short stories

~ Just Another Fool Beneath The Ether ~

 

caminoo

‘Sorry for the mess but there is a form of madness that possesses this slowly decaying heart of mine. It corrupts and consumes me; it pulls me relentlessly into the unknown lands beyond my horizons. Towards that ineffable something I have ventured my entire life. Beyond those horizons I look out for something on those rugged mountain trails, sitting in smoky bars in foreign lands, staring out wistfully at the red ocean sunsets. My brain knows I can be nowhere else other than the here and now, but this heart of mine will never fully grant me the peace that it needs. Maniacally it shall beat its way toward its inevitable death, and until that happens I am cursed and blessed to be out on these wild plains, wandering wide-eyed among these mountains of madness – relentlessly hunting the horizon for a home that doesn’t exist in this galaxy, or the next…

‘Just Another Fool Beneath The Ether‘ 

Paths colliding. People meeting. Mouths speaking their secrets. The sun setting on another perfect day of doing nothing other than moving forward through space and time. I had been walking another seven hours in the blistering heat of midsummer Spain, edging ever more closely to the final destination of Santiago. The path up until now was a hazy blur of old towns, blue skies, red wine and fields of wheat flowing magnificently toward the horizon. It wasn’t just the road to Santiago that was my path however. So far it had been a twisting and turbulent road through the first stage of adulthood as I stumbled around the world, working odd jobs, hiking mountain paths, getting drunk with strangers and trying to find out just what it was exactly that was corrupting this heart of mine. Behind me I had left a trail of footprints, crazy encounters and empty wine bottles – the blood and bones of my experience scattered in various ditches around the world. 

The art of living without a plan had seemingly led me to many interesting places, and as ever I had no plans after the walk was done. Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I was just living for the moment like some sort of new-age, drunken buddha. There was a sort of simple bliss about this walk through Spain that stirred something in my soul. Waking up everyday with no plans other than following some little flicks of yellow paint; hand washing my clothes in streams and hostel sinks; meeting random people and sharing the contents of our minds before parting ways forever – not much had made sense in my life so far, but the last weeks had made so much sense to me that I was slightly confused about it all. It was almost enough to make me feel like a holy man, but in reality I was just another fool beneath the ether, dragging my feet through the dirt, getting drunk and staring up into skies not knowing what the hell it all really meant. Whatever. It didn’t matter for that moment in time as I continued walking with my new companion Lee while discussing our favourite writers. He was a fellow countryman I had first come across as he posed butt-naked for a photo while facing out into a mountainous valley. I knew he was one of the crazy ones from the off and it was only natural we had ended up walking together. Our love of writers had led us to picking up the pen ourselves, and I shared some of my poetry with him while he told me his plans to document his past drug addiction in a book called ‘the scum diaries’ – surely a tip of the hat to another one of the crazies: Hunter Thompson.

Later on that evening, we met up with a couple of Americans Lee had befriended on the trail. They were a mother and daughter from the state of Montana. We had dinner with them and enjoyed paella and red wine and tapas snacks, tossing the words back and forth – the usual El Camino-inspired chat which was typically a philosophical exploration of life, travel, culture, jobs, and the question of why the hell it actually was you were walking eight-hundred kilometres across a country covered in sweat and blisters. The question fell my way once again and I gave the answer that had now become slightly routine over the last fortnight. 

“I feel a bit like the odd one out,” I started. “Everyone seems to have a reason to walk – something they’re looking for or hoping to find out about themselves – but, personally, I feel like I’m walking just to walk. If I had to choose an ideal life it would be waking up everyday, strapping my backpack to my shoulders, and just putting one foot in front of the other to get to the next destination. It’s a simple life and a nice one. All you have to do is eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired. Hell, I’d do it for the rest of my life if the path didn’t end, maybe just stopping off in a town every now and again to work and save up a bit more money. To me, it would make a lot more sense than the typical life back home.”

Of course, I knew at that moment I sounded like another hippy throwing out cliche statements, but the words I told them were true in my heart. It was what I had been feeling since the moment I started walking four weeks ago back in France – this feeling that life could be so wonderful and simple if only we allowed it to be. They looked at me and smiled, the American mother saying good for you and inviting me to stay on her farm back in the states. They then showed me some pictures of their lodgings and mountain surrounds and asked me whether I’d want to ever settle down and lay some roots somewhere. I told them that I wasn’t sure right now, just that at the moment I couldn’t imagine doing it. 

