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Adventures on the Camino
Letter dated May 24, 2001

May 24,2001

Dear Friends, One and All:

First, please excuse me for sending a formless form letter to you. I am sorry to have to do it this way, but I wanted to tell you that I have returned from my Camino venture. I am home. This way seemed the easiest way for me to do it. The easiest way for me if not for you.

As many of you know, many records of one kind and another have been made or broken on the Camino de Santiago de Campostela. I feel I myself have broken a record on the Camino. Not everyone can make such a claim. I can. I was on the Camino the shortest length of time on record. Well, true there was that Friar of the Middle Ages, Santo Dingus Batticus who thought the Camino was the way to the outhouse but left after four and a half miles and no outhouse.

It is true you begin the Camino wherever you are. I guess I could say I started in Joshua Tree but I won't insist if people say I really started in Roncesvalles in Spain.

What happened was that I wanted to walk the walk. I even wanted to talk the talk. But what really and truly happened was that my lungs insisted I go instead to Urgencias of El Hospital de Navarra in Pamplona. And there they took me. And there I was examined by a most remarkable young woman intern who told me I had infeccion de pulmones [lung infection], which I kind of figured out myself. (Actually, her diagnostico was Infeccion respiratoria.) She also ordered chest X-rays, blood tests, urine analysis, EKG. She also prescribed the most god-awful antibiotics known to man or beast. When at last she was finished with me, I asked her, How much? Hay que pagar?" And she said loudly and clearly. Nada. Nada. All that and it was free. Me as peregrino [pilgrim].

And, incidentally, all this was carried out in Castillian Spanish. She spoke no English except for "Okay." I finally told her her Okay was Okay. She also let me know that if I didn't improve, I was to return at once. Well, I haven't improved a whole heck of a lot, but a 12,000 mile round trip seems a bit much even to see a doctor. It occurs to me that in July when people are being gored in the so-called running of the bulls, she may be on duty to sew them up. That is a disgusting thought, but then what do I know? My hotel was in the old part of Pamplona, the Maisonnave, near the Plaza de San Francisco who has this ugly looking, mean dog beside him. And I found it ironic that St. Francis could find a place in the heart of Pamplona with its running of the bulls.

Okay. Enough. I met in my brief Camino lifetime many many pilgrims whom I wanted to get to know better. It is an extraordinary group of people from around the world who set out on this journey. One was a blond woman from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who tried to teach me proper breathing and proper exercise. She finally had to give up on me and walk on ahead because nothing was working. I just couldn't breathe, and breathing is kind of important if you walk the Camino. I met a woman from Holland who wanted to walk and talk. I had to wave her on because I was fixed in my ways--so to speak. An elderly Frenchman approached me and said to take it slowly, one step at a time. (Slowly? Hell, I was so slow my boots didn't have to move at all.) He let me know this was his third trek along the Camino. He reminded me of an Army Captain I had in the infantry who chewed me out because he could do fifty push-ups to my five. Then it occurred to me he is dead now. So what good did his superior push upping do him? But I liked the Frenchman and I know he is proceeding well along the Camino at this very moment. There was a huge Spaniard with a tiny Spanish lady. He was smoking the biggest cigar I have ever seen in all my life. There was another Spanish woman who carried a backpack as big as she was. Both were dragging. But she passed me and went on up the hill while I was still looking for what little breath I could find. A Spanish man in a hurry turned his head to me as he passed and asked Ayuda? [Help?] But he was gone before I could say no. Or even yes. And did I forget to mention that it was raining fiercely all the time I trekked? Or rather tried to trek? It rained. A lot. We trekkers marched and walked and stood still in rain. I think the cows loved it. Even I loved it.

I haven't mentioned the wild flowers, the incredibly green mountains of Navarra. It's as if the flowers knew I was from the desert and were showing that they were superior to anything we have here. And they were right. Their colors were so intense and brilliant it's as if they were trying to escape the mud and become blinding color. Just color. They wanted to be pure Platonic essence. No question about it.

