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The Desert Rats

Chihuahua Desert View

I just returned from a four-day trip into the Chihuahuan Desert just across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. This is my fourth such Christmas trip, taking gifts and a fiesta to the people of the village of San Vicente, Mexico. The program is facilitated by Mision de Candelilla, and gifts are from the families of the Fredericksburg United Methodist Church to the families of San Vicente, all 36 of them, personalized, many from the same families for the 10 year history of this program.  The fiesta is simple: baked beans and fruit and bread and hot chocolate and cookies. Here are some pictorial observations.

Unmarked Grave in La Union, Mexico

Unmarked Grave in La Union, Mexico

These people are descended from both Hispanic and Indian ancestors. Life here is hard. The person buried in this grave appears to be forgotten. The grave is shallow because the rocky ground is very hard to dig.

Indian Woman in San Vicente

Indian Woman in San Vicente

This woman has a prayer shawl knitted by Methodist women in Fredericksburg.

Lilly, and 11 year old from Texas

Lilly, an 11 year old from Texas

Indian Girl

Indian Girl

These two girls, one born on the south side of the nearby river and the other on the north, have very different lives; Lilly was fun to get to know; while I never spoke to the Indian girl, I wish I could communicate in her langage (Spanish) so I could find out more about her life.

Prayer Circle

Prayer Circle or Family Reunion?

A local pastor, Bucho, opens the fiesta with a group prayer. This is more than a Christian tradition, it is a family reunion of the 36 families in the village, who are only all gathered once a year for this event. Most of the people in this village share the Brito name.

Mision de Candelilla team members gather at the river

Mision de Candelilla team members gather at the river

Exploring is part of the fun this group of veteran MDC volunteers has on their trips to Mexico. The other side of the river is Big Bend National Park. These are the fun people!

Volunteers make this mission happen

Volunteers Make This Mission Happen

Hutch is a long time participant in this mission. The drive is 13 hours, there are only outhouses and a single water spigot for plumbing, there is no electricity, and less heat. You can see from his smile what he thinks about it all.

Exploring the Desert

Exploring the Desert

Katherine and Cathy are long time MDC volunteers and love exploring the desert. These two kids had a blast, learning about plants and picking up rocks. Yes, it is very cold and windy.

Fredericksburg Students

Fredericksburg students and their adult “supervisors”

While we were at San Vicente, this group was at a number of other villages with a similar program, headquartered in the village of La Union. Listening to their evening “sharing time” by lantern light was an emotional experience for all, adults and kids alike. As they say, the mission is Changing lives on both sides of the border.  This trip isn’t about the stuff being gifted, its about a relationship between people from Texas and Mexico.

The core work of MDC since 1986 has been providing medical care by volunteer medical professionals and able assistants for 9 villages along the Rio Grande, twice  per village each year. Medical trips are much different than these Christmas trips and are in the spring and fall. Volunteers pay a fee to participate, but most expenses are borne by the mission. If you are looking for adventure, check out their trip schedule. I wrote about this trip for Texas Hill a couple of years ago. The Desert Rats always need volunteers




Nose to the Grindstone

I returned from France just in time to get very busy. All I have left from Via Podiensis are the usual momentos: a credential with stamps, a well worn guidebook, and this beret.

And friends. Lots of friends. Some of those friends will be forming another family in Austria on May 22, when we start down the trail on the European Peace Walk. The EPW ends in Trieste, Italy, but I’m planning to walk at least to Venice. I hear you can kayak the canals.

Le Gite

I’ve stayed in about two dozen different gites now on this walk in France, and those experiences have defined the journey. In this photo, Patrick is dishing up soup to guests at his dining room table.

This gite is Ferm de la Basssyad, between Lauzerte and Moissac. Patrick and his wife are farmers, producing pork, grapes, milk from cows and sheep, and apples. The place is authentic country: a ramshackle collection of buildings and barns without any decoration and barely functional plumbing.

These French and German pilgrims and I shared the table with Patrick, Claudette, her mother, and their daughter. Everything served with very few exceptions was from their farm. Dinner is at 8 (every other was at 7) because the work on the farm isn’t done until then.

They served homemade pumpkin & vegetable soup, pork in gravy over noodles, and apple crumble. All home made, all fabulous.

Nothing fancy, Claudette hosts about 400 pilgrims a year and treats all as family. Another extraordinary experience! And the soup- amazing.

Problems, Solutions, and Things I’m Trying Not To Worry About

Bruce wrote me to say it was time for me to come home. So now I’m trying to focus on making a 7 am flight next Tuesday. Solution: I booked a bed near the airport via AirBnb and my host says not to worry about, they will get me there.

This morning I looked at the soles of my boots and discovered I’ve worn through the sole at the heels. Will they make another 60 kilometers? Solution: my Chaco sandals will be a suitable backup.