After we were done with our drinks and philosophical musings, me and Lee headed back to the hostel through the town that was now coated in twilight as the sun had sank below the horizon for another day. Now a little tipsy from the drinks at the bar, we stumbled back in good spirits and chatted about our love interests while on the camino. I liked Lee. He was another starry-eyed dreamer like myself – a wild and flamboyant soul, the sort you rarely bumped into back on the streets of everyday life. He was a little bit older and seemed a little bit wiser than I. Or maybe he wasn’t; maybe he too was another fool beneath the ether not really knowing what the hell what he was doing. Well, it turned out that it may have been the case as we both got hopelessly lost on the return, wandering off out of town on some downhill road into the darkness of a random farm. Lee eventually got his phone out to redirect us back to the hostel where we found a new drama awaited us. Bed bugs. It was a common concern when walking El Camino de Santiago. The lodgings you stayed in were huge dormitories frequented by thousands of people every year, and it was only natural that the little critters made their homes in those well-worn mattresses. This time it was so bad that the whole hostel had emptied out as groups of bleary-eyed backpackers sat on the steps outside discussing what to do. Among them were some other friends of mine, two Spaniards and a Brazilian girl. We chatted about the situation at hand, before I told them my story from when I had run into those dreaded bed bugs about a week previous in an old church, causing me to try and sleep in the hostel toilet cubicle for a few hours in the middle of the night, before giving up when a fellow traveller started violating the cubicle beside me with violent diarrhoea.

My tale of misfortune drew some laughs from my friends and perhaps even planted a seed about what we could do with our current situation. Well, it had already been planted by my friend Damien, but it was quickly blossoming in our minds. At first it seemed like a joke, but the more we discussed it, the more it seemed a good idea to get drunk and start walking through the night. After flirting a bit more with the prospect, the joke had now become a plan. We looked at each other and made the decision. At that moment a fellowship was formed. A mission set. We grabbed our bags and headed off back into town to buy some supplies for the task ahead – five bottles of red wine sold to us a reluctant restaurant owner closing up shop for the evening and paid for by Lee – a man now in good spirits at the prospect of the spontaneous adventure ahead.

Our mission began as we started walking under the stars and the moon, making our way out of town while passing the bottles of wine between each other. We had a speaker to play music and head-torches to look for the flicks of yellow paint that guided us in the direction of Santiago. A sense of perfect disorder was felt and at that moment we were comrades – “the wolves of the night” as Lee had christened us in Spanish. Our mission seemed to have as much cause and purpose as the armies that marched to war, and every step forward was a noble one – one that would lead us to a victory of something I couldn’t quite explain, but I knew was something worth marching for.

The marching continued through the night as we passed through farmlands and small villages full of barking dogs piercing the silence of the night. Feeling as pensive and philosophical as usual, I talked to my comrades about the camino and everything else that went through my drunken mind. The Brazlian girl was the only religious one of us walking this Christian pilgrimage. She told me she was walking it as a tradition and doing it for her mother, before going on to ask me if there was anything I was looking for while on this pilgrimage. I took a swig of the wine while thinking of my latest answer to the question. “I really have nothing I’m looking for,” I told her. “This is it. The here and now of the experience is all that matters. I feel like the more you look for something, the more you miss what’s under your very nose. There’s a quote I like in zen buddhism: “With zen buddhism, one does not find the answers, but the questions disappear, and when the questions disappear, one arrives at the insight of what is in front of you.” She looked at me and smiled, entertaining my madness. My philosophical ramblings were as edgy as ever as we continued on drinking and trekking under the stars. At one point fatigue hit and we stopped for a quick nap on a bench somewhere in a field, before we got up and carried on with our mission. 

The path carried on and soon the first embers of daylight could be seen on the horizon. We were just a few more miles from the next town where we could stop and rest, but at that moment I realised I was too drunk and tired to go on. I told the others to carry on without me and that I was going to sleep on a field beside the path. This was deemed to be a foolish decision by my comrades who informed me that there were wild pigs roaming the countryside that could potentially cause me harm. It was news to me, but I was too drunk to care and collapsed into my sleeping bag in the grass. They carried on down the trail until they eventually drifted out of sight. Would I see them again? I hoped so, but nothing was certain right now as I passed out alone in a foreign field under the stars. I looked up at that diamond sky and smiled like the drunken fool I was. Truly, I was a man lost in a dream, tumbling down a rabbit hole that had been getting stranger and stranger as the years had gone on, and had perhaps now reached its peak somewhere in the countryside of northern Spain. 

