No Reservations

This essay was originally published in the limited edition work, Out of the Way. It is forthcoming in an anthology of spiritual travel writings out of London. It is a cold, almost-winter morning here on the Bay and this piece is one of my favorites for so many reasons, not the least of which is how it helps me recall the warm days in Spain.


We had callouses, bandaged sores and bloodied toenails. My feet grew an entire size and I lost fifteen pounds despite the rich diet and daily dose of delicious Spanish wine. We climbed mountain trails made of nothing but rocks and descended slopes so steep blood blisters formed daily. Best damn summer of my life.

On our first night in the Pyrenees we slept next to a chapel Charlemagne used in the ninth century, and we spent a few hours drinking gin and tonics and talking to the innkeeper. We talked about America and Spain, about pilgrimage and gin. We talked about talking and about being quiet. He didn’t speak English but had been to Arizona, and we laughed about the endless days of sunshine and the long stretch of desert-like paths across the heart of Spain. A few days later in the village of Zubiri in Navarra, just before Pamplona, we found a place to stay on the fourth floor on an old house and shared a room with a couple from France. My son took pictures from the third century Roman Bridge outside. Another night we stayed in a small inn run by a single mom who made dinner for five of us—a woman from Madrid, Michael and me, and two men from Germany. It was a delicious Italian meal and we drank clay pitchers of red wine and talked about the distances we had yet to walk. We laughed in three languages and despite someone snoring most of the night we slept well enough to leave an hour after everyone else making our journey quieter and more personal. We didn’t worry about how far we walked or where we might stay. We walked and we would find a place. Like the fly-infested villa with tremendous views, or the albergue with dogs who insisted on sleeping in our laps, or the room above the garage with a killer bar at the street; or the stone building down some slope where we met some girl from Texas and a father and son from Amsterdam and we drank the best cider in Spain.

We spent one night above a pub in Samos and had pulpo–octopus–for dinner. That night a priest invited us to a private party and we stood next to four buffet tables of tapas and wine, and we ate and stood on the balcony and watched swans swim by in the lake behind the cloister, hissing at the setting sun. Every single day outdid the previous one. I kept waiting for that golden moment, and they kept coming. Like that following morning when we walked to a nearby field and stood in the sacred silence of a chapel from the ninth century.

We slept on yoga mats in a hallway of an old church in Logrono with seventy other tired souls after we shared dinner and walked through passages in the five-hundred-year old basement. For two nights we slept in comfort in the same hotel Hemingway stayed while working on The Sun Also Rises. In some small chicken village we stayed in a brand new albergue which had no business being open. The floors and ceilings weren’t done, it was freezing inside, and the yet-to-be-inspected bathroom was three floors down. The only bar in town was closed so the owner gave us a few beers to wash down the thick dust everywhere. We stayed near Torres del Rio above a tavern with fine food and a wading pool out back to soak our blistered and swollen feet. We slept in an old monastery a hundred yards from a church St Francis of Assisi himself asked to be built. In Portomarin we had no place to stay at all so we stayed up as long as we could. We hung out in a small café until one am and then walked around the misty, cool waterfront. Then we settled on the town square with covered walkways running next to a medieval church. We pulled together folding chairs and wrapped ourselves in whatever we could and tried to sleep in rapidly dropping temperatures. A kid on a bike did tricks on the cathedral steps until three am which anyway kept me amused. At four-thirty we got out our flashlights and headed west. You can see a million stars in Spain at that hour of the morning, and the darkness makes the silence almost visible.

We walked from the silence of the Pyrenees through the plains and the western mountains of Galicia where the sole sound is often walking sticks hitting the path every few seconds, or the occasional gentle whoosh of the windmills. Some walk with headphones and listen to music. Some carry on constant conversation with companions, and we all stop every once in a while to adjust a backpack or drink water from scattered wells. We see wild horses and stop in cafes converted from garages.

This is life for forty days.

At the mountaintop village of O’Cebreiro there were no rooms left and we nearly walked out of town to camp when a man waved us toward a back door of an inn and we ended up with a beautiful private room for practically nothing at all, and just outside the door were a few tables on a stone patio overlooking valleys that stretched across Galicia. In the morning the fog sat below and when the sun came up the fog dissolved, the sky turned blue, and the green hills welcomed us west.

