Chapter 18: A Marvelous, White-Water Blur
The evening life of Camino de Santiago pilgrims in the Spanish hostels: the curious vending machines, Danish Google News, disputes over the clotheslines, and the feeling of a Michael Jackson moonwalk.
The pilgrims that haven’t been stricken with pilgrim fever, the vast majority, checked into the next auberge hours earlier and twenty-eight kilometers ahead. They sit in the common room chairs and lazily watch the latecomers arrive. They’ve already started drinking their café con leches because it is the only coffee they know how to order in Spanish, or grande glasses of beer that turn out to be so grande there is embarrassment when the obscenity of it is set down on the table.
These pilgrims have already done their chores. They’ve wrapped the anti-bedbug disposable paper sheets over their mattresses and their pillows. They’ve claimed the strategic bottom bunks near the exits. They’ve grabbed up all the electrical outlets. They’ve showered out the last of the hot water. They’ve done their hand laundry with somebody’s forgotten shampoo from the day before or small bits of hand soap they gouged out of the sink porcelain. They’ve checked their email accounts and their Danish Google News. They’ve padded off to town for hazelnut chocolate bars, and fresh fruit, and canned peaches for the morning. The peripatetic business of their day is complete.
Now these pilgrims can rest.
Outside in the fading sunshine in the auberge courtyard, boots are arrayed in long rows and walking poles are jammed, like ski poles, into great barrels by the door. Relaxing pilgrims read or fiddle with their drying laundry from time to time, rotating their cotton socks and their polyester underwear. They keep a close eye on the latecomers who are forced to squeeze out the last space on the laundry lines so they too can hang their things, possibly maneuvering somebody’s t-shirt a tad to the left or to the right to clear a little space. The owner of that t-shirt might watch from across the courtyard, evaluating the level of territorial respect shown to his garments, and, if absolutely necessary, will head over to touch his socks or his clothespins to publicly lay claim to them.
After these territories are won and lost, claimed and adjudicated, they all laze about in their one set of evening clothes and draw-string pajamas. They chat with friends and exchange mileage and town trivia. They give directions to the grocery story as if they’re old hands in the town because they found it first an hour ago. They check tomorrow’s weather, and pick their next town, and measure thumb widths to Santiago on their maps. They close their eyes now in the sun, or busy themselves with hand-rolled cigarettes, or half-written postcards, or books in their native Korean, that they miraculously discovered on a shelf in the lobby.
They get up to talk to friends on the other side of the bar area and read something funny out loud or share pictures of the next day’s Roman bridge, its ancient abbey, its belfry storks. There’s not much else to do in the middle of nowhere.
The retirees stand up after dinner. They notice their legs have tightened considerably while they were eating. Now, abruptly, they feel the day’s walk in their feet and their knees. But it’s always like that in the evening for them, and they’ll be fine in the morning. They are amazed how fast their body heals, what a phenomenal machine the body is, their own body in particular, how far it can take you when you just care for it a little bit, if you only know to rub a little cream into the bottoms of your feet every night exactly like they do.
And every morning they hear themselves sharing that same advice to anyone who will listen, but they can’t help it, because their bodies amaze them on an almost spiritual level. They can’t believe at their age they have made it so far and so easily. I mean, it’s been easy, they think and shake their heads to themselves. There were people – family members! Their own children! – that openly doubted them and hinted they shouldn’t go. But the human body is a marvel, and they’ve got one of the better ones.
After steadying themselves for a few tiny, secret moments on the dinner table they plod past the barrels of hiking poles and the long rows of boots and pungent inner soles to check on their moist clothes drying in last rays of the sun, ignoring the small worry that they won’t have dry clothes in the morning. But they’ve dealt with it before. Hung the clothes from their backpacks as they walked.
They head over to vending machine windows where they look in on an assortment of Camino whatnot: replacement Camino pilgrim shells, plastic clothespins, candy bars, disposable razors, suntan lotion, dental floss, deodorant, gummy bears, Chesterfield cigarettes, pocket containers of bug spray, and cans of San Miguel beer, the pilgrim’s patron saint beverage, which for reasons they cannot fathom, sell for less than the lime soda in this machine. Then on the way back to their chair, they fiddle with their moist clothes one final time on the line, flip their socks and underwear and re-angle the accordion drying rack towards the last dying embers of barbecue sunshine.
They are happier than they’ve been in thirty years. They tell themselves they will walk these pilgrim roads until they drop. It’s like they know who they are again. They remember this person. This light, wonderful, Michael Jackson moonwalk feeling morning to night. It is like being in love but without all the rest of it.
And just before lights out, the entire dormitory full of pilgrims, the fast, the slow, the sick, the elderly, the steady-on, they all start scribbling into journals. They are like students in an elementary school classroom. They are heads down, taking notes on the day’s journey, recording their exact mileage in careful columns on the inside covers, with the names of that day’s town. Sixty different heads bent over diaries. “Where are we, again?” someone calls out to the room at large. “Does anybody know what town this is? It’s crazy but they all blur together for me, too,” each them explains to that day’s stranger in the upper bunk.
Then they laugh and nod in amused recognition because it is like that, a marvelous, white-water blur, everything blending together. Then back to their writing and their notes and their thoughts and their shared sighs, and in forty-seven different languages they record the same good day today or really hot, or beautiful old church or really nice person at dinner all the way from Poland. They do this in the vain hope that when they each get back to their different parts of the world, they’ll all be able to remember exactly how it was.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.