In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
We had been walking the Camino Frances for ten days when Claire announced that it was time for her to go on ahead. She’d been dropping hints for a couple of days, at least, but none of us wanted to spend much time thinking about it. It was just too difficult of a concept, and I get the feeling that we were all pretty much in the same boat, thinking we should ignore it until it happened, keep on living every moment for the moment, just as we had for the last week and a half.
From the outside, looking in, it probably seems silly to you that it was even that big of a deal. After all, we’d only all met each other ten days earlier. It’s not like we were old friends; how much could you get to know someone in such a short period of time? But the Camino does something to you. Bonds are formed very quickly. You meet a person on the road, and within an hour you’re sharing your deepest thoughts. You’ve got all the time in the world, but no time for pointless bullshit. There was very little small talk on my Camino, and no wasted interactions. In short, we were family, and no one wants to say goodbye to a loved one when there’s a good chance you might never meet again.
So Claire would gently bring up the fact that her flight out of Spain was getting closer, and she was behind her intended schedule. She’d remark that one of these days, she’d need to walk faster, maybe even catch a bus and skip a stage. And every day, we’d all sit down at some cafe or on the side of the road, look over the maps, pick a town for which to aim, decide on an albergue that met all of our needs and budgets, and try to ignore the fact that this might be the last day we got to make plans together. In the afternoons, we’d arrive at our albergue, get our assigned bunks from the hospitaleros, and decide who’d get the top bunk this time, me or Claire. (Natalie had a bum knee, so she tended to get the hook-up with a nice bottom bunk when we checked in. Have I ever mentioned to you guys just how much I began to covet that bottom bunk?) The unspoken knowledge that Claire would be leaving us grew heavier. She had to go on. There was life to get back to, and some of this journey needed to be solo, to give her a chance to mull things over in blessed silence.
I don’t now how she felt about those early days shared as an impromptu sisterhood, but after it was all over, I looked back at that time spent with two strangers from across the globe, and saw that they’d given me a great gift. I was frightened and small, and they allowed me to delicately unfurl from my protective layers, no pressure, no pretense, just the comforting sound of crunching gravel, a shared slice of tortilla, a swig from the omnipresent tea canteen. Ten days can be a lifetime when you’re in the midst of becoming something new.
The walk from Los Arcos to Viana wasn’t that exciting, but a few things happened. I got to pet my first donkey; I’d never realized how soft they are. We also paid an entrance fee to get into a rather small medieval church and have our credencials stamped. I remember realizing that the historical society must depend on our donations, but also being a tad disappointed at having to pay to tour a single room. It was also a day of many, many roadside offerings. Along the Camino, one sees all types of road markers, official and unofficial. There are gravestones, and memorials, little piles of rocks, old boots, rocks with notes written on them, notes pinned down by rocks, small trinkets of all sorts. Most days there would be a few standout sights that really caught my attention. Most of the time, they’d be alone, or in little groups. But today, the roadside tributes were thick, like a little forest of pilgrim thoughts. I found it sad, rather than inspiring. I only left a few things behind, over the course of the Camino. I was already shedding my skin; what difference would a rock or two make?
In Viana, we checked into the municipal albergue, Albergue Andres Munoz, where we claimed the first open washing machine to do our laundry as a group one last time, then hopped in the showers. The girls went out sightseeing that afternoon, but I was exhausted, with a terrible case of heartburn from that wine the day before. I had a bowl of soup in the kitchen (why is it so damn hard to find Knorr cream soups in the states? They’re wonderful!), then took a little nap. When I woke up, Natalie offered me a swig of her leftover wine from the Irache wine fountain. Like an idiot, I had some more. I had been having some intestinal distress on account of the original dose of that wine, plus this dose of afternoon heartburn, but like a true pilgrim, I figured I’d give it another shot and see what happened. Hey, I never claimed to be the brightest bulb.
