Who ever thought that my pilgrimage would begin with me jerking off into a plastic cup? I’ll get to that in a little bit, but for now, I’m standing at the edge of uncertainty staring at the abyss and a 482 mile walk across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. What brought me here? I guess it’s the same things that brought me to my knees back home in Southern California: The crumbling of a 23 year marriage that taught me how to hate. The teetering of my first real relationship after being separated that had taught me how to love again, and a gnawing feeling that after more than half a century on this earth i was still lost.
I was hoping that a million steps down a path through Spain in the middle of summer to find some Saint buried in a church in a town in Western Spain would help me lose sight of the things I needed to rid myself of. Hopefully, I would leave those things behind with each boot print I made in the dirt and see the path that lies in front of me more clearly, and figure out how to walk it with the time I have 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 had known 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
Janice and Hannah
Back to jerking off. Almost 14 years ago, there I was, at the Center for Reproductive Health, cup in hand, and a passel of porn spread out on the that thin paper that covered the exam table, like at every doctors examination room you’ve ever been in. The nurse had politely alluded to the cupboard where the porn was kept, in case I was in need of “assistance”. For some reason, the white sterile walls and the pastel pictures awash with flaccid colors didn’t give me a hard on, so I dug into the stack of magazines. Fortunately none of the pages were sticky…
I had never been one of those men who necessarily wanted kids. You know the guys. The ones who were just destined to get married, have 2.3 kids, live out their lives with a steady job, soccer games, manning the grill and watching football on the weekend. I know I should have been hard wired to create as many spitting images of myself as I could, but as I said, I was just never that guy.
So it caught me off guard when, at 45, my wife Janice told me that she’d like to have a child. We’d never really discussed it. On reflection, a big part of it was (I think) her career, which was on a downswing. The business she had toiled in successfully for twenty years was notoriously ageist, and she wasn’t getting any younger. She hadn’t been getting much work, and it seemed to me her energies needed to be focused elsewhere. And she probably felt some maternal tug, a call to nurture that she had chose to ignore up to this point.
I was ambivalent; I mean we were both 45. After thinking about it (or maybe Janice just wore me down- an easy task for her in those days) I decided that, despite my misgivings, I would do this for the woman I loved. After we made the decision and nothing happened, she started taking some Chinese herbs. Still nothing. Then she started taking fertility drugs and we had the obligatory sex at the appointed time.
Time went by, we kept trying. It all seemed so, uhh…scientific (except for the jerking off part) and sterile. But hey, this is our world, the one we’ve created and accepted. Finally, we got an inkling of hope. An early test indicated a positive result. A subsequent test revealed a healthy baby girl. Nine months later Hannah was born. She’s 12 now and I think I’ve been a pretty good father, taught her a few things, at least until I was ostracized from the relationship. Little did I know that after my divorce, a beautiful Swedish woman named Amanda and her four kids would teach me more about parenting, myself, and life than years of therapy with Sigmund Freud himself could have.
Two months before setting foot on the camino, I was sitting with Amanda at a bench by Starbucks. It was the first time I’d seen her since losing her from my sight as she left the Southwest terminal at LAX and just sort of faded away. We’d been returning from a job we had both worked on. It was sort of like a traveling circus, we were working on the same project, but different teams. I saw her for a little while most days. She had told me at the beginning of the trip that she had been drifting away; her feelings for me weren’t the same. Great timing. If I would have known, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten her the job in the first place, which was through an ex- business partner of mine. I had to do some convincing to get him to hire her but, well, I was in love with her and she could use the money, having just been through a divorce herself.
The flight from Sacramento had been silent. We sat next to each other but I didn’t have much to say. We had made it to the airport early and I found myself vacillating between my old self- at least the funny, smart, adorable part of me, and a part that was now vacant, that had nothing to say. I didn’t know what to do with the part of me that had grown to love Amanda over the past 9 months. The part of me that shared my ongoing divorce with her, and hers with me. The part that wanted to feel her head resting on my shoulder, wanted to press my lips to hers and breathe life into her, and feel her breathe life into me. We weren’t sharing those things anymore.
When we got off the plane we walked to baggage claim in silence. I just felt numb. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do to fill those lonely moments, hours, days. Even though she had been drifting away for awhile, I was still hoping for…what? I don’t know. I just knew that I would never again find the love, tenderness, and connection that I had found with this beautiful soul who picked me up when I had been knocked to the ground by the slings and arrows of a 23 year marriage that in the last few years had become emotionally abusive.
