nomads and wanderers

nomads and wanderers, wherever you are
sleep well, you pilgrims and vagabonds, under the stars…

— from the chorus of “Nomads and Wanderers”

Yesterday’s albergue was new and modern and so clean. Today’s albergue was old, dirty, and rundown, so I planned to sleep in long sleeves and long tights, to avoid any bug bites, just in case. How quickly my situation changed, day to day.

Here, I was straddling the old and the new. The Camino now followed an old Roman road, passing a  Roman mile marker near the bar where I drank coffee. I would cross a Roman bridge tomorrow. I had chosen the Primitivo for these very days, to walk in the millions and millions of footsteps of all those who had walked this Way before me, from after the life of Christ into Viking times, through the Middle Ages into this modern day.

My Middle Age: a milestone. Retracing my steps down the road to study that mile marker, I stood facing the Romans’ assertion of their dominion, carved in granite. And look at them now. All roads actually led to a different Rome than they might have been considering when they erected this supposedly permanent way sign. The message was hidden in plain sight: back to the zero-mile, the beginning and the end, center of a penciled compass arc of influence and power, easily erased and redrawn by Time.

As I passed these oldest landmarks, I found myself noticing the oldest people along the Camino. Elders were grabbing my heart and my attention in these last days of the Primitivo, before my path joined the Camino Frances into Santiago.

Yesterday, at the cathedral in Lugo, an old woman dressed in black paced slowly before the doors, keening in mourning for her husband. Not a loud wail, she moaned her pain and panic, tentatively extending her begging cup. My immediate streetwise thought was, Nice strategy if you’re homeless – well done. But as I approached her and tried to talk to her, it was apparent that at some point, she had actually lost her husband; she was obviously elderly; and homeless was homeless, so survival was now the full-time strategy. I might have used my grief to let me live, too.

When my father died, I was devastated. He had been the sanity of our family, the grounded stabilizer, fortunately or unfortunately attracted to the wild energy of my mother’s neurotic demands and rages, deeming this passion. His personality was friendly, down-to-earth, and also expansive; he offered that wide, generous pasture, because he needed it himself. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

He, too, roamed in his day, and told stories about taking a train west when he was only 16, dreaming of becoming a cowboy. When he reached the ranch that had hired him, that’s exactly what he found, cows and more cows. But to his utter dismay, these were not longhorn dogies for a dusty cattle drive to Abilene – no, they were milk cows. He’d come 700 miles to the dry eastern plains of Colorado, not the stunning mountains, to milk cows, just like back home on the farm.

But that didn’t stop him. He soon enlisted in the Marine Corps, and was sent to the Pacific at the end of World War II. The horrors of battle never realized, he spent his tour cleaning up after battles already gone by, clearing beaches, patrolling beaches, swimming beaches. After learning to smoke and drink, he came home with a new and shocking vocabulary, a gorgeous tan, and a beautiful hula girl tattoo on his bicep that he could make dance by flexing his muscles.

What I remember most about his stories of those days was the way his eyes changed when he talked about the ocean. His hazel eyes reflected a certain light he had seen, over a wilderness of endless water, unfathomable, expansive beyond description. The ocean had given him something profoundly personal, spiritual, and I always wanted to follow that light, to see what he had seen.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Today, I came upon a wonderful elderly woman slowly making her way up an old mossy-walled stretch of the Camino passing through woods. Again, all dressed in black, again, not understanding when I tried to explain I could not understand Spanish well. But when I took her hand, the skin papery-thin, she got teary, so I leaned in close and said, “Buen dia, señora, buen dia,” as I kissed one cheek, then the other. She smiled and touched her teary eyes, saying words that sounded like, “Buen viaje,” though I wasn’t sure. Still, I took that meaning, and walked on. It was so hard to leave her; I felt like I wanted to make sure she made it home all right. But this was her life, and she’d let me go, so I let her go and kept walking.

Mostly this day I remembered things from childhood, as if I had become an old abuela, too, slowly using my stick to walk the path, my head draped in a scarf against the sun, telling stories of days gone by to my grandchildren, all of which I was most certainly doing, even writing tales into my notebook in the evenings. Feeling tears rise at the kind gestures of strangers, and at my inability to do more for others in return. Indeed, I was walking her mossy path.