There ruins of a beautiful old church stand beside the albergue, and if you walk down the street between the two, all the way to the end, you get to little public green space that overlooks the town, and faces almost due west. We stood together, all three of us, to watch the sun go down together, and took one last group photo. Afterwards, we went in search of dinner. The albergue had very strict rules about when the doors would be locked that night, and we were all a little nervous about finding a dining option that would allow us to get back before they locked us out for the evening. Of course, things never go as planned when there’s a schedule to be met…
We’d walked into town about the same time as Tom and Mark, and they were also staying at our albergue. Earlier in the day, Natalie mentioned that there was a world-famous hotel restaurant just down the street with affordable pilgrim meal prices, slightly above what we normally paid, but perfect for the occasion of Claire’s last night with us. That evening, when we went to check out the restaurant, they hadn’t started serving just yet, but the bar was hopping. There at the bar were Mark and Tom, tossing back drinks. I made a beeline to Mark to pick on him good-naturedly, as was our relationship, and Tom invited us to pull up a chair.
We all grabbed a drink, chatted for a little about the predicament of needing a meal before 10pm in a town where no one started serving dinner until at least 8pm. Spaniards don’t eat early dinners, and they certainly don’t bolt their dinners down and run home. A good meal might take two or three hours, but for folks who wanted a fine meal, and were about to get locked out of their rooms for the night, there were important choices to be made. Finally, we decided to give up on this very nice restaurant and go down the street to find any old place that would serve us a pilgrim dinner in the time we had allotted.
It must have been a funny sight, the three ladies leading the search for food, with two inebriated and jovial gents trailing behind. It took us at least another half an hour of wandering around to different restaurants, asking about wait times, until we finally decided that we weren’t getting served early anywhere, and we might as well go back to the first restaurant and try our luck. At some point in the process, Tom announced that wherever we chose to eat, dinner was on him. I definitely perked up at the offer, since I’d been a little apprehensive about what it would cost to have a somewhat fancy meal out that night.
Back in one of the fanciest dining rooms of my Camino, we sat at a table strewn with linen, silver, china and crystal, and had an amazing meal together (though, for the life of me, I can’t remember anything we had to eat, other than my first course of spaghetti). I seem to remember getting a very thinly cut piece of veal, maybe? I remember Mark and I did have a great bitch session about the lack of decent steak thus far along our Camino. Conversation felt a little tense between Tom and Natalie, which I secretly found entertaining. Who would ever imagine putting a straight-laced, retired U.S. military member and an off-grid, liberal Canadian musician at the same table together, and not having some sort of tension? Add in an English tour bus driver, a South African movie industry professional, and a vagabond New Orleanian in the midst of a mental breakdown, and you’ve got some interesting spices flavoring that evening meal 🙂
We ended up having to ask the waiter to speed up our desserts, then paying and dashing out to catch the albergue before they locked the main doors. Even so, Tom decided to stay out for one last drink, with instructions to Mark to fight the hospitalero if necessary to keep the doors open. Mark seemed almost gleeful to be charged with the task, but I don’t think he actually had to do anything. In the end, Tom slid in with seconds to spare, then came to sit with the rest of us in the communal kitchen. We five were the last people awake in the entire house, emailing and chatting with our loved ones back home.
Mark and I shared a moment that night, talking about something family-related, but I sadly can’t remember exactly what it was that we talked about. I just remember talking to him about how I was keeping in touch with my boyfriend, and mother and father, and at some point I looked up to see him looking at me with this very open, wise expression. I knew the look. He’d understood whatever point it was that I’d been trying to make, and had decided that he thought I was interesting. We’d been gently goading each other since meeting on that second day, but this was the first moment that I recall seeing through the guard that he’d put up, and realizing that there were some complex and interesting layers there, were one interested enough to go exploring. I already liked him, but for me it was validation that I’d made the right choice in doing so. Maybe it’s a Scorpio thing; I don’t know. I do know that I’ve had this same exchange a handful of times with other Scorpios over my lifetime, so maybe there’s a similarity in the way we let people in? Either way, there was a deal struck at that table, and I’m very sad that we didn’t get nearly enough time to see it through.
Turns out that Day 10 was a bit of a heartbreaker for multiple reasons. What about that?