After many hijinks, detours, and just general tomfoolery, I finally made it to Leon. I can’t tell you how many times I had plans for coming to this city only for them to be dashed in pursuit of a better thread. Not mad by any means for the Way has been quite the experience. But here I am – the big city of Leon.
As I walked through the plaza towards my preferred stop for the day, I heard it again. That increasingly popular call I cannot seem to shake no matter which direction I go on this trail. “Bruno!”
Yep, one of my pilgrims from El Burgo has been volunteering as a hospitalera for several days. The Way – nothing is linear out here I tell you. And would you believe it: she was volunteering at the Benedictine Monastery, the exact lodgings I was looking for! That’s Providence for you: I wanted to stay at this joint, had trouble finding it, so the All-Father took pity upon me and sent me a guide and a friend.
But why the Benedictine Monastery? My reasons are twofold: religious joints are usually a more charming and enlightening stay than a private albergue can offer, and I wanted a credencial for the Camino San Salvador.
Oh Christ, you may be thinking, what silly idea have you got in that warped head of yours now?
San Salvador? Yeah, I know, it’s a silly name: Saint Savior. Hey, I didn’t choose it.
Oh, right, what is San Salvador? Well, dear reader, sit right on down and lemme ‘splain it to ya.
After volunteering at El Burgo Ranero for just over a week and change, I finally passed the keys to the new hospitaleros, said my farewells throughout town, and once more rejoined the Way.
But I was undecided about which way to go. To the west lay Leon, the next logical step of Camino, and to the east was the road I originated from. But after my tenure as a hospitalero, I no longer felt the need to sojourn to Santiago – the Seeker finally found what he was looking for.
Yet I had to go somewhere for I certainly couldn’t stay in the albergue anymore. Humoring Fate, I allowed her to choose for me: I set my walking staff upright and decided I would walk in the direction it fell.
Why the hell not, right?
I released Staeckli II to the wilds, and with a rousing clatter, the staff bounced upon the stones, finally laying to rest in my ordained direction. I smiled as I picked it up, adjusting my pack, and took my first steps.
Eastbound it would be then.
I would walk east for the next two days – from El Burgo Ranero to Bercianos, then once more to Moratinos – and I was met with just about every reaction possible from bewildered pilgrims.
Within my first kilometer, I was stopped by a perplexed German woman, who, upon seeing me come from the opposite direction, turned about trying to get her bearings.
“This is Camino?” she asked in frenzied English. Clearly I had upset her with my presence.
“Ja,” I replied in German – she wore a German flag pin – “heir ist Jakobsweg,” gesturing about me.
Still greatly confused, but excited about the prospect of chattering in German, she hurriedly asked me a dozen questions about what in the hell I was up to, this pompous American ass.
I explained that I was content with the west. My direction would be east for now. My German is pretty bad, and deeper concepts such as philosophy or emotions are a bit outside my conversational ability. No doubt she thought I was nuts as I explained, child-like, Santiago held nothing for me – my only course was where my feet lead me.
“You are going the wrong way,” she laughed in English.
With that, she turned towards the west and picked up her trail, mumbling to herself about the crazy American with a Swiss accent she had just bantered with.
Twice I was stopped in separate villages by overly friendly locals who absolutely insisted I was headed the wrong direction. My Spanish is much worse than my German (unless you need a llanta fixed) and there was no discernible way I could explain just what in blazes I was doing. I mean, fuck, even in English I have a difficult time explaining it.
At one point, an older gentleman armed with cane, tobacco-stained teeth, and the ubiquitous cabby hat grabbed me by the arm and, pointing towards the west, kept on about Santiago being that direction. I reckon he didn’t notice my Santiago forearm tattoo.
Well I fucking know that, I thought to myself, politely nodding as he finally released me from his tenacious grip. Santiago aqui, si. Gracias.
And I kept on eastward.
Outside Sahagun (the one with the fuckold churches), I met a lone American woman who stopped in the middle of the trail, a full 100-meters distant from me, to look about the Way in utter bewilderment. Even from a distance, I could see her face twisted in confusion. “Am I on the right path?”
“Hi,” she stammered as I approached, unperturbed. Americans – always resorting to English first…
“Howdy,” I replied, jolly as could be.
