Monday, June 27, 2011

The Roman Road

Pete stumbled along in the high afternoon sun. The meseta was flat and expanisve with fields of tilled, chunky brown clay. He had already been walking for six hours. His feet felt flatened from his own weight, his toes nearly numb, spasming from the strain of each stride. Pete's legs felt lost and uncontrolable, ocassionaly stubbing the tip of his boot on a rock or dragging a heel. It was as though his legs had the willingness of a child on an endless day of errands.

He was on the old Roman route to Mansilla, the path a brick red color with cobbled chunks of stone. He stopped for a moment looking behind and then ahead. It was straight and flat as the far as the eye could see in either direction. With the crunching of his own steps silenced, Pete could hear the buzzing of a million insects in this quiet space of pause, bees pollinating the flowers that grew on the fringe of the trail between the fields. The barn swallows flew above, their flapping wings discerniable like someone waving a thin branch quickly through the air.

Pete unclipped the waiststrap from his bag and pulled down the front of his sweatpants and underwear, urinating on the edge of the trail. He shook off and tucked himself back in releasing an extra squirt in his underpants as the relief of peeing left his body more relaxed. "Oh, goddamnit..." he muttered to himself accepting this common occurance, which first developed when trying to urinate in empty mountain dew bottles while driving the combine. "Oh well, I got to do laundry today anyway."

Amanda stood off to the side of the trail, monitoring Pete from at least five kilometers back. She couldn't tell if he was moving but figured she was far enough back that she would never catch him. Amanda had been looking forward to this alternative leg of the trip and felt her heart race when Pete said he was going to walk this route too. The Roman road was supposed to be the most desolate stretch and seven hours of Pete talking was more than she could handle.

That morning in the hostel, Amanda laid in bed awake with her eyes closed waiting for everyone to leave, including Pete, until the hospitalero came to wake her. He was terrified as he stood in front of the pale girl covered in tatoos, remembering the old woman from last year, Betty O'connell, and irish lady who died quietly in her sleep. Amanda heard his footsteps as he approached and opened her eyes as she sensed him standing there in front of her. The man jumped, and sheepishly smiled saying "you must go now..." in a heavy spanish accent.

Pete looked at his hands, holding them in front of his body like he was feeling a warm fire. He tried opening them widely but his fingers were so swollen he could only get his hands close to flat. He took out his crinkled, plastic water bottle, the same one he had been refilling for three weeks since he dumped out the carbonated water that it came with. "Smells like a damn swimming pool in here." he said as uncapped it and held his nose to the mouth of the bottle. Pete sucked down the treated water he collected from the hostel sink and flatened the bottle before capping it close and shoving into the side pouch of his bag. The faint sound of a tractor engine hummed in the background. Pete reclipped his waist strap and continued walking, his feet at odds with the gravel crunching with each step, drowning out of the loud silence of nowhere.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Amanda walked into the unisex bathroom to brush her teeth. A strange concept, she thought, but very efficient; just stalls of toilets and showers and a long stretch of sinks dropped into a counter, the surface of which was inevitably wet making it a terrible place to set a bathroom bag.
"Honey do you have the toothpaste?"
"No you have it. I´m carrying the sunblock."
"Oh right. That´s so funny because last year I had the toothpaste and you were carrying the sunblock."
"Oh my god, how did we switch this time? You´ve always carried the sunblock."
"I know, it´s because you like the Nivea and I like the Aveeno and I read that article that the Nivea is cancer causing, and you were like `okay get the aveeno, honey´. So, I was the one who bought it and I packed it in my bathroom bag before we left."
Ugh gross, Amanda said to herself as she unintentionally listened to the canadian couple. They were on their seventh camino and seemed to make a project out of comparing and contrasting previous trips. Amanda hated them, not only because they each draped minature canadian flags from their backpacks in a perverted form of patriotism (that screamed I´m english speaking but NOT american), but mainly because they both took photos, together. Meg and Ted had matching point and shoot Canon Elphs, his black hers pink, and they would stand side by side taking photos of the same thing.
"Oh my!" Meg said taking notice of Amanda´s shoulders "Are those angel wings?"
"No they´re bird wings, a pair of Crow´s wings."
"Honey, look here, look at her Crow wings. Ted got a tatoo once, he had the bonehead idea of getting his initials on his chest, but luckily it´s the size of a Johnson´s and Johnson´s band-aid so I just cover it up when we´re at a pool or something."
"mmm, I see." Amanda said with a mouthful of toothpaste looking into the mirror.
The canadian couple turned their attention to themselves once again, attending to their evening rituals of eye care, mouth care, and foot care. Meg had dark hair and fair skin that burned easily, which was in lock step with Ted´s red hair and freckly complexion. They coated themselves in sunblock each day, and with the combination of sweat and summer sun took on a pickled look as the sunblock never quite assimilated into their skin as lotion does but instead remained a white haze of topological cream.
"Ted remember to wear your mouthguard tonight. I think I heard you grinding again last night."
Pete docked himself at the far end of the sinks with his freezer-size ziplock bag of toiletries, the inside corners filled with milky liquid. He took a gulp of water from straight from the tap and stood upright again, tilted his head back and gurgled loudly. Meg and Ted ceased their fierce toothbrushing for a moment and looked at eachother with wide eyes.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Lawn and So On

