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Letters From Spain

We Must Walk the Camino Together

For centuries, the Camino de Santiago has drawn religious pilgrims to northern Spain. But those guys never did it with walkie-talkies, GPS, taxis, and Wonder Bread.

Credit: Julia Heglund

In May 2011 I found myself with my wife, Jo-Ellen, and eight of my college students in the northern Spanish village of Villafranca del Bierzo, built in the eighth century by the French to guard a strategic trading point on the banks of two rivers. The only French around when we arrived, though, were two women who were staying along with us in a hostel built by a young couple, Paulo and Livia, around a boulder that sat in the middle of the entryway as if the mountain itself had demanded a place in their lives. The hostlers seemed to be the only people in the town under 40, but they didn’t seem to mind at all.

“Here I sit,” Paulo said to me, as he caressed the boulder in the hallway at Alburgue del Piedra and nodded toward the septuagenarian couple bent over his coffee table, “and talk to my neighbors. Could I do that, would I do that, in Madrid?”

The pilgrims from France, tan and lean, as sinewy as 50-year-old computer programmers can be, were sitting there too, massaging each other’s callused feet. They had spent each day for the past month and a half walking 12 to 15 miles with 10-pound backpacks. They pointed us to the river in the center of the town, a maze of stone buildings shouldering one another in the shadow of the surrounding mountains. Under the bridge in the heart of the village, a river roiled and pooled up deep enough for swimming. A perfect icy baptism was just what we needed before we started what was to be a 10-day pilgrimage with the first leg, the trek to the village of Ambasmestas, about 12 miles away.

Three of my students donned their bikinis and leapt into the frigid waters. I went in with them, and the river in Villafranca del Bierzo washed away my suspicions about what was to come. I wanted to believe it would all be fine. But all we had done up to that point was take planes, trains, and buses, and many in the group had found even that to be a major challenge. Truth be told, we had barely made it to Villafranca del Bierzo. Probably not even Quixote, that storied pilgrim, would have been blind to what the road had in store for us.

 

For more than 1,000 years, pilgrims have journeyed the 500 miles from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Whether the narrative of Compostela started as brilliant advertising campaign or miraculous history will never be definitively settled, but the story goes something like this: The apostle James left Jerusalem after the Crucifixion and ended up for a few years in Spain looking for converts. He wasn’t wildly successful. Perhaps it wasn’t easy having a brother who had the moniker “the Evangelist” trailing after his name like a dust cloud. The apostle Mark claimed that Jesus gave the pair of brothers the nickname “the sons of thunder”—so it might be fair to assume James wasn’t a good listener. After his unsuccessful mission in Spain, he returned to Jerusalem and got beheaded by Herod Agrippa, ensuring himself a ticket to canonization. His disciples took off from Jerusalem with his head—and body, too, we assume—in, of all things, a stone boat. (I’m not a sailor, so I can’t comment on how difficult it might have been, if he didn’t have angels behind him, to sail a stone boat across the Mediterranean Sea and tack right into the Atlantic Ocean after Gibraltar, landing at Padron, near Finisterre, what was then considered the end of the world.) In northwestern Spain, which at that time was Roman Galicia, James settled in. That is, his followers buried him in a Roman cemetery.

The Santiago Camino may not be the bandit-ridden trail it once was, but it still offers challenges, and we were there to hike about 125 miles of it

Fastforward 800 years. The cemetery had gone to weeds and then become an anonymous field. One of those mysterious stars that have a habit of appearing in religious stories popped up accompanied by some heavenly music (think Lady Gaga in St. Patrick’s Cathedral). So, curtain rises, star blazes in the sky, cue music, and Pelayo, a local hermit, walks onto the stage—I mean, field. He finds the body and reports dutifully to the local bishop. Even without the internet, the word spreads fast. Once the bishop checks into the details of Pelayo’s discovery, a cathedral is built to commemorate the miracle, and the place is called Compostela (meaning “field of the star,” or if you are of a more morbid turn of mind, meaning “burial ground,” as in the Latin compostum).

Ever since the bishop confirmed Pelayo’s discovery and the Catholic Church offered its imprimatur, the road to Santiago has been a hot spot for pilgrims. These days, the Santiago Camino may not be the bandit-ridden trail it once was, but it still offers challenges, and we were there to hike about 125 miles of it, more than enough to satisfy the requirements to receive a compostela, the pilgrim’s certificate.