I noticed a slight change in my daily routine compared to home: at home I wonder how far something is, how long it might take to arrive. I might even know before I left what I planned to do when I got back. But on the Camino the plan is simply to continue. At home every time I start something new, I demand tangible answers with definitive outcomes. But on the path each day I discover not that there aren’t any questions, but that the answers have become irrelevant.

Eventually we map out something deeper and less tangible than the well-marked trails across Spain: we learn to navigate the journey inward, the “inscape” as Thomas Merton called it. You realize home is dictated by others’ plans, others’ deadlines, others’ habits and expectations, and at home after a while you come to wonder just whose journey you are on. But here, despite thousands of other pilgrims on the same path, ours is unique, it has never before been trodden, and each decision remains pure and honest. The sameness which becomes our lives at home erodes on the Camino to the certainty that each step makes sense.

In a suburban neighborhood outside Santiago we put our packs on two of five beds, the others occupied by a salesman from Madrid, a woman from Barcelona and another from Mayorca. We all had dinner on the back porch where all the flies in Spain gathered to join us, as well as a bulldog named Brutus, and the sun was brilliant and we slept well. A few nights earlier we stumbled into some tiny town, another chicken village which looked like a movie set for an old western, and we slept in the bunk room with fifty other people and picked up a few supplies at their shed they called a store, but man the lemon chicken we had for dinner was perfect.

Back home information is instant and artificial stimulation has become completely natural, daily demands of meetings and traffic and phone calls and explanations and disappointments and arguments and the constant hum of civilization permeate our most private thoughts. On the Camino we travel to unexplored depths as centuries come and go with each village and vineyard, and we walk through villages past chapels used by Charlemagne, saints and kings, Cervantes and Queen Isabella and St. Francis of Assisi. It is a complete abandonment of routine, despite the daily routine. It is an absolute participation in simplicity, and discussions gravitate toward the purest of ambitions, the most sacred truths; truths left untapped at home.

When we finished we wanted to do it again. And therein is the road not taken: To live a life you would, in a heartbeat, live again.

It is the rare phenomenon of immeasurable time, aware of every single step; each one like words of a prayer, like an absolution, like perfect syntax, like absolute meter. We can’t add or eliminate a single syllable; each step is essential and immediate and timeless.





Winter Green


It’s raining today, and the leaves are past their peak. A coastal storm is moving up just to the east pushing the tides long onto the land while winds often gust to thirty miles an hour. Geese keep calling as they land in the field, and a combine crawled down the road later in the season than normal. Winter is coming, and once again it took me by surprise. It’s not that I’m not paying attention or am distracted; it’s that I simply am not crazy about cold weather, even here in Virginia, and I must block it out until it literally slaps me in the face, bitter at my bold, unheeded rejection.

Still, I hibernate more on days like this, and it becomes kind of a forced workday. I welcome any weather that ties me to my desk and reminds me how much I can get done when I can’t get anything else done. I have two manuscripts completed and looking for a home and a pile of unorganized, unedited, unstructured, and unbelievably tiresome papers on the desk (and the shelf and the floor and in my bag) that is well on its way to being the third manuscript that will hope for a home in the coming year.

I just heard a branch fall, which must have been a huge branch since the woods are deep and I’m inside a log home which generally suppresses the sounds of most falling objects. It’s hard to concentrate when something falls.

I don’t remember noticing or caring about the cold when I was a kid. Long Island winters could be brutal, and I certainly do recall enough snow to make forts and benches and have plowed piles on the side of the road to surpass the height of the tallest neighbor. Somewhere is a picture of me and my friend Charlie in a storm–we were about eight years old, and we’re bundled up, faces included, and the entire frame is white with snow. Blizzards were an expected occurrence in the sixties, and still we wrapped ourselves in winterwear and walked around our houses, thigh deep in snowdrifts, sitting in snow, falling into it, throwing it, eating it, laughing and playing in it until the late-afternoon sun gave the glisten a blue hue, something mystical and deep, like we were in Canada or Siberia, and we stayed out there until we simply couldn’t stand it anymore, then went inside to bathe, put on warm pajamas, have some hot chocolate, and feel the tight, red, chill of winter on our skin well into the evening. And I don’t ever remember caring about the cold.