Pete sat outside in the evening sun on a plastic lawn chair. The wind blew cool gust as the sun drew low in the sky. Amanda carried a chair over to Pete and sat close enough to acknowledge his presence but far enough away that she was without commitment.
"I feel like I´m in the ocean!" Pete yelled across the lawn.
"What?" Amanda asked.
"I said I feel like I´m in the ocean, the wind; it´s kind of like the water. It´s like..have you ever just laid there on the beach and let the waves run up to you?"
"I don´t think so."
"I feel as though I´m in the perfect temperature right now, like the kids pool at the YMCA my parents used to drive me to. It was about 45 minutes away from our farm and I´d beg ém to take me, and I´d put on my swim trunks in the locker room, real fast you know, ´cause I didn´t want nobody lookin´at my little pecker, and I´d walk out to that pool, it smelled all warm and chlorine-like, and I´d walk into the kids pool real slow without flinchin´´cause I didn´t need to, it was the perfect temperature and I´d let it swallow me up."
"Wow, that´s beautiful"
"Yeah? Really?" Pete asked embarrasingly.
"Yeah, you know today on the walk when the wind began to pick up I thought about a similar thing, but it was the clouds. When the sun was on my I would get too warm and then a cloud would blow across the sky. I could see them coming just by looking at the groud; it was like someone was painting the landscape one shade gray, and it would swallow me up just like you were saying."
"Yeah, now that´s what I´m talking ´bout, just a real perfect temperature. The kind that tells you you´re on vacation!"
"Yeah vacation in Florida..."
"In the middle of winter, right?"
"...And you walk out of your hotel room at night and the air is soft and salty, as light as a kiss."
"Yep." Pete sighed and sank deeper into the lawn chair. "Makes you glad to be alive, you know?"
"Yeah, I know."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Amanda handed her pilgrim´s passport to the hospitalero and watched her stamp collection grow by one. Another ugly one with a shell, she thought, why does everyone feel the need to incorporate the shell into the design? Amanda felt sweaty and exhausted, more tired now that she stopped moving. She took off her boots and put them on the rack with all the others. She tied all four lace ends together because she heard stories of people taking the wrong boots in the morning. Amanda put on her flip flops and took slow, careful steps up the crooked staircase and found a bed.

After a luke-warm shower Amanda sat in the common area downstairs writing in her journal. She wrote in it everyday, motivated by the anxiety of somehow forgetting the trip if it didn´t end up on paper. Across from her was an older man with white hair and a short, white beard. He was also writing in a journal, which was accompanied by several maps, an open guidebook, and his pilgrim credencials. "Where are you from?" He interupted. Amanda was surprised and a little bothered by the fact that he knew she spoke english.
"New York." she said
"Oh, New York? I´m from Canada. My name is Hance"
"Okay" Amanda said like she had agreed to something.
"I started in Le Puy, France. That´s 800K back."
"Wow, really?" Amanda said, studying Hance, who she thought would look a lot like santa clause if he continued growing his beard. His eyes were piercing blue and his skin was pinkish-red the way old people get.
"Yah, see I´m 66 years old and retired. I tell people it´s the best job I ever had."
"What did you do before?"
"I was a chemical engineer, but I always say I was an incompetent one." Hance laughed at himself. "Yah, I got into managment early on and stayed there ever since, made a lot of money too." he said trailing off. "Yep, I did the Camino back in 2008 and wanted to try the French route because it´s quieter."
"Mmm, that sounds nice."
"Yah, see my wife let´s me have my camino as long as I take her somewhere. So after I get to Santiago we´re going on a 4 week cruise to Austrailia. I send her my journal every week. I just tear out the pages, and send the SD card in my camera. I´ve got about eight of these little cards 2Gb cards. Yah, then she compiles everything on the internet."
"That´s nice of her."
"Yah, I tell her she´s my favorite wife." Hance said, laughing at himself again "We´ve been married 39 years, and she says she doesn´t want to have to train anyone again." Hance said smiling.
Amanda listened to Hance as he talked nearly non-stop, repeating the same lines he has told dozens of other pilgrims. Hance seemed like a competitive retiree, Amanda thought. The same grit that carried him through management all those years seemed to radiate from his personality.
"Well, I´ve been doing all the talking here." Hance said "Why are you doing the camino?"
"Geez, that´s a tough question." Amanda said really not knowing the answer. She sat there silently for a moment. "This may sound strange to you, but I want to get as close to nothing as possible." Hance looked at her and nodded, but Amanda sensed a derailment, and added "I read this thing that talked about walking as one of the few activities that requires almost no thinking."

