Walking the Way
For Walrus Magazine
I can’t explain the feeling I’m having here, standing on the beach in Comillas, a little seaside resort on the Cantabrian coast of Spain. I’m actually wading in the water, because my feet are aching, and as I stare out to sea, my mind drifting, it suddenly occurs to me—ten days and 250 kilometers into a planned twenty-two-day walk across Spain, west from Irun along the centuries old Catholic pilgrimage route to the famous cathedral town of Santiago de Compostela—that my journey has really, finally begun.
Which doesn’t make sense, given that my body is telling me that this pilgrimage (or whatever it is that I’m doing here; the question remains open) began long ago. Call it another “long walk paradox.” I’ve been making a list. I scrawled the first one into the margin of my Los Caminos del Norte guidebook back on day two. My trailmate Dave and I were climbing around the lighthouse south of Pasajes San Pedro, having just parted company with Heidi from Michigan, who’d pressed a Spanish-English dictionary into my hands after our lunch of calamari boccadillo on the quays. (“I’m just like really worried about you guys walking all the way across Spain not speaking any Spanish.”) Then she disappeared up the trail, walking at a speed neither of us could have quite matched jogging. We climbed on up the hill, past the graveyard and around to the lighthouse, gasping in the heat. Somewhere out there, we stopped, and I wrote “Long-walk Paradox #1: pain/beauty” in an unsteady hand,standing on that wild shoulder of Basque greenery above the heaving, Windex-coloured sea.
I’m not even sure what I meant by that now. Pain/Beauty. Perhaps I was imagining a third value, for which the first two might be solved. But now the day is collapsing around me. Spanish families are packing their coolers and rolling up their beach towels, heading for their cars, heading home. The sun is dipping toward the western ridge. The sky growing long, deepening from blue to grey. Dave is back in the pension, reading Beevor’s Spanish Civil War. Our conversation has been getting thin at the edges, with hundreds of kilometres still to go. I’m out here soaking my feet, thinking I was in Bilbao a couple days ago and didn’t see the Guggenheim because I was so tired that lying in my hotel watching Gran Torino seemed like a better idea. Eastwood riddled with bullets at the end, stretched out on the lawn like a crucifix. Eastwood rebranded as Christ—shoulda seen that coming.
And here one of the beach kids boots a soccer ball past his friend, and it rolls all the way down to the waves where I pick it up and throw it back, and he stares at me, curiosity edged with suspicion. Me standing there in the waves with my iPhone, pecking in notes. I guess I don’t look like I’m from around here, even if I am just doing what people have been doing along this coast since the remains of the Apostle James, the brother of Jesus, were first discovered in Galicia in the eighth century. That is: walking west, wondering why.
I thumb-type the words. “Long walk paradox #2: the walk really starts when you feel like you’ve already been walking forever.”
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. (T.S.Eliot, Little Gidding)
People tell you all kinds of stories about why they’re doing it, taking weeks to come this way. Down the Basque hills and across the sands of the Playa de l’Arena, up to El Haya, down the blaring Cantabrian motorways, the misty back lanes, through the shaking pines and fragrant eucalyptus, the red dirt, the gossiping donkeys, the halting breeze. They tell you they’re heading to the festival at Santiago, or they’re meeting friends in Finnesterre. They tell you they’re travelling on the cheap before finishing school. But most commonly they talk of freedom, which is a jarring answer if you associate the word with autonomy, self-definition, and individual routes through the maze of life. On the north coast, there is only one way to Santiago de Compostela, and you are reminded of your surrender to that path every kilometer or so by a yellow sign or a scallop shell indicating the way forward. This way. Up that hill. Turn left past the churchyard. The markers make rudimentary the human day, collapsing all options, all routes, all avenues to one. Freedom. Really?
But that’s what they say. To be free. To feel free. A political science student from Germany. A nursing instructor from Norway. A bookie from the UK, same story. He says: “I just like the freedom. Just walking. No hassles, right?”
