Spain is a land of legends — giant legends. It is a place where stories, both religious and secular, crop up, gain ground, and soon become a kind of reality of their own. It is a place of siestas and late nights, bullfights and sangria and flamenco dancers, but it is also a place with a storied history; one that includes several separatist movements, the vastly romanticized Civil War, and, much further back, the era of explorers and the Catholic Kings. It is a place whose history is often indistinguishable from its religion, a religion which itself creates many of the most prominent Spanish legends — the milagros (miracles) that shape what Spain is today.
The story of St. James, or Santiago, is this kind of legend, a story that has reached a level of cultural importance in Spain, and in Western Europe, that it transcends pure religion. Originally, St. James was a mythic figure who rose to such prominence in medieval Europe that Catholics began a pilgrimage to the eponymous city of Santiago de Compostela to pay homage to his remains. Called el Camino de Santiago, or “the Way of St. James,” this 500 mile trail across the northwest of the country has become relatively secularized in recent years, drawing travelers from all over the world and from all different backgrounds. And during the summer between our sophomore and junior years of college, it drew me and my friend Henry to Spain, even though neither I — a half-Japanese Jew — nor Henry — a non-practicing Anglican and a practicing homosexual — is exactly the epitome of the reverential pilgrim .
We had originally decided to walk the Camino more or less on a whim, me proposing it during a run in the Connecticut snow in early February and him readily agreeing. I had read about the hike in a magazine, and it seemed like a good way to spend a month of the summer that marked our halfway point through college. I would get a chance to dust off my Spanish, and get to see the country a little closer-up than I had during previous trips to Madrid and San Sebastián. I didn’t think about the trip much more deeply than that; at the beginning, it was simply an exotic adventure, nothing more. But in the months that followed, the Camino began to have greater meaning. Henry lost a boyfriend, and I gained one, both processes involving much crying and angst-ridden soul-searching. We both suffered through the infamous “sophomore slump.” Neither of us knew what we wanted to make of the rest of college, let alone our lives. Through all of these ups and downs in the months leading up to our departure, Henry would remain disarmingly blasé, full of oneliners and humorous asides to lighten the mood. But when things would get really bad, we would reassure each other with the simple words: “It’s okay. Remember. Spain.” The Camino was our shorthand for escape. In our minds, the Camino became a safe haven of sorts, a place where no one would know us, where we wouldn’t know anyone, and where, as Henry so delicately put it, all we’d need to do on a given day was “walk, eat, sleep, and poo.”
What does it mean to be a modern-day pilgrim? Henry and I didn’t know, but we wanted to find out and to adopt that identity as best we could. And that, to us, meant beginning in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, a small town on the French side of the Pyrenees, a hard day’s walk from Spain. The Camino has no official starting point; in the Middle Ages most pilgrims simply walked out their doors and made their way for Santiago, trail or no trail. Today, many hikers begin in Roncesvalles, on the Spanish side of the mountains, or even later in Pamplona or Burgos, but starting in St. Jean meant we could experience the Pyrenees and that we could enter Spain on foot, which seemed a more organic — and more official — beginning to me.
We arrived in St. Jean via Bayonne after a stressful day of negotiating the Paris metro and the TGV schedule. But rather than discouraging us, these technical difficulties simply made me all the more excited to begin traveling on foot, where I would be able to control my own pace, with no delays or conductors to get in the way. And St. Jean could not be a more idyllic beginning: all cobblestone streets and open air markets and flowerpots in the windows of second-floor apartments that look down on the boulangeries below.
Guidebooks about the Camino tell of a certain Madame Debril, a crotchety old French lady who runs the pilgrim’s help center in St. Jean, equally doling out both good wishes and complete discouragement. Our first task in St. Jean, we’d decided, was to find her, thinking her an integral part of the pilgrim experience. But upon entering the pilgrim’s center, we were greeted cheerily by an old Frenchman and middle-aged Frenchwoman who promptly took our packs off our backs (and told us, clucking their disapproval, that they were far too heavy) and brought us glasses of water. The excitement of beginning the Camino is infectious, but whether it was traveling from us to them or from them to us, I still don’t know — I think it may have been a little of both. We wouldn’t meet with such enthusiastic hospitality for quite some time, and with it, the notion of finding Madame Debril got lost, and we failed our first official pilgrim task. Integral she may have been, but not as integral as a glass of water on a hot day, and without disappointment, without relief, without any thought at all, she was forgotten, our minds consumed with the objects necessary to begin our adventure.
