"Turner’s idea of communitas holds up in a material way–this experience certainly does shear us of our economic, geographical, and professional affiliations in a way that allows for intimacies that everyday life rarely encourages–but I don’t think that’s the main draw. I think it’s actually a psychological fantasy: the hope is that we might step out of a more profound level of role-playing and encounter other people in a way that’s not structured by habitual dynamics. This is why those first moments with a stranger on the Camino can feel so intoxicating; they loosen the hold of our selves." From A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus
Learning Loneliness On the edge of Grañon I found a picnic table overlooking some rolling green hills with the Camino snaking along to the west. I sat there for hours despite the incessant wind and the sun that I felt slowly cooking the skin on my arms. I fell in and out of a siesta as my body fought the heat drain. When I was awake I read or watched as the simple story of the village unfolded. There were one, two, no, eight cats and their kittens curled beneath the bushes and benches hunting for shade. An old man sat outside with two friends and a black puppy. They looked to be escaping their hotbox home. The breeze dried my sweat and pushed the salt up into my hair. At one point Mette and Knut, a couple from Holland, joined me for a siesta of their own. I could hear wind chimes in the distance. The chimes grew louder until they were clanging like church bells. As the sound grew I remembered that wind chimes don’t move. I looked south to find a massive herd of goats with bells around their necks moving onto the Camino. They were swarming around a centered whistling figure–the old shepherd–who pointed west and sent his dog ahead to keep the herd in formation. It felt old; like a talent that would be left to machinery or simply a labyrinth of fences back home. Just sitting there I felt the pulse of all the small Spanish villages. Stray cats and dogs searching for shade, older ladies waddling to Mass or catching up in the street. The Camino acts as an artery that brings an international economy to these towns. Without pilgrims they would disappear, along with their ancient traditions. I had even heard stories of struggling villages petitioning for the Camino to be altered by a few miles because it just barely missed their community.
Pilgrims passed me in a rhythm, remarking on the heat or the number of cats around me. There was an occasional buzz from a bee or the tingling of gnats stuck in the mix of sunscreen and hair on my left arm. Often my mind would wander to visions of dark chocolate and a glass of red wine. It was unusual to have all of the time that I wanted to read or write or think...or just be. I came here for many reasons. To learn to be lonely. To feel like I had disappeared. In some ways to figure out how I should act and approach the relationships in my life. A week before I left New York my boyfriend broke up with me because “he couldn’t keep up.” He said I was like a rushing river that swept him in. “You need to find someone who can survive in those waters. I can’t. I’d rather be sitting on the banks.” The problem was, I did too. I often felt like my heart in New York was spread so thin that I wasn’t feeling much of anything. There, on that bench, I could sense everything. I realized I didn’t come here to learn to be lonely. I came here to remember how to see. Home–or the idea of it–has always hurt my heart. Once when I was at an informal art show my friend Clara performed a song about leaving home and her roommate Lauren caught me crying. Earlier that year Lauren had interviewed me about the concept of home–unaware of the can of worms she had opened. When you grow up home is a place.
A place with your family and your pets and your toys. In high school my home disappeared. My Dad died, my dog died, and my Mom had a stroke. I flew to New York knowing that I would never be able to book a flight back there. Airplanes are not time machines. For the next few years my photography would focus on finding a home somewhere else. I worked to find home in moments and people. Cycling across the country with 31 others, sitting in the hallways as an RA at NYU, lying on my best friend’s bed and venting about everything. A safe space.
On the Camino I found that space in gestures as simple as gathering people for dinner. I learned to find solace and wonder in loneliness. My Camino was soon about finding a home not just in those moments with others but in every moment with myself. Understanding that home is contentment.
The contentment I found while walking barefoot to the botanical garden in Azofra and playing with a ladybug that landed on my shoulder.
The contentment I found taking photographs at dusk after settling into every new town.
And especially the contentment I found while walking through the cathedral in Burgos and blasting Beyoncé in my headphones because damn, I hadn’t felt gay in a long long time.
Abandoned in Burgos I walked this morning with a woman who had just turned 70. Her name was Susan, originally from New York but currently lives in Tucson. She wore black frame glasses against her dirty blonde hair. She walked quite slowly, so I caught up with her early. The sun was rising behind us and looked like images I’ve seen from the Sahara. There was a dusty haze covering the landscape. As we walked she told me the Way has three distinct parts: the first is St. Jean to Burgos: The Way of Purification, where you are immediately extracted from your daily routine and thrown into a land of simplicity, pain, beauty, adventure. From Burgos to Astorga is the second stage: The Way of Death. Upon exiting Burgos you begin walking the meseta–a flat, colorless landscape that goes on and on forcing you to concentrate on pushing through. That focus makes you realize that all of the worries you used to prioritize no longer matter. Now, Astorga to Santiago, is The Way of Life. As the landscape bursts into an undulating pattern of mountains and vineyards we approach the end, where nostalgia has already set in. You realize you’re about to return to what you used to know and begin planning for a new life. You scramble to find the spirit and lessons of an ancient pilgrimage in the modern world. I mostly just listened as she spoke and provided a seed for my thoughts while walking alone in the tough kilometers ahead. “I’m sorry for holding you back, go on ahead” she told me. As I left her I began to reflect on my two stages thus far. Most strikingly I remembered the heartache of Burgos–my introduction to The Way of Death. I overslept and woke up to 149 empty beds.
Even my two closest Camino friends, Chris & Babsi, had left the albergue without telling me anything. I spent the morning brushing my teeth, my mind swirling in contradiction. Only twelve hours before I had been wishing our little group away, wanting to rediscover my anonymity on the trail. Now that they were gone I couldn’t take it. On the way out of town I stopped a few people for portraits. I found myself in “that place” again. Shrinking within myself. Discovering home. First was a man from Italy who had just snarfed a pastry from the Panaderia. Next I photographed Mircko, a man whom I had noticed in the days before. He looked like Indiana Jones. I was once again reminded if you walk at a different pace, leave at a different time, or start on a different day, you are suddenly born into a new generation of pilgrims.
Since then I had reconnected with Chris & Babsi. I loved being with them, but I also loved the uncertainty when all was lost. In “normal life” you can’t see the excitement and opportunity sometimes presented by loss because relationships rise and fall slowly. On the Camino you move through Life and Death in only a matter of days.