Walking the Camino: On broken hearts, ghosts and a nude man on a hot day

June 9, 2014 in Europe, Spain


The Camino is littered with broken hearts.

Some so raw that they’re carried in blood soaked hands, by pilgrims whose eyes are lakes of sorrow. Some, bandaged with great care and still seeping, tucked gently back into chests that are little more than cavernous black holes. Some, seared tough, held in by bands of iron, continuing to beat as if by sheer will. Others turned to stone, carried like a heavy weight around a neck until finally laid down in one of the many piles along The Way; piles thousands of years deep in broken hearts.

I saw a man a few days ago, literally, carrying a bag of rocks. A plastic grocery store type bag with perhaps twenty stones as big as a fist. The bag was breaking and occasionally a stone slipped out. He stopped and picked it up, put it back in, shifted the weight away from the tear and kept walking.

I walked with a man yesterday who put his sunglasses on so that no one would see the tears.

“I walk for my sins, for my very many sins… I must expiate,” says an Italian pilgrim with an over stuffed pack. He has said this to me several times this week as he suffers externally for something too heavy that he carries inside. He never expounds. I never ask. We simply walk.

There’s the woman walking through whether or not she can remain married. She fears the ripple effect of dropping her stone into the pond and all of the effects of that wave.

There’s the young German girl walking hoping to find love, tired of walking alone.

Hearts are treated like blisters on feet each evening:

Lanced, drained, washed lovingly, slathered with something healing, be it ointment or Spanish beer, discussed over dinner, wounds compared, pain levels commiserated with, commonalities laughed, or cried over. Stories are told to abject strangers, people one would never bare a soul to in any other place, but here… here it seems natural. It is why we’ve all come, to walk, to laugh, to suffer, to mend hearts… alone… together.



Life has been reduced to following a yellow arrow.

It occurred to me yesterday, as I crossed a shadeless plane under the scorching eye of the Spanish sun, that on this trail I am, at once, forgetting how to live, and remembering.

There is nothing to do but walk. I wake. I walk. Beds appear at the end of the day. Food appears, like magic, on the way. Friends lock step when you want them too, and evaporate when you don’t.

Most days I am not walking to Santiago. I am not on a grand quest across Spain, I am simply walking to the next yellow arrow, and then the next, and the next after that. My thoughts move at a similar pace. It is impossible to imagine the big picture, instead I think about only this one thing at a time, then the next. Instead of ignoring the pain, it’s a constant companion, with every single step, internal or external, it doesn’t matter, everyone is carrying something. I walk. He walks. She walks. We walk together. We walk alone. Ultrea. Keep going. We walk.


The path is lined with ghosts.

They stand, shoulder to shoulder, several rows deep, along the entire journey. Every step. Until yesterday, they were quiet.

I saw them there, watching me as I passed. Sometimes one would raise a finger in greeting, but mostly they just looked at me, grey eyes, out of grey faces, shadows of former selves, some in long robes from a thousand years ago, carrying staffs and gourds; some in Keen hiking boots with worn packs and messy hair. Everyone who has walked this path has left a ghost, a piece of their souls, it is what keeps those of us in the temporal moving forward, I think.

Yesterday I walked completely alone for most of the day. Jade stopped in Navarette for the day, wanting to sleep, think, and do some laundry. I pushed on, not sure how far I would get. For the first time I put in my earphones, swam in the music and just walked, and walked, and walked.

A car approached me at one point and hearing it come up behind I doffed my wide brimmed sun hat and bowed low as he passed, giving my best, “Passe adelante!” Tromping through the vineyard, sweat dripping from my eyebrows and elbows, trudged downhill and around the corner to the right, only to find the car pulled up under a shade tree and the driver out of the car; he whistled lightly to be sure I noticed him.

There he stood: completely nude, and oiling himself with something. He gave me the international double eyebrow wobble that translates, “Hey, Baby!” and winked. And then, we laughed, this crazy man and I, under the hot sun, in a sea of grapevines, me covered in dust, carrying my pack and my stones, him, hands on his hips, feeling like the king of the world. He dove for his car when I reached for my camera, at which point I’m fairly certain I heard the ghosts laughing too.

Several times I turned my head, sure I heard footsteps behind me as the afternoon wore on and my feet ached and my sunburn deepened. Each time there was no one, I was completely alone. I came to understand that it was the ghosts, tossing little rocks after me, or shifting in their places as I passed.

No one walks this path alone. We all walk with one another and with the ghosts, the ones we bring with us and the ones who are already here. We walk with friends, lovers, therapists, doctors, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, past, present, future, potential. We walk alone, together.