There is little room for cynicism on the Camino. As someone who has struggled with depression since I was a teenager, cynicism is one of the easiest–and yet most damaging–habits I can fall into or spend too much time around. The ideas of “this will never get better, ” “Things will probably be terrible today,” or, “the world is full of more bad than good,” permeate our world, and for very understandable reasons.
In many cases, difficult ideas are meant to empower, to shine light on a problem, or to point out how something has to change. But cynicism? That is a closed door. There is nowhere else to go when we deem something unredeemable. Leaving for the Camino is an escape from this thinking, even if it still tries to control me when the old dark familiar clouds come rolling in.
Second Hiking Day, October 3, 2019
I woke up to the early morning light in the monastery. I had fantastic energy–something very rare for me. I struggle through fatigue on most days, so when I wake up feeling good, the world is brighter and more vibrant than it is 90% of the time.
One of the women from dinner was making piles and piles of toast for whoever needed it, barely looking up from her toaster, just laying it out on the table in mountains of carbohydrates. I thanked her and took two pieces as I sat down to put my pack together.
“Did anyone else hear the noise of furniture being moved last night?” I asked, curiously. I still couldn’t get out of my head that I didn’t know what it was.
No one had. Two women looked at each other and shrugged. They’d both stayed up late. No noises.
I said goodbye to my new friend Barbara and let her know where I was stopping at night. Was I actually developing a Camino family already?
It looked brisk outside, but refreshing, so I put on my fleece and tightened my backpack waistband around it. Sometimes a hiking pack feels like a great hug, other times it’s more like a heavy toddler who wants a piggyback ride and a nap at the same time. That morning it felt like the former.
As I passed the hallway downstairs–where I was sure I heard the noise most of the night–it was dark. The double doors were locked. No signs of furniture. Did I have my first encounter with ghosts? Furniture-moving ghosts? If they had a message for me, I had missed it.
The morning air was fantastic. Up the cobblestone road, the eucalyptus forests continued for the next three kilometers–about 30 minutes of walking. When I rounded the corner into a small village, I made eye contact with a rooster, also going for a morning stroll. I took his picture in case I came up with a great dad joke later on in the day about a chicken crossing the road. I didn’t, but I like the memory.
I was beginning to really enjoy my own company. That was the difference from the days before. I walked alone but the world around me eliminated the loneliness that had been haunting me. I came upon a cafe, had a steaming hot cafe con leche and yet another pastry. Children in uniforms were headed off to school across the street and looked at my hiking pack and boots with curiosity.
The road was still quite clear of other pilgrims. Perhaps this would just be a solitary trip. Isn’t that what I said I’d needed anyway? Or had I been wrong?
For the next three hours, the natural beauty of northern Portugal showed off its beauty. Pathways cut through tall fortresses of corn ready to be picked. I kept thinking of a story Ben told me about the line in the musical Oklahoma, “The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.” Apparently Hammerstein later regretted writing the line because no one in Oklahoma at the time would have ever hung out with an elephant, so why would they casually reference it when talking about their corn?
The only threat of the morning were some speedy tractors and unruly dogs–both of which could be alerted with my trusty whistle! The dogs, honestly, were becoming an issue. Pilgrims of the past were said to carry walking sticks to specifically fight off wild dogs and boar, but the issue had gotten better over time. If you’ve ever read Paulo Coehlo’s Pilgrimage, you’ll know all about the dogs, metaphorical or not.
They are barely a concern on the Camino Frances up north. But here, I felt threatened at least once a day by a guard dog off their leash lunging at me as I went by. In NYC, I make eye contact more with people’s dogs that I do their owners. I have many local doggo friends. These dogs were not that. I was the threat, and I wasn’t sure a whistle would do much if I encountered one alone.
After weaving my way through a field, I came to a breathtaking river with a bridge dated back to the 12th century. I walked over a 12th century bridge today! I marveled. Just as a started to cross, a farmer came out of a small shed on the shore below the bridge. He tossed a bucket of seeds and corn into the air, causing a flock of hundreds of birds and ducks to descend from every direction. How did I time this so perfectly? I’m having a great morning and I got to see this man feed his ducks. What a day!
I stopped in one more cafe, hoping to see my group from the night before pass by, but I had somehow gotten off their schedule. I also desperately needed food with some real nutrients. We are horribly spoiled in the US, at least in metropolitan areas. We can walk in a restaurant at nearly any time of day and ask for a meal. I’ve found that many places throughout rural Spain and Portugal, this is far from true. If it is not mealtime, they have coffee, beer, and whatever hasn’t been eaten from the pastry display. And so, I settled on coffee and, yes, another pastry. The body is an amazing thing when it has to be.
It was just past noon and my day was nearly over. I cannot stress enough how different this is compared to my other two Caminos. The first 3-5 days are an adventure with a capital A. You walk 25-30 kilometers each day simply because of the spacing between the towns. You walk over steep mountains, in the direct sun, and through bustling confusing cities. By the end of the first week, you are worn and haggard.
