A Time to Begin: Part 2

The Camino de Santiago

The actual How To of explaining the Camino is something that quite literally gives me pause. My brain quakes, my hands shudder, and I lose all sense of the English language. It is a monstrous undertaking. It is hardly something that can be condensed, though I will do my best. There are any number of novels written on just such a subject, and they likely do it more justice than I. So I shall begin the same way I began two years ago:

Clear your mind. Adjust your focus. The time has come.

I could attempt to express every detail of those thirty days of walking, but it would tell you nothing about the Camino. I could try to tell you what it feels like but in the doing, it would lose its essence. It is called a Pilgrimage, the Way, or El Camino. And you need less than you think. 

There are only three things (not including your daily dose of vino tinto) required to walk — a small pack, some good shoes, and the ability to spot the color yellow. You will spend a month finding and following arrows. One solitary yellow arrow. You will become a champion at a highly specific game of Seek-and-Find. You will identify other players by the scallop shells hanging from bags, patches that depict that glorious yellow arrow, various Camino themed accoutrement, or the classic Camino limp. You will learn the names of a few and let others swing past you without a second thought. That is El Camino. 

The arrow is your bread and butter, the provider and sustainer of your daily life. It points you on and ever forwards. It will guide you towards a bed so that you may rest for the night. It will confuse and befuddle you so that you might take a different path than intended yet remain, remarkably, on track. Stay a while in the woods and nap for hours. Take lunch at the top of an abandoned church spire. Rest your aching feet in a stream. Wander and dance through fields of flowers. Still, the arrow will be there. Walk so long and so tirelessly that you question the path itself and within moments it will reveal itself to you. Faded on a tree stump. Sprayed on the ground. Entombed in clay on the walls. It is there to guide you. That is El Camino.

You wake, you walk, and you rest. You search heart and mind for your motivations. You spend hours alone in your head despite the presence of friends, new and old, all around you. You glance up and see that you must continue. You would give anything for a turn, just a small change in direction. You are plunged into winding pathways that give no hint to their end. You are not here to explain or codify yourself. You don’t know what you are here for, but it is certainly not that. Perhaps it is just to learn how to be. That is El Camino.

It can be excruciatingly difficult, both physically and emotionally. The same holds true whether wallowing in solitude or reveling in companionship. Some days you walk to clear the mind. Some days to find the well of peace waiting in small moments. Some days you hate the walking and everything that comes with it. Some days you walk for the glass (or two, or three) of wine at lunch and again at dinner. Some days you walk with the sole purpose of outrunning your fellows so that you can find one brief moment of solitude. Your hips ache. Your feet hurt. You haven’t slept on your side in weeks. You have grown accustomed to the snoring and the sounds (and accompanying smells) of no less than twenty individuals at rest. You have learned the subtle art of packing silently in complete darkness. You are deft and agile until you step out into the open and your body remembers its creaks and aches. You are using a walking stick to hobble from point A to B and back again. Yet each morning you rise and stride forth into the day. That is El Camino.

You rouse yourself before moonset and hope to meet the mischievous sun hours along the next unfamiliar path. It is a glorious exercise in self-deprivation all in search of, oddly enough, self. That is El Camino.

You will read a million things about the Way, they will tell you nothing. You will buy a guidebook and either never look at it or find yourself beholden to it, following its recommendations as law. They say the Camino is life itself condensed into a few short days. You are born. You struggle. You die. They also say, “Con pan y vino hacer El Camino.” If you have ever had the pleasure of a Pilgrim meal then you know two things with certainty, there will be bread and there will be wine. Laughter is not assured while tears are. Blisters are a promise. Arguments with your fellows are imminent. It is life, it is love, and it is none of these. That is El Camino.

It is not something that leaves you untouched. You experience a thousand instances that you never anticipated. It is a journey. A voyage. An endeavor. An undertaking. A responsibility. It is everything. It is nothing. It is one solitary moment among hundreds. When it is over you will find yourself at a loss. You are finished. You have completed your task. Yet you look back over your shoulder and silently dream of returning. Keep my Compostela, I have more walking yet to do. That is El Camino.

My mother asked me the other day, “Would you say being a pilgrim has changed your outlook on life?” My response frustrated her, as it often does — “I carry the lessons of the Camino with me daily, yet I would not say it changed my outlook on life, more that it solidified it.” I knew who I was before. I know who I am now. That is El Camino.