I’m more in sympathy with a theatrical agent from Germany who stops to watch me photographing flowers outside a café. I’m killing time while Dave works his BlackBerry inside, handling emails from a job that never stops. She says, “That should be a nice shot.” And when we get to the point in the conversation where we talk about why, she says, “Well, I guess to change my mind about a few things.”
Nobody talks about religion, faith, metaphysics. None of that. Nobody says: because my mother died three years ago and I haven’t been the same since. Nobody says: because not long ago at a party I got into a drunken argument about the validity of philosophical materialism and found myself yelling at a woman: “Then why are we here? Why are you here?”
Nobody would admit to that. To losing it. To getting belligerent over the possibility of transcendence. Nobody would admit that because it would suggest that maybe you needed to walk 800 kilometers across Spain.
I cop the plea. Guilty. I maybe needed it.
We walk and walk and walk. We talk at first, but then much less. On the first day, Dave said: “A friend warned me that you and I would probably be doing top-ten-movies-of-all-time by the end of this thing. Because by day twenty, dude, we’re going to have talked about everything else.”
Dave’s friend was wrong. Make no mistake. I’m here because my friendship with Dave is an old one. We’ve been pals since in college, and stayed in touch ever since, even after Dave began an international life that has taken him from Geneva to South Africato London and beyond. We’ve stayed in touch for a reason. So when he suggested this trip over dinner in London, where I last saw him, I didn’t hesitate. For me, Dave may be the only person on earth from whom the suggestion to walk 800 kilometers together would not be insane. So there’s talking to be done. We have plenty of conversational ground to cover. And in the morning, sure, with a coffee con leche and a wedge of tortilla inside us, with fresh legs, breathing light cool air and smelling the farms around us, the soil, the botanical plenitude, words are free and our discussion is as wide as the horizon, as curious as the world. Politics, money, books, kids, and family. What’s up with mutual friends. Religion once, nothing too personal.
But on tired legs, with the sun high as we climb a long slope toward a final ridge line, our destination a smudge of buildings some stubborn distance ahead of us, our progress imperceptible—during those stretches we’re imprisoned in what we’re doing. Marooned in the flow. Paradox #3.You take somewhere around 45,000 steps a day. Each one of these depends on all the others. Each is mission critical. So each one—each single footfall, crunch of broken stone, scuff of dust, kicked pebble skipping ahead—grows from a tiny non-event to occupy a space as large as the universe. Each footstep, in the moment you take it, is all you have. And there comes some point each day, sometimes as early as mid-morning, when words simply fail. If there’s a conversation after noon, it’s generally about food.
We eat like teenagers. The trek might be worth it for this alone, the metabolism roaring like a blast furnace. We eat slow-roasted lamb shoulders, platters of octopus and smoked ham, anchovies and green olives, patatas con chorizo, oxtails, bocadillos with thick slices of cheese or rings of fried calamari. Once, escalope jamon, which turned out to be ham cold cuts breaded and deep fried, perhaps our only culinary disappointment. But then, in Castro-Urdiales, we found ourselves looking out over the boats in the harbour, eating a whole monk fish cooked in oil with slivers of garlic, and served with bread. And in El Haya, a slab of beef churleton between us, grilled an inch and a half thick and served with crisp fries and tangy salad. The owner kept pouring us more brandy, pleased to see us devouring the local specialty, reminding us all the while that he normally ate a whole churleton himself. Sometimes two. After dinner we talked with Horst, a German economist who worked on contract for BMW and spent long months walking in between.
Then we slept. We crashed, we went deep. And we woke huge spirited, talkative, filled with the energy of our plan.
“Get to the Primitivo,” Horst had told us, speaking of the mountain route from Oviedo over the remote inner hills of Asturias and Galicia and down to the walled city of Lugo. “Hurry through Cantabria if you have to, but take your time in the mountains.” Horst had covered 4,000 kilometers by the time we met him, and would cover 4,000 more by the time he returned home late in the year. Lost fifteen kilos already. He showed us the notches on his belt.
So that’s where we’re going. That’s where the whole trip is now heading. To the Primitivo. To the “Original Way” of the medieval pilgrims.
