The jangle of the alarm filled the room. As I tried to turn it off, it fell to the floor. In the blackness, I saw my arm, pale and seemingly disconnected, reaching toward it in the blackness. 6:45 was too early.
I walked into the dining hall and was greeted by the sound of voices and the clatter of dishes and cutlery going into plastic tubs. I soon spotted Linda and Ian at a long breakfast table with other pilgrims. I sat down across from them and smiled weakly. The monastery offered morning coffee and buns. A serving woman approached Linda and said “Que quiere, Senora?”
Linda looked up, sleepy eyed. “Café au lait” she said using her Calgary French. The waitress looked nonplussed. A slightly crazed look crossed over Linda’s face as she realized she had spoken French. She snapped her fingers in the air, matador style, and shouted “No, not ‘au lait’, ‘ole’!” The waitress spun on her heel and left the table abruptly. The three of us burst into laughter, spluttering coffee and juice across the table. It was promising already to be a good day.
As we arrived in front of our rooms, Linda turned and looked pointedly at Ian. “Where will we stay tonight?” she asked. I said nothing, key in the door. It sounded as though she already had an answer. “ Ian, and you too, Pat, you both need to get rid of your middle class hang ups called privacy and privilege.”
I heard my annoyance in my voice. “If we are really going to talk about this, let’s at least sit down.” I turned the key and shoved open my door. “We covered this ground in Calgary – several times. We agreed to stay in hotels and inns. Not albergues or refugios.” Ian sat on the edge of my bed. Linda stood up beside the night table, arms crossed.
“But now we’re here. We’ve talked with other pilgrims who’ve stayed in the albergues.” She turned to look at me. “They don’t sound so bad, do they, Pat?” She raised her eyebrows and looked over at Ian.
Ian rested his elbows on his knees, and sighed. “I hate the idea of hostels, you’re right. And I don’t see why I should drop my privileges. I like my life like this. “
I lost control. “Don’t include me in your privileged middle class, Linda”, I snapped. “As for hostels, I’ve been there, done that. Once is more than enough.”
Linda looked surprised. “I don’t remember you talking about staying in hostels. When did you do that?”
“When I lived in France. I earned less than 100 dollars a month so we hitch hiked everywhere. Hostels were perfect then. I was 22 and short of money. But not anymore. I still tent in the backcountry otherwise I stay in hotels. You know I brought my sleeping bag in case we ran out of options. But I prefer not to stay in albergues.” I exaggerated my Spanish pronunciation.
Ian threw back his head and laughed. I felt my face grow hot. Why had I been so dogmatic? Such a snob? Embarrassed, I laughed too.
“Yeah, you stay in a hostel if you want to, Linda” he said. “We’ll meet you for breakfast”. Ian turned towards me “ I am amazed that you of all people have hitch hiked. I think of you as…” He paused “Well, it’s not your style”.
“I loved it”, I said. “One morning, just after I got back to Edmonton, I passed a guy hitch hiking on my way to work. I wanted to stop and change places with him. To just be free, self-sufficient, with everything I needed on my back, heading off with no agenda. That’s really my style, Ian.”
“So,” Linda looked at me, a challenge in her voice. “why not have an adventure staying in an albergue? That breaks the pattern, opens up ways to meeting other people.”
“I’ve got to admit it sounds better when you call it an ‘albergue’, Linda. But it doesn’t change the smell – old, unwashed, too many unclean bodies, cracked, dirty linoleum…” I paused.
“You’ve convinced me”, said Ian.
I looked at Linda. She met my eye but said nothing. “We likely won’t ever do this walk again, Linda, and I know you want the experience of staying in an albergue.” I continued, “So you two could buy sleeping bags and give it a try if you really want to. If worst came to worst, I would join you. Or of course I could just meet you for breakfast”.
Ian nodded. “Let’s give it a miss,” he said as he stood up from the bed and looked out the window. We could see the soft pink bright sky through the ceiling high windows.
They headed back to their room. I picked up my pack and balanced it on my knee. Before leaving home, I had weighed each item determined to keep the weight around 10 kilos. Yesterday when the orange plastic bag filled with my excess arrived, I was shocked. I punched the sleeping bag in on top and stuffed the extra clothes along the sides. I sat the pack on the floor now and it rolled over drunkenly. The top flap was pulled tight and strained against the shoulder straps. The only other way to manage it was to mail it home. An expensive proposition.