They provided us with our credenciales and our conchas — our credentials and our shells — which are two of the most important identifying objects for the pilgrim, both medieval and modern-day. To be absolved of all of one’s sins at the end of the pilgrimage, the pilgrim must prove that he has walked at least the last 100 kilometers up to the city of Santiago, the end of the pilgrimage where Santiago’s relics are buried. This number is chosen somewhat arbitrarily by the pilgrim’s association, but it attempts to guarantee that the pilgrim has had to suffer just a little bit, to get at least one blister. In order to prove that he has walked the requisite mileage, the pilgrim carries the credenciál, a kind of pilgrim passport that is stamped at each stop along the way, proving that the pilgrim has indeed traveled on foot. The passport also proves to the workers at the government and church-provided hostels along the way that the pilgrim is legit and not just taking advantage of a cheap housing option for the night.
The shell is a less official but perhaps more important symbol in that it recollects the figure and legend of Santiago himself. The scallop shell originated in practicality: the city of Santiago lies close to the coast, in a region of Spain where scallops are common, so pilgrims probably gathered scallop shells and brought them back to their homes as a way of proving that they had actually completed the journey. Over the years, however, the scallop shell has evolved into a way of identifying a pilgrim, which is why we were receiving ours as freebies, not having walked a single step of the Camino yet. The legend now associated with the shell is one of the miracles of St. James; supposedly St. James rescued a knight who had fallen into the sea and was believed to be dead; when the knight rose from the water, basically resurrected, he was covered with scallop shells, making them a symbol of the power and mercy of Santiago.
“There were two boys with bags larger than yours,” the hospitaleros — the term for the volunteers along the Camino — said by way of goodbye. “But those are too heavy. Do you have books in here? Don’t carry books. You won’t need them.” The implication was that we would be too tired at the end of each day to want to read a book. What had we gotten ourselves into?
The first step of a journey like the Camino is inevitably anticlimactic. Your body twitches as you stand, paralyzed, urging your muscles into action but at the same time hesitant to do what you have been planning for so long, what has so much meaning for you. The earth will implode, or maybe you will, but surely something will change when you embark on this challenge.
And then you step and nothing changes. And you step again and still nothing changes, except maybe you start to feel a slight rub in your heel, and you forget about the momentousness of the occasion and instead begin to worry about blisters and whether you should stop and apply Moleskin. And so the trip has begun, and no one has noticed; there has been no fanfare or implosions, just the beginnings of a blister and also a twinge of both fear and excitement that this is what you will be doing with yourself for the next thirty days.
Walking along St. Jean’s cobblestone streets at dawn was filled with both anticipation and confusion. Was that the first step? Or was the first step once we got out of town? Would we be able to make it through this notoriously difficult day? Where should we be going? Where were the yellow arrows that marked the way? Why was my backpack strap already so painfully digging into my right shoulder?
We came upon our first steep ascent early on; perhaps these were the true first steps of the hike. By then, we were out of the perfectly European quaint buildings of St. Jean and entering the forest that lines the Pyrenees. Henry was already smoking me up the hill, but as I panted behind and was so happy to be right there, in that place, struggling with this ascent and with my boots and with everything but still so happy, I realized, with utmost confidence, that this trip was a good way to spend the summer, and that I wasn’t sorry that I chose the Camino at the expense of a job at all. It was a good realization to have, and with it most of my fears were calmed. And when I got to the top of the hill, I promptly sat down and removed my boots to tend to my first blister.
As I was putting the finishing touches on my Moleskin wrap, two guys — Terrence and James — whom we had met the night before crested over the top. They were the two famous boys with the packs bigger than ours, but they had an excuse: they were truly hiking the Camino on a whim, having met in Spain for a few weeks while traveling around the world on their year off between high school and “University.” Terrence, with thick red hair and slightly stockier body, had been working in London; James, with sandy blonde hair, thin and lanky, had been waiting tables in Greece. They were our age — slightly younger, in fact — and it was comforting to have peers on the trail. They waited as I tied my boot back up, and then the four of us started walking again, together.
