and brought out a certificate for me. It is beautiful and written in old Spanish with my name in the middle – actual and unequivocal evidence that I have walked 400 kilometres. It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Victoria was there too and Josh from the States and no end of other people. Kazim seems to attract pilgrims around him. He draws people to him. They are in awe of him – this crazy Russian man; the mad communist who asks nothing and gives everything. He is the heart of the Camino. A legend.
Next month: A rest day in the Asturian Mountains – when I got just two hours’ sleep.
Download Miracles on the Camino by Mike Gardner onto your Kindle, mobile, tablet or computer from Amazon books for 4.32€. It has 173 pages and more than 80 pictures. It is also available as a hardback and can be delivered to your house in Spain.