 

The albergue owner’s wife knew the well-worn pilgrim route and suggested we take the “secret Camino” to Albergue das Animas in Ambasmestas. Livia was doe-eyed and spoke English with a childlike clarity, and her unblemished smile was so disarming that no one would have taken her for an evil sorceress. So in the morning, following her directions, we climbed the steep hill in back of the albergue, and within five minutes half the students were panting, wiping sweat from their foreheads, and every few minutes or so bending at the hip in breathless agony. The road lacked the profusion of yellow arrows and scallop shell symbols that we would see on the path in the days to come. We hiked the twisting trail, uphill for miles on rocky terrain and then angling downward through shaded orchards, farms, and sheep fields. The three most athletic students went ahead with a walkie-talkie that the university study abroad group had demanded we lug with us. In a half hour, the voices on the walkie-talkie went from crackling incoherence to silence. The devices were supposed to carry over 30 miles in flat country, but the charge hadn’t lasted an hour; we threw them out the next morning.

Hours later the mountains opened up to a view of the plotted landscape that we had seen from the plane as we flew into Madrid a few days before. It was a quilt of subtle shades of green and gold, a pied beauty Hopkins would have recognized immediately. The path, shards of sun lighting the purple, white, and yellow flowers, narrowed, and we marched down the slope for miles, learning that what you gained in easy breathing you lost in the pressure on shins and thighs. The smell of wildflowers was like incense—heather, broom, and wild thyme mixing in the warming breeze—but by the time we reached the farmhouse in Ambasmestas, half of the students were ready for a taxi.

The albergue in Ambasmestas was a working farm, with bulls and chickens, well-fed dogs and smug cats, and a room with 15 bunk beds. I sensed a rebellion, and imagined five or six of the students choosing to remain in their beds the next morning, calling home and demanding that Daddy come and get them. Many of them were already looking at their blistered feet and then back at me as if there were a cause and effect that would come clear to them at any instant. There were sniffles and moans and loud sighs and mutterings—”It’s unfair! No one told us the road would be this hard—and long. My dad would have never let me come if he knew. Besides, this place smells like cows.” We were headed off the next morning at 6 a.m. on a hike to O Cebreiro, along a trail that rose from 2,000 to 4,500 feet in just under nine miles. It didn’t seem to matter to the majority of them when I explained the Holy Grail was there—literally—or so it had once been, according to legend. There were few Quixotes among them. They wanted a cab to take their bags up to O Cebreiro, Grail or no Grail. They would walk—if necessary—but not with packs.

The fog stumbled in that night, like another appearance of divine grace, and two days along into our pilgrim’s way I counted my blessings. We had not lost a student to bandits or wolves.

So we hired a taxi the next morning to take half of the backpacks up to Meson Carolo, our hotel in O Cebreiro, and began the magnificent climb into the clouds. The morning air was a chilly mix of heather and cow manure, a surprisingly sweet combination I eventually would come to fully appreciate. Before we were one-third the way up the mountain, the road narrowed to a cliff-clinging path that appeared to me less dangerous than it was scenic. It didn’t stop Erik, the young man at my side, from nudging me with his elbow and saying, “Professor, I just realized that I’m deathly afraid of heights.” I thought it a strange time—at 21 years old—to come to such a realization, but this was a pilgrimage and an epiphany is an epiphany. Who was I to judge the timing? I advised him to stay on the right side of the path, and as we walked I tried to block his view of the beautiful abyss. My advice apparently worked; he made it through the entire journey without an accident.

A mile or two before we reached O Cebreiro’s thatch-roofed pallozas, round houses that resemble Navajo hogans but are made of stone, we passed near the village of Laguna de Castilla and the marker announcing we had crossed into Galicia. A breathtaking village encased most of the year in snow or fog, O Cebreiro has been around for more than 1,000 years, nearly as long as the Camino itself. The sun shone the afternoon we arrived, and the world we had come from a few hours before lay at our feet like a sleeping lover.

It’s easy enough to see why many of the 50 people who live in the town believe in the milagro del Cebreiro, the moment when a two churchgoers saw the bread and wine literally changed into the body and blood of Christ during Mass. In the same rustic church, Iglesia de Santa Maria, legend has it that the cup used at the Last Supper was held for safe keeping during the Middle Ages. In its graceful simplicity and honest grandeur, it seemed as apt a place for the Holy Grail to be housed as any I had ever seen. From Malory to Monte Python, the grail legend has as many permutations as one can imagine, but if one were to believe in miracles, O Cebreiro and Iglesias de Santa Maria would be the right spots for them.