I have little food with me. Will I be able to get lunch? Open grocery stores and restaurants are rare out here. Solution: this place showed up at noon, and I had a fizzy water and the best sandwich I’ve had in France. The owner was a hoot.

Am I going to drag ass this afternoon? It’s a 24 kilometer day! Solution: I met Bernardo at the store and talked with him for all 9 kilometers remaining. He is a German internal medicine doctor and we had a great conversation. He has gone on another 10 kilometers.

Am I going to find a bed? The first gite I checked in this village was full. Solution: I asked the lady I got a Perrier water from, and she referred me to this sweet place. And they serve dinner!

When worries pop up, I think of this sign, and stop worrying.

My Only Regret is

I’m with Monique, the owner of this restaurant. I’ve been wondering about French country cooking, and my only regret is that one of you readers wasn’t here to help me eat this meal.

One of my trail friends, Solomon, told me I should find a Michelin-rated restaurant along the trail and have a fantastic, if expensive, lunch. Then, Robert, my Belgian host last night, suggested that I do just that. I don’t know how he got the idea, he didn’t recommend this to the other pilgrims.

The catch was that I would be at the restaurant, Down the trail in Bach, 1 1/2 hours before they opened. It is only open at noon a few days a week, and this was one of those days, so I took this as serendipity. I cooled my heels in the church yard from 10:30 to 11:45, when Monique came out to me and invited me inside.

I was the first customer, although it filled up soon. Monique explained that she cooks the same food her mother and grandmother did. I let her pick the menu, telling her I wanted good country cooking.

I was served the best glass of wine I’ve had in France and beef broth with tapioca (I think). Tasty! There was enough left for you to fill up on too!

Then quiche and beef tongue.

Potatoes, butter beans with carrots, and a vegetable and cheese casserole.

Beef with carrots in a light sauce.

More beef, with tangy things like peas.

At least, dessert: really really tasty pastry, chocolate cake, and a cream sauce. By this time I wasn’t sure I would be able to walk out the door, much less 12 kilometers to my gite.

Tonight I’m in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere by myself. I had some trail snacks for dinner and am under two quilts, ready for an early night. Lunch? €23. I wish you’d been there to share it. My favorite dish? The vegetable (legumes in French) casserole. I’ll make that at home. But it will be the only course! And maybe you can join me.

Mort Pour Le France

Every village has a monument to Les Enfants who died between 1914 and 1918, defending their country against an invasion from Germany.

These tiny villages must have suffered greatly with the loss of a generation of young men. Another pelerin, a Québécois whose primary language is French, told me that often all these young men were in the same unit and died on the same day. He read that the population of the area has not recovered after a hundred years. In one day 27,000 French soldiers were killed August 22nd 1914 at the Battle of Charleroi.

Here some men outside of Faycelles have crushed grapes the old fashioned way and are taking the remainder out of the press. My friend said this used to be a big wine production area, but that a disease from the United States killed all their vines. I assume this was Pierce’s Disease.

I have seen only one vineyard so far, but this grapevine by a nice home makes me want to plant some vines to cover my back deck.

This is a typical trail- it looks to be centuries old, both containing livestock in the fields and giving a path to drive the livestock to another pasture. This may not be the original Camino path used by the Bishop of Le Puy whose pilgrimage to Santiago in 951 AD started the tradition, but the villages enroute certainly are.

I’ve seen many of these old cisterns along the trail, and they include a trench to collect water flowing down the trail. This one has been restored, I think.

It is cold today. I have walked 343 kilometers so far.

The area has sheep, cattle, and goats, and small cheese factories for the area. The French are very picky about their cheese.


I had coffee in the tiny village of Faycelles yesterday. That is it in the background.

It has a pretty Church and I git a stamp in the tourist office. I thought it was the prettiest village I had seen but didn’t get photos.

Late that afternoon in the village of Gréalou I met my host, Esther, who was warm and friendly. She said they were going to a celebration at Faycelles that evening, did I want to go? But if we went there would only be soup for dinner. I immediately said yes, enthusiastically.

Dinner was “just” homemade vegetable soup, with pumpkin, carrots, potatoes, bell peppers, celery, fresh turmeric, and more. Served with goat milk.

Esther drove her helper Lucas, another pilgrim Sophie, and I to Faycelles. The celebration recognized 20 years of designation of this part of the Camino as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

People were preparing to light luminaries made of clay pots filled with wax and a big cloth wick. 1100 of them.

People poured into the tiny village. Wine and beer flowed.

At dark the flames were lit.

This old fortification turned into

This. Thousands of people flowed onto the trail, which I had walked earlier that afternoon, guided by the luminaries.

Fantastic scenes were created by animated figures made of steel and salvaged parts.

The lighted city is in the background.

Walking through the ring of fire was the dramatic finale.

This tightrope unicycle was the most intriguing. Now I’m back on the trail for the next adventure.