There was a knock at my door. “Coming” I called out, swung it up on my back and opened the door. Day two was about to begin.
We started up the trail together, Ian leading the way, Linda directly behind him and me following at a shot distance. I thought about the talks we had had before leaving Canada. But now we were on the Camino. In just two days we had talked with other pilgrims and locals, seen the countryside and were about to walk our second day of more than 20 km. Other issues would come up and decisions taken in Calgary would be revisited. All that made sense. Ahead of me Linda’s tall slender body walked with a measured gait. Her enthusiasm was infections. As long as we talked openly we’d figure things out I thought. I looked up to see
them disappearing around a bend.
The sun shimmered, the silence hung suspended. There was a feeling of space, which stretched out from the valley where I was walking to the mountains on either side. It was hauntingly familiar. Somewhere at sometime I had walked in a mountain valley with a similar vista. The path climbed, turning to the left and then I remembered. It was like the scenery on my walk in France, in the gorges of the Tarn. As I walked on I remembered the beautiful and uninhabited countryside I had crossed. I had signed up for a five day self guided walk, confident that there would be others on the path and that I would join up with them – maybe for a meal, maybe to walk a ways together. When the voice on the other end of the phone told me that I was the only one walking and that he had already processed my VISA, my heart sank. To be so alone, possibly lost, in that rugged area of France had been daunting. Well, I thought, at least here I’m not alone. I looked around again. There was no sign of a village or a farm. The old sense of anxiety flared and my stomach knotted. I shrugged off the feeling. If it was like yesterday pilgrims would be spread out along the path and sooner or later someone came by. I’d enjoy this gift, this beautiful morning. I deepened my breathing till it became soft and easy. Here I am I thought alive right here and now, right in this moment. A perfect time to celebrate. I threw my head back, raised my arms and saluted the peaks and the sky. I smiled to myself and looked down; my boots swung in and out of my vision.
The path climbed slowly and my feet moved along the stony path with greater confidence. My legs were pink from the warm sun of the high country. My walking stick tapped out the rhythm, the metal tip hitting rocks then soil then rocks. Its tapping lulled my anxiety.
Just then a voice behind me said ‘Buen Camino’. Startled I whipped around to find myself eye to eye with a short, stocky Asian man. He was wearing the kind of bamboo hat I associated with rice paddies. His grin was infectious. ‘Buen Camino’ I replied. He bowed and I bobbed my head. We both laughed as he passed me.
The path followed the contour of the hills, dropping down abruptly at times and pulling itself back from creeks and boulders. It was heavily wooded and I breathed in air that was fragrant with the scent of pines. These were the foothills of the Pyrenees.
It was getting toward mid morning and the sun had taken on intensity. As I walked into a small café, I saw the headlines of a newspaper “Unseasonable hot weather for northern Spain. Temperatures of +38 – 40+C”. No wonder it’s such hard going I thought to myself as I ran my fingers through my damp hair. I must be even slower today than yesterday. The feeling of anxiety stirred.
I ordered iced water. The condensation formed drops of water around the base of the glass. I remembered Paul Coelho’s book on his pilgrimage on the Camino. He had an invisible, spiritual guide who walked with him and recommended that he do a daily meditation. He could chose from several possibilities. One involved making patterns in the condensed drops of cold water at the base of a glass. Absent-mindedly I put my finger in the drops and spread the moisture across the table. Abstract patterns and connections began to appear. Lines I’d made from the drops of water formed a blob, which had connections to other shapes. Some lines simply wandered across the dark brown wood. I shook my hand and droplets fell at random. I squinted at the whirls and shapes. Some looked like profiles, perhaps of pilgrims, who had walked the Camino over the centuries As I had walked alone that morning, I had focused on stories of the Camino, its pilgrims and its history, events and pageants. I had imagined the Celts in their mystic ritual, returning from the ocean as the sun rose above the horizon. And I had revisited the church at Roncesvalles in an earlier time; saw its priests in red robes, intoning Gregorian chants as they walked in among the prostrate pilgrims. I could smell the incense, imagine their lives. It was all so real. I could step off this trail and enter any of the worlds I felt and saw around me. Now as I looked at my abstract the patterns began to fade and the waiter’s voice broke the spell. “Otra cosa, senora?” he asked. I smiled at him, stood up, and opened my wallet.
