El Camino de Santiago

Many of the people who walk the Camino de Santiago keep a blog about their experiences; the world does not need another one. On the other hand, every child who uses crayons to draw his house helps to justify humanity’s existence. The following blog posts are offered in the spirit of crayon drawings.

Look what I made.

Immediately after finishing my walk on the Camino, I flew to meet my brother in Barcelona, where we embarked on a trip through southern France and Rome. You can find an account of those adventures at:

I Can’t Be the Only One

  • Sept. 29 – Najera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada. 21.3 kilometers.
  • Sept. 30 – Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Belorado. 22.4 kilometers.

Today was only my tenth day of walking. Ten seems like such a small number – it’s only three more than the total of my unblistered toes. If my calculations are correct, I’ve covered almost 150 miles so far.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada (“Calzada” being yet another word for “road”) is dominated by a lovely church, with an attached art museum that includes many fine pieces of early sacred art. The church contains a magnificent 16th century altarpiece, so rich and complex and enormous that I stood and stared at it until my neck started to hurt, and the tomb of Santo Domingo himself. The most memorable element, though, is the chicken coop. I’ll quote from my guidebook:

Legend has it that a pilgrim couple and their son stopped at an inn here on their way to Santiago. The pretty innkeeper’s daughter had her eye on the handsome lad, but the devout young fellow thwarted her advances. Incensed by his refusal, she hid a silver goblet in his backpack and reported him for stealing it. The innocent lad was caught and condemned to hang. Some accounts suggest the parents continued on their way, oblivious of the fate of their son, and on their return from Santiago they found him still hanging on the gallows but miraculously still alive, thanks to the intervention of Santo Domingo. They rushed to the sheriff’s house and found his lordship about to tuck into dinner. Upon hearing the parents, he retorted that their son was no more alive than the cock he was about to eat, whereupon the fowl stood up on the dish and crowed loudly. The miracle was not lost on the sheriff, who rushed back to the gallows and cut down the poor lad, who was given a full pardon. We are left to speculate on the fate of the maiden.

To help ensure that this miracle remains in the popular imagination, a couple of chickens are living in the church, in what is likely to be one of the most opulent chicken coops in this part of northern Spain.

When walking out of Santo Domingo this morning, I found that the little pockets on my hip belt still contained the remains of some snacks I’d bought a few days ago. The marcona almonds were gone, as was the apple, but I still had some dried chestnuts left. Dried chestnuts are, as it turns out, almost but not quite inedible.

Chewing a dried chestnut right away is out of the question. You put one into your mouth and it sits there obstinately, giving off a flavor that inhabits that Ikea space somewhere between wood and plastic, until finally it has macerated long enough that using your teeth on it is possible. The first couple of shards seem sweet and almost nutty, but then the bitterness begins, and then it gets worse, and you wonder whether you might have gotten a bad one. But no. They’re all like this.

I cannot be the only person who, as a kid, once pried an ancient piece of chewing gum off the bottom of a chair and popped it into my mouth. The experience was similar to eating a dried chestnut. First, the inelastic object makes no concessions to your teeth whatsoever, but then, finally, you start to make inroads, and some hint of flavor, and even sweetness, seems to justify your crime. But then comes the nastiness and the regret. Old chair gum is worse than chestnuts in the category of “saliva of unknown strangers,” but it is better when it comes to the sweet savor of sin. It’s a toss-up. If you’ve tried one, you needn’t try the other.

Today’s walk took me through half a dozen little villages and past mile upon mile of fallow fields. I discovered as I approached Belorado that my Putamayo recording of music from the South Seas is the perfect soundtrack for marching into a little town just east of Burgos. I found a first-rate albergue, where I spent a few Euro extra for a room with only five other beds; I almost wept when I saw how tidy and clean and well-thought-out my room was. After changing out of my hiking clothes, taking a shower, and tending to my feet, I found a café on the main square at which I was able to order a sandwich after a long but by no means unendurable wait, and then I strolled through the old Jewish quarter and climbed the hill to the more than usually ruined ruins of the castle that used to loom over the city, and its fine view overlooking Belorado.

And now I’m back at the albergue. Some Japanese pilgrims are building a plastic toy they found in a Kinder egg. The can of San Miguel Premium Especial at my elbow still contains a few swallows of beer. I will be served dinner in an hour. Life is good.

Another sunrise, this time with pilgrims.

The chicken palace in the church at Santo Domingo.

The Camino.

My gear and my opulent bunk in Belorado.

Rooftops in Belorado. Note the stork nests on the bell tower. On the ridge in the far distance, you may be able to make out wind turbines.

Me, from the ruined castle above Belorado.

Bring ‘Em On

  • Sept. 26 – Los Arcos to Logroño. 27.8 km.
  • Sept. 27 – Logroño. 0 km. (Rest day.)
  • Sept. 28 – Logroño to Nájera. 29.6 km.