On our hike up to the town, I stayed with the slowest members of our group because they felt uncomfortable, they said, being alone on the trail. I should be with them in case something happened, they had reasoned in our class meeting the night before. Our alpha group, a male graduate student and a female undergraduate, took the lead and arrived at O Cebreiro at noon. I staggered in with the stragglers at 2:30 p.m. But one young woman—who had been walking alone somewhere between the last group and the first—still had not shown up. I decided to wait until 4 p.m. before I panicked and called the Civil Guardia to search for kidnappers. At 3:55 p.m., with the fog rolling in and mist turning into thick raindrops, she walked into the courtyard of the hotel.

“I walked four miles past the town,” she whispered hoarsely, her cheeks streaked with tears and raindrops. Her name—I could not make this up—was Gracie Devine, and although the spelling was off, the homophonic possibilities prove too ironic to keep her identity hidden. The fog stumbled in that night, like another appearance of divine grace, and two days along into our pilgrim’s way I counted my blessings. We had not lost a student to bandits or wolves.

That evening I had dinner with Jose Ortega, a peregrino from Florida with a shaved head and a carefully manicured goatee who, on his ninth birthday in the early 1960s, with his family, discarded Castro’s revolutionary ideal for the American dream. Jose had walked with me and the slow-moving students up the rocky slope to O Cebreiro that afternoon shouting “Abrir campo,” break the trail, as they shuffled along with their heads down, blind, it appeared, to the landscape spreading out before us.

Every 15 minutes or so Jose and I stopped, waited for the lagging students, and gazed back at the landscape that rolled behind us like the surreal imaginings of Diego Rivera. The slower the students walked, the more they dragged forward in a head-down shuffle, the more chances I had to pause and gaze back at the cloud-strewn, rolling hillsides. Along the way Jose told his own “Canterbury Tale” about the night he spent in a Villafranca del Bierzo hotel with the two male owners who, after a night of Rioja, took a shine to him.

“We have a surprise for you,” they told him in unison. “You won’t be able to thank us enough.”

He had his suspicions but wasn’t absolutely sure what they had in mind until he woke with a start at 3 a.m. to an Italian prostitute banging on the door to his room.

“Maybe Italian prostitutes are less tenacious than Spanish ones,” he speculated, “because after some pounding and cries of, ‘Aprire, bello,’ she went away.”

We stood by a rock decorated with scallop shells as he told the end of his tale, and I decided that the legends of the scallop shells and the cult of Venus that predated the history of St. James still had their place on the Camino. That night at dinner the shadow of Venus emerged again.

While not exactly handsome, Jose is loaded with charisma, and as if to prove my inference, after we were done eating and as we sat there finishing the wine, an Australian woman, weathered but pretty and pulsing with energy under her tanned skin, sidled up to us. Jose and I sat at a table with a German man, but the woman never took her eyes from Jose, not even to acknowledge our presence.

“We must walk the Camino together,” she said, placing enough weight on the word “walk” to require a page worth of footnotes. Her eyes locked onto his, a GPS on Santiago’s Way, that is, a Girl Proposing Sex to the wayfarer. From his later account, Jose never saw the Australian again, but, of course, the Camino is not like the internet. Some stories stay unpublished.

 

The next morning, O Cebreiro was engulfed in the sort of mist that had made its reputation. To the east, back into the valley we had come from, a palette of greens spread across the rolling hills, half hidden in the clouds. To the west, as we took our way toward Santiago, those clouds were a whiter shade of pale, like affirming smoke from the Vatican chimney. The fog drifted about us, but it wasn’t thick enough to alter our plans to head to Tricastela. Birds flitted through the haze and chirped in the trees, insects hummed, crickets sang, and the only other sound was our 20 feet slapping against the road. The fog burned off in an hour or so, and the sun began to heat the air.