I say to Dave: Gonna party like it’s 1399.
He says: Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone.
My mother died of cancer in March 2006, a few days after her seventy-sixth birthday. She’d been diagnosed three years before and given six months to live, but was obviously tougher than the doctors first guessed. Lots of people say this about their parents, I realize. Mothers in particular. Man, but she was tough. And perhaps we say this because we need them to be strong, even knowing that they live with fear and doubt like anybody else. Knowing there is heartache for our toughest moms.
You could say she was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ursula Kuppenheim, in Munster, in 1930; gentile mother, father’s side all Jews. These weren’t great coordinates to land on just a few months before 6.4 million Germans voted Hitler into the Reichstag. So my mother became a “mischling of the first degree,” as the taxonomically minded Nazis referred to people with exactly two Jewish grandparents. There was no comfort in the designation. The Nazis were regressive taxonomists, even before 1942 when Eichmann determined that “Mischlinge of the first degree will, as regards the final solution of the Jewish question, be treated as Jews.” Already by 1940, my mother’s paternal grandparents had died as the SS cleared Jews out of the town of Pforzheim. Two months later her father fled Germany using the single visa he was able to get for passage to Ecuador. My mother, my aunt, and my grandmother rode out the war in Munster and later, in hiding. The family wasn’t reunited until 1948, when the International Refugee Organization arranged transit for the three women: from Germany, through Paris and Genoa, then by boat across the Atlantic to a reunion with my grandfather in Ecuador.
Where life began again, in what my mother once described to me as a drifting, dream-like state: out of place and distant from all the futures she might have once considered likely. Certainly she couldn’t have imagined meeting my father. In the late ’40s, my mother was managing a bookstore, the Libraria Centifica, in Guayaquil. My father was working in the Philippine jungle, rebuilding an electrical generating plant. As a kid I once plotted these locations on a globe and determined them to be almost precisely on opposite sides of the planet. Here was a vector-intersect you’d call a long shot, in the geo-statistical sense of it.
But it happened. All that way across the world to end up at the same house party. In she walked. There he was. How do these things happen? We know the rational answer. It’s called a random event, albeit a happy one in this case. All human story after all, in the eyes of science, is the product of quanto-chaotic-material unfolding. There is a new canon of rationalist literature devoted to debunking other interpretations, other ways of imagining the fabric of your own life. Fate, destiny, divine will, even luck. All these are romantic or worse: intellectual dummy-sucking as Richard Dawkins memorably put it.
Nonsense, my mother would have said. Stories care nothing for statistics, in either our telling or our living of them. As for materialism, well, one man’s rationalism is another man’s eugenics program. The Nazis had a material view of my mother: she was a bio-genetic phenomenon. She didn’t accept their definition of her any more than she accepted their Final Solution to the problem she represented to them. It’s to that brutal, early schooling that I trace her later tendencies, all of which coalesced around a single governing principle: that you could not allow yourself to be defined by material human sources. The literal survival of your self depended on deeper resolution. And while she found that resolution in Christianity, the more practical way I experienced her world view as a child was through her committed suspicion of the mainstream, the chief expression of which was an ingrained anti-consumerism. Brand promises were always broken. I don’t remember ever not knowing that she felt this way, even if she rarely said so explicitly. She lived the message. No television in the house. No junk food or soda in the diet. Home made clothes. Holidays on the West Coast Trail. I recall that once a year, following a successful piano recital, we were allowed to choose a brand-name breakfast cereal. (For me: always Captain Crunch.) Otherwise it was home made granola and tiger’s milk. In the Brady Bunch Seventies, in shag-carpeted then-groovy West Vancouver, these practices made us nonconformist freaks. Not as a matter of self-denial. I understand this now, if I couldn’t possibly then. On my mother’s part, it was self-affirmation. Specifically, a removal of the self from the governing ambit of commerce and fashion, a willful conviction that necessarily connected her to the beyond.