The last two days of walking have felt long. It wouldn’t be true to say that I have gotten “used to” walking 12 or 13 miles a day, but “inured to” is close to the mark. The walk from Los Arcos to Logroño was more like 18 miles, though, and today’s walk, from Logroño to Nájera, was similar. My feet and legs start feeling like whipped dogs at about the 16-mile-mark. Poor little doggies.

I found dinner at Los Arcos at one of the two or three choices on the square, where a waiter led me downstairs into their subterranean dining area, asked “Solo?”, and then seated me without ceremony at a small table where a man had already started his meal. This man was Jan, from Stuttgart. He is trim, gray, and manages to seem clean and well-put-together even after a long day of hiking. He has a habit of boring into you with his pale blue eyes when he speaks. Imagine a combination of Stephen Maturin, Felix Unger, and, I don’t know – Vercingetorix, for the heroic German piece. Jan is the only person I’ve ever met who feels about Ulysses the way I do. He has read it once in German and twice in English, and has visited Dublin to see where the action takes place. Let me repeat the point I just made, in case, in your hurry, you didn’t appreciate it the first time: Jan has read a notoriously difficult novel in English twice, and English is not his native language. We agreed that Ulysses nearly ruined fiction for us, because everything else seems so tepid by comparison. Jan was a lucky dinner partner.

The next morning, Jan caught up to me as I was leaving Los Arcos, chatted for a few minutes, and then zoomed off down the trail. A few minutes later, we had a lovely sunrise.

I have been meeting good people lately. Matthias and Emma, youngsters from Australia, who have been traveling for four months and still have a couple of months to go, and who are managing a very tight budget and some health setbacks with real grace and humor. Tracy, from Australia, and Rita, from Switzerland, who have strong opinions about the virtues of creative school environments for young people. Carolyn, from Seattle’s Madison Park, who walked the Camino Portugues a few years ago with her father – who was 80 years old at the time!

The last few miles of the walk to Logroño were through light-industrial sprawl around the city – a hard slog for somebody who has already walked 15 miles. The ancient center of Logroño was nice, as usual, with its old, narrow streets and cathedral, but this section is small, and it is surrounded by an unremarkable modern city. According to TripAdvisor, the #1 attraction of the city is a short stretch of street in the old quarter where there is an unusually dense concentration of tapas bars. Tapas are little plates of food. That’s the best they’ve got.

I spent a rest day in Logroño, seeing such sights as there are and making a boatload of reservations for Bob’s upcoming visit. At this point, I have a flight that will take me to Barcelona at the end of October, and then he and I have transportation and places to stay for our visits to Collioure (Patrick O’Brian’s home on the coast), Carcassonne, Nimes, Arles, and Marseilles, and flights from Marseilles to Rome. The incredible thing about this, to me, is that there are still reservations to be made. Trips to Europe are more complicated than they used to be.

And today I walked to the little town of Nájera, past mile after mile of grape orchards. The newish, unremarkable part of the town is on the east side of the river, but the old part is crowded up against red sandstone cliffs that form a natural barrier on the river’s west side; it’s as though an old Spanish village had been built in a beautiful spot in the American southwest. An hour or two ago I was sitting on a bench outside some ancient cloister or grave of a 12th-century king or some damn thing when up walked Jan! He is excited to be in Rioja, where the wine is very often likely to be very good. Neither of us has any idea where we’ll be eating tonight, so I may or may not see him when it is finally late enough to go out for dinner.

I knew that much of today’s walk would be through agricultural land with no towns, so I brought some nuts and an apple with me – but it is now 6:30 in the evening and I have spent seven hours hiking today. The two pieces of toast I had for my wretched hostel breakfast and the apple and nuts on the trail have left me famished. Carolyn, the woman from Seattle, told me that she had accidentally ordered a plate of baby eels in Logroño. At the time, this sounded comically awful. But now?

Bring ‘em on.

Sunrise outside Los Arcos.

A trailside ruin.

My albergue in Logroño is behind the curved doorway in the right-center of this photo.

Three mushrooms that have been sauteed in olive oil and garlic, on a piece of bread, with a glass of wine. Heaven.

The red cliffs of Najera.

Colors and textures in Najera.

