Click here for my first essay about walking the Camino.
Several days into my second week of rain, mud, sleet, wind and cold, I walked into Belorado and encountered a group of peregrinos with whom I?d become acquainted at the start of my trek. We greeted each other like war veterans, and I would travel with these folks, on and off, for the remainder of the month. They included a sporty Australian couple, a perpetually baffled German woman who spoke no English and carried all manner of lotions and pills for wounded feet, a deadpan hilarious Irish TV/film editor, and a 20-year-old Danish college student with angelically blond curls. These "vets" were all staying in Belorado, so I knocked off for the day. Despite my anti-social tendencies, I longed for company, and my battered body needed a break.
The other pilgrims I encountered were mostly charmed by the opportunity of meeting an American, of whom there were very few on the Camino. Most of the time conversations around me sounded something like the teacher?s voice from the classic Charlie Brown cartoons: "Mwah-mwah-mwah-MWAH Americano mwah-mwah! Hahahaha!" I would sit with a bemused expression on my face, then shrug and spread my hands, the international gesture for "What are you gonna do?"
At one point an older German man was surprised to hear me complain about my backpack. I inquired as to why. "Americanos,? he said, ?you are the best at everything, yes? Ha-ha-ha-ha!" In contrast, an adorable older Polish couple were absolutely thrilled that someone from the United States had embarked upon a pilgrimage. "Good for Americano," was all the English they could muster. "Yes, yes! Good for Americano to see the world!"
A few notable exceptions aside, the international spirit of camaraderie on display among?Camino pilgrims was an inspiration. We all want the same things. We know this, of course, but to see it in practice gladdened my shriveled, blackened heart.
Something happened, midway through my second week, that I will never forget. The trail was so crowded at points that I rarely had more than a few minutes of alone time before someone would appear. I was walking along, likely thinking about food or finding a bathroom, when I experienced a rush of honeyed energy. It felt warm and golden, as if I?d just had the world?s best massage. My next thought was that it would be nice if the next albergue had internet access so I could send an email to my friend Joyce.
Joyce -- my dear friend, mentor, and one of the most significant people in my life -- has been dead since 1999. But in that moment, eleven years of understanding that she is deceased was wiped from my brain. One of the painful repercussions of losing a loved one is that it can take awhile to adjust to their absence. We pick up the phone to make a call and are brought up short; we think to send off a quick email or text, and then remember they?re gone. How we think of that person eventually transforms. We start to understand they are someplace far away, not here, not now. But in that moment on the Camino, I simply forgot all that. I forgot my friend was dead.
And on the trail, a flat, gravel path flanked by a busy highway populated by tractor-trailers on one side and an onion field on the other, there was Joyce. She smiled at me. I couldn?t tell you what she was wearing. She was not a ghost or an apparition, but something else. There was a light around her like a sandy wind and she simply, well,?was.?Perhaps the word exists in French or Latin, but English is incapable of describing Joyce in that moment. She just existed in the moment; She was present in that space in a way I cannot describe.
Joyce looked like how I remember her, healthy, with all of her hair, before cancer ravaged her body. She raised her eyebrows in an expectant way, cocked her head to one side, smiled serenely, and then she was gone. We all know, as proper adults, that our loved ones are always in our heart. Isn?t that what we teach our kids? Isn?t that what adults told us when we were children?
And yet never have I had a more direct example of how we are never truly alone. This has been one of my primal fears and the Camino de Santiago brought it out. I may have cultivated a solitary persona to directly confront this fear. I think I make my life harder in ways large and small so, at the very least, I may keep company with my anxieties.
I've always envied people who are effortlessly social. Somewhere along the way, over the prior two decades of struggle and sacrifice in Los Angeles, my solitary nature morphed into a kind of self-inflicted punishment. If you have never felt alone in such a way, I envy you. Tell me your secret. In my warped state of mind, every failure became its own justification. And I was too numbed by the din of day-to-day life to notice. It took walking the Camino de Santiago to burn all of that away.
I shrugged off my pack, sat down on a rock and wept. I have never cried as much in my damned life as I did on the Camino. I was not crying for the loss of Joyce, or my mother and relatives gone, or my dear friends lost to AIDS or suicide, but instead for the loss of some part of me that held on stubbornly to the notion that I am really alone in all of this. Joyce showed me that I am not.
Eventually, I collected myself and continued on. Perhaps twenty minutes later, I was feeling hungry. I was already pushing this vision of Joyce, this mind-boggling revelation, to the back of my mind. That?s when I encountered two older women sitting beside the path and sharing a feast of bread and cheese, nuts, oranges and wine. They enthusiastically beckoned me over; one hailed from France and the other from the Ivory Coast. I sat on a rock, turned down their offers of food and wine and nibbled forlornly on a dry cereal bar. Eventually, the French woman grabbed an orange and a hunk of bread and carved off a piece of luscious Parmesan cheese -- moist and buttery, nothing like the dry, salty crap we get in the States -- and forced the food into my hands.
"Eat this," she said. "How many times must I ask before you accept?"
To be continued?
Photos and text © Benjamin Scuglia. His memoir -- Moving: Breaking Down and Growing Up on the Camino de Santiago -- is forthcoming. Find him on Twitter: @500Turtles.