Chapter 5: I'm Totally Listening
I stumble into a secret network of lodging for pilgrims, am invited to sleep in a village churches, and get my first taste of the deep support system for Camino pilgrims.
I cannot have made it any clearer to myself that the ten weeks of the pilgrimage are to be project-free.
The plan is to stop: to stop inventing, to stop creating, to stop planning, to stop becoming somebody new and better, to just take a breath – but every day or so, a subtle project idea slips in on autopilot for how I can use this pilgrimage time. I throw out one set of devils and a legion race in behind.
For example, at first, I decide not to take a camera, because that’s exactly the project nightmare waiting to happen that I’m trying to avoid. I know how I am. I will immediately set a goal to learn every single electronic command on the interface so that I can “master photography” because the opportunity for mastery is hidden in everything. And besides, the little camera instruction book is “small” and “doesn’t weigh much,” and “maybe when I’m being so still and focused, and all I can pay attention to is was in front of me, then I’ll take beautiful pictures of it.”
And at one point, about a week before I notice what I am doing, I decide that I will take a camera because everybody says I have to, and maybe it does make sense. It is kind of crazy to walk a thousand miles and not have a single picture to show for it, right?
But before you know it, I have a plan to take one picture every day. I’ll show the road as it winds out before me, because that will be so cool to montage together at the end, with the doorway in the first one and the ocean in the last one. I’ll line my office walls with them in a three-month train car of consecutive images. But I catch myself now. I can already see the days coming where I accidentally forget to take a picture - dammit - or I don’t like the picture I took already, or there is a better one after the first one, or I notice something in frame that shouldn’t be there, or I decide that the angle should really have been from shoe level, or four hundred other ways I should have done it differently and better.
Or, and now we’re really getting at the problem, and this is exactly what would happen. I’ll be having a conversation with somebody, and they are telling me something truly personal, something they haven’t talked about for years to anyone, and for a minute they’re sure I am the right person to talk to. They can feel it, and actually they are right, or they almost were right.
But suddenly I’m not there, because I’m thinking this is today’s shot, right there over the stranger’s shoulder, by the fountain, with the sunset in the spray and the two children in silhouette, and I’m fighting a terrible urge to interrupt them so I can get my shot, because I’m going to lose it otherwise. I’ll lose it. I’ll lose it. I’ll lose it. I try to be polite about it, but I’m pulling, pulling, pulling away from them.
“I’m totally listening,” I tell them, running off.
A week earlier, I’m on the Internet trying to find the best hiking trail from Rognes where our home is, to Arles, the nearest city, and a possible junction where I can join the first actual pilgrimage route, the Voie d’Arles. I know there is a marked trail for the Camino leading somewhere into Arles, but I spend a whole evening researching Google maps, and still I can’t figure out where the thing runs, or how I might catch up with it from my house. But this road exists. It has to. Because this is the road that pilgrims walk to get to Santiago from Rome, and some true diehards use it to go back the other direction.
When I’ve exhausted my own efforts, I reach out to a pilgrimage association I’ve come across online.
Their website has ancient HTML and recent event gatherings still posted from two years ago. I call their contact number and get an answering machine for somebody in Avignon. What I don’t realize is that I’ve stumbled onto the secret entrance to a pilgrim’s Batcave. I hear ascending elevator whirring sounds and giant metal structures shifting and compartments opening behind the Times New Roman font and the blinking red and blue whirling police light jpegs.
Within minutes, a woman calls me back with the name of the best person to speak to about the routes. She leaves a second message later that same night giving me a third association member in case I can’t reach the second. She also finds me the number for a priest in a village north of Salon-en-Provence where I might be able to stay. She explains he is the priest for a handful of small towns, and he has to range about between them, but I might be able to stay at the presbytery in one of them. She doesn’t know for sure, but I should try. She will leave him a message momentarily to expect my call. And then, I shouldn’t get my hopes up, but there is one final, remote possibility she is going to look into.
This established, she wants to know how much I am paying for the first night in Vernègues. When I tell her, she says that is reasonable, but she will still see what she can do. A final question: she checks to make sure I have my obligatory pilgrim passport, otherwise I won’t be able to get in anywhere.
I call everyone dutifully, mentioning the first woman’s name, and then the names of everybody else after, creating a great web of contacts I’ve never met. I have no idea what I am supposed to be asking for with all these numbers, but I just keep writing numbers down and repeating them back chiffre-par-chiffre and leaving answering machine messages in excruciating French.
I have been trying to find route and trail information but after a handful of conversations, not only have I found the trail I’ve been looking for, I’ve also found a place to stay in someone’s home in Arles. And then, because I’ve already sorted out day two’s lodging at a hotel, I turn down an evening at the presbytery and a private home. Completely by accident and backwards, I have stumbled into a vast, secret network of pilgrim support.