The Holy Femur

My brother Dan told me about how the femur of San Fermin was an attractive nuisance for the dogs in the area, and then he sent me this:

Después de ese desafortunado incidente que perros dientes se convirtió en blanco como una nueva nieve al mediodía! ¡Todo el mundo quería masticar el fémur más sagrado de San Fermín! Naturalmente. El obispo hizo una señal. “NO SE PERMITEN PERROS” y colgó el letrero en el santuario. El signo mantiene a todos los hombres alejados. Y ese fue el comienzo justo del problema. En unas pocas semanas, ya ves, porque todas las mujeres de la ciudad desarrollaron unos dientes muy agradables y querían mostrarlos así que empezaron a sonreír más. No creo que necesite decirte lo que empezó a suceder entonces. Pero lo haré. Realmente comenzó justo un año antes del desafortunado incidente …

Here’s the output from Google Translate:

After that unfortunate incident that dogs teeth became white like a new snow at noon! Everyone wanted to chew the most sacred femur of San Fermin! Naturally. The bishop made a sign. “NO DOGS ARE ALLOWED” and hung the sign in the sanctuary. The sign keeps all men away. And that was just the beginning of the problem. In a few weeks, you see, because all the women in the city developed very nice teeth and wanted to show them so they started to smile more. I do not think I need to tell you what started to happen then. But I’ll do it. It really started just a year before the unfortunate incident ….

Wrong More Often

  • Sept. 24 – Puente la Reina to Estella. 21.9 kilometers.
  • Sept. 25 – Estella to Los Arcos. 21.2 kilometers.

The fields outside Pamplona are stubble, or even less – clods of ocher dirt and stones. White snails cling to the wild anise that lines the trail. At the high point on the trail, where the wind turbines turn with such slow, solemn gravity and the pilgrims jostle for photographs in front of the sheet-iron Camino art, the climate changes. The trail leading down to the villages of the plain runs through glades of oak, and then through almond trees, heavy with mistletoe. Today there have been olive groves and grape orchards and sugar cane and prickly pear. A walking pace is fast enough to see the world change, if you walk long enough.

I have only been walking for five days – enough time for my feet to have started to complain, but not enough to toughen them. I expect it to take another week or so for the discomfort to ease. I smear antibiotic cream around the blisters and frown over the meticulous dressing; barring bad luck, I’ll be fine. An awful lot of my fellows at the Municipal Albergue here in Estella are limping, so my experience is not unique. I sat in the sunny common area for a little while when I arrived today and watched person after person pause at the top of the high step that leads down to the courtyard, squint their eyes, and then totter over the edge like a fledgling leaving the nest, grimacing and holding their elbows high. Some sad-looking people were soaking their feet in tubs of water.

I met a good person yesterday, a woman of about my age, who has an excellent attitude about committing herself to adventures but may be too big and untrained for this amount of exercise. I hope I’m wrong about this, and I may well be, but she is suffering. She and I were trapped together in the restaurant in Puente la Reina while the bulls had taken over the street; she told me about traveling in Turkey, and about how she has been able to take her 87-year-old mother on some interesting trips, using a wheelchair, and about how she had always thought of the distracting inner voice when she meditates as a kind of an obnoxious, chattering monkey, which she combats by visualizing an actual monkey in her lap, imagining every detail of its fur, and how it looks up at her while she breathes in and breathes out. She had found the walk from Pamplona difficult, but she is not a quitter. “Slow and steady,” she said.

I passed her on the trail this morning at about 9:00. She had left Puente la Reina at 7:00, and I at 8:00 – her expression changed at the realization that I was traveling at twice her speed. I walked at her pace for a few minutes, up a moderate slope, but, when she stopped to gasp and suggested that we each get to the top at the pace we found comfortable, I left her with a “Buen Camino.”

Dear God, I hope she makes it.

I wrote the preceding words yesterday, in the little town of Estella, where the twelfth-century churches and kids playing soccer in the square and narrow streets with laundry hanging from balconies high overhead hardly seem worthy of note, they are so expected a part of the scenery by now. I enjoyed watching a self-satisfied little girl in the square, who walked by me with a knowing look and a face absolutely covered in lipstick; when her mother discovered what had happened, a minute later, she wiped off her daughter with businesslike efficiency, entirely deaf to the girl’s screams of rage, and then set her free, whereupon she instantly clapped a stopper on it and bounced off to find new mischief to perpetrate. I was charmed by the familiarity of the little scene.

The wifi in the municipal albergue was pretty good, and people started bustling around at 5:30 in the morning, making a quantity of noise that really can’t be slept through, even though they’re being as quiet as they can reasonably be. This was my opportunity to use Skype to call my son’s cell phone, since at 6:00 in the morning here it’s 9:00PM for Sam, in the Bay Area. It was great to talk to him. His incredible run of success continues; he has just landed a job as a “junior software engineer” at a company that does hard brain stuff for smart people. Sorry, but I can’t really be much more specific about his new employer, Protein Metrics, whose website brags that, with their help, I can now “Automate peptide mapping – with ease!” I feel like Orville and Wilbur Wright’s father – “You say you’re doing what with those bicycles, now?” Sam’s concerns are for things like his commute, in the few weeks he’ll have before moving closer to the company, and about how difficult it’s going to be to continue to be the Dungeon Master of his D&D group when he’s living on the far side of the bridge. These are such great problems to have.