The group quickly split into fast and slow: James and Henry in front, Terrence and me bringing up the rear. I liked Terrence better anyway; he was more subdued than James, who would interrupt conversation flow to make stupid jokes, usually involving genitalia, every few minutes. Terrence and I talked about travel, and he tried to convince me to go to Lisbon — another pilgrimage site — with him after the Camino. He was so earnest, and so genuinely open to a new friendship, it was amazing. For all he knew, I could have been a snorer, a smoker, an ax murderer, or any number of other things that would make me a poor travel companion. And yet, here he was, less than twenty-four hours into our acquaintance, asking for my email and waxing poetic about our trip to Lisbon. When I told him I was planning on going to Paris to watch the end of the Tour de France after the Camino, he wasn’t disappointed. Instead, he perked up: “Oh, I love bicycling. Maybe I’ll come, too!”
Eventually, though, our partnership wore thin. Friendships spring up easily on the Camino, formed over mutual grievances and mutual successes. But they fade just as easily; a different walking pace or a different choice of lunch spot can be enough of a disruption that two friends may never be able to reconnect. Terrence and James were the kind of hikers that liked to stop every half-hour for a break for water or snacks or just to sit. Henry and I, we were learning, were the kind of hikers who liked to barrel on, resting only intermittently and for only five to ten minutes at that. We were anxious about failure; Terrence and James, having no discernible goal, couldn’t fail. At mid-day, when they pulled off the trail and found mossy beds for a siesta, we decided we’d had enough and moved on, bearing with us one of our first photos from the trip, a picture of the four of us standing around a statue of the Virgin Mary that someone had lugged up to the highest point of the pass. The statue had, of course, been an occasion to take a break. Already, Henry and my problem was that we moved too fast, often at the expense of really savoring our surroundings. But at the rate they were going, Terrence and James wouldn’t reach Santiago within the month, let alone within our strict timeframe. And, indeed, we ended up losing them permanently a few days later when they decided to take a few days off in Pamplona, promising they would catch up to us.
Alone again, Henry and I moved on toward Roncesvalles. Where the ascent up had been gravely and exposed, the way down was earthy and surrounded by trees. Somewhere along the way up we had crossed the border into Spain, but we didn’t know where; it was a vague boundary that we arbitrarily assigned after we had asked ourselves “are we in Spain?” enough times to make us feel like we were. The views, while beautiful, were not spectacular — just more of the scrubby fields that fed the hundreds of goats we saw everywhere. The forest, though, was something else. It seemed almost from a fairytale; wandering the path, we could have easily been Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood or any number of other Grimm characters sent off into the forest to meet an undecided fate.
Reaching a split in the trail, we encountered a gnome like man who directed us down a steep shortcut, giving a few words in French. We stopped halfway down to take a break, tired from the exertion of the day and from eating so little in our fervor to keep hiking. Hearing voices at the top of the descent, we looked up to see the Gnome talking animatedly with two girls we had met the night before. Noemi and Janelle were early twenty-somethings, just graduated from their universities in Quebec and taking a summer to travel before becoming teachers. We had shared a room with them in the hostel, where they had befriended us and asked us to make dinner with them. But as much as we liked them — Noemi (or “No,” her nickname) who was short and blonde, Janelle boyish and lanky — we also felt a bit competitive with them, especially after they criticized the weight of our packs and scoffed at our nervous plans to get up at the crack of dawn to begin the hike.
We had no choice. We bolted, leaving No and Janelle waving down cheerily at us. How had they possibly caught up to us? It must be Terrence and James and the innumerable stops we had to make with them. We tore down the hill, and the next time our French-Canadian friends saw us we were bathing our feet in the ice cold stream on the outskirts of Roncesvalles, pretending we had been there for some time and denying every having seen them along the way.
One of the books I had been carrying — one of the books that had been weighing down my pack — was the Song of Roland, or the Chanson de Roland in the original French, the medieval epic on which Roncesvalles’ fame and popularity as a part of the pilgrimage is based. It tells of a monumental battle between the forces of Charlemagne, including Roland (known in Spanish as Roldán), who is a paragon of knighthood, and the traitor Ganelon, whose jealousy of Roland ultimately brings about Roland’s untimely death and the French forces’ defeat. According to the legend, Ganelon tipped off the Moorish army about Roland’s chosen route through the Pyrenees, allowing them to launch a deadly surprise attack, with Charlemagne left to watch helplessly from much above as his rear guard was destroyed. The story ends with the dying Roland using a rock to split his sword, Durandarte, so that it cannot fall into enemy — not to mention heathen — hands.
