An Ordinary Way
Frederick Ruf

There are thousands of books on the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage route in northern Spain. As I walked from town to town in the Spanish states of Castile and León and then Galicia I could see ink on the fingers of peregrinos and the outlines of journals pressed against their backpacks, thick with thoughts. I swore I wouldn’t write about the thousand-year-old path myself, loath to be just one more. Mine is a life swerving away from ‘just one more,’ glad of idiosyncrasy, or maybe just hopeful of it. And the Camino seems like a looming spiritual whale, impossible to avoid and able to swallow us all, so many Ahab legs or Jonahs. Not for me.

I had a psychotherapist once. “The problem with graduate students,” he said, “is that they think they’re not ordinary. But they are.” “I have a secret,” I sang as I walked from his office that first day.

So as I walked from Ponferrada, the iron bridge crossing a talkative little river called the Sil, I gathered no thoughts. I would be the only one not composing as I walked. Twenty-five Germans were in my hotel. They’d taken years to walk the pilgrimage route from Germany to Santiago, 200 kilometers a year, and this would be their final leg. They were happy, a little boisterous, and in the breakfast room I pulled myself into a corner so I wouldn’t be one of them. When I left, I walked quickly down the street, determined to keep them behind me and not to see them again. I never did.

Walking quickly became my practice, racing ahead to overtake anyone visible then trying to escape their sight, seeking the sweet spot of equidistance, the invisible mean. That first day there were only four or five other walkers, and I evaluated them by age, for there were only two sorts, anyway, those under twenty-five and those over sixty, both with the time to walk for a few weeks. At the start a young one quickly passed me and disappeared around a scrubby curve in the road (for the Camino was largely on the shoulder of a small road at this point), and then there were three older ones, giving me a kind “buen camino, peregrino” as I easily passed. And then I had the path to myself as it left the road and became a footpath.

Four travelers that first day, then a couple of dozen the next. Fifty or sixty the following day. Each day pulling more like gravity, like that whale sifting more and more thousands of gallons of walkers through its baleen. And I was determined not to be one of them, to walk as though there were no Camino, cutting the line, passing everyone and not just those my age. “I am on my own walk and it has nothing to do with one thousand years of history,” said my quick feet.

Now that the long walk in Spain is over, it would be nice if I could report that I learned to be a pilgrim. There’s a website that predicts, “The Way will become a multifaceted experience for you as you in turn become one with the daily flow of the life of the pilgrim. Buen Camino!” Becoming one with the daily flow. No, I fought that flow as though it were a rip tide. But I should have learned my lesson, right? I should have stopped thinking I was different, special, still a grad student, and I should have felt the spiritual import of the Camino. It’s bigger than I am and, let’s face it, it’s much better than I am. But I didn’t. And maybe I’m here to recommend not becoming one with the flow, to recommend racing ahead and resisting being “just one more,” even as I do, after all, write about the Camino. But I do so to recommend being ordinary on that ancient trail, to share what it’s like when the journey is not spiritual yet the path is very much alive. For it is alive.

When I returned home a friend asked about my time in Spain. “Was it spiritual?” she asked, quite enthusiastic. I disappointed her. I really did. She tried to be tolerant when I told her it wasn’t spiritual for me, but she seemed to think it was like going to the symphony and spending the whole time on Twitter. But ‘spiritual’ just isn’t a word I know. I’m reminded of a friend, a colleague, who teaches Santería and other African religions in the New World. Students often ask him, “Do you believe in Santería?” and he replies, “It’s like asking someone if they believe in Spanish or Japanese. I don’t believe in Santería, I speak it. I speak Santería.” Well, I don’t speak spiritual. And what’s someone like me to do on the Camino except walk fast?

I never thought about the Camino de Santiago before I walked it (and, let me be clear, I didn’t walk the entire route from the French border but only 200 km, the distance I could fit into two weeks away from home). I got the idea a couple of months before a sabbatical began, and I thought, why not? I’m not Christian and I’m not religious, and I’m not, as I said, spiritual, so why go to northern Spain? I don’t know. I wanted to. I felt the urge. I just felt the desire. I like the push of desire without reason, to be honest.