That day I walked in the middle of the group, trying to keep the slowest ones in sight behind me on the slopes. Some of the time I was able to walk by myself. At those moments the Camino seemed so simple, so elemental, that I wondered how I had ever lost touch with what it offered. All I had to do was walk, one step at a time, breathe in and out, inspect the lush green countryside, smell the ever-present manure and hear the cowbells and the lowing, a call to pay attention to the here and now. Then everything started to come into focus, cats purring in the shadows of barns, wind rustling through the trees, dogs barking in the distance. I felt the pain in my body drift like tidewaters from my hips and spine to my shins and thighs and then back again. Like everything else about the Camino, there was something pleasant even about the suffering. Without the discomfort, I wouldn’t have felt the sense of pleasure that I did in small things. At the end of the day, a shower made me feel like getting on my knees and thanking God. A simple sandwich of cheese and bread in a café at noon tasted better than any meal I could remember having in years. Finding pulpo y gallego (a Galician dish of boiled squid doused in olive oil and sprinkled with paprika) after walking 15 miles could make me cry with gratitude. Caldo gallego was a soup intended for the gods, I was sure, that just came into my bowl by wonderful mistake. The simple difficulties and the complex simplicities of the Camino made everything I did or saw or tasted feel like blessings. Putting my feet in a cold stream at the end of a day’s walk was a better prize than any I could have imagined at that time. The internet was gone, cell phones were a distant memory, email and checking accounts and mortgages were like the world news: They didn’t seem to matter much in terms of what I did or felt or experienced. On this journey every conversation began with “Buen camino.” Every stranger was familiar, engaged in the same daily struggle. We were all wayfarers, looking for the same signs along the path, and although some of the students found complications around every corner, there was nothing more complex to the day than simply being in it.

I stood by the door and watched the darkening horizon for a half an hour. Then the sky opened up. Fifteen minutes later, the four trooped in, rain jackets pulled tight over their backpacks, and narrowed eyes, clenched teeth, and sour expressions.

On the way to Tricastela, I walked with my wife, Jo-Ellen, and Liz, one of the students. Along the way, while I was trying to make sure I kept an eye on Liz, who was in front of me, I walked beyond Jo-Ellen, and my wife took a wrong turn. I caught up with Liz and waited for Jo-Ellen—and waited. I started to get nervous after 15 minutes. I told Liz to stay put and hiked about a mile down the trail, calling for Jo-Ellen, first just loudly, then with a hint of desperation in my shouts. After about 10 minutes I heard her voice far below me, coming from an invisible path to the right. She was mad that I had not turned around sooner, that I had not shown the right amount of compassion and love. I was mad at her for getting lost, for making me contemplate what it would feel like to lose her. She was right, of course. I was a postmodern Orpheus, his opposite, a man who didn’t turn back soon enough.

I suppose it’s unfair to blame my frustration with the students for the fact that Jo-Ellen and I didn’t talk to one another for the rest of the day, that we probably both walked along contemplating how hard it would be, as American citizens, to arrange a divorce in Spain, but it had been my irritation with the students’ sluggish lack of pilgrim’s progress that made me hate the idea of turning back yet again, even though this time it was my own wife who was delayed. It was at that moment I realized that some of the students were stronger than I had given them credit for. The path had not weakened my spirit, but they had made me contemplate leaving my wife in the woods, compelled me to consider the benefits of divorce, and made me contemplate taking a taxi, too.

Once I found Jo-Ellen, there were the students to consider. And my thoughts had wandered from them. As I walked, I had lost sight of the four behind me. When I got to the albergue in Tricastela the rest were ahead and  were ahead and had already arrived, showered, and changed their clothes. I stood by the door and watched the darkening horizon for a half an hour. Then the sky opened up. Fifteen minutes later, the four trooped in, rain jackets pulled tight over their backpacks, and narrowed eyes, clenched teeth, and sour expressions. They didn’t have to speak to make it clear what they had been saying a few minutes before or what they were thinking as they stomped into the albergue.

“You do understand,” I said to them, “God created the rain. I didn’t have much to do with it.”

But I could tell from their expressions that they weren’t convinced.

 

That evening I met Jose again in a café and asked him to speak to the students about his two trips on the Camino. I was hoping for a pep talk, a visiting lecture by a motivational speaker, and he didn’t disappoint me. Jose runs a nonprofit that works with children in Honduras, and he clearly was used to persuading young people to take responsibility for their actions. He spoke of the Camino as a metaphor for life itself, about independence and welcoming the burden of one’s own footsteps in the world. He spoke, poignantly, of his father’s last breath and of the importance of valuing each breath along the road. They listened wide-eyed and, it seemed to me, persuaded.

