The Camino de Santiago – An Accidental Pilgrimage
Story by Aric S. Queen
I suppose it would have been in bad taste to scream “Fuck this pilgrimage!”, but that’s exactly what was going through my mind.
6 hours—6 hours[!] spent walking in the cold rain pushing a bicycle – whose tire had not just gotten a flat but ruptured – up and over and down into the muddy valleys of what was supposed to be an easy journey.
One of the pelegrinos attempted to walk alongside me. He was all smiles and positives, nice and warm inside his waterproof poncho, but I was having none of it. These pilgrims of sorts, the types of people who give up a month to walk from Southern France to the Northwest tip of Spain, sleeping in remedial accommodations, accepting food from the locals – all for the sake of being able to say they “walked the Camino de Santiago” were too much. They were one pair of Tom’s shoes from being those people back home who insist on taking vacations where “good in the world” can be done… And if there is a worse kind of person than that, I’ve yet to meet them.
Good can be done anywhere, there’s no need for your two weeks abroad to also serve as an enlightened platform you obtained last month at Whole Foods.
So no, I wasn’t one of them.
I had never heard of this walk up until a few weeks ago when—while biking through Europe—someone mentioned that it was a good cheap path to get from France to Portugal. Having spent 13 years on the road I prided myself on never having a guidebook but instead relying solely on instinct and a stranger’s advice…
But after the past six hours, I was looking for a guidebook-selling shop.
I was completely soaked when I arrived at the auburge, dorm-like houses where pilgrims sleep along their journey. The innkeeper smiled and handed me a large pile of newspaper to stick in my boots. After stamping my credenciales—a large passport-like document filled with stamps documenting a pilgrim’s journey—he showed me to a small room that housed 11 other people. Wet clothes were everywhere, the smell reminiscent of a post-playground kindergarten class.
I didn’t want to be there.
In fact, I told the girl sitting next to me later that evening just that: I don’t want to be here. It seemed like a very grown-up, very matter of fact thing to say:
This isn’t fun.
I don’t want to do it anymore.
And so I will choose to do something else.
Only I couldn’t choose anything else.
See, the problem with my trip, a 10-month cycling adventure around Europe and North Africa, was that I was living on $800 a month – which doesn’t sound like much. And it isn’t. You have to stealth camp, you have to not stop at every gorgeous Parisian café and drink Campari’s all day. You can only get a cheap hotel room once a week and even then, it’s hardly relaxing as you spend the entire time hand-washing your clothes in the shower, stealing the toiletries, and charging every device you own.
But it was the only way I could afford to see the Europe I’d always wanted.
So yes – my current problem was, simply, I had nowhere to go. A bus to a beach in Portugal would have set me back $150 or so, and as it was nearing the end of the month, my funds were already low. And as much as I hated this pilgrimage, it was dirt cheap—$10 a day at most.
The other problem was that I was halfway through it.
Meaning there was nothing to do but continue.
I stayed up late that night, two feet from the fireplace. Someone left a bottle of local Rioja out and I finished that without feeling bad. I didn’t feel bad because I couldn’t have felt worse.
My clothes were still damp; my bike tire was ruptured; my bank account was depleted. My trip around Europe had turned into a wet nightmare.
There’s a line in a movie that goes, “If there’s one murderer and you have 3 suspects, keep them locked up overnight. The one who’s guilty will be the one sleeping.” Well, that was me. I slept for 10 hours. I suppose when all of your worries come to fruition there’s nothing else to worry about.
Like Orwell said in his Down and Out in Paris and London: “It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
Did I wake up happy? No.
But I did wake up rested and, coupled with the realization that I simply had no other choice but to continue, I headed out.
A local mechanic was able to help me find a new tire. The rain, while still peppering the Basque area, seemed to fall with less prejudice. I was able to ride my bicycle for a few days, as opposed to pushing it, which I had been relegated to do.
And that’s when I met Ralf.