I looked around the room. Several men were playing cards, others were staring into space. Noiselessly the memory of the first night’s dream came back unbidden. My confidence buckled and I saw my face in the mirror behind the bar. My eyes were vacant with fear and a cold sense of foreboding occupied my body. I shook myself, enough of this I thought. I paid the bill and walked out into the blinding white light. When I got to Zubiri, I’d talk to Linda and Ian about these visions and we’d laugh.
The path had begun to climb again, trees getting thicker. At one point I walked past a large shed with a white cow lying in it. She was between me and her calf that was stretched out along the wall. She lowed softly when she saw me. I stopped and spoke to her, crooning my admiration for the calf. Her head swung from side to side as her apprehension grew. “No problem, old girl”, I crooned again. “He’s safe. I’m not going anywhere near him”. She began to heave herself up, her front legs propped up in front of her. I picked up my pace, leaving her before she stood up completely. The look in her big brown eyes was soft and protective toward her calf. It was almost a nativity scene – enveloping love, protection, a mother’s mandate. I thought of the Virgin of Orisson whom we had seen yesterday, a simple statue but alive with compelling humanity.
By one o’clock I was famished. I walked into a small square and past an open window. Deep in the shadow I saw the white apron of a barmaid. I walked in. “Que tal?” I asked.
She smiled “Demasiado calor” she said, wiping her neck with a handkerchief.
“Que quiere comer? Beber?
I ordered a sandwich just as two people filled the open window. It was Ian and Linda. My heart soared.
“What a surprise!” I said. “I’m so glad to see you. When did I pass you? Let’s have a coffee together.”
“Nope” said Ian, “We are a way behind time”. Linda had an eager look as she turned away from the window.
“No problem” I said. “Go ahead. I’ll see you in Zubiri”. I turned to chat with the barmaid, finished my coffee and left. As I stepped out of the bar, the heat was like a white barrier. I walked close to the walls of buildings where there was more shade. My feelings were like a miasma, dark, formless, inchoate. I couldn’t deny them. I walked on in the heat. So, what were my feelings I asked myself? Hurt? Anger? Exclusion? I trudged on, walking slower. I tried to name the feelings, to let them go but they hung on. I struggled with the idea of saying something but decided against it. How could I say anything I wondered when I didn’t know what was bothering me. After all I had often walked on my own. That wasn’t the problem. We had talked about our different paces before leaving. And besides, there was no reason they should stay. Their sense of time was much stronger than mine so it made sense for them to go. I encouraged them to leave. I found myself stopped near a bridge. I looked around in embarrassment. Thank God there was no one to see me standing here like an idiot. I picked up my pace, swung my stick and changed my thoughts.
I arrived at Zubiri at the end of the afternoon, tired and hot. As I came near the river I saw Ian and Linda walking towards me. I quickened my pace. It was so good to see them there.
“Hail, pilgrim” Linda called out. “We’ve found a small hotel and booked it for the night”.
“You’re great, you two. But one more question – have you ordered a beer?” We all laughed and Linda and I exchanged a hug.
It was near 6:00 when we headed into the centre of town and the Internet café. We sought one of the pilgrims’ restaurants that opened before the restaurants that catered to the Spanish who like their evening meals around 10:30. We walked along together barely talking of our day. Our fatigue groaned in our legs and our stomachs were empty. As we climbed the stairs, we were met with the sounds of voices, other languages, the smell of food and beer. The room was long and narrow. A table, covered with a green cloth, ran its length. People were sitting in front of place settings on both sides of the table. It was nearly full but we managed to squeeze in beside three men.
“Good evening, how’s it going?” queried one of them. “I’m Hardy, from Lexington. I’ve been on the Camino for three days. These guys are Frederick and Geert from Germany. We walked together today.”
The one nearest me extended his hand. ”Ja, so I’m Frederick” he said, his ruddy face solemn and his hand shake firm. “Wir sind deutsch. We’re German, Geert and me.” Geert smiled shyly. His eyes darted from Frederick to Hardy. “Good evening” he said softly and shook hands. “We are walking now for two days.”
