Last years blog began with me pondering the eternal question: “Who ever thought my pilgrimage would begin with me jerking off into a plastic cup?
I’ve rethought that. I’m thinking my pilgrimage actually may have started on a dirt path in the hills of Palos Verdes, where a beautiful blond Swedish mother of 4 took my hand and kissed me as the stars fell around us, and forced me to consider the wounds that I had been carrying with me, and that had been leading me down a path of self-destruction.
I’ll get to that in a little bit but for now, I’m here in St Jean on the French side of the Pyrenees, looking at the same road I walked up last year, and damned if it isn’t still uphill. Does it ever start to go downhill, or at least level out? I guess if it did, that would take the fun out of it.
Just for good measure (and not on purpose) I got lost again. At least it wasn’t in the middle of the Pyrenees enshrouded in fog. It was before I even started- I neglected to follow a throng of Japanese pilgrims out of town, instead opting to trail a cute young French girl with a pack. Unfortunately she wasn’t walking the Camino. I mean, who in the fuck is in St. Jean Pied de Port with a pack and not walking the Camino?
So I went back and walked through the ancient town of St Jean Pied de Port alone. After a short foray into town, I asked a middle aged Spanish guy standing in front of a shop “which way is the way ?” (the Camino is aka “the way”- a little joke there in case you didn’t get it). Sure enough, he directed me to where I started, just before asking for a cigarette. I don’t know about you but I would probably assume that a dude in full hiking regalia with a backpack heading out on a pilgrimage didn’t have a pack of smokes. But that’s just me.
As I left the old town with it’s cobblestoned streets, the Camino turned into a paved road, and proceeded uphill. Steeply uphill. Did I say how steep it was? Pretty sure I saw the ghost of Sir Edmund Hillary pass me by, with Tenzing Norgay beside him. It was then I started to think about the things that pushed me onto the camino last year. As i mentioned in last years blog, I had never even been to Europe, but it was if I didn’t even have a choice in the matter.
I thought about the road I had travelled since then. I thought about the road I was traveling on at the moment. did I mention it was steep? In the next few days, I will relate some of the events that conspired to bring me back to the Camino. And that road has been paved with good intentions, love and hate, and potholes the size of Kansas.
For the most part, things have gotten better. I’ve come to understand that, for the most part, people just do what they do. We’re all just trying to get what we think we deserve out of life, by the methods and means we have been taught, good or bad. We don’t even really understand what those methods are. If we did, there would be no abuse, no sexual harassment, etc. Where just being what we are: human beings, trying to figure life out.
A few k out of town, we began walking steeply uphill through farms. Cowbells rang in the distance, Christopher Walken brayed off in the ether. We then departed from the road and walked on a wide, stony path, that was well, steep. Hell, we were hiking up the side of a mountain range. What would you expect?
After 2 k on the stony path, we got back to the road. There was a deep valley to the left, you could see St. Jean Pred de Port. I finally ran into some more people, a group of young jovial Italians. It think I’m going to try and transfer from being American to Italian. Can you do that? Pretty much every Italian I’ve met here has been happy, laughing, joking.
I stopped in Orison, one of the last outposts before Roncesvalles, my final destination for the day. The breakfast at the Auberge wasn’t much, so I ordered the vegetable soup which was excellent. I followed it by a cafe con leche, which was excellenter.
The road kept going uphill through sparse grassy hills. At this point I ran into Tina and Thomas, who had walked from Germany. Yes, I said Germany. And yes, I said they walked. Tina had recovered from some serious surgery the year before (I didn’t pry) which contributed to her decision to walk the Camino. They were going to continue on to Finisterra, and then down to Portugal to Fatima.
Why Fatima, you might ask? Well, before I had met them, they were at a church in Lourdes and she had decided to light a candle and pray. Fatima floated through Tina’s mind, the candle went out, and sunshine came from behind the clouds and streamed into the church. She figured that was enough of a sign.
