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.