Words Seem to be Important to Me

Wednesday November 19, 2014

Today she is more exasperated than ever. Irritated to repeat herself, explain herself, or be asked any question. The non sequiturs are more frequent, and in fact have become the great majority of what she says. Petty worries. Simultaneously vocally unhappy with her pasta and upset that she has to risk hurting someone’s feelings by saying so.

The confusion often manifests as arbitrary and impossible commands, such as to add hamburger meat that we don’t have to a bowl of spaghetti that’s already before her. She tells Adam how to add salt and pepper to a meal.

* * *

“Where are all the boxes?” she asks, looking around her.

“What boxes?”

“The boxes that got all this stuff here.”

“You brought this stuff here over the last eleven years, Mom. This is the same little house you’ve always loved.”

“Is it still 512 North 3rd Street?”

“Yes, same address.”

* * *

I say aloud that today would be another good day to do some work at Starbucks. Mom is being helped off her portable commode. She says, “What I want you to do first is go through my cabinets. I don’t have . . . much life left.” A few minutes later she is sobbing and being comforted by hospice’s certified nurse’s assistant (CNA), Bonnie (not to be confused with Mom’s friend Bonnie).

After Bonnie the CNA has gone, Mom says, “She says it won’t be long anymore.”

“What won’t be long anymore?”

“This . . . thing.”

What the hell?  “Who told you that?” I gather she means Bonnie. I need to have a talk with her, or her bosses.

“We need to talk about some things. My funeral.” She puts her hands to her face and begins to sob. “This is so hard.”

* * *

She repeats some words from a poem that she wants read at the Irish wake (my words; she calls it a memories party) we will put on for her. I find the poem online and read it to her with a firm, measured cadence, so that she may feel the truth of it:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
— Mary Elizabeth Frye

“To save a wretch like me,” Mom adds.

“Amazing Grace,” I say.

“I did it my way,” she says.

“Elvis,” I say. “Are those the songs you want us to play?”

She nods.

* * *

Linda struggles to put marijuana salve on Mom’s bedsore. Her hands are cold and the touching probably hurts. Mom begins to cry. I go to her and comfort her and say I’m sorry.

“Oma took only eleven days,” Mom says. “She didn’t cause trouble for anybody.”

“Neither are you, Mom.”

* * *

She is crying. “I don’t know how to do this,” she says. I can still hear the pitch of her voice rising throughout her sentence.

I don’t say anything for a while. I think of saying nobody does, but I’m not convinced that’s true. I think of Zen masters and yogis I’ve read about.  There are people who train their minds for death, such as the Tibetan Buddhists whose text, Bardo Thodol, is called, by Westerners, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Relying in part on training to cultivate lucid dreams and wake oneself up from them, the meditator who masters the Book’s techniques can remain conscious as she crosses the threshold into death, and can remain conscious after the body has died. And of course I have heard of regular people who feel they had a good life, enough life, and are ready to go.

I say to her, “Do you remember what you’ve always said about relationships? ‘Let go with love’?”

She nods. To my left Linda is already agreeing.

“I think that’s what you do. Love and forgive yourself, love your loved ones, try to feel love in place of fear.”

* * *

She hasn’t slept this morning at all. She is concerned about many things, and she is very weepy. Is this the “restlessness” the hospice books speak of, which means “days to hours” left?

* * *

She asks if I have any questions for her. She doesn’t want me not to know things. I say I will ask her if I think of any and she says something about running out of time. “There’s no big deal,” she says. “Even if it seemed like that when you were young. You have good DNA.”

* * *

I look up to see her gazing at me as she lies in her bed. I look back at her and smile. She continues to look at me very intently, and then she turns her head and starts to cry.

* * *

I am less weepy myself, and more – what’s the word? Numb? Detached? Accepting? It has occurred to me that I will feel much more sadness after her death simply as a by-product of thinking about the past more:  about things she did (and we did) and things she said. Nostalgia is just memories of what is no longer possible. That’s why the word in Greek means a return to pain rather than undiluted happy memories.

* * *

“What are your plans for the day?” she asks me.

“I’m going to stay right here with you,” I say. “I’m not leaving.”

* * *

She is concerned that the stained glass window has been removed from the living room. There was never such a window.

* * *

It’s nearly 5p.m. and she has slept very little today. One of the books hospice left a few weeks ago is called “When Death is Near: A Caregiver’s Guide”. It says in there that with “days to hours” to live, the patient becomes agitated, restless, and may have a burst of energy.

Is this that?

* * *

My mother is, in many ways, already gone, already lost to me. And I am stricken by her crying from sadness, or fear, or her broken-hearted disappointment. I fear that will stay with me palpably and for a long time.

* * *

I wake her up to take her medication. I ask her to turn over onto her other side. Then she is crying.

“What is it, Mom? Are you hurting?”

She nods.

“Where does it hurt?”

“All over,” she says, weeping. “It’s like it’s every cell.”

Oh, wow.

I show her where the bolus is and where its button is, and we press it. Two beeps, a pause, and then another beep. .20 ml of hydromorphone is injected into her port. We recently increased the hourly dose from .15 ml to .25 and she’s still hurting enough sometimes that we have to press the bolus one to three times in a short period of time. The cancer is on the move.

* * *

To be unable to think and express oneself clearly, and yet still be able to feel physical and even psychological pain. To be losing one’s mind but sentient enough to be aware of it and suffer. Hardly seems fair, does it?

* * *

A few moments later she spies the emerald-green couch next to her bed. “Who brought that couch in?” she asks.

* * *

And later, she is clearly exhausted and says something I can’t understand, followed by “and just get it over with”.

“That’s why you’re going to a better place, Mom. Because this is just miserable for you.”

“Do you have to leave tonight?” she asks.

I think my tone is at least as important as what I say. If I sound unworried, caring, protective, then the content that she may not understand anyway becomes less important. Now I say, “No, I’m staying here all night, with you. I’m going to sleep right over there on that other couch so I can keep an eye on you and make sure you don’t have too much pain.”

And she is satisfied.

Thursday  November 20, 2014

At about 3:50a.m. I hear her groan. I am sleeping on the couch with the bolus a foot away. Whenever I hear her in pain, I click the button she has forgotten how to even find. Now I give her a milligram of Ativan. She is fairly alert, even asks Adam to fetch her coffee, which he now makes like an expert.

During much of the discussion that follows, she is often crying or sad, but I will refrain from adding that fact to every thing she says. By the same token, I will also omit most of the times I had to ask her to repeat herself so that I could hear or understand her.

When she asks questions these days, she is utterly guileless, and trusting. She’s like a child. The things she asks about seem to me to be like a list of her anxieties and concerns.

“I can’t tell you how shocked I am,” she says, and this is when she begins crying. “I don’t want to be here.” And then: “I’m trying to hold on to my sanity.”

Not long afterward, she says she needs to call the dentist to get a replacement for the lower dentures that we seem to have lost. “He has it on file,” she says. She doesn’t like how the lack of dentures slurs her speech. As with her threats to return her crappy phone, this notion of having the time and need to have new dentures made betrays her fleeting moments of reflexive denial. It’s the life force in her.

* * *

She asks something about our life together. I mention that she was always loving to me.  For forty-seven and a half years.

She looks at me with amazement.

Really? You’re that old?”

I say I’ve been with her for over two years, in Montrose and in Telluride. Before that I was in Portland, Seattle, Bend, New Jersey.

“That’s quite a resume,” she says. She looks at me. “How did I luck out so much?”

I just want to turn everything around to be about her.  “You deserved it, Mom. You deserved every good thing that has happened to you.”

“You’re a good man,” she says, as if she were just learning it.

“You raised me,” I say. She smiles.

“Do we have cows?” she says.

* * *

She looks to her left and sees Adam. “What are you doing here, Adam?”

“I came here to visit you,” Adam says gently. “And Cameron. But mostly because marijuana is legal in Colorado.”

* * *

She stirs. “Is there an inheritance story behind this?”

“Yes,” I say, though there isn’t yet. “It’s a good story.”

“Is there a headline?”

A what? Sure. “Yes.”

She leans back. “A blessing,” she says. “Health, a little money. Love.”

* * *

At times she sounds like Samuel Beckett.

“We’re not the worst, are we?”

“No, we’re not the worst.”

“I mean, our standards is good, right?”

“They are very good.”

* * *

“I think it’s a memory recovery that I need,” she says. Still holding on.

* * *

“I want to know everything.”

* * *

Mom, Adam, Cameron

Mom, Adam, Cameron

* * *

And later, when she sees me sitting to her right: “Where’s Cameron?”

“Cameron’s right there,” Adam says.  Adam and I exchange looks.

* * *

“I keep missing people. I don’t know why I keep missing people. And my brother just died, right?” She cries.

“Yes,” Adam says. “Horst died a few months ago.”

She looks at me. “You were everybody’s Swiss darling.” I’m not sure what this means. And to Adam: “You’re my best coffee warrior.”

* * *

She comes out of another reverie to ask, “Do I have to have assistance in dressing?” As if she were trying to be briefed on her own life.

“Do you want assistance, Inge?” Adam says.

“No, I want to know if I can dress myself.  Am I able to.”

“I think a little assistance is helpful,” Adam says, rather than saying “no”.

* * *

“Do you want to sleep?” I ask her. It’s the middle of the night. I sure do.

“I don’t want to sleep,” she says. “Bits of my life are falling away. If I have one.”

* * *

“Do other people have beds like this?”

“No, Mom, you have a Swiss Army knife of a bed. The nicest in town. It’s like a smartphone.”

“I don’t know how to use that,” she says. “I’m a geriatric idiot.”

“No,” I say, “you’ve never been an idiot. You’ve always been quite clever.” Adam seconds the motion.

* * *

“What’s the situation?” she asks me. “How did you react? I mean, did I fall?”

“No, you didn’t fall. Your cancer has just been spreading.”

“Do we have a lot of good steady friends, too?”

“Yes, very steady,” I say.

“A lot of friends,” Adam says.

She cries. “That’s good to have,” she says, wiping her eyes.

“It’s great to have,” Adam says.

“We can raise a barn,” Mom says.

“Yes, we can raise a barn,” he says.

“But I can’t walk.”

* * *

She opens her eyes, looks at me.

“You’re a great mom,” I say.

“Am I a great other things, too?”

“Sure you are. A great cook—“

“A great friend,” Adam says.

“A great walker,” I say.

* * *

It’s about 4:30 a.m. Adam leaves for the airport shortly, so he’s packing quietly as Mom talks.

* * *

She says she’s very fastidious and so wants an easier way to go pee on her own, without calling to anyone else first. I can’t gather what she is saying, but she seems to be designing some kind of contraption. I tell her that’s not necessary.

“I’m almost always here, so you just have to ask me for help.”

She brightens a bit. “Are you a gentle person?”

“Yes,” I say. “Why?”

“Because I’ve had it so rough.”

* * *

Out of nowhere, I hear her breaking the silence in the room to say, “Do we have a father?”

* * *

Sometime after saying something, she stirs. “Is that a true thought?”

“Yes,” I say. I can see that she’s upset about her cognitive deficits. “You have many true thoughts.”

She reaches for my hand. “My soul seems to want to find you.”

* * *

Before I can ask her about this, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Bonnie, come to take Adam to the airport. Mom cries as Bonnie hugs her. “I’m having a snot or identity crisis,” Mom says. “One or the other.” Later she looks at Bonnie. “I can’t remember you.”

“I’m Bonnie,” says Bonnie.

* * *

Gesturing in my direction, she says to Bonnie, “I didn’t know what to call him for a while there.”

“You can just start with ‘son’,” Bonnie says.

Mom’s eyebrows go up. “I wasn’t sure,” she says, almost conspiratorially.

* * *

Silke arrives at about 10:30a.m. I had been trying to go back to sleep, thinking it was earlier, but I get up. Mom tells Silke that she hadn’t known who I was. “I thought, That’s a handsome man there.” A little later my mother says to me, “I sure hope I like you.”

* * *

And then one of those exchanges that I will carry with me.

“I just feel like bits and pieces,” she says, sounding so sad. “Are they ever going to come back together?”

“Yes, Mom. They will come back together. And you’ll be much happier.”


Sigh. “Yes, soon.”