Ralf and I were the only two pilgrims in the city that night. His quiet demeanor intrigued me. Those who walked the Camino had seemed—up until now—to be a loquacious bunch, happily sharing their life story with anyone who would listen.
But Ralf didn’t seem to fit that mold. He quietly prepared his pasta and sat in the corner to eat. He didn’t have a book, an iPad or anything else to keep him occupied. He just ate and quietly stared out the window.
Had there been anyone else there, I would have been happy just to observe him, making my own story up of who he was and why he was here. But with it being just us, I had no choice but to engage him in conversation. One that eased up with each beer opened.
I would soon wish I had never engaged him at all, as Ralf’s story was a cruel one.
He was a soldier in the Dutch Army and had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan. While there, the vehicle he was in was hit by an IED. The bomb killed the driver – his best friend, and left he himself with numerous injuries, the worst being a very understandable case of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. While in the hospital and trying to process everything he had been through, he received a call from his parents that his sister had committed suicide.
“When they told me this, I just laughed,” he explained, still looking out the window. “I laughed because it was the only emotion I hadn’t depleted.”
And he was on the Camino by order of his commanding officer.
That night, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were more people on this trip for similar reasons, as opposed to the bubbly annoying types I had met so far. So I began asking people I met not where they were from, but why they were on the Camino at all.
And it was then when I would come to realize that this, for many, was a very serious walk people were on.
There was Maria, a single mother who had recently fallen into the now 27% unemployment plaguing Spain. Her child was one of special needs, and the stipend given to her by the government was not enough to cover all of her expenses. She was faced with the only option of moving back in with her abusive ex-boyfriend.
Then there was Emile, who had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer.
There was Sandy, who was bored.
There was Sebastian, whose father had gone to war long before he was even conceived. His mother thought she would never see her husband again, so she took up with another man and got pregnant. In the end, his father returned from war, only to meet an ashamed wife and a bastard child. Sebastian would then live his entire life under the scrutiny that could only come from a result of one woman’s indiscretion – he, a constant physical reminder of infidelity to all.
And then there were the two men I saw hundreds of yards ahead of me one day, tethered together by what looked like a rope. The next day, I passed them and understood what I had seen. One man was blind, the other his friend, who acted as both a guide and story-teller, describing what he saw while also telling his friend where to step.
The Camino would be full of these stories, of these people. Some were there making life decisions, some were there to make none at all.
A week later, I limped across the finish line in the city of Santiago de Compostela. I sat for hours in the square, the finish line for all pilgrims who begin their journey in one of dozens of starting points. Some cried, some collapsed, some cheered, others sat quietly or went straight into the cathedral that overlooks the square to kiss the box that holds the remains of St. James.
Later that evening, over far too much local wine, I reflected back on the people I met.
And I while I hoped they had found what they were after, I began to realize what lesson I had learned from each of them.
From Ralf I had found an understanding of the difference between annoyances and adversity. He was dealing with the latter, myself simply the former.
From Maria I found strength. My end goal was a sunny beach in Portugal. Her end goal was finding a way to support her child without getting beaten.
From Emile I learned what it was to truly enjoy one’s final days… And I realized that we all had a number of them left.
From Sandy I found beauty in boredom.
From the blind man and his guide, I learned what true friendship meant.
And from Sebastian, I learned about forgiveness.
It wasn’t until I sat down to make sense of my notes, my two weeks of hell through Northern Spain on some accidental pilgrimage, that I began to wonder why, exactly, I had been put on that path in the first place.
I don’t think it was ease – my bicycle trip was merely the catalyst.
Nor did I really have anything to work through. I was pretty okay, to be honest.
So what was it?
I stepped back and looked at the notes from a standing position, my photos still up on my computer and that’s when it hit me.
Perhaps the reason I had been led to the Camino in the first place was exactly what I was seeing in front of me.
And perhaps my reason was to simply write this all down.