Starting out three weeks and 400 miles earlier, I had a goal of walking into Santiago de Compostela on Thanksgiving Day. It would be a milestone moment and a memorable way to give thanks for so many things. But debilitating shin splints that evolved into a throbbing tendonitis and caused my shins to hemorrhage black made it evident that a Thanksgiving finish just wouldn’t be possible.
I would hobble the last hundred miles to finish a 500-mile pilgrimage on the Way of St. James. Some suffering is, indeed a part of this process.
I’d met Naomi, a teacher from Michigan, and Aida, a retail store designer from Ibiza, about a week earlier. A random set of circumstances brought us together in Ponferadda, and without so much as a spoken word we all knew we’d finish the walk together – a Spaniard, an American school teacher, and an overweight writer from the South – came together as a Camino family. Having walked pretty much alone for 30 days, I’d never been happier for the company and support.
Some villages along the ancient Way of St. James have interesting story-legends. A famous rooster with magical power lives in a gothic coop inside a cathedral at Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The shadow of a pilgrim appears in a backstreet alley in Santiago when the moon takes a certain position in the Spanish sky. But the village of Melidé, about a week shy of the finish, is famous more for its culinary attributes – namely the freshest and most delicious pulpo in Spain. Pilgrims begin talking about with anticipation days before arrival there.
When I left the United States in late October of 2015 it was a given that I’d miss Thanksgiving at home. It’s been my favorite holiday for as long as I remember, but it takes a good 40 days to walk 500 miles and I committed to the nearly two months away from home.
In the last days leading up to Thanksgiving, I got a little homesick for all the smells, and tastes, and feelings, and traditions. It’s a big day for me and I’m usually the master of ceremonies for our family event. There is nothing I love more than planning and executing a big Thanksgiving meal prepared and served at exactly noon. For me, it’s a thing of beauty pulling so much together, serving it up at the designated time, and watching the family enjoy good food perfectly seasoned with the common denominator ingredient of love. I am passionate about this day.
Instead of experiencing that annual ritual I love so much, I was now walking on a rocky footpath, tired, hurting, and just looking forward to getting done with what many friends thought was an extended vacation.
It seemed I’d walked through the entire fall season. In late November the first signs of winter appeared and we’d already walked through a whiteout blizzard in the elevations just a few days ago. The winters across the Iberian Peninsula are brutal. In addition to body fatigue and outright pain, I was cold to the bone.
As we walked the final steps to Melidé that Thanksgiving mid-afternoon, I could only think about a warm bed and getting off my feet. We checked into a local alburgue where we’d room with about 10 other pilgrims. I got a hot shower, and with throbbing shins climbed into a top bunk. And I was perfectly content staying right there for the remainder of that night.
A couple of hours later Naomi yelled out, “Let’s go have Thanksgiving pulpo!” It could not have sounded less attractive.
After several minutes of coaxing, I decided it would be better to sleep with a meal in my belly. Maybe they’d offer a burger or something. Thanksgiving octopus sounded dicey, and there are just certain things you don’t try 8,000 miles from home.
With a change of fresh clothes we walked down main street to a local pulperia. There was only one other couple dining in the large service area, and of course no sign whatever that it was a huge holiday thousands of miles away. With her fluent Spanish and love for great food, Naomi ordered a huge spread before we were seated.
We were about to have Thanksgiving in Spain, and pulpo was the featured dish.
Within the next 30 minutes we enjoyed the most amazing spread ever. Fresh pulpo pulled straight out of the kettle. Pimientos de Padron. Fresh salad. Baby white potatoes with something like a green bean. And a crème brulee-type dish that was oh, so heavenly.
Several new twists on traditional Thanksgiving lines were born during that meal.
Among the best: Sorry, we’re all out of white meat. Could you pass me a leg?
See you in next week’s newspaper.
Next week: Random Thanksgiving stories and traditions. Send me some of yours. Steve Watkins is a reporter/columnist for the Stone County Leader.
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