I would walk it again in a heartbeat. I would take any path. I would throw out the guidebook. I would get lost. I would wander aimlessly. I would follow that yellow arrow. That is my Camino.

How We Began

The Camino is a thing as changeable as the seasons. What I recall will not match the remembrances of those who walked beside me. You choose what you keep and what you leave. In my mind, the month of walking falls into an undulant stream of fresh green summer mountains wrought with life to bruised skies overlooking waving stalks of wheat to dusty flat expanses with haggard shrubbery to steep descents of dangerously piled rock to the final steps through fine mist before the trail was overwhelmed by bodies. For one week the sunflowers found their bloom and Haylee and I were lucky to stumble upon them. We danced and frolicked, we took time for an afternoon espresso in the barren hamlet a hundred yards from it. We were happy despite our aches and bruises. My mother grew stronger and faster, revitalized by the daily doing of things once unachievable. Weeks swam past and the colors rolled into one streak of brilliance in my memory before giving way to walkers who could not be called Peregrinos. They came on, villainous beasties, within the last 200 km. They cared not for the unwritten rules that ensured silence and a peaceful sleep that comes at dusk. These people busied themselves with screams and whoops of laughter as they drank away the nights and crowded the trails. They misled earnest pilgrims with the press of their bodies. I recall hours spent off-track as we retraced our steps to arrows that had been hidden by the press of bodies. They are a reminder that once you arrive in Santiago you are to be returned to the world you left behind. If I should meet the Camino again I would skip, at minimum, the last 150 km, and bypass Santiago to meet the trail again on the way to Finisterre. 

And here, I will tell you a secret. The secret of my Camino. You walk alone. It is your thoughts that keep you company. You put one foot in front of the other in front of the other. You are alone. You begin to count steps. There is someone ahead of you. There is someone behind you. There is someone beside you. You are alone. It is okay to be last, or to be first, or to be in the middle. Listen to your body. Honor the one instrument that is solely at your disposal. You will find your fellows along the way. Do not lose yourself in pining to be anywhere but where you are. You are alone. You are perfect. Though you may struggle, though you may suffer, though you may question yourself, I promise you will make it. 

Shoes on. Pack-to-back. Let us begin. 

We arrived on June 18th, 2014, the eve of my mother’s fiftieth birthday. We marveled at the timing and joked that this was a gift to her, her Half-Century Camino, the result of more than a decade’s yearning. The four of us explored the petit French commune known as St. Jean Pied de Port, the gateway to the Camino Frances. This is one of a hundred routes to Santiago de Compostela. We slept in tents that night, close to the soil that would soon cushion our steps. We let the majesty of the Pyrenees sink into our bones and deemed ourselves ready to begin. The night was cold and spoke of days and nights to come. Morning dawned and we readied ourselves in languid slowness. We feigned confidence and laughed at one another. We took photographs to commemorate the moment. We pretended, at least the women did, that we carried our burdens with ease. Hunched at no less than a 35-degree angle we waited, somewhat secretly, for the first opportunity to put the burden down. We walked jauntily through cobbled streets and slowly poured ourselves into the Pyrenees. There are two starting paths, one fairly flat until the endless ascent at the end and one that rose and fell with natural curves of the mountain. There was no question which we would take. The Napoleon route it was called. Pride goeth before the fall.

Hardly an hour into the journey we encountered another pilgrim in distress. She had fallen and was bleeding rather profusely from both knees. One thing we had, I assure you, was a great deal of first-aid equipment. (Including those ingenious devices that when cracked provide all the relief that can already be found by asking  politely for a bag of ice — of these we carried at least ten. By we, I, of course, mean Jorge.) We bandaged her up and continued on with the boost of confidence that comes from feeling oh-so-well-prepared. I have no doubt that we exchanged a number of semi-smug glances that contained mental high-fives performed in slow-motion at the apex of unburdened leaps. 

The Pyrenees swallowed us completely and we four fell into a natural walking order. Jorge led the way nearly a kilometer ahead at any given moment. Haylee and I split the distance between fore and aft, generally walking astride. My mother took up the rear with her slow, aching steps. Though Haylee and I struggled under our individual packs we could still move forward, one slow step after another. My mother could not. She, through a habit of over-preparedness spanning a lifetime, had brought more than she or we could feasibly carry. Jorge, the night prior, had requisitioned the thirty pounds of Instant Ice that she had insisted on bringing to provide her with pre-emptive relief. This gentlemanly gesture was not, as it turned out, enough.

