Chapter 7: The Spiritual Fog
Besieged by gnats, I fight like a boxer to keep branches off of my face. Barbie gets a blister pillow. The Pope signs an autograph. I find myself wearing a fake beard. Yay! Day 3!
The couple referred to me through my underground pilgrim railroad meets me in front of the Arles’ office de tourisme. I’m not hard to spot with my red backpack and the pilgrim’s shell on my hat. The elderly couple greet me and clear a space in the back of their modest car. As we drive along, they discuss casual personal matters between themselves. I look out the window as we head over a bridge into a residential neighborhood, only a stone’s throw from Van Gogh’s apartment, the gift shops, and the coliseum tourists.
Even after three days of walking, a ride in a car already feels a touch peculiar, everything at a slight remove, particularly so with complete strangers, an elderly couple no less, a foreign language between us, and a plan to go to their home to eat together and spend the night. By now even the most familiar activities remind me I’m on a curious adventure. Imagine a day where nothing unusual happens, not a single thing, but for some reason you have decided to wear a fake beard or, God help me, women’s underwear.
When we park in front of their home. It is pleasant, garden-tended, suburban. I see a Compostela scallop shell tile on a post in their driveway. Other than that, you’d never find your way here without a referral and a street address. It’s blocks from the trail itself. We step inside, and I see a Livre d’or guest book on a small side table by the entrance. I peek, and it’s crammed with years of thank you notes for their warm welcome and generous hospitality.
On the walls there are scores of pinned up “thank you, I made it” cathedral and lighthouse postcards. They’re from pilgrims who passed through this couple’s home, often months prior, on their way to Santiago or, sometimes, the opposite direction even towards Rome. I’m one foot in the door and I realize the entire house, their entire life is dedicated to helping pilgrims along the Chemin de Saint-Jacques. If the phone number ever gets out for these two, there will be lines around the block.
There’s already lots to think about.
I’ve made it as far as Arles. I’ve trekked fifty miles from the house. In the larger scheme of things, I am really just getting started, but I can already say I’ve walked farther in one direction than I’ve ever walked in my life.
And I have something to show for it, too. On my right heel there is a blister the size of my thumb. I’ve been draining it with tiny needle punctures for two days and re-bandaging and continuing on, but the blister re-inflates within hours, sealing itself up again in a protective cocoon, white starbursts appearing around the pinpricks.
After I walk for a half hour, I don’t feel it so much, but starting out fresh after a break the thing stops me in my tracks. For a few minutes, I have to keep my weight towards the ball of my foot to keep going. The second night on the phone with Alannah I tell her if my blister was a pillow it would be just right for Barbie. A few more days and an American Girl will be able to sleep comfortably on it.
On day three in these strangers’ home, I find myself lying wide awake in the middle of the night. I have given up on sleep. I switch on the bedside lamp so that in the improved lighting I can look directly into my mind. I can understand how the whole mess started the day before. I’d gotten lost not once but twice. I’d ended up on some Aguirre Wrath of God non-path, crawling through the forest, besieged by gnats. I’d scrambled over fallen trees and untangled great thickets of prickly crap catching on my backpack.
There were points where I’d moved along with my forearms held in front of me like a boxer to keep the branches off my face. By the end of that second day, I’d walked non-stop for twelve hours and started to limp. Now, an evening later, I’m hoping that if I keep mentally replaying the disaster in the forest, I’ll be able to see how it all worked out differently.
Anyway, I think that is what I am doing. There is no other reason to have the light on other than to see my anxieties more clearly.
My bedroom is on the second floor of the couple’s home.
The entire upstairs has been converted into a dormitory for pilgrims. Two separate bedrooms that must have once belonged to the owners’ daughters now allow my hosts to board up to four or five pilgrims a night. There’s a dedicated bathroom with a shower, a laundry machine and dryer, a study for relaxation with couches and end tables.
The bookshelves are chock-a-block with pilgrimage picture books in numerous languages for The Way, Le Chemin, El Camino. Small pilgrim souvenirs and knickknacks are clustered about the room. There are bright red Knights Templar crosses, claymation figurines of pilgrims in snow domes, a St. James cuckoo clock, a pilgrim cookbook (in original plastic wrapping), CDs with pilgrim chants from the Middle Ages, somebody’s personal snapshot of the last Pope on a hill overlooking Santiago. There is a signature on the snapshot, which can’t possibly be the Pope’s – I don’t think the Pope signs things – and yet somebody has signed the front of it. Is that even a signature. That can’t be a signature, I think to myself. Can that be a signature?
On a crowded cork bulletin board there are personal letters and photos of joyful pilgrims burning their boots and hiking clothes on the rocks at Cape Finisterre. There are pinned up postcards from Santiago de Compostela and the last-stop pilgrim villages on the “Coast of Death,” which is what they’ve called the Finisterre peninsula for longer than anyone wants to think about.
On the widest spread of wall in the study hangs a mega-scale topological relief map with the different pilgrimage routes feeding colorfully into northwestern Spain. The routes flow in from every direction. Little red pins with tiny French and Spanish flags call out the towns on either side of the border that passes through the Pyrenees. Everywhere, there are pictures and posters of iconic pilgrims making their way along lonesome country roads in the haloed sunlight, the blessed rain, the spiritual fog.
And next to me in my bedroom, right here at 3AM, on a small bedside table is a bible-thick, every-day-of-the-year, book of 365 Pilgrim Meditations. It cautions the pilgrims getting started here in Arles that they will find nothing in Santiago but stone and glass.
The Camino is inside you.
¡El camino no existe!
L'essential, ce n'est pas la destination, c'est le voyage.
Despite my racing thoughts about my alarming blister situation, I am pinned into stillness. When I rotate my body to angle my heel protectively away from the pressure of the sheet, the bed groans uproariously. The same thing happened earlier when I reached for the 365 meditation book. And, when I have no choice but to limp off to the bathroom, the floorboards absolutely erupt beneath me.
I can’t move an inch without waking the entire house. I really don’t want to wake my hosts and, if they happen to toss and turn in the night with absurd worries like I do, I don’t want to concern them that their pilgrim is doing a runner in the night, making off with the molded topological wall map, the snow domes, or the autograph from a beatified Pope. So, I have to just lie and hold still until I can figure out what I’m going to do.
 You know those old stories about sailing off the end of the world? Well, that sea ledge is just about fifteen feet past the horizon you can see from the Finisterre lighthouse. You have to be enormously careful, even when you’re just out on a day sail.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.