Amanda went upstairs and collected her dirty clothes to wash in the sink outside. She lathered her wool shirt in shampoo and rubbed it over the ribs of the laundry sink. The odor of her shirt reminded her of a wet dog. It must be the wool, she thought, it smelled like animals not human. Pete took the sink next to her and turned on the faucet, which sprayed everywhere from the excessive pressure. "Whoa, sorry about that." Pete filled a plastic tub in the sink with water and began to knead his clothes like bread dough. "I took this bar of soap from the hotel I stayed in." Pete said offering it to Amanda.
"No thanks, I´ve got my own. Just my shampoo."
"Does it work good?"
"It´s okay. I like that my clothes smell like clean hair."
"Yeah that´s good. Guess mine are going to smell like hands."
"Clean hands." Amanda added.
"Yeah, anything better than what they smellin´ like now. ´Course when it´s your own smell it´s not as bad as other peoples. I guess farts are thay way too, if you don´t mind me saying."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pete and Amanda

Amanda emerged from the bushes to find Pete standing on the trail just 20 yards ahead. He stood there swaying a bit, shifting his weight from one leg to the next and stared down the trail. Amanda watched him for a moment feeling trapped, and then started walking again.

She and Pete walked together for the rest of the day, the way two people start talking on a airplane flight and one of them never stops. Amanda tried several times to find an exit strategy -bathroom breaks, a rock in the shoe, cafe con leches, but Pete persisted in the innocent way a child vies for adult attention. Pete just needed someone to talk to that could validate his stories by saying, yeah, uh huh, mmmm, and I see. Amanda did that, the way she was trained to do.

Amanda and Pete checked into the municipal albergue in Santo Domingo. Amanda took off her pack and sat at chair in front of the hospitalero. She felt still and euphoric sitting down for the first time in hours giving her legs a rest.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Amanda awoke to the rolling and rustling of sleeping bags and zippers accelerating close. Icy-white headlamps flickered throughout the long hall of bunks and people whispered in unfamiliar languages. Amanda slowly climbed down from her bunk and met sharp pains as her feet touched the ground. She stood there in the dark wearing only a shirt and underwear. In this collision of shared personal space with complete strangers she felt at home, like when it used to be okay to see her parents naked. Amanda dressed for a cool morning, brushed her teeth, packed her bag, and walked out into the dim morning. Nineteen miles seemed like a far away land but all she could really focus on was the cafe con leche waiting for her three miles ahead.

Amanda walked quickly, taking large strides and feeling the strain on her hamstrings. She watched the textured ground in front of her pass like a conveyor belt, and thought for a moment, that she wasn´t really thinking about anything. It was 6:30a, much earlier than she would ever get up back home, usually that was the cut-off time of when she would go to bed -as the black night turned blue, then a pale grey, and before the morning became day, avoiding the actual all-nighter that made two days into one. If she could fall asleep before the sun came up then it would just be a late start the next day.

