– philosophy – the magic underwear box – locked in & locked out –
I thought I needed to translate Vincente’s French “bezen”. But then it clicked. “Be Zen” was his gentle advice for embarking on our walk up the mountain. In thickly accented English he said, “Just be Zen”. As in Zen Buddhism.
Vincente is the kind soul who hosts travelers at his small farm/hostel in the village of St. Jean Pied du Port in the French Pyrenees. His curly black hair is laced with gray but his slim frame resembles a teenager’s more than an old man’s. He sits with one knee crossed over the other and a hand-rolled cigarette lightly held between two fingers. I can easily imagine Vincente as a young French poet. He leans forward to speak directly, personally, and his large black eyes say “this is a beautiful life”.
Patricia and I were about to start our walk on the Camino Frances, one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, 500 miles away on the west coast of Spain. We will walk for only 2 days, about 13 miles, but nonetheless we need to carry the right attitude.
The ancient tradition of walking a pilgrimage has resurged during the past two decades. Every year, tens of thousands of Pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago for a few days or a few months on their personal journeys. The various routes, or “Caminos”, wind for hundreds of miles through countrysides and cities in Spain, Portugal, and France, and travelers can start and stop wherever they choose. Anyone can be a Pilgrim. Several of my Spanish friends have walked stages of the Spanish or Portuguese routes. In Geneva, I met a young woman who had walked the Swiss route from Zurich. On the mountain in France I met a young man from Japan. My friend Cheryl from Carson City will make her third Camino in Spain later this year.
The individual reasons for walking the Camino range from religious growth and personal discovery to physical challenge and sightseeing. But no matter the reason, “Be Zen” is fitting wisdom. Walking the Camino is about the journey.
Patricia is from Arkansas and she is finishing up her annual summer stay in Paris. We met in Les Eyzies, France when I was begging a ride to Lascaux and she offered me a seat in her rented car. After an amicable morning together, she invited me to continue south with her to the France-Spain border where she would attempt the first, and most challenging, stage of Camino Frances. That fit easily into my very vague plans to “head south slowly”. And, I had previously decided to attempt a Camino sometime before winter. In fact, I had been training for Camino by walking ten kilometers every day in Seville, and then hiking in Picos de Europa. Not to mention my many ascents of The Devils Ladder and other hikes in Carson Valley at 6000′ elevation.
Vincente’s words had been directed to Patricia who was anxious on the morning of our start. But on the third morning, I was inching towards panic. I wanted to continue walking Camino for a few more days after Patricia headed home. But it was starting to rain, and my phone wasn’t working, and I had missed the cutoff for the luggage transport, and by 9:45 a.m. I was the only Pilgrim who hadn’t departed for the day’s journey.
Vincente’s words came back to me. “Be Zen”. I exhaled slowly and the solution came to me. I dropped off my heavy bag for pickup the following morning and with a destination 2 nights ahead in Pamplona. I could easily carry one night’s needs in my day pack.
After breakfast, I said farewell to Patricia and donned my purple rain poncho for Day 3 of my Camino. I knew that I could make better-than-average time, and my goal was to reach the village of Ziburi before the thunderstorm predicted at 5 p.m. Alone and with a light pack, I traveled easily, almost jauntily, along the woodland trail. A peaceful feeling filled me. The old Southern spiritual song “I am a Pilgrim”, by Bill Monroe played in my head in tempo with my steps.
After an hour of walking I saw a familiar form ahead on the trail. It was Sabine, stopping to photograph the sheep in the meadow. Sabine and I had shared a dorm room on the first night of Camino. That had been a grueling day, and all of us walkers bonded with our fellow Pilgrims. Patricia and I had first seen Sabine sitting on a bench near the bottom of the first day’s steep 4-mile climb. We waved and she returned a weary smile and limp wave. We pushed on, up and up, hugging the slivers of shade next to the roadside hedgerows. But the temperature also climbed up and up. The day was predicted to be the hottest day of the summer; 97 Fahrenheit.
Soon the Camino route branched off the pavement and onto a dirt road that zigzagged steeply up the mountain through scrub and nettles. No shade for a mile. I was fit and made steady progress, but Patricia struggled. Our route map included an elevation chart and today’s ascent profile was frightening. Patricia had arranged to split this stage into two days, and we had beds reserved at the hostel in Orisson, France, 5 miles and 1700 feet higher than our starting point.
The afternoon sun shone hotly where the track rejoined the paved road, going ever up and up through pastures and farmsteads. We made slow progress and paused briefly under the shade of the occasional roadside trees. From my pack, I pulled out the green travel umbrella that I had tossed in at the last minute. It was not a stylish Spanish parasol, but it provided welcome shelter from the relentless sun.
By 1 p.m. we felt that surely the hostel must be close, but all we saw was the ribbon of pavement winding up and over green pastured hillsides. Our spirits lifted momentarily when we reached a curve and the road tilted slightly downhill before making a blind corner and continuing over the summit. Maybe another hour to go.
