where will we walk
you and you
and you and I
where will the path
and will we follow
each our way
The problem with my turtle pace was that I didn’t have a shell. By now, I was in excellent shape, strong and lean, and my pack no longer felt heavy. I was just…slow. Seventeen-year-old me saw a couple of ironic metaphors dawning, but I was too busy working this new puzzle.
I let others leave me in Camino dust each morning, knowing that by evening, we would all arrive at albergues, municipál or privado, near enough to see each other again the next day. But the Primitivo passed through less populated territory, with only a few villages between Oviedo and Lugo; it was not set up with as many options as the Norte. We were finding that due to favorable weather or historical significance, maybe the novelty or the physical challenge of this less-traveled route – whatever the reason, the Primitivo was feeling a bit crowded at the end of the day. The issue: not enough beds.
From Day One, I had decided to trust the Camino about where I would lay my head each night.
Intentionally disconnected from phone and internet service, I made no reservations. I carried no tent, having decided the extra weight was unnecessary with the albergue system. My light sleeping bag was comfortable and perhaps slightly too warm indoors, so my backup plan was always to find a chapel pórtico, protected from the elements on at least a couple sides. The Camino Provides.
Miraculously, it always had, even when what it provided was the pigeon-poop-sprinkled deportivo in Grandas de Salime. Having slept soundly there on the concrete rows of spectator stands, I now had no fear, bed or no bed.
Which was good, because I was…so slow. My friends carried deadlines like weight in their packs, cognizant consciously or subconsciously, tickets home with dates that were approaching faster than I was walking. They each had a limited number of days to reach their destinations – Santiago de Compostela, Muxia, or Finisterre – and were following their guidebooks’ daily stages to ensure they were able to complete the Camino.
I traveled in the ultimate luxury: no Time. Having scheduled 2-1/2 months for a one-month trek, I was free to change plans as the need or the mood arose. I had no job to return to. I had no house to make payments on. The Spanish summer stretched before me. At last, I had escaped the tyranny of the clock.
Only, I hadn’t. Not completely. The cheaper municipal albergues were first-come, first-served to peregrinos on foot. People pushed themselves, hard, to make good time, beat the crowd. When we arrived at the albergues, we set our backpacks in line at the door as proxies holding our places while we sat, boots off, in the shade nearby.
I found I liked the sitting and waiting. Part pleasantly-exhausted-mediation, part catching-up-with-your-neighbors-at-the-mailbox, it felt homey. If your backpack was far enough forward in the queue, you knew you had no worry, ensured a place to sleep. People just arriving consulted their guidebooks and asked the other peregrinos already sitting and waiting, “How many beds here?”
More calculus. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t do the headcount. I didn’t care. Again, a good thing, because I often just barely squeaked in the albergue door. For the second time now, I had gotten to register with a hospitalera only because I had shown my sleeping bag and said I was willing to sleep on the floor. The first time, a cancelled reservation became my bed. This day, I waited to see, my fellow peregrinos offering sleeping mats or suggesting the common room seats would make a good bunk for me since I was small. Time would tell.
Now that the Primitivo was short on municipal albergues, older or slower pilgrims routinely called ahead for reservations at the private albergues. I began to read the writing on the wall, sometimes actual handwritten paper signs taped to the doors: completo. Speed was of the essence, and I had left speed behind, thousands of miles across the ocean in the rat race.
Before I came to Spain, I had not given much thought to how unique each person’s pace really was. It had seemed like a matter of fitness and fearlessness: out-of-shape or timid people seemed to walk slower, at work, down the sidewalks. “Mallwalkers,” I derisively named them. I would either nearly bump into my coworkers as I hustled to my tasks, or look for a sidewalk passing opportunity on my way to coffee or an errand destination. Back home, I walked as if 17-year-old me was driving.