Then, since it was still evening on the West Coast and Oh-Dark-Thirty in Estella, I called my brother Bob, who is continuing to work himself half to death in Astoria. He and I will be meeting in Barcelona at the end of October, doing some touring in southern France, and then meeting his old exchange student, Saskia, and her husband Rein in Rome. This is going to be a wonderful end to my trip to Europe, but there is a lot of planning to be done to get ready for it. He and I will both be flying back to the United States on November 15, although we’ll be on different flights.

The walk from Estella to Los Arcos took me past the famous spigot of free wine – which I didn’t sample, since it was 8:00 in the morning and I had a lot of hiking to do – and then up into a lovely forest of oak and pine, with vistas of cliffs and ruined castles on hilltops in the distance. Los Arcos itself is not as charming as most of the villages where I’ve been staying, but it’s a relief, in a way, to be staying somewhere that doesn’t feel like a history lesson. The square is nice, the church is old, the food is slow, the beer is cold – and now my story is all told. (Apologies to Dr. Seuss.)

The standard itinerary, at this point, is to break up the next part of the journey into two short stages – of 18.3 and 9.5 kilometers – taking two days to arrive in Logroño, the next big town. I think I’ll try to walk the entire distance of 27.8 kilometers tomorrow, but I reserve the right to change my mind if my feet say “No.” I’ll be taking a rest day in Logroño, so I’d like to have earned it.

After getting settled in the albergue at Los Arcos, I found an unoccupied table in the square and, to the consternation of the waiter, ordered a cheese, egg, and aioli sandwich. While I was eating it, my slow and steady friend from Puente la Reina walked up the street, wearing her backpack and leaning on a stick, but looking surprisingly fresh! I was delighted to see her. May I be so wrong more often.

On the way to Estella.

Drying shoes in Estella.

I was watched while leaving Estella in the darkness this morning.

A morning view of the cliffs north across the valley.

A decorative way-marker.

The square in Los Arcos.

Pamplona and Puente la Reina

  • Sept. 22 – Pamplona. Rest day.
  • Sept. 23 – Pamplona to Puente la Reina. 24 km.

Inside the Café Iruña

I spent my rest day in Pamplona wandering the streets, visiting churches, and, most of all, reading The Sun Also Rises. Many of the most important moments in the book occur in the Café Iruña, where I had my dinner Friday night.

The Sun Also Rises was important to me for several years, back when I was only starting to understand what literature can accomplish, and it still seems fresh and powerful to me. The last paragraph of the book is the most heartbreaking two sentences in American literature. (“Yes,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?”) I finished it in the Café Iruña, with the scant remains of a bottle of wine in front of me, and reeled back to my albergue next to the cathedral.

Today, I walked from Pamplona to Puente la Reina. Many of the more dissolute pilgrims were planning to spend today in Pamplona, to take advantage of the second of the two annual festivals of San Fermin – not the famous one, with the running of the bulls, but the local one, where bands play in the streets and everybody drinks to excess.

The most Holy femur of San Fermin

When I arrived in Puente la Reina, I discovered that practically every room in town was booked, for the local version of the same festival. I overpaid for a room outside of town, limped into the old quarter on my blistery feet to find dinner, sat at a table in the street for half an hour without getting anyone’s attention before realizing that the place was being run by one desperately overworked woman who was single-handedly dealing with the festival crowd, and gave up. I limped back to my hotel and then realized I’d left my blue fleece hanging on the back of my chair at the restaurant.

So I limped back again.

When I got there, the street had been barricaded off with a six-foot-tall wooden gate. As I watched, a crowd of young men rushed toward the gate, followed by a few black bulls. Everybody scrambled up onto the gate unhurt, and the bulls turned and trotted alertly back the way they’d come. My blue fleece was in a restaurant on the other side of that gate. When the bulls had disappeared around a corner, I climbed over the barricade.

Some of the young men tried to explain that the street was closed, but I waved them off. A couple of older guys, who were enjoying the action from behind two sheets of plywood they’d erected on the curb, saw what I was up to and helped me hammer on the door of the restaurant where I’d been sitting, yelling for them to open up, and keeping a weather eye out for the return of the bulls. They told me that I was welcome to join them behind the plywood, if necessary, which I thought was swell of them. The restaurant opened the door for me before the bulls returned.

They returned my fleece and then they fed me a nice meal. The restaurant was dark and calm. Once in a while there would be yelling and the pounding of hooves in the street outside, but on the whole it was quite genteel.

Tomorrow I’m walking to a town named Estella. I’m ready for anything.

Pilgrim-oriented art at the high point west of Pamplona

An old doorway on the way to Puente la Reina

First Day in Pamplona

  • Sept. 21 – Zubiri to Pamplona. 20.3 kilometers.