But the slight downhill slope renewed our spirits and we quickened our pace. And it looked like there were some shade trees at the blind curve 200 yards ahead. And there…? “What’s that by the trees?” Each step forward revealed more of the blind curve’s secret. “It’s a building tucked into the curve! And there are people sitting at tables outside! We’ve arrived!!”
Under the shade of the trees, we laid down on the cool green grass, rested our feet, and welcomed arriving Pilgrims. Around 4 p.m. a solo walker slowly approached. I watched as she stopped in the middle of the road and lifted her camera to capture a photo of the inn…she had made it! As she walked past me I saw tears of joy track down her cheeks and she gave me a tired smile. I recognized her as the woman sitting on the bench who we passed early this morning. You go girl! Later we made introductions over cold beers. Her name was Sabine, from Kiel, Germany. She was walking her second Camino and planned to go just a few miles each day.
That night at the hostel all of the Pilgrims, around 30 of us, dined together at a family style meal. My friends in Gardnerville would recognize the resemblance in menu and atmosphere to the JT Bar, though the wine was better and nobody mentioned picon.
In the morning we rose before dawn in order to start Day 2 of Camino in the cooler hours. Today’s trek would take us over the highest point on the Camino route, 4757 feet elevation in the Pyrenees. We would walk on the pavement for 4 miles and then branch off onto the dirt track at the Cross monument. Sabine had arranged for a ride as far as the paved road goes, about a mile before the summit.
Today’s weather was the complete opposite of the first day’s. Low clouds hugged the mountains, and created a cool and slightly mysterious atmosphere. Cars with their headlights turned on crept slowly along the road and the drivers peered ahead intently to discern the hiker or cow or sharp curve that was hidden in the dense mist ahead. A red van passed slowly and l caught a glimpse of Sabine smiling and waving at us from the passenger seat.
A break in the clouds created a patch of sunshine on the mountain, and at this propitious location a food truck offered drinks, snacks, and information. A small ever-changing crowd of Pilgrims snacked, rested, and then set off again. I chatted with a German man who was walking alone. A hand-sketched map taped to the side of the truck showed the route ahead: at the Cross monument turn right onto the dirt track, then one kilometer uphill, 4 kilometers level, and finally 4 kilometers downhill to Roncesvalles. Patricia and l loitered at the food truck as long as we dared and as we set out again the mist had thickened.
The official Camino routes are well-marked and well-mapped. The official waymarkers are a logo of a yellow scallop shell on a blue background, and they are placed at important junctions. But some helpful Camino veterans have added spray-painted yellow arrows all along the route at virtually every fork in the road or place a walker could make a wrong turn. I had already trained my eyes to notice these marks that were painted discreetly on curbs or power poles or rocks. It’s the same spidey-sense I use to discern a petroglyph from a random scratch or find an arrowhead in a scatter of gravel.
Just 50 steps past the food truck, I saw yellow arrows painted on the pavement. It was a flock of arrows and they pointed at a slant from left to right across the road. To me, this was a neon sign: “Go Right”. But the mist was thick and I couldn’t see anything to the right. I heard the happy voices of two Pilgrims ahead of me, so I followed the sound straight ahead, slowly. Then a dark shape loomed ahead in the mist, but it wasn’t until I stood just ten feet away that I recognized that it was a sign. At 3 feet distance I could read that it was a map indicating the turnoff for the Camino. I penetrated a bit further into the mist and saw the Cross monument. By now, the voices I followed had faded away down the road. Ahh, too bad for them… Oho! New voices were passing to the left and I called out to them, “The trail is over here!” Three people emerged from the mist and gratefully thanked me. A half-minute later I recognized the German Pilgrim heading down the wrong road, and I called out “Allemange!” He was surprised, but grateful.
We were now a small knot of people and the mist thinned slightly, so when Patricia caught up she turned right and we continued on the Camino path. Here, ghost sheep grazed on the hillsides and the forests were made spooky by the floating veils of mist. I listened for the hoofbeats of Ringwraiths and shivered in the thickening clouds.
Somewhere on the top of the mountains we crossed from France into Spain. We walked on and eventually descended to Roncesvalles where the monastery has been welcoming Pilgrims since the 12th century. That night at dinner we connected with Pilgrim friends from the past 2 days and learned that Sabine had made it to the monastery.
As I set off on the morning of day 3, I wondered if I would see her on the trail, so it was not a shock when I found her photographing the sheep. She planned to go only as far as the next village, but I intended to do an additional 15 kilometers before the end of the day. We said our farewells and I struck out for Ziburi. I crossed the old bridge into the village and found a hotel room, where I listened to the thunderstorm in the night.
On the morning of day 4, the innkeeper saved me from disaster by telling me that I must cross back over the bridge to continue on the Camino. I had been ready to step out the door and continue down the town road….in the wrong direction. The route followed country roads and past a manganese mill and went up and down with the terrain. At the point where it crossed a main road, a food truck had set up a little café. A group of good natured Portuguese Pilgrims were on their second beers when I arrived. In addition to beer and snacks, Pilgrims could also find romance. The Magic Underwear Box invited Pilgrims to leave their underwear in order to secure good luck in finding a husband or wife on the Camino. It’s been known to happen!
