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.

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  1. Wow. Totally fabulous. Forgive the gushing but I must. Thanks for being generous with your talents, Jim. It’s a delight to share in your adventures this way. The pics are wonderful – truly.
    -What if the lizards had been bred for some reason, (an insect eradication campaign?) and were being transported in a faulty cage on the back of a flatbed truck? –
    I think your fourth theory is one of the best things I’ve ever read. With one of the best punchlines.

  2. I have many comments. Drink the mouse liquor. The Raven King demands your surrender. Your search for the sublime is the magic path. Your fear of greatness is your clown.

    • In case anyone else reads this and wonders what the hell, John is referring to important plot points in a really fun TV series called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It’s full of magic and cleverness.

  3. The lizard is your familiar. These corpses are yours to decipher. Your journey is conjuring magic.

    • I doubt that I’m either uncorruptible or incorruptible, so the deciphering beats me. I think my familiar is more likely to be a pig, scratching his ear on a post.

  4. Dad keeps talking about ghosts. Since he heard that you and Bob might be headed to Italy he keeps trying to tell me something important about Edward’s lost love there. There’s a caramel skinned woman or her daughter somewhere in Italy who has heard of Edward Mansfield. This idea has stuck in Dad’s mind. I throw this out in case you choose to engage a grail quest. Not all the old doors have vanished underfoot.

  5. The Camino is so impossibly beautiful. My photos from Norway and Iceland prove that sheep improve every landscape.

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