Walking the Way
A tale of endurance, remonstrance, and remembrance on the pilgrim’s trail in Spain
Photograph by Ethan Welty/Aurora Photos
Ican’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 wading in the water, actually, because my feet are aching, and as I stare out to sea, my mind drifting, it suddenly occurs to me—ten days and 250 kilometres into a planned twenty-three-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 this pilgrimage (or whatever it is 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 trail mate, 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 bocadillo 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 hypothetical third quality that encompassed both. 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 The Battle for Spain. Our conversation has been getting thin at the edges, with hundreds of kilometres still to go. I’m out here soaking my feet, remembering that I was in Bilbao a couple of 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’m 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 ninth 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,” from The Four Quartets
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 la 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 Finisterre. 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, 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 kilometre 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 philosophical materialism—the belief that the only thing that exists is physical matter—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 indicate that you somehow needed to walk 800 kilometres across Spain.
I confess. Guilty. I somehow needed to do exactly that.
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 our friendship is an old one. We’ve been pals since college, and have stayed in touch ever since, even after he set off on an international life that has taken him from Geneva to South Africa to London and beyond. We’ve stayed in touch for a reason, and 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 kilometres together would not seem insane. So there’s talking to be done. And in the morning, with a coffee con leche and a wedge of tortilla inside us, with fresh legs, breathing light, cool air and smelling the farms, 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, 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 ridgeline, our destination a smudge of buildings some stubborn distance ahead of us, our progress imperceptible—during those stretches we’re prisoners to what we’re doing. Marooned in the flow. Paradox #3. You take somewhere around 25,000 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—is both a tiny non-event and one occupying a space as large as the universe. Each footstep, in the moment you take it, is all you have. And there comes a point each day, sometimes as early as mid-morning, when words simply fail. If there’s 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. In Castro-Urdiales, we found ourselves looking out over the boats in the harbour, eating a whole monkfish 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 awoke 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 already covered 4,000 kilometres when we met him, and would cover 4,000 more by the time he returned home late in the year. Lost fifteen kilos so far. 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 facade
And the tombstone.
My mother died of cancer in March 2006, a few days after her seventy-sixth birthday. She’d been diagnosed in August 2004 and given two to four 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 Münster, 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 called 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 Münster, and later, after receiving news that Mischlinge were to be arrested there, in hiding places in and around Aberslow. 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, dreamlike state: out of place and distant from all the futures she might once have considered likely. Certainly, she couldn’t have imagined meeting my father. In the late ’40s, she was managing a bookstore, the Librería Cientifica, 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 is after all, in the eyes of science, 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 philosophical materialism, well, one man’s rationalism is another man’s eugenics program. The Nazis had a material view of my mother: she was a biogenetic 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, which coalesced around a single governing principle: you could not allow yourself to be defined solely by your physical properties. There had to be another dimension of the self. Your survival depended on deeper resolution. And while she personally sought that resolution in Christianity, the more practical way in which I experienced her world view as a child during the ’70s was through her committed resistance to consumerism, a material value system very much in ascendancy.
Brand promises were always broken. I don’t remember ever not knowing she felt this way, even if she rarely said so. She lived the message. No television in the house. No junk food or soda in the diet. Homemade clothes, at least until we were teenagers and insisted otherwise. Holidays on the West Coast Trail and in other back-to-nature settings. 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 homemade granola and tiger’s milk, an orange juice and brewer’s yeast concoction we downed in a series of grimacing gulps.
In the Brady Bunch ’70s, in shag-carpeted then groovy West Vancouver, these practices made us nonconformist freaks. It wasn’t a matter of self-denial. I understand this now. On my mother’s part, it was self-affirmation. Specifically, a removal of the self from the governing ambit of commerce and fashion, a wilful conviction that 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, nor that it was a chance occurrence. 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 because they were intended, her life and all lives had intrinsic, ineffable value derived and defined not by organic materials or physical properties or consumer goods, 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 religious ceremony, it now seems to me, to codes and rites either Catholic or Protestant, including this very pilgrimage. She was instead a product of personal belief and reformation. 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 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 Menor and Tina Mayor, past the flat expanse of inland water reflecting the sky, past the blue-green hills, past 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 farther and farther away. We stop and retrace our steps, trying different trails that all 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, runner’s high—it belongs in that group of phenomena. The sudden head rush sense of your own movement and power, like the thrill of liftoff 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 photo 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 Dave and I 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 you’re 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 ridgeline, a valley behind or in front, the roll of a hill stretching upward or downward ahead of you. After 300 or 400 kilometres of walking, it seems I’ve been coming forever on some new set of views and possibilities. Another paradox for my list. That the real constant of the trail should be this ever-changing sameness of the landscape. That and the sounds of sheep and cowbells, the hovering cries of birds.
On the train to Oviedo, where we will begin the original medieval way, 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. 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 has 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 940 pages of you, I pray to you now in my hour of…
Photograph by Xulio Villarino/Getty Images
Although: my hour of what, exactly? I can’t say need. Food and shelter are needs—the things we seek spontaneously, without encouragement or guidance. Even vagabonding across Spain, I have plenty of both. My hour relates to the world I left behind. I doubt I’m alone in feeling a little exposed by the events of 2008, in feeling especially anxious about what the future holds. We never truly know the answer to this question, of course, but some circumstances, such as a history-making market crash, make it distinctly more pressing.
