On my third day, I woke up feeling pretty good. I wanted to get an early start on my planned 40-mile journey for the day, but God had other plans: my bike had a flat tire. After some help from a few fellow pilgrims, or “Camino Angels” as they are sometimes called, I was on my way to Estella.
As I left Pamplona, I found myself in a residential neighborhood without a fellow pilgrim in sight. I was lost. By the grace of God, a kind woman and her daughter came out of their house to tell me that I was about 4 kilometers off course and that I needed to head back the way I came. They offered me a glass of cold water and sliced watermelon. I accepted gladly, and we began talking.
The women told me they had both been born and raised in Pamplona, yet had never done the Camino. They were shocked to hear I was traveling alone, and called me valiente—brave. Encouraged by their kind words, I thanked them profusely and continued on my way towards Pie de Perdon - a steep mountain range. I prayed to God every second of the way, asking for forgiveness and begging for mercy. As I approached the summit, I could hear a group of younger adults laughing and sharing in the beauty all around. For that moment, everything was good.
As I made my final approach to Estella, I encountered my second Camino angel. I was following a well-paved road when I heard a car horn behind me. I pulled over to the side of the road and a small pickup truck pulled up alongside me. “THIS IS AN ON-RAMP FOR A MAJOR HIGHWAY! TURN AROUND NOW!” Before I could turn around to say thank you, the truck was gone. My angel was out of sight.
I pulled into Estella during a holiday celebration. People lined the streets, dressed in white and red and singing. I could feel the strong sense of community. Seeing families eating, laughing, and celebrating together reminded me of my family, and all of the holidays and milestones we’d spent together. Seeing those families gave me hope that I would finish this pilgrimage and return home to make more memories.
On the Camino, you meet people from all walks of life. Three young men, friends riding the Camino for sport, nicknamed me “Graciela la Machina” because of my riding endurance. Over the next few days, they asked me about my faith and challenged my perspective. The last time I saw them, they asked me to pray for them. My heart was filled with joy and I knew this was true fulfillment.
Another person that God brought to my path was Leonardo, a 70-year-old man wearing a skirt and heavy eye makeup. I knew God wanted me to approach him, so I gently introduced myself and we began talking. I told him about my purpose for walking the Camino, my family, faith, and background. Leonardo shared with me a story of childhood sexual abuse and spoke of his unbearable shame about it.
We sat for two hours, talking, weeping, and holding each other. Leonardo had gone on to study pharmacy, and had eventually married. He had been faithful for 52 years until the death of his wife five years prior. We prayed together and he called me his Camino angel. I will never forget Leonardo.