This legend is actually based in reality, but is, like so many things along the Camino, yet another giant legend, in this case sprung up from historical necessity. The original chronicle of the battle does record that Charlemagne’s forces suffered a horrible defeat, but it was an obscure and unpersonalized event, not one with the great heroes and tens of thousands of soldiers of the tale I carried with me. The story was blown up in the 11th century to create a rallying cry against the Muslims, who were growing to increasing power in Spain; with the story of Roland spreading throughout Western Europe, ideas of Moorish trickery and cruelty spread as well, and helped to fuel the fire of the crusading sentiment.
Roncesvalles was, for all this, not much to see: a small chapel, a few restaurants, and the albergue, lodged at the mouth of the valley at the base of the mountains. The monastery houses not only saints’ relics, but also relics from Roland and Charlemagne, elevating them to a curiously exalted level. Henry and I never made it to see either the saintly or the secular relics. All we wanted to do was rest, sprawled out on the grass, bemoaning our pain. The bottoms of my feet had never hurt as much as they did at the end of that day, hot pins and needles searing up from the soles through my legs. Was every day going to be like this? Was the pain worth it? My confidence from the morning was disappearing quickly. But after dinner, as I sat drinking Gatorade and writing in my journal, I looked up to see my laundry drying on a clothesline, the sun setting on a lush green field behind it, the sign of a hard day’s work — of the dirt and sweat that poured into those clothes and then the effort required to wash them by hand — and I thought I had never seen anything quite so simply beautiful.
On the Camino, the trail is demarcated by yellow arrows or painted scallop shells, placed by volunteers who run the upkeep of the trail, purely out of love for the pilgrimage. Similarly, the hostel workers — the hospitaleros — are volunteers, most of whom have hiked the path more than once. The Camino is the kind of experience that inspires this kind of deepseated commitment; we didn’t yet really know why, but we knew that it did.
The next day, we headed out, tired and sore, but feeling confident. And confidently, we strode out of the albergue, ready for what would come on Day Two.
“¡Hola!” A man was yelling from the albergue door. “¡Hola!” He was still yelling, more insistently now. “¡Hola! Hello!” He was yelling at us.
We turned around, staring at him quizzically. He and his friends, sitting by the door at eating a quick breakfast, were all grinning. Pointing in the direction we were walking, he yelled, “Francia.” Pointing in the opposite direction, he yelled, “Camino.”
Less confidently, we yelled back a “Gracias” and turned around.
Day Two was off to an auspicious start.
The rest of the day passed relatively calmly, a series of inexplicable incidents that we never really figured out, but instead chalked up to the curiosity that is Spain, and even more than that, perhaps, the curiosity that is Navarra, the Basque region of Spain. Nobody knows where the Basque people came from originally, though there are theories that they are descended from Romanian gypsies. Their language has no relation to any other language, romantic or otherwise; it is populated with “tx” noises that make it almost impossible for a non-native speaker to learn, and the very wildest speculations about it create a link between the Basques and the lost city of Atlantis. The Basques are a fiercely independent people, proudly rebellious — in fact, one of the legends about the Battle of Roncesvalles goes that Roland was not attacked by Moors, but by Basques protecting their land. Also fiercely protective of their culture, which incidentally boasts some of the very best food in Spain, the Basque people have managed to sustain themselves despite being one of the groups of people most oppressed by Franco during his dictatorship. Today, the Basques are perhaps best known for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or E.T.A. (“Basque Country and Freedom”), the terrorist group working for Basque independence, but that reputation is a shame. Having spent extensive time in Basque country a few years before, I knew the Basque people to be a proud group, but also one that is strong and good, and largely ashamed of the name that E.T.A. is making for them.
Which is all to say, Basque country — Navarra — is a unique place. Any group of people that traces its ancestry to either gypsies or a civilization now underwater would have to be. And while nothing that happened to us in Navarra necessarily happened because we were in Navarra, it was a proper setting for the strange detours the path took that day. Walking through dense forest that morning, we had been at first alarmed and eventually just confused to find it populated by white cows. Later on, the trail took a much more alarming detour through an industrial site, winding through bulldozers and cranes amid warnings in Spanish, Basque, French, and English: “Beware! You are about to traverse Magna, S A. industrial site. Please, do not leave the path.” For an hour and a half, we walked along an eerily quiet white stone path, lined with bulldozers and cranes and piles of rubble all around. It was siesta time, so everything was at rest, except for us, and we never saw the industrial site in action. Hiking the Camino was always a dangerous proposition; in medieval times, it was rife with robbery and murder. Industrial sites, though, were a purely modern menace.
