Chapter 8: The One True Cathedral
I meet two angels, wake in the night to wrestle with Lilliputians, and find myself singing gospel and speaking in tongues. Oh, and almost forgot: boot problems.
That afternoon my pilgrim hosts had offered me a drink when I arrived, and they sat me in their largest sofa chair. There was a brief conversational vacuum for a moment or two. All I could think about was my blister. I was incapable of moving the conversation in any direction without stopping to remove a mental sock and staring at the thing.
But then I couldn’t help myself. I mentioned my blister out loud, and it was like a factory bell rang. The two of them went into action. The woman had me remove my boot so she could take a look. He raised his eyebrows and whistled. She blew out softly through puffed cheeks and said that’s a beauty.
They set to debating what to do and who would do what. She went off and retrieved a sewing kit. He filled a calf-deep plastic tub with hot water and sprinkled it with a marvelous purpling cloud of iodine. She set my foot up on a small stool, holding it gently for a moment. Being cared for like that opened a surrender in me. He sterilized a needle. She pierced. He bandaged.
Voila! They looked up at me together.
The husband told me that the director of the Marseille association, where I’d gotten my pilgrim passport a month earlier, had shown up a few years back just like this with an equally spectacular blister. He’d sat in that very chair, and then he’d made it all the way to Santiago no problem.
“That’s true,” the wife confirmed from the kitchen, and she added what a wonderful man he was. And then I realized I knew the man they were talking about. I told them I’d actually spent an afternoon with him and a group of about thirty other people a few months prior. We’d taken a whole walking tour of Aix together and then had paella at a Spanish restaurant.
They laughed and said they were there that day, too, and that was its own charming discovery. We had already met! We had dined together, broken bread for heaven’s sake! It was like we were already friends, and we didn’t even know it.
With all the attention and fuss and food and wine and having met already and the delight of staying in their home, my underlying foot problems were pushed out of my mind during the evening.
But now it’s well after midnight, and the night’s anxiety gremlins are rustling around my bed like Lilliputians. I lie there in their daughter’s bedroom and recall the wife saying my pack looked very heavy when they picked me up, and now her observation starts to nag on me. Maybe my pack is too heavy. No, damn it, it’s not. And then the boots, my damn boots. Crrrreee-aaaaaaa-kkkkk, I turn over as carefully as I can in the bed. This house must have been built from reclaimed haunted house wood.
But then, suddenly, I know.
I know what I have to do.
The entire solution presents itself. I sit up in bed, the whole house trembling. Resolve rises up in me like a slow tsunami.
I will not walk on day four. I will stay in Arles. I will dump the hiking boots and move to the last-ditch ultra-light “sneaker” boot strategy, the kind I don’t even need to break in. I will go first thing in the morning to a sporting goods store outside Arles. I’d seen one there a month before when we were checking out the coliseum, the gift shops, and Van Gogh’s apartment.
And if the new shoes don’t last more than four weeks, I will buy another pair down the line. They sell shoes in France. It’s not like I’m hiking through Nepal. If my feet get injured, I will deal with it, if and when that even happens. Four weeks is an eternity away, and frankly I can’t even imagine Santiago from my bed in Arles. St. Gilles, a day away, is my Santiago. I will have to get to the end of the world one Santiago at a time.
I move the third pair of boots to the side. You’re not coming. Bye.
Yeah? Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, Meindl.
“Meindl,” I repeat, like I am picking on some kid on the playground.
I take every last item in my backpack and set it out on the bed, the house and the mattress trembling as I lay it down. I’m getting rid of stuff. Lots of it. I am on a mission, and when I’m on a mission, the sub-trivial things that terrorize me when I’m worrying suddenly leave me unfazed. Now, it is like I’ve turned into a different person. I’m entering the alternate aspect of my preferred self, tapping into my inner Brobdingnagian. If the room is still creaking, I am no longer aware of it.
I turn on the ceiling lights and all the other lamps, too. I’m lit up. I want light. I need to see, baby. I’m going through every last item in the pack and building my everything-must-go pile.
I picture myself failing and imagine looking at each item with deep regret, thinking I shouldn’t have brought you. You are the item that derailed me. I didn’t make it because I wanted to listen to you, an iPod I didn’t need. Every last thing has to come into my office and prove its raison d’être is getting me to Santiago. The sleeping bag liner. Don’t need it. The bivy sack. Same. I’ll freeze to death. Acceptable. Everybody can’t possibly bring a bivy sack. I’d never even heard of one when I bought it, and it’s not like I’m headed to the North Pole.
And why a sweater when I have a jacket? Or Spanish books. They sell books in Spain. A country-scale foldout highway map here showing all of France and Spain that I’ve brought to see the Big Picture as I move along. What the hell? Three razors. Grow a beard. Toenail clippers? You have fingernail clippers. Pinch harder.