* * *

She has been sitting in bed with her eyes closed. She stirs. “I was thinking, that as soon as I get back on my feet” — Silke and I look at each other — “maybe out of pride, I can make a walkway, an elegant one, so I can get around the house.” She points at the walls and draws an imaginary railing or something. “Because people do challenges,” she says, as if answering an objection.

Mom and I have both moved into new stages. She can no longer walk or support her weight. Getting into and out of bed is slow and painful. Moving four feet to the portable commode can exhaust her to the point of nausea. Until ten or so days ago, she only got nauseated during the relatively much longer and more arduous trek to the bathroom. She sleeps most of the time. And perhaps most distressingly, she is disoriented, confused, and very sad.

I began in an agitated state of fear and sadness and desperation. But three and a half weeks on, I seem to have settled in. It’s grueling, my conditioned mind offered up the other day. No, not grueling, I think, It’s not that bad. I exist at a surely temporary equilibrium. Even the morning depression seems to have lifted. I suspect I am able to maintain this balance only because it is too soon, perhaps even impossible, to feel what I will later come to feel I have lost. Too soon for the bittersweet memories of a bygone era. Too soon for any regrets. Even too soon for the sadness I fear I will always feel about my mother’s weeks-long psychological distress.

When her cognition was still in place, my mother expressed a pained dumbfoundment about her situation. “How did I get here?” Now that her reality comes and goes as fluidly as a dream, when she says “How did I get here?”, she literally doesn’t know where she is. The anxiety about her sudden illness has changed to a more metaphysical anxiety about place and existence.

* * *

Hospice nurse Suzanne is late to a meeting that includes the hospice-provided social worker. I can feel people gradually becoming more concerned about me. Adam suggested that I hire outside help. Mom’s friends say, “How are you holding up?” I don’t know. I don’t know what to compare it to. I catch the end of Mom complainingto the social worker about losing her mind, when she says, “Is it Alzheimer’s? Do I have Alzheimer’s?”

“No, honey, you don’t have Alzheimer’s,” the woman says. “It’s just the progression of the disease. The cancer causes the organs to shut down, and the brain is another organ, so it’s going to be affected too.”

“It’s normal, Mom,” I say. I know what she needs to hear.

“It is?”

“Totally normal. There’s nothing wrong or bad about it.”

She seems relieved.

* * *

Suzanne and the social worker have come to tell me what to expect, and they ask me if I’m comfortable taking my mother to the bathroom and cleaning her up if she’s incontinent. I have a simpler answer: “I’m pretty sure my mother wouldn’t be comfortable with that.” Adam, Suzanne, and the social worker suggest that I hire someone – Adam has even offered to pay – to help me. But I can’t figure out, and no one, not even the home care expert Suzanne recommended, can explain to me how I could use such a person. I don’t need or want someone here all the time, or even predictable periods of time, and what I would want – someone on call when something less predictable happens – is not what they offer.

* * *

I talk to her of the afterlife. As to heaven or an afterlife, I am agnostic – I don’t have particular beliefs, nor do I reflexively (like an atheist) disbelieve. (I do disbelieve hell). But I set all this aside now and paint a picture from the near-death experiences I know Mom is familiar with. The social worker who has come to talk to me helps.

I tell her something like, You will always be connected to me, Mom. You won’t miss me because you’ll always be able to be with me. But I will miss you because my soul is going to be stuck in this falling-apart body a while longer. You are moving on to the next Camino. The next stage.

“But all alone,” she says, mournfully.

You won’t be alone. You’ll be able to be with Candy all the time, and Brianna, and Carrie and Jannilyn and Gregory and Annika – but also Oma and Uncle Horst. You can travel wherever you want to go, just like you always wanted to do, and feel the presence of everyone you want to.

* * *

I am explaining to Monika that we were up at about ten to 4 in the morning, and that Bonnie came at about 4:30 to take Adam to the airport. Mom takes this in. “Boy,” she says, “we’re busier than a whorehouse.”

* * *

She says she’s going to bed. It’s a little after six. For the next four hours I surf Facebook, the web, my emails, and my journal.

True History of the Camino de Santiago

Mom’s new favorite book, featuring Mom, Carrie, and Julio, by Cameron Powell

Sticking It Out

November 1, 2014

Mom loves hands

Mom loves pictures of hands

Adam had been up with my mom since 4a.m. He’d made her coffee, grated her some apples – but she vomited up the apple.

“It’s just an apple,” she said, distressed. “An apple a day,” she added, her voice breaking. She began to cry. “I haven’t eaten in four days! Look at me,” she said, lifting her wrists. “I’m just skin and bones.”

* * *

“I love you,” she said.  This was later.

“We’ll always be connected, Mom.”

“Always have been. I don’t know how,” she said, “but I always felt that. You were such a gift. A gift. But I didn’t always treat it well.”

“Treat what well, Mom?”

“My gift,” she said. “You.”

* * *

A little while later, she called to me in the living room. “I’m getting dizzy. Can you come in here?”

I am lying on the bed next to her. Her eyes are closed but she is not sleeping. I am working on my laptop. With my left hand I caress the back of her head. I put my laptop down, sit up, and turn to her.

“Mom, I want you to know that whatever you think you did or didn’t do, you are forgiven. I just feel love for you. Just pure love.”

She nods serenely and pats my face.

* * *

The hospice nurse came and assured us that the Ativan could not be causing her nausea. Mom had probably misconstrued some cause and effect. “I think your nausea is caused by the progression of your disease,” she said.

These are chilling words.

But in fact, Mom has taken pain medication and Ativan all day, with no vomiting. A hospice nurse suggested that Mom may have felt ill a time or two, taken an Ativan – and vomited shortly afterward, before it had time to work. She could then have concluded the Ativan was at fault.

* * *

We were sitting in the living room when she said, “I wonder how much money is going to come out of this inheritance. We’ll find out next week.” The inheritance refers to her brother Horst’s estate. Horst died intestate, without a will, in June. Bonnie had told me, soon after I’d arrived in Montrose a few days earlier, that my mother was doing all she could to hang on for my sister and me. “She wants to make sure you guys get that money,” Bonnie had said.

“Did Christa tell you that?” I now said to Mom, referring to my mother’s only remaining sibling, who lives in Germany. “That we’d know next week?”

“Yes. I don’t know how long I can do this,” she said, referring, I think, to the act of staying alive.

She wonders if she can stick it out for another week?

* * *

Muschi arrived from Las Vegas and Mom cried. “Sixty-five years!” she said. They hugged a good long while, Mom’s face tear-streaked, and before long we had moved Mom into her bed, along with all her logistics. She was tired from the Ativan, barely able to stay awake. At a little after 9p.m. I took Muschi to the worst, saddest, seediest motel in all the world, and she insisted on staying because it was only three blocks away from Mom.

November 2, 2014

I awoke to the sound of my name. It was about 4:30a.m.  I bolted upright, debated pants, ran out in my boxers. Mom was at the kitchen’s backdoor. “Pumpkin!” she called. “Pumpkin.”

She was calling Pumpkin, the amateur therapy dog.

She turned and saw me. “I thought you were calling me,” I said.

“Just trying to get him inside,” she said.

She went back to her coffee, tottering on uncertain legs. Her movements were not precise; I helped her to keep her balance. She would drink about a quarter of her cup of coffee.

* * *

Adam and I offer her different choices of food.  She tells us: “If you guys keep talking about eating, I’m going to get really nauseous if you try so hard.”

She hasn’t eaten much today. She vomited once, losing what she had eaten. Sometime before noon, she interrupted a lengthy period of dozing with these words: “crunchy fish filet”. She didn’t even open her eyes. “I want a crunchy fish filet.” We baked two from the freezer, but one was perhaps freezer-burned – Mom spat it out — and the other was salmon, which Mom had never eaten and never would, Muschi relayed to us later.  Still no nutrition all day.

* * *

Between naps, Mom instructs Adam on how to make potato and leek soup her way. She has him bring a spoonful to her on the couch, where she tastes it and pronounces what it lacks. Sea salt. Dill. Heavy cream.

She mostly sleeps as we watch the British TV series, “Poirot”. Pumpkin, the old orange poodle, sleeps on her stomach or above her head.

I am standing near the couch when Mom reaches up for my hand. I kneel down on the floor and she holds my hand against her cheek. She begins to cry. “The pain,” she says, and I can’t make out the rest of it.

“What, Mom?”

She works to pull herself together. “The pain,” she repeats, “losing you – I don’t think I can handle it.”

* * *

I talk to my sister for a good while, but Mom is asleep or talking to the hospice nurse throughout. I hear Mom asking if someone can share their thoughts on food. What to eat. The nurse says it’s too individual, no advice to give. Mom is disappointed. When Candy calls back, Mom is again asleep. I make another blog post, “Missing Her Already”, and not long afterward my sister’s best friend, Tanya, who loves my mother as her own, calls to ask how I’m doing. She is amazingly loving and supportive and I thank her.

* * *

I come in and hear Mom and Nancy talking about my sister, I gather.

“. . . there’s bills, and work, and everything. I remember what it was like, being a single mother and not being able to go anywhere because of the kids.”

This makes me happy for my mother and sister, my mother’s understanding.

A few minutes later, she is complimenting Nancy on the life she has. “I see your grandkids and your kids and you’re making all those improvements. It’s really enviable,” she says. And then she turns her face away from Nancy, but I can see her features form into pain, and I see the tears in her eyes.

* * *

Candy calls again, but now Mom is asleep, again. I am determined to get them talking more. They have always had a challenged relationship, a good deal of miscommunication, and my sister is now commuting and working 14-hour days. They haven’t had much conversation since my mother and I flew my sister and niece to Colorado in June.

* * *

Silke comes and rubs Mom’s feet. Mom suddenly sees a vision of hazelnut cheese spread on crackers, along with green grapes (not the red we had on hand, those were too sweet for this kind of cheese). Adam and I head out to try both City Markets but we can’t find the Mirabo cheese she wants. I pick out a spreadable sundried tomato and basil cheese, and Adam gets another kind of cheese and hazelnuts he plans to crush and mix with the cheese. “That won’t work,” I say to him, “trust me.” Mom eats quite a bit of all this, especially Adam’s concoction. We cheer her eating.

We have her on the Ativan again.  I now keep a notebook of everything she takes and when — food, pain meds, Ativan, cannabis oil.  Now we can spot trends, and also know when to give her the next round of meds. She has stopped the frightening vomiting, which had seemed to portend a rapid, and therefore frightening, decline.

* * *

In the kitchen Muschi says to me, “Can’t we get your sister here? I would pay for her ticket.”

“It’s not so much the cost of the ticket,” I say – my sister couldn’t afford it but I’d put it on my credit card – “but the income she’d lose if she took off from work. She doesn’t have vacation time yet.”

That gives me an idea. I know the solution to this problem. I send a text to Candy, asking how much after-tax income she’d lose if she came for a week. Maybe we will get her here after all. I am thinking of Candy as much as Mom.

Carrie, who was 15 when she walked the Camino with us and just graduated in May, stops by to say hello.

* * *

At a little after 8p.m., I ask if Mom wants to call Candy. She says she’s too tired. Then she changes her mind. She fumbles with her new phone for a while and I take it from her and find Candy’s number. They talk for ten minutes or so. Mom cries a little when Candy repeats some of the memories she’d written in her letter. They must be talking about the possibility of Candy coming to Colorado. Candy says, “I’m workin on it, Mom” and Mom gives a timeframe of the next seven to ten days.

Candy told me that Mom’s oldest grandson, Dylan, who lives down the street but hasn’t been in touch with Mom since about July, is afraid to come here, to Mom’s house. “What bullshit,” Adam says.

* * *

Adam made a very good potato leek soup today from Mom’s recipe. Other than the Halloween candy, I’m eating pretty well. I’m not exercising – I don’t see anything in Montrose I want to do. I’m not a runner, I have no bike here, no mountains to hike, and no yoga class that interests me. Weightrooms bore me. I suppose I should look into Gold’s Gym and see what classes they have. Exercise is a great anti-depressant.

In the evening, Mom always goes to bed first – sometime between 7 and 9p.m. – and Adam falls asleep while we’re watching a movie. I finish the movie and go to my bedroom, where I am nightly faced with the Hobson’s choice of either closing the door and risking not being able to hear my mother, on the one hand, and subjecting myself to Adam’s locomotive snores on the other. Of course I leave the door open.