Amanda rounded a corner that led to a long straight away below, and in the pale of the morning could see at least a dozen pilgrims in the distance. They looked motionless against the scale of the landscape. Beyond them was the a town; just a clump of reddish brown buildings punctured by a tall church in the center. Amanda heard the footsteps of another pilgrim from behind, crunching through the loose gravel. She waited to say anything until the pilgrim was at her side. In her periphial vision she saw shinny black boots and a backpack full of straps and pockets.
"Oh-lah! Bono Dee-hass"
"Hola, Buen Camino" Amanda said rhythmically, already out of habit. The other pilgrim didn´t pass but kept pace with Amanda. She turned and looked at the man. He was tall with the kind of belly men develop in their 40´s. He wore sweatpants tucked into black army boots, a tan carhart jacket, and tatered cowboy hat. His backpack was the kind you´d find at garage sales, with the frame exposed like the kind children are carried in. "You speak english?" He said
"Not really."
"No, I do."
"Oh, thank goodness. I feel like I´ve been in solitary confinement for the past two days. Where are you from?"
"Conneticut, well, New York."
"A goddamn yankee, huh? Well that´s okay, I fall somewheres in between. See, I´m from Iowa, ´bout an hour outside of Des Moines. Name´s Pete. Pete Fletcher. What´s yours?"
"You don´t say, I got a sister named Amanda, youngest of the four. She cut her hair real short and moved off to California so we don´t see her much anymore. I was closest with her ´cause she was kind of like my brother. You know, real good a sports and liked going fishin´with me." Pete quieted thinking about his sister when they were kids. "I wonder what she´s up to these days." Pete said. Amanda said nothing as she continued her pace. She saw a clump of bushes a hundred yards in the distance.
"Sorry, I have to um, go look for a toilet."
"Oh no problem, I´ll just walk slow."
Amanda peeled off the trail and walked into a well worn path into a clearing behind the shrubs. There were little wet clumps of toilet paper scattered around like litter.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Amanda carefully stepped into the shower stall with all of her belongings in hand. Using the lone door hook, she managed to keep all of her clothes safe from the wet surfaces, and never let her bare feet touch the tile as she stood on top of her flip-flops to undress. It was nearly lights out in the hostel and the hot water should be back, she hoped. Amanda felt a comforting joy when the cold water turned warm on her outstretched hand. Earlier in the day she had gotten this far but stood there naked, shivering as the cold water remained cold splatering her with what felt like icicles. She couldn´t bring herself to take a cold shower.

The warmth of the shower was heavenly after a chilly day of clouds and mist. Amanda kept battling the on / off push button control of the shower, which seemed to last only 30 seconds before cutting out. Eventually she held the button in with both hands, leaning towards it with her weight, and resting her head against the wall. At this late in the day the hot water supply was endless like a hotel.

On her bunk, Amanda felt clean and soft, still warm from the shower. She sat on her sleeping bag inspecting her feet, which were tacky from her wet flip-flops. She looked closely at her toes and the arch of her foot with a level of study more devoted than she had ever done before. She carefully grabbed each toe, squeezing it, and turning it slightly as though each one needed undivided attention. She picked at her toenails and cuticles. Her feet looked angry, red in some places on the bottom of her soles -what felt like the beggining of blisters. On the top and the edges of her foot where the skin is soft and fragile were red pockmarks of heat rash from the hellish conditions of living inside a wool sock and boot all day. Amanda took out a bottle of hand lotion and applied some to her feet rubbing it in deeply between her toes and the sole of her foot. Never before was she successful at simulating a foot massage on her own, but her hands felt truly foreign as she kneaded each foot. Chills ran through her spine.

The lights were still on and already she could hear men snoring. She quietly drew the long zipper of her sleeping bag down and unpeeled the top half, slipping inside and zipping herself up. She lay in bed, motionless and straight. The hospitalero turned the lights off and Amanda stared at the ceiling, listening to the white noise of the albergue as the snoring and wheezing crescendoed and harmonized together. Beautifully disgusting, Amanda thought.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pilgrim Meal

Amanda poked at her pasta with a fork, the first course of the pilgrim meal. The little bits of ground meat mixed into the tomato sauce worried her; this was not something she would eat back home but she was hungary in the same way that camping creates a hunger that makes anything taste delicious. She dug in.

Amanda was seated at a large round table with eight others. To her, it was like a staged sampling of white people across the globe, there was the couple from Denmark, the guy from Australia, two older men from france who were elegantly slender and seemingly gay, the loud blonde woman from South Africa, a stout German woman with a crew cut, and young girl from the Netherlands. Amanda was the twenty-something girl from the United States, although she hoped to defy all stereotypes her european company concievably held against her but maybe less so now, she thought, than compared to the Bush years.

The table spoke fluent english to one another, and occasionally the foreign couples would breakout into their native tongues, which seemed sneaky and suspicious to Amanda as though they were violating some de facto law. She only spoke English since her foreign language studies were devoted primarily to Latin as per the direction of her parents who thought it would be advantageous to Amanda´s medical profession. Amanda convinced herself that the English was spoken out of courtesy to the South African woman who seemed more like the kind of American Amanda was expected to be -loud, boisterous, lacking a general self awareness, and certainly mono-lingual. This diposition coupled with a British-sounding accent made South Africans seem intollerable to Amanda.

After the main course of head-less trout and translucent french fries came the dessert, a little plastic cup of chocolate pudding. Amanda liked this; she loved these as a kid, often bartering her chocolate milk from her hot-lunch with the kids who brought packed lunches to school, all of which seemed by default to include pudding snacks. Amanda was a hot-lunch kid because her mother didn´t have time to make a packed lunch and her father calculated that the schools lunch was a cheaper option than buying grocery store junk. So for eleven years, until Amanda got her driver´s license, she ate mostly pizza, tater-tots, vita-pups, and milk in small cartons.