So, too, though, does our contemporary vulnerability to that market. Beyond the numbers and beyond our bank accounts, the market has come to intersect with our very sense of self. Having lost the definitions once provided by family, church, and civil society, who among us doesn’t self-identify significantly in terms of what we do for a living? And who among us, then, 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 hotel in Oviedo, with its high northern view overlooking the busy Calle de Jovellanos. In the story, I find a strange and surprising reverberation of our current vulnerability. Anselmo marries Camilla, then convinces his best friend, Lothario, to try and 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. J. M. Cohen, the translator of the edition I’m reading, goes so far as to say in his introduction that neither the story’s “morality nor its psychology bears a moment’s examination,” then suggests that impatient readers “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 heart of Don Quixote, because it lays bare what Cervantes sees at the heart of human aspiration. Just as Don Quixote is inspired by tales of the knight errant Amadis of Gaul, and suffers mightily for the desires he inherits from his fictional model, so, too, are Anselmo and Lothario 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, he discovers—through the modelling example of his friend Anselmo—is the one possession without which he cannot live.
I’m influenced by René Girard in my reading of this passage, specifically his theory of “mimetic desire.” According to Girard, we don’t desire anything we wish to possess based on its objective merits. Nor do we choose what to desire based on innate preference. In such matters—in acquiring the repertoire of objects and experiences and relationships that illustrate what we think of as 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,” can be either internal (people close to us with whom we consider ourselves equal) or external (people distant from us whose authority we acknowledge). Amadis of Gaul is safely external to Don Quixote in this analysis, a mediator whose example the hero might do best to avoid, but to whom Quixote bears no grudge, despite his dents and bruises. Lothario and Anselmo, on the other hand, are internal mediators for each other. And because they see themselves as equal, their relationship is necessarily rivalrous and unstable. Indeed, it can be sustained only by Anselmo’s delusion.
People sometimes react poorly to Girard’s interpretation of desire, 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 are steadfastly self-directed. 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 endorse the relationship between those shoes and my potential social status was a source of great irritation for me.
As an adult, however, I am filled with awe by thoughts of her independence. One of the last things I remember her saying was spoken not to me but to my brother, yet it lives in my memory as if I had heard the words myself, because it is so true to my sense of who she was. She told him, 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 real weakness. Which is why we don’t like to be told that the reason we’re checking our cellphones for messages is because we subconsciously register the guy sitting opposite us on the bus checking his. Why 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. Why we resist the notion that the cars we drive, or the cuisine we fancy, or the style of dress we adopt is anything less than a personal aesthetic, definitively ours. And why we certainly don’t like to think that our self-image 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 light of the great mimetic hurricane that was the financial collapse of 2008. Interesting to consider particularly that economists are now referring to this collapse as a “Minsky moment,” after Hyman Minsky (1919–1996), who theorized that human nature leads to market instability, as people are fundamentally momentum, not value, investors. That is, people enact their desires in the market mimetically, based entirely on the desires enacted by others.
Of course, even as I read the Cervantes and consider these matters, I can’t help but see myself ensnared in the phenomenon. Call it the final paradox of this trail: that I hoped to alleviate my sense of vulnerability, to escape the mimetic funhouse, by doing a pilgrimage, of all things. By following a centuries-old path across a centuries-old country, placing my feet into the faded prints of a million million million feet that have fallen before mine.
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 dwindles 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 kilometres in total. Tineo to Polla Allende, then to Grandas de Salime. From there to A Fonsagrada, and finally to O Cádavo. And as we leave Tineo in the pre-dawn blue, rose light colouring the clouds to the east, I sense us arriving at the heart of matters. Turning with the inner spiral.
We cross the hillside, travelling 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, an Irish 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 Berducedo, 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 wasp’s nest in it and a crew of red chickens runs 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 cracking. On the ridgeline 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 farmhouse and onto the open hillside above the lake, we come across a guy and his girlfriend. 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.
She tells me that the gate at the end of the lane is closed and there’s 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.
We go ahead anyway, too exhausted to consider turning back. When we reach the end of the lane, we find the gate closed, just as the woman said. 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 sees 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.
Spiralling and spiralling. An inchoate sense of something building. Some shape or sensation from which I might judge my 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 continuance it demands. She would have been pleased to see me take each of these steps without knowing entirely what I was doing, knowing only enough to take that step. Continuing, continuing. She did that, I think to myself. She did continue. And I am inspired by the memory.
The following morning, we climb the pass at Puerto Palo to the roofline 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 toward 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 Google Maps set to satellite view. I see my movement across the world.
And again I find myself thinking about my mother, but with something added. Something new, singing in on the hot, high winds of the Sierra del Palo. It takes me a moment to register it. And then I get it. By following her example of continuance, by taking that one step after the other, by doing only what I know I have to do and thinking no farther ahead, I come to appreciate my arrival somewhere entirely fresh. A place of complete sufficiency, in which I know I have 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 A Fonsagrada, I write in my notebook: “We’re grinding it out now.” Which is true for me, certainly. All thoughts of continuance 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 in a garbage bag coat because I’ve left my rain slicker somewhere along the route, waiting, waiting, while a black bank of clouds vaults up out of the west toward 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 A Fonsagrada. Eat, sleep. Walk on again. And late on that last day of the Primitivo, heading into O Cádavo, 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 a part of the trail that seems to cut almost vertically 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 metres up the hillside now, not facing down this bank of loose stone and broken rocks, tilted stumps and tortured switchbacks.
What can you do but keep going. So we take that first step, and so it begins again. This time with one more thing added. 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. Another fifty metres. Another hundred. No end in sight. The wind dies. Keep going. Keep going. Another hundred. And then it comes on. I realize the chant is working. I’m either driving myself insane, or this damn song is working. Some kind of reverse energy loop. About halfway up, I realize I’m not expending energy anymore. I’m somehow gaining it. 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 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-three days, the destination seems unlikely to 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, for all the silence we have invested in each other, I think we are 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 from the publisher 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, underlit 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.