Adventures on the Camino
Letter dated 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
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.
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?
Copyright © 2002 -
Poets' Tree: A Celebration of Poetry. All rights reserved.