Now, well, now I walk out into temperatures in the forties with a windchill of thirty-something and I’m ready to crawl back into bed under four or five blankets. For a long time I thought it might be age; I’ve long noticed how old people pack their belongings into car trunks and drive south by October. Or maybe I’ve just so adjusted to flip flops and shorts, sea water lapping at my calves all summer, the hot sun on my shoulders and face, that I simply can’t get acclimated to the cold any longer. Perhaps it is this cold along the Chesapeake; a damp, chill-to-the-bone, wet cold that pierces my nervous system like acupuncture. At least where I lived in western New York and central Massachusetts, the dry winters allow sweaters to suffice and the cold air wakes you up more than eats away the top two layers of skin. 

All that is partially true. But there’s something else.

Charlie’s not here to build a fort. My brother’s not here for a snowball fight. My dad’s not inside, warm, watching football, waiting for us to come inside. My son grew up here in Virginia, and while we have fun memories of the few days of winter we experienced each year, except for brief visits up north, he never experienced not seeing grass for six straight months, never putting on the skates and gliding across the river when the ice is thick, falling on his butt and feeling the wet through a half-dozen layers.

No. Winter is a northern memory; a childhood experience. Maybe If I were walking the cold streets of New York I’d appreciate it more; looking in store windows, turning my collar to the beautiful cold that can be Fifth Avenue in December. Or maybe a football game should be where I go when it is cold; like we did when the Bills were home, and we’d ride the bus up from college and huddle against the winds off of Lake Erie ripping into Rich Stadium.

No. The Bay is for summer; for osprey and oystermen heading across the reach in the early morning; for balmy breezes and salty air.

Yet when a light snow falls and the house looks more like a postcard from Norman Rockwell than the Unabomber’s cabin, and the cardinals quick from holly to pine, I settle into the season a bit more, sit and watch football, warm, and wait for Michael to come home.




Before classes I sit at the desk and listen to students’ conversations. This isn’t on purpose; that is, I don’t take notes. But I like to arrive early and relax, which coincides with those students who also take their seats before class to unwind and catch up with new friends.

For the most part they are more awake earlier in the day. The eight o’clock classes talk about topics ranging from politics to rock. They talk about clothes, and through the years what outfits they consider cool have changed drastically. Hats have come back to the front, jeans are not as low on the butt, but cleavage is certainly more common. Piercing as an art form rivals tattoos, which have simply become like clothing.

Over the years I’ve learned of the student whose brother died in Iraq, the aunt who never made it out of the South Tower, and the student whose baby was stillborn. I know whose spouse is deployed, whose returned last weekend, and whose won’t be back. Sometimes the conversations are carried out on cell phones and I only hear one-side. Often it is amusing, sometimes embarrassing, and most of the time I try not to listen but people are louder than ever and the space is small.

Sometimes I hear where people are from. Many moved south from New York, many are locals. Several came from Pennsylvania, like Karen, a student who knew my sarcasm and got the humor. She understood what I meant on the first explanation and smiled when someone asked a stupid question. Once, she told a student she was from Pennsylvania, not far from where I had gone to graduate school. Her husband got stationed here. Like many displaced military wives, Karen took classes and found a part-time job to keep busy. She planned to write her cause and effect paper about living in Virginia far from family. I looked forward to it, and because of her sharp sense of detail and sarcasm, it certainly promised to be well written.

The day I received the paper I sat on my couch and read about her move. “I didn’t know people so close to my home state could talk so differently,” she wrote. She gave examples picked up while working at a local pub, the North Witchduck Inn. She didn’t need the job, she explained, but it kept her from feeling alone and bored. “I got lucky,” she wrote. “Someone got fired and they hired me.”

She wrote well. But that night, the fired waitress and her boyfriend returned to the Witchduck Inn and shot Karen and three others in the back of the head, execution style. I held onto that paper for quite some time not understanding what to do with it.

I listen too much, sometimes. I hear things I shouldn’t hear. I know about abortions, about pregnancies, a few times before the father knew. I know about little brothers and sisters with harsh diseases and grandparents with Alzheimer’s. I learn their ages, their birthdays, their income and the cost of their cell phone bills. I sit back and try and understand what’s on their mind when I’m staring at them ready to lecture, and I try to steer it closer to their generation, their understanding.