And so, I stand in Se Jean Pied de port, France looking out to my future. As 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 km over the Pyrenees from France in the rain with a 30 pound pack on his back.
Maybe later I’ll regale you with stories of Madrid. But for now, lets just say that a little too much wine and cigarettes the night before compromised my level headedness and, more importantly my sense of direction the next morning when I was to head to St Jean Pied de Port and the beginning of my walk. After agonizing over the signs and asking a few people who didn’t speak English- my eighth grade Spanish wasn’t enough to bridge the communication gap- I finally made what I thought was an educated guess. I was wrong. When I realized my mistake I got off the train and caught a train back to where I had begun, and beyond to the central terminal, where I would hopefully take a train to Pamplona, and then to St. Jean.
When I finally did get to the station, I ran into Erin, a blond Canadian from a small town near Toronto. She was going to Pamplona to meet friends and watch the running of the bulls. It was a relief to finally talk to someone who spoke English. We walked to where you purchase bus tickets, and I went over to the Alsa counter where I had purchased a ticket online, but for, how I read it, the wrong day. I was dismayed when the woman at the counter told me that they did indeed have tickets to Pamplona which left in an hour, but I would not make the connection to St. Jean. I got out of line and kicked myself for not planning ahead, for the hangover, and the gnawing feeling that this whole adventure may have been a huge mistake…
When we got to Pamplona, Erin and I parted ways. I found my way to the bus to St. Jean where I met a super nice Japanese guy named Kento. He was traveling, at least for the moment, with Asia, a Polish woman he had met in Madrid. He seemed like one of those guys who always wants to help> He was always interested in what you were saying, and continually nodded his head up and down while smiling or laughing, even though I had doubts about how much he really understood. I figured I could probably use a little of what Kentos’ got. Asia told me It was his second trip to the Camino. Kento didn’t speak much English, but I got to know Asia a little since she spoke 3 languages fluently, English being one. We all boarded the bus which was only half full, and away we rolled to St. Jean.
After an hour of a winding road through the Pyrannes, we landed in St Jean in a drizzle. Asia and I hugged (she let me know she was a big hugger) and said our goodbyes. Kento had volunteered to see if there was a room at his auberge, so I followed him up a picture perfect, windy street to find that his hotel was full. So I walked back down the steep, cobble stoned street and stumbled upon a room that was abuzz with activity. I surmised that it was a place one could get their “pilgrims passport”-sort of like a real passport, with pages to get stamped in towns along the way.
I asked the woman who helped me about a place to stay, and she directed me to one of the newest auberges in St Jean, the Gite Buen Camino, which was just down the street. When I got there I was glad to see they had beds- it had started to drizzle and I pictured my first few days on the camino coughing up phlegm and blowing snot onto the Camino. Not the best behavior for a pilgrim I figured.
The proprietor Maria Estelle, gave me and a few others the tour. I opted to pay an extra euro and sleep in a smaller room with only 4 beds. As I was settling in I met two other pilgrims, both Korean, who were to be my roommates. Im and Park weren’t traveling together but had met in Paris, where they had embarked from, to travel to St Jean and walk the Camino. They spoke slightly more English than i speak Korean (which is none). Im immediately asked if I wanted to get a bite (he did most of the talking, as it were). So we walkded the thin, windy cobble stoned streets over the river to have dinner at place near the center of town. At one point Im was struggling to say how beautiful it was, and I simply said “Disneyland”. They got it, we all laughed. The town is so perfect as to be almost indescribable. So I won’t try. Here’s a picture though.
Dinner was good, pasta with Bolognese (something Amanda had taught me to love) – it seemed it would be the perfect blend of carbs and protein to help me over the Pyrenees the next day. We got back to the auberge, and Im and I had a French beer while Park took a shower. Im commented on how kind Maria Estelle was, so I wrote in Maria Estelle’s’ guest book- “Thanks for opening up your place, and your heart to us”. Not too poetic but I was still a little brain dead from my last night of celebrating life in Madrid.