I remembered my favorite picture book from when I was five, where the little boy, Lester, traveled the world making friends, riding an elephant, flying on a dragon kite, seeing storks in their rooftop nests, floating on a red balloon past the Eiffel Tower. How I had longed to go with him. And also the Dr. Seuss book, “McElligott’s Pool,” where anything exotic from any far away place was possible to find, if you remained “patient and cool.” Oh, and how I wanted “Scuffy the Tugboat” to sail out into the sea at last, and not return home to sail in the bath tub.

I remembered working in our fields, walking beans and baling hay with my uncles and my grandpa, saving my pay at $1/hour to finally buy an army surplus rucksack of olive green canvas that I used for going everywhere, until I wore it out.

I saw now that this had been a lifetime obsession for me, not since 17. Lifetime. Always, this had been me: ready to go, searching for adventure.

The dirt of the Camino crunched under my feet, as I wiped sweat from my face. I remembered my grandma kept small potted cactus on the kitchen windowsill over the deep chest freezer filled with homemade cinnamon rolls and hearty breads and sweet corn sliced from the cob and thick cuts of meat wrapped in white butcher paper. The wonder, to me, was not the abundance of food (we lived on a farm); it was the foreignness of desert life in the midst of the Midwest. So fascinating to me, that if we gave the cactus water, it could be too much and kill them. How do they live?, I had wondered. What would the desert be like?

Now I knew, and cactus still amazed me. Understanding the world a bit more in no way diminished its magic; if anything, it let me bring it with me, visualizing the desert, or my grandparents’ farm, or the snowy Rocky Mountains, using the learning of direct experience to make the magic last. It was the learning that seemed to stick with me best, and the kind I had pursued least, until now. How long I had waited. Hardly patient and cool, though.

My father and I had come by this wanderlust naturally. My grandpa, Holger, was first-generation American. His parents had crossed the Atlantic from Denmark, searching for something more. The heartbreaking story of his father, Christian, was all too common: having bought a farm, he settled into his life in America, he married, and they had a child, a little boy; and, when diptheria claimed the wife and five-year-old child, Christian was devastated. A handsome, dashing, blue-eyed Dane with a gift for jokes and storytelling, he became somber and defeated, his loss too much to bear. When he finally remarried, it was to a sturdy, quiet, dependable woman who bore him several more children – the first of whom was Holger.

Holger was a chip off the old block. His eyes twinkled merrily whenever there was a party to be found. He loved to talk to people, and people loved to talk with him, and he had many friends. But Christian never appreciated this trait, his own fun-loving charisma reflected back to him, and he and Holger struggled to get along. Holger, in turn, tried to knuckle down and be responsible. He went to college using the ROTC program, an Army second-lieutenant at the end of his term who was unable to obtain the final credit needed for his horticulture degree, because he could not pass the college English exams. The family spoke only Danish at home.

Undeterred by this setback, Holger bought land from his father and started farming. He married a sturdy, quiet, dependable woman who bore him several children – and this is when the problem began.

Holger was like the original Christian – the life of the party. He had married a girl just like the one that married dear old Dad, even though Holger had not gone through the devastating loss and grief of his father, had not lost his sparkling belle of the ball. Even Holger naming his own first son after that first son Christian had lost, had made no difference in their relationship. Now here he was, living something very akin to his father’s life of mourning, an adventurous young man of joy and passion. The family always said they could never understand why he did what he did next – but I could.

Holger took off. He headed west, of course, into the fabled promised lands of America, where a person could find wide open spaces and opportunities to reinvent himself. Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above – don’t fence me in. He went all the way, as far west as he possibly could drive, to the coast of California. There’s a picture of him, sitting on a dock, facing the ocean, his jaunty cap framing a beaming smile.

That picture had captivated me as a child. I had never seen my grandpa so happy. My aunts made disparaging remarks when I asked about it, and my uncles laughed and used it as a punchline to their jokes. But my father – he didn’t say anything about it.

Grandpa Holger was back about two weeks later. In my heart, I’m confident he had gone to make a decision. Overwhelmed with the responsibility of the farm, hired hands, several small children, his wife, all struggling together as they trudged through the Great Depression, he’d run, to clear his head, to choose between the life he had fallen into and the life he had never let himself find. That photo showed me Holger right before the heartbreak of his life: giving it all up, that wide-open freedom, and returning.