“Why are you walking this direction?” she hesitatingly asked.
I gestured westward. “There is nothing for me in that direction,” I said rather laughingly. “This,” pointing to the east, “is my new direction.” In hindsight, no wonder people think I’m nuts out here.
She realized she was dealing with a madman. “But isn’t Camino that way?” she said, pointing towards Sahagun.
“The Way is everywhere,” I said.
The look on her face, holy hell, I wish I had captured that. Total, utter confusion.
After the briefest of pauses, she wished me well and hustled away from me, westward, eager to put distance between us. Clearly my nonchalant, yet eager, attitude towards my refusal to go west had sparked a fear in her. And I do believe it’s the fear of the unknown she had just witnessed in me.
We all know what lies ahead should we go west. Santiago, familiar faces, the minutia of day-to-day Camino pilgrimage. But when met with the absurd – a fellow walking the other direction, for instance – it sets about a whole series of questions within our heads many people aren’t ready to answer.
What would happen if I turned around? you can see them asking themselves in their heads. Why am I out here in the first place? Why am I walking in this direction? Maybe this guy knows something I don’t. Comical, for me, really, to sow that seed of doubt for it is really the seed of reflection – and someone has to sow it.
I continued about my journey, completely nonplussed by the various encounters throughout the day. Here and there, I would receive a thumbs up, a pat on the back, even a “You’re fucking right,” from one younger chap. But for the bulk of my two days eastbound, most people looked at me like I was absolutely bonkers for heading the opposite direction, against the flow of pilgrims streaming westward. You are going the wrong way, you can hear in their heads, a constant cadence of doubt pounding with every step.
Hardly. There is no wrong way. There is no right way. There’s only the Way. You’re either on it or you aren’t, and whatever direction you take doesn’t matter in the slightest.
I soon found myself in Moratinos – a village I had already lodged in once – and there found the house of my latest Camino friend. They put me up for the night, and over dinner, I knew Staeckli II had fallen in the proper direction. Fate led me here, to share their table and hospitality, to meet new, inspiring souls, to be set upon the next part of my Way.
Last night was perhaps one of my favorite Camino experiences, for I shared the table with brilliance: four nationalities, four bottles of wine, two professional journalists and writers, a professional tour guide walking Camino to build a better experience for others, and a Catholic priest volunteering his time and skills to assist his beloved Way. They spoke of philosophy, music, politics, human nature, religion, books, history, everything! I sat silent for most of the dinner for I was a mere mortal amongst gods – it was an absolutely fantastic moment for me.
And all because I was walking the wrong way.
In my many travels, I have met a great amount of people who are walking away from something – some sort of past – which is completely understandable. Who isn’t trying to distance themselves from something long ago? I had an engagement that blew apart in my face like one of Kaczynski’s letter bombs. But we forget that by turning around and embracing the road already traveled, we can see so much more clearly than if we look to the fog ahead.
There’s no right way. There’s no wrong way. We just walk – in whatever direction our feet feel like – and go along with it.
As I’ve said many times afore to weary pilgrims, “We all get there in the end.” Doesn’t matter when you start, what you carry, why you walk, or where you go – we all get there in the end.
Disclaimer: Free-write is a technique I learned from a good friend of mine, an excellent writer – far better than myself – and something he does often. You simply write as you think/feel and whatever happens, well, it happens. When I feel blocked, I let loose with all guns and see what happens. In the madness, there might be a nugget of wisdom. What follows is a free-write, full of vulgarities, slurs, and random thoughts throughout the entire wall of text. There is a thread throughout this entire mess, but you must take care to follow it, lest you end up at the Minotaur’s lair.
For whatever reason, I listened to this on repeat until I felt finished. Give it a listen: Elton John, Tiny Dancer.
As you know, I have been volunteering as a hospitalero here in El Burgo Ranero since Sunday past. My initial stint was to only serve until yesterday morning; however, Fate, that insensitive bitch, decided to rob me of my American companion. Following a family emergency, he departed yesterday afternoon, leaving me alone to run the albergue during the bulk of the day. I have the assistance of a local sapo (that is, a local hospitalero who can show up as needed) to help clean the place and register pilgrims, but by the time the completo sign goes up, I am on my lonesome caring for the joint. And per the arrangement I made with my departing comrade, I will serve out the remainder of the month as the token American hospitalero here in El Burgo Ranero before the cavalry arrive.
