The children love to collect stones. They secrete enormous chunks of mottled marble rock into their toy bag, fill their pockets with smooth round pebbles, and pick off the jagged edges of memorials, castles, and walls when they think we’re not looking. Perhaps we didn’t bring enough toys for them, or perhaps it’s their way of connecting with the earth…trying to take a piece of this amazing landscape with them as they go. So they’ve been very excited in the last twenty four hours to discover two opportunities to legitimately collect stones. The first came shortly before we dropped into the city of Astorga, famous for Gaudi’s fairy castle inspired Bishops Palace. We literally did drop into it, from the motorway high on the hill outside the town. But before descending we came across a place where pilgrims leave messages behind them; placed carefully under a stone, under a giant cross overlooking Astorgia. The boys were off the bikes like lightening; instantly understanding the task in front of them. They scrabbled around in the earth to find the appropriate stone, and then ransacked our panniers for pen and paper. On the way up the hill we had been laughing at some of the other cyclists. They’re a different breed here. No one leaves the house without a pair of nut crunchingly colourful tiny tight shorts. They pair this with matching figure enhancing lycra T shirt and oversize cycling helmet and in all their splendour they make us look like complete amateurs as we struggle up the hills in our Ron Hill track suit pants. That morning, as they whizzed past on the other side of the road, heads down and hunched up in their determination to make for the top, Stuart remarked they looked a bit like peanuts. The children embraced the description and left their messages under the stone for all the cycling peanuts that would follow. As they wrote their scripts, a Dutch woman living in Arizona came over for a chat. “Do you think the children get the essence of the Camino?” she asked. “Who knows,” I replied as they weighted their messages with the stone and left them on the steps of the cross.
Their second opportunity came at the top of a mountain the following day. Crossing the Montes De Leon required several hundred vertical metres of ascent on a cold morning. Pilgrims have been doing this for so long in the cold, wind and snow that the highest point is marked with a small cross on a very long pole. This Cruz Ferro is mounted in a pile of stones; with the stones representing the sins the pilgrims are leaving behind as they begin the last stage of the journey. Again the children knew exactly what to do. As Stuart fretted about the amount of rubbish people had left on the slope in the form of bicycle tyres, old shoes, boxer shorts and pictures of loved ones, the kids spent twenty minutes inscribing a personal message to pilgrims. This time peanuts weren’t involved and I for one was left feeling quite inadequate at the understanding of a seven year old and a six year old on such a complex issue. Did they understand the essence of the camino? Well what could be more the essence of the camino than a message inscribed onto a stone and placed in the mountains for all time or as long as people value the act of pilgrimage? But before we left we had to make the boys empty their pockets. Like a magpie Matthew had scoured the pile for pretty pebbles and had taken a couple of aqua blue gems brought by ‘Juan’ and ‘Maria.’ Not quite the essence of the camino, and of course the last thing we wanted to do was carry other people’s sins uphill for another two hundred and twenty kilometres to Santiago.