Excerpts from All the Good Pilgrims: Tales of the Camino de Santiago
Now if my heart and mind had been nomads like my legs, I would never have needed the Camino de Santiago. I would simply have stepped out my front door one morning, turned left or right depending on which direction seemed to hold most promise, and walked till I got tired, then picked up the next day and walked some more. But I’m not a vagabond. I need some structure and ritual, a coffee in the morning, a bed at night, and people to keep me company in the hours between. I also like the idea of a destination, preferably one that’s foreign, exotic and old.
What I wanted was a journey. An adventure on foot like the ones in books – watching distant mountains grow closer by the day, knocking apples off the trees of autumn orchards, pausing at village wells, huddling around fires in smoky inns to swap tales with fellow travellers. Of course the irony of these yearnings was not lost on me. For ages, we humans have done everything in our power to go faster, striving to be where we want to be without all the time and bother of getting there. And there I was, the thankless inheritor, gazing out the windows of speeding vehicles and dreaming of walking.
The Secret Garden
There is one other pilgrim in the pure white Baroque chapel. Maria’s friend from yesterday, in his cut-off denim shorts and red-and-white bandanna. He’s pacing around the church, checking camera angles. Seems Charley is a photographer. He’s been walking since May, all the way from Budapest, doing a photo essay for an Austrian magazine. After a chat, he gets back to his picture-taking while I go looking for the door to the monastery’s famous cloister. When our paths cross again a few minutes later, Charley’s eyes are shining.
“I have been walking for six months,” he says in a hushed voice, “and this is the most beautiful church I have seen. So pure. So spiritual. It is the first place where really I can hear the silence. I must play my guitar.”
And under the bemused eyes of the custodian he opens his guitar case, takes out a balsa-wood travelling model – “I made it myself,” he tells me as he tunes – and starts to sing – what else? – “The Sound of Silence”… When he’s finished, Charley packs up his guitar and says, “I feel great now. Did you see the cloister?”
“No, I couldn’t find the door.”
“It’s right over there.” He points to a massive door near the back of the church that looks like it could only be opened by an aged priest with a gigantic key. “Just give it a push.”
I do. One touch and the door is open. Beyond lies the secret garden and the silent gallery where monks once paced and prayed. The fountain is overgrown with moss, the yard unkept. A single bird is singing. I wonder how many secret gardens I have missed in life because I didn’t give a door a little push.
Keep our love for her in front of us
For much of the way from Saint-Jean to Castrojeriz, the path rises, falls, twists, narrows. There are roots and ruts to watch for. The only safe way to gaze at the beauty around you is from a full stop.
But here on the meseta the road is wide, smooth and straight. There’s no need to look down when you walk. It takes a while for that fact to sink in. Through my first hours of meseta walking, my chin kept sinking when I lifted it, as if it were weighted. I didn’t trust the earth not to throw something in my way. It’s only today that the weight is gone and I can walk with my chin up and my eyes forward, following the racing clouds, observing how the tone of the sky is different in every direction, wondering if the three flickering pilgrim forms I have seen in the road ahead for the past hour belong to anyone I know. My eyes graze the surface of the world as my mind grazes from thought to thought…
And then out of nowhere comes the prayer of the Irish woman that I read aloud in Tosantos. I stop in the road to find it in my little black book.
“Please pray for my mother who is slipping into the darkness of dementia. Give us the strength to be patient and understanding and keep our love for her in front of us.”
Keep our love for her in front of us – as though the end of the journey were not Santiago, but love. Maybe in the end it’s not a place we’re walking towards, but a state of being – health, happiness, love, forgiveness, transcendence, peace – always discernible on the horizon, like the grain silos of these meseta towns.
A Sharing of Misery
The cold, dry wind blowing down from the hills has painted a skin of ice on the puddles. By the roadside just above the village I stop at a tiny, white cross, a hand-made thing adorned with wildflowers and the faded, pen-scrawled inscription: “la 22 de julio 1998 murió un peregrino suizo aquí” – a Swiss pilgrim died here. I heard his story – which had the ring of a parable – from my friend, peregrina Barbara Overby, who was the hospitalera in Rabanal that month of July, 1998. The pilgrim suffered a heart attack shortly after he and his wife left the refuge in the morning. By a stroke of good fortune, or so it seemed at the time, the first pilgrims to arrive on the scene were a nurse and a heart specialist. Alas, their skills were of no avail. The only pilgrim who got to ply her trade that day was the third to arrive, a grief counsellor…
I’ve just come in sight of the ruined village of Foncebadón when a few drops of rain fall from the blue sky. I pause and take out my now-dry notebook to record the event. A few more drops fall. Looking up, I see a cloud like a massive bruise drifting in front of the sun. The note-taking will have to wait. Before I know it, I’m running flat out through the teeming rain for the nearest shelter, a roadside restaurant known as La Taberna de Gaia. I can’t complain about my luck. There are only three places of shelter (three ocas!) in the eighteen kilometres between Rabanal and El Acebo. This is the first.
There’s already a young Spanish pilgrim standing outside the restaurant, talking on his mobile phone. I duck in to join him. The sign says the restaurant is only open Saturdays during the off season, but the roof jutting over the doorway provides shelter. The Spanish pilgrim puts away his phone. “Es muy malo,” I offer. He doesn’t reply. That’s fine. We’ll commiserate in silence. I note for the first time the components of the word “commiserate.” Co plus misery. A sharing of misery. How apt. A few minutes later a taxi rolls up. Without a glance my way, the Spanish boy tosses his pack in the back and climbs in. So much for sharing misery.
The lighthouse is an hour or so from the town. The time is hard to estimate because it’s impossible not to stop and look out at the ocean, or go clambering up the slope to the spine of the promontory. The land is bare, brambly, littered with boulders, like a neolithic playground. The lighthouse stands at the very end. This being Spain, there is a bar in the lighthouse at the end of the world. You stand on the rocks behind the lighthouse and feel you have really reached a limit, the end of the road. But it’s only a feeling. The road never ends. Tomorrow you’re still walking it, wherever you may be.
Still, there’s an urge to turn this comma into a chapter break, or at least a period, in the book of life. That’s why pilgrims burn a piece of their clothing on these rocks, as a sign or assertion that here something has ended, and a prayer that from here something new will begin. Today at least, I don’t feel the need for this ritual. Let the story roll on like a road.