Days on the Camino, What I Miss (Part II), and a Secret to Happiness

Typical Second Breakfast, greatest time of day ever

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and probably what I have missed most upon my re-entry into the so-called Real World are two keys of the good life:  the simplicity of my days unfolding one day at a time, and a clear sense of purpose.  We are meaning-seeking creatures, and we don’t live by bread alone. We also live by purpose, which is another way of saying meaning.

It had been a long time since my mind was not continually gnawing over the future (or, just as unhappily, the past), but that is how I lived for a month while in Spain.  On the Camino, my mind was rarely occupied by anything farther into the future, or more complicated, than the next meal (prepared by others) and rest break (I was able to handle these on my own).  I had a very clear sense of what I was doing, and why, and I looked forward to each unfolding stage of it.

Days on the Camino

When I woke up in the mornings on the Camino, I didn’t have to sort through options about what to do – one of many types of decision-making tasks that researchers tell us are mentally and physically exhausting.  I also didn’t have to wonder what would happen that day.  I thought, if anything, about First Breakfast.

A croissant or drinkable yogurt, coffee, perhaps jam, fruit.

After First Breakfast, we would begin walking.  Where?  Easy:  just follow the yellow arrows.  As we walked, I would begin slowly to entertain fantasies about Second Breakfast.  The food was often similar to First Breakfast, or at least there was more of it (once, at 9:15a.m. I ate an entire medium pizza).  And about two hours after Second Breakfast, I was pining for First Lunch.  It sounds like a dog’s life, no?  Or a child’s.  This simplicity and living in the moment is part of what Jesus, a famous lover of food and drink and the common table, meant when he exhorted us to be like children.

Marie Anne's wonderful First Dinner in Cizur Menor. Me, Julio, Marie Anne, Carrie

During some of these walking breaks and even while walking, I would whip out my (paper) notebook and take notes, or, if we were in a café or near a boulder with good seating, I might even open my MacBook Air and start writing up notes (one of the reasons I chose my Air was that its Flash drive makes it turn on as fast as a paper notebook, or a cell phone – I just open it up and start using it – with none of the endless waiting and wailing and churning of Windows or of computers with hard drives).

Almost always after my shower in the early afternoon, I would lie on my back on whichever of the 30 beds I slept in while in France, Spain, and Portugal, my MacBook Air on my thighs, the purring of other pilgrims napping all around me, and I would begin transcribing notes from my notebook, then adding other thoughts and uploading the latest photos from our cameras to Facebook, and voila!  A blog post.

But “a blog post” doesn’t really capture what I was doing.  In fact, by writing and sharing my thoughts and adventures for an audience, however small (you know who you are!), I think I was living quite close to my purpose.  I am still refining that; I welcome your ideas.

I have missed that sense of purpose.  It was a slight purpose, getting up every morning to walk, walking, eating, observing, taking notes, reporting what I saw, but it was a very clear purpose, and it seemed, at the time, to be enough.

I miss expressing even my most mundane thoughts on a regular basis, and knowing someone is likely to read it, and almost as likely to be grateful for something in it.  I miss, that is, what people in certain circles might call a “practice”.  Flower-arranging is a practice.  Karate is a practice.  Yoga and meditation are practices.  Prayer and good works are practices.  Anything done mindfully, or with love, or both, puts us in practice of being fully human.

For me, writing must be one of my practices.  If I skip it, it’s like skipping exercise:  I can’t be fully happy.


I have missed the sense of freedom that comes with moving my body in healthy ways – freedom, say, from worries about gaining weight because I can eat as much or as little as I want to.  (My Camino pants are still quite big on me).  I’ve felt this liberation before, and I want to keep exercising so as to hold onto it.  Now:  how to do that in this urban wilderness that surrounds me?

Yesterday, I sort of stumbled on creating a day that felt a bit like the Camino:  it began when I walked over a mile to yoga.  Did yoga.  I then walked over three miles on trips to the bank, to Karma Café for an Indian lunch, and along the Jersey City waterfront walkway, reminding myself now and then to look up and appreciate that a short distance away, over the Hudson River on which Captain Sully crash-landed his plane, rose the concrete mountains of one of the greatest cities the world has ever known.  Then I stopped in a Starbucks to take notes and drink my first cold chai in six weeks, and continued to a federal building to pay the last of my 2009 and 2010 taxes.

Perceptions of Time 

After the sobbing at the tax office had subsided and I had gotten hold of myself, I saw that the next light-rail to Jersey City’s Heights left Pavonia-Newport in 24 minutes, and I did something absurd:  I decided instead to walk nearly three miles back to the apartment.  I remember Julio saying that his impression of Americans was that we would drive from the living room to the bathroom.  (Julio walks 250-300 days a year, sometimes across entire countries, or in Himalayas, and so on).  This 5K was for you, Julio!

Julio and I at, or after, First Dinner

I’m not disinclined to walk places anymore, because I’m not afraid of the discomfort of spending time so inefficiently.  That’s a big change.  It’s only partly a physical laziness that makes us drive.  Much of the reason we drive is because we are uncomfortable with the feeling we get when we do something inefficient, like walking, and then tell ourselves the following story:  I’m wasting my time.

This one story is a cause of much misery in modern life.

I was looking at Manhattan from Jersey City’s Heights the other

Under an hour, right, Julio?

morning and sized up the actual distance.  Based on my newfound experience in assessing how far away a village is and how long it will take to get there, I figured I could walk to Manhattan in under an hour, if there were a walking bridge.  It’s a shame there isn’t.  New Jerseyites are entirely denied the pleasure of walking into one of the world’s great cities.  They must either drive through a serpentine urban jungle, including underground, or dive underground with hundreds of other people in public transportation.

What I Miss, Part II

In a proof of the mathematical equation that says the grass is always greener, I offer the essay below as contrasted with what I said I missed just a few weeks ago while in rural Spain…

I miss other things.  Both of my cars are in Oregon.  One, the Land Rover, the World’s Most Expensive Ski Accessory, I want to sell.  Or to detonate, after first putting my HTC My Touch Android phone inside it.  The other, my BMW M3, I miss like my own child. I am reduced to public transportation here, or driving Adam’s Volvo, which is like driving an iceberg, or a continental shelf.

I miss a world in which a guilt-free nap is actually plausible.  Not that much has changed for me . . .  Of course, I don’t really need them anymore, since no one dares wake me up at oh-god-thirty.

I miss having feeling on two (or is it three?) of my right toes.  They still feel kind of tingly, if not entirely numb, just as they often did while walking in the Five Fingers.  And that was before I — “stubbed” doesn’t quite capture the crushing impact they made with a rock — on the trail.

I miss that on the Camino there was nothing more that could be done, with the result that I didn’t worry any part of the day about whether I could be doing more – a hallmark of the over-achiever, of the unhappy person.  Instead, for the first time in a very long time, I was doing all I could do – or all I was choosing to believe I needed to do.

In the Pyrenees

I know there is a secret recipe for happiness in that.

Just When You Thought It Was Over: Portugal

City of Port

If you learn nothing else from this post, you will remember that Porto, also called Oporto (“O” being the Portuguese “the”) in both English and “Portuguese” (explanation of quotes below), is the second-largest city in Portugal and the origin of Port wine.

I knew the latter even before we took a tour of an award-winning port wine maker clustered on the river with dozens of its peers. I learned, from our Botswana-born guide, that the makers prefer French and American oak for their barrels, that port is made by interrupting the fermentation process with a heavy infusion of grape alcohol, and that the ruby and tawny ports I often see are the two middle rungs of port wine, with vintage being the newest and least expensive, and reserves, running from 20 to over 40 years old, being the oldest and most expensive.

We sat down at a sawed-off barrel with a Dutch couple and began tasting. I don’t think I’d ever had white port wine before; they offered a dry one and a sweet one, both very good. I tried a 20-year-old reserve, and bought a sweet medium-red tawny.

Who will give me an excuse to open it? Please complete your application in the Comments section of the blog. Especially interesting applications may be emailed in confidence.

The drive from Galicia took about three-and-a-quarter hours, and was a continuation of the beautiful, green, hilly country we’d seen in Spain, but it looked better maintained. It was hazy all day, for the entire distance we covered.

I’m sure Porto has culture, and in the distance I’m pretty sure I saw churches and palaces and whatnot, but my interest was focused like a laser beam on (1) doing nothing and (2) finding civilian clothes. For a month I have worn two shirts, two socks, two pairs of underwear – I was like the Noah’s Ark of hiking gear. I discovered in Porto that I had an inner metrosexual, and he wanted to come out.

We pretty much accomplished all these goals on the Via Catarina, a long, narrow, pedestrian shopping street, and during a few visits to the Majestic Café, a carved-wood-and-mirror Nouveau Art creation in which I could imagine Hemingway, its contemporary when it opened in 1923, sitting down to write. They are so proud of being able to cook a proper spaghetti Bolognese – which is to say about half as good as Mom’s – that they will take from you about $17 for a bowl the size of an appetizer dish. But they will speak English to you, like many Portuguese seem to do – they even seem to prefer it to Spanish.

Portugal lives in the shadow of Spain, its much larger, more populous, less poor country, and so to carve out their own distinct identity, the Portuguese have sort of agreed they will speak Spanish with a Russian accent. This they call “Portuguese”.

Things get really confusing when you hear a Russian immigrant speak “Portuguese”, or when you ask a Portuguese if he or she would prefer that you speak English or Spanish. “English,” they always say. This is because saying “Spanish” would simply reveal their secret: they are already speaking Spanish, just with a heavy Slavic accent.

The notion of customer service was stronger in Porto than on the Camino. Our first interaction was with the proprietor of a café-bar who (it would not be too much to say) hurdled over the counter to come and translate his menu for us. Everywhere we went, people were very friendly and accommodating.

Kudos especially to the woman who harvested an entire wall of its

No dummies were hurt in this demonstration

sweaters, and even brutally amputated a mannequin, in an attempt to get me to buy a sweater; the friendly young man at Zara who worked his mic like Madonna and who professed not to believe that I had never, as I told him, been as cool as he was, and therefore could not wear some of the items he was suggesting to me; and the salesman at Massimo Dutti, which I have decided is superior to Zara for men over 35, for lightening my wallet more than all the others combined.

I took care to hold on to my receipts, though. Taxes on clothes make up a whopping 23% of the listed price, but the foreigner can get back 19% at the airport. This helps a lot when you’re contemplating a 220-Euro winter coat at Massimo Dutti. Curiously, there is a minimum purchase of about 60 Euros, as if the authorities (in Portugal and elsewhere, actually) don’t want to administrative overhead of dealing with small receipts. But this creates a disincentive to buy single articles from smaller, mom-and-pop merchants, and likely benefits mostly the department stores and expensive retailers.

Many of the churches in Porto look as if they were built from the French Country section of Pottery Barn, being faced with a combination of somewhat grimy stonework that frames large, eye-catching expanses of blue-and-white Delph tiles depicting Biblical stories.

We took a double-decker bus around town. Mom on the bus ride along the ocean reminded me of a little girl, which is another way of saying that she’s able to be open and present to things as if she’s never seen them before. Ohhh! Look at that! It’s crashing! Do you hear it! I’ve got to catch that! It was amazing. I felt so stick-in-the-mud. We got off the tour bus on the avenue of port wine makers. “When will the bus return here?” I asked. “One hour,” the woman said firmly.

Fifty minutes later it paused briefly at the bus stop, a block away from us, and left without us.

For dinner that night I decided to try bacalao, or cod, which I’d had once in Spain, but which is considered a national dish in Portugal. Probably I should have waited until we were in a finer restaurant. Though I ordered it “grilled,” there was so much oil on my plate I could have run my BMW on it. I literally spooned it like soup. The fish itself, as prepared, was nothing to write a blog home about.


In Lisbon yesterday we began with a series of small disasters. The tourist office called about five hotels but all were booked. No problem: I’d look them up on the Internet. Then I discovered that after about 30 straight days of remembering to pack all of my electronics gear every day, I’d left behind my MacBook Air’s power cord. I’d used the battery on the bus, and it was almost dead. My Vodafone USB stick has been done for since Saturday.

