Over half a dozen summers during the first decade of the new millenium, I walked the main Camino de Santiago, known as the Camino Frances, in portions lasting around a week each, as my time and energy permitted. It was trekking Chaucer-style, which is to say, characterized by falling in with fellow pilgrims and listening to their tales of what had befallen them along the holy way, or of what had happened before that to bring them thither. Usually, uninterested in reciprocating with dull details from my mundane life, I’d assume the identity of someone I had known in the past, or a memorable character from a novel I had read, and would entertain myself and my interlocutor by recycling their stories, embellishing these with spontaneous speculations built upon how I thought that person, actual or fictive, would comport themselves in some new set of circumstances.
I liked to think of the real people I walked and talked with, or pretended to be, as contemporary equivalents of the archetypes in ‘The Canterbury Tales’. A handful who stand out to me now, so many years later, are these: the perky blonde ex pro mountain biker from California, now hunting for a husband, who’d come off whilst whizzing down a steep, rocky hill, and lain for months in a coma from which it was expected by the doctors in charge of her that she was never going to rise. When suddenly she had, she tried to get out of bed only to discover that she no longer knew how to walk or talk. She’d had to relearn over several years before going on her trip. Or the fading Asturian Don Juan about my own age, who walked up and down the same small section of the route close to his home every summer, having figured out a decade or so since that the sense of freedom in being on the road made women far more likely to take the plunge with him. Or the guitar toting, folk song singing nun from San Salvador who was seeking to bring to God those, like the two described above, not yet on the Camino for good Catholic reasons. Or a set of Tweedle-Dee and Dum like Belgian twins, seeking to escape their overweening mother and shed some pounds, yet stopping for tapas and beer, as well as to text her their progress, at every passing hamlet.
This walk was to be different from those. It was intended instead to be the kind of long distance journey on foot first popularized by Wordsworth in ‘The Prelude’ and turned into a verse bestseller by Byron in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, in which, to quote the latter work, “There is a pleasure in the pathless wood (and) There is a rapture on the lonely shore.” As the website of the Confraternity of St. James bluntly put it, “the Camino Portugues of the Via de Plata is an extremely solitary route, with few pilgrims and a rough terrain that is only sparsely inhabited...In the province of Zamora, and in the section that runs through Portugal, pilgrims will not encounter villages with facilities of any kind all day long, nor will they be certain to find either pilgrim hostels or private accommodation in which to spend the night.” The Portuguese stretch, in particular, runs through the province of Tras os Montes, one of most depopulated areas in Europe. For the first week, until I joined the main route, I never met another walker, only people in villages, mainly old, who either solely spoke Portuguese or, if they knew Spanish, couldn’t make head or tails of my foreign accent anymore than I could their Portugese one. I learned though that many spoke French since-- as a lone black-clad, broken English-speaking widow who refilled my water bottle from an antique hand pump told me-- in Salazar’s day, almost all the young people would leave to find work in Paris, of whom precious few had ever come back.
Journeys on foot like these have much in common with writing. The overall distance to be covered is the length of the piece. The stages to be undertaken each day are the chapters. On routes like the Iberian Caminos, where there are towns and villages along the way, the stretches between these demarcate the events narrated, or the ideas developed. They are the sequences of paragraphs, each of which breaks down into uphill or downhill, straight or curved, shaded or open segments, characterized by whichever sights and sounds appear before the solitary walker. Those are the strings of sentences, while the individual steps taken are the words that comprise these. The first three days of my walk, from the Baroque Castilian city of Zamora to Braganza, regional capital of the Portuguese province of Tras Os Montes, were given over to getting the elements of the composition into place, or rather getting myself into place among the elements. The going was quick and easy and the prospects standard rustic Iberian. Fields laid out on rolling hills, punctuated by villages clustered around white stuccoed stone churches. The subtle events, if one could call them that, were made to match, such as when, just over the Portugese-Spanish border, near the hamlet of Quintinilha, I gave up the remains of the packet of stoned wheat thins I was keeping in reserve to a coterie of stripe-haunched jennet donkeys and their springing plush-coated foals.
It was passing slowly, during three days and two nights, along the mountainous edge of the Parque Natural de Montesinho, the most isolated part of Portugal, that the journey came into its own. Herewith a couple of illustrative examples unedited from notes scribbled in pencil: “In a pine grove looking down on Medieval town of Vinhais at dusk in light rain. Strung up the camo-fly between three pines from around bases of which gathered up a heap of shed needles upon which to bed down. Not a sound but pine boughs soughing in wind and hiss of my small brass stove, safe on a flat rock...Or the following day in sunnier weather...No sign of alleged bridge over Rio Rabacal. Bushwhacking along bank looking for place to ford. At last, a broad, shallow stretch of pebbled pools, broken up by broad, smooth, pancake rocks. Off with boots and crossed, stinking socks still on to rinse them. Water bracing, in spite of afternoon heat. Lay pack down on widest stone and waded in again, still in clothes to wash them out. Swam small circles in chilly, sparkling clearness. Off now with tee-shirt, shorts, underwear and socks to scrub in gritty sand rinsed off by current. Clambered out shivering and spread clothes and self out on warm rocks to dry.”
