(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 7, 2005
Day 8: Navarette to Azofra, 23.5 km/ 14.6 m

Week one was behind me, and with just over 125 miles logged underfoot, I’d discovered a few important things. 1) Sleep is the most incredible reset button. I’d never slept harder and deeper in my life. And I’d never slept without moving. 2) Carbohydrates really do sustain a body under physical exertion far longer than protein. 3) I have about a 4-hour tolerance for just about anything; then I begin to unravel. 4) The accumulative effect of silence, remoteness, meditation and escaping the familiar is extraordinarily powerful. 5) People all over the world are essentially good at heart.

When I awakened to begin week two, I remembered my first dream of the Camino. I dreamed that my friend Maureen was pregnant, and because she’s an actress on a soap opera, she was concerned about how much weight she would gain. I took it as a symbol of something growing inside her—she was giving birth to something within. I liked that thought. I lay on the bunk remembering as many details as I could and doing my best to translate the language of dreams. It felt comforting to have spent some time with Maureen, in whatever world. It had been days since I’d had access to the internet, and I missed getting a small touch of home.

As I lay there, I became aware of how much my Achilles hurt. It burned actually, and I remembered that it had awakened me during the night. It was the same ankle I’d twisted the day before, and I hoped that the pain had passed. But as soon as I stood and bore weight, I knew it would be another tough day on the Camino. I was grateful, once again, that I had trekking poles to help keep me upright.

Leaving Navarette

I walked with Martin again all day. It was nice. Moments of silence were mixed with conversation. He knew I was struggling. There was no flat terrain to be had—we were either ascending or descending. After 10 miles we entered Nájera, and already I felt wiped out. I had intended to use our arrival as an opportunity to rest at an internet café, but we’d arrived just in time for siesta. Nearly as soon as I’d sat down, the shop was closing. I had only enough time to read my incoming mail.

From: Brenda
Subject: intrepid trekker
Date: Sun Mar 6 09:17:10 2005

Dear Tess,

Where are you now? Are you warm? Sunburned? Frostbitten? Tired? Energized? Awakening? Free from the Italian? (Like a little bird he is travelling and pecking at you, eh? Wonder what all this means….)

In my readings this morning I came across this:

“Don’t carry over experiences from the past…learn what it means to experience something fully, then drop it and move on to the next moment, uninfluenced by the previous one.”

That is the way to liberation and to experiencing the eternal NOW unencumbered. Easier said than done…

I just want you to know that I am thinking of you always… wondering, sending you good wishes that you are loved, you are being held from afar and your gossamer wings have my breath behind them to help you move forward, move onward, go to the next moment fully, then the next moment…

It is finally sunny today. The Blue Jays are very insistent. Are they telling me something about you and what you are experiencing right now? I think they might be… I think it is the sound of joy they are making…. joyous for you in your travels, in your movement from dark to light… as things dawn for you.

Love, Brenda

From: Lauren
Subject: Jupiter
Date: Mon Mar 7 14:17:04 2005

Hey there!

Got a note from my Vedic astrologist friend, and here’s what he said about Jupiter right now. Thought it was perfect for where you are at the moment!

Jupiter has gone into retrograde or backward motion from February until June, about 4 months in duration. This is a time for communing with the gods and gaining deeper insight into the truth behind things. In Sanskrit, the word for Jupiter is “guru.” Therefore, you should seek the counsel of the guru within your own heart for deeper insight into the purpose, meaning and direction of your life.

You can expect realizations, revelations and epiphanies while Jupiter moves backwards. You should be able to lift one or two of the veils of illusion that prevent you from seeing the truth about yourself and others.

At this time, energy flows in the opposite direction, from the ocean of the superconscious into the river of the conscious mind. One can hear with greater clarity the words of wisdom emanating from the Supersoul (paramatma) to the individual (atma). There will be a feeling of greater connection and guidance, which will promote a more positive outlook and a sense of wellbeing.

Love you,

I didn’t have much time to digest either note as the shopkeeper was turning off the lights and shutting down the computers. I hoped to find another computer at the refuge so I could sit with their words.

Martin and I decided that if we couldn’t beat the siesta, we’d join it. We found a small restaurant just off the Camino, and we were the only people in the place. We sat down at a round, wooden table and ordered the “especial para peregrinos.” It was a proper meal, though expensive. We devoured it quickly and then ordered dessert. As we waited for it to arrive, Martin asked about the bad experience I’d had in Spain that I’d referred to before. I hadn’t expected to get emotional but as I recounted the story to him, I cried. Dessert arrived midway though. He pushed it aside in sweet silence, holding my eyes with such concern and tenderness. When I finished, he touched my arm and told me he felt special for having heard the story. I appreciated his gentleness. It felt very healing.