By the time we arrived at the albergue in Larrasoaña, 27 kilometers later, my feet and hip flexors (that ambiguous muscle where your torso meets your legs) killed, and I hadn’t had anything to eat besides a Balance bar for breakfast and a handful of nuts and a pear back in Zubiri, where we had realized there was actually nowhere to buy food. After checking in a little before four, we collapsed into our beds. I eventually roused myself to do laundry and tend to my feet, but Henry continued sleeping, still perfectly out hours and hours later, prompting one pilgrim, who thought he was especially funny, to ask, “Is your friend okay? Not dead?” and then give his best imitation of Henry, throwing his head askew, closing his eyes, and opening his mouth in an unflattering gape.
The third day of a hiking trip is the day you are most likely to hurt yourself. The actual length of the trip can be variable, it is irrelevant. I have learned from experience that is always the third day that injury is most likely to occur.
The third day is the point of a trip when the initial novelty begins to wear off, when your body — so far falsely convinced by your mind’s excitement that it is okay — begins to take over, and you begin to feel every ache and pain in a much more real way.
The third day is when you begin to notice all the little annoying tics of your travel companion. The third day is when Henry found a piece of fallen fence pole and adopted it as a walking stick, beating it down on the ground in a syncopated rhythm with his steps. The third day is also when he stopped using his backpack’s water bottle holders, instead dangling his plastic Nalgenes in his hand, creating a constant hum of plastic jostling on plastic.
The third day is when you start to wonder, “Why am I doing this?” And, more importantly, “How am I possibly going to keep doing this for 27 more days?”
So far we had not hurt ourselves, not more than the typical blisters and tendonitis that all pilgrims must tolerate. In fact, we felt we were hitting our stride. We’d woken up early on Day Three, to get a few kilometers of walking in before the sun rose and began instantly roasting everything in its path. We would reach Pamplona that day, and our spirits were high with anticipation for this beautiful city that so symbolized Spain: chocolate y churros, the running of the bulls, Hemingway and Orwell and the ancient stone of the crumbling fortress.
We were in Spain! And not only were we in it, but we were walking across it, making it utterly new and fascinating to both of us. I had been to Pamplona before, but that had been by bus, not foot. With every small village we approached, our hearts started beating a little faster, “Do you think that’s Pamplona?” Henry would ask me. “Yes, definitely, must be. According to the map, it’s just about time,” I would reply, always wrong and always just as eager to be right.
A man walked by, tan and a little weather beaten from the sun, tall, in his early thirties with trim blonde-brown hair and wire-frame glasses. He walked at a brisk, almost mechanically rhythmic, pace, his arms swinging Nordic trekking poles with his every step. He greeted us cheerily.
“¡Buenos dias!” we replied, always excited by the prospect of meeting a new pilgrim comrade.
“How are you?” he asked, breaking into English. “Where are you from?”
“The United States,” we answered. “You?”
“I am from a small town in Germany.” We were still walking, and he had slowed down to speak with us, also excited by the prospect of a little conversation during the day’s long trek.
“And where did you start?” we asked. I expected him to say St. Jean, and then we could commiserate about the steep climbs together. Or maybe even say Roncesvalles, and then Henry and I could feel superior about having started in St. Jean.
“Oh, I start long time ago. I just leave my door and start walking. I have been walking for sixty seven days.”
We were speechless.
“Sixty seven days?!”
“Yes, sixty seven,” he confirmed, not thinking it a fact of consequence, more interested in hearing about us, “Where did you start?”
“St. Jean Pied-de-Port,” we replied, almost embarrassed now.
“So you have been walking for,” he paused to think, “three days then?”
We nodded, incredulous.
“Good, good! Well, after the third day, it is all fun!” And with that he gave another wave and a smile and picked up his pace again, Nordic trekking off, down to the bridge.
The third day is the best day to have something exciting happen, to get over the third day hump. The third day is a good day to visit Pamplona. And it is a good day to get an unprovoked peptalk from such an enthusiastic cheerleader and prototypical pilgrim as the man who we would come to know as The Sixty-Seven Day German.