But the next morning, as we prepared to start Day Four and with no Jose around, four of them said they could not go on—blisters, sore knees, the memory of the unannounced rain, and perhaps bruised feelings made it necessary to hire a taxi to take them to Sarria, where we would have a day to rest before the second leg of the trip. Six of us walked and the four of them—with euros I gave them to buy the community dinner—went off to the Albergue Internacional after they slept in that morning.

When we walked into Sarria that afternoon, the students had chosen to buy white bread, processed cheese, turkey, and mayonnaise—“recognizable American food” —because they were “sick of crusty Galician bread and Manchego.” Add in Oreos and orange soda, and all seemed right in their world.

Two days later, as we left Sarria on the 14-mile walk to Portomarin, everyone appeared ready, blisters healed a bit and knees less stiff. But half of the tramp to Portomarin was downhill, once again working the shins and knees in a way that not even the shaded stone corridors through eucalyptus forests could amend—at least, not for those who would have preferred a taxi and a turkey sandwich on Wonder Bread. But for the rest of us, able to forget the pain in our shins, the road offered the gentle cooing of cuckoo birds, the mutable beauty of the landscape, shifting a half dozen times in the course of a day from narrow stone-walled paths to rolling hillsides, chestnut groves, and horse pastures. Near Portomarin on a fog-shrouded ridgeline, a row of modern windmills stood like Quixote’s imagined giants. I stopped for a few minutes to watch those white blades cut through the air, the only visible movement in the still and uninhabited countryside. This journey was foolish, but no more foolish than any adventure of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. It made me suspect that foolish journeys are the most human kind.

The Camino is not like the internet. Some stories stay unpublished.

We saw the remains of the old Portomarin as we crossed the bridge spanning the wide, swift running Rio Mino. The river was low enough for the ancient ruins to rise from the shallows like some Roman past refusing to be forgotten. The Codex Calixtinus, the first ancient travel guide to the Camino, mentions a bridge built over the river in 1120 by a man aptly named Pedro Pergrino, who was called one of the “menders of the road to Santiago.” As we crossed Pedro’s rebuilt bridge, the dozens of steep steps leading up the Church of San Nicolas and into the heart of the small city of 2,000 people seemed like the final test before we stepped inside the cool corridors of the Albergue Ultreia. That night blisters returned, knees tightened, and three students needed a taxi to take them to Palas de Rei the next morning.

From Palas de Rei we had planned to hike to Melide and then Arca o Pino, but another look at the map told me the calculations were off and that plan would mean a second leg of 22 miles, a certain recipe for rebellion. That’s where Ivan the Terrible came in.

In the Albergue Buen Camino in Palas de Rei, Ivan—skinny, unshaven, early forties, and wild-eyed—was part owner, bar tender, waiter, and handyman. He moved at a blur, slithering through the bar, restaurant, and back rooms like particles of sunlight.

“I’ll take you to Melide to cancel your reservation,” he offered. “I’ll drive you. I’m Ivan. The Terrible.” He smiled warmly.

When he started driving, we realized the reason for the nickname. On the six-mile trip to Melide, Jeff—a graduate student on the trip—and I exchanged many glances that said, “Say goodbye to my family for me if you’re the one who survives this certain fiery car wreck.”

It took Ivan a minute or two, it seemed to me in my heightened awareness of the proximity of death, to screech to a halt near the albergue we had reserved. Half our money was refunded and Ivan smiled again, returning us within what seemed like seconds to Palas de Rei and reserving 10 beds for us in the hamlet of Ribadiso, about 15 miles closer to Santiago.

Ivan had not given us false directions. The town was bucolic enough to deserve a place in Virgil’s poetry. Stray cows scrambled across our path as we came within sight of the stone bridge spanning the gurgling stream, the Rio Iso. Other animals dotted the gently sloping hillsides. Cottonwood trees cast shadows along the banks of the water, and butterflies flitted from one clump of ferns to another. Spiderwebs, glistening with dew, pulsed in the soft breeze. Ribadiso’s nickname is Puente Paradiso, which might be translated as “bridge to paradise,” and that did not seem too much of an exaggeration.

