Chapter 2: Les Baux, France (2010)
Everything I knew about the Camino before I began my 1,000 mile walk: scallop shells, rock piles, pilgrim passports, a Diamond Vision scoreboard, and meeting a cool, Vermont, Robert Frost sort of God.
You can really play the pilgrim out there. It is late summer 2010, and we’ve only lived in France for a month. I’ve seen two pilgrims already just by chance, and oh, my goodness, the first one! I was with the children and we were walking down from the old castle in Les Baux, which is very near Arles, the start of one of the four main French pilgrimage roads. This fellow came up the ancient street with his four-hundred-pound backpack and his eight-foot walking staff, a great wooden, knobbly affair as tall as Moses.
He wore a thick hat with a giant image of a scallop shell probably four-square inches across the front of it. I think it was something he created himself in the fashion of street evangelicals, with their elaborate cardboard signs and their station wagons plastered over in menacing scripture. He walked right up the center of the cobblestone road where we were coming down, making great strides with his staff. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to ask the children to kneel as he passed.
“Kids, that guy was a pilgrim. Just like dad,” I explained.
The books all suggest that there is something to be said for making your pilgrim status clear to the world around you. Displaying the scallop shell, generally from the top of your pilgrim’s staff, is how you’re supposed to do it. The scallop shell symbolizes a whole bunch of things – and I would just be copying out of Wikipedia, so I won’t spend a lot of time paraphrasing – but it’s worth noting that the shell represents the different roads and directions that all lead to Santiago, the Christian endpoint of the journey. To the Christ, within or without, according to the particular cast of your imagination.
There is also the appealing metaphorical idea that every pilgrim washes up on the shore like a scallop shell. The legend of St. James– of Santiago – is that God shipwrecked him on the shores of Galicia where he was later buried in the location of the cathedral. Thus, the pilgrimage. In the same way, pilgrims are tossed by God’s hand. If you are wearing the scallop shell or have it dangling from a leather strap at the top of your hiking stick, the people around you in France and Spain know what you are up to, and the guidebooks assure you that there is a benevolent culture of pilgrim appreciation and hospitality that awaits you.
There remains a spirit of the Knights Templar out there on the trail. You get nods from farmers and free food and solicitous care if anything goes wrong. There are associations that look after you and support you on your way. They even take you into their homes if they have to. Anonymous old women stop you by the roadside, and murmur prayers for you, and bless the top of your head. You don’t have the slightest idea what they are saying or why they care, but you are charmed by the blessing in it, even grateful.
It is said that in the old days, the scallop shell warded off superstitious highway robbers and as a practical matter, pilgrims drank water and ate out of this delicate crockery. The shells were the sign that gave you permission to sleep in churches and monasteries. And after getting to Santiago or even out to Finisterre, the ancient pilgrims coming from all over Europe, and walking both directions, took the scallop shells home again as proof of their accomplishment and hung them over their fireplace or put them in their desk drawer all the way in the back, along with their personal flotsam, like my late father’s initialed “BRN” belt buckle and the four wisdom teeth I had removed twenty years ago that I can’t bring myself to dispose of. Their tortured roots hold a morbid, curio fascination for me.
Nowadays, the scallop shell just symbolizes the trek itself. The roads of the pilgrimage are all marked out with metal UNESCO scallop shells. There are scallop shells on the sides of urban buildings and spray-painted onto the sidewalk. There are faded images of scallop shells on bent wooden sticks in the middle of nowhere. In Spain, they are all over the place, but they can also be found on pilgrimage routes as far away as Poland.
They use the concentric lines of the scallop shell as a kind of arrow indicator. Follow the pointed lines to your heart’s desire. They tell you where to go and what direction to look. Just keep following them relentlessly, and you can’t help but get there. I’ve joked with the kids that one-by-one I am going to remove every single scallop shell I see the entire journey, a thousand miles of way markers, and then I’m going to dump them all out of my backpack in front of the great cathedral and tell everyone the show’s over. You can all go home now. Nobody else is coming. We’re done.