Back over the border to Spain, on a crag outside the town of Soutochao, not fifty meters away, a pair of ravens, their nest a great wreath of sticks. They have a fledgling, still ungainly with patches of grey plumage, unlike its polished onyx parents. Looks like they are trying to teach the young one to forage, making a show of it, ostentatiously plucking up twigs, or repeatedly flying to a nearby blackthorn to pick sloes. Their offspring wants none of it, still clamoring to be fed. Up it flies with one sloe after another, circles and bombs the parents with their gift. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child.” Ravens are so clever that their children must play. Yes, this young raven is wanting to play. More curious still, the bird family have seen me, know I’m here watching from a distance. Are they so unused to people in this distant spot that they do not know to care? Or could it be the opposite? That all the humans they’ve encountered out here have posed no threat so they consider themselves safe? It is the new Paradox of the Ravens. Much better than the logicians’ inane truism that, if we conclude by observing them that all ravens are black, then conversely it must also be the case that every instance of a non-black, non-raven counts as evidence for the same conclusion. Some ravens, like the ones in the Tower of London, can talk. Surely, if a raven learned enough language to say so, it would tell the people studying it that anyone who considered a green leaf or a red berry to count as evidence for its black raveness must be an unsurpassable idiot.
Later, stopping for my usual lunch of bread and cheese in an abandoned half overgrown chestnut orchard, I looked down and saw a stag beetle, the first real live stag beetle I’d ever seen, waving its inch long antlers at me in surprised greeting. I knelt to take a closer look and realized that I was, in fact, being issued a challenge, a ‘Have-at-You’, as when-- to make a mock-epic simile-- some brazen crab at the seaside, instead of running sidelong away from the giant that is you, firmly stands its ground brandishing a calcareous claw at your toes. Not wanting to let tens of millions of years of anatomical and instinctual evolution (the beetle’s, not mine) go to waste, I held out a warm cheese rind slit with my pocket knife and bent into a Y-shape to lock antlers in combat. As in thumb wrestling with a small child, I had every intention of letting the stag beetle win, but in rearing up to smite the rind, the ungainly fellow immediately flipped himself onto his carapace in the dust in fabulous illustration of our own aggression working against us. Having righted him and moved him to the other side of me, he appeared to have learnt his lesson and went beetling on his way.
Since my encounters with other people beyond exchanging greetings or asking the way were so rare, any conversation that went further than this took on, as it will when one is leading a solitary existence, a significance that it might never otherwise have had. Such was my meeting with the Trappist at the conclusion of my journey on the grounds of the Real Monasterio de Oseira, set in the hills outside the Galician town of Cea, which is famous all over Spain for its excellent barley bread, much of the grain for which used to be grown on land farmed by the Cistercians of Oseira and their thousands of well cared for peasant tenants. For miles before I reached Oseira the footpaths on which I was walking, which were laid down in the High Middle Ages, were paved with stones like split cannon balls. Likewise, the abandoned fields all around me, most now wholly overgrown with already ancient scrub oak, were divided by beautifully constructed stone walls into rectangular burgage plots perfectly suited to working a field in a family-sized group without mechanized tools.
Walking through this long abandoned farmland, slowly returning to wilderness, allowed me, when I finally reached it, to see the huge monastic complex looming before me for what it once had been, namely the daunting HQ, outwardly austere yet inwardly splendid, of a huge and powerful agricultural corporation. Some Spaniards refer to Oseira as the Escorial of the North. I found myself in disagreement. For all its ornateness, the Escorial, a great grey, grim fastness in the mountains northwest of Madrid, plainly displays its intention. King Phillip the Second, of Armada fame, constructed it to serve as the military command centre for the Counter-Reformation, including the Spanish Inquisition, from which he planned to extirpate heresy-- ergo Protestantism-- from Europe. Oseira, had none of the Escorial’s aspiringly genocidal ambience. The Cistercians who had built it had been a friendly religious corporation, a kind of forerunner to the Quaker chocolate coated socialized capitalism of Josiah Rowntree in England or Milton Hershey in America. Oseira’s managerial monks had not only directed the activities of their multi-thousand strong workforce, but had also seen to it that their employees had decent housing, roads and food by the standards of the age.