About three hours later I awoke to the sounds of birds chirping and hikers talking from the nearby path. I looked at my surroundings – the empty field, the bales of hay, the bugs on my backpack, the sun now beating ruthlessly down upon me. I had awoken in many bizarre circumstances around the world over the last years, but it seemed I had now reached the most bizarre of all. I was hungover, tired; my hair was full of leaves and twigs and bits of grass. I had accumulated a few more mosquito bites. My backpack was disheveled and it appeared I had misplaced a few more items of clothing. I stood up and thought back to the past twelve hours and just burst out laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all. To many my life was a complete joke or a mess, but as I looked up at the morning sky, my existence made perhaps more sense than it ever had or ever would. I had a contentment in my heart; a feeling of pure joy in my soul. The world around me glistened with magic and I may have been just a bum with a backpack and no plan, but at that moment I was richer and more complete than any man in the world. This was the way of the camino and the way of my life. I was a hopeless wanderer, a dreamer, a pilgrim, and perhaps most of all: a fool. But I was a happy fool, and truthfully that was all I ever really wanted to be.

short stories

~ The Way of the Wanderer ~

~ The Way of the Wanderer ~

It was month six of being back in the routine of normal life. I was on the south coast of England in Brighton, working in a pub down by the marina. It was a typical bar job, only it left me even more wistful-eyed than usual having to spend my spare moments gazing out the window at the ocean while dreaming of sailing off somewhere out into the great unknown. Outside that glass sat dozens of boats lined up in the harbour, bobbing side to side in the water, their sails flapping in the wind – those pieces of cloth eagerly twitching to once again feel the airs of freedom and adventure they were born to catch. In between pouring drinks and half-heartedly participating in small-talk with customers and fellow workers, I cast my gaze out to those waters while feeling the allure that only the bohemian soul feels each time they see those sails flapping in the wind, or a bird take off from a ship’s mast, or even something as simple as a singular raindrop swoop and swerve its way down the window glass. This yearning for freedom was only exacerbated by having to serve the group of fishermen who did a few hours graft out on the boats every morning, only to arrive in the bar midday to sit around a table and knock back copious amounts of ale. While I toiled away, they sat around jovially conversing and joking of the morning’s exploits out at sea. To me they seemed like men who had figured life out: a way to get the job done, taste the fresh air of life and get back to conversing around the tables of life, drunk, messy-haired and wild-eyed. Perhaps I was staring into my own distant gypsy future I thought, forty years of chaos and survival down the line, living on a scraggy old boat, still bobbing side to side through life’s waters at the mercy of the current of my own restless heart. It was a nice thought to entertain myself with. Other than those guys were some weary-eyed pensioners who sat in dark corners alone silently drinking themselves to sleep. The thought hit me whether they had spent their entire lives on the grind just to afford the privilege of drinking themselves slowly and solemnly toward death. I looked side to side from the alcoholic fishermen to just the standard alcoholic. As always with my extensive daily ethnography of the human race, it was hard to say exactly for sure which life was the one that had been lived well in complete certainty.

There was one thing I still felt certain about in my flesh and bones: a man wasn’t made to endure an entire life of relentless workplace bullshit only to descend toward death in a dark and depressing manner. Of course, not all jobs out there were like this – seemingly just the vast majority (which naturally included my low-skilled job). It had been increasing in absurdity as the last weeks had gone by and it was right about when my power-crazed supervisor was belittling me for pouring a couple milliliters over on a whiskey and coke that I made the conscious decision to quit. Having someone scrunch their face and speak down to you about something so trivial in order to make herself feel important was enough to make up my mind. Often in these jobs one had to deal with such souls – bitter souls, vengeful souls, spiteful souls – and there was only so much I could endure of the professional human-being before the deluge of absurdity caused me to crave the sweet release of the wild. I had been thinking about walking El Camino de Santiago through Spain for a while, so naturally it seemed like the next trip now that I had decided to pack my bags yet again. Summer had just begun and my skin awaited to feel the rays of the Spanish sunshine while wandering freely across an entire country. It wasn’t long before the final decision was made. I handed in that old and familiar notice and left the bar and scowling supervisors alone once again in that world I was destined to never understand or belong to or even tolerate for any considerable period of time.

Two weeks later I touched down in the French Pyrenees in a city called Bayonne. From there I would travel to the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to begin the 500-mile hike across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The route was traditionally an ancient Christian pilgrimage where lone wanderers would slowly and surely make their way across an entire country to achieve some sort of religious salvation. Nowadays the hike was completed by all sorts of lost, nomadic souls in search for something that would alleviate the pain of what it was to exist as a human-being in a seemingly meaningless universe. That had been part of the reason the trek had appealed to me. Being back in the neighbourhoods of normality always numbed my flesh and bones with a sense of sadness. Life just lost its magic when you were surrounded by sensible people content in their own lives of structure and sanity. Predictability and order were the slaughterhouses of the soul. I felt a greater thrill when I was surrounded by the desperate and deranged, the crazed and wild – the misfits and outcasts who threw their lives into a flimsy backpack and walked solo across an entire country just because something deep inside possessed them to get totally lost in the mystery of the unknown.