Not quite how I expected this Camino to go, but I am incredibly grateful it took the turn it did.
Over a communal dinner, an American lass asked me what it takes to become a hospitalero. Varying country to country, the American Pilgrims on Camino (APOC) requirements stipulate that one must accomplish three things: successfully complete the Camino itself, participate in an accredited training workshop, and choose a two-week period you don’t mind volunteering. I successfully completed my first Jakobsweg back in 2014, a 10-week sojourn from Fribourg, Switzerland, to the fabled Finisterra, and ever since then have been itching to just give back to the Way. Last month, I attended the national gathering of APOC and there completed the required training to satisfy the second requirement. Now all I needed was to decide upon some dates, but me being me (Chaotic Good), I allowed things to grow as they go.
And how fortunate was that (in)decision making for I soon found myself the opportunity to prove my worth. And I must say, comrades, being a hospitalero is the most enlightening and charming thing about this Camino experience. What use is there of a fabled city with a dead saint when the real treasure walks through my door every day? Here is truly the international experience I seek for I nightly share my table with all continents, cultures, and beliefs; the entire world around one table.
The albergue itself is a modest faux-dobe building with a complete kitchen, dining area, fireplace, dedicated washer and mercurial dryer, plenty of hot water, and 30 beds. Every morning, Sapo and I clean the entire thing: beds, sheets, floors, windows, tables, chairs, kitchen, bathroom, the whole shebang. Fresh flowers dot the interior, bringing some nice color to the wood and tile decor, and, should weather permit, pilgrims might get themselves a roaring fire. As a municipal, many pilgrims are leery of settling for the night, but I do declare that Sapo and I alleviate any concerns through the expression of our job title: hospitality.
That’s the entire key to this volunteer gig – to be a hospitable person. We must check ourselves at the door and instead only offer kindness, patience, and understanding to a new group of tired, disgruntled pilgrims day after day. As I write this, a Frenchman and Italian are arguing over who gets to buy me the first beer because I opened the completo albergue, allowing them to rest upon the floor, along with 10 other pilgrims.
Every day brings new challenges and problems to be overcome, and meeting them with ill-temperament, short-handedness, or mere apathy will rankle anyone. One must remember that the pilgrims have been walking the bulk of their day – they are tired, hungry, dehydrated, and eager to rest – and being met at the door by an uncaring bureaucrat who sees little beyond a CV booster does much harm to their Camino experience. Hospitality; hell, it’s in the job title.
This volunteer opportunity isn’t all rainbow sunshine and unicorn farts, however, for pilgrims are still people, and God love ’em, people can be shitheads. The irritable ones who decry what the Camino has become (back in my day, types), the curt types who meet your smile with a shrug and see little more than a bed than an experience, and the sneaky types who wander about the albergue as if it were their own home, disregarding privacy of others or posted signs (hey, hospitaleros are human too; get out of my quarters!), and the list goes on. People, bless their hearts, people.
But the benefits far outweigh and overshadow any shortcomings one might find as a volunteer. Rather than letting an older Frenchman sleep on the floor (we being completo and all), I showed him my private quarters and lent him the spare bed for the night. A distraught Korean woman took the spare mattress in my hallway, whilst a slew of pilgrims will share the floor tonight – those with sleeping bags generously donated their blankets to their comrades on the ground. I have been reunited with many folks I had passed in previous days as a walking pilgrim – impromptu gatherings of this sort are fantastic. Offering food and drink to those who have none, greeting everyone with a smile, and carrying bags up and down the stairs – the little things, folks – they all add up. Pilgrims will remember their stay at an enjoyable albergue, and it’s our duty to make sure we’re part of those memories. Sure, we might not have WiFi, but we do our best to offer a genuine Camino experience to those seeking one.
And here at El Burgo Ranero, I hope you enjoy your experience.
After my chance reunion with my Icelandic comrade in the town of Bercianos del Camino, we walked ran the next 8km to El Burgo Ranero in short order, arriving before the local municipal, Domenico Laffi, had officially opened to pilgrims for the day.
