I woke up in a terrible mood this morning. I packed my bag in a groggy haze and set out in the pre-dawn chill. I crunched along the gravel road in silence until a kind South Korean man I’d met a few days earlier called out to me, “Hello Miss Oregon!” I turned to acknowledge him and he waved, saying, “I recognized you by your behind.” I giggled a little, though I knew what he meant, and then he sped by me with a smile and disappeared out of sight.
My bad mood makes no sense. I had my best night on the Camino the prior evening. I’d checked into the Santa Maria albergue run by five nuns that host a sing-along each night at 5 p.m. I’d been sitting outside in the back yard drinking wine with a Dutch woman and one from Seattle when I heard the voices of the nuns carry through the open window. I’d rushed inside to see what it was all about.
The nuns were sitting on chairs in the front of the room and, between them, two local teenage girls played the guitar and sang with beautiful voices. I sat down on a bench opposite the nuns and together everyone in the room sang Amazing Grace. Then we sang Hallelujah, the Jeff Buckley version, and if there was a dry eye in the room I couldn’t find it.
The experience was incredibly moving. I think that no matter if you believe in a Christian God or in God at all that you cannot sit in a room and sing with twenty other people and not feel that there is something powerful and indefinable in the room with you.
After singing with the nuns I was floating. So I decided to take a walk around town to process the experience. The sun was setting and I walked up the stone streets to a church on a hill that I hoped would have a view. There was no one around except for an old couple propped up on a bench with their dog. I asked if I could take their photo.
We got to talking and I told them I’d come up to watch the sunset. They insisted that there was a better place to view it and they stood to walk me there. They were talking a million miles a minute and I understood only a fraction of what they said. But the old woman wrapped her arm through mine to steady herself down the stairs and I felt as though I was in the company of people I’d known forever.
We walked at a snails pace and Luna, the dog, ran in front of us. As promised they brought me to an overlook. We arrived just in time to see the final bits of color leak from the sky. The river was flowing far below. They insisted that I walk down to see it and I agreed and they bid me farewell with a pat on the arm and called, “Buen Camino!” as I walked away.
I walked to the river, and past it, in the twilight. I thought about Hugh’s crisis of faith, if you will. Earlier, he’d asked me if I was a Catholic and I’d said no.
“So you don’t believe in any of this St. James bullshit either?” he asked.
I shook my head no.
“I can see how this would be meaningful for the believers,” Hugh had said, “But I just don’t see what it means to me.”
I’m thinking of this as I walk the empty streets of Carrion. And it occurs to me that the Camino isn’t about finding God at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, but in ourselves and in each other. That maybe it’s about seeing God in the singing nuns and the old couple that walked me to the sunset and the pilgrims that snore next to me at night. Perhaps the challenge, and the point, is to see God not as separate from us but as us.
Anyway, all of this is to say that I’d had a very moving evening and I’d been thinking lots of big thoughts about big things and then for no reason at all I woke up in the morning in the most terrible mood.
There was a long, 17 km (10.5 mile) stretch of flat Roman road to walk first thing in the morning. It was boring and there was no place to stop for coffee. As tends to happen when I am grumpy, my thoughts spiraled down into a rabbit hole of negativity. It is always the same negative thing I think, because it is the thing I fear most of all. I think: You’ll have to go back. You’ll have to get a normal job again. You can’t make it as a writer. It’s just too hard.
I was sick of listening to that voice tell me that what I want is impossible, so I took out my iPod as a distraction. But when I put the earbuds in my ear a song was already playing. It was Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley, the same song that I’d sung with the nuns the night before.
I stopped in my tracks. It seemed kind of like a sign. I thought back to the parting message from the nuns last night, how they’d wished for us to feel God close to us during our journey. I thought, maybe it’s a message? But then I thought, maybe it means nothing? Finally I thought, maybe it only means something if I listen.
So this is the part in the story where I tell you that, for no reason whatsoever, about an hour after Hallelujah started playing in my ear I began projectile vomiting all over everything. I practically crawled my way into the first town I could find and I collapsed into bed at 2 p.m. and rose only once, around 4, to vomit again.
On day 16 I walked 14.5 miles (23.3 km), even with the vomiting. My guidebook tells me that I am halfway to Santiago.
After my vomiting episode yesterday I wasn’t sure what I could manage today. I awoke feeling weak and tired but decidedly better than yesterday. I moved slowly and stopped in the first town I saw to see if I could keep food down. I could, but my stomach wasn’t happy about it.
So I set my sights on the first big town on the map, Sahagun (population 2,820), and that is where I am now. I’ve rented a private room and am laying in bed recovering. I really hope I feel back to normal tomorrow.
All of my Camino friends are ahead of me now so when I set back out on the trail it will be with a whole new set of faces.
Today I walked 10 miles (16.1 km).