With that encounter under our belts, repeating his words — “after the third day, it’s all fun” — like a mantra, we finally came upon what was really, truly, unmistakably Pamplona. I had driven to Pamplona before, and it had seemed just like any very, very old city: a confusing and charming maze of old stone walls and narrow streets. Walking up to it, though, and seeing it in its entirety from the distance, its true structure, in all of its military greatness, was an awesome sight. Located on a high bluff, Pamplona was founded by a Roman general in 75 C.E. and functioned as an important battleground throughout the Middle Ages. Entering the city, I could feel what it must have been to be back in Medieval times: the walls of the city, gray stone blackened with age and crawling with moss, rose into the sky, shielding the entire rest of the city from sight, the one opening a portal cut out of the stone, tall enough for a giant to pass through.
Inside the walls, without the bulls and revelers of San Fermín, the city was nothing particularly special, just the charming city I remembered it as, but a city nonetheless, and the most people and buildings we had seen for three days. And after even only three days, traveling on foot and thinking kilometer to kilometer, it was overwhelming to be in a place with cars and banks and more than one restaurant. We were overwhelmed, we were overjoyed, and the first thing we did was something we had been fantasizing about for days, ever since our first steps, really; we found a post office and unloaded any and all things even slightly unnecessary.
This act, going to the post office and mailing things ahead to Santiago, may seem small, but it was, in retrospect, actually quite momentous. In sending these things ahead — cards (“When were we going to play cards?” Henry asked. “Pre-passing out or post?”), extra first-aid, books, my brush, sneakers, our shampoo, and other goodies (“I’m going to send the condoms and lube,” Henry, of course Henry, reasoned. “Even if I did find someone, I’d be too exhausted to be effective.”) — we had made two agreements with ourselves. One, most obviously, we would reach Santiago to be able to pick them back up. Two, we were fully committing ourselves to the ascetic life of a true pilgrim. We yard-saled all of our belongings on the post office floor and in the end, gave up comfort (sneakers), superficial appearance (brush and shampoo), superficial entertainment (cards and books), and sex. Even the medieval pilgrims didn’t give up sex — trysts were common and unwanted pregnancies and jilted women are the source of many of the so-called “miracles” that sprung up along the way. Where they got the energy, when we were too tired after a day of walking on actually tended paths to play cards, we didn’t know.
Leaving the post office, seeking out a bakery for lunch and marveling at the difference in weight a bottle of shampoo can make, we noticed, for the first time, people looking at us on the street. Backpackers abounded in Pamplona, high school and college graduates traveling Europe and finding themselves. Did they confuse us for that? But then a middle-aged woman, wearing the beige hose and small-heeled white shoes that every middle-aged Spanish woman wears, approached us and, tapping me lightly on the shoulder, said with a small smile, “¡A Santiago!” We smiled back hesitantly, not knowing really how to react, other than a confirmation: “Sí, sí…a Santiago.” I felt like we had entered into a secret club. And for the rest of the day, eating our sandwiches and taking a nap in the well-manicured city park, that club membership felt really good.
The first travel guidebook was, in a way, born out of the Camino. In 1160, a French cleric named Aimery Picaud chronicled the journey — both the spiritual and practical elements of it — in a volume known as the Codex Calixtinus. This book is all the better for Picaud’s biting and opinionated commentary on every people he comes across; in particular, he has some choice things to say about the Basques. He wrote, “This is a barbarous people unlike all other peoples in customs and in character, full of malice, swarthy in color, ill-favored of face, misshapen, perverse, perfidious, empty of faith and corrupt, libidinous, drunken, experienced in all violence, ferocious and wild, dishonest and reprobate, impious and harsh, cruel and contentious, unversed in anything good, well trained in all vices and iniquities.” He goes on to make fun of their strange language, to accuse them of bestiality, and, finally and most damningly, to accuse them of eating with their hands. He also tells a story about a pair of Basques who tricked a pilgrim into drinking poisoned water from a stream so they could steal his money. Overall, he does not paint a flattering picture of the Basque region.
We pressed on past Pamplona, anxious to accumulate a few more kilometers before calling it a day. We were also worried about the safety of the Pamplona hostel, which might not just be pilgrims, but also untrustworthy backpackers and city-bred pickpockets. So instead we had decided to walk the few more kilometers to tiny, homey Cizur Menor, basically just an albergue and a church on a hill.