It’s my “Last Pilgrim” joke.
Not the right joke for my friend in the scallop hat.
Pilgrims walk it for a lot of reasons. For the challenge. For the architecture. For the relics. For the beauty of flat plains and rolling countryside. For spiritual experience. For sport. For romance. For friendship. Because, maybe, they’re having a mid-life crisis. Because their grandmother did when she was pregnant in the war. Maybe just to say they did.
Pilgrims who walk out of curiosity are called curiositas. In the old days, you could do it as penance. You might even have found yourself walking the Camino for somebody else’s sins. And to this day, in Flanders, a tradition lives on of selecting one prisoner each year. The prisoner walks the pilgrimage, under guard, to earn his freedom if he makes it.
If you walk the last hundred miles of the Camino, you get an official completion certificate called the Compostela to go along with your pilgrim passport, a foldout paper document that pilgrims are obliged to carry. The following day at noon, during Mass, they announce your nationality and the starting point of your journey. It’s like a Yankees game where you suddenly see your children’s elementary school up on the Diamond Vision scoreboard, except that you find you’re welling up inexplicably, because there is no one to share it with, and there never will be.
And yet, you hear them say it, indifferently perhaps, one city among thousands, one nation among nations, but exactly as promised. Your journey is official now, but as ineffable as the scent from the incense miter that sways precipitously over the crowd of pilgrims.
Un estadounidense que viene de Rognes, Francia.
Most of the time you stay in hostels that run the length of the route. These auberges or refugios are specially dedicated to the pilgrim. They cost six to ten Euros a night, but are donation-based in places. You can’t get into any of them, though, without showing the pilgrim passport.
The first hundred miles in France you’re waking up some old farmer at his refugio in the middle of nowhere, and he has to rummage in a dresser drawer for the stamp, which was there a month ago for the last guy, but by the last hundred miles you use an automated stamping machine to mark your passport, and you wait in line with adolescents from boy scout troops who are out there for a long weekend, pushing each other and stepping on each other’s heels to give each other flats and knock each other off balance.
In Santiago at the Cathedral’s visitor office, you present your well-stamped passport to get your certificate of completion. You stand in that line with quiet, exhausted adolescent boys and the ripple-calved bicyclists who completed the whole thing in five days starting in Amsterdam on Friday night and would have got the record except for something or other somebody or other did and something about broken graphite or composite, and the priest who is on duty barely looks up at them or at you because last year almost two hundred thousand people came through and, as hard as this still is for you to believe, already forty-four years into the mounting evidence, you are indistinguishable from the rest.
Then everyone drifts away from the Pilgrim Office of Santiago, and the hardcore walkers, who tell themselves they really did it, like the pilgrims did it, for one thousand years. These pilgrims hold their official certificate in cardboard tubes and wander around Obradoiro Square trying to find someone they recognize from the road, someone who knows what it truly means to be a pilgrim, not like the people in line, the heretics, the impure, the cheaters, the upstarts, the bicycling “decafeinados” they call them, the come-in-on-the-last-lap people, from 100 kilometers out, who think they understand what it is to be a true pilgrim, but they don’t, because they didn’t do it right, they took the easy way, they slept in hotels with wash machines and fluffy down pillows. These turistas let some hired rental company that advertises on Google AdWords carry their backpacks from town to town in a van splashed out with big scallop shells on the doors.
But maybe these “true” pilgrims are so tired at this point that they don’t even care that they’ve leavened their daily bread with the bitterness of competition and resentment and tears. As you are warned daily, over dinner conversations and on graffitied walls, nothing awaits you in Santiago.