After a few more kilometers, I ran across a van off to the side of the road that sold some food, hot chocolate, etc. It was the same van where I got lost last year. Then, I had walked about 2 miles down a road, trying to catch pilgrims I had been walking with. I realized they didn’t exist, and that I was going the wrong way. Everything was a blur, I was so out of sorts. I think I may have mentioned that my brain and my heart, at that time, were a shit bag of chaos.
But today, it wasn’t so. I had met Bridget a kilometer or so before, we took a break at the food truck, and continued on. I don’t know how I got lost last year. I only had myself to blame. And, well, life.
Not too much further down the road (or if you’re literal about these things, up the road) I met Rachel and Penny (not her real name 😉 from Canada. Rachel was from Nova Scotia originally, and Penny from Toronto. So it’s obvious how they met. I mean Canada is a small country, right? Not that many people…
Actually, they met while working on some projects somewhere, probably like in the middle of the country, like Calgary. And if you don’t believe in forces beyond our comprehension, well, friendship like theirs is a reason you should. They met and, well, they “clicked” Sometimes you just know, and it’s usually when you start talking about shit that you don’t talk about with other people you meet.
Rachel and I were walking alone for awhile and she told me a story. This was her fifth time on the Camino. One time, the fog rolled in and she got scared. But as I’ve said before, the Camino provides the time and space for you to think. So that’s what she did. She said that she never planned too much, and she realized the Camino was telling her that she’d always been scared of the future, what’s in front of her. And that’s what the fog made her realize about herself. I looked at her and told her “I know what’s in front of you right now- about 10 kilometers of bad road”.
With about 6 k to go I caught up with Penny, Rachel’s walking companion (Rachel has the habit of running down hills, leaving Penny in the dust). We were walking up the last uphill, before the camino peaks at the top of the Pyrenees, and heads downhill. She told me a story about her ex-husband, and recent legal battle she had with him over child support. She represented herself in court. No, she’s not a lawyer. Maybe it was finances, or maybe it was the universe forcing her to learn something about herself that needed has been holding her back.
Not to long after that we reached the Spanish/French border, denoted by one of those cow grates dug into the ground and not much else. I wouldn’t have known unless Rachel pointed it out.
For those who read last years blog (www.allroadsleadhometheblog.com), walking with Rachel and Penny was so easy and fun, (part of the reason is cause they laughed at my jokes and at least seemed interested) and it reminded me of the two Portland girls I shared part of my journey with last year (day two). Why is it that, for some reasons, we humans simply “click” only sometimes. I mean were the same species. Then again, Rachel and Penny might have just been too polite to tell me to fuck off. They are Canadian after all.
Once I reached Roncesvalles, I finally realized the real reason for returning to the Camino. Yes, I knew part of it was to meet a few new people, fill in a few gaps, and provide more content for the book. But, as I approached the beautiful old stone monastery dating back to the 1200’s I realized I came back for one other reason: To retrace some of my steps and look at things from a new perspective- one where I’ve began to learn to accept myself, and to love myself just a little bit more.
*all of my awesome photos couldn’t be included due to the excruciatingly slow wife at this 1000 year old monastery. Go figure…
For those not in attendance last year, here’s a brief synopsis of the blog/book (titled “All Roads Lead Home- Life, Love, and Forgiveness on the Camino de Santiago”):
“When 55 year old husband and father Mark West comes to terms with his wife’s emotional abuse, his estranged teenage daughters hatred of him, and his break up with Amanda- the woman who saved his life, he books a flight to Europe and sets out to walk across Spain on the Camino de Santiago in an attempt to rediscover the man he used to be, get Amanda back, and make sense of the beautiful, fractured world we live in. The only things standing in his way are not knowing whether or not he can physically walk 472 miles across Spain, and the ghosts of the past that haunt him every step of the way. A shortened version of the blog can be read at www.allroadsleadhometheblog.com.”