We were assigned a small private room off to the side of the hostel, and while Henry slept I chatted with the old French woman who was sharing it with us in a mix of English, French and Spanish, relying largely on hand gestures and emphatic nodding to understand what the other was talking about. She, I learned, had hiked the Camino before; she continued to hike a bit of it every year by herself, and her husband would pick her up a few days from here. Why did she continue hiking it? To pay homage to Saint Jean, of course, she answered me, more serious than before.
“¿Católica?” she asked, pointing to me. She wanted to know if I was Catholic.
“No, no soy Católica.”
“No,” I answered reluctantly. I paused, unsure if I should reveal. “Judia.” I was Jewish, I told her. She didn’t respond but just kept looking at me. Did she not understand? I repeated myself, “Judia.” Still no response. “Jewish?” This time I said it slower and louder. She nodded at me tightly, a kind of grimace that made me realize she had understood all along but had just not known what to say. Then she smiled at me and went back to tending her feet, the conversation clearly over, even if she couldn’t embrace me, she could at least tolerate me.
But overall, she was a harmless, trustworthy seeming woman, and when we all turned in around ten o’clock we said pleasant goodnights. I usually stowed my money belt in the foot of my sleeping bag as I slept, but it was a hot night, so I wasn’t in the bag as usual, and buried the money belt in my backpack next to my bed instead. And even with the hot air and Henry’s snores, I managed to sleep completely soundly, absolutely worn out from the day.
At about five in the morning, I heard a rustle at my pack. I opened my eyes, bleary, and registered a figure I didn’t recognize, but I thought it must just be Henry looking for something — what would he need from my pack, though? — and turned over, back to sleep. And then there was Henry again. But this time it was his voice, whispering urgently from his bed across the room, “Claire. Claire! There was a man in here…”
“What?!” I snapped to attention. “What?! Where is he?”
“I think he went to the bathroom.”
I was already up, hand in my pack, realizing my money belt was missing, grabbing my flashlight and nothing else — not glasses, not sandals — barreling out of the room. I don’t remember even thinking about it, I don’t remember it taking any time at all; I just remember the instinctual, adrenaline-packed motions. This must be fight or flight, I realize now. I just never thought I’d be one to pick fight.
I ran out into the hallway to see a man, at 5’7″ or so a little smaller than me, slight build, buzzed dark hair, dark complexion, coming out of the bathroom. I saw him in the half-light of the door closing, his figure illuminated from behind. I flipped on my flashlight, shown it in his face.
“¿Estabas en mi cuarto?” Were you in my room? The Spanish came out instantly, perfectly conjugated, unthinkingly.
He shook his head, tried to turn around, away from me and back into the larger room of beds.
“Sí, sí estabas en mi cuarto.” Yes, yes you were in my room. I was still shining the flashlight in his face. He was still backing away from me. Suddenly, I shown the flashlight down, down to his hands. They were holding my money belt.
This is where my memory slows down. I remember looking straight into his eyes and something in me knowing them to be the eyes of my enemy. I remember feeling at the same time stronger and weaker than I had ever felt, as I watched his eyes grow bigger with panic. I remember snatching back the bag from his hands in one swift movement, one quick reflex that beat any struggle he might have tried. And then, for one more second, we stood, chest to chest. And then he pushed past me, one quick reflex that beat any struggle I might have tried, and started to run.
I started to run after him, but I had no glasses or shoes, I had my bag back, and my completely uncharacteristic fight reflex was gone. All of this must have taken thirty seconds, but it felt like an epic confrontation to me. And as I sprinted, painfully, across the gravel outside the albergue, screaming “Help!” all the while, I lost my will to catch him. I walked back, shaken, the few steps to the door of the albergue, the gray mistiness of dawn making it even harder for me to see than my near-sightedness already did. As I walked up the stairs, Henry came rushing out the door, in boxers and a tee shirt, wielding his stick. “Where is he?! What happened?! I’m here, I’m here. Where is he?!” And the French woman bustling out behind him, and a handful of pilgrims my screams had woken up and who had actually cared to get out of bed.
“He’s gone. I don’t know. He went that way,” I said, pointing around the corner of the church. “I’m sure he’s gone by now.” If only I had punched him in the face when he first came out of the bathroom. I’d taken kickboxing at the gym. I could have punched him in the face. I could have done much worse. If only I’d tackled him as we ran across the gravel. I could have — would have — if I’d only thought to do it.