I left the little village of Zubiri as part of a small army of pilgrims and hiked through miles of farmland, enjoyed the heart-stopping spectacle of one of my fellows reaching through an electrified fence to pet a pony and, by some miracle, being neither shocked nor bitten, crossed half a dozen medieval stone bridges, was invited by a kind old woman into a 13th-century church, where a solitary young Asian woman wearing boots and a parka unaccountably put her face into her upturned palms and sobbed, climbed through the ancient fortifications of Pamplona to my hostel, visited the Plaza del Castillo, where I fed bits of an ice-cream cone to an eager sparrow whose head feathers stuck out at improbable angles, was reminded that much of The Sun Also Rises takes place in Pamplona and so, since I’m carrying it in my Kindle, revisited this superb piece of work, had dinner at an outdoor square along the old city walls, the Rincon del Caballo Blanco, where five gifted people performed flamenco as the sun set – the singing brave and soulful, and the guitar work miraculous – and then made my way back home, through a street where hundreds of young people sat on the cobbles, talking, laughing, and exhorting each other to future greatness.

I am taking an extra day to see Pamplona. I will start walking again on Saturday, 9/23.

The Dead Lizard Mystery

  • Sept. 19 – St Jean Pied de Port, France, to Roncesvalles, Spain. 25.1 kilometers
  • Sept. 20 – Roncesvalles to Zubiri. 21.9 km. Total to date: 47 km.

Europe is crowded with ghosts. The parapets of the citadel at St. Jean Pied de Port have been repaired, down through the years, using whatever stones came to hand. Some of the paving underfoot is pieces of broken lintels, into which some master mason, dead now for centuries, had carved the name of the family that lived behind a vanished door. And now these pieces of stone are so worthless that we are invited to rub our feet on them. You can almost hear the voices of the dead moaning at the outrage.

The hostels (aubergues in French and albergues in Spain) have been built inside the walls of the citadel at St. Jean. Signs advertising their presence hang out over the steep medieval street. Today, this street is full of people like me, strangely dressed and slightly confused people, wishing they could find something to eat, not too expensive, and a bed, not too verminous. That’s how this street has been every day for the last 500 years.

I spent the night of the 18th in an aubergue on the rue de la Citadelle, sharing a room with nine or ten other people. The doors of most aubergues are closed and locked at 10:00 PM; those who stagger back from a bar at 10:10 are expected to sleep in an alleyway or spend the night on their knees, begging forgiveness from God. This curfew isn’t much of a problem, since not only is there nothing to do in the evenings, but we pilgrims are rousted from our beds at 6:00 in the morning, which makes an early bedtime an attractive idea.

I started walking the Camino early on a misty morning. The way was often steep but never anything like mountaineering; the Camino here is paved and the incline was never so great that it prevented the occasional arrival of a car.

As the mists began to clear, I caught up to a Korean man who picked a chestnut from the ground and pressed it earnestly into my hand. I tried to ask him why he was walking the Camino, simplifying my question further with every uncomprehending look, until finally I was reduced to, “Why here?”, pointing at the road. “Why here?” he repeated. “I love it!” I laughed and said, “Me, too!” “Me, too,” he said, savoring his comprehension. “Good answer!”

The Camino climbs up out of chestnut trees, into the furze and bracken, and then to open grassland along the ridgetops, where sheep and free horses graze. The views east into the cloudy river valleys of France, and down into the deep valleys on either side, were a nice surprise whenever I had the presence of mind to be fully conscious of where I was.

There is no signpost that announces your arrival into Spain, nor anything that tells you when you have reached the high point of the Camino. A stele has been erected telling pilgrims that they are entering Navarre, though; it is clear that a person’s first loyalty is to their district, not to their nation.

I ate my sandwich in a natural cirque of rocks on top of one of the ridges. A large sign nearby announces that it is forbidden to dispose of animal cadavers here – a real relief to those of us who hadn’t even imagined that this might be a thing to worry about. I crushed a leaf of mint between my fingers and wondered whether any of Charlemagne’s soldiers had done this when they were crossing this pass in 778. Or maybe even earlier, when Homo antecessor, whose bones have been unearthed a few day’s walk to the west, dragged up the cadaver of some worthless animal – a wooly rhino, maybe – and chucked it, smelling of dead rhino and crushed mint, into the rocks at my feet.

The high point is at about 1400 meters. Here, the trail plunges steeply down through one of Europe’s largest remaining beech forests, where the leaves and the mast of fallen nuts forms a lovely unbroken carpet between the boles.

I was looking forward to sitting down and putting my feet up in Roncesvalles, but instead I had to spend an hour standing in line at the enormous albergue, where a team of helpful and shockingly multilingual Dutch volunteers were unable to overcome the bottleneck of having only one guy scanning passports and taking payment at the cash register.

