Chapter 9: Puss 'n Boots
This is happy.
I’ve been walking for two weeks and covered over 200 miles. I’ve travelled through the hills of the Alpilles, past Arles, past Montpellier, and into Lodève. I am now fifty-some kilometers east of Toulouse.
I’ve continued to purge every item in my backpack that isn’t essential to my warmth, security, cleanliness, or nourishment. I’m not taking pictures of the trip. I’m not keeping a journal. When I move onto a new page in my Camino guidebook of pilgrim lodging and route maps, I tear the used page out to make the book lighter. No matter how subtrivial the item, when I can unload it, I do. This letting go of things is my fanatical religion.
The daily habits of a walking pilgrim have set in. My entire life is built on simplification and repetition. I get up at 5:30 in the morning. If there are other pilgrims in the hostel, I dress quietly in the dark, check my sleep area by the light of my cellphone for forgotten items, throw on my pack, and head out into the quiet of early morning. I wait until it is light enough to make the pilgrim route markers visible. Generally, I need to walk six to eight hours every day. If I start my day early, I can get the bulk of the mileage covered by lunchtime. This leaves me time to finish off the day’s travel before the afternoon heat sets in. I can then get set up in the next hostel, city hall basement, or guest bedroom.
There is an afternoon during the second week when I stop to eat my lunch in the hillsides outside Lodève. There is a large rock by the trail. I am high in the hills. There are white spots of what must be sheep in the distance. There are rolling waves of farmland. I wonder whether a tiny line of road in the distance is the one I followed in. I rummage through my sack and find the baguette I purchased that morning. As I’ve done for the last week now, I’ve torn my daily baguette in half earlier and stuffed it into the top of my pack. I’ve also bought a bar of chocolate, the truest staple of my diet, and an apple.
I pull out my big plastic liter water bottle and refill the smaller water bottles from the larger. I take my shoes off, set my socks to dry in the sun, and rest my bare feet on top of my shoes. The drama around my shoes is far behind me. I’ve found my rhythm. I am healthy and strong. I’m no longer worried about whether I’ll make it to the end. I will. And the actual end of the Camino is so far in the future, I’m not even thinking much about that. I’ve let go of work and professional concerns. I feel strong and steady, and I’m rolling up and down the hills now.
I’m sitting in a mountain landscape of faint sounds and distant plane trails across the blue sky. It has been an hour since I’ve seen another person amid all the isolated farmland.
And maybe because I am barefoot in the middle of nowhere, or maybe because I am looking at my carved walking stick next to my backpack, or maybe for no reason at all, I start to think about the childhood story of Puss ‘n Boots.
I remember how Puss ‘n Boots sat peacefully by a river. My mother would read that story to me. It was a favorite for both of us. Puss ‘n Boots carried a wooden stick with a red handkerchief sack tied to the end. He wrinkled his cat-nail toes and fell asleep in the sun, out of sight of the road. He tipped his large, feather-plumed hat over his eyes for shade.
It occurs to me suddenly that I am happy. A voice inside my head observes, simply and incontrovertibly:
You are happy.
This is happy.
It didn’t mean I was in a good mood. I’m in a good mood reasonably often. It’s more than that. I am at home in my world with my apple and my backpack with nothing to read in it, and nothing to draw on, and no camera to take pictures with. And it occurs to me that if I ever doubt that I can be truly happy again – and this doubt has nagged at me for a decade – I need to remember this moment. I need to realize I can get back here. This peace is available to me, this sense of being at home, of being carefree. I’ll only need to get back on this Camino.
Humans must have been made to walk. The problem must be we don’t walk enough. We don’t keep moving. Because it is like some kind of miracle, this walk. It is like knowing there is a life preserver available to me. I didn’t know that before. A few dollars for a plane ticket and a little stolen time, and I can get here and walk. I can drift both away and towards something.
I pack my things up in my red backpack, look back at the small spot of Earth where I sat, and I head off. I will never sit on that rock again. I will never again be in this moment with those sheep in the distance, and my daily baguette, and the jet vapor in the distant sky.
The greatest of the Camino platitudes is that there is nothing at the end of the walk, that the journey is the destination, that there’s nothing to get to, that the cathedral in Santiago is empty.
And now this beautiful riddle is mine.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.