The German Optometrist
“Migration heightens one’s awareness that perceptions of reality are relative and fragile” - M.D. Fletcher, in response to the literary work of Salman Rushdie
I don’t know how to preface this other than, there have been times in my life, when I’d met someone that I’m not really sure I met, because the timing was just too perfect, and I was the only one there, and its a weird thing called destiny, I think.
Last summer, because the circumstances worked out just right, I was able to plan a month long hiking trip. It was going to take me 36 days to hike about 600 miles from the border of France, to the western most point of Spain. I didn’t have a job, wasn’t sure what to do with my life, and going through a quarter life crisis.
Sometimes you just need to go for a walk.
This was going to be a Pilgrimage. “El Camino de Santiago” otherwise known as The Way of Saint James or simply the Camino. It is a very famous route, seeing usage at least as far back as Charlemagne, and was known to have significant traffic during the Moorish Invasion of Spain and the Reconquista.
For me, there was most certainly a spiritual element involved here. I was raised Catholic, though I don’t practice. I’ve come to a lot of my own conclusions. But I figured if people have been doing a thing for thousands of years, there has to be something to it. I want to seek what they sought.
Also the failed art history major in me had been dying to see an old world Cathedral for awhile.
Before this will be over, I was going to turn 27 somewhere in the Spanish countryside.
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About 2 and a half weeks into the hike, the route splits toward 2 very famous cities; Oviedo, to the south, a historical point of interest, and Gijon to the north, a modern city on the coast. I had decided already that I wanted to go to Gijon. I was sticking with the coast as much as possible throughout this trip, but the last few days had brought me inland. I was eager to rejoin the ocean.
After hiking for a few weeks, you encounter