We dealt with these setbacks by having lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Carrie was in heaven. Mom loved her salad. The mac and cheese was pretty good. Afterward, we marched into a Starbucks that’s surely located in one of the most beautiful buildings for any Starbucks, and I madly tried to book a hotel on any of Priceline, Travelocity, or Venere. My power reached 2% and I booked a place called Caza Latina. We jumped in a cab and drove uptown to the address.

There was no sign. “This is a hotel?” I asked the driver. He shrugged, pointing out that he’d just brought us to the desired address. Obvious locals sat around at some tables at the joint next door. They told me, I thought, that it was a hotel. I then saw the “Latina” plate next to the buzzer marked #1. I buzzed. And buzzed. No one. I buzzed one marked “Porto” and this brought forth an angry charging dog dressed as an old Portuguese woman. By this time I was cursing with her. I established that she was not with the hotel, and though she was not done with her rant, I said goodbye to her and walked up the stairs. No sign. Nothing indicating a hotel or any commercial establishment. No open doors. Nobody.

On the sidewalk we considered our options. Finally we hailed another cab to take us to an Internet café whose address (like an Apple reseller’s) I’d looked up while in Starbucks. A miscommunication delivered us to the Apple reseller instead. He had no more power cords. But he was very generous: he said I could charge up and use the wi-fi. He also pointed out the coffee. Wow.

On Prieline, I found a two-star hotel near the Apolonia metro station. The rooms had single beds of the sort you’d see in the army, if you were in the army in one of Portugal’s former African colonies. A sign warned against “eating or drinking in the room”, but the presence of an unwalled sink and bidet added, “but do feel free, out in the open, to wash your ass”. The manager was extremely helpful in calling the hotel in Porto and having them ship my power cord.

Then we headed out for the ocean, two blocks away, but we were stymied because the ocean, it seemed, had been fenced off. For miles and miles.  Never seen anything like it.  So we went to an Indian restaurant, opened the place up (at 6:30), and had a fantastic meal. We were the only patrons, and it wasn’t just that restaurant: block after block, restaurant tables were empty.

I asked Mom and Carrie what felt different or what they missed now that the Camino was over. “I miss Julio!” Carrie said. Mom said, “I miss Julio’s encouragement, and I miss Marie Anne’s laughter. I also miss walking a little every day.”

I will write more later about our dawning realization that we have left what screenwriters call the Special World.  We bring, I suppose, the precious elixir from our journey back to the Ordinary World.  But we also know that the other reality is now imminent.

The End of This Way

Pedrouzo to Santiago – 18km

We weren’t in a hurry this morning.  For most of the walk we went at a leisurely pace, putting me in mind of the pilgrims to Canterbury, England, who once rode their horses and donkeys toward their destination at neither a slow trot nor a fast gallop, but somewhere in between, which is why we now have the word canter.

If you think Priceline (above) is confusing, definitely avoid Kemwel.com

I did start late, though, and so spent the first hour or so catching up to Mom and Carrie.  I had stayed behind at the albergue to try to get a car rental from Santiago to Lisbon, and I worked at this until I realized several things:  (1) Priceline’s notions of arithmetic are akin to Camino café-bars’ ideas about spaghetti Bolognese (2) car rental giant Kemwel.com has not yet entered the era of user-friendliness or common sense, to put it mildly, and (3) it is impossible to rent a car one-way in Europe for a price less than that of booking a private jet.

We’re at about the 42nd parallel, which is perhaps near the California-Oregon border in the U.S., but it’s still dark until well after eight a.m. because while the Spanish discovered America for Europe, they haven’t yet discovered Daylight Savings Time.

About forty-five minutes after Mom and Carrie had gone, I left Pedrouzo at a fast pace and found myself in a dark wood.  Two roads diverged in the wood, and I, I . . .

I waited for some pilgrims who hadn’t lost their headlamps.  Instead I got pilgrims who had no lights at all, and one who tried to use his phone.  The wood was so dark that I couldn’t even make out the ubiquitous Pilgrim Litter Navigation System.  Once a group of ten of us had bunched up, murmuring in three or four different languages, we concluded via groupthink to take the wider path, a decision that, unlike the Bay of Pigs, worked out pretty well.  I caught Mom and Carrie about an hour later, and I was pouring sweat.  I don’t remember the song I was singing as I came up from behind, but they were convincingly disappointed that it wasn’t “She’s a Lady”.

A Spaniard on a bike asked us if we’d seen a group of four men, including one with a beard.  No, we hadn’t.  Why?  Well, the bearded man and a woman had fallen in love some stages back, and then they’d gotten separated.  The biker was trying to find the man to deliver a letter from the woman that included information on how to contact her.  Awww, how sweet, right?

No.  I am sorry, but better the letter is never delivered at all.  If two people allegedly in love can’t think to negotiate contact information, what hope is there that they’ll remember to have sex, or to stop at the grocery store on the way home?

Not long afterward, we passed a pilgrim coming back from Santiago.  He was walking back to France – that is, doubling his trip.  We’d already run into an Austrian woman, perhaps late 40s or early 50s, who had begun in Toulose, France — 750 kilometers before the start of our own walk.

For Second Breakfast, I asked for the Espaguetti a la Carbonara.  Based on my bolonaise experience thus far on the Camino, I knew this was risky; my espaguetti could arrive with octopus on top, and in a pesto sauce.  Mom, feeling lucky, said she’d have one too.  But the man at the bar informed us that, sadly, there was only one.  Mom looked at the man, then at me.

“What did they do with the other one?”

A few kilometers later, she left her despised orange shirt on a sign that had been vandalized beyond usefulness anyway.  We had walked twenty yards away from it when she said, “Oh, God, now it’s whining.”  I thought she was joking, but she turned around to go back and get it.  I took out my camera, but she had turned around again.  “There are people coming,” she said sheepishly.

We walked on.  She got shaky again.  “It must be this food,” she said.  “My body is just all messed up lately.  I’ve got to get back on my diet.  I haven’t felt so many problems in my body in two years.”

Reaching Santiago

There’s not much to say about the last stage to Santiago.  After the early forests and some brief bits of farmland in ruin, we walked on backroads bordered by some aggressively ugly houses, through sparsely settled suburbs, near an active firing range where all the suburban warriors were belting out double-taps, Navy-SEAL-style, and through Santiago’s outskirts, which, like a bride’s skirts, seemed to go on forever.  We were in Santiago itself, but instead of the steep final hill that some guidebooks went on about, we were tested only by a tolerance for boredom.  Said Mom, “I won’t feel I’ve arrived until I see the cathedral.”

With a little less than a mile to go, we took a break.  I took off my trail-running shoes and discovered my first blisters, including a 2” x 3” job on my right foot and several on my toes.  The unnecessary river crossing I had done two days ago had gotten my minimalist footwear wet, and they hadn’t dried out by yesterday.  I had worn them anyway, with wool socks, but wearing them at all may have been a mistake.  You never want moisture near your foot when you walk a long way.

I took out a pair of scissors and did the kind of surgery that makes fifteen-year-old girls blanch, and then I put on my FiveFingers.  They had done almost all the work that got me here, and I would not, as Yahweh had done Moses, deny them the Promised Land right on the verge of it.

On our way to the plaza of the cathedral, we met two Seattle tourists who seem to have felt sort of bad because they’d gotten to Santiago by car.  Mom chatted with them a bit before we had to answer the magnetic pull of the finish line just a few blocks away.

When Jesus Meets Me in the Sky

I was thinking of Julio’s words to me.  “When you get to Santiago,” he’d said, “the local townspeople will greet you and offer to take you to their homes.  You’ll have dinner with them and stay the night with them.  It is a tradition there.”

I could just envision it.  People would line the road like in the Tour de France, holding out bunches of wildflowers they’d picked themselves.  Small children would squirm on their father’s shoulders, and teenagers would clamber onto the first-floor ledges of buildings, or hang from fire escapes and drain pipes.  Everyone would cry out huzzahs and hosannas.  Sloe-eyed and slender Spanish women would blow kisses.  Old women would clutch at their rosaries.

I would pick up my poles and jog around the plaza in a victory lap, but the people’s joy would not be so easily contained, oh no.  They would lift us up on their shoulders and sing to us traditional Galician songs, songs so old they were once sung by Pagans, and they would parade us around the square.  When they finally set us down, all of us laughing ourselves to tears, a member of the Knights Templar would step out of the shadows and explain that the brotherhood still existed, after all these centuries, and could I please join – nay, lead — them?

The cathedral was well-hidden on the far side of Santiago.  Also hidden were the townspeople and their homes, the huzzahs and the women, young and old.  There were no tears, there were no kisses, and the Knights Templar remained a figment of Dan Brown’s imagination.  We would stay in a pension, the Santa Cruz, run by an extremely helpful Spaniard who insisted on walking us places rather than simply give directions.

The Cathedral, and a Sort of Finish Line

The cathedral seems situated for maximum impact.  You see only spires as you approach, and then the back and side.  Then you go through a stone archway into the plaza and face the building opposite the cathedral.  And once we entered the plaza of the cathedral, I focused on watching, and filming, Mom walking ahead of me.  I surprised myself by getting a little choked up, but I’m pretty sure it was because I forgot to take my meds.

“Oh, we’re here!” she said.

Mom holds out the credentials stamped by all the albergues on the way

“You made it!” I told her.  “You did it.”

I handed Carrie the camera and hauled my backpack over to Mom.  I set it down and extracted the two battered red carnations I’d stored in it since the night before, and when she saw them she started crying again.  She didn’t even care that the stem of one was now only eight inches long.  When I pulled out the sixteen inches of the rest of the stem, she reached for that too.

Our Seattle friends

The Video 

Our Seattle friends now materialized before us and took pictures. [Read our correspondence from over four years later, in November 2015 – opens in new tab].

“We’ve been here for days,” the man said, “and you’re the first pilgrims we’ve gotten to talk to.  You guys have really accomplished something.”  It was strangely wonderful to have some witnesses, to call them that, who were fully willing to join in something so late in the day and yet still get something from it, and who gave something back.

In the cathedral floor — where you go if you don’t burn enough karma, or whatever, on the Camino

It was almost as an afterthought that we toured the cathedral.  It did not impress as much as the ones in Burgos and Leon.  There are three world-class cathedrals on the Camino:  in Burgos, Leon, and Santiago.  Burgos boasts most of the gold in South America.  Leon, its magnificent stained-glass windows.  My favorite, though, was the one in Los Arcos, because that is where something magical happened, as a father mourned his lost son, and we were witnesses to his love.  What matters, in a cathedral, is simply who’s inside it.

Nearby, we found the Pilgrims’ Office and got our Camino certificates, in Latin, which, as I work it out, means they came straight from the Vatican.

But it ain’t over till the mochilas come home.  We still had to schlep across town and pick up Mom and Carrie’s backpacks.  They were at the seminary, which turned out to be down a steep hill, up a steep hill . . .

“I’m glad we’re not staying there,” Mom said as we got close.  “It looks like a prison!  Look at the bars on the windows.”

“That’s to keep out the nuns,” I said.  Carrie then learned that a

The Seminary

seminary is an all-male facility, which we know because it shares the same root as semen.  She will have so much to share in her school report when she gets back to Colorado!

We ran into Devin, of Canada, who had walked 60km in 24 hours and now had severe tendinitis in both legs.  “I saw the sign for 50 kilometers,” he said, “and I thought, ‘I could be in Santiago by tomorrow morning.'”  We saw the 19-year-old New Zealand woman who had sped across Spain alone, on a deadline to catch a plane to London.  And Mom was overjoyed to find Barbara of Bavaria, whose husband had surprised her for their 26th wedding anniversary by flying out to join her on the last three days of the Camino.  She had walked him for 35km the first day.  “You people have got to be crazy,” he said.

Reunion with Barbara of Bavaria – in Santiago

What Have You Learned?

“When people ask you what you learned on this trip,” Mom said to Carrie, “what are you going to tell them?”

Carrie held an imaginary microphone to her mouth and sang, She’s got style / She’s got grace . . . ”

I think that’s a job well done.  Go forth and prosper, little cousin!