When we left the restaurant, we followed the Camino arrows which led us back into town to the refuge in Nájera. And there sitting outside was the Italian. I felt bad to be walking with someone else. But then I thought, For how long should I carry him?

Martin and I lumbered on for another four and a half miles. My heel bothered me the whole way; it was another day of pain management. The weather had been mostly spectacular, however. It was still cold but the full, beautiful clouds helped me imagine that I was floating over the landscape. We reached a small town named Azofra, which my guidebook said owed its existence to the Camino. It also said that the meager refuge was one of the most peaceful on the Camino. I hoped it was open because although we’d walked only about 15 miles, it was another 10 miles to the next one.

When we arrived, my heart sank. There was a sign on the door, which I immediately assumed would say, Cerrado. But we were in luck: it said that we could pick up the key at the bar.

I waited while Martin went down to get it. He brought it back, along with a Japanese woman who would also be staying. We unlocked the door to discover what can only be described as a rat hole. The place was small, musty smelling, cold and filthy. But I was so happy to not be walking, I accepted it as my refuge.

Martin threw down his pack and said that what he most wanted to do while traveling through the Rioja region was to take a tour of a private winery. And with an ear-to-ear grin, he announced that he’d met a guy in the bar who’d agreed to show him his bodega. Martin graciously invited the Japanese woman to come with us, but she said she needed to find a place to eat. So we sent her off with the key and went back down to the bar to begin our adventure.

When we arrived, young blue-eyed Simon was just staggering in having walked about 22 miles that day. He was happy to see us and to discover that the refuge was indeed open. He wasn’t as happy to discover that another pilgrim had the only key. Simon was tired and hungry, but he decided to come with us nonetheless.

A beautiful old man with white hair and bright eyes greeted us enthusiastically. He led us through town, rattling away with Martin in Spanish, while Simon and I tottered behind on our unsteady legs. The man opened what appeared to be a barnyard door and guided us through his darkened home with hallways that led off into blackness. The voices of women and children met us, though the people did not. We followed him through an unlit maze to a cellar with stone steps leading down into a dungeon-like, earthy domain with a line of large wooden vats down the center. A small light illuminated the cobwebs as the proud vintner pulled the lid off one of the vats and stirred the layer of muck floating on top. Then he plunged a glass into the liquid and presented it to Martin, who sniffed it deeply before sipping and nodding.

Simon, exhausted, sat on the steps and waited silently. I eyed him sympathetically as I accepted my own glass of muck-free white wine. And although I don’t have a palette at all for white wine, this man’s was pure pleasure.

Martin clearly couldn’t get enough of him. The man reached for a handful of walnuts, dropped them onto the top of one of the barrels and cracked them open with a hammer. He and Martin laughed and nodded and carried on for a half hour cracking walnuts and drinking wine as Simon and I waited, smiling at each other awkwardly. I drank two glasses of his brew on an empty stomach and left more unsteady than I’d arrived.

Back at the Azofra refuge, I watched Martin and Simon try to light the propane-fueled heater, which sparked and fizzled like the unpredictable fire hazard it was. I prayed for warmth while at the same time hoping to spare my life. Once they got it started and I was sure it wouldn’t devour us, I hung my socks on a chair nearby and watched them steam dry. We passed pieces of cold hotdogs around, our dinner, and I open Brenda’s second note because it was, after all, the beginning of week two:

Go forth in peace.
Be still within yourself, and know that the trail is beautiful.
May the winds be gentle upon your face, and your direction be straight and true as the flight of the eagle.
Walk in beauty and harmony with God and all people.
—a Navaho blessing—

On the inside, Brenda had written:

Keep Walking

Love winter when the plant says nothing.
—Thomas Merton

Matter is just a minor pollutant in a universe made of light.
—Ilya Prigogine

First we feel, and then we think. That is the natural order of things.
—Chandra Alexander

“…it gives me a kind of satisfaction to realize that it is not by contact with any other creature that I can recover the sense that I am real. Solitude means being lonely not in a way that pleases you but in a way that frightens and empties you to the extent that it means being exiled from yourself.”
—Henri J.M. Nouwen

That last one sent me. And I wrote in my journal:

I wonder now if I should say goodbye to Martin. He brings me comfort and safety. I don’t know if that’s what I need though. I covet it. I don’t want to turn away a gift. It’s just that Brenda has sent me words about solitude this week, solitude in a way that frightens and brings us to ourselves. And that seems right to me. Martin, lovely, sweet, tender Martin, brings language and comfort and laughter. I know that the exchange of energy has been good. Positive for both of us. Necessary. We’ve needed each other. But I wonder when is the time for parting?

For now, I am here with my boys, the Germans, Simon and Martin. They are, at 22 and 24, the combined age of the man I imagine sleeping with next. But I will sleep with them tonight. And I will be happy.