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New York Times, June 26, 2005


June 26, 2005

On a Holy Road, Punk'd Pilgrims and a Man Who Barked at Dogs


WHEN the sculptor Michael Anderson turned 50 this year, he persuaded his wife, Celia, to mark the occasion by walking the historic pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostelo, Spain.

Starting 208 miles away in Ponferrada, the Andersons envisioned a two-week hike of interior meditation amid the external beauty of Romanesque and Gothic churches.

No such luck.

"On the very first day, we met these two English characters just lounging in a bar, hooting and hollering," Mr. Anderson said. The two Britons, wealthy businessmen, told the couple that they had fallen in with a fast drug crowd and had decided to repent by drinking their way to Santiago - thus dogging the Andersons across Iberia.

It's pilgrim season in northern Spain, a time when thousands from all over the world find a starting point somewhere usually in France or Spain and follow a route that has been walked every summer, many say since A.D. 814. The Andersons found theirs early, walking the road in the spring. Most pilgrims are leaving now, in June and early July. Tradition holds that pilgrims arrive in the city, notched into the northwestern corner of Spain, in time for the feast of St. James on July 25.

But the truth is the road to Santiago was never a pilgrimage of dreary, self-flagellating penitents. Even in the Middle Ages, it was widely celebrated as a Chaucerian route of gonzo diversity. And it still is.

Mr. Anderson remembers a day in Galicia when the road became a brutal mountain path. It was tricky to find the yellow arrows and markers that show the way across Spain.

"We were on these farm paths," Mr. Anderson said, "when all of a sudden the trail got very narrow. The yellow arrow directed us into these thickets overgrown with thistle. Then all of a sudden our two British friends jumped out of the bushes and yelled 'Gotcha!' They had reset the yellow arrows to get us lost in the woods."

Punk'd, pilgrim style.

Perhaps the secret of the enduring appeal of the pilgrimage to Santiago (old Spanish for St. James) is that people never get what they expect. From the very beginning, when the road opened after the eighth-century Islamic invasion of the Iberian peninsula, sinners from all over Europe were "sentenced" to a pilgrimage to Santiago, only to discover that the holy quest constituted a kind of medieval conscription.

More personally, every pilgrim cooks up a reason or two for going that sounded good back home, but on the road, sounds embarrassing and impious if not self-serving. When I walked the road in 1991 with the intention of writing a book, I was regularly accused of not being a "true" pilgrim.

Throughout my walk, the issue of authenticity constantly came up. In conversation, motives other than piety often surfaced: escaping a wife, getting material for a documentary, avoiding the draft, trying to lose weight, hoping for sex with a pilgrim hottie - or just being out to take a hike.

Soon after beginning, most pilgrims hear of the "barefoot monk" on the road - alone, moneyless, sleeps on the ground. It was only after a month of walking and chatting that I realized no one had actually met him. He didn't exist. The barefoot monk was the pilgrim's equivalent of an urban legend, a conjuring of the pure pilgrim as an expression of our collective anxiety about not being "true" pilgrims.

Clarifying one's motive is what ends up happening on the pilgrimage to Santiago. The epiphany may not be a blindingly clear Shirley MacLaine-like revelation. The only thing straight about the road to Santiago may be the route itself.

The morning I was to traverse the famous plains of Castile, I ran across a couple of old ladies in the last village before the climb up. They warned me of "tormentas y mal tiempos." At last, I thought, some real medieval action. "Torments and evil" jived nicely with the Cecil B. DeMille pilgrim tableau playing in my head.

Climbing steeply up the side of a plateau, I walked alone on a cart path that pitched straight through fields of foot-and-a-half-tall wheat stalks that extended in every direction to the horizon. The omens quickly become ridiculous. In the distance, a man appeared, wearing a black robe and cowl while threshing this stunted wheat with an oversized scythe. That's right, Mr. Death, straight from an Ingmar Bergman casting call. Overhead, enormous black clouds gathered - big Spielbergian cotton bales that hung so low I imagined I could reach up on tiptoe and touch them.

About 10 feet in front of me, a small brown bird winged its way out of the clouds and fell lifelessly - blam - in front of me.

Oh, come on.

Then, in the distance, I saw three mangy dogs. Pilgrims don't like dogs. That's the real reason, in the iconic image of pilgrims, they are seen carrying a staff. (I didn't have mine that day.) The dogs regarded me, and then let loose a snarling territorial challenge. Amid the petite wheat, there was literally no place for me to run or hide.

A strange fear overtook me, but not the usual kind. I was so scared I was gulping for air. But the fear came from the realization that I was preparing to kill them. I had my knife in the air, and my pupils must have been pinholes of attention. My frontal lobes shut down, and all control was handed off to the reptilian stub in my brain. I almost seemed to stand outside myself, watching, when it happened.

On the plains of Castile, I barked. I didn't know humans made noises the way predatory birds caw or coyotes bay. It's a ragged, oscillating sound - rather high up in the register, pubescent, almost comical in its bestial ineptness. With my face squeezed into a Nordic mask of blood-red fury, I lunged at the dogs, barking all the way.

They stopped and barked back, but I was already fluent in this pre-sapiens language. Theirs was the holler of losers saving face, calling someone names as you run away.

My victory over the dogs was rewarded when God (or the perversity of the human condition - whatever it is you think rules the universe) ripped open those clouds with a violent downpour. The shower was punctuated by hideous blasts of lightning that seemed to explode like cartoon grenades all around me. As the tallest thing for miles around (have I mentioned the silly wheat?), I felt all that childhood lore about lightning flooding back, and I formulated a plan. I decided to run screaming. Actually, screaming and crying. Actually, screaming and crying and praying and cursing.

My plan worked. All at once the earth opened up and an enormous cross shot out of the ground right in front of me. I realized it was either the rapture or I was coming unhinged. Whichever, I was encouraged to redouble the effort I was putting into my plan of running and crying. That is, until I understood that what I was seeing was a hallucination peculiar to the Castilian plain in a rainstorm. I found myself at an abrupt drop-off at the other end. Down below, the first thing poking up into view was the cross on the steeple of the village church below.

A quick descent and I was invited to stand in a dry doorway by a few locals. They asked if I had enjoyed the "tormentas," which I quickly realized translates simply as "thunderstorms." Those old ladies earlier that morning were just giving me the weather report they'd heard on TV.

And so it goes on the road to Santiago. Every step of the way, the conflict between what you think you are up to and what actually happens may not get you directly in touch with God, but you'll come home with a much keener feel for his deadpan sense of humor.

JACK HITT is the author of "Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route Into Spain," recently issued inpaperback by Simon & Schuster.
Original artwork based on your pilgrimage or other travel photos.
Camino Way Markers
Original Camino Way markers made in bronze. Two models, one from Castilla & Leon and the other from Galicia.

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