That evening, while scouting for a place to eat that was more atmospheric than the albergue’s dining hall, I met an American man who has spent the last 10 years making his living in China. He would check his enormous multi-function Garmin watch before lighting every cigarette, because he knew his wife would be waking up soon, and she didn’t like to see him smoking. He has hiked canyons on the Appalachian trail, hopping from copperhead snake to black bear and back, pitching his hammock over 50-foot-cliffs, for some reason, and carrying three day’s worth of firewood on his back. He ran a 55-kilometer race wearing sandals, and still has the scars to prove it. I’m not sure what he might remember about me. This person has a remarkably successful psychology; he and I were in line to buy a beer when he struck up a conversation with the lovely young woman in front of us. “Hi. Walking the Camino? Where did you start? What’s your name?” I was agog. I could learn from people like this, if only I had the courage.

The first pilgrims began stirring in my alcove at 5:30 this morning, so that’s when I got up, too. I left Roncesvalles while Venus was still thrillingly bright, low in the east. For the first hour or so, it was too dark to see any of the waymarks that tell pilgrims that they’re on the Camino; I had to trust that the person who was wearing a headlamp, perhaps 100 yards ahead, knew what he or she was doing.

Today was much easier than yesterday, but not nearly so pretty. I walked through pasturage, where frost coated the leaves of trailside blackberries, through little villages where tending cows and selling things to pilgrims seemed to be the chief industries, descending gradually through oak and then pine, to the medieval stone bridge that marks the entrance to the village of Zubiri. I’m writing these words from a busy café where the sound system is playing Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.

Tomorrow, I’m walking to Pamplona.

The Dead Lizard Mystery

My first thought was that the color in the roadway ahead of me was a discarded candy wrapper, but as I drew closer I realized I was looking at a crushed black-and-yellow lizard. The color was shockingly vivid, especially against the splash of blood – if you could ignore the actuality of the thing, it was beautiful. And there, a few minutes later, was another one. And then, a little farther along, another.

I saw five or six of these while crossing the Pyrenees. But why? I was not walking along a major highway; perhaps a dozen cars went by all day on the one-lane road/trail. If I had seen five or six dead lizards in various states of decay, I’d have understood it – but these all appeared to have died in the last day or two. The yellow scales were unclouded and the blood still adhered to the asphalt. None of the possibilities make much sense.

  • The gorse and bracken hide thousands of these creatures, all of which decided to cross the road in a swarm, a few days ago. The occasional cars killed a few, because there were so many of them on the road.
  • They are suicidal. When one of these lizards attempts to cross the road and hears a car coming, it makes a panicked decision to rush toward the darkest visible object – the oncoming tires.
  • The lizards are slow and are hated by pilgrims. There are far more pilgrims than cars on this part of the Camino, so this theory would explain the multiplicity of corpses. To shouts of disgust and rage, these hapless reptiles die under the bootheels of us seekers of enlightenment.
  • The lizards are vile beyond reckoning. The skies are full of griffon vultures, and crows shout their obscenities from the safety of nearby trees, yet there the corpses lie. Maybe a lizard is killed by a car only once in a great while, yet they are incorruptible, shunned by the carrion birds and even by the bacteria that otherwise would dull their colors and metabolize the spilled blood. A corpse lies there until the undifferentiating sun and the heedless wind dessicate the body and it is carried away, flake by flake, each tiny fragment creating a sterile circle wherever it lands, killing the minuscule foliage, creating a spot that is recolonized by lichen only after the passage of years. This is my favorite theory. It is something like what I imagine must be true of the burial rites of the members of the Republican party.

But I don’t know, of course.

St. Jean Pied de Port at night.

Broken lintels underfoot.

The gate at the base of this tower is the beginning of the Camino.

The river at the edge of the Citadel as I left St. Jean.

Climbing through the chestnuts.

Getting a first-rate ear scratching on one of the Camino’s waypoints.

I have been warned against posting too many pictures of barnyard animals, but I can’t help it.

A view from the Pyrenees.

A reassuring sign at my lunch spot.

Horses along the skyline.

The border of Navarre.

Leaving Roncesvalles in the predawn darkness.

The bridge at the entrance to Zubiri. I’m typing these words from the stone house in the center of the picture, where I’m spending the night.

Slightly Too Long in Bayonne

I am in Bayonne because I read that a typical route to St. Jean Pied de Port, the quasi-official start of the Camino Frances, involves flying to Paris, taking the train to Bayonne, and then taking another train to St Jean “Foot Port.” It is also typical for pilgrims to fly into Madrid or Barcelona, but, fine as those cities are, Paris is in a class of its own.

The “Camino Frances” is the “French Road” – the path to Santiago de Compostela that starts in France. It is the most famous of the various Caminos, which means that it is the most crowded, and which also means it has the most pilgrim infrastructure: the most hostels, the best waymarking, the most restaurants, the attention of the world. If someone tells you that they “walked the Camino,” they are saying they walked the Camino Frances. Otherwise, they might tell you that they walked to Santiago via the Camino Norte (which skirts the Bay of Biscay, on Spain’s north coast) or the Camino Portugues (which heads north to Santiago through Portugal). Anyone who tells you something like deserves your respect; they have chosen the hard way of doing something whose easy way is already very difficult.