Ian joined in quickly. “We started out at St Jean-Pied-d- Port and this is our second day too. Great day today – and yesterday too” he hastened to add.
Linda lifted her glass ”Here’s to walking the Camino”. They both smiled at the men. Geert and Frederick lifted their glasses in military precision. Hardy turned to look at them, then raised his glass. “Good luck” he added.
The waiter came swinging into the room, the bar doors slammed behind him. He wielded the loaded tray with finesse calling out: Sopa? Ensalata? Quien quiere bifteck?” People raised their hands quickly and the conversation slowed. The pasta was plain macaroni without sauce but it tasted like gourmet food to me. I was starved. I looked up at my companions; their eyes lowered, the look of intensity on their faces.
“Hunger is a great host” that’s what we say in my family”. I grinned at them.
Ian slowed down and said, “The first bite is the best – literally”. Hardy joined in our laughter.
Frederick scowled. “So what is it? What did you say?”
“Oh, just an old American saying. Hard to translate.” Hardy explained.
“Not really American” I contradicted him. “We’re Canadian”.
He shrugged. “So what’s the difference?”
It was my turn to shrug. “We’ll talk about that some day, Hardy,” I offered as I closed the conversation.
“Are you assuming we’ll see each other every day? This is the Camino, you know. There are thousands who walk it – all at their own pace. These guys are my second lot of companions. The first guy I walked with I left behind this morning. We were talked out. Nothing left to say. Likely never see him again. And that’s fine with me. You can only walk for so long with one person.” He picked up his glass of wine.
I flinched at the indifference and judgment in his voice. “So the Canadian-American differences will go unclaimed,” I said with a smile. “What’s for dessert, Linda? Does it fit into our calorie count?”
“Your wife is on a diet? This must be Canadian men!” said Geert, “In Germany she is very – how do you say it – small?” His accent was strong and he blushed a deep red.
Linda looked at Ian and retorted, “It is what Canadian women think is good that counts!”
“Yes, I added. Their opinion counts but who’s counting?”
The lighthearted comments on beauty and relationships continued.
“How do you find walking each day? asked Frederick. “We are German. We walk everyday a very lot.” He fixed his solemn gaze on the French hikers at the end of the table.
“C’est pas une question du pays” snapped the French man. “Il s’agit de la santé de l’individu – peu importe le pays ou l’age.” The talk became more animated. People switched from French, English and German, the laughter was easy.
But then, in the middle of the talk and laughter, the desire to cry, to just sob out loud overcame me. Just like when I was a child. The feelings were the same – nervous, crunchy feeling in my palms, cold, twisting in the gut, a sense of non-reality, a buzzing in the ears. It had been years since I had felt like that. Why now I wondered. What has a pilgrimage got to do with childhood trauma? Where did that feeling come from I asked myself. Too much anticipation or even a frisson of … what? of fear? of preternatural knowledge? It felt terribly familiar.
I realized that my shoulders had hunched over, my head was in my hands, tears standing in my eyes. The unbidden memory of a night long ago when my parents had rushed to my bedroom to calm my incoherent sobs came to me. The darkness, clammy hands, the nameless fear, the sense of doom was still buried deep inside. I shuddered involuntarily. Through the blur of tears, I heard a French voice talking to me “Eh,bien, Patricia …qu’en penses-tu?”
What was the question? I chastised myself and tried to laugh along with them. The joke was at my expense. From the end of the table, one of the French asked if Canadian women were all so sensitive. Ian assured them that it was rare. No more of those feelings I whispered to myself. Shame burned through me. I was wasting time. Today had been beautiful and tomorrow would be another wonderful day in the Pyrenees. I’d get lots of sleep tonight.
A few began to talk of discos and bars in the small town. Someone announced suddenly that it was 9:00. At that we got up and headed towards the door. “Well”, said Hardy, “I think I’ll join the Canucks and get some sleep”. We followed him to the front of the restaurant, saying our goodbyes to Geert and Frederick.
Bed felt so good that night. The sheets were clean and pressed, the towels threadbare and the pillow thin but none of that mattered. I splashed warm water on my face, luxuriating in the silence, the privacy of the room and the sheer fatigue of walking 55 km in two days.
What more could I ask for? Sunny days, random conversations, Ian and Linda to talk to and to plan the next day with. My feet were beginning to get blisters but it was a problem I had on every walk. I had all the bandages and antibiotic creams I needed.