Me?  I learned that Galicia, especially the countryside, is in a state of disrepair.  My friend Adam, a longtime student of Spanish and Latin American history, and who is right about things that don’t really matter exactly 63% of the time, says that Galicia was depopulated during the 20th century.  The guidebooks don’t often mention that until less than forty years ago, Spain was isolated and in decline under the right-wing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

I learned that if you’re a Pope, you can fly into Santiago in a private jet, slide into your Popemobile, and, having materialized at home base, as it were, receive the designation of “pilgrim”.

I learned that miracles are possible.  For example, in the hurly-burly of travel, I had lost both the little rubber earbuds to my iPod’s headphones.  For weeks, I stuffed the hard metal tips into my ears.  They fell out easily.  It was a hard, hard existence.  But one day, as I was walking along, I saw, draped over a branch on one of the countless trees in Spain, a black wire.  As I drew closer, I saw that there was not one wire but several.  The tip that plugged into a music source had been ripped away, but there, before my eyes, were two rubber earbuds.  I crossed myself and harvested them, leaving the hard metal tips and the rest of the wires on the branch.  They fit my own headphones perfectly.

I learnd that if the collected works of E. Presley have taught us anything, it is that the primary anxiety of a waiter wearing blue suede shoes is that you may do anything you want to do but you should lay offa his blue suede shoes; that you can burn his house, and steal his car; that you can drink his liquor from an old fruit jar.  You can do anything, that you want to do, but you oughtta lay offa his blue suede shoes.

There is no destination.  Only the way.  Recall the book by the German comedian, if you can set aside, for a moment, the oxymoron.  The jacket copy said that since its publication, the number of pilgrims had increased by 20%.  If more people go on the Camino after my book about it, they will have missed the point.  There is no Camino.  There are only caminos.  There is no camino here.  The camino, the way, is wherever you make it.

“Buen Camino!”  We have heard that hundreds of times, from fellow pilgrims afoot, from bikers, and from the Spanish.  But at no time does it seem more appropriate than now, once we’ve reached Santiago.

“Have a good Way!”

Chief Expedition Videographer, Biographer, and Podiatrist

Notes from Kilometer 18, Give or Take

Oy.  I am knackered.  Currently in Arca, or Pedrouzo, or Arca Pedrouzo, or Arca (Pedrouzo) – it all depends on the sign you read.  Just as whether we’ve traveled 40 or 43 kilometers in the last two days depends on whether you believe the piece of paper given us by the French, the somewhat suspicious Galician kilometerstones, or your lyin’ legs.  In any event, we’re at about Kilometer 18 – or about six hours’ walk from Santiago, which we’ll reach tomorrow.

A few days ago I was going to write here that I’ve finally gotten the hang of all this walking business.  By the time we reach Santiago, I thought, I’d be in shape to walk this Camino.  But yesterday the bones (or something; ligaments?) of my legs hurt. And today it was the bottoms of my feet.  We’ve been resting for hours, and they’re still sore.  It’s like a dwarf pounded on them with a wooden mixing spoon.  Why a dwarf?  I don’t know.  Imagery.

Let’s catch up, shall we?

Spanish Pilgrims

The Spanish (all references to “the Spanish” here expressly exclude Julio) keep to themselves, somewhat like the Asians.  Everyone else on the Camino interacts with one another.  In the Asians’ case, I think it is a matter of language and culture.  If they speak English, or want to talk, they don’t let on.  In the case of the Spaniards, it is both the lack of a common language (few speak English, the common language of the non-Spanish pilgrims) and the Spaniards’ lesser need to seek out friendship:  their own friends are just around the corner.  And who else but the Spanish can take just two or four days to walk on the Camino?

Lejos!” they say, when I answer that I am from the United States.  Anywhere in the U.S. but New York is, in their minds, even farther away.

The Spanish are also not as much in the moment, perhaps because they are in their own country, so they have not, in a sense, left their old lives behind.  They are still on the same cell phone plans, and they, unique among the nationalities here, carry their phones with them around the albergues, or can even be heard talking on the Camino itself.  I’ve seen Spanish Camino bikers ride by wearing earbuds.  “Buen Camino!” one called out to us, and then continued talking into his cell phone’s microphone as he rolled past.  Really, why bother with the Camino?  You can do that on a stationary bike in your local gym.

On Toilets

I think it’s time we had a serious, adult conversation about toilets in Europe, and perhaps especially in less developed Europe.  The traveler to certain parts of Europe, like points on the Camino, cannot help but notice that there must not be a distribution channel for toilet seats in these areas.  There the commode sits, fine white porcelain, yet bereft of any place for you to sit.  Except that you are supposed to sit.  You must sit.  And if you are a man, you will sit where the splashing from other men goes.  On the porcelain itself.

Was there, at some point, a rash of toilet-seat thefts by tourists or pilgrims?  Where would you put one?  My driver’s ed teacher in high school made his bathroom pass a toilet seat precisely because they can’t be hidden.

At least it’s not southern Italy, whose toilets alone (last I was there, in 1989) gave it Third World (or Developing World, as we’re now supposed to say) status.  There, you get a hole in the ground.  If you’re lucky, there’s a chain or rope from the ceiling that you can clasp hold of while squatting.  I remember I was right out of college, this was in Naples, there was a long line for the bathrooms.  I walked to the front of the line just to see WTF.  There sat an unsmiling matron of a certain age, at a large desk, doling out five squares of toilet paper to each of the backpackers.  There they all stood, shifting their weight from one foot to the other, waiting for their squares.

I then went to see the toilets.  Cheesus Crise! as Julio would say.  Hole in the ground and not even a chain to hold onto.  The Romans were better sanitation engineers in 40 BCE than the Napolitanos were in 1989.

Ventas de Narón to Casanova Mato

Web with Dew

Every inhalation in Galicia brings with it a surprise.  It is an earthy, aromatic part of the world.  Woodsmoke and sorghum, fall leaves and grass, cow dung and a smell like oranges (but there are no oranges), hay that smells like camomille, soil.  Eucalyptus!  Brought in from Australia in the mistaken belief it would be useful for building.

In the morning I am inhaling the camomille-like smell in deep breaths, taking it in, imagining the freshness of it nurturing my cells, and then I am caught short by a smell so foul that my cells threaten to mutate, or at least to revolt, until once again I can smell something like tea . . .

We have left so early that we navigate by moonlight.  I have left my new headlamp somewhere, and Mom has spent so many hours reading while others sleep that her battery is dead.

Oh what a plight

Dark as dark night

Thank God for Carrie

With her wind-up light

There is a corona around the moon, like a small rainbow.  “Grandma Powell always said that meant a change in the weather,” Mom said.  “I guess that was the Indian in her.”  Grandma Powell was one-quarter Indian – Cherokee, and perhaps Blackfoot or Blackfeet (these are two distinct tribes).  The rest, as I’ve written elsewhere, was gristle.

From the hills we’re in, we can see fog blanketing the valley below.  When we enter the fog, the air is so thick with water that our packs grow wet, and the trees rain water down on us as we pass.

We pass a cemetery.  My eye catches the word “Peregrino,” Pilgrim, on a sign, and I back up to read it.

Cimetario de Peregrinos

How encouraging.  A cemetery for pilgrims who fell between the 80th and 60th kilometers.

Mom said she read in her book, the one by the German comedian, that only 16% of pilgrims finish the Camino.

We are still navigating by moonlight, and when we enter the trees and the moonlight can’t penetrate, we navigate by litter.  Pilgrim litter is far more reliably ever-present than the Camino’s fabled yellow arrow.

My mind is still working on yesterday’s legal kerfuffle.  It’s also working out solutions to the electronic document signing on Friday.

Secure DocuSign signature starts with the preparer of the document having the email address of the signatories and giving them a password.  Title company inexperienced with DocuSign, won’t think to require a password.  Person clicking on the signature lines needs only the credentials to the email address to be used. 

And this I give to Julio, who is on his way to Madrid, by text message, with instructions for him to pass the same on to Adam, in New Jersey, by email.  Problem solved, I return to the world around me.

Dog and Corncrib (What do these things *do*?)

We will put in around 20 kilometers today.  It is almost too much for Mom.  “I wish we were already there,” she says, with a few kilometers to go.  I have noticed the same thought in myself.  I then put my attention back in the present, including on my sore legs or hips, working to remain in the now.  I suggest that she too follow Eckhart’s advice not to resist, not to want to be in the future.

“I’m not resisting,” Mom says, resisting even talk of resistance.  “It was just kind of a little hope.”

Carrie laughs.  Forget being a prophet who isn’t heard in his own house; try being a mere life coach.

Casanova Mato

We finally reach the albergue in Casanova Mato.  The older woman who runs it is handsome and officious and as helpful as she can be without speaking English.  We three go upstairs and shower, and then Carrie and I take a nap.  It is probably my second nap of the trip.  I’m finding that naptime is an excellent time to get sleep without snorers around.  Daytime has always been for me an illicit time to sleep, a hedonistic indulgence, and so it’s doubly delicious.  In fact, it’s downright —

“Wake up,” Mom says.  “It’s five-thirty.  Time to eat.”

She’s perched on the edge of her bed, shoes tied smartly.

“We just ate a few hours ago,” I say, stifling a sob.

“No, we ate at three,” she says.

Mom’s gusto for food has reached a fever-pitch on this trip.  I point out that I’m not yet hungry, and that nothing in Spain starts cooking before six-thirty, and that in fact the woman downstairs told me that the albergue a kilometer to the east opens at seven-thirty, and the one 1.5 kilometers to the west, which offers a ride, opens at six-thirty or a quarter to seven.

“I’m bored,” she says.

“Why don’t you arrange the mochilas for tomorrow?”  This will get rid of her, I think.

A young Spaniard named Álvaro helps me speak to the service that handles the mochilas, the backpacks that Mom and Carrie send ahead by car every day.  I thought I was clear to tell the mochila man that we need him to carry the mochilas from Casanova Mato to Ribadiso, but he keeps asking the name of whichever woman is downstairs.  Is it Carmen?  How the hell should I know?  We went around like this for some time.  I asked a group of four Spaniards of about my age if any of them spoke English.  They all shook their heads and pointed to Álvaro.  He got on the phone, then off.

“He is very hard to understand,” Álvaro says.  “It’s a strange dialect. I think it’s maybe his first day on the job.”

I asked Álvaro why he was on the Camino.  “Because in January my mother was very ill, and I promised if she got better . . .  She got better.”

We invited him to join us for dinner, but he’d brought his own comida, he said.  So we called the albergue, Casa Bolboreta, that served food 1.5km away, and then we were blown away by the great meal we got for 8 Euros.  Meatballs, great fries, lentil stew, water, wine – Mom said it was the second-best meal she’s had here, after the dreamy two servings of soup she got during the festival in tiny Navarette.

She and Carrie had been reading the blog and got themselves into a laughing fit.  Mom started to reminisce about a trip to Germany in the 1990s, when Oma, my mother’s mother, was still alive.  Mom had gone with her then-husband, known now as whatsizname, and they decided to take a bus tour of the Rhine Valley.  Oma invited herself along.  They’d been riding in the bus for several hours when Oma leaned across the aisle and said to Mom, “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know,” Mom said.

“Well, where is it then?”

“I don’t know that either.”

Oma, disgusted, turned to the man next to her.  “Sir,” she said, in her unmistakable (and usually incomprehensible) Bavarian accent, “d’yaknow where this bus ‘s goin?”

“Leiwen,” the man said.  She thanked him and turned back to Mom.

“Where is this Leiwen?”

“How should I know?”

“What,” Oma said, “you get on a bus and don’t even know where it’s going?”

The Albergue at Casanova Mato

The albergue itself looked a lot like the little hospital in which I was born.  Boxy, small, and, by definition, I suppose, sort of clinical.  There must be a manufacturer out there who makes albergue dormitory bunk beds, because I’ve seen them again and again on the Camino.  They’re made of hollow aluminum.  They don’t fit together well, and they squeak.

But their squeaking is nothing compared to the sound their springs make. Imagine ten windshield wipers that have lost their rubber.  I felt bad every time I got up from the bed, or sat down.  It’s not good to hold it in when you’ve got to go in the middle of the night, but some times – and I do mean only some of the time – I’m more thoughtful than is good for me.

