Travel Essay. Day 1: I wish God would’ve told me that it may not be a good idea to start a pilgrimage with a massive hangover. That’s what I thought as I stood staring at a dirt path that wound its way up the Pyrenees and a 482-mile walk across Spain on a centuries-old pilgrimage route called the Camino de Santiago. Then again, I hadn’t been listening to god much lately, or anyone else who had an opinion about my reckless behavior and apparent lack of rational thinking.
What sent me there? I guess the same things that brought me to my knees back home in Southern California- The dissolution of a 23 year marriage that taught me how to hate, the teetering of my first relationship after being separated that taught me how to love again, and a gnawing feeling in my gut that after more than half a century on this earth I was still lost, and would probably die with no better of an idea as to why I’m here than I had when I first stumbled into my mom’s arms across a green carpeted floor in a suburb of Los Angeles more than five decades ago.
I was hoping that somehow taking a million steps down a path across Northern Spain in the middle of a blistering hot summer to find some Saint buried at a church in a city named Santiago de Compostela would help me lose sight of some of the things I needed to rid myself of. I would leave those things behind with each boot print I made in the dirt and hopefully see the path that lies in front of me more clearly and figure out how to walk it with the time I had left before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
So, when I hit rock bottom, walking the Camino barged into my psyche like a bull running through the streets of Pamplona looking to gore a drunken tourist, and it wouldn’t let go. I’d never even been to Europe, but with everything I knew and loved tumbling down around me, I didn’t have to think twice.
“Thus, conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprise of great pitch and moment with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.” -Hamlet
So, there I was, standing in St. Jean Pied de Port (literally “Saint John at the Foot of the Pass”) France looking out at the Camino de Santiago and my future, literally and figuratively. Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Yeah, well…I’ll bet his first steps didn’t take him 25 kilometers over the Pyrenees in the rain with a 30-pound pack on his back suffering from a serious hangover due to a miscalculated “cultural experience” the night before in Madrid.
Unfortunately, that momentary lapse of good judgment in Madrid had compromised my level-headedness and, more importantly, my sense of direction when I set out to take a train from my hotel to the central station where I could board my bus to St Jean Pied de Port. Not that my judgment had been stellar as of late. In fact, due to the shit bag of chaos my life had become during the previous year, my decision making was pretty much on the level of the dude who decided there should be 16 lifeboats on the Titanic.
After agonizing over the signs at the train station, I ended up heading in the wrong direction. Considering the state I was in, I guessed I was probably going to end up at the gates of Hell, or at the very least a Justin Bieber concert. And I figured I deserved it. Well, at least according to the hung-over voice in the back of my head who in his best moods thinks I’m a worthless dung heap. Best I can remember he went on to ridicule me and question how in the hell I was going to be able to hoof it across an entire country when I couldn’t even navigate the Madrid train station.
Finally, after I turned myself around with the help of an older gentleman on the train who spoke English, I made it to the central bus terminal only to find that the last bus to Pamplona wouldn’t make the connection to St. Jean, my jumping off point. I got out of line and kicked myself for the hangover, not planning, and for the gnawing feeling that this whole misadventure may have been a colossal mistake.
While I was wallowing in self-pity followed by a chaser of self-loathing, I spied a window for another bus company and discovered that they too had tickets to Pamplona, and in fact, their bus would get me there in time to make the connection to St. Jean. There’s a saying that the Camino provides. Yeah, well, that kind of magic didn’t exist in my fucked-up world at the time, but I took the ticket anyway and ran to catch my bus.
When I got to Pamplona, I found my way to the bus for St. Jean. At least where I thought it was supposed to leave from- my hangover infused insecurity was still questioning every thought and move I was making. Fortunately, two pilgrims were sitting on a bench (their backpacks tipped me off), so I approached them in the spirit of pilgrimatic kinship.
Kento was a short Japanese guy, probably mid- 30’s, with a perpetual grin on his face. He was traveling, at least for the moment, with Asia, a mid-30’s woman he had met in Madrid. Kento didn’t speak much English, but he was animated, continually bouncing up off the bench to make a point, although I was never sure what the point was. You couldn’t help but like him.
Although I couldn’t understand much of what Kento said, Asia was a different story. She was a beautiful brunette from Poland who spoke three languages fluently, English being one of them. We all boarded the bus which was only half full, and away we rolled to St. Jean. Asia and I talked for a while, but for some reason, she seemed a little guarded. Maybe it was because she was talking to a half-crazed emotionally bankrupt American with the scent of two dollar a bottle Rioja oozing out of his pores.
She told me she was staying with an acquaintance in St Jean for two days so that she wouldn’t be setting out on her pilgrimage the next morning like the rest of us, so I reasoned I wouldn’t be seeing her again. After about an hour and a half on a winding road through the Pyrenees, the bus pulled up to St Jean in a drizzle. Asia and I hugged (she had told me she was a big hugger) and said our goodbyes.
Kento had volunteered to see if there was a room at his Auberge (the name used for many of the inns and hostels along the Camino catering to pilgrims), so I followed him past the center of town and up a picture perfect, winding, cobblestoned street that crossed a river. It was almost too perfect.
We got to Kento’s Auberge only to discover it full. He offered to help me further (I think) but I shook my head and offered him my hand, muttering the pilgrims greeting of “Buen Camino.” It was time for me to begin my pilgrimage, and to experience one of the primary reasons I had traveled halfway around the world- to be alone with the pathetic creature that had crawled out of the primordial ooze of my soul over the last few years.
The man whose self-esteem had been whittled down to a toothpick by an emotionally abusive wife. The man whose guts had been eviscerated by a beautiful Swedish ex-model and mother of 4 who saved him and made him feel worthwhile, at least until she told him she no longer had feelings for him. The man who secretly hoped he might find a cliff somewhere along The Camino that would make a fall seem like an accident.
After I left Kento, I walked down the cobble-stoned street under a steady drizzle alone, content to wallow in my over-indulgence-laced bath of self-pity. Not sure where to turn, I decided to walk back down the street and stumbled upon a room that was abuzz with activity. It wasn’t an auberge, but it was a place one could obtain their “pilgrims’ passport”-sort of like a real passport, with pages to get stamped in towns along the way. I had ordered one online, but it occurred to me that I had never received it.
After being issued my passport, I asked the woman who had helped me about a place to stay, and she directed me to one of the newest auberges in St Jean, just down the street. When I got there, I was glad to see they had beds. Due to the constant drizzle, I had gotten soaked and I pictured myself having to sleep outside and spending the first few days walking while coughing up phlegm and blowing snot onto the Camino. Not the best behavior for a pilgrim on some sort of spiritual quest I surmised.
I walked into town and got a bite to eat, the cafes were abuzz with activity- fellow pilgrims excited about their impending journey. I sat in silence as I wolfed down some Spaghetti Bolognese and returned to the Auberge. The proprietress offered me a French beer, and we talked a little about St Jean and the Camino as her husband watched some sort of Italian reality show. After she joined him, I wrote in her guest book- “Thanks for opening up your place and your heart to me.”
No easy feat for man whose heart had a fissure the size of the San Andreas Fault running through it. But the next day would prove that a few blisters, constant drizzle, and 20 kilometers of road that seemed like it went straight up (it got me thinking that somebody really screwed up on the directions to hell) would at least help me forget the sadness and pain that had sent me there in the first place.
BIO: Mark West says, I was a husband and father, then my life fell apart so I walked across Spain and wrote about it.
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