In comparison, my two, 23-K days so far were a breeze. I could stroll, I could take pictures of roses, I could sit at cafes and eat pastry after pastry.
My destination for the day was São Pedro de Rates, a town filled with fascinating history. The church’s foundation is believed to go back to the Roman era, but the Christian’s built over it for St. Pedro of Rates around the 12th or 13th century. It is one of the oldest Romanesque churches in Portugal. St. Pedro apparently hung out with St. James (or so the legend goes). They both eventually lost their heads and ended up with churches in their honor on the Camino.
I stepped in the cool air of the church and, like many of these off-the-road churches from 2000 years ago, the energy was palpable. You don’t have to believe or approve of its history to feel that some serious thoughts and rituals went on in its space.
I like to follow the carvings along the ceilings and walls and try to figure out which ones were borrowed from Pre-Christian myths, as is often the case throughout the Camino. The Camino’s story, after all, is generally agreed upon to be based on a great myth, not historical fact (unless you are a devout Catholic, which, power to ya).
The idea that St. James is not actually buried in Santiago does not, however, lessen its power, but to me, strengthens it. Some historians depict stunning comparisons to James and the Camino itself (which is also known as the Road of the Stars or The Milky Way) with the Roman god Janus, the great gatekeeper of life’s transitions. The Camino is a representation of lasting myth and the power of stories to connect us to the nature of life and death.
But, my heavens, do I digress.
Real quick though–the town also has a fountain that was believed to cure sterility. We simply don’t have legends like this in the US that you encounter on a regular basis. The fountain, oddly enough, had been replaced with modern plumbing, which I’d imagine would have disappointed its early visitors. I tried to turn it on. Nothing happened.
I came up on the public albergue (Camino word for hostel) of Rates and some familiar faces sat outside the restaurant across the street. “They’re not open yet,” a kind man with a thick accent yelled to me. “Come join us!”
We sat on the porch for the next two hours sipping crisp beer. I wrote in my journal and ate a hamburger that, for some reason, also had a slice of ham on it. I must have ordered it incorrectly, but my golly, was it delicious. And so literal.
The Rates albergue was a true Camino home. The volunteer checking in the line of pilgrims spoke with each person about their home country, how they were feeling today, and if they’d done the Camino in the past. He talked about the rules and mission of the hostel, about respecting each other’s silence and space but how we were all a community. You occasionally come across parents of the camino–he was one of them.
Climbing up the ladder to the top bed, my bunk mate had an ice pack on her foot. We chatted about how she was resting after an injury and I pulled out some advil. “Do you want my book while you rest? I just finished it and I don’t want to throw it out.”
She did! I was so excited to not have to part with my book in an impersonal way. It had kept me company during my journey. The book, the way, was called Flanuese by Lauren Elkin. It talked about how men have always been depicted in literature and history as ones who can wander and explore a city. Women, however, were considered “ladies of the night” or simply crazy if they spent time alone in public. It was rambly, but a great book. I recommend it.
My new friend–also from Germany–was Sophie. She was a tad younger than I was and lived in East Berlin. I didn’t know it at the time, but she would join the ranks of my Camino family soon enough.
After some laundry and a great outdoor nap under a tree, I sat at a long table with Barbara from the night before, the hostel owner, Julian–another new German friend, Maria from Georgia (the country), a handful of other new friends from around the world. Julian and Maria would also walk alongside us until the end. We drank too much wine and passed around cheese and bread as we joked. I later filled up on a large meal with Michael–the German man I met on the first morning who decided to not take the other trail–and came back for more wine and fun with the gang.
When the night got cold, we went inside and shared Camino stories. The group spoke to me–having completed two Caminos already–like I was an old sailor who had spent her life at sea.
Someone asked me what it was like to hike the Camino that long, and for whatever reason, the first thing I said was something cynical–or at least that sounded cynical. I told the tale of Richard Peregrino (AKA “Dick Pilgrim”)–a fictional character created with my Camino partner from 2017. We made him up one day, about four weeks into our hike, when we were getting tired and needed a laugh. Richard Peregrino littered on the Camino. Richard Peregrino woke up at 4am and rustled his bag really loudly. Richard Peregrino didn’t share his bottle of wine with others! I laughed because the concept of this fake jerk kept my friend and I from losing our minds on the last trip.
But I could tell I had changed the energy of the room with a negative idea. For this group, it was their second day on their first Camino ever. Who was I to say that maybe one day we’d be annoyed by each other? And what did that do? I saved myself by back peddling and telling a more upbeat story about a singalong with nuns. Richard Peregrino, however, will always have a special place in my heart.
I could tell I was getting tipsy and I needed sleep. I tiptoed into my room and crawled into my squeaky bunk bed. The room next door was still full of laughter as I drifted off.