Or maybe I still had in mind the ominous sign downstairs.  Its English translation assured us that the albergue had the right to “throw away” any “infractors” of the rules of the albergue.  (The fine print said infractors could be thrown in either a culvert or the trough of a pig (also known as pre-jamon) “at the proprietor’s sole discretion”.)

Casanova Mato to Arzua (~ Km. 60 to ~ Km. 38)

Still no grocery stores. And our albergue didn’t even serve breakfast.  The next spot on the map – there are few towns on the Galician Camino – is over 9 kilometers away.

It is cold when we start.  After thirty or so minutes, I have to take off my windbreaker and cap, leaving my two wool layers and gloves.  Then, without any change in altitude, we all suddenly walk across an invisible line and the temperature drops.

“Did you feel that?”

“Yes!  It got cold again!”

We walk on for a bit, and then it’s like walking into a warm house.  By now I am totally confused.  I am able, finally, to empathize with Tiger Woods, never quite sure whether his clothes are to be be put on or taken off.

Mom says that she no longer feels anything in her back, where the tumor sat.  She says that Barbara the Bavarian told her about a German woman who’d had cancer and walked the Camino.  The woman visualized the cancer as a ball of wool, and every day saw herself pulling a strand of wool off it.  When she went back for her tests, the cancer was gone.

The Ultimate Second Breakfast

However, Mom says she feels a pain like a band across her stomach.  Perhaps it’s the lentils, which begin to do their job and send her into the bushes.

Mentally, I am more of a walker now.  Walking 20 kilometers, or almost 13 miles, is no longer a big deal.  On some days, I could see walking a good bit more.  And of course 13 miles will get you all over Manhattan. But we rely on our food, and our breaks, and we love above all Second Breakfast – which is hard to find in Galicia.  We are all starving, and need a break from walking in the near-darkness.  I am just commenting on the dearth of places to eat when, up ahead, I see it.

It’s like a shining city on a hill.  A castle.  A grail.

“Is it a mirage?”

No.  It is, in fact, a place to eat and rest.

We fall upon it like castaways on a toasted bagel with cream cheese.

Menus and signs are everywhere, and they have pictures of pizza on them.  “I wonder if they’re really serving pizza this early,” I say.  “I was thinking the same thing,” Carrie says.  It is 9a.m.  We order, get on the Internet, I click to electronically sell the big, beautiful house I’ve owned for almost two years, and at 9:30 we’re each hoovering up a medium pizza.

Only later does it occur to me that I didn’t even read the closing documents on my house.  I just clicked.

We spent over an hour there, and then we were off.  We were nearly run over by a small herd of cattle, including a feisty little bull whose head had been tied to his right leg, so that he ran with a misleadingly submissive ducking motion.  Then we were into the eucalyptus trees, and then we came upon another hill.  Mom has not yet seen a hill that didn’t elicit a groan from her.

I felt my pack pulled backward.  I looked back and saw that she had grabbed a loop of it with one of her walking sticks.  “Come on,” she said.  “I carried you around everywhere for nine months.”

I am sure we pass a kilometerstone saying 44 kilometers, and then 45, and then, much, much later, 42.5.  I am hoping this system prevails at dinner, when someone will serve us 12.5 Euros of food and charge us for 10.

“Buen Camino!” we say to some bikers.

“Good way!” they cry back, in English, much as the flirtatious waitress (which kind of has a nice ring to it) in El Acebo, when thanked, had translated directly from the Spanish de nada to sing, “Nothing!”

Bone-Tired and Shaky

My legs are bone-tired.  But Mom is worse off.  There are more hills.  “Look,” she says, holding out her hand.  “I’m shaking.”  Indeed she is.  We ponder why it is and she walks some more, stops.  Holds up her shaking hand.  She tries to walk some more, stops, trying to catch her breath.  “I can call a taxi,” I say.  She shakes her head.

“You slept terribly,” I remind her, “and didn’t eat much for Second Breakfast.  And no First Breakfast.  Let’s get you something to eat.  I think Carrie has a banana.”  Carrie did have a banana.

In Arzúa, we opt for another hostel, so we can have our own rooms and get some sleep – and rest even when not sleeping.  I fell asleep on the bed with my laptop on my chest, something about as common, for me, as fainting.

Are we going to make it to Santiago?

Sarria to Mercadoiro to Ventas de Naron

Part 1:  Food on the Camino

Monday.  We’re in Sarria now.  I have before me a bottle of wine that did not cost extra and has no label.  This makes me very nervous.  This time the “espaghetti bolonaise” came in the form of penne pasta tubes.  I think the Camino Spanish have some confusion about what spaghetti is and how spaghetti is made in Bologna, and I propose a fact-finding mission to Italy be scheduled by a team of qualified Spanish culinary and scientific experts.

I wonder how many Spaniards per year name their sons Jamón.  I would not be surprised by any answer but this one:  “fewer than sixty”.  In the United States, I remember reading of two girls who had been named Orangelo and Lemongelo (the “gelo” instead of “Jello”, I assume, to avoid actual trademark infringement).  This is child abuse.

I’ve been to Madrid, Bilbao, Pamplona, and Barcelona, among other Spanish cities.  I know that they do have restaurants.  But the cafe-bar, especially on the Camino, has a distinctive kind of menu.  I wouldn’t claim that a 500-mile walk through the rural United States would yield a greater diversity and creativity in the food, so what I say here applies only to the cafe-bar on the Camino — which is to say, to just about every place you can find to eat for over a month.

The menu del dia along the Camino de Santiago usually comes with a first plate, a second plate, dessert, and your choice of wine or water.  It costs between 8.50 and an occasional high of 12 Euros – usually 9 or 10.  The choice of first plate is invariably one of the following:

The Camino notion of spaghetti Bolognese, which somehow does not involve a tomato, or even, necessarily, spaghetti.

Ensalada mixta, mixed salad, which is lettuce, a few slices of tomato, and a scoop of tuna – even when the menu does not mention tuna, it comes with tuna.  A cucumber, tomato, Caesar, arugula, beet, mushroom, pea, bacon bit, corn, spinach, or any other type of salad is not possible.

Other options are jamón and cheese, jamón and tuna, eggs and bacon, and eggs and jamón.

The second plate offers a choice of fish – cod (bacalao), usually – or grilled chicken.  Sometimes beef, or another type of fish.

Dessert can be flan, yogurt, some kind of cake (tarta), and only occasionally ice cream.

In Sarria, I go to the bar to pay and the proprietress reminds me that dessert was included.  Yogurt or flan.  I shrug and order the flan.  She reaches into a refrigerator and takes out a small white plastic carton of the sort yogurt comes in.  Right in front of me, she peels open the lid and turns the carton upside-down on a coffee saucer, allowing the flan to slide out.  Then she presents me with my dessert.

So far I have seen no to-go coffee in Spain.  Not a single Starbucks, not even in Bilbao, Pamplona, Burgos, or Leon.  The Spanish seem to hold to the charming creed that a person who intends to drink coffee should simply drink coffee, rather than drinking coffee while also doing one to five other things.  A Zenmaster would approve.

At the Bar Morgade, at kilometer 99.5, I had an empanada Gallega, or Galician tuna pie.  It wasn’t bad, but would have been greatly improved by cheese and grilling.  I also ate huevos con bacon, because the Spanish eat fried eggs and omelettes all day long.

Part 2:  Language in Modern Spain

I have collected a half-dozen different Spanish lessons on CD or podcast, and, since my arrival, have faithfully listened to virtually none of it.  (I also imagined that I’d listen to audiobooks on my long, presumably boring walks.  Never once has the urge struck me).  One of the Spanish courses, when I bought it in 1993, had long been used by the Department of State’s Foreign Service officers.  It has quaint phrases like “Deme la pluma,” or “Give me the quill pen”.  But I need something for a modern country, a member of the European Union in the year 2011.  What I could use in modern Spain are phrases like the following:

Do you have Internet?

No, it doesn’t work.

Do you have wi-fi?

This also doesn’t work.

Dear Orange, What do you mean by the slogan “Internet Everywhere”?  Because it doesn’t actually work.  Anywhere.  Ever.  Not for a minute. 

Is there a Thai, Indian, Chinese, German, Mexican, Japanese, or French restaurant in the area?

Dear Vodafone,

Your retail staff in Bilbao doesn’t know how your Internet service works.  Or your cell phones.  Could a shoe salesman have gotten into one of your retail stores?  Your Internet-access interface says I can click to find out my balance.  But it doesn’t work.  It also says I can recharge on the Internet.  But the link doesn’t work.  When I find the right page on my own, the form doesn’t work.  The error messages are alternately incorrect, nonsensical, or unhelpful.  In other words, they don’t work.  No one responds to my help requests.  Does anyone, I wonder, at your company work?

Part 3:  Sarria

The municipal albergue in Sarria was one of the least pleasant we’ve seen.  (The taxi driver had dropped us off there; in the morning we walked past half a dozen visibly nicer albergues).  Each floor’s beds were all bunked around a triangular, all-glass airshaft that enabled anyone trying to sleep to hear the noise and see the light of pilgrims on all the other floors.  There was no Internet.  The kitchen was tiny, and shared space with the washing machines.  There was one outlet, in the hallway by the bathroom.  Competition for it was fierce.

In the albergues, I have seen a number of things I would rather not have seen, usually in the nature of older Europeans without sufficient cladding.  In Sarria, as all the pilgrims on our floor quietly prepared for bed just before lights-out, a fiftyish Spanish couple arrived at their bunks, speaking loudly.  The generously proportioned woman stripped to a shirt and her panties and lay on her stomach, and the man began to vigorously rub a cream of overpowering scent into the backs of her ample legs.

This went on for some time.

Then they hung a towel from the top bunk so as to obscure the bottom bunk, and our uxurious husband climbed in with his creamed-up wife and they yakked late into the night, indifferent to Mom’s attempts to hush them.

Part 4:  Into the Cabbage Groves of Galicia

The Camino ends in the capital of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela (“St. James of the Field of Stars”), and the Camino as a pilgrimage was originally a Galician tradition.  (This was before the kings of Navarra and Castilla and Leon realized how much revenue could be raised from pilgrims, most of them from France.)  The Galicians have placed milestones, so to speak, every half a kilometer on the Way, so that pilgrims can count down the distance to Santiago.  These have been defaced almost beyond legibility by people’s names, messages to one another, and relationship status.  (Almost all are in Spanish).

I had understood Sarria to be a neat 100 kilometers away from Santiago, but the morning found

Camino Kilometerstones -- and more discarded boots

us walking by a restaurant that called itself “Kilometer 111”.  Uh-oh.  Mom’s ailments tell her she can do 16 kilometers a day, but not 19 or 20.  We’ll have to figure out how to make up this difference and still make Santiago in time.

Mom said she’d read that pilgrims walk more slowly in Galicia, perhaps because it’s so beautiful and they don’t want it to end.  The beginning of our walk was not so promising.  The smell of fresh animal dung as we left Sarria was strong enough to be detected in outer space.  We passed a curious Galician custom we would see repeated in every village thereafter:  cemeteries that looked like a blend of mausoleum (tall concrete structures) and morgue (small doors, three high, into which coffins, or ashes, were slid).

Once we got into the country, the day became simply magical.  We were back in the trees,


and we wound our way through one small farm after another.  Mist rose from the fields, seemingly without source, for we could see no rivers or ponds nearby.  We crossed quaint stone bridges spanning tiny trickling creeks.  And the smells!  We breathed in not just astringent, bracing cow dung but loam and the leaves of autumn, the sweetly pungent smell of sorghum, woodsmoke, and pig farms capable of being detected from universes parallel to our own.  Cabbage was cultivated in what could only be called cabbage trees – six-foot stalks with the eating end at the very top.

Soon we began to climb, and the landscape became even more storybook.  The small farms

Galician Farmland

spread across gently undulating hills, with ever more hills in the distance, and were bounded by mile upon mile of walls made of carefully stacked stones emptied from the fields themselves.  The houses themselves were made of the same stones, all found in nearby fields.  Mile after mile we could smell the sorghum, and sometimes we could see the plastic tarps that covered it up.  German Shepherds could be seen in most farms, apparently the Galician guard dog of choice.  Roosters crowed nearby.