This is my third “introductory” post – the third post that is not about the experience of walking the Camino. At my current rate, of a new post every day-and-a-half, I will have inflicted something like 25 of these on my few friends and family members who possess the constitutions to attempt to read them. I assume that I will have less time for writing when I start walking. In addition, I am addressing these posts to myself, to a greater extent than I am to any hypothetical reader; if I weren’t talking in this electronic journal, I wouldn’t be talking at all. And, finally, it is the easiest thing in the world to skip a piece when you find it boring. Try it!

I am sitting at a riverside café named “Les Tontons Flingueurs,”a series of glyphs that means nothing to me at all. “Sweet Home Alabama” is playing softly in the background. Raindrops streak the canopy that protects the streetside tables. The sun has set.

When I arrived in Bayonne, yesterday afternoon, I walked into town from the train station, found my superbly situated hotel, in the heart of the medieval district, and checked in. When I reserved a room with a shared bath, back in Seattle, I had thought I was being continental – I hadn’t imagined that the bathroom would be at the end of the hall and down a flight of stairs. Or that the floor of my bedroom would be canted like the deck of a wrecked ship being beaten to death on a reef. On the other hand, I also had not imagined that turning on the TV would immediately show me an obliging young woman who removed her blouse almost as if she were unaware of the watching camera.

After getting established, I walked up the hill to the 13th century cathedral, where an accomplished string quartet in the circumflex* was apparently rehearsing for an upcoming concert. I examined the hoardings on a bulletin board in the marthamble and saw that they were planning to perform the Mozart Requiem in one hour! (This version, pour quatuor à cordes, was produced more than a century ago by someone named Lichtenthal.) One hour is not enough time for a sit-down meal in France, but I was sure I could find something to eat, somewhere, and be back at the cathedral well before the music started. One block away, a restaurant served me a steaming wedge of quiche in a to-go bag, which I devoured wolfishly in an alleyway — assuming that a hungry wolf might attempt to eat a savory gobbet that has been heated to the temperature of molten steel.

The music was lovely, although the acoustics of a cathedral are not really correct for a string quartet. The dark pews were full of quiet, attentive listeners. Not a single cellphone chirped during the entire performance.

I took a few photographs of the dark city on the way back to my hotel, but none of them convey the cool air, the glow of rain between the cobbles, or the clatter of conversation in the bars.

Today is Sunday and, to my surprise, much of Bayonne’s tourist infrastructure has vanished. I wandered through the ancient part of the city, admiring the architecture and wishing someone would sell me a sandwich. Finding Les Tontons Flingueurs this evening was a relief. To be fair, there are many restaurants that are still open, but I had a hard time finding one that was neither deserted nor crowded, swanky nor funky, loud nor sepulchral. I’d rather be hungry than intimidated.

I’m sure this is enough for a post that exists mainly as a buffer before the photos you see below. Tomorrow I’m going to St. Jean Pied de Port, and on Tuesday I’m walking over the Pyrenees.

* I continue here my tradition of abandoning any attempt to remember the actual names of the parts of church buildings.

This photo was taken a few feet from the entrance to my hotel.

Making an impression with your knockers.

The quartet rehearses in Bayonne’s cathedral.

A good place to devour a quiche.

Blue and white candles for the virgin.

A silhouetted figure can be seen relaxing in a window in the top left corner of this picture.

Walking back to the hotel.

This commemorative slab is a reminder of how much better our names could be. Don Alfonso the Battler, King of Navarre! The Black Prince! Don Pedro the Cruel, King of Castille!

The card taped to the window of this bookshop says, “It is possible that the book is the last refuge of the free man. – A. Suarez”

One Day in Paris

Last night, at the Café de Pont Neuf, I ate my unloved dinner, over which no one had ever taken any pride or expended any joy, and drank 50cl of Côtes du Rhone, while reading Jorge Luis Borges and watching the traffic struggle by outside. I had just spent my one day in Paris by walking up and down the Seine, visiting Notre Dame, lingering at the Musée d’Orsay, and then enjoying the exercise and the strange familiarity of such sights as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, the Jardin des Tuileries, and the bustling entrance to the Louvre, before making my way back to the vicinity of my AirBnB and this café.

I was reading Borges almost accidentally. Having just finished a book titled 1491, which earnestly, intelligently, and not altogether convincingly attempted to upend the received wisdom of my boyhood about indigenous Americans before European contact, I needed something new. Nothing in my Kindle’s “Read Next” category struck me as essential or urgent, but there, near the top of the alphabetical list, was my “Borges” category.

I cannot explain why I was drawn to Selected Poems, 1923-1967, since I do not read poetry, as a rule. One of the first happy surprises was the epigraph, from Robert Louis Stevenson:

I do not set up to be a poet. Only an all-round literary man: a man who talks, not one who sings. … Excuse this little apology for my muse; but I don’t like to come before people who have a note of song, and let it be supposed I do not know the difference.