As I think about it now, months later, it occurs to me that we want a life to be a narrative. We want there to be a common thread, for events in childhood to weave through adolescence and into adulthood and then old age so that life’s a single road, and what could be better than that thousand-year-old Camino in Spain to be a further reach of life’s narrative. I feel myself sigh with gladness at such a notion. Sometimes a really great notion, life as a single story. Walking the Camino being the culmination of a life. But I resist narratives as I resist being just one more. I yearn for them and love them when they happen like I love a book with a strong plot and a satisfying conclusion, snapping shut at the close. But I like broken stories more. Coleridge once recommended that we pay special attention to the sentences we don’t understand, and, for me, it’s not to pull them into line, finally understanding them, but to see their strangeness, like orphans, like burn victims, like victims of minor crime. Yes, let’s accept them into the community, let’s help them heal, but let’s also look them right in their strange eyes.

On my third day on the Camino, it was raining as I walked through the quiet gray streets of Ambasmestas. At 7 am no stores were open and no one was on the small road leading out of town, and it was a little hard to identify the Camino of a thousand years. Thoughtfully someone had placed markers with a yellow shell and an arrow every kilometer or so, but that’s because it was otherwise impossible to tell that this was the Camino. Trees with inexplicably withered leaves in late April. Farms with roosters crowing. The shoulder of a road and then a muddy path heading into a forest. A stone hut with a bowed shingle roof. When I think “Camino de Santiago,” the way of millions of pilgrims over a thousand years, I think—and please excuse me—the yellow brick road. Bright and shining and unmistakable. A sacred way, quivering with divinity. But absolutely nothing distinguishes the Camino. Detour by accident off to the left and it feels exactly like the Way. No angels guide you home. No song in the heart dims and gently urges you to regain the fuller harmony. Lost is pretty much the same as found. And I found myself glad about that. Apparently holiness is exactly like the broken edge of a small road. That works for me so much better than angels and songs in the heart.

The Camino began a steep ascent right about when a peregrino passed me, his dual walking poles clicking on the single-lane road that switched back and forth for the climb. That clicking of metal pole on pavement was an assault on the quiet of the hills, but there was no catching and passing this particular walker; besides, the road was steep and I needed something to blame, something to resent, and his clicking was just right for that. I despised him with a passion that should have surprised me but didn’t, it felt so well earned. If I felt spirituality as powerfully as I felt hatred for the man with the clicking poles, I could have flown through the air to Santiago de Compostela.

But then the rain turned to snow and the small road became really steep and then evened out onto a ridge and I was astonished to see just how high I’d come, treeless snow-frosted mountains on either side. No one was there, and it was cold, and I didn’t need anyone to loathe. Altitude and snow and a far vista made me far too glad for hate.

What I liked about the Camino was how ordinary it was, and it was the ordinary emotions that I experienced, like envy and resentment and gladness.

After several days, I came to see the walk, five or six hours a day, 10 to 15 miles, hills and more hills, as sessions of psychoanalysis. I’ve done analysis—on the couch, my analyst invisible behind me—for maybe twenty years, on and off. For several years, it was four times a week, lying in her office, looking past my feet at a painting of an open garden gate, talking about topics that are so usual they’re objects of jokes—my father’s absence and my mother’s excessive presence, the sister who died of leukemia when I was twelve, my terror of fire as I went to sleep in childhood, the rise of sexuality, dreams of lethal bears and of a home hollowed with a great water-filled pool. It’s been the most fascinating wandering of my life, and, at the same time, utterly ordinary. As a character in a Virginia Woolf novel says, there were no great revelations, just “matches struck unexpectedly in the dark,” and that’s been just fine.

Analysis has been just lying on my back and noticing what appears. And that’s what the Camino was, too.

But I’d spent many hours walking the Camino when I finally thought to notice what appeared in my mind. I had no family to engage with, no daughters to walk to school, no classes to teach, no friends to talk to, no older children to text, no student papers to read. It was empty time, just like analysis. Well, what came into my mind in an empty time? A song by Joan Baez, “Tears of Rage.” That song for dozens of kilometers in the Spanish cold. My obsession with passing every peregrino I saw. My envy and resentment of the other walkers. My insistence on walking as fast as I could. My happiness at walking up hills. Hours and hours of those feelings.

But though they were ordinary emotions, not revelations but just matches struck, they were strong. Ordinary doesn’t mean weak. Envy and resentment and gladness were the water-soaked logs of my mind, and when they came through, they were bruising.