Holger was a good man. He became a respected pillar of the small community. He helped a lot of young couples get started farming, selling them sections of his own land for much less than it was worth. He took Grandma to church every Sunday, took his turn ringing the bell. He could be counted on to help his neighbors whenever they needed him.

He loved a good joke forever, and a good rascal – like me. Always disapproved of for my latest shenanigans, always the recipient of my aunts’ bossy admonitions, he always laughed whenever
I got myself into trouble. As I walked into that farmhouse kitchen and found him standing there, he’d reach out his brown, gnarled hand and tossle my already tossled hair, saying in his gruff, thickly-accented English, “This one – this one I like.”

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

At one crossroads, an older man with silvery hair sat on the wall with his two dogs at his feet. As I approached, suddenly, he jumped up with a shout, and he and the dogs ran down the righthand road. When I got to the intersection, an older woman in a long dress, apron, and headscarf stepped from the small barn before me. We could see then that four sheep were out of their pasture and strolling up the small road. The man was having a time herding them in again with some help from the big dog, while the small dog rolled enthusiastically in what looked like dried manure on the road. The woman and I chuckled together. I understood that these were older, newly-weaned lambs, because I could just make out she said that they didn’t want to get their own food, they just wanted milk. They had gone in search of their mothers.

So had I. After years of escaping fences and running down the wrong roads, I had finally sat down and reread the story I told myself, slowly, carefully. My mother’s story had shown me how poison seeps down through the generations, a hidden leak of deadly contamination oozing toxic trails through our lives. Long ago, I had processed what happened, but hadn’t taken time to look deeper into how, and why, everything happened as it did. High on the mountain, I had stumbled onto understanding, perspective clear and fresh as this woman’s smiling explanation of the lambs.

But in an unexpected twist of fate, like all the best tales, searching for her story had led me into my father’s story, and his father’s. Rereading this story, I saw how good people can break their own hearts, by trying to be what they think they should be, instead of being who they are; by mistaking passion for irresponsibility, or rage, or just some children’s fairy tales, instead of recognizing it as the divine spark of the soul. Another cautionary tale.

I remembered my grandpa, many times, out on the tractor alone, the summer sun slowly sinking late in the evening. He was out haying, steering into rippling waves of an endless, golden, shining sea of grass.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

I met an old woman who looked like me. As I sat on the bench of a roadside fountain, she walked up silently in her worn shoes and the long apron she had patched, and handed me a ripe pear.
I looked up at her and saw my aged face looking back at me. She said she couldn’t eat it, opening her mouth to touch her sore tooth. Then she took out her whole lower denture, my most unexpected surprise of the day, but not entirely strange for me: it reminded me of when my homeless clients always wanted to show me their blistered feet. “I believe you, I believe you,”
I would say in protest, holding out my hand, attempting to ward off the inevitable.

She showed me that the tooth was loose, the gum inflamed. I told her she needed a médico, and
I was not a médico. She motioned that they needed to just pull it. I pantomimed: they yank it, “OWWW,” then relieved expression, “AAHHH,” and she cracked up laughing, nodding and agreeing with me. Then she wished me buen camino and, chuckling, walked back down the lane.

The pear was perfect – soft, juicy, delicious. My tongue instinctively checked my broken molar, the root canal that had never gotten its crown. Still, I savored the sweet taste, juice dripping off my lip and through my fingers, imagining one day soon, I might not be able to.

Or, they needed to just pull it.

“Getting old is not for sissies,” my dad had told me. How quickly time passed, day by day, straddling the narrowing gap between youth and old age. I planned to savor every delicious moment, hand in hand, side by side, with as many people as I could possibly meet, blistered feet notwithstanding. Teeth or no teeth. A little thing like that wouldn’t stop me – I had places to go, people to see.


some people stay
and some walk away
some stand, one foot in, one out
and dance in the doorway

some hear a call
like a great waterfall
it plunges them up over under
and carries them forward

nomads and wanderers, wherever you are
sleep well, you pilgrims and vagabonds, under the stars
vikings out hiking beyond, over hill or by sea
like my grandfather, my father, and me

wandering along
with your heart full of song
you carry your life on your back
and that’s where it belongs

the people I love
are the people I meet
if you meet me halfway I will stay
for a coffee or two

nomads and wanderers, wherever you are
sleep well, you pilgrims and vagabonds, under the stars
vikings out hiking beyond, over hill or by sea
like my grandfather, my father, and me

— “Nomads and Wanderers”