By the second hour, we had detached the top of her pack and, at Jorge’s insistence, strapped it onto him. He is mine, this Beast of Burden. Still, she could make only the slowest progress. The day dragged on. Crest a hill. Descend. Crest a hill. Descend. It would never end. By the third hour, my sweet Bear had put even more strain on himself. He zipped ahead of us, found a bushy area to stash his own bag, waited for Haylee and me to be in sight, then sprinted back down to where my mother was, took her pack, carried it back to us, and then repeated. I watched, with growing trepidation, the look on my mother’s face. 

Her psyche felt the body’s strain more surely than the thing itself. She looked on us, we young and buxom, and the sight of our perceived ease lashed her mercilessly. She falsely imagined that we giggled and skipped our way up the inclines. We took breaks in the same order we walked. As we arrived, Jorge, after retrieving my mother’s pack and leaving it in our care, would push on. As she arrived we would stay a moment and then move forward. This seemed the only way progress could be made. We had to keep moving. We could not know then how this abandonment added to her growing malcontent. It was a slow crumbling that would take a few days to fully set in, to take her down and me with it. 

Our pace was too slow for our ambitions and it left us stranded in the mountains come nightfall. Guidebook #1,138 told us that we should already be at least another 10 kilometers along the Way, and the lack of achievement left us wanting.

I could not shake the idea that chaos was brewing among us.

The night was bitterly cold. I remember terrible discomfort. Sounds of a hellacious storm. And in the morning -- bells. It took a while for the sound to wake me. Distant cattle bells. Sheep bells. All sorts of roaming livestock somewhere out there amid the rolling green hills. I unzipped the tent and looked out to find us floating in a sea of clouds. So high that the valley before us had disappeared beneath the frothy white caps of mist. All around us were wild horses. It was a stunning sight, soothing to the soul. The mustangs roamed around us. They were curious about us. Though they came close it seemed that they were politely penning us in. I watched, breathless, as two mares protectively guided a colt through the pass. These took care to avoid our little group and the rest followed shortly after. It was peaceful. I am thankful for it. Small moments of pristine, inexplicable beauty. That is why we are here. 

A ladybug scuttled across the brim of Jorge’s hat and onto his face. We began the walk anew, invigorated and hopeful. We were quieter today. Less sure than before. Again we formed our line. Jorge at the head, Haylee and I in the middle, Mom at the tail. The days blend together between St. Jean and Pamplona (where our excess pack weight could be sent ahead). He never balked, my love. Jorge walked ahead then ran behind to take the weight from my mother. At the crest of a nondescript hill, I came upon him. Steam rose from every part of his body. He showed no discomfort, but his body was clearly under duress. Bless him to the stars and back. It was Jorge who got her, all of us really, through those first days.

When asked, he broke our hearts yet further. He said simply that in the same situation he hoped someone would do the same for his own mother. He is a wonder, my Bear. 

The thought of those first few days still brings tears to my eyes. Tracy struggled. With the pack, she could hardly move, without it was nearly as difficult. It is not that my mother is old and dithering, nor do I mean to imply that she was impetuous. An eternal student she challenged her mind more than her body and here she found her folly. Mental fortitude paled against the failings of a body unaccustomed to daily struggle. Add to this the fact that she failed to size up on her boots and it is no wonder that disaster ensued. She spent nearly two weeks trying to recover from the damage done by endless kilometers on feet crammed into shoes with no forgiveness. The sole of each foot ceased to be the pink flesh of health and had transformed into angry blisters of a tepid yellow tinged with red. That she had walked at all after their development was a testament to her intentions and my inherited stubbornness.  As an ex-Marine she never once contemplated that she might be physically incapable at any moment, nor did I. Until we did. My mother is the strongest woman I know. When she fails she does not stay down. She has fought more metaphorical battles than anyone you will ever meet. She is a champion, there is no doubt. She healed. She took up the mantle and would not put it down. She is a pilgrim and has impending plans to return; guiding my father through this condensed version of life itself. 

That is it. That is El Camino. That is the beginning. That is El Camino. Everything after is mine to carry. That is El Camino.