To further elaborate, the first post continued (after the jerking off part) “…for now, I’m standing at the edge of uncertainty, staring at the abyss and a 482-mile walk across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. What brought me here? I guess it’s the same things that brought me to my knees back home in Southern California: the dissolution of a 23-year marriage that taught me how to hate. The teetering of my first real relationship after being separated that taught me how to love again, and a gnawing feeling that after more than half a century on this earth I was still lost.
I was hoping that a million steps down a path through Spain in the middle of summer to find some saint buried in a church in Santiago would help me lose sight of the things I needed to rid myself of. I would leave those things behind with each boot print I made in the dirt. And hopefully, I would see the path that lies in front of me more clearly, and figure out how to walk it with the time I have left before I shuffle off this mortal coil.”
My initial intent with writing the blog was to make it about more than just my walking the Camino- so I decided to intertwine two significant journeys I’ve undertaken over the past few years that contributed to me walking the Camino, with the journey at hand: putting one foot in front of the other and walking 482 miles across Spain.
The other two journeys are the last 10 years of my life which “taught me how to hate”, and included emotional abuse, estrangement from my daughter, divorce, loneliness, thoughts of suicide, insecurity, self-esteem and doubt; and the year leading up to walking the Camino that “taught me how to love again” and included therapy, friendship, a few crazy psychic experiences, and my relationship with a beautiful, recently divorced mother of 4 who was dealing with her own shit as well, who “saved my life”, or at least forced me to stand back and reexamine my it.
It was supposed to be well organized, the characters were supposed to be introduced, and there was to be an arc in each thread that would become apparent as time went by. But time ran out for me. I even spent the better part of two days in Madrid trying to get my shit together, but, well…once again, life got in the way. So it ended up being a daily journal of my walk (which included descriptions of the terrain, observations and conversation with the people I met, and beautiful photographs) with random experiences from my life that, as mentioned earlier, resulted in me booking a flight to Spain and walk the Camino.
In preparation I went through my journals and pulled out significant events and thoughts from the 10 years prior to my separation 3 years ago, mainly concerning my marriage, my daughter, and the eventual crumbling of my marriage. I reviewed my emotional state and subsequent growth with my therapist over the last 3 years. In addition, I went back to my journal to review the last year of my life, notes to my therapist, and reflections on my state of mind, and my relationship with Amanda.
As I walked the Camino, I think I came to understand at least part of what I think happened in our marriage, something about Janice, and human nature in general. I don’t think Janice intentionally abused me. She, as we all do, was just doing what she thought she had to do to get what she needed and what she thought she deserved, by using the means she had been taught by others, specifically (possibly-I don’t know for a fact) an emotionally abusive father. Since I was not providing what she needed, she simply turned to the tools she’d been given to get what she wanted. Unfortunately, those tools became weapons as they zeroed in on the soft underbelly of my soul and took advantage of weaknesses in myself that even I didn’t know were there.
As far as the year leading up to my walking the Camino goes, and my relationship with Amanda, let’s just say that I fell in love with her and she gave me something I had been missing, restored my faith in having a relationship again, helped guide me, and just made life so fucking fun again. It would take more than a paragraph to say what I really feel. To limit it to a few words, I’ll just say this: thank you Amanda.
We all have stories to tell. I’m just trying to do the best I can in telling mine. I’m not trying to hurt anybody, not trying to make any points, no hidden agenda. I’m just throwing my heart out there. I hope you’re at least entertained as you follow me stumbling through life, and down the Camino again. I am truly grateful to those who are reading and hope you may have the opportunity to find your own Camino and uncover some answers to questions in your life, like the ones I’ve been finding since life threw me a curve ball, and I ended up in Spain wondering how in the hell I got there.
“They say every man needs protection
They say that every man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Somewhere so high above this wall
I see my light come shinin’
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released” -Bob Dylan