I couldn’t have gotten off to a better start meeting cockney Pete straight off the plane – an eccentric, bald-headed, retired army soldier with no home or plot or next of kin. He was a person who walked the Camino again and again simply because there was no other place for someone like him left in human society to reside. This time was number three of the year and number thirty-one in total. The man had walked so much the blisters were permanently marked into his mind as well as his feet. Hearing him speak, it was clear to me that he was a scratched and scarred soul, and naturally my alien flesh felt an affinity to such a being.

Having had him befriend me and a young Danish guy at the airport, we all walked together in the rain through the town of Bayonne toward the train station to try and catch the last train to St-Jean. Pete led the way marching through the streets while giving us a briefing on the journey that awaited us. With an erratic nature and a childlike sense of awe, he shared tales of the classic pilgrimage and basically told us how we weren’t cut out for it and that we should just go home.

“Lads what you gotta understand is that this isn’t your usual holiday. I hope you didn’t come here to piss around. If your heart isn’t set on it then just turn around and get back on that plane right now. I’ve walked this walk over thirty times now and I see people like you all the time starting this walk, thinking it’s a breeze, a booze-up – a walk in the park. Let me tell you right now, it’s not what you think. This journey – it’s a mental one as well as a physical one. Be prepared for the unexpected. Out there on that trail you have a lot of time to yourself and a lot of people aren’t ready for the things they have to face and deal with in their own minds. Especially in the Mesetta part of the walk; it’s a long stretch of nothingness and I’ve seen people break down and quit.” He kept wiping his bald head dry with a cloth while he briefed us, still clearly thinking he was in the army. “Did you see those two other English guys who were on the plane? Tourists. Tourists the both of them. I can see how they walk, how they dress – how they speak. Did you see that little guidebook they had? They will turn around and be heading home before the end of the second week. I’ve walked this walk over thirty times now, so I know what I’m talking about. Thirty times. Over thirty times I’ve walked the Camino now.”

Pete was delightfully mental. Already just off the plane the trip was well and truly off to the start I had hoped for. The scripted small-talk conversations about jobs and studies were a long way away now. I was back in foreign lands, walking in the rain with a deranged and wild soul, on the precipice of it all: sanity and society – joy and despair. He invited us to stay in a hotel with him in Bayonne, but I wanted to get to St-Jean so me and the Danish guy left him to it, at which point he got offended and stormed off into the rain. I knew I would see him again, so I didn’t get too sad about the whole situation. Someone that crazy was good to have around for small periods of time only, and I hadn’t quite gauged to what degree of insanity he was operating at just yet. I liked him but I didn’t really fancy waking up in a hotel room in a foreign town with a knife to my throat just a few hours after landing. The descent into chaos needed to be gradual at times – the breakdown piece by piece, rather than the entire engine exploding in your face as soon as you turned the ignition key.

The next day I got started on the walk, making my way over the last batch of hills in the Pyrenees before dropping down onto the plains of Northern Spain. It was a short and rainy stop in France and now I was in the lands where I could practice the awful Spanish I had picked up on a couple of trips in South and Central America. At the end of the day I emerged from a wooded trail and arrived in my first ‘Alberge’ – army-like barracks where all the wandering Camino souls lined themselves up to eat, drink and try to sleep after a long day on the trail.

The first one I stayed in was an old converted cathedral which could give shelter to almost two-hundred people. Looking at the sea of faces, it was clear that the walk attracted a diverse group of people of all shapes, sizes, religions and bizarre personalities. From young South Koreans walking to put it on their resume, to recently divorced Italians, to old married Ecuadorian couples, to attractive young Europeans, to the usual midlife crisis crowd – it was an eclectic pick and mix of modern-day pilgrims trudging their way slowly towards the shores of some distant destiny. In the evening we all sat around tables eating ‘el menu del dia’ while talking about life and travel and anything else in between. As always, the randomness of it made me feel good; it made me feel relaxed to be sat in circles of other people also drifting aimlessly through the great wilderness of life. Listening to them all, it was clear that they were people of different forms, of different experiences – of different confusions and delusions about life.

In the first days I walked the trail with a Croatian, an American, a Danish guy and, of course, Pete who continually appeared on the trail chatting the head off some slightly concerned stranger before shifting to another. Everyone on the trail knew who he was by the end of the first few days. He was known as ‘Camino Pete’ – the man who walked the trail again and again simply because there was no other home for him other than the rugged, dusty path of the Camino. I gradually began to learn that his life was even more chaotic than I imagined after recently losing the last member of his family, his brother, when he was killed by American friendly fire in Afghanistan. It made sense why the man wandered perpetually like he did. His life may have been chaotic, but it made me feel good knowing that there was someone like him out there relentlessly hunting the horizon for some sort of personal salvation and liberation. The more I spoke to him and watched him talk the head off of strangers, the more I realised this ‘something’ was probably a wife – a fellow soul to spend the rest of his days with in a more peaceful way than the absolute anarchy that had been the last years and decades of his life. Again, I sympathised with Pete; often I stared into the pretty eyes of passing women in the streets thinking they could save me from this life of chaos I had drifted towards. It is true that many a good man has been driven to death and madness by the lack of a woman’s love. Camino Pete just needed his break, like we all did.

