Chapter 6: A Single Step
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Here's mine.
Melanie and the children accompany me for the first few hours of the pilgrimage. I joke that they remind me of the little harbor boats that buzz around the big ships as they head out to sea. The children are eager to continue further, but when we arrive at a county road, I insist to Melanie that it isn’t safe to have them walking on the narrow verge.
None of them has ever hiked out this far with me, and I’ve pointed out small personal landmarks the entire way, the place where I stopped for lunch and kicked over my water bottle, the place where I sat on my pack during the faintest of snow flurries, the place where I saw a wild boar and wondered if it would attack me. Walnut-sized lumps tighten in my throat during the breeziest of these observations.
I have always assumed my journey of a thousand miles would begin with the single step over the doorway of our home, and that’s where we record a picture of it, but in truth, it starts when we say good-bye on that deserted county road. Maybe all journeys start with good-bye. Maybe that’s how you know you’re even on one.
A hug with each, a hug with all, and I turn away from them.
I have a terrible superstition about dying on this trip. Mortality and middle age have been the backdrop of my entire year abroad. I keep fantasizing that God is going to take me very dramatically. I’m knifed to death by a mugger in some rough-and-tumble Spanish city. I die from the elements crossing the Pyrenees. In the early morning, I’m struck by a car racing across a highway.
In my mind’s eye, friends Google me and find a picture of the overturned vehicle and an ambulance in some unremarkable online newspaper. Maybe there’s a glimpse of a stretcher in the background, and they imagine me lying in it, red and blue lights flashing over the white sheet, police radios cutting in and out in the background.
And then, that’s it! Finito! if that’s even a Spanish word. He’s gone! He was on some walk thing in Spain!
But pilgrims do actually die out there and not all that infrequently. In one pilgrimage guide, the writer was at the big mass in Santiago, and there was a prayer for a pilgrim who had died en route, and he wrote that you can’t walk thirty meters out there without coming across an ancient hospitaleria or a cemetery for dead pilgrims. There are makeshift roadside monuments with favorite poems and wilted flowers and plastic-covered photos someone has secured into the face of a fencepost.
These sites remember the sons and daughters, fathers and mothers who died along the way. The internet buzz around the pilgrimage is a Martin Sheen movie where a father retrieves his son’s dead body and personal effects from the Camino. So, people do die, and some walk it when they’re about to. Dying is a significant part of walking the thing, and clearly, until you’ve fallen along the way, you have not yet had the full pilgrim experience.
The morning I leave for Finisterre, I am charmed by three omens.
The previous night the world enjoyed what the papers call a supermoon, and this suggests something celestial. Why not? The second is that it is the first day of spring, the third that the weather is spectacular. There are cotton-white clouds against pale Provençal sky. A gentle breeze is warm. The birds are at it. It is a children’s storybook of See Dick, See Jane.
After months of training, I am on the road at last. This first day I will cover ground I’ve already walked repeatedly, but I’m impatient for fresh paths, and blue and yellow Camino signage, and vistas to unfold from the hilltops and around the bends. Then I’ll truly be off and into the wild. With the sadness of goodbye receding behind me, I feel a morning exhilaration heading out into my adventure.
The game is on.
Until those first few hours alone, I’ve debated internally about whether I would stop at a chapel for St. James that I stumbled upon early on. It is an hour or two off-course, and so far out from the house, that when I hiked there originally, Melanie and the kids had to come pick me up in the Honda. But full of the emotion of good-bye, I opt to take the detour and visit the little chapel dedicated to the patron saint of the Camino.
To not visit the chapel would be the opposite of an omen.
Underneath all of this magical thinking is a plan to leave Reason by the door and allow myself a small “get-started” prayer, no larger in spiritual dimension than the one you might get arm-twisted into at the Thanksgiving table. And, yes, no, I mean, of course, this is not rational. But I tell myself a pilgrimage is a play within a play. It is a miniature life within a life. Do with it what you will.
So, lighten up, already. You’re on a pilgrimage for Heaven’s sake.
Get on your knees.
The chapel’s 13th century bell tower and half of its roof were destroyed in an earthquake a century ago. What remains is succumbing to land, covered in scrub bushes, wild vines and loose chunks of stone. With all the organic debris built up on it, the roof doesn’t look like a roof at all when I approach it from above where my trail comes in. In fact, the entire building is camouflaged by thick tufts of grass and abandoned orchard so that when I look down on it, I’m barely aware I’m looking at a building, let alone a church.