I’m not particularly moved by churches and whatever century’s architecture and the whole relics and miracles thing. I’m indifferent to old iron crosses leaning sideways behind a church or dimly lit crypts with coagulated vials of purple blood in yellowing glass. I stand there and wonder if that’s really it, just that, that thing. It’s like the faithful making their way down a thin stone stairwell to stare at my wisdom teeth and my dad’s belt buckle. The giant candle next to the relics is more interesting, really, and far more beautiful. And newer! Hey, European People, new can be beautiful, too, you know. It doesn’t all have to be Gothic saints with broken noses.
Truth be told, I have a striking lack of historical and religious imagination. I see a lot of grey rubble. But I suppose sometimes you meet the kind of person who can tell the right kind of story and bring the whole thing to life and then suddenly the sixteen-year-old peasant girl who was visited in the vineyard by Mary is practically in the room with you. Of course, I’m hoping for some of that, too.
And I’ll admit I’m moved by the idea of a thousand years of pilgrims covering the same ground, coming up over the same mountain outside Santiago de Compostela and seeing the same spires of the cathedral for the first time, every last one of them – of us – chasing their personal miracles. I am moved by an ancient cairn of stones that I know will be found somewhere along a mountain pass in Spain. The massive rock pile and the pilgrimage itself predate Christianity. It has been built up one Celt, Roman and Christian stone-carrying pilgrim at a time, and over a few thousand years, the hunger for miracles has turned into a mountain of expectation.
They say each pilgrim is granted a single prayer with his stone. I look forward to seeing that pile and adding my own rock to its mass. Many pilgrims carry their rock from their homes, and when Melanie and I first came out and visited France a year before, to check it out, to make sure we weren’t totally crazy moving to another country sight-unseen for a wild sabbatical year, I found a small, smooth rock on a beach in Cassis. On a whim, the rock went back to Seattle in my suitcase and then it came back again to France in yet another suitcase when we moved our family here. Then it moved on to Jerusalem during the kids’ winter break where, through a bizarre twist of fate, its story was shared with the Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Catholic Church. Now, finally, it is headed to Spain, where it will settle down for eternity. Mine is truly one of the best-traveled rocks in the world, the royalty of the rock pile, blessed from the top, a pilgrim rock if there ever was one.
One stone, one prayer. That’s the deal.
Maybe these prayers get answered out of the force of spiritual bookkeeping to answer prayers generally, or maybe only those tied to rocks are answered. There’s really no way to stay on top of God in these matters. You just have to pray and hope and leave it.
Because if we have a God at all, then I’m quite certain He is a subtle, almost poetic God, a cool, Vermont, Robert Frost of a God, looking up from His desk and watching the wind and snow through His hoary farmhouse window. I see Him sipping His tea carefully and then setting it down again among His writing papers and correspondence, hardly making a sound against the saucer. He is sad, and quiet, and slow-moving, but in nowise defeated. Like all New Englanders, He has simply learned to gear down for the long, long winter and to take things in His stride.
He unfolds and reads my note without expression:
Dear God, I will be alone and on the road to Emmaus from mid-March through early June. I welcome, in fact you could say I deeply long for, Your violent and rapturous correction in these matters…
In the cathedral in Santiago there is one special place near the entryway that I’m going to track down as soon as I get there. It’s a stone pillar where all the pilgrims press their open hands and fingertips and pray when they arrive. This is it, the endpoint. Touch this and you’re done. Your race is run. Over. The inscription over this spot reads, in Latin, “The Lord Sent Me.” This pillar of St. James has now been rubbed so deeply, and for so long, that the sweat and the dust of open fingers have worn five distinct radiating grooves into the marble.
It crosses my mind that if you have an inclination for spotting the miraculous, like if you are the kind of person who sees the face of Jesus in the wood grain of the table or the shadowy cliffside and that sort of thing, and if you came at the ancient pillar of St. James from the right angle, probably getting right down and kneeling on the cathedral’s stone floor, you might be able to make out the rays of your outstretched fingers pointing directly back at you, from the Heavens almost, forming something very, very much like the image of a scallop shell.
Your last way marker.
All the roads leading back to you.
A subtle God showing you how to get Home.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.