In the main building, I found an open door and went up a worn flight of stone steps and down a corridor of forsaken monks’ cells, empty but for broken furniture or mildewed piles of papers tied with twine on floors layered in thick, ashen dust. I went back down a similar flight of stairs at the other end of the corridor and out into a courtyard full of dead, dry, uncut grass and gnarled, senescent pear and apple trees where, to my inordinate surprise an apparently genuine Trappist monk— as novel a sight for me as a stag beetle-- was seated on a stone bench in the opposite corner. It is a misconception that Trappists observe a vow of total silence. They aim only to keep talk to a minimum, eschewing superfluous or frivolous chatter. I walked over to talk with him, and once he’d had a chance to put to me the formulaic question set addressed to pilgrims on the Camino, and I had duly answered in broken Spanish, I asked how many monks were still living at Oseira. He told me there were only a score of them now, mostly older brothers like himself. I inquired as to how many monks there were in Oseira’s glory days and he answered that there had been over a thousand.
When I wondered, as it was getting on for evening, whether the monastery still had a refugio where pilgrims might stay the night, the old Trappist walked me to a vast, almost windowless stone building, empty except for a couple of dozen steel bunk beds, which looked, spread out in that voluminous space, as if they were meant for dolls. While I stood there thinking about how much I didn’t wish to spend the night alone in such a place, the monk volunteered that this building had originally been built as a storehouse for grain and produce in the sixteenth century when the monastery had been remodeled after a fire, and that in those days, the building had been so tightly sealed that it had been as dry as the Sinai desert inside. “Think of the amount of grain and produce this place must have held”, the old monk mused, “Enough to feed a small city for a whole winter!”. To which I replied, seizing a fine opportunity for a bit of ecclesiastical flattery, that knowing the generosity of the Cistercian order, it probably sometimes had
In spite of this flattery, the Trappist explained that only those who phoned in advance and possessed an official ‘credencial peregrino’ were permitted to stay in the empty barn. I chose to conceal my lack of disappointment at this news and reassured him I was well equipped for camping. He told me that although the monastic church was now closed for the day there was another interesting site to be seen. He walked me at a meditative pace to the enormous rusting, open gate of a traditional Spanish cemetery, a cobbled courtyard with a floor area larger than that of the storehouse, with mansarded sepulchers built three, four, even five storeys high all around its perimeter. Here, he said, were the old ecclesiastical tombs going right back to Oseira’s founding in the thirteenth century, as well as the family vaults of the aristocratic clans of the area. Everywhere were relief sculptures of skulls and crossed thigh bones, crucifixions and pietas, angels and chivalric escutcheons, featuring plumed helmets or lions rampant, ranging in style from Gothic, to Baroque to mid-20th century fascist kitsch, all of it delineated in high contrast at this late hour by the raking summer evening light. More recent monks, he told me, were buried beneath hedges in neat rows between the high walls, topiaried into headstone sized crosses or elongated hexagons like old-fashioned coffins. “Here we all are!”, the Trappist beamed, spreading his arms, “Awaiting the glory of the resurrection. I too hope to lie here soon with my brothers.” And with that he took his leave, saying it was time for Vespers, which I could attend now, if I wished, and inviting me to rise early to hear the Brothers sing Lauds tomorrow morning at dawn.
I bedded down for the night on the floor of a dilapidated gazebo in an otherwise unvisited park and woke at dawn to heat lightning, flashing violet and orange in the sky, lighting up the hills through which I had journeyed here in electrical silhouette. The bandstand, if it had ever been that, was by a stream and soon swifts and martins were sweeping around me breaking the silence with shrill cries; the Trappists above in their chapel could be heard finishing lauds now. Cistercians had been plain chanting monastic hours in places like this for nine hundred years but, taking into account what the old Trappist had said about their dwindling numbers, how much longer could they last? In the words of King Solomon’s ring ‘Esta tambien pasara’-- This too shall pass. I had read somewhere that Trappists built their own coffins and Joyce, in ‘The Dead’, had claimed they slept in them. If I wanted, I could walk on for two more days, across flatlands and suburbs, all the way to Santiago but I saw little point in it. I had been before and it was always chock full of tourists. I had wandered 300 kilometers, seen what I’d set out to, and remembered the condition of solitude I had sought. I rose and put on fresh clothes, poured the few remaining hazels, walnuts, raisins and dried blueberries I’d bought en route into a string bag by way of an ambulatory morning snack, and set out for the small town of Castro Dozon, ten kilometers away. There my lonely route would merge back onto the main Via de Plata, crossing a highway where I could hitch a ride to Ourense, the nearest city, to catch a long distance train home, back to the noise and haste.
James Bloom grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, which he left at the age of 22 in order to escape the inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his station. Following this, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, an extra in a karate film, a microfiche assistant, a water baliff and, repeatedly, a waiter. Eventually he settled into a career teaching literature, history and philosophy along with being a college admissions advisor. He is currently writing a longer memoir about his round the world trip in his twenties.