An author who displays this extremity of taste when choosing an epigraph deserves to be taken seriously, whatever excuses he might make.

I have been so charmed by the first part of this volume that I decided to use this post to urge these poems on anyone who thinks he might care to read a poem now and again. Here, for example, is a short poem called My Whole Life, translated, with the help of Borges himself, by W. S. Merwin:


Here once again the memorable lips, unique and like yours.

I am this groping intensity that is a soul.

I have got near to happiness and have stood in the shadow of suffering.

I have crossed the sea.

I have known many lands; I have seen one woman and two or three men.

I have loved a girl who was fair and proud, with a Spanish quietness.

I have seen the city’s edge, an endless sprawl where the sun goes down tirelessly, over and over.

I have relished many words.

I believe deeply that this is all and that I will neither see nor accomplish new things.

I believe that my days and my nights, in their poverty and their riches, are the equal of God’s and of all men’s.

Now, here is the epigraph Borges chose for his San Martin Copybook. This is from a letter written by Edward Fitzgerald:

As to an occasional copy of verses, there are few men who have leisure to read, and are possessed of any music in their souls, who are not capable of versifying on some ten or twelve occasions during their natural lives: at a proper conjunction of the stars. There is no harm in taking advantage of such occasions.

So challenged, and with several glasses of wine already settling themselves comfortably in my belly, I decided that this might be one of my ten or twelve occasions:


On the Quai du Louvre,

Alone, fed, and warm with wine,

I look out the window as a siren passes,

And there, a muscular young man

Stops his bicycle, front tire aslant,

And salutes as the jangling car goes by.

He cannot be sane, of course,

Unless he is measured against the rest of us.

Toward an unknown horror the siren vanishes.

Toward an unknown horror the bicyclist, too.

I finish my wine and watch in surprise as it and my hand produce these words.

Although I don’t like to come before people who have a note of song, and let it be supposed I do not know the difference, I have decided to stop hiding. I will do what I can do.

 from the train to Bayonne, 9/16/2017

The moment I realized I am currently an idiot in both French and Spanish.

Inside Notre Dame.

Outside the Musée d’Orsay.

Sacré Coeur in the distance.

Un drôle chapeau.

Acrobats at the Tuileries.

Glamour along the Seine.

Sunset from the Pont Neuf.

Hardware and Software

Despite having promised on the landing page that this would be a data-free reading experience, I feel obliged to say a few words about how I am planning to write and post that writing to my web site without using a computer. If you have no interest in the nuts and bolts of this operation, I urge you to stop reading now.

The key piece of technology here is a folding Bluetooth keyboard. I settled on something called the iClever IC-BK05, which, so far, seems to be a solidly built and pleasingly portable piece of work. It is a full-size keyboard, when unfolded, but it weighs less than 10 ounces and collapses down into a metal-sheathed dolmen that is about 4” x 6” by ½” thick. The battery life is advertised at 5 hours, while using the backlight to make the keys more – “pretty” is the word I’m looking for, I suppose – or an incredible 30 hours when I reconcile myself to the old-fashioned, reflected-light keys that I have been using my whole life. There are a few growing pains, as with any new technology, but I have solved most of them by the desperate expedient of reading the part of the slim manual marked “Attention.”

The only other essential hardware I’m using is a stand that props up my phone at a reasonable viewing angle. There are many such devices on the market. This one is a MOKO brand that folds flat, into a slab perhaps twice the thickness and surface area of a credit card.

I have installed an Android version of WordPress on my phone (a Blu Life One X, by the way), which I have not looked at very carefully; if it allows me to make anything like the same number of mistakes as the desktop version, it should be more than dangerous enough for my purposes.

The Android version of Microsoft Word that I am using to write these words is not going to be the right program for me. A Google search implies that the problem I am having with making the menu visible is endemic to Android devices. Although it is true that all I really need is some way to display, edit, and save text – that formatting concerns are not relevant until I move the words to the Web – I need to be able to change the font size, so that the words on the screen remind me less of trying to read the condensed OED after misplacing the magnifying glass. The menu functionality may not be entirely absent – I seem to be able to occasionally bring it up by pressing Alt – but, having revealed it, I cannot dispel it again without pressing Esc, which kicks me back out to the desktop. I may be maligning this program unfairly, but I’m sure that something simpler is likely to be better for me.

My camera is a Sony RX100 IV, which allows me to send selected photos wirelessly to my phone. When the photos are on my phone, I can perform almost all of the editing I can readily imagine using a free Google app named Snapseed.

Finally, I can’t imagine attempting to do this without a reliable source of backup power. I am using an Anker PowerCore 10,000, which has already saved me so often that, in my weaker moments, I am capable of believing that I deserve to be saved.