The next morning brought a gloom over the trail. I set out early to get some alone time and figured my friends would catch up later in the day. While strolling along the highway shoulder at 5:45 AM in the dark, a police car pulled up next to me on the highway and said something to me in Spanish I didn’t understand. He motioned for me to get in the car. I sensed a genuine care for my safety. He drove me directly to the nearest foot of the trail. I said “muchas gracias” and was on my way. I felt a little bit like a cheater. I skipped a half mile of the trail. Whatever. Being sober has brought many feelings to the surface. Good, bad, neutral, indifferent, angry. Due to not having a Spanish phone plan, I didn’t have Tinder, Bumble, Facebook at my fingertips at all times. I was forced to calm the rousing chorus in my head and say to myself “ there is no way to skip or distract yourself from walking these 10 miles to the next town so you might as well just calm down.”
Along a hilly stretch, I spotted a speedy man with an orange backpack. It took me almost an hour to catch him while I moved at a vigorous pace. As I approached a fork in the trail. He was standing still, puzzled as to which direction to go. I offered a suggestion and we agreed by sensible reasoning to take a left, it was basically a coin flip. I spoke to him in broken Spanish and he spoke to me in Italian. He understood maybe 25% of what I was saying and I understood 10% of what he was saying. He had recently separated from his wife of 22 years, he had married her at 23 and had two teenage daughters aged 17 and 19. He was searching for a break from his misery or just contemplating the separation with his wife. It was hard to understand any more of the words he used to describe the situation. I shared with him that I was embarking on a new chapter and running away from some misery and shame from my old life in NY and in September I was moving to Madrid for a year.
We walked a desolate 10 miles under an overcast sky and completely flat terrain, hearing only the cadence of our foot strikes on smooth, flat gravel. We talked sporadically, about every ten minutes. More than that felt labored and unnecessary, given the language barrier. A unity and commonness of purpose was mutually felt.
When he stopped at the next town, we embraced with a handshake and a hug and he told me his name was Luca, I said I was Peter. Knowing I would likely never see him again. Not even 15 minutes later, as I exited the small pueblo, I took a wrong turn and was not mindful of the yellow arrows. I followed a tractor trail deep into the grape vineyards and large hill passes lined with shrubbery and knee-high thorn bushes.
Being the shrewd and capable hiker I am, I brought no map, so I continued walking on a diagonal hoping I would eventually hit the path or see someone that could direct me to something on the trail. These were some of the most desolate and uninhabited parts of Spain. With each winding turn and increase in elevation, a nervous bubble in my stomach either rose or dropped, with hope I would spot another hiker. For four hours, I cursed myself, the people on the camino, the people of Spain, Spanish food. Sprinting in bursts of a half-kilometer with my 20 pound backpack, screaming, punching the air, solemnly listening to the lost love ballads of Bob Dylan. I watch too many Leonardo Dicaprio movies that feed my penchant for the dramatic. I accepted my utter powerlessness over the situation, and came to an agreement with myself at the shittiness of the situation.
Finally, I heard the whizz of cars and trucks in the distance and rushed two miles and came across a highway. I had a GPS watch tracking my distances. I started walking on the shoulder as 18 wheelers and the speedy drivers of Spain flew by. I considered clicking the SOS button station. It seemed to be reserved for mothers in labor or a person bleeding out from a serious injury. There was no building or person around for what seemed at least ten miles in each direction, I had no water left. I had already walked 25 miles at that point in the day and my feet ached with each step. I reluctantly put out my thumb as I walked on the highway shoulder. At that moment, I felt truly humbled. I had a beard, dark tanned skin resembling a South American or Italian. 100 or more cars passed infrequently before a Black Toyota Prius pulled over. He pulled to a stop 20 yards in front of me and I thought- Is he scared at what this haggard looking, bearded hitchhiker might bring into his car or do to him? I would be.
We had a conversation in Spanish. He had a relative that did the Camino. It took us 10 miles to get to the next city, (Logrono) which was my intended destination for the day. I played the tape through in my mind and imagined myself collapsing and sleeping on the shoulder of the highway that day until a policeman pulled over to shoo me away or offer assistance, like I said, dramatic. I felt grateful to this 30-something Spanish man who gave a ride to a stranger, when I had absolutely nothing to offer him back. He said “Buen Camino” as I exited the car and I thought, people are good if given the opportunity.
I met up with the guys at the albergue municipal for 5 dollars, regretting ditching them earlier in the day. I found my assigned bed after I paid the 5 euro. An old lady from Canada was on a bunk above me snoring, and this was the first hostel so far that did not require you to leave your boots at the ground floor so it smelled bad. We cooked a dinner of chicken, rice, and broccoli after going to the super market. Most of the hostels will have a fully equipped kitchen. There was also a courtyard with a foot bath. Anders and I went out to get gelato. He had a girl he liked back home that was in the beginning stages that he refused to speak to more than once a week on the Camino, because he wanted to enjoy himself. Something about Danish people’s worldview seemed much simpler. Their school system or government just produced perfectly obedient and ethical citizens, I was suspicious of this as brainwashing, being from an obnoxiously individualistic culture.
Later on the four of us went out to a fruit stand to stock up for the next day’s hike. I got 2 cents for change, held it for a second before throwing in the garbage. Anders and Peter broke out in laughter. “That was the most American thing I’ve ever seen.” Anders said. “What am I gonna do with 2 cents?” I said. A conversation ensued about how Americans are oblivious to their privilege and wealth.
Two fat Italians in the bunk next to me snored so loud, that it seemed their periodic roll overs and re-adjustments were the only thing keeping them from suffocation. Equipped with my foam ear plugs. I moved to another floor in the middle of the night and found an open bed.