Besides him I gradually began to learn why so many other pilgrims walked this path. Conversations were had with many walking besides little streams, wooded pathways, old cobbled lanes, golden fields of wheat, or sat around restaurant tables sipping wine on some street corner in a small town in the middle of nowhere. As usual with solo travelling, the social mask was off and people were more willing to speak from the heart when they were far from home surrounded by people they may never see again. This led to moments where I was walking alone on the trail only to find myself five minutes later listening to a complete stranger’s life story like I was some sort of therapist. Like I had noticed before in my life, my receptive, introverted personality attracted many people who wanted to vent the storms and thunder that raged inside their skulls. Maybe I was destined to become an actual therapist, I considered at one point. The idea of people confiding in someone like me was enough to shake my head in utter confusion and bewilderment. Didn’t they know I was on the edge like the rest of them? That I was also just a short way away from drowning totally?

Still I thought I’d give it go anyway, test the waters and see what desperation and madness was stirring within the skulls of my fellow pilgrims. Speaking to those first people I met on the trail, I found out that the Croatian walked because he was a Christian at a point in his life where he needed to decide where to take his career in dentistry – a decision that possibly involved him moving to my home country: the U.K. The Danish guy walked because he had just left his job and didn’t know where to go next on the road of life other than the fact his Chinese girlfriend was still studying in Denmark. The American guy walked because he could – a modern nomad who made money from renting out a couple of apartments in New York (although I suspected he too was searching for a girlfriend). Other than that, some people simply walked for leisure, including myself I thought. The people asked me if I had a reason to walk, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that I just simply walked to walk. There was an equilibrium about this way of life which made far more sense to me that the conventions and traditions of my society. Putting a backpack on my shoulders and just moving forward in the present moment from town to town gave me a sort of monk-like contentment that could not be found in the things I considered trivial and frivolous back home. Job promotions, cultural box-ticking, mortgages, cars, material goods, the weekend, public holidays, television soaps and sitcoms – all of it just confused me to the core. Nothing about it excited me and made me feel alive in any way. More noble – more fulfilling – was this bohemian life out on the trial, speaking to people about life, living hour to hour, day to day, meal to meal. Perhaps I was fooling myself again though – something I definitely had been guilty of in the past. I’d go from thinking I’ve discovered the secret of life to being sat in a bar feeling hopelessly lost. On one particular occasion after the first week, I sat having a drink with a Belgian family watching the world cup football while awkwardly trying to justify my nomadic lifestyle to them. The parents were both teachers and were walking with their young son and daughter during the summer holidays. I’d look at them and ask myself whether I wanted what they had. Did I want that life? A life of family? Of career? Of stability and security and suburban sanity? Certainly, they seemed happier than I was on the surface of things, but I knew that that sort of predictable life would probably drive me to a high-story ledge eventually. As always, I grabbed my backpack and carried on walking wide-eyed into the unknown.

The journey went on as the weeks and miles passed by through the plains of Northern Spain. Each day I awoke after a bad night’s sleep in a crowded dormitory, chucked my clothes into my dusty backpack, grabbed some light breakfast, rubbed my eyes and let the soles of my shoes hit the trail once again. It amused me that I didn’t even have a map for the whole operation; I was totally reliant on these little bits of yellow paint that lay on the sides of rocks, street signs and dilapidated old buildings. Like with so much of my life, there was no set plan and I felt strangely at home in that unknown. Often, I wished life was as simple and peaceful as the trail life. Just following that yellow paint through a country left my mind in a meditative state, only stopping for paella and red wine and moments gazing out at pretty landscapes. The fields and quiet little towns I passed through allowed me to drift off into my own little world, and I spent time sitting wistful eyed in cafes, staring out and observing the settled lives of the residents there. After a long day’s walking I would sit back and watch swallows fly in sunset skies as I sipped my coffee in a hazy state of mind, scribbling some poetry and short stories into a wrinkled notebook. Soon I forgot about my everything else outside the Camino. The trek began to feel like a small lifetime, and the process and stages emotions of the walk encapsulated this. Sometimes I walked in a group; sometimes I walked alone. Sometimes I experienced joy; sometimes I experienced sadness. Sometimes I felt lost; sometimes I felt found.