I was not enamored of driving; once again, a bad American. While my high school friends had rushed to get their driver’s licenses at first light on their 16th birthdays, I was reluctant. I stalled. Even though I got to school and work at the mercy of the elements, I preferred walking and biking. I loved that slower pace and smaller size in the world. And I did not love the effects of vehicle traffic – the noise, the smelly clouds of exhaust drifting in the air behind them, the splash of icy gutter slush as they drove past me, and most of all, the speeding danger.
For years, a ton of steel hurtling down the road under my command gave me nothing but an ominous sense of responsibility for impending doom. My older sister had once slid on a curve while driving, rolling her car off the country road and into a field, finally crawling out the window of the upside-down vehicle.
As we were driving back from lunch one day in high school, my friend hit a dog that ran into the street; it had no collar or tags. He knocked on nearby doors, but no one answered. Finally, not knowing what to do, he laid the dog in the grass beside the street, and took us back to school, all of us in the car shaken and disturbed.
I took my father’s highway patrol stories to heart. Many years ago as a state trooper, he had seen merciless accidents, his cautionary tales only skimming the surface of horror stories of drunk drivers, semis barreling down the interstate at high speed, and in one nightmare, a traveling family all decapitated by the terrible impact that drove their car underneath one of those massive trucks.
But social expectations are a terrible force, as well. In those days before bike commuting was commonplace, I was weird. Classmates teased me, laughing at my bicycle, a secondhand road bike I’d had to buy myself with money I’d earned. So just two months before I turned 18, I finally took my driving test, and got my dreaded license. My birthday is in the winter. Armed with my new license, I took my little sister for a ride to go sledding…and slid right into a parked car instead.
It was the spinout on black ice two years later that changed everything. Driving home on a chilly spring afternoon after a recent snowfall, the streets looked clear. But hidden beneath front yard trees of homes along the road, black ice lurked unseen in the shadows, like a mountain lion ready to leap. I remember the slow-motion spin, smoothly and painlessly arriving on someone’s lawn, facing backwards, somehow having miraculously missed every tree. But all I could think about was my belly.
My baby. I was five months pregnant.
After that – I learned to drive. Really drive. I learned to spot potential driving hazards like babyproofing my house for choking hazards. I became a student of correcting a spin, pumping my brakes, downshifting, precise lane changes. I took command of the road, utilizing my best-honed skill to perfection: trust no one. No driver, no turn signal indicator, no rules. Driving was insane; I became Mad Max.
I still didn’t enjoy driving, but I had become fearless, because I had learned defensive driving. I always had the backup plan, the evasive maneuver, figured out ahead of time, just like my dad had tried to teach me. And it worked. I went from fender-benders to a flawless driving record. No moving violations. Just a propensity for speed.
On team sports you learn, “The best defense is a good offense.” On the road, that’s driving with the flow of traffic – literally keeping up with the Joneses in their big, fast car. Accidents often happen when people are frustrated and, just like in sports, impatiently make a bad pass. By driving the same speed as everyone else, no one needs to pass. Everyone arrives relatively unscathed.
Except that the essence of American driving is the essence of sports: competition. Competitive drivers always reach in for the ball, namely, that one position further than where they currently are, just ahead of this guy, whom they tailgate, flashing their headlights as if the highway speed limit signs now read “Autobahn.” The Great American Open Road was filled with aggressive maniacs who had never heard any of Dad’s highway patrol stories.
So once I’d mastered the interstate speed madness, had figured out the Freeway Weave of downtown drivers constantly jockeying for lane positions during rush hour, had learned to escape an intersection aptly named “The Mousetrap,” I took my own exit: I learned all the back roads.
I learned which dusty country lanes led to my favorite canyons. I followed numbered county roads into the mountains whenever possible. I wandered dirt tracks into the hills. I escaped, I parked, and then I hiked.
Hiking was often an all-day affair. Whether I had the kids with me or went by myself, I planned for the day – and then I let go. With a backpack of food, water, and emergency supplies, I taught my kids what I had learned from the hay fields and the wide sky of my youth: Time is only a description of Life. We hiked kid-speed, rambling and running, stop and go, noticing pine cones and chattering squirrels, water trickling beneath ice in frozen riverbeds, Indian paintbrush and columbine blooming beside trails.