Sometimes I pick up patterns, rituals. Early in the semester conversations focus on course content or choice of professors. Some students complain each morning about spouses or children or parents, others start the week with weekend horror stories. Some students prefer instead to talk outside, smoke.

Some students drink Starbucks in class, talk on cell phones and complain about the work load. I hear their complaints, their excuses.

Still, sometimes what I hear heralds respect. One spoke of her father’s Alzheimer’s, her sick kids, yet her paper is practically flawless and turned in on time. One talked about losing a job, how he is behind in rent and rides the bus, but that’s okay because on the bus, he said, he edits one more time and gets the paper done. Behind him some teed off twenty-year-old talks trash about my teaching, about the course. “I ain’t got no need for no damn required English class,” he said.

 “This course isn’t required,” I quietly tell him. His name is Mark. Before he objects I add, “Nothing here is required. You’re not a child. You don’t have to stay; you don’t have to pass. You don’t have to do jack. Go find a job, travel, join the military. Your options are endless but instead you sit here complaining. You can make a sign and sit on the highway begging for money. You can leave and tend bar in Tahiti. Nothing here is ever required. Nothing. If you don’t want to be here, leave. It really is that simple.”  

Mark wore light blue boxer shorts. I knew this because his size seventy-four jeans fell past the crack of his size twenty-seven butt. His sunglasses reflected overhead lights. He had floppy blond hair, a dark tan, and a seventh-grade mentality. When I asked the class when Jack Kennedy was shot, Mark said, “1865” but he wasn’t trying to be funny. A week later while drinking his second Red Bull he complained about the cost of gas. A week after that I heard him talk about his new surfboard. That was the week I asked for his paper and he told me to fuck off.

“You know I can hear you right?” I said. He stayed quiet. I could see in his face he immediately wanted to suck his words back inside.

“I didn’t know what to write about,” he said.

I stared at him a bit, then said, “How about brain injury,” Everyone laughed because they thought I was joking. “I heard you say before class a few weeks ago a friend of yours was in a car accident.”

“Yeah, so?”

“How is he?”

“Okay I guess.”

I told him if he wanted to stay in my class, he should write the research paper that was due, and perhaps he could focus on brain injuries.

“Are you free at two today?” I was going to give a talk to the staff of a rehabilitation center for brain injured patients. He hesitated a second and said he’d be there.

I occasionally talked to volunteers and patients about attitude and staying motivated. One patient, Dave, had been a 4.0 student at the University of Richmond when a car hit him on his bicycle. Now he has no motor skills and the mentality of an eight-year-old. A woman, Marti, taught high school Math in east L.A. till someone slammed her in the head with a two by four and now it takes a week for her to write one paragraph to her daughter in Texas. Another woman, Michelle, was in a car accident and a piece of dashboard sent her brain retention and motor skills reeling back to pre-school.

Mark and I met and walked in. The rec room was filled and a volunteer welcomed us to say hello to everyone. Before I spoke to the staff, Mark and I both talked for an hour with patients I’d never met as well as a few that I remembered from last time, including the student from Richmond.

Dave tried to tell us he’d been wanting to walk, but his mother told him not to try, that he would only get discouraged and might hurt himself falling. He cried, as he did last time when he told me the same thing. “Bob” he said, with long drawn out emphasis. “I’ve got nothing else to look forward to.” This took Dave at least a minute to say. Mark’s eyes swelled just a little.

Afterwards we sat while the staff worked with volunteers. We listened to their conversations, their ambitions. I didn’t hear much complaining, none actually, and that made my eyes swell—not for them as much as for my students, and for me, for every single time I bitched about something challenging.  

Right before we had planned to leave we overheard a guidance counselor, Gary, talk to a first time volunteer. Mark and I stayed silent. “Listen, Ann,” Gary said. “What separates them from you or me?” he asked her quietly, nodding toward the patients. Mark shifted his eyes from the ground to the counselor ten feet away and listened, his hands in his pockets. The counselor waited a moment, then said, “About three seconds. A missed stoplight. A phone call that held you up. A broken alarm clock. Three seconds.”

We walked outside and before Mark got in his car he apologized for not trying harder; and I did too, for losing patience, with him, with myself. Sometimes we just need to stay silent and listen to what the universe is trying to say to us.