Walking over 70 miles along The Way one has an opportunity to observe and reflect on the beauty of the landscape and some of the differences between life back home and in northern Spain. I’d like to share with you some of those observations and perhaps some lessons that we here in the states could benefit from.
Trees – Spain has gone on a tree planting program that can be found everywhere. Spain has increased its forests dramatically in the last 20 years, some for the lumber industry but also much of the growth as an environmental benefit. Everywhere we walked it was possible to see neatly aligned rows of tress that beautified the landscape and made one a bit jealous that we in the States seem averse to plant these sources of oxygen and shade. Too often we cut down tress at construction sites with little effort to replace the trees that are destroyed. We can learn a lot from the Spanish program to create a green countryside.
Telephone polls- In most of Spain electric and other wires are placed on concrete polls that are narrow and elongated triangle-like structures. While not overly attractive these concrete polls are far better than the out of shape tree trunks that our companies use to hang their wires. In the last few years these wooden monstrosities have too often crumbled during storms, only to be replaced with the same ugly tree stumps. Although I am no electric company executive, I can assume with some certainty that the choice of a large tree is far cheaper than a concrete structure. It is highly unlikely that we will follow the Spanish and move to a more attractive concrete poll and ditch the trees, but it would be nice to know that there are alternatives.
Clean streets – It is instantly recognizable when walking through northern Spain, whether in a small town or a mid-size city that the Spanish pay close attention to keeping their streets clean. The urban and rural cleanliness is not just a result of government policy as clean up crews take brooms and shovels to pick up waste, but also a cultural pattern of taking pride in their town or city. Unlike our country, which is rooted in a throwaway mindset, the Spanish value public cleanliness. Let’s face it – many of our towns and cities are a public mess with only infrequent attempts to wipe away the clutter on our streets and sidewalks. We have become accustomed to the junk around us. This is not an insurmountable problem; it just requires a public policy decision and a little bit or personal pride.
Religious demographics -Since The Way is first and foremost a religious pilgrimage, the site of our destination, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, was personally moving. To see the thousands of pilgrims praying in the cathedral and standing in line to touch the statue of St. James will always remain in my consciousness. But our trip to the cathedral also reminded us that there is a huge demographic divide in how various age groups view The Way of St. James and the cathedral. After leaving the Pilgrim’s Mass we ventured outside and saw hundreds of young people resting, talking and taking photos of the cathedral. These young people could not be found in the cathedral and certainly not standing in line to touch St. James. It was a stark reminder that in the 21st century religion and religious belief resides among those in the 50-80 age range. For many of the walkers in the 20-50 range, the Way of St. James is a physical challenge, not a religious pilgrimage.
American pop culture – When we arrived at one of the small cities along the Way, Azura, we took a walk about the town just to get our bearings and stop for a cold beer. As we passed a restaurant I looked inside and to my amazement there on the television screen was the Spanish version of Wheel of Fortune. Yes, it is not possible to shut out American culture even in an out of the way town in northern Spain. I am sure the Spanish have many other programs that don’t rely on American television programs, but to see Wheel of Fortune is a reminder that our popular culture remains dominant and strangely attractive. Although I was disappointed to see Wheel of Fortune, it was nice to see Vanna White touch the letter screen.
As you can see walking The Way was not only a spiritual adventure but a chance to compare people, lifestyles and public policies. Certainly northern Spain is not at the epicenter of international commerce and politics but it afforded me a chance to gain an insight into a different way of thinking and living.