I ended that day by walking through the ancient gateway of the city of Pamplona, and this is where my Camino journey ended. For me, the experience had been tranquil, yet full of surprises. “Being Zen” had helped me to be more aware, more astounded.
I enjoyed two days in lively Pamplona before riding a bus to a hostel in a little village in the mountains. And then I learned that there was no bus to take me back to Pamplona. Two days later l bummed a ride with some Australian tourists, and in Pamplona I gave them a brief walking tour of the old city. As we crossed the main plaza, I saw a familiar face. “Sabine!” She had left the Camino and come to Pamplona by taxi and would spend 2 nights there. In the plaza, we said our farewells again and I headed to the bus depot to find a way home to Seville.
I ended up with a ticket on the 1 a.m. bus to Madrid, where I would change to the Seville bus. I stashed my backpack in the depot luggage locker and ventured out for a stroll in the beautiful city parks. The depot had a big passenger lobby where I planned to spend my last hours in Pamplona. But now I called Sabine and she happily agreed to meet for dinner.
After dinner, we said our goodbyes one more time and I left her at her hotel room, a few blocks from the bus depot. It was now dark and a few people with suitcases were standing outside the depot’s street-level entrance. I rode the escalator down to the subterranean lobby, then went into the restroom to freshen up. When I came out, there were no people around and all the lobby lights were dimmed. I went back to the escalators and they were turned off. I climbed up the idle escalator to the front doors and discovered that I was locked inside the depot. Crap.
Well, I guess I’m safe here for the next three hours. Although the security guard will not be happy to discover me here. So, I walked back down the escalator to the lobby where the startled security guard quickly escorted me to an elevator. I told him that I had a 1 a.m. bus and he explained that I needed to leave now and come back at 12:45. At that time I should take a different elevator down 2 levels to get to my bus.
Up on the streets of Pamplona a cool breeze was rising and the late night diners were heading home. I walked the 5 blocks back to the plaza restaurant where Sabine and I had dined and the waitress seemed to recognize me. I ordered a glass of wine and sipped it very slowly until, finally, it was 12:30 and I headed back to the bus depot. At the “other” elevator passengers with luggage were getting out of taxis and going down, and I followed along to a separate part of the depot. I found the uniformed attendant and told him that I needed to get my luggage from the locker in the main depot.
“No. The luggage room will be open at six a.m.”
I pleaded with him, but after 5 minutes of arguing he just walked away to attend to other duties. CRAP!
In a daze, I rode the elevator back up to street level. I knew one person in Pamplona and I called her number. But Sabine did not answer her phone. CRAP!!!
Okay Vincente, what do you say now?! How does “be Zen” help when you’re stranded in a foreign city in the middle of the night?
But I gave it a shot. Be Zen. Breathe in. Exhale slowly. These taxis are just waiting to go somewhere. I have a credit card. I have a smartphone.
In ten minutes on booking.com I found a Pilgrim’s hotel that was still open and had a bed available. The taxi ride was eight minutes and the hotel clerk came outside to greet me. When I told him my story he offered to go the the depot tomorrow and ship my luggage to me so that I could catch my bus tonight. How kind, but “no thank you.” I just wanted to go to bed. I didn’t have pajamas or a change of clothes, but the hotel room had a traveler’s toothbrush. Yay! Grateful for small kindnesses.
The next morning the bus ticket agent told me I could use part of my ticket on a series of connections that would get me to Seville at 9 p.m. “No thanks.” I retrieved my backpack from the locker and took a taxi to the train station. The train ticket agent looked doubtful when I said I wanted to go to Seville, “today”. But my expression showed desperation so she typed on her keyboard after a few minutes said, “one ticket left! One hundred and five euros.” I slid my credit card into the reader and hit the green “approve” button. And waited. Nothing happened. She looked at her monitor then apologized “someone must have bought the last ticket online”. My face fell, “I need to go today”.
The ticket agent was sympathetic, “Let’s try it again”. So I inserted the credit card again and hit the green button…”Transaction Approved”! The agent smiled and quickly worked to print my ticket, then happily handed it to me with the instructions “the train leaves at 11:30”. That was 2 hours from now so finally I could relax. I settled in at the lobby and found a place to recharge my phone.
I had a text message. It was from Sabine. “Good morning. I missed your call last night. Are you okay?”
Thirty minutes later, she walked into the train station and gave me a big hug. We drank bad coffee in the station cafeteria and traded stories while we waited for my train. And then it was time to go.
On the train to Madrid I scrolled through my messages. At 23:00 last night there was one from Sabine. She had snapped a photo of me from her third floor hotel room as I walked down the street to the bus depot. Her text read “You’ll never walk alone – God bless you!”
As I travel the caminos of everyday life, I will let Vincente’s words guide me, “be Zen”.