‘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.