One year ago, at approximately this moment, I woke up thirsty from a too-salty dinner in a room full of strangers. Six of them to be exact. Two boys from Cornwall. A girl from Germany. A couple from someplace Slavic. And one lone Japanese man. The Japanese man, also awake, was sitting straight up in bed, meditating. The boys from Cornwall were snoring. My head throbbing from the thirst, I crept down across the room and down the hall to the bathroom, every step causing the creaky old boards of the alburgue, the pilgrim's hostal, to scream. Under the greenish lights of the antiquated toilette, water dripping from my chin, I looked at my reflection and wondered why in heaven's holy name I was there. It was 4:30 a.m. on August 11, 2003.
It's a question I asked myself often over the next 450 miles and 30 days during which I walked across Spain, over the Pyrhennees, through the Basque country, across the Navarra and Rioha regions, into the meseta and over yet more mountains into Galicia. I still don't know why, why the country and particularly why El Camino de Santiago called to me with such fervor, but it did and I went.
I can construct whys in hindsight, I suppose. Because I needed to do something that I considered daring and romantic. Because I didn't want to leave my 20's without having traveled on my own. Because the Spanish language scared me. Because I needed a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual challenge. Because it would be a good story. Because it would make me feel like a badass. Because I had the vacation time. Because it was there.
And all that is true. But it doesn't satisfy the bigger why.
The what is easier. The what was walking, a lot of walking. Walking and talking and long silences and the ever-present block of rich, dark chocolate, and coffee with fresh cream and two sugars and buttery croissants. The what was countless blisters to be lanced and threaded, and yellow directional arrows, and mass in musty chapels or in secluded gardens or at kitchen tables, and sore knees, and sunburn and vistas that would make (and probably have made) artists cry. The what was wine, and cheese, and garlic, and pasta, and mountains, and desert, and streams, and inexplicable piles of stacked rocks, and singing, bike-riding Italians and trekking, atheistic Germans, and lots of praying for everything from feet to family. The what was great wracking sobs of lonlieness and the fullness of friendship bred in adversity, and jags of confidence tempered with chasms of fear. The what included hard-won afternoon sleeps and fitful nights, and shooting calf pain, and cold showers, and thank-God-for-a-pillow, and the rustling of plastic bags in the pre-light mornings, and the chorus of snores in the dark, and fresh fruit picked from trees. The what involved hearty Australians and generous Spaniards and long distance phone calls and coin-operated email machines, and chickens in churches, and rain, and hand-washed-stiff-from-the-line laundry. The what was mud. The what was cow sh*t, lots of cow sh*t, and cows(!), and cows without fences. The what was speaking Spanish at all, and then speaking Spanish better and better. The what was Mars trailing the Moon, and that first glimpse of ocean and that ridiculously wide sky, and those pristine white clouds and always going up hill. The what was big-ass slugs that reminded me of me in the moment, and selos stamped on a passport, and free lodging, and fresh village-donated vegetables, and digestives with tea, and cooking for twenty people on twenty euros, and crackpot pilgrims, and empathetic hospitaleros, and ice cream so rich it was named after the devil, and. . .and. . . and. . . arriving in a disappointingly commercial Santiago, and yet weeping in the Pilgrim's mass for having come so far and still not knowing why and knowing that knowing no longer mattered.
I think that too often we ask ourselves why and if we don't come up with a satisfactory answer, we don't actually do. And it's the doing that's important. The why just soothes mothers and spouses and bosses and selves with what is perhaps unecessary justification. Maybe the better question is, "why not?"