I spent more time than I’m comfortable admitting resenting those with walking poles. Could it really have been ten percent of my time that loathing them was in my mind? And could it have been another ten percent of my daily walk envying those who walked faster than I could? It should be embarrassing to admit those emotions and the time they consumed, but it’s not. And there were the hours of gladness, too, and the full-lunged happiness as I felt myself accelerate up a steep hill or heard a cuckoo in a Helen Keller moment (“so that’s a cuckoo!”)—or when I entered O Cebreiro at the end of a day that began with rain.

I know I’ve been colder and I’ve been more tired than I was the afternoon I entered the village of O Cebreiro. I once hiked up Katahdin and I walked through Chicago when it was 40 below to get a blood test for a marriage license, but climbing up a wintry O Cebreiro was better. It was like the day I lay on that analyst’s couch and saw my sister in St. Vincent’s Hospital and was shocked that the girl who terrorized me was about to die. It was strong and it was real. It was made of stone.

The final hour across the mountain ridge and up some final hills into O Cebreiro as the sun broke through was exhilarating, full bodied and wide. I found my hotel, which seemed a frozen stone repelling all welcome or need. And inside what I feel I’ve looked for since I was that sister-dying child: a fire, tables of boisterous Spaniards, laughter, and a woman asking if I wanted caldo—Galician soup—and wine. I found a home in the cold.

That is why I walked the Camino and that’s what was sacred, if anything was. Ordinary thoughts on an ordinary road. Strong thoughts and feelings allowed full swing on a hard path.

I spoke with very few people as I walked, but one of them, a German university student, asked why I was walking. What’s your purpose, she asked, as we passed through forests toward Samos. And for a couple of days I wondered if it was that sister, the one who seemed to hate me—who I hated in turn for the unending bullying—who died before her seventeenth birthday. I thought that maybe I was walking to lay her to rest, the child who died at sixteen and ripped up a family, never to be healed. Our parents too burned up to bury her, preoccupied with their own unhealing injuries of anguish and guilt. I spoke with Betsy as I walked, telling her I was carrying her, finally to lay her down, after her bleeding corpse had been draped over me for fifty-five years. Finally to carry her and to put her to rest, the child who died too young, the sister who soaked me with hatred.

Those were the thoughts of a few days, from Ambasmestas to O Cebreiro and then to Triacastela and Samos, and beyond, but it wasn’t the purpose of the walk, the dedication of the pilgrimage. How nice it would be to gather those two weeks into a purpose, a narrative, especially if the purpose could be fulfilled. Expiation is a nice word. Release. Healing. A narrative for the walk and for a life. If I’d ever learned to pray, I’d certainly pray for those.

There was probably a time in my life when I felt that life was a story, a time when I loved stories above all else, as a solitary, afraid child might. Closed into a closet, reading and loving adventures. But somewhere along the way, I began to love landscape more than story. I began to imagine a life as a topography and not a story. There is no storyteller in topography and there is no beginning or middle or end. There is no one in charge. There are ups and downs and they come at irregular intervals and suddenly one slides down a hill or accidentally sets some grass afire without the reassurance of outcome. Topography is wide and we’re just a small part of wideness.

So the Camino fit me well because it was all topography with only the most tenuous line of a path—no yellow brick road and no story. That was my Camino.

And during the final few days of the walk, I began to think that we walk a life over hills and valleys, and the topography varies but it doesn’t resolve into a regular pattern as a story does. How nice if it did, I suppose, but, no, I’m really glad that it doesn’t. The topography has intense variety, so much that I shake my head in wonder. A life’s variety, with no repetition. And in that topography I feel envy for those who walk with purpose and strength, passing me by. I feel hatred of those whose clacking disturbs my quiet. And I feel gladness (to the brink of fear, Emerson said) when I feel the life to climb all features of the topography, stopped by none of it, avoiding none of it, accepting of it all. Orphans, burn victims, victims of minor crime.

So that was my Camino, a walk through the topography of northern Spain that was a fine tracing of my own broken pavement, sudden drops, vistas of snow dusted mountains, trees with inexplicably withered leaves, roosters crowing exuberantly, stone huts with a bowed roof—all of it mine, a life writ small.


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