The foothills of the Pyrenees on the Spanish side were treed and beautiful in the midday sunshine. The heat was a challenge. Who would have thought of such unseasonable heat? Not I. But the heat was better for tired muscles than autumn cold and finding a hotel waiting at the end of each day was a treat.
The rat-tat of the alarm startled me out of a deep sleep. I reached for it, searching for the off button. Suddenly it was silent. I fell back into the warmth of the bed. God, it seemed too early to get up. I looked at the window with its old lace curtains and saw the soft pink of early morning.
It was well after 8:00 the next morning when we left the hotel. Neither Ian nor I had wanted to leave in the black of pre-dawn. For me, I loved the moment of anticipation as we stepped out onto the path to greet the morning. I didn’t want to compromise and follow a regime leaving at a certain time, stopping for lunch at a certain time. I wanted to ‘be’ on the Camino, not ‘do’ it, not count the hours and the kilometers.
The sky brightened and golden light shot through it. We were headed for Pamplona some 25 km away. As I walked along I realized how tough yesterday had been emotionally. It was a relief that my sleep had been deep and peaceful. “It’s only the third day”, I thought, as I watched Ian’s red jacket and swinging stick heading down the valley in front of me. He walked with obvious rhythm and feeling for the day. Well, that was his goal – to see if he could just walk it all. Behind him was Linda, lithe and alert. I felt affection reach out from the bottom of my heart and encircle them. At breakfast that morning, Linda had run her fingers through Ian’s hair and said, ”He’s a ‘scope and sequence’ man, Pat. He likes to plan, to have the day timed out and everything in place. So that’s how we travel. We know our destination, our stops for each day and we follow it. I wasn’t so much like that but after twenty years…” We had both laughed.
It’s a big change to travel with a couple I admitted to myself. Ian was more task oriented than I am. And they were so used to each other. And I was so used to being on my own. I didn’t feel like changing my focus, my timing, my rhythm. I listened to the tap of the walking stick. Not a bad pace, really. Not going to eat up miles fast but it had always gotten me to my destination.
The sky had turned brilliant blue and the sun was making personal taps on my back. I looked down at the familiar sight of my walking stick and my boots swinging along and realized that I loved the rhythm and it would strengthen as time went on. I looked up and saw Linda and Ian walking one behind the other and with a small distance between them.
An hour later, we arrived together in front of a small coffee shop. “Cafe con leche?” Linda asked. We stopped, had our coffee and then the real walking started. Soon Linda and Ian were well ahead of me.
I walked on in the aura of the conversations of the last days. I turned them in my mind the way I might turn a kaleidoscope to see the different patterns of light.
As I crossed the plaza of Larrasoana, I spotted a small church on a side street. I pushed open the door and found the inside cool and dark with a spot of color where the sunlight streamed through the stained glass window. The smell of incense was strong. In the front pew sat an old woman, her rosary in hand, eyes shut. I sat down a ways from her and a feeling of calm and peace flowed through me.
When I left there it was around ten o’clock. The sun was high in the sky and the heat was building. I walked slowly across the plaza and picked up the yellow arrow for Pamplona. The gravel road turned to the west, passed under some trees and headed across the open land. As I left the town, a dog got up and slid over into some shade. He dropped down, stretched out his neck and eyed me calmly. I shifted the pack slightly and walked a bit faster. There was no one else on the road. The sense of silence, the heat and the parched fields were strangely welcoming. In the core of my body I could sense a warm centre. It rose and fell in my breast like butter, soft, yielding and golden. Its calm stretched out and all thought left. My stick tapped out a rhythm on the stones.
Along the road there were small crosses built by other pilgrims. I stopped and looked more closely. The stones were piled one on another. Some were the red of the fields, others dun brown, some were crisscrossed with white lines like tracery. In some of them there was a twig or a branch to form the cross. I noticed pieces of paper sticking out from some. I bend down and started to pick one up. But a sense of trespassing invaded me. Whatever the conversation – and whom ever they were talking to, it was private. It was an intrusion to read it. These were someone’s silent pleas for help, for succor. I made sure the note was well tucked under the cross. The sides of the road became steeper and the crosses soon disappeared. The sky was a light blue, no clouds.