And here is where I believe she sourced that conviction: she didn’t believe that her birth happened in the wrong place at the wrong time. She believed it happened as intended. Of course life’s material phenomena were real, notably Hitler’s existence and much later the fact of her metastasized colon cancer. But the cause and effect at play in the world and in her body were not the essential story. The essential story was that, as a thing intended, her life and all lives had intrinsic, ineffable value not derived or defined by organic materials but by their meanings. In other words: derived and defined in a way inaccessible to either markets or science. Derived and defined spiritually.
Religious was never quite the right word for her, though. Her faith had no overarching ritual. She was antipodal to Catholicism, it now seems to me, with its various codified enactments, including this very pilgrimage. She was a product of personal belief and reformation instead. Charles Taylor’s “disembedded” individual, unplugged from the hierarchies that would define and destroy her. Yet choosing to live her life as if the spiritual were bound up in the physical, the musical soundtrack playing endlessly behind the toy-strewn family room scenes of her mother-of-five life.
Mischling of the first degree. If my mother had a coat of arms, the motto might have read: Says you.
We cross Cantabria into its forested western reaches, past the sprawling estuaries of the Tina Meno and Tina Mayor, the flat expanse of inland water reflecting the sky, the blue-green hills, the clouds shooting in to gather at the foot of the Cantabrian Mountain range paralleling our path from the Basque country behind us all the way to the Galician border. Climbing the long slope into Asturias, we get lost in a hillside eucalyptus forest short of Unquera. We end up following a narrow track kilometres past a marked turnoff, swatting bugs in the heat, running gauntlets of thorns, while below us through the fragrant trees we can see the road we’re supposed to meet dropping further and further away. We stop and retrace our steps, trying different trails that each fringe out to nothing in the brush. It takes several hours before we make our way down and across the valley—overheated, scratched, sweating, irritable—and climb the final steep stone path to Colombres, where we’re planning to stay.
It’s approaching that summit that I get my first taste of pilgrim euphoria. Endorphin flows, runners’ high—it belongs in that group of phenomenon. The sudden head-rush sense of your own movement and power, like the thrill of lift-off in an airplane only writ down to human scale and speed. As I climb the hill, I feel that chain of thousands of steps, hundreds of thousands now, carrying me upward and upward. I feel the earth roll under my feet as if propelled by my very motion.
I take my own picture at the crest of the hill, camera held out at arm’s length. There’s a capilla de animas here, a little chapel set up for recitation of the Angelus. I don’t know the prayer. But I’m gripped by a feeling, an exhilarating sense of lessening, the world briefly rendered inconsequential. A summit feeling. The picture later reveals me to be grinning a bit madly, seized by the moment and out of breath.
I have no pictures of the moment just following, however, maybe fifteen minutes later, when we discover that both hotels in Colombres are closed. That we must carry on to El Peral, a series of gas stations and truck stops on the highway to Villaviciosa, where tankers and big rigs howl by and none of the restaurants are open and the bartender who handles room keys at the motel ignores our presence, clearly willing us to carry on out of his jurisdiction. Dave and I with our packs at the bar, ready to crumple from fatigue. Twenty minutes spent wondering if we’re sleeping under a hedge or hailing a taxi to the next town or what.
So that summit feeling of immunity does not last. The world returns. But with the world also comes a young woman, who intervenes and talks to the man in Spanish. I can tell from hand gestures, facial expressions, what this is all about. She’s saying: Come on, they’d like a room. One room with two beds. Peregrinos. Yes, they’re Peregrinos. Just give them a room.
Up and down. This is the inner and outer topography when you walk for weeks on end. Once locked into it, the trek becomes an endless cycle of arrivals and departures. Always entering or leaving some fold in the land, climbing or dropping off a ridge line, a valley behind or in front, the roll of a hill stretching upward or downward ahead of you. After 300 or 400 kilometers of walking, it seems I’ve been coming forever on some new set of views and possibilities. That’s the real constant of the trail: its Nietzschean eternal recurrence, the ever-changing sameness of the land. That and the sheep and cow bells, the hovering cry of birds.