If the Camino was a little snapshot version of life itself, then it was only natural that some female came along at some point to steal your heart and leave you confused. The moment came in the middle of the day as she stood there like an apparition, a fleeting mirage in the midsummer heat. There a little further down the trail I watched her blonde hair blowing in the breeze and tanned skin shining in the sun. The path had presented me with many things so far and now it had presented me with a goddess here to destroy me. Naturally I knew I didn’t have much of a chance with such a creature. The gods had cursed me by offering me conventional good looks, but also by leaving me with a strange, unrelatable personality that left most girls running for the hills like scared deer when they saw what really lurked beneath the superficial surface. They got lured in but the second I opened my mouth I could see them mentally packing their bags and bidding me goodbye with a confused and disappointed look in their eyes. I knew it was a hopeless task, but still I figured I’d get speaking to her anyway to see what exactly had driven her to walk the Camino.

Sharing some red wine around a table in a courtyard of an Alberge that evening, we spoke about life and travel and everything in between. Unbelievably the conversation went extremely well. It turned out that she was a twenty-four-year-old student from Denmark, studying theology and religious studies while working in a homeless shelter. Her name was Laura and she was a lover of philosophy, astrology and anything that involved mystery, magic and a little bit of hippy madness. Despite her model good looks, she was uncorrupted at her core and still remained a bit of gypsy spirit unafraid to pick up bits of dirty string from the road to use as bracelets, or bite her nails, or pop the blisters on the feet of other hikers. Trying and failing not to be lost in her raw beauty, I carried on sharing my mind with her while she let me peer a bit deeper into hers. It appeared, like a lot of Camino wanderers, she too wasn’t quite sure what she was searching for or even doing in this thing called life.

“Yeah I don’t really have any idea what I want to do in life,” she said. “Like you I would like to travel half the year and then work the other, maybe in a non-governmental organisation – a charity abroad or something. I don’t think I want a settled life, but I’m not sure. I don’t know.”

I emphasised with her lack of certainty about her direction. Like me she was also in her mid-twenties which meant her mind was feeling the effects of over two decades of cultural conditioning. The expectations to conform to the expectations and traditions of the older generations were at their peak in the twenties, especially as the end of education beckoned and ‘the real world’ awaited in all its stern-faced, cross-armed seriousness. The heavy hands of society, parents and teachers would fall on the quaking shoulders of young people standing at the crossroads of life, wondering what the hell they should do for the rest of their lives. I felt that after the age of thirty most of the pressure and tension was gone; if you weren’t part of the cultural machine by that point, people simply gave up and labelled you an outcast, hippy or simply crazy. Being the tender age of twenty-four and at her most vulnerable, her mind was no doubt full of noise about such choices in life. Still, she needn’t have worried too much I thought – a girl who looked like that was never going to have too much of a tough existence in this world. At least I imagined so anyway.

The next days we wandered together along the path talking relentlessly about anything and everything that lingered in the recesses of our skulls. There was a closeness between us that was altogether rare to experience with someone you had just met. By the end of the second day, we had told each other so many private things about ourselves that we never thought we’d share with another. I had even shared with her some of my writing which I had never done with anyone directly before. In between this we shared music with each other, sat and rested under the shade of trees, and enjoyed good coffee and ‘tortilla de patata’ in cafes – little bits of cake mashed together with potato, egg and cheese. Throughout all of this, I felt a strange sense of happiness and joy I was yet to experience throughout the grand journey of life. The thought hit me that it’s strange when you feel something that you haven’t felt before; especially in the third decade of your life. By then you imagine your brain has felt it all: the pain, the pleasure, the thrill, the desperation, the fear, the humiliation, the ecstasy, the anger – the crippling sense of loneliness that comes creeping up on you out of nowhere on a busy street corner. What could be left to feel? To taste? But it was true: there on that path with that girl I felt the world shine clear in a new colour alien to my eyes; I felt my flesh burn with a tingling sensation that made me feel strong enough to march against a thousand armies. The simple sight of her smile was enough to make me feel like I had arrived at the end of my Camino – that there was nothing left to strive for, to search for, to wander for.

But wander we did, on and on, over the hills, to every new town and every new sunset. New friends came and went as each horizon disappeared only to be replaced by another one beckoning me ever further forward.

Soon enough the inevitable happened and I awoke one day to find Laura’s bed empty. I had been up late drinking and by the time I awoke the whole Alberge was silent and deserted. Hungover and bleary-eyed, I grabbed by bag and started walking alone out on the trail. By then the crowds from the early stages of the walk had dispersed and it was sometimes an hour or so before I saw another soul on the trail. That day I walked alone expecting Laura to eventually come back into sight. Somewhere down on the trail she would appear again – her tanned skin shining in the sun and blonde hair blowing in the summer breeze like it had that day I was first saw her. But the miles and days drifted on and on, and it soon became clear that she had left my world as quickly as she had entered. I was not to see her again on this trip. The peace and contentment of sharing my path with a fellow soul I had searched for so long was gone. I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. I guess I knew she was a rare find. She was a person I had searched for back home in the eyes of strangers of streets, the eyes of strangers of trains – the eyes of strangers in bars and clubs and restaurants. Finally, I had found her out somewhere in Spain but now she was gone in a Camino instant.

