Hey there folks,
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.