By this time, I had half-convinced the students that there were enough pilgrims and yellow arrows on the road to make it virtually impossible to get lost. That left me free to walk at my own pace and get to in Albergue Los Caminantes by noon, a few hours before the last group straggled in. That meant plenty of time for soaking my feet in the icy stream, a glass of Rioja at the one café in the village, and a bowl of caldo gallego. It gave me time to acknowledge a truth about myself: I wanted to walk in the world with other independent souls.

That night some of the students had dinner in the cafe with a 50-year-old Irish banker and his son, whom we had met a few days before in Sarria, the last town one could depart from and still acquire a compostela, the certificate of pilgrimage. One of the young women made dreamy eyes at Shane, the 17-year-old boy, and another hung on every word that Michael, the father, uttered in his lilting Irish accent. There wasn’t an empty seat at any table in the courtyard. The place seemed to be an impromptu United Nations—pilgrims from all over Europe conversing without an interpreter. Jo-Ellen and I sat in the crowded courtyard as two of our students—Megan and Nicole—laughed uproariously and sang a collection of self-created karaoke tunes with a table full of Italian men ranging in age from 30 to 70. Directly across from us three middle-aged women sat drinking the same yellow rocket fuel that the Italians downed bottle after bottle. One woman, from France, had the anorexic look of someone who had been hiking for 50 days without a stop. One of her companions, from Belgium, kept smiling at Jo-Ellen as if she wanted to get to know her better. And the third woman at the table, a German with wild frizzy black hair and broad shoulders stretching her tank top to the breath-holding snapping point, looked at me as if I were an acceptable meal at the end of a long, long walk. Before our 10:30 p.m. curfew compelled us to walk across the quiet road to our albergue, Jo-Ellen led the group in a conga line and we all sang “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “That’s Amore.” The oldest Italian, a man in capri pants and a tan vest half covering a T-shirt that read “Top Dawg,” stayed behind and sang “Stand by Me” as the night curled around him. The evening had given proof to Kurt Vonnegut’s remark, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

Back in the shadowy silence of the Albergue Caminantes, Jo-Ellen stepped into our bunk bed and I walked out to take some clothes from the line. Out of the darkness, the German woman sprang, a Medusa, black hair shooting like serpents into the night, and jumped in front of me. Now I knew how Jose felt, except my hopeful Camino bride was far less lovely. She came even closer, a few inches from my face, and spoke a German-accented English.

“You want compostela,” she said. She took her hands–big enough to once have been a man’s (and this, along with her wide shoulders and the hint of a five o’clock shadow on her cheeks, made the whole moment more ominous)—and turned her palms toward her ample breasts. “This IS compostela,” she said, caressing herself and looking deeply into my eyes.

“Yes, yes, compostela,” I said, backing away and acting as if I didn’t understand English, German, or any other human tongue. I was prepared to make the choking, chattering sounds of a bush baby if I had to in order to escape, and perhaps I did make such sounds, because she went to her bunk bed and I went to mine. It was an uneasy sleep, however, filled with bearded ladies and clouds in the shape of breasts.

 

The next afternoon, after walking alone again, I arrived in Arca o Pino just before noon, at exactly the same time the taxi with three of our students pulled up to our albergue. It was our last evening together—all 10 of us in bunk beds amidst our backpacks and the sour smell of damp clothing. The next morning the plan was for all 10 of us to walk together, me leading and Jeff, the fastest hiker, bringing up the rear for the eight miles remaining so that we could march together into Santiago, into the Plaza Obradoiro, and Mass in the cathedral. Again, my quixotic dream was that we would join hands and all the blisters and complaints would be forgotten—the wrong-sized backpacks, the 30 packets of unnecessary shampoo one young man had to discard, the dozen polo shirts given away the second day of the trip to gawking German hikers because the weight made no sense, the rain, the snoring, the trudging uphill and down—all would be washed away by the sight of the cathedral, the Mass, the botafumeiro.

But, like Quixote, I was to be dis-enchanted. A few miles before Santiago, we came across a triangular sign hooked to a long extension cord snaking out of sight into the woods. The metal triangle was a motion detector, and as we passed, it said in one of those mechanical voices one expects to hear at the Atlanta airport, “Hola. We wish you a good Camino.”

Not even Quixote could defeat such wizards. In 10 years the Camino might have neon yellow arrows flashing on and off, golf carts, and Taco Bell stands, the tacos sculpted into scallop shells. Such possibilities might give some of my students reason to return.