But when I follow signs down a steep iron stairwell, and I’m standing right next to it, the sense of the chapel is different. Its aspect shifts somehow. The little church is not, as it turns out, a total ruin, despite the ominous warning from the mairie that you are forbidden to enter, that the conseil municipal is not responsible if God cracks you over the head with a keystone.
And yet inside, if you can call it an inside, I see that volunteers have braved the danger and cleared the floor of debris. It’s swept. The little chapel is tidy. Someone has arranged displaced chunks of building neatly to one side. From what’s left of the church portal, I can see mosaics on the floor and the remnants of its Gothic arches. And here and there, out of the lazy reach of vandals, I can still make out bits of artistic detail: reddish-brown leafy decorations on a high column, ghostly outlines of saints in the ceiling, a cool expanse of faded blue plaster on the sanctuary’s altar wall.
There’s almost nothing symbolically religious left, but still, when I step over the calf-high ruins of the front wall, the instinct surfaces to remove my hat and leave my backpack by the door. It is still, somehow, a church. I couldn’t say why exactly. Maybe it’s because somebody still takes the time to clean up in here. It still has the soul of a church. Sort of, or at least maybe.
I tell you all this because, for a moment anyway, I see myself in it.
I put my knapsack down by the ruins of the front wall and reach in to retrieve the camera my daughter has lent me. I know exactly the picture I want to take. There is a way I tweak my hat and get it to silhouette just right, so that my shadow looks like the stock representation of St. James, invariably depicted with a wide-brimmed hat. Then, if I hold my walking stick in front of me and get that angled into the shadow, without somehow revealing my camera, I’ll come home with my guiding saint setting out on the floor of his old chapel.
But then, as I reach into the top of my backpack for my daughter’s camera, I find a small piece of folded paper my wife has snuck in the top. I have already found three or four other slips of paper throughout the day with penned notes of I love you honey and good luck and be safe. She has stuffed them in the stretch netting by my water bottle, under a shoulder adjustment strap, in a lunch she packed. As I’ve discovered them, I’ve tucked these notes into my wallet, where I might find them later for moral support should I need it. I keep them together with laminated pictures of my son laughing, doing a one-armed pushup and my daughter in Paris twirling a black umbrella behind her.
And then, just as I’m reaching for the camera in that little church, I find one last piece of paper. This one has something actually in it. She’s wrapped something there, and when I open it, I find her favorite silver necklace, a spiky radiating sun on a delicate chain. Alongside it, I find a tiny lock of blonde hair.
I hear myself draw my breath in.
It is the same involuntary gasp that I will make when I first spot the confectioner’s crust of the Pyrenees coming out of Castres and when I come over the final hilltop on the last day and see a harbor full of fishing boats and the Atlantic Ocean sparkling in the morning sun. It is the same gasp as when the three of them come to pick me up at the bus station in Aix and race towards me like action figures, all sharp elbows and balled fists and flying hair, charging towards me like superpower heroes on a movie poster.
I am deeply moved. The necklace and the hair have got me. She’s getting exactly the response she hoped. I move towards the side altar to pray and thank god for my beautiful wife and family. Even if there is Nobody listening, still it is better to thank Nothing out loud than to risk not being grateful for the blessing of My Three. When I first begin to pray, I stand there and kind of pinch my nose with my hand over my face, but I decide this is not acceptable for the scale of my gratitude.
So, I kneel.
I get down on what’s left of a side altar in the transept. I knit my fingers together like I mean it, really mean it, and a river of love is let loose. And at the end of the words in my prayer, I am silent for a long, long moment.
I am not talking. God is not talking. There is just pregnant quiet. You could hear a mustard seed drop. Nobody is asking anybody for anything. Nothing is moving, but it could be that we are, maybemaybemaybe, listening to each other in some way. The one cautiously fathoming the other. Mine is a prayer that moves without manipulation or entreaty, beyond the friction of will. There is a quality in this kind of prayer that’s like staring at a nighttime sky and waiting for the scale of the firmament to sweep down at you.
Because sometimes, no matter what you believe or do not believe, the unfathomable does actually rush down at you, that sweet, wild vertigo of allowing oneself to be touched.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.