I have six different Camino guide books and this network I’ve discovered isn’t mentioned in any of them, but I soon learn that once you get into the network, more private homes reveal themselves as you move along, each of them with warm beds, and smiles, and dinners together, and glasses of local wine. They pop up suddenly like targets in a videogame. The hosts in these networks can’t accommodate hordes of strangers, and this is why the network is kept so hush-hush, but they can keep a steady trickle of pilgrims moving through and on towards Santiago.
I later learn that pilgrim support networks are arrayed throughout Europe. Their general mission is to help pilgrims make it through their particular zone of responsibility, and then on towards Santiago in an unbroken chain of care until the pilgrim arrives safely at the cathedral doors.
No pilgrim should fail under their watch. They offer food, shelter, moral and logistical assistance. They mark and clear the trails. Some of the pilgrim associations from remote countries as far away as Poland run their own summer auberges along the Camino. Small placards of signage indicate the host countries and associations. Most, but not all, of the association members are former pilgrims. The infrastructure of pilgrim support is jaw-dropping.
I’m asked not to reveal the private network contact information, because if the names got published on the Internet or in a guidebook these private good Samaritans will be overwhelmed with pilgrim traffic, and they are not set up to manage that. More problematically, they aren’t the kind of people good at saying no and turning people away. But if you are fortunate enough to find your way into one of these channels, and somebody decides to trust you, you are in, and you eat at the family dinner table. And if all goes well, you get another name for the next leg, and another for the next, each step of way unfolding incrementally. It’s like being on an underground railroad.
I leave for this pilgrimage in three weeks, and I’ve been training steadily now for months. I am hiking with my full pack for over twenty hours a week, heading out mid-morning and getting home in the early evenings. I’m working my to-do equipment lists, figuring out my exact route and where I’ll stay in the week it takes me to join the official Arles to Santiago pilgrimage trail.
I’ve created specific instructions for Melanie, with screenshots on how to file my company’s quarterly tax returns. I’ve tackled the problems of two birthdays and a Mother’s Day that arrive while I’m on the road. I’ve made sure the car is okay, the tires are inflated properly, the mailbox keys are taken from my keyring, that money is transferred from the American bank to the French one. I’ve bought some of the remaining gear I don’t have or recently noticed that I need, like a short clothesline and pins to dry my hand-washed hiking clothes. I buy a GPS satellite tracker so my children can see where I am every day. They’ll be able to push pins, colored by the week of my journey, into a large wall map I’ve purchased for them.
I’m also spending a lot of time hiking by myself.
I’m out there for long enough now that when I go out my family doesn’t really want to join me, even on the weekends. I’m over hell-and-gone in our little corner of Provence. I wander by tiny farms, past wild boar hunters in orange jackets who never say anything and only nod suspiciously at the peculiar stranger. I trek past empty rows of olive trees in the middle of nowhere. I eat lunch sitting on my backpack. It is much colder here than I thought it would be this time of year, but when it is sunny and warm, I dry my boots and socks in the sun as I eat my lunch. I rest my bare feet on the toes of my boots. I let my GPS talk to the stars and wait for its long green LED flashes to assure me my message got through to the heavens. The low hum of solo mental time is already settling in.
And there’s a lot of time to think about how difficult this is going to be and about the likelihood that I won’t make it to the end. It sucks to admit this, but even after two or three days in a row of really long hikes, I’m in pain. The bottoms of my feet are hammered and swollen. Something somewhere is putting pressure on my nerves, because my thighs are pins-and-needles dead by the time I get home. Maybe it’s from the backpack, but I don’t know how or where to fix it. I can barely walk around the house in the evenings. I’m trashed and irritable. I still have the luxury of taking a hot bath, but that goes away my first night on the road. I thought this would be easier than mountain climbing, and yet, in some ways, I think it is going to be much, much harder.
I do seem to snap back quickly in the mornings, which is encouraging, but I’m reading disturbing accounts of the body damage that takes place after a month of seven- and eight-hour days. Everybody knows I’m going on this thing now. I joke that if anybody in Provence sees me back home early April or May, do not ask me how it went.
I don’t dwell on it, but I can see how simple it would be to fail and how quickly my plan could fall apart. I imagine scenarios where I’m back home in ten days, and not because I didn’t man up, but because I can’t put any weight on the balls of my feet, a problem I already seem to have even after a couple days in a row. Like everywhere else in my life, I’m sailing into a small storm of worry.
And it isn’t true what I wrote about failure earlier. You don’t learn everything about failure the first time. It’s success where you learn everything the first time.
But if I have to come back in ten days, I’m taking everything I’ve written here and burning it in the fireplace with lighter fluid.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.