I retreated from all this. I had to. I remember that when I led Shamanic groups I always told people that the bravest people were the ones who knew when to stop and to retreat. There would be other days to fight. In the town of Viskarret/Biskaretta, I had passed a place called Casa Rural. I went back there. I needed to lie down, fast, completely, drop, sleep, breathe. I stepped into an entry room that was perfect in every way. Everything shone with Spanish brown polish. An old woman came out to greet me, and we spoke in Spanish about a room. She said that I was tired. It wasn't a question. It was an observation. And yes there was a room for me without a bath. My boots were clogged with mud and sheep shit. My passport was wet. I thought it was coming apart like me. She took me upstairs to a room that like the downstairs was clean and loved and polished and cared for. The bath down the hall was likewise perfect for the likes of me or anyone else. Perfect. Even the bidet for God's sake. The woman seemed like a strange Medieval angel sent down to watch over an American idiot with bad lungs. For example, I had to go out later to call Savya. As I was leaving the house, she suddenly appeared and said, "Momento." She went back into her quarters. I wondered what I had done now. She returned with an umbrella. She said it was raining out and I needed this. I did. Later I decided to unclog my boots. I went outside to do it and she came running after me with a pointed stick to help dig the mud out.

Mass the night before in an ancient church in Roncesvalles was really quite appropriate. It has been said here since the 12th century. Pilgrims are blessed and sent on their way. The Mass was celebrated by six old monks all in their white vestments and incense and candles and chalices and flowers. I was both moved and unmoved, caught somewhere in between. And oddly I thought of my boyhood in the seminary and all the time since then. I realized that all these rituals are just too serious and solemn. No one giggles or laughs or even smiles. As an altar boy I used to giggle especially at weddings. But I didn't giggle at this last Mass. Besides just outside the Church is a monument to Roland and Charlemagne. It was here that Charlemagne was busy retreating from the Basques and maybe even the Saracens who were attacking his rear when Roland blew his mighty horn to alert him and the evil traitor Ganelon lied to Charlemagne and told him not to worry. Horn blowing was just something Roland did every evening about this time. Roland of course was killed, but the great Song of Roland the famous medieval epic, was written to record his heroism.

So was my journey then a failure? Shall I go back next year and try to improve on my record, do it in even shorter time and end up in the Guiness Book of Records? What? I feel I have disappointed many of you, for which I am sorry. But I feel my journey was really quite perfect and quite what it was supposed to be. I think perhaps my sitting in the waiting room at Urgencias in Pamplona was a lesson I had to learn. Something about compassion. Something about being genuine. I was among Spaniards who were suffering, in pain, desperate. We were in hospital gowns. One old old lady in a wheel chair and her daughter who put her head on her mother's arm and wept. The old lady occasionally touched her daughter's arm, gently, softly, as if to say I will go soon. I have to go soon and you will be all right. But it was the touch alone that mattered. There were no words. Just the touch, the tears. And another woman receiving chemotherapy and vomiting and her daughter running for a basin. An old man tended to by his wife. When he was wheeled out, she marched stiffly back and forth, back and forth. What would she do if he didn't return? But he did return and she touched him, fixed his collar, put his blanket around his legs more snugly. And suddenly from nowhere there appeared a beautiful girl about fourteen with a cell phone stuck to her ear and laughing and talking and dancing back out of the room again. She would never have to come to such a place. She would never have to attend her dying mother. She would never be a dying mother. She was gracefully, elegantly dancing through life laughing and talking to people she couldn't see.

And several people asked me, "Eres solo?" ["Are you alone?"] And I said, "Si. Soy solo. Y como no?" ["Yes. I am alone. And why not?"] I wanted to say, who isn't? But I didn't. That would be pushing it. Right? Right.

Gerard Manley Hopkins has always been one of my favorite poets. Let me end this absurdly long letter with some of his thoughts on the subject:

God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste.
My taste was me.



PS If any of you have any contacts with spirit guides and teachers and dead gurus who arrange for people to learn lessons, the kind I had to learn, for example, could you put the word out that I appreciate the lesson but could they next time manage to have it happen closer to home? Say in Twenty-nine Palms? Or even Yucca Valley? Thank you.

watercolor and ink illustration by Richard Lee
Incidentally, I thought you might be interested in what I discovered recently. As you may know, there is a famous black and white drawing of two pilgrims on the Camino done in 1568 by Jostamman. Now, when placed under radionic endoscopy, colors seem to float in, strange letters appear, and one pilgrim is wearing glasses and smiling. They now think they know the identity of this strange creature: Frater Ricardissimus Estu Pido, a well-known Galician, Celtic Pundit who made it all the way. He would. It has also been learned that any future life reappearances of this man or his illegitimate descendants need not walk the camino though it would be okay if they walked a very short distance. Isn't that a fascinating discovery? They think "JT" stands for "Just Trekking." "REI" must be the genitive case of "RES," meaning "thing." And they are pretty sure "VISA" stands for "VISAN QUEST." As for "REL," they throw their hands up or return to their computers. Any suggestions? I love scholarship. Don't you?


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