We went to bed, and after hearing my phone chirp all night (13 times to be exact, due to an old friend I had reconnected with texting suggestions for places to stay and eat) the alarm finally went off (I thought I had turned the volume off). So I got up and fumbled for it between IM and Park’s bed (that’s where the charging station was) and proceeded to get ready. It seemed to take forever, but as I subsequently found out, preparing the night before to hit the road quickly and quietly is something you learn after a few nights of getting pissed off at yourself for not being organized, and thoughtful of the other pilgrims who might still be sleeping.
Finally, I said our goodbyes to Maria Estelle who hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks. My first french kiss. Im, Park and I headed off down the perfect dewey streets of St. Jean in a steady sprinkle, almost rain. We hiked through the town, then up steep paved roads. After awhile the rain got a little harder, the clouds got a little thicker (you could only see a few hundred yards in any direction) and our clothes got wetter…
After a few hours, we came upon a little town, and the last chance to eat a real meal until Roncesvalles, our final destination that day. There were pigs the size of Shetland Ponies milling around out front, so I got a chorizo baguette for ironies sake, followed by an espresso. I sat down with a young, good looking Italian guy from Milan. It was his second camino. We talked about our countries, what brought us there. I told him that part of the reason I was out there was because of a woman. How many times have those words been uttered on the camino?
I moved on pretty quickly, wanting to get some mileage in. I met some other folks from Norway, Poland, Italy. The camino is certainly a melting pot. Compared to the rest of the world though, considering the diversity, every last person I’ve talked to is so nice, and giving. Perhaps the United Nations should walk the camino and talk. Maybe they’ll figure something out.
After awhile we came upon a van selling cheese, fruit, hot chocolate. I now hold hot chocolate (at least hot chocolate offered to a soaked soul in the middle of the Pyrenees wondering what the hell he was doing there) amongst the most regal of beverages, right up there with a intense Syrah from Eastern Washington or a cup of Terrafazione espresso from Portland
After I finished, I had trouble getting my pack back on, and by the time I was ready, the loose knit group I had been traveling with had gone. I tried to catch up but couldn’t find them in the fog. I walked alone for a long while. I got lost once, having to retrace my steps (I hadn’t been paying enough attention, my thoughts were distracting me).
I finally caught up with Wim and Elsa from Holland. I was stressing about trying to get this first post up, and then emailing and posting to Facebook, etc- trying to get some followers, get the ball rolling. In addition, it seemed that the one place to stay in the small town we were walking to (Roncesvalles) had only one large monastery where all the pilgrims stayed. I was pretty sure monks didn’t use the internet. in fact I’d heard that Roncesvalles isn’t really even a town. In addition it’s in the mountains. I was certain internet access would be non-existent. Hell, they probably wouldn’t even have electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. God, what if I can’t check in on Facebook…
I got to Roncesvalles drenched and I couldn’t wait to take a hot shower After walking up to the second floor I found bunk #234, my home for the night. Shivering due to my wet clothes, and having switched from my hiking boots to my wet flip flops (due to the fact I had smartly hung them on the outside of my pack) I rifled through my backpack for my other pair of long pants which were…drenched. Seems i had ignored putting the rain cover over the pack, reasoning that the backpack was pretty waterproof. Guess not.
So I went to take a shower which was nice and hot. I finally removed myself from the comfort that can only be found in a warm shower, and maybe the womb, I turned the shower off and went to grab my towel. Except I forgot the lesson I had learned (obviously not very well) the night before in St Jean, that auberges don’t have towels. Note to self: buy towel. So I used my wet shirt to dry off. It worked.
Then I got dressed in what I had that was dry, which is why I’m writing this from my top bunk, looking out the window of a thousand year old monastery where my other long pants and wet underwear are drying, wearing the only other long sleeved shirt i have that’s dry- a black $150 John Varvatos button down (that I brought to wear in Madrid) over a lime green t-shirt with a picture of a gorilla riding a bike, and a pair of O Neil board pants from Costco.
And I am happy. And I am grateful. I am especially grateful to those I am dedicating this blog to: Janice, Amanda, and Hannah, and the woman in my life who’ve taught me the lessons i’ve needed to learn, and who continue to show me the way.
And we’ll walk down the avenue again
And we’ll sing all the songs from way back when
And we’ll walk down the avenue again when the healing has begun
And we’ll walk down the avenue and we’ll smile
And we’ll say baby ain’t it all worthwhile when the healing has begun
You can wear your Easter bonnet and all the rest
And I wanna make love to you yes, yes, yes when the healing has begun…