"So where do you come from?" The South African asked Amanda as she had done with half the table already.
"New York, I´m from New York." Amanda said.
"Ooooh..." the woman said delighted. "New York must be wonderful, and you came all the way here for the camino! How lovely!" Amanda nodded without words and looked into her desert cup as she cleaned the walls with her spoon for the last bit of pudding. "And what do you do in New York?" The woman continued.
"Um, right now, nothing. I just graduated from college." Amanda said.
"Oh, where did you go to school?" The woman pressed.
"I went to a small college out East, you probably haven´t heard of it."
"Oh that sounds wonderful, and what did you study there?" She asked.
"Psychology" Amanda said as though she were asking a question.
"Well, I guess you can tell me.." The lady leaned over her plate closer to Amanda "..will all this walking alone make me go crazy?" The woman aksed.
Amanda smiled a conciliatory grin. "Maybe..maybe."
The South African woman turned her attention away from Amanda and addressed the table generally. "I find the trail to be so lonely at times. To think, I walked for an entire day without saying anything more than Buen Camino is preposterous! Thank goodness for these pilgrim meals." The lady said as she broke into a self-induced chuckle. "Let us raise our glasses...and may I remind you to drink up." She elbowed one the gay frenchmen and whispered "The wine is complimentary, you know?" She spoke up again. "Okay, here is to a lovely Camino with friends from all over the world! Salut! Prost! Cheers! What else do you all say?" Everyone swayed their glasses in the air and looked around the table at one another and drank.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Amanda had difficulty picking out her gear for the camino. It was the most money she had spent on clothes in few years, maybe ever. The bright colors and shinny materials were largely what she tended to avoid both in fashion and in personality. She had grown out of her goth phase, but steered towards a black backpack and black merino wool. This was less a relapse into her Marylin Manson days, and more of an attempt to match her black-framed eye glasses, an accessory acquired during college after she took up rolling her own cigarettes and reading Ginsberg and Kerouac. She humbled herself in the imagined situations she played out in her mind against hypothetcial conditions in which a certain article of clothing would be more appropriate for the trip. There was death: what do I want to be wearing when my parents identify me? There was love: what outfit will he remember me wearing when we first met? And there was hate: who do I not want to be. Amanda went with a black merino hiking skirt over the black northface pants that zip off into shorts.

Amanda grew up in Conneticut. Her parents were both professionals, serious ones -a doctor and a lawyer, who lived modestly and with utter discipline; they only purchased used cars with cash in hand, and bought clothes at the mall´s end-of-season sales to wear the following year. Amanda was a rebellious teen in that she wore dark clothing and eye-liner, joined the theater club instead of the volleyball team, and said nothing at the dinner table. For this she had to go to therapy, and soon after her problems really began -first the cutting, then the bottle of asprin, the tatoos, the piercings, the abusive boyfriends, and finally the heroin. Rehab came next which was easy for Amanda because she got to move out of her house and upon completion of the program she was off to college.

Amanda studied psychology at a private liberal arts school, mainly to unpack the last five years of her life -that, and it was a profession her parents wouldn´t object to, thus keeping their involvement to a minimum. She found that she wasn´t alone, most of her classmates were also seeking to read their owner´s manual. Those who were there to really become psychologists were, according to Amanda, of little promise to actually solving anyone´s psychologcial problems because they just didn´t get it. She felt that truly wanting to end your own life is an experience only to be lived rather known through textbooks in the same way that eating a bunch of acid qualifies someone to use the word ´trippy´much more precisely than a bong-hitting frat boy can after watching Inception.

"Help yourself to a shell" the gentleman at the Pilgrim´s office instructed.
"Okay." Amanda said, walking over to a basket full scallop shells. It reminded her of something that would be on display in a bathroom after a suburban family´s trip to florida. She took a pink-ish colored shell, and with the provided string and pre-drilled hole tied it to her black backpack.

After the first climb Amanda began to doubt if she could really do this. It was only 2k into the 800k walk and it felt punishing. I could die doing this, she thought to herself, and that would be a good way to die, better than eating that stupid bottle of asprin, god that was such a typical cry for help.

"Buen Camino" a passing pilgrim said to her.
"Buen Camino" Amanda replied, finding comfort in the simplicity of the exchange. Amanda was walking, for no reason, and saying things like ´Buen Camino´for no reason either. And this felt good.