On the train to Oviedo, where we will begin the Primitivo, we retreat to our respective playlists and books. We turn inland, the hills rushing past, burnt orange in the morning sun. The ocean slips behind. Last glimpse of it is a mirrored flash, the entire coastline obscured in a fizz of light shards, prisming and refracting. I brought two books with me on this trip. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Don Quixote. Spanish pilgrims chuckle to see me lugging around the Cervantes, a book they remember not-quite-finishing in high school. I’m dragging it through Spain nevertheless, reading passages in hotel rooms and bars across the country. I spill wine on it. Fortuna ashes. Bits of bocadillo and tortilla. It gets burnt, then rained on. Some of the pages fall out.
But I want this book with me. The great Spanish masterpiece. Also, the first modern novel. The ancestor document that branches out to all my literary heroes. This book is, in a sense, the mother of all reasons why I decided that being a writer was worth a life’s effort. And when you’ve just finished a novel yourself and it’s out to your publisher… when the atmosphere in the book business is as dark as it’s been since the fall of 2008… when you’re on the road walking miles in silence and thinking about the future and your own place in it… well then it makes a certain amount of pilgrim-sense to clutch the lodestone, hold tight the talisman, hang the juju from a cord around your neck.
Miguel de Cervantes, all two kilos and 950 pages of you, I pray to you now in the hour of my…
Although, really: what is my hour exactly? I can’t say need. Food and shelter are needs, the things we seek spontaneously requiring no encouragement or guidance. Even vagabonding across Spain, I have plenty of both of those. My “hour” instead, relates to the world I left behind. I’m not alone feeling a little exposed by the events of 2008, not the only person who wondered late last year what the future might hold. We never know the answer to this question precisely, of course, but some circumstances make it distinctly more pressing. A history-making market crash contributes to the urgency. But so too does our contemporary vulnerability to that market. I mean beyond the financial or, at least, beyond the numbers to the point where they intersect with our very sense of self. In the wake of older definitions which are no longer standard – notably those definitions of self once provided by family, church or civil hierarchies – who among us now doesn’t self-identify significantly in terms of what we do for a living? And who among those who answered “yes” didn’t feel a tremor as markets around the globe wiped out billions of dollars of value? Who didn’t entertain the question: what am I going to be when this is all over? Or even: who am I going to be?
I read The Tale of Foolish Curiosity that night, lying in our pension with its view across the valley to the tracts of new housing being built south of town. In the story, I find a strange and surprising reverberation of just that sense of vulnerability. Anselmo marries Camilla, then convinces his best friend Lothario to try to seduce her in order to test her faithfulness. Anselmo’s plan works too well. Lothario and Camilla become lovers. So: “From that time on Anselmo was the most deliciously deluded man in the whole world. He himself led home by the hand the man who had completely destroyed his good name, in the firm belief that he had brought him nothing but glory.”
Not everyone likes this story, I should note. J.M. Cohen, the esteemed translator of the Penguin Classics edition I’m reading goes so far as to say in his introduction: “…neither its morality nor its psychology bears a moment’s examination, and except perhaps for a mild interest in the turn of events, it is difficult to see what amusement the average reader can find in it. My advice to anyone who has found his patience wearing thin... is to skip it.”
But with respect to the late Mr. Cohen—translator of Pasternak, Rousseau, Christopher Columbus, and many others—I disagree in the strongest terms. The Tale of Foolish Curiosity might well be the very root of Don Quixote because here we discover what Cervantes sees when he looks to the heart of human aspiration. Just as Don Quixote himself is inspired by Amadis of Gaul, and suffers mightily for the desires he inherits from this fictional model, so too are Anselmo and Lothario unfailingly inspired by what the other desires. What Anselmo has, he needs Lothario to crave in order for it to have value. What Lothario did not previously desire at all, he discovers—through the modeling example of his friend Anselmo—is the one possession without which he cannot live.