And then there were the slender, elevated buildings near many of the stone homes in the country, standing on foundations about five feet off the ground, six feet tall, ten feet long, three feet wide.  Were they for hens?  Some were topped by stone crosses and even had

A corncrib that's seen better days

inscriptions:  were they mausoleums?  Or, as a German maintained, for bees?  My guidebook said many houses had next to them something called “corncribs,” which raised more questions than it answered.

“The sky!  The sky!” I could hear Mom saying to herself.  It was yet another perfect day.  “My cells are loving this!” she said.

Mom and Me

Carrie was going to take a picture of Mom and me walking side by side.  I put my hand on her back and began to walk.  “Are you in there?” she said.  “I don’t feel you.”  I understood what she meant, and I visualized light flowing from myself, down my arm, and out my palm into her back.  “Oh!” she said.  “I see a big blue light!  It’s like a . . . what’s the word?  An aureole.”

I don’t know what to make of this.  I can’t say I believe it in the sense that such a belief would matter – belief matters only when and to the extent it affects behavior, as we may see by watching the uninspired conduct of many of the super-religious and god-fearing.  If I really believed what people say about my energy then I suppose I’d spend all my time visualizing myself healing people, starting with Mom.  Which I don’t do, obviously.

At times we walked in a sort of bounded walkway ten feet across, with stone walls three to five feet high on either side of us.  For long stretches the rock walls were covered in ivy,

Path in Galicia, after Sarria

and the stone itself invisible.  The path itself was impassable by car, and we had to pick our way carefully over the uneven stones.  I’ve never seen such byways on any farm, or anywhere.

“Who put all these rocks in our path?” a German woman joked.

“That’s what I’d like to know, too,” Mom responded, also in German.

We did, I thought.  God did.  Does it matter?  They’re still there.

Part 5:  Pilgrims Have Increased by 20% Since This Book’s Publication

I have been asking pilgrims a simple question:  “Why are you on the Camino?”  Quite a few Germans say it’s because they read a best-selling book, first published in 2001, by a well-known German comedian.  This is a disappointing answer.  The book itself, at least as translated into English, seems to me incapable of inspiring one even to finish it, much less to walk 500 miles.  Even Mom complains that it’s boring.

I asked one German, “Is it good in German?  Because in English it’s not funny at all.  It doesn’t have any fresh observations, or information about the locations, which you sort of expect from travel writing.”

“We know the author,” the man told me.  “It’s interesting if you know him.  We can hear his voice.”

Over three million copies sold.  Either the English translation was doing the author a great disservice or his readers were doing all the work.

Part 6:  La Bodeguina in Mercadoiro

Mercadoiro Albergue - Our Favorite So Far

Tuesday.  We reach Mercadoiro.  The La Bodeguina albergue costs a princely 10 Euros (about $13.30), but it has a patio with tables, a large yard with picnic tables, and a superb view, as well as a lounge-like room and free wi-fi.  A single laptop is available for surfing, in exchange for a donation that we see no one pay.  The bathrooms and showers are all new.  The showers even have six hydro-massage heads that can be angled to effect stimuli from the thighs to the chest.

The menu has more variety than we’ve seen, and the entire operation is run by two men, one of whom speaks English, and other of whom is simply very helpful.

However.  The menu showed a picture of an assortment of sliced fruit beautifully arrayed in a bowl.

“Son las frutas fresco?” I asked, hoping that meant, Are the fruits fresh?

“Si,” he said.  But the kitchen was not open, he explained.  Then he shrugged and went into the kitchen.  Amazing!  He was going to get me something to eat anyway.  I was feeling very grateful.

He returned with a bowl of canned peaches in sugary syrup.

There are more flies in Spain than in the rest of the world combined.  This is called a hypothesis.  I now ask graduate students from around the world to prove me wrong.

The downsides of the albergue:  for perhaps 50 people, it had two bathrooms, each containing a toilet sans privacy and two showers.

Part 7:  Mom and Food, Part 27

Mom tried to buy bread this morning, in a small shop, and was told it was reserved.  “All of it?” she asked, incredulous, pointing to the array of bread.  Yes.  All.  Reserved.

Wednesday.  In Ventas de Naron, Mom and I were sitting at an outdoor table, reading.  She wanted to know how to ask what time dinner was.  I told her.  She practiced it a few times before she pulled out her notebook and pen.  “This is an important sentence,” she explained.  She got up to go to the café.

“And if she says seven-thirty, I’m going to slap her.”

High Up in El Acebo, We Are Served a Human Heart

Afternoon in El Acebo

In the end, I did not perform much of a ritual myself at the Cruz de Ferro. It takes time to create a meaningful space, or a meaningful moment in time, and I hadn’t invested that time in the Cruz de Ferro. I spent a few minutes mindfully intending to let go of some of the hurt I’d felt in my marriage and, especially, during the divorce, and the guilt and sadness I felt about my own many mistakes, and the hurt they had caused, especially before and during my marriage. And that was all. I did not want to suck from the mountain all the oxygen that my mother needed to breathe.

At first the terrain leading away from the Cruz de Ferra was easy – a slight downhill slope

El Acebo

on compacted white sand bounded by milled lumber. To our left ran a road whose many patches bespoke a great deal of freezing in the winter. Before long, though, we entered an all-downhill, punishing, rocky single-track trail, some of it straight down. Well before we reached El Acebo, Mom was convinced we’d already gone well beyond 16 kilometers.

But no, tiny El Acebo was a 16.7 kilometer hike. It had been hidden for some time, so when we saw it, earlier than expected, some compensation for the more common false summit, we were happily surprised. It sits high up on a small mountain above the valley below, so small, so isolated, that for the first time on the trip my Vodafone USB got no reception.

The village was a typical Camino village: a single road bounded by a few houses, and a handful of albergues and hotels with restaurants attached. We chose the Meson. Mom was ready to eat.

Carrie ordered the Botilla del Bierzo, which on the menu was translated as “pork with paprika”. According to the menu, it was a specialty of the Bierzo area. I ordered the same.

The very nice waitress set down our plates. On it was boiled cabbage, chickpeas, chorizo, and a beating, pulsating, human heart.

At least that’s exactly what it looked like: a heart covered in paprika. Tentatively I set my

The pulsating human heart in El Acebo

knife upon it and began to saw at it. Grudgingly it parted in two, yielding unrecognizable chunks of white (bone marrow?), shards of pig bone, and something that was like, but not quite, meat.

I turned to Mom, the expert, and said, quietly, so that Carrie would not hear, “Could this be organ meat?”

She peered at it. “I have no idea,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Try it.”

Ha ha. I haven’t fallen for that since my age was counted in the single digits. My German aunt Elfriede, post-mortem benefactress of Mom’s trip here, had once submerged something utterly revolting in some opaque white soup – it may have been tripe – but my boy-sonar had found it effortlessly, and I had refused to touch even the bowl.

“See what it is,” I said to Carrie. “You’ll probably really love it,” I added.

She shook her head. “I’m not touching it.”


Eventually I caught the waitress’ attention. “Perdon,” I said, politely, holding up a single, graceful finger. “Una pregunta.” A question. “What the hell is this?”

Actually, I said, “Que es eso?” What is this?

She pointed to the casing of the heart-thing. “Thees is the tripe,” she said, “and thees” – now pointing at the stuff in the middle, “is from here.” She put her hand on her back. “It is the goats.”

“The goats?”

“Jes,” she said. Her own face a question mark, she watched my face to see if I was satisfied.

I smiled enormously. My smile was like those stars that could easily swallow the sun a million times. “Thank you so much,” I said. She went away.

“What did she say it was?” Carrie said. I turned back to the table, still smiling.

“Stomach lining and guts,” I said. Carrie’s mouth bulged as if she would puke. Neither one of us touched our human hearts again. Mom tried a tiny bit of mine and made a face. “All the meat I’ve eaten here tastes very strongly of the animal. It’s too strong. Very pig-like.”

The web says:

The “botillo” is a meat product made in the Leonese county of El Bierzo, with different parts from the butchering of the pig (above all ribs and tail), chopped up and marinated in salt, paprika, garlic and other natural spices. It is packed in natural skins and, before being eaten, it must go through the smoking and part-curing processes. Its exterior appearance is defined by the shape of the skin, although it normally takes on a globe shape, reddish grey in colour and weighing between approximately 500g and 1,600g per piece. When cut, it shows deep red tones, a firm consistency and an intense aroma. It is eaten cooked and accompanied by vegetables, above all cabbage, potatoes, chickpeas and chorizo pepper. It is a simple, hearty dish with no great secrets in the preparation, but it is one of the stars of El Bierzo’s cuisine.

The waitress was very apologetic when she realized we’d been surprised. I told her it wasn’t her fault, it was the menu (“pork with paprika” it had said, benignly). When I saw her a little later, on break outside the restaurant, she winked at me. Who winks anymore?

In the afternoon, Carrie lost one of her money purses. Luckily she had taken Mom’s advice not to put all her money in the same place, so she lost only about 15 Euros. But she was still upset. At dinner, I asked Mom if she still wanted wine, as she’d mentioned earlier, to celebrate the Day of the Cruz.

“Yes!” Carrie said, a little too enthusiastically. You want wine? we both asked her. “I need it,” she said.

At dinner, the waitress moved to stand right next to me, brushing my side, while I looked at the wine list, and went so far as to lean on my shoulder as I explained that their being out of my preferred desert was nothing short of a disaster. When she had gone, Mom and Carrie started laughing. “What?” I said. “We think she likes you,” Mom said.

Women in the United States never leaned on me or winked at me, so I left what for Spain was an unusually large tip. “She can have that,” I said, “instead of me.” Carrie made a face.

León, Our Favorite Hospitalero, and a Brilliant Cathedral

In Burgos two nights ago, a man shouted out in his sleep, twice. I see him on the podium in Santiago.

The Santa María de Carbajal Albergue

Carrie in León

In León, the Santa María de Carbajal hostel is a donativo, a donation-based hostel, and it’s connected to a convent. (The nuns appeared to have been warned of my coming, for they were not in evidence). Since the original Convento de San Marcos, founded in 1152, separated men’s and women’s dormitories, the men in León have been separated from the women. This is because, according to a presumably ancient document referred to in my guidebook, “it is a dishonest thing to have women and men in a single dormitory”, and the “quality of people who come to the hospice are not of high caliber.”

Among dozens of men in our all-male dorm the first night in León, only one snored. One. In the co-ed dorms we’ve slept in during the last two weeks, we always had at least a half-dozen. Based on last night’s statistically valid scientific sample, I have provisionally concluded

Leon Street Scene

that snoring is evolutionarily adaptive. Snoring must be something men do only to attract the preferred sex. (The snorer in León’s all-male dorm, it must be concluded, was gay). Further study will be required to discover why the preferred sex is actually attracted by the schnarcher. I leave this to future Nobel laureates.

The hostel did not provide pillows, so, having heard that the windows would be left open at night, I slept in my clothes and kept a few more on hand, and packed everything else – including my camera case and FiveFingers – into a makeshift pillow.

The award for best hospitalero on the Camino will be hard to wrest from the gentle hands of Thomas Schlitt-Krebs, of Heidelberg, Germany. Thomas seemed to be everywhere, at all times, speaking at least English and Spanish in addition to German. (For all I know he spoke French, too). I saw him pouring coffee for people, and even mixing in their milk. He led pilgrims to their bunks. He gave out taxi numbers. He gave advice on what to see and do. We talked about the biophysics of running and walking. And always he had that brilliant smile, and an infectious lovingkindness.

And he went an extra mile for Mom. After we decided to stay an extra night at the

Guys Waiting for a Bus in Leon

albergue, he led Mom past a room not yet filled up and put her in the same room as the night before – which she and Carrie had had to themselves. For this he got grief from a French hospitalera, who insisted on the rules: people must fill up space in the proper order, so Mom should be slotted into the dorm room that still had vacancies. But Thomas was firm, and told Mom that he had told the hospitalera he would take the matter up with the sisters if he had to. “I prayed for you last night,” he told Mom the next morning.

He asked her if the Camino was, for her, a religious pilgrimage. She said it was not. She explained that her father, a Lutheran, had been disowned by his family for marrying my Oma, a Catholic, and that she, Mom, had had some unhappy experiences in her Catholic school. “I have a lot of issues with that church,” she said.