And so back to wandering alone I went, spending the days drifting down the path, listening to some music and philosophy lectures on my phone, reading in hammocks, staring up into the sky and smiling at the immensity of it all. It was just me and my own madness as it had always been in my life, heading toward the horizon of the unknown, lost in the dream of existence while marvelling at the sights along the way. I missed Laura of course but I soon realised that this was how it was meant to be for someone like me. It was all I ever knew: the state of wandering alone; of moving through new lands; of observing and watching the world from behind the looking glass of my own eyes. In many ways this Camino business was probably the most natural thing I had done in my life.

Eventually I met some other pilgrims along the way and was back to my therapist ways. This included one of the more interesting characters I had met – Marti – a young eighteen-year-old from the U.K out on his first travel adventure. At first, he didn’t seem like someone I would have too much in common with, but I soon got close to him and learnt about his world. Coming from a rough neighbourhood, he had gotten involved with gangs back home until he eventually made the decision himself to remove himself from that scene and begin broadening his horizons. He had done this by moving to France where he had been working as a floor tiler, and now by taking time off from work to come and walk across Spain. The more I learned about him, the clearer it was that he had a tough time in the past – including the fact that he had never really known his parents and was raised instead by his uncle (and to a large degree himself). I could see the fire in his eyes begin to blaze when he spoke about such things. I knew he needn’t worry about his troubled past; the fact he was where he was now, doing what he was doing at such a young age, told me his fight was going to be a victorious one. His quest out in his wild had begun, at a much younger age than my personal quest, and I knew he’d be alright in the end.

Other than Marti came Monica. Monica was a twenty-eight-year-old nomad from the states, one of the ones somewhere down south in the desert. She was small in stature, but titanic in personality. One of the most extreme travellers I had ever met, her adventures had taken her to every continent of the world, to over three-thousand different rides from hitch-hiking, to fighting off Mexican truck drivers with a knife, to being a fire breather in the circus for three years – all the way to meeting a German guy in Guatemala and spontaneously hitchhiking to Vegas to get married. Her way of wandering was more like being blown around in a violent storm and it was clear that the thunder and lightning had left its mark in her crazed eyes. She was the most extroverted creature I had ever met, and although it was fun listening to her stories, I eventually found myself trying to get away from her just so my introverted mind could catch its breath. By just running her mouth she had a habit of pulling you into her own madness. I already had the mess of myself to deal with, and someone as wild as her was simply too exhausting to tolerate for any extended period of time. Still, I liked her, and eventually I learned that she was walking the Camino to come to terms with the fact that the guy she spontaneously married in Vegas had ended up moving back to Germany where he suddenly fell ill and passed away, effectively leaving her as a twenty eight year-old widow. She said she was walking just to walk, but I could see and hear in her voice that this was the real reason. Her way was a redemption; it was an understanding and coming to terms with the strange situation that had just befallen her. Eventually we parted ways and I carried on walking alone on the trail.

As I reached the green hills of Galicia and approached the end of the great pilgrim’s walk through Spain, I thought some more about all the weird and wonderful people I had met along the way and wondered why in the hell I was also out here drifting from town to town with no plans or ticket to even return home. Yes, it was true that I liked to walk just to walk, that it was own personal nirvana to be wandering freely through a country in the summer sun with just a backpack and the clothes on my back. But perhaps like some of the others I was fooling myself and there was something I was subconsciously searching for. Perhaps there was something gnawing at me inside after all. I kept expecting to have some great epiphany as I walked along the trail, or while I was sat in another cafe staring into the sky, or when I was swimming in a river after the end of another day. But sure enough, nothing came or arrived in my mind. The days went on and I eventually found myself stumbling into Santiago towards the finishing line. I had walked the five hundred miles across Spain, completed the ancient pilgrimage – another travel experience seared into my soul – and all I could do was stand underwhelmed in the cathedral square of Santiago and watch the other pilgrims congregate together and celebrate their personal journeys. Some cried, some posed for photos, some hugged, some sat alone and soaked in the atmosphere. I guess I was one of the latter, and I sat and stared expecting some great revelation to sweep over me, but nothing did. I was still another wanderer on his journey through the wilderness of life. I hadn’t found anything or been found myself. Despite the fleeting feeling of arrival I had felt with Laura, I was still just whipping around in the unrelenting winds of existence as ever – a relentless wanderer of life, sitting on steps and staring up into skies overcome by the wonder of it all. No finish. No end. No arrival. The road carried onward…

In the days and weeks that followed the Camino, I carried on travelling in Europe. For once I didn’t have such a burning desire to keep on living nomadically, but I also had no desire to go home and work at some job I had no interest in either. I still had enough money to keep on travelling and I decided to use it by travelling down the coast of Portugal with an American guy I had met on the Camino. We headed first to Porto and then onward to Lisbon. After this I flew to Budapest to party for a week. It was a strange period in my life and for the very first time, I felt tired and bored with the act of travelling. Uneasy with this feeling, I decided it was because I was now off the trail and travelling around conventionally with buses while staying in busy city hostels. With this thought in mind, I took a bus down to Slovenia to start a three-week hike there that would return me to the style of travel I had become accustomed to back in Spain.