I’m influenced by Rene Girard in my reading of this passage, specifically his theory of “mimetic desire”. According to Girard, our desires (as opposed to our spontaneous needs) are neither a subjective or objective phenomenon. We don’t desire anything we wish to possess on its (or their) own merits. Nor do we choose such targets of our desire based on innate preference. In the matter of the desire of possession, in the matter of acquiring that whole repertoire of objects and experiences and relationships that we consider to illustrate our “taste”, we are wholly lacking in spontaneity, and rely instead on the inspiration of a model. These models, which Girard refers to as “mediators”, may be either internal (that is, people close to us with whom we consider ourselves equal), or external (people distant from us, whose relative seniority we acknowledge). Amadis of Gaul is safely external to Don Quixote in this analysis, a model whose example the hero might be ill advised in following, but to whom no grudge is borne despite Quixote’s dents and bruises. Lothario and Anselmo, on the other hand, act as internal mediators one to the other. And seeing themselves as equal, their relationship is necessarily rivalrous and unstable. Indeed, it continues only through Anselmo’s delusion.
People have never liked hearing this version of events, and it’s easy enough to see why. Our highest admiration is reserved for those whom we imagine to have emotional autonomy, those of whom it might be said that they consult no external source in the formation of their desires. The signal of the modern hero is his immunity from the opinion of the Other, his indifference to any voice but the unwavering, spontaneous one speaking from within. This is our working definition of integrity: personal, artistic, professional. And if I am truthful, I’ll admit to holding that exact view of my mother. She betrayed no worldly influence. When I was eight years old and wanted North Star runners, her failure to see what they represented was a source of great irritation. As an adult, however, what I remember of her independence now fills me with real awe. And it is telling then, that one of the very last things I remember her saying, she didn’t say to me at all, but to my brother. Still, it lives in my memory as if I heard the words because it is so true to my sense of who she was.
She said, with real urgency, real intensity: “You must believe in your Self!”
So, to recognize that our Self is beholden to external models, then, is to admit a real weakness. Hence our resistance. We don’t like to be told we’re checking our cell phone for messages because we subconsciously register the guy sitting opposite us on the bus check his. We don’t like to contemplate that our satisfaction with the apartment we own rises and falls depending on which guest is visiting, our pal who still rents or the friends with a big house. We resist even the thought that the cars we drive, or the cuisine we fancy, or the style of dress we adopt is anything less than a personal aesthetic, spontaneously and definitively our own choice. And we certainly don’t like to think that our reputation in the eyes of others really does fluctuate with our Facebook friend count or the number of people following us on Twitter.
We don’t like to think these things because they make us feel contingent, provisional, caught in the gulf between being and appearing. These considerations – sadly alienating us from our heroes – make us feel vulnerable.
“Oh hell,” Hermia says to Lysander, “To choose love by another’s eyes.”
Which is interesting to consider in the light of the great mimetic hurricane that was the financial collapse of 2008. Interesting particularly that economists are now referring to this collapse as a “Minsky Moment”, after Hyman Minksy (1919-1996). Minksy who theorized that human nature lead to market instability, as people were fundamentally momentum not value investors. That is, people enact their desires in the market mimetically, based entirely on the enacted desires of others.
And as I follow a centuries old path across a centuries old country, as I lay my feet into the faded prints of a million million million feet that have fallen before mine, as I contemplate my own future – immediate and longer term – these all seem like points well worth pondering.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
The trail winnows to a point. It narrows and turns, like a nautilus shell, it directs you toward some inner part of itself. After passing through Oviedo and hiking three days to Tineo, we turn into the heart of the Primitivo. Four long mountainous days lie ahead. About 120 kilometers total. Tineo to Polla Allende, then to Grandas de Salime. From there to Fonsagrada, and finally to Cadavo. And as we leave Tineo in the pre-dawn blue, rose light coloring the clouds to the east, I sense us arrive at the heart of matters. Turning with the inner spiral.
We cross the hillside, traveling west into the valley south of the Sierra de Obona. The trail is full of pilgrims this morning, Spanish kids and older couples. People nod and greet. They say: bon camino. Past the glowing green summit over Piedratecha, we descend down a long straight forest path through a stand of red pines and walk for a few kilometres with Mary, a schoolteacher from Galway. This isn’t her first pilgrimage. She does them, she says, for the freedom of it.