He nodded. “I understand completely. You must believe in something, though, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“Yes,” she said. “I do. I felt the Camino wasn’t even my decision, but that it called me.” She doesn’t put what guides her (I deleted the misleading “what she believes”) into words, and she seems to have arrived at the same place I have, which is that the explanation is far less important than the attitudes and behavior that result.


It’s tempting to think León is named for a lion, but in fact it comes from the Roman 7th Le/gi/on, which founded a camp on this site in the year 70 CE, just as the first Jewish War was getting underway in Israel. The Romans wanted to protect the Galician gold mines from the grubby hands of the indigenous population. The Romans worked tirelessly from here for 350 years in their attempt to conquer the barbarians of northwest Spain. It was for naught, of course, because the Roman Empire would fall near the end of that time, and León then saw a succession of Visigothic, Muslim, and Christian rulers.

After we had arrived at the albergue, I found Mom holding court with an audience of four

Mom in Leon

of five German men. One of them, their priest, was taking notes. “Good God, man!” I wanted to cry. “She sees you taking notes, none of us will ever eat or sleep again!” He had run for his notebook when Mom told him of her original rules for Carrie: get up as early as five, no time for fussing with hair or make-up, and no complaining or whining. (Carrie is, so far, the youngest person we have seen on the Camino, and by at least four years. She has complained less than any of us).

The priest asked Carrie what was the most beautiful stage on the Camino and what was the hardest. “The Pyrenees, for both,” she said. Did she regret coming? “No!” She would later tell another person, in response to his question, that the trip was “Wonderful!”

The German priest said that, for him, León was more beautiful than Burgos. It is a charming city. Its many pedestrian streets are a riot of color: shops, café-bars, painted two-story buildings and their shutters, pots of flowers in windows. We ran into a Mercado Medieval,

Leon Mercado Medieval

a sort of street fair with a medieval theme, and perhaps a hundred different hawkers of crafts and food dressed in medieval garb. Burros gave children a ride around a park. Eight birds of prey sat on display, and a local Boreal Lynx prowled, or tried to, on its ten-foot leash.

The cathedral in León, copied at 2/3 scale from the Rheims Cathedral in France, is a more pure example of 13th century Gothic than the one in Burgos, whose 15th-century Flemish-Gothic additions complicate matters. León’s is also less elaborate, arguably less gaudy. The interior is more understated. But what distinguishes Leon’s cathedral are the exorbitant number of its stained-glass windows.

Leon Cathedral

We walked in to the transporting sounds of a single man (a monk? on tape or live?) singing Gregorian chants. We sat down and listened while craning our necks to look at the windows far above. My guidebook, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago, suggests pilgrims savor the cathedral slowly, and to

rest for an hour on the benches in front of the cathedral’s west façade and watch the afternoon sun play on the sculptured portals and the spires of the towers. When the sun strikes full on the rose window, go inside and stand for a few moments in the middle of the nave[,] breathing in the colors of the light. Watch them change intensity as they glide across the floor while the sun drops. Think of how these soaring towers of stone, this vast open internal space, and these dancing colors must have blown the mind of your average medieval pilgrim.

Was it because there was so much less gold in León’s cathedral that I didn’t think about blood as much as I had in the Burgos cathedral? Here was a space that felt more inhabited by the sacred.

A sign said pictures were not allowed, but I risked eternal damnation, or at least a longer

Leon Cathedral Retablo

stint in purgatory, and got some good shots that are now on Facebook.

From the outside, the stained-glass windows looked uniformly daubed in something like soot and dirt: they were entirely an opaque tan color, and not at all representative of what we found within. I wondered how much more brilliant the light inside the cathedral would be if the windows outside were clean. An excerpt from a novel written in 1605 provides a clue:

I went inside, but I was sure that I hadn’t, and that I was still in the plaza, as the cathedral is so glassed and transparent . . . You can drink from this church as from a glass cup.

León also boasts an 11th-century collegiate Church of San Isidoro, which one guidebook says may have the best in situ paintings in Spain, if not all of Europe.  Next door is the Pantheon of the Kings of León, named, I believe, after the rock band from Tennessee.

Thomas took me aside at breakfast this morning. Interestingly, Krebs, the latter part of his hyphenated surname, is German for “cancer”. “When there is a sickness in the family,” he said, “everyone is affected. Everyone has it, in a way. I know this. So there may be times when you need to say, ‘Mom, I must go my own way for a bit, I must be for myself now.’”

We thanked him profusely when we left. “Well,” he said modestly, “special circumstances call for special measures.”


With Julio and Marie Anne gone, we found ourselves meeting and talking to more people than before. A French student and a wily Basque offered me some wine. (The Basque had earlier played Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” from his cell phone while readying himself for the shower. I started to sing it, he joined in, and we were fast friends thereafter). I gave my map to a departing older Irishman who told us jokes about Ireland’s weather, like its “four winters per year”.

So as to have a meal that involved neither jamón nor queso, we went, with a Danish medical student and an actor from Chicago, to an Indian restaurant. The waiter was also the cook, so we were there for a long time. The actor said he’d heard of an American doctor’s advice to a patient not to take anti-depressants but to go on the Camino instead. He himself took this advice, and said his depression of the last eighteen months has disappeared during his long walks. We talked to a beautiful young Scottish woman, an art student, who was at a loss to explain why she spoke with an English accent or to provide a convincing rationale for not being twenty years older. There were four Seattleites.

And last night, about thirty of us pilgrims followed a nun, sixtyish and diminutive, to the sisters’ modest little chapel, which boasted a brilliant-gold retablo that would have dominated any church in the U.S.  Before we entered, she said something to the effect that we were not tourists, but seekers of God. She led us through a singing of some verse, in Spanish. “Muy bueno,” she said. And then she paused for a beat, and added, “Mas o menos”. More or less. We all burst out laughing. Then we entered the church, and there they were, arrayed in the choir, a baker’s dozen of nuns, and after that I understood nothing. Except her loud claps at an unfortunate young woman whose cell phone rang four or five times.

Julio and Marie Anne Leave Us, So We Can Evolve

Burgos and the Museum of Evolution

The cathedral in Burgos is just one of the architectural displays on hand. A local bank, the city hall, and many less famous buildings are done in beautiful style. If I had had the benefit of a liberal arts education, I would even tell you what style. The Arlanzón river is framed by wide banks and wetlands and, above them, small, white columnar banisters on both sides. On the old-town side of the river, there is a wide promenade bounded by statues and trees and tall shrubbery cut in all sorts of geometric shapes. National hero El Cid was born here.

There was a time when Burgos was the commercial center of central Spain, ally and favorite of Isabella, who, with Ferdinand el Catolico, would start the Inquisition and later send Columbus to find the Americas for the Spanish. Burgos was the capital of the Castillan kingdom for half a millennium. Napoleon occupied the city for three years, and Franco made it his base of occupations in the Spanish Civil War.

In this country that once burned Jews alive in autos da fe (literally, distressingly, “acts of faith”) that were founded on overly literal readings of the New Testament, it’s a delicious poetry that Burgos now hosts an enormous Museum of Human Evolution. It has been projected to become one of the top 10 visited museums in Spain. It’s in Burgos because Atapuerca, site of the discovery of the most ancient hominids remains in Europe, is close by. Atapuerca has been a major archeological site since the mandible of a predecessor to Homo Sapiens was discovered in 1976. Atapuerca proved the astonishing fact that hominids reached Europe from Africa at least 1.3 million years ago, and the site has been continuously occupied by hominids since then.

Hasta Luego

Julio, Mom, and Marie Anne in Santo Domingo de la Calzado

We parted ways with Julio and Marie Anne today. Julio has business to do in Madrid; something to do with managing certain details of property left to him and his sister by his parents (in a previous post, I related how he was determined to join us on this Camino, in part, because he’d lost both of his own parents to cancer). Mom announced last night that we’d buy them dinner. “Sanksgiving?” Marie Anne had asked. “That’s right,” Mom said. “Thanksgiving.” Next thing I know, she’s telling Carrie we’ll pay for her dinner too.  In this way Mom is just like my Oma, her mother.

We went to a restaurant called Casa Babylon, which promised “Tambores del Mundo”, or “Flavors of the World,” and it didn’t disappoint us. Julio examined the wine list.

“Inge,” he said to Mom, “if I can ask you one favor, please let me pay for the—“

“Okay,” I said.


Marie Anne laughed until she turned as red as her hair. Referring to her experience in the theater, she had explained through Julio that this was an example of good timing. Of course it was. There was a chance of him changing his mind before the end of the sentence.

I like to toy with Marie Anne, who is both a good sport and as expressive as a child. Her English is only slightly better than my Spanish, which is itself an abomination. For example, in the cathedral, I saw the word “fachada” and guessed it referred to “façade”. Marie Anne, who is aware that I speak as much French as a French poodle, or perhaps the onion soup, showed surprise. “You know zees word?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s English.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, like the language teacher she is. “It’s French.”

“It’s also English. We liked it, so we use it.”

“Wis ze F A and ze C wis ze” – and here she drew with her finger in the air the little hammer and sickle that hangs from the c in façade.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s our word, exactly. Wis ze” and I drew the same thing in the air. “Massage and chauffer are also American. Also French fries and carabiner. Also le weekend.”

“Zey are French,” she said. “Except French fry and weekend.”

“Americain,” I said. “We took zem. Zey are ours now.”

In such exchanges, she would often turn to Julio. “Como se dice?”  What’s he saying?

Consummate gentleman that Julio is (I have seen him drop to a knee to apologize for an infant’s running into him, addressing the boy as “patron”), usually (I have also heard him shout to a pilgrim, who had walked into a darkened dormitory after ten and left the door open so that the light flooded in, “Shut the fucking door!”), he faithfully translates whatever is put to him, even if it’s an unflattering joke I have made at his expense, or, more often, Marie Anne’s side of an argument with him.

“Ju are right!” he often says. “Once again.” Or, to all of the women, at various times, “Ju are a very clever woman!” Or, for little reason at all, “Ju are the best!”

Marie Anne teaches Spanish and French for a living, but her English is rudimentary. We spent a happy few minutes last night trying to get her to hear (forget speaking) the difference between “sheet” and “shit”.

“I don’t heargh zees,” she kept saying.

She acts in local theater, so it’s no surprise that she tries to explain concepts in the manner of someone playing charades. When she was making fun of my French diction in Pamplona, she made a Hitler mustache with her fingers and grunted exorbitantly. She also does this to convey the idea of a turnip, an intersection, and something to do with Don Quixote.

Marie Anne labors to protect me from Julio’s Spanish lessons, both advertent and inadvertent. A few days ago, in what I thought was imitation of his habit of calling male strangers patron, but as a result of a miscommunication, I was happily calling old men on the trail cabrons.

“Hello, cuckolds!” I’d say, in Spanish, waving merrily.

Julio also taught me two invaluable words involving the use of the word cojones. One is descojonado – meaning exhausted, or perhaps knackered, as in after a long walk. The other is cojonudo, which employs the same root word for testicles to mean, basically, really great. Marie Anne was scandalized. “No, no, no!” she said, shaking both head and finger. “You cannot say zese sings.” She shook her head at Julio, and chastized him in Spanish.

“He is deciding to be his own man,” Julio said, shrugging. “Ju say what you like,” he said to me.

We Americans decided to go to the Museo de la Evolucion Humana before we left for Leon, so we said goodbye to Julio and Marie Anne at the bus station. Julio tried to shake my hand, but I wasn’t having any of it. “Cheesus Crise!” I said, imitating one of his favorite expressions. “Come here.” I gave him a big hug. He’s shorter than me, but pretty sturdy.

I turned to see Mom and Marie Anne embraced in a long goodbye. “I’m going to miss you,” Mom said. “Thank you for everything.” When she stepped back, they were both crying, which got Carrie going, and I was going to be next.

“Let’s vamoose,” I said.

“That’s why I don’t do goodbyes,” Mom said. “I always just drop ‘em off at the airport.”

And so, with the heartfelt talk of next times that takes over departures – New York, Colorado, the Dolomites next year – we walked out of the bus station and the tone and color of our journey would never be the same.