Walking the first days on that hike, I soon came to realise and accept that I was still not feeling quite right. The hike itself was beautiful, but it was extremely isolated and all the mountain huts were closed. I had a little shelter with me I had picked up from a camping store which was far too small for my six-foot plus frame. At night I was cold, wet and miles away from another soul. I quickly began to see what I was doing was a bad and possibly dangerous idea. Still I kept on moving until one night when the sun had set and left me enveloped in the darkness of the thick forest. My head-torch had failed, and I used the last remaining battery on my phone to help me put up the shelter I had. With little room on the mountain side to place it, I settled for a damp patch of mossy turf. I erected the small nylon structure and then crawled inside like an insect trying to shelter from the night.

As I lay there gazing up at the starry sky, unable to sleep in the cold howling wind, I thought about my shambolic situation. Truly I was no longer where I was supposed to be: shivering in the night, tired and alone in a foreign country, fighting off spiders from crawling into my tent, hoping no wild animals would come across my momentary lair in the absolute middle of nowhere. Feeling hopelessly lost, I started playing over the whole Camino trip in my head. I thought of the places and faces along the road. I thought of all the little exchanges with other people. I thought of Pete, Laura, Marti, Monica and all those other wandering souls out there in the world making their way through life. Thinking about it all, I suddenly had the urge to write more than ever before. I remembered something Laura had said to me: “why don’t you write a book about your experiences and share how you feel.” I had been feeling it gradually within me for a long time now. My phone notes were littered with notes of things I wanted to write down when I was reunited with my laptop that was waiting for me back home. More than ever before, I had a strong existential desire to express the contents of my soul, to share my own story from the past few years of bohemian madness. A few weeks after finishing the Camino, that epiphany had finally arrived and suddenly all I wanted to do was to be home and write and write and write. It played over in my head through a sleepless night, and the next morning I accepted I had wandered too far through the wilderness. I was no longer fighting the good fight. I was no longer on the path where I belonged. In the realisation of this, I got up, picked up my backpack and marched back along the trail to the last town I had come across. Once I was there, I went and caught a bus to Croatia. Once I was in Croatia, I booked and took a flight back home to England. Once I was in England, I opened up my laptop and started to write my first ever book.

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You know, when people ask why I travel I still find it a hard question to answer. It is true that I was never able to find what I wanted from regular life. The jobs. The education system. The consumerism. The conventions. The expectations and traditions. Like others I met on the trail, I was a born explorer and found myself stuck in a system which seemed to sedate me into a passive existence. So, I guess I did what I felt was necessary and started to explore my outer worlds without any compromise. I ventured as far out into the world as possible. I climbed the mountains. I roamed the cities. I partied on the beaches. I worked the terrible jobs. I got lost in the eyes of strangers. I travelled far and wide until the journey eventually led me inward into myself. And I guess it was there where the real gold lay; where I found my passion and purpose. From England to Australia, from menial jobs to medical trials, from being down in the dumps to being high in the mountains – it has been a crazy journey through the wilderness, and no matter where I’ve been out there, it appears the only home I have ever found is right here at this keyboard expressing myself from my heart and soul. I have travelled the world and found the greatest adventure at the end of my own fingertips. It is the greatest act of exploration I have known, a journey into the soul where there are far greater treasures than one can possess physically. It is an act where I am finally able to express myself in a world that left me feeling voiceless. An act where I am able to share my experience and the experience of all those other wanderers out there in the world. An act where I am able to create a place which I finally feel I actually belong.

When I got home from that period of walking the Camino and travelling in Europe, I found myself glued to the keyboard for months after. I got a seasonal job working alongside my dad at a courier company, and every day after work I just sat alone before my keyboard, writing down the thoughts and tales of my journey onto a blank page. For the first time in my life nothing else mattered. I had no external desires other than where I was and what I was doing. Everything else faded from sight and I knew that finally I had found what I was subconsciously looking for all those years out on the road. I no longer cared about the adventures or the girls or what was over the next horizon. I no longer cared about that long, meandering trail. I no longer cared about the backpacks or hostels or foreign countries. Like the other pilgrims in the square of Santiago, finally my journey was over. Finally, my Camino had finished.

As these words poured out onto the page, for once in my chaotic life, finally:

I had arrived.