Onward and onward. The days compress and stretch simultaneously. In Burducedo, where there are no other pilgrims around we ask the old woman running the corner store if she can make us a bocadillo, and she nods and shrugs and retreats into her own kitchen through a doorway past the shelf of plumbing supplies, returning in a few minutes with sandwiches cut roughly from a loaf of brown bread, thick wedges of cheese, and folded layers of jamon Serrano. In a roadside café just past the Alto de Lavadoire, where the washroom has a wasps’ nest in it and a crew of red chickens run riot out front between the legs of the table, the lady who owns the place has laid out a bowl of hazelnuts for pilgrims, with a small hammer provided for their cracking. On the ridge line near Buspol, wind turbines churn the sky emitting a steady low roar and “wielding more arms than the giant Briareus” as Cervantes would have it. And just past the turbines, right where the path leads behind a farm house and onto the open hillside above the lake, we come across a guy and his girlfiend. He’s sitting in front of a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin, sitting with his head in his hands. His girlfriend hovering nervously nearby.
What’s wrong? I ask her.
And she tells me that the gate at the end of the lane is closed and that there is a bull in the paddock beyond. And since there’s no other way around, they’re considering the fact that they’ll have to go back down that long steep hill we all just climbed, all the way back to La Mesa, where she thinks the refugio is already full.
I say: we’ll go look. And Dave and I go to the end of the lane and find the gate, which is closed. And we see the bull beyond. But at kilometre twenty-five of our longest day, the thirty-six-kilometre leg to Grandas de Salime, neither of us see the bull as I see him now in my memory—this magnificent and terrifying creature with his curling horns and rippling flanks. We see a cow. So we push open the gate and stump wearily through the paddock to the far end while the bull gazes up into the darkening clouds and never stops chewing his cud for even a moment to consider us.
Spiraling and spiraling. An inchoate sense of something building. Some shape or sensation from which I might judge my own reasons for being here. My own answer to the question why? It comes close, descending into Polla Allende along a rocky path, my knees in agony. I’m as tired as I’ve been on the entire hike, and I think suddenly of my mother. A sharp and penetrating thought. Not a presence, I stress. There is no sense of proximity, no breath of a ghostly nearness. The dust is rising and I can see the spire of the church in the town below. And something shifts in me. I’m seeing myself in motion, doing something that would have pleased her enormously. Not the pilgrimage per se, not the ritual in which I join many others. What would have pleased her about me humping across Spain with an old friend and Don Quixote in my knapsack is the steady continuation that it demands. She would have been pleased to see me take each of these steps, not knowing entirely what I was doing, knowing only enough to take that step. Continuing, continuing. She did that, I thought. She did continue. And I was inspired by the memory.
The following morning, we climb the pass at Puerto Palo to the roof line of Spain, where the bare hills roll away in all directions. West of the pass we come to Montefurado, a seemingly abandoned hamlet of six or eight stone buildings and a chapel, daisy-chained along the narrow ridge. On the hillside beyond the town, past the Saint Bernard keeping silent watch over our progress, the path narrows and twists down towards Lastra through the spiny gorse and flowering broom, the ferns and low thorns. We’re walking far apart now, as much as half a kilometre. And here it comes again, like Googlemaps set to satellite view. I see my movement across the world. And again I find myself thinking about my mother, but with something important added too. Something singing in on the hot, high winds of the Sierra del Palo. It takes me a moment to register what it is. And then I get it. By following her example of continuation, by taking that one step after the other, by doing only what I know I have to do and thinking no farther ahead, I suddenly appreciate my arrival somewhere entirely fresh. A place of complete sufficiency, having everything I need for the moment, in the moment. Wind and the smell of cows. Bells in the distance. I’m stopped in my tracks, standing alone on a Spanish hill where I will never stand again. I’m light as air. I desire nothing.