And, while I’m at it, if there’s a monitor light on my cell phone, why do I need a six-and-a-half-pound headlamp with a pack of batteries that could start a lawn tractor? Insect repellent when I can scratch? A blue plastic fork and spoon when I can use my fingers like half the planet?
Kilos melt away.
The discard bag grows and grows. I am filled with satisfaction at my pilgrim resolve and the pile of ballast, not to mention a growing intuition that I am going to make it. I take an almost fundamentalist pleasure in the austerity measures. There is something almost superstitious about my triage choices, and above all I am superstitious about getting rid of everything that was coming along to entertain me or to keep my mind engaged.
So, even though they can’t weigh more than the tip of my pinkie I discard the miniature ear buds for my cell phone that would have let me listen to the radio out there. I swear off all things whose function is to help me remember the trip. I might not even have a trip to remember if I carry all this crap.
My spiral-bound journal and my extra pen and my daughter’s lightweight battery powered camera don’t pass muster. I am going to do one thing for ten weeks and one thing only. I’m not listening to music or the news or writing in a journal or taking pictures or sketching crumbling old bridges by the river.
I don’t need to remember anything or save it or show anybody or even prove I’ve been. Not even to myself. I am walking. I am getting there. And that’s it.
I rock from side to side on the creaky floorboards doing a small rhythmic dance, the house trembling around me, starting to sway into it, starting to clap gospel time on every second beat, snapping my fingers, house and porch lights coming on all over Arles. I’m swimming in energy, overflowing with a magnificent confidence, and a thousand years of pilgrim wisdom. At this point I’m practically speaking in tongues.
Unpack everything, pilgrim.
Let it go, let it go, let it go.
After breakfast, my hosts drive me into town together and drop me off in front of the sporting goods store. They say they will come back in a bit and get me if I want, but I decline. The wife gives me some fruit she has in a bag. The husband tells me to wait a second. He won’t let me go till he’d retrieves an Arles city map for me from the trunk of the car. Then the two of them sketch out routes and landmarks and bus line numbers so I can find my way to their home again.
When I let them know that I am planning to go to the community auberge that night, they put the kibosh on it. They say no you are not going to the auberge. You are staying with us again. She asks me if I have laundry that she can do that afternoon. When I mention that Melanie is coming in that evening to retrieve my boots and discarded things, they invite my family to dinner.
The following morning when I leave, they both walk with me up to the pilgrimage trailhead to say good-bye and wish me off. The husband gives me instructions on things to look out for to keep me on the path. The wife packs me a brown bag lunch. He takes a picture of me standing on the embankment, then he adjusted my backpack straps because there is something not quite right with the way my pack is sitting.
Then she says I was smart to get rid of all that extra stuff. He says I’ll make it. I say I hope so. He makes a kind of no-problem-at-all face with the Robert de Niro mouth thing and waves his hand dismissively. You make it ten days, he says, you’ll make it the whole way. Then she adds, oh, yes, you’ll definitely make it.
Buen Camino, they both say.
I know this pilgrim’s exhortation from books I’ve read, but this is the first time I’ve heard it in the wild, and I repeat it back to them without thinking about whether it makes sense or not to people who aren’t physically traveling anywhere.
At some point during the pain and worry of those forty-eight hours there is a big enough break in the self-absorption clouds that I become aware of how lucky I am to have found the two of them. I realize, like with my entire heart realize, what a godsend they were. And saying good-bye I am so full of gratitude and tenderness towards the two of them that I would have embarrassed all three of us if I’d tried to express it.
But late that afternoon after I get to the next town, I send the two of them a postcard of the church at St. Gilles, and I get it all out. Thank you so much! I’d arrived! In the next town! Twelve miles away! A miracle! I imagine them pinning my postcard to their cork bulletin board next to the autographed picture of the Pope.
For the next nine weeks that I am out there walking along, moving from one Santiago to the next, I think about the two of them. I keep circling back, over and over, to the old couple right at the start, my personal angels. I think about all the pilgrims passing through their home, being welcomed and fed and bandaged, having their backpack straps adjusted, heading off with smiles and packed tinfoil sandwiches, a stream of pilgrims moving in and moving out of their home and lives, coming and going, hello and good-bye, over and over, night and day, month in, month out.
And all of those pilgrims, coming and going and never realizing that they just spent the night in the one true Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
 French accent, thank you.
 The wife told me at one point, “To be a pilgrim on the road, you need to have a saint at home.” This still makes me laugh and those words came oh-so-close to ending up in the dedication. Now it just reads, “For Melanie,” which frankly won’t need any additional context by the time you get to the end of this. Hang in there.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.