Reaching the cathedral was similarly anticlimactic. We came to the city outskirts and crossed highways and street corners for half an hour before we finally entered the plaza. A tent city has been set up there, mostly filled with young Spaniards who were protesting the 45-percent unemployment in the country for people between the ages of 16 and 35. My students, some of them as unaffected by the protesting as they had been by the Camino, slumped onto the steps, no hugs or cheers or high fives. There was one perfunctory photo, and then we went into the cathedral to wait an hour for the next Mass. The church was already filling up with pilgrims, but we found two empty pews in the back. Three of our students left their backpacks on their seats and queued up with the dozens waiting to kiss the statue of St. James near the altar. A few minutes after they left, a Dutch couple sat in the pew and moved their bags to the floor. Jo-Ellen followed years of Catholic schoolgirl instincts and lied.

“They just went to confession,” she said, in hopes that giving the students a slightly more religious excuse could preserve their seats.

But even the lie—one that would have forced any pilgrim not from the Netherlands to pause—just caused the couple to set their faces more grimly toward the heavens.

“There iss no saving,” they said in unison as if it were a response taken from the litany, the word saving bouncing off the walls with multiple connotations.

Jeff, who had sat next to me, swung into the other pew to save the remaining spaces, angling his considerably broad shoulders in the direction of the sour, much skinnier Dutchman. Jeff was expanding his chest against the other man’s retreating ribs. Then the scrawny Dutchman breathed in deeply. Listening to them was like eavesdropping on a yoga class for juvenile delinquents. Inhale. Exhale. Lion’s breath. Who can do the better downward dog?

I thought for a moment about leaping over the pew myself and fighting the false pilgrim there and then. It could have been purgative and, besides, it would have made a terrific ironic conclusion to the narrative of the whole trip. I heard myself echoing Laertes’s angry, “I’ll cut his throat in the cathedral.” But it dawned on me that this wasn’t Hamlet, just about everyone came to a bad end in that story anyway, and who would truly be the false pilgrim if I initiated a brawl a few minutes before Mass started—so while Jo-Ellen spread out to save my seat, I opted instead to go to confession, finding the only priest who could hear my confession in English—he was (no lie) from the Netherlands.

“Bless me father for I have sinned. It’s been about 35 years since my last confession. I’ve sort of lost contact with the Church.”

Of course, that was surely a lie in itself. It was probably more like 40 years. I didn’t confess that sin, though, or any others, not even my momentary intention of attacking one of his countrymen in the cathedral. We just chatted about the Camino, and he wished for me good luck and the chance to renew my faith. I told him I hoped for the same thing. Kneeling there before the Dutch priest, I wondered if it were possible—or desirable—to regain the sort of innocent faith I had in childhood, where prayers had the chance of being answered, loved ones protected me and the future was limitless. Or would such innocence, if it could be recaptured, only be another form of tragedy? Or comedy? But as I sat back in the pew, a roar from the crowd cut the question short.

The pilgrims’ Mass in Santiago is the only time I’ve ever heard applause at the end of a Catholic service. The churchgoers cheered for the display of the botafumeiro, a silver incense burner that is reputed to be the largest in the world. It takes eight men, a team called a tiraboleiros, to tie the knots and get the incense belcher swinging at a rate that could decapitate dozens from as many countries if it shifted direction. Supposedly, the original reason for the botafumeiro was the horrible stench of the pilgrims; it was essentially a massive deodorizer. I had taken my sweaty, dust-covered shoes off and placed them under the kneeler—assuming I was not alone in this selfish act, the botafumeiro still served its original purpose well.

Before leaving the church, I offered the traditional sign of peace to the Dutchman and his wife. My soul surely was not pure, but I did shake their hands. My half-hearted confession didn’t go totally to waste. As we waited in line for the completion certificates called compostelas, two of the young women in our group began to argue.

“I just realized,” one said, “that there were people who complained more than me on the trip.”

“That’s not true,” said the girl with the holy pun for a name.

“No, I didn’t complain as much as some,” the first girl continued.

“Shut the fuck up,” the most fragile looking of our young women chimed in. “If you say one more word, I’m going to rave on someone!”

Then the clerk called them forward to get the certificates proving they had been on a spiritual pilgrimage.

Michael Pearson is the author of six books, most recently Innocents Abroad Too: Journeys Around the World on Semester at Sea. He teaches Creative Writing at Old Dominion University. More by Michael Pearson

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