The moment is fleeting, of course. Our days continue. Life continues. Feet get sore and hamstrings act up. Moods worsen. Words are exchanged. In Fonsagrada I write in my notebook: we’re grinding it out now. Which is true for me, certainly. All thoughts of continuation and sufficiency gone from my head. I catch myself finally, a full day and a half after the high of Montefurado, standing outside a café just through the pass at Acebo where we’ve stopped for a quick rest and a coffee. Dave’s answering emails inside. It’s been fifteen minutes, twenty. I’m impatient. I’m irritable. Standing, waiting, waiting while a black bank of clouds is vaulting up out of the west towards us. Twenty-four hours from euphoric to miserable.
I resolve to get it back. Dave comes out of the café. We walk on. We arrive in Fonsagrado. Eat, sleep. Walk on again. And late on that last day of the Primitivo, heading into Cadavao, we drop down off the green flanks of the Sierra do Hospital and past the town of Paradavella. Here the trail dips down below the road, winding behind the small stone church at Degolada and past the hamlet of Couto, stacked stone buildings with leaning, lichen-covered walls, slate roofs, wild cats, wind in the high pines. We trudge into the forest along a steep embankment to the bottom of another trail that seems to cut almost vertically up through the forest toward the road, now far above us.
This is brutal. We’re exhausted. It’s hot. It’s late. If we’d stayed on the road and forgone the scenery, we’d be 400 meters up the hillside now, not facing down this bank of loose stone and broken rocks, leaning stumps and tortured switch backs.
You just keep going. So we take that first step, and so it begins again. Although this time, with one thing added again. I sing myself to the top. (Silently.) I sing to myself. Keep going. Keep going. Tuneless, chanty. Like a work song, that’s what it is. I’m a prisoner of this damn trail and here is my work song. Keep going. Keep going. Fifty metres up and we’re pouring with sweat which shakes loose from my forehead and darkens the stones at my feet. Up and up. And I’m thinking of her, of course I am. I’m thinking of her continuation and immunity from possessive desire. Another fifty metres. Another hundred. No end in sight. The wind dies. Keep going. Keep going. Another hundred. And then, here it comes: the moment. I realize the chant is working. I’m either driving myself productively insane or this damn song is working. Some kind of reverse energy loop. About halfway up I realize I’m not expending energy any more. I’m somehow gaining it. I’ve turned contra-entropic. I’m actually recharging. Of course it’s nuts, but that’s what I’m feeling. I’m not tiring, I’m getting stronger. I’m going faster. I’m floating up this hill. I’m not even breathing hard anymore. It’s a miracle! Call the Vatican! And when I arrive at the pavement at the top, I let out a huge whoop and throw my hat in the air, and it spirals up and up and for a second until it blocks the sun. My hat winks out the entire sun. And then it falls back down, onto the road, just in time for Dave to emerge from the woods and stare at me with all due alarm and personal concern.
Which is understandable, if not strictly necessary. I’m grinning like a fool, but something else too. I feel the feeling. And now I know its name too. She lived with this feeling. And its name is freedom.
After twenty-two days, the destination can hardly live up to the route. Santiago is rain soaked and clogged with pilgrims. They walk singing down the flagstones next to the cathedral. They gossip in the square. We watch. We eat brilliant tapas at Taverno do Bispo. It’s my birthday. We have a few, get a little drunk. I say: I’m old. Dave says: yeah, but you look great. We’re old friends and now, I suppose, for all the silence we have invested in one another, we are somehow better friends than before.
We go to bed in the nicest hotel room we’ve had. Top floor room looking out across the wet city toward the cathedral. I can’t sleep. I surf the news and check email. No word about my novel. Dave is snoring.
I get up and go to the window. Across the blackness, they’ve turned on the cathedral lights, the whole gothic structure now glowing silver, mercury, gold, blue. The clouds wreathing around it, under-lit and vaulting, as if to extend the structure high into the swirling sky. And I know then that I’ve walked all this way just to see this sight. This garish, amazing, crazy sight. To see it with my mother’s eyes. Touching the beyond.
I text my wife, thumbing in the words. I write: Santiago is shining.
Posted: Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009 10:00pm