A year ago to the day, my grandfather passed away in the quiet of his adopted home in Virginia.
Having left the devastation of post-WWII Europe, he settled in the United States where he spent his days as a salt-of-the-earth farmer, siring a large family in the process. Every time we attended Lutheran services with him and Grandma, the two of them would beam with pride as we took up our own pew. Lutherans: always sticking it to the Catholics, right?
Ever proud of his new home, but never keen on forgetting his roots, he instilled in us the nationalistic and cultural pride of both Switzerland and America. Been confused ever since: am I Swiss American or American Swiss?
Tough old man, that’s for certain: stubborn (like all Swiss men), punctual, dedicated, and unrelenting. The kind of role model kids need these days. And now he’s farmin’ with Jesus.
His passing, though expected, was still quite the shock for the family. First death in the States for the Ruch clan – how do we deal with the inevitable?
I’ve never been very good with expressing emotions – apart from writing them down – and penned a short piece following the funeral. Dreadful things, those – all the black clothing, tears, and somber attitudes. You would think I would be more at home in an element like that.
But no. How I detest laying the dead to rest.
He taught me many things in my youth – some brilliant, some good, and some casually racist and a bit outdated – but he was always an inspiration. The kind of guy you want to make proud and see that wrinkly smile of his light up across his face. And his final act was to teach me about Life through pain.
I wouldn’t say I penned this in his honor (indeed, far too much profanity), but after the services, I felt compelled to write exactly what went on in my mind during those moments. A year later and this piece still rings true.
Foremost I would like to thank Michael and Kathryn from the Heart, Mind & Soul Project for hosting me at lunch today here in sunny Albuquerque. These two wonderful people were passing through my beloved New Mexico – of course we had to meet as fellow writers and volunteers are wont to do! Good conversation and better company is always on the menu.
That having been said, I have about a dozen drafts flitting about the place this moment – nothing is really worthy of being published I’m afraid.
That’s what happens when you are your biggest critic. Writers, amirite?
Whilst enjoying victuals this afternoon, Michael, Kathryn, and I swapped Camino stories – the two are quite well-traveled (the best kind of company) – and I was asked about my first Camino back in 2014. Rather than relate the conversation verbatim here, might I instead, dear reader, have you enjoy the following piece I penned shortly after Camino Primaris?
I’m not certain if I wrote the following for a contest or just because, but, all the same, enjoy it, eh?
On Being a Self-Hating Catholic and Ernest Hemingwannabe
Our story continues in which our Hero is in the midst of regaling his Catholic comrades with a tale of woe and heartache, a yarn of mental deprivations and emotional turmoil, a timeless speech of impeccable rhetoric and colorful banter, this is, dear reader, Part the Second of the Limping Along series.
Yeah, it’ll be a series. Deal wid it.
For those of you first tuning in, might I recommend you give Limping Along (Part I) a read afore you turn your sights upon this. Backstory is always important, you understand.
For the rest of you lot, this next passage continues where I left off: in the midst of giving my testimony to my Focus Mission Group. It’s about as bitchin’ as it sounds.
Gentlemen, ready your canes and adjust your monocles. Maidens fair, contain thy selves and resist the vapors. In the words of Gork (and possibly Mork) ‘ere we go!
Forgive my lack of posts and updates for the bulk of my time is devoted to the pilgrims at the albergue here in Grado. Plenty of time to jot down thoughts in my journal, but bangin’ out a bitchin’ blog post is much more difficult. I’m not even mad; this gig is such a welcome chapter of my Life. And soon, my Life will change yet again for the better. I go from one happy moment to the next – yes, Life is good.
But you didn’t come here to read about how much I’m enjoying Life and brimming with excitement for Our future. If you’ll allow me, curious reader, let me tell you about being a hospitalero.
I actually wrote this last week but didn’t feel it appropriate to post until I felt it necessary.
Before I buggered off on San Salvador without telling a Soul – what a heart-wrenching, foolish mistake that was – I stayed in the monastery in Leon. And here I am again, having successfully completed this pristine Way, mostly intact and in good health. And once more, nestled amongst them in their hundreds, I realize just how much I can grow to dislike pilgrims.
On the day I started San Salvador, I left Leon rather late by Camino standards – half past 7 – even though I was awoken at 5 by those goddamned bed chasers. You’d think we were all forced to sleep outside, this constant hustle and bustle so many pilgrims concern themselves with. As if the beds evaporate overnight, and everything becomes completo at approximately 11.
Christ, pilgrims, get your shit together.
Oh, yes, this is a rant. A rant against those who are here on the Way by not being here on the Way. If you think this might apply to you, even in the slightest, then, yeah, it’s probably about you. You’re That Guy.
If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve been walking San Salvador these past few days. And I must say, it is worlds apart from Camino Frances. Case in point, this is the first time I’ve had an Internet connection in ~130km.
The trail was a tough son-of-a-bitch, lemme tell you, and there were many times I wondered why I left the safety of Frances for this maddened Way.
On your first day you’re dick-slapped with a 700m ascent, followed by an immediate cunt-punt of 1000m descent. The locals look at you as if you’re lost (which is completely plausible, given the markings), none of them speak English (or German, I’ve learned), and you won’t find much in the way of amenities along the Way.
You really must be mindful of what you’re packing, but you cannot forget food and extra water; half the fountains aren’t guaranteed to be potable and all the stores are closed willy-nilly. Better bring extra medical gear whilst you’re at it. You’ll pass through half a dozen towns with even fewer albergues.
The bars and restaurants along the Way (two, tops) don’t have Wi-Fi, pilgrim menus, or any local knowledge to exploit – and they close early. The steps are long, mostly uphill (or treacherous downhills), through uninhabited and undeveloped land, and you won’t see another Seeker the entire week you’re walking. And when you’re done walking your +25km day, you have to wait an hour or two before the hospitalero shows up to open the albergue because he’s still at work – thought you were getting a hot shower at noon, did ya? Ha.
It’s a bitch of a trail and it is completely different from Frances. In fact, apart from the shells and yellow arrows, I would wager this trail has nothing in common with Frances.
In short, fuck, sign me up again.
Lemme give you a few reasons why this trail stomps so much ass that they have to import colons from other countries just to meet the demand.
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 a Catholic, I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to believe in nor acknowledge without offending the Almighty, His angels and saints, and my many good Catholic friends. Do forgive me, for I’m just a mere (im)mortal with his sporadic outbursts of piety coupled with extreme heathenism. For you see, dear reader, I do firmly believe in Fate and that things happen for a reason: whether we realize the reason or not is irrelevant. Free will, to me, is an expressed illusion, for our Fate has already been woven – we simply follow the thread through our own labyrinth.
For reference, view the first 25 seconds or so.
Forgive me, Catholic friends, for citing Odin as a skald to live by.
So, enough heathen outbursts; meat and potatoes, eh?
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.