Chapter 13: Out Over the Atlantic
A chance encounter leads to a Sunday dinner at the home of strangers - and lesson in how to convince someone to get up from the table and walk the Camino with you.
Up ahead, of me I spot an elderly couple walking their dog on the asphalt path. They are in their mid-seventies. I approach the couple from behind, excuse myself, and ask them for help. They turn around, and stare at me like a ghost. For a moment, they don’t say anything. They just stare. And then it dawns on me.
They know me.
I know them.
I know their dog.
If they had not told me how they knew me, I might not have remembered, but a hundred and fifty miles to the east, a week or so earlier, and a half-lifetime ago, I introduced myself to them on a whim.
I had stopped with three other pilgrims beneath a large oak tree in a small parking across from an ancient church. The four of us were eating lunch and resting in the shade. I was working brick by little brick through a very large bar of chocolate.
An elderly couple across the way pulled in with their dog and a small open top trailer. They started to set out a small picnic lunch. I went over and offered them the remainder of my chocolate bar. I have no idea what strange compulsion made me share my I-come-in-peace chocolate. They accepted, and we got to talking, and the wife insisted I have some of the lunch that she had prepared.
We got to talking about the obvious. My Camino stump speech always starts with the shell or the walking stick, and whether it is the ninety second version or the one that goes on for five minutes, my story always ends on the coast of Spain. I share how far I’d come already.
There’s a funny thing about a long walk that no matter where you are on it, it’s an easy story to tell. When you’re starting, “You have so far to go!” When you’re in the middle, “You’ve come so far!” When you’re at the end, “You’re almost there!”
Well, it turns out that the husband knew all about the Camino. Obviously, I meet a lot of people when I’m walking the Camino, and for the first few minutes, I am interesting to virtually everybody. I’m a stranger from a foreign country. I speak functional French. I am in the middle of nowhere carrying my world on my back, and I’m walking to some destination further away than some people travel in their entire lives. For about five minutes, no matter who, I can’t help but be interesting.
But there are also people I meet where I watch them set out on their own Camino in real time. It’s in their eyes, and their voices, and their questions. They rarely if ever come out and say it directly, but they are trying the dream on for size, borrowing your guitar for a minute and holding in their lap, innocently strumming the open strings.
They ask if it is hard, and how hard, and they want to know how I positioned myself to do it. They ask if I trained, and how long I trained, and if there are particularly difficult stretches or off-path climbing. They ask questions about the time off from work, and the cost, and the approximate pain level.
I lead with my surface motivations: the draw of the proverbial journey of a thousand miles, the sabbatical in France, the chance to work on my French, maybe even learn a tiny bit of Spanish. These are the amuse bouche of a Camino conversation. At first it strikes me as counterintuitive. The people that are not interested in walking it always ask me why I’m doing it.
The people who are interested in doing it always ask me how. In their minds, they are already lashing a seashell to a hiking pole. The afternoon I first stood in the book section at the Seattle REI, and found a guidebook about the Camino, I was no different. By the time I caught up with Melanie and the children in the food court, I had already left.
Now as a pilgrim talking to strangers, I am keenly aware that I am a powerful factor in shaping a dream, and I am careful – to a fault – to nurture their interest, to guess intuitively what it might take to get them out on the road, to gauge the right level of pressure to tip them over. So, I withhold or encourage or implore or calculatingly assert it’s absolutely not for them if I’m working with a contrarian. I say whatever I think will do the trick. “It’s mostly religious.” “It’s not religious at all.”
I want people to walk it because they will not regret it. To be interested is the only criteria. The Camino is self-selecting. It will be what it needs to be for them. I know this already, and, of course, they don’t.
And that day I first met them, the wife fussed with the picnic food, and she tried to find something for me and the others. All four of us have come over now, but the husband standing next to his trailer was intent on talking about my trip and my pack and my feet and my shoes. By the time he stepped back in his car and we said goodbye that day, he was as much a pilgrim as I was. As for me, I was swept up in an evangelical tide.
This time, when I run into them outside of Toulouse, they are visiting their son and daughter-in-law. They, themselves, are far from their own home and hours from where we first met. This curious meeting is difficult for all of us to get our minds around, and the three of us keep coming back to it obliquely.
Nobody outright says, “It’s a miracle.” But we’re all comfortable with “it’s almost impossible,” “a million to one,” “hard to believe that I only came across you because I got lost.” We go through the open-ended permutations of how we could have still not met and been so close. “If we hadn’t found a parking spot so quickly.” If only to sustain everybody’s amazement, they invite me to Sunday lunch with their family. I am the prize from the tennis courts. “Look who we found, everybody.”
The significance of this invitation is not lost on me.
Breaching the Sunday family meal in France is an accomplishment for a foreigner, the equivalent, let’s say, of being invited to someone’s home for Thanksgiving and being asked to bring the turkey. If you haven’t experienced this directly, the French are socially reserved and private, but here I am at a dining room table with new friends. The intimacy is a small honor.
The grandfather’s eyes remain lit up with the serendipity of finding me. I watch him during lunch, and I look across the table and humorously wonder – to myself, mind you – if I implored him to ‘drop your things and come with me’ if he would.
This man can’t get over the chance meeting. It is a sign for him. He is ready to put down his fishing nets and come with me. I’ve always scored very low on self-control, and at the table I joke about my effect on engaging people’s interest – “maybe this is how Jesus got started.”
After lunch the couple and their son-in-law offer to drive me directly to my hostel. Over practical objections, I explain how the Camino Commandment works, and why I need to set back out from the point where I got lost. They are more concerned about the distance and whether I will make my destination before the hostel closes. We negotiate through it, and I agree to be taken a distance that would be the equivalent mileage of what I would have walked if I hadn’t got lost. The commandment accounting now squared up, everyone is happy.
They drop me off by a church in a nearby town. In my pilgrim trail book, we’ve spotted the Camino path as adjacent to the church. Everyone gets out of the car to say goodbye. I thank them for the third time for being such a welcoming family after the sadness of saying goodbye to my own family that morning. They understand me, and that’s probably all I need. Someone came to my pity party after all.
There is a final recognition of the wild serendipity of meeting each other and one last shaking of heads. We say our buen caminos.
I’m growing increasingly aware that these two Spanish words have more than a bittersweet hint of adieu. I didn’t get that early on, but now I do. Buen Camino means goodbye, and probably forever. It means your paths connected, and you were never lost in the first place.
I tell the old man to be careful. I tell him if he ever makes up his mind to go, even for a single day, the Camino will not be able to hold him. I say, and I’m not exaggerating, that of everybody I’ve talked to about the Camino, he’s the one I’m most convinced should do it. I tell him he’s already walking it right now. I can see it. I tell him he might just fly off the end of the world at Finisterre and out over the Atlantic.
I tell him it is a small miracle we met.
(One of us had to say it.)
Go, I tell him.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.