As the two of us sat outside in the wind and sun, I took the opportunity to reflect upon how far I had come already this Camino. Sunday marked two weeks walking, non-stop, from St. Jean. Some days were brutal and long; some were relatively quiet and short. But each was a blessing unto itself, with trials and afflictions sharing the same path as alleviation and respite. Every day you wake up, comrades, is a day to appreciate.
I write to you from the small municipal albergue of Boadilla del Camino, a rather sleepy town without much going on it seems. Cycling is upon the television, the locals are drinking up a storm (it’s 4PM), and there are far fewer dipshit turigrinos here than last night. So, yes, not a bad way to end the day. Yet what a day twas!
But let us backtrack just a wee bit, eh?
Yesterday evening, after a lovely night of chicken paella, copious vino, and serving as the impromptu Italian translator (weird, I know), I went to get my laundry from the line before turning in for the night. Much to my (mis)fortune, however, a small stone lodged itself between my foot and sandal, slicing apart the fleshy goodness that was my left big toe, leaving it a bloody, and painful, mess. Fuck, I’m fairly certainly I cried out in several languages. Not good – definitely not a good spot to injure yourself on Camino.
Fuck, again. Now what? I thought to myself as I watched an unending flow of blood stream forth from the hideous laceration, the suspect stone mocking me as my blood pooled about it. Buen Camino! I heard the little bastard laugh at me. I kicked it away in disgust, forgetting my laundry as I hobbled to the nearest sink, doing my best to not track blood everywhere. Christ, how it hurt.
Injuries are commonplace amidst the Camino. Many people will earn themselves more than a few blisters along the way, and the ubiquitous joint and back pain seem to affect more still. But almost severing a toe via stone? Bah.
What choices did I have then? After patching up the wound, I could continue the Way and hope my Boy Scout First Aid training pulled through. It would certainly be touch and go, a slower day no less. Or I could sit a day out and let the wound heal up naturally before continuing onward, giving not only my toe, but my body as well, time to heal and recuperate.
But momma didn’t raise no bitch, I said in defiant triumph, stitching together the remnants of my toe in preparation for the morrow. As the famous Dewey Cox once said, “And I will walk. Hard.”
The next morning I donned my tactical sandals in lieu of my boots and began my trek westward. Trying to squeeze my wounded foot into my boots was not happening – too rigid and no air for the wound to breathe. Luckily the Way was mostly flat – albeit there was one steep hill – and it was typically easygoing.
As I trudged along, and I mean trudged, I recalled that everything happens for a reason, absolutely everything, and my injury was no exception. There was a purpose behind that malicious stone, no doubt, and as I walked, anger, bravado, and frustration gave way to clarity and calm. Gone were the ill feelings that haunted my early rising, that sense of uncertainty about the day and my performance – here were only good things now.
By walking at a slower pace, I had more time to admire the beauty of the Meseta, a region many people find dull or lackluster. Yet here I was surrounded by an absurd amount of colors, sounds, and sights that strained all of my senses to truly appreciate.
The crunch of the gravel underfoot was coupled with the singing of various avians and the squeaks of mammalian critters, and the soft sound of the wind whistling throughout the budding wheat.
Greens of all hues and shades were juxtaposed against fields of fresh earth, punctuated here and there by haphazard splashes of floral colors. Multi-hued tractors churned the earth anew, their drivers just as colorful as their mechanic beasts.
And in the distance, one could always see the stone spire of a venerable church.
No, my injury was far from an impediment – it was the catalyst to clarity. Befitting, too, that it occurred upon entering the Meseta, the mental portion of Camino.
My mind soon focused not upon the emotions I let grip me the evening afore, but instead upon the beauty surrounding me in every waking moment. The pristine beauty of the Meseta and all Spain had to offer this day.
It allowed me to slow down and share with strangers, to laugh and talk with one another as if we were all old friends. The lovely German and Irish couple, the Irish gal redder than the sun, the friendly Spanish bar owner who gave me a medallion, the two French ladies enjoying the hilltop view, the people and souls of Camino who I might have simply walked on past had I not been humbled by a single stone.