When I went alone, I relearned the lesson of Time, deeper with each outing, like the ancient Pueblo people’s footprints over centuries wearing a knee-deep track through stone to reach their cliffside homes in the desert Southwest: it was the act of living, the taking of the steps, that created the path. Time only summarized, never able to fully explain this miracle of stepping through solid rock, because the miracle was in the purposeful path, chosen again and again.
Speed was pointless. The miracle was the flow of Life, which just happened to be moving across time. Time was just a backdrop – the Play’s the thing.
By the time I hit the Camino’s dusty trail so many years later, I just shifted into hiking mode, stepping into the flow, watching the sun’s passage across the sky, the cloud build-up, the shadows, as my way to measure the hours. I wore my old Timex watch, just like I always did hiking, its purpose still to show if I was technically too late, at home to swing by Bob & Tony’s Pizza after the day’s hike, now here, to get into an albergue.
Yet just like back home, I didn’t really care. An albergue had become like a pizza – a nice indulgence but not necessary. What mattered to me was the Life that Time was describing around my footprints. I had been so worried as I boarded the plane for Spain, afraid that too many years had gone by, my dream fading; but I wasn’t too late – because I was alive, and I was doing it.
I was so alive. On the Camino, I was living every day, not chasing the dream. This was a live performance, unscripted. To Be or Not To Be. And I had long ago decided to Be Here Now.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As I walked along in the afternoon, I met Bruno of Paris, probably the most charming man I had ever met in my life. Unassuming and stunningly beautiful, his eyes twinkled with a child’s mischief, though his dark curly hair was salted with the first beginnings of age. A middle-school teacher and administrator, he was the perfect man for the job, Peter Pan meets Pied Piper, as his sense of humor and easy affection led those young ones, who still scampered between life passages, forward into each new day. His voice was melodic, his French accent almost a trope if it hadn’t been so endearing. When I asked about Paris, his response was, “But you must come! You can stay with me. It is of course the most beautiful city in the world. It is Pa-rie.” He repeated his invitation later, his graciousness easy to accept, offered with the nonchalance and friendliness of a man who knows who he is – who is at home with himself.
This was the pace I kept seeking and maintaining, almost defending, the pace of noticing, of contemplation, of laughter and friendship, of listening for songs like listening to the stories of people I met along the way. And for me, it was slow. Slowing my feet had slowed my mind and opened my heart, so that I could finally hear words of wisdom and advice from others, so that I could pay real attention, or ask for what I needed, and so I could ultimately, finally, see that everything I needed, I had.
As Camino bedrush madness swirled around me like rush hour traffic, I now pulled into the even slower lane. Having tried to find Joanna, Christoph, and Cordula in one busy town, by luck I ran into Felix, and gave him a message to relay if he caught up to them: go on without me. I am walking my slow way into Santiago. Buen Camino.
I waited at the bar beside the albergue. Softly, in walked Mauro, who gave me a sweet hug and bought me a glass of wine, and we lingered on a bench out front, cuddled together comfortably, watching the sunset.
The hospitalera, who ran both the albergue and the tavern, came by to tell me she had a cancellation, and had a bed for me. I told her she could give it to the German woman who was also waiting for a bed, because she was older than me. I got a big smile, later a free chunk of bread, and on into that evening, an approving pat on the knee as the hospitalera walked by. I also got a bed, from a later cancellation.
As the night grew cooler, I hugged Mauro goodnight, and took my bread in to the albergue kitchen.
“Would you like some of this soup?” It was Bruno, sitting with another man at the dining tables.
This felt like the blessing of slowing down, finding sheltering chapel pórticos every night disguised as bars and albergues and warm benches between, welcomed by patron saints and guardian angels who looked remarkably like very beautiful, everyday people.
I soaked up these moments of affection like bread into warm soup, softening.