There was no point in going back to sleep. We were too wired, and it was already almost six. Instead, we went into the kitchen. Henry made hot chocolate for me and the French woman as she panicked about having had her cell phone stolen. What kind of man would do that, she kept asking. Those kind of things weren’t supposed to happen on the Camino, she said.
Except that was the irony. These kind of things did happen on the Camino, all the time — in the Medieval times of Picaud and now. I unzipped my money belt. Everything was there — credit card, debit card, passport, traveler’s checks. I opened up my wallet. All the cash — probably about $250 — was gone. Now I just felt weak.
After the third day, it’s all fun. Henry and I decided the day starts with waking up, so the robbery was technically still part of Day Three. Meaning, I suppose, that from now on, it would all be fun. At the start of the day’s hike, we called out to an old man we saw taking the wrong turn-off and pointed him onto the right trail. Turned out, he was the old man who was always making fun of us. In return, he made fun of us some more and then went out of his way to point out an obvious change in the trail to us, as if to show that he could do it, too.
Henry-isms of the day: “Those butterflies are vicious,” “Those snails are killers!” “The more I think about it, the more freaked out I am that we only have two years left of school,” and, finally, “I still have those condoms. They were so light!” I could barely muster a smile. Henry was supposed to be my hiking partner. He was supposed to protect me. But while he could, I suppose, protect himself from an STD, he couldn’t even protect himself from a snail.
I was upset and scared. I felt violated, not so much because of the robbery itself but because of the extremely confrontational way it ended up happening. I couldn’t call my parents; I didn’t know what they would do — make me come home? come out to Spain themselves? call the Guardía Civíl and hire me a personal bodyguard? I couldn’t call my boyfriend, Jonathan, because I hadn’t brought his cell phone number, resolving to give both of us our space, not foreseeing an event happening that would make me want as little space as possible, but just want to be around someone I trusted, who made me feel safe.
I didn’t know what to say to Henry. I didn’t want him to think I blamed him for what happened. Then again, I partly did. If only he had said something while the man had been in the room! That was my biggest “if only” and the only one that kept echoing through my head.
I’d have to let it go. I wouldn’t be able to hold this grudge and get through the next 27 days. Now I knew what I could expect from Henry. Now I knew that I would have to take care of myself, watch out for myself. And that could be okay. After all, I had fought, not flown. I, amazingly, had fought.
And as we walked, through fields that epitomized the image of golden wheat, I thought about what is perhaps Spain’s greatest legend — that of Don Quixote. I had just re-read the book carefully in a class the year before, and the professor’s lectures were coming back to my mind. Don Quixote is a man outside his time, a man trying to recreate a time that had been lost. In that way, Don Quixote is not unlike modern-day pilgrims who, with varying levels of self-awareness, pursue an ideal of spirituality and asceticism that was perhaps never there in the first place.
But I also thought about Don Quixote for another reason. Upon hearing of our Spanish quest, Henry and my friends had made plenty of Don Quixote jokes. I was always, of course, Quixote, since he is the main character and principal instigator of the journey. Henry they compared to Quixote’s sidekick Sancho, who, fat and jolly, was the frequent butt of jokes. Sancho’s job was to keep Quixote in check, to take care of him selflessly and try to remind him of reality, as Quixote embarked on all his crazed adventures. But my professor had pointed out that it’s ultimately unclear which is the more important character in the book, Quixote or Sancho. In fact, in many ways, Sancho is the main character of Don Quixote. But which was I and which was Henry? And which was the better character to be? I had been expecting Henry to be the perfect traveling companion, but he was flawed, just as I was, and it was okay for me to be annoyed about it.
Mid-morning, a hillside began to emerge from the path ahead, its top lined with giant white windmills. They were a modern kind of windmill, all clean lines and wind efficiency, but they were windmills nonetheless. And with Henry walking ahead of me, his head cocked back to gaze up at the windmills, I tried to convince myself that the events of the night before didn’t matter. We were in Spain for adventure, for new experiences. Basically every story of Don Quixote is a story of the pair being robbed or abused in some other way. Which is not to say I wanted to be robbed every day, just that I’d had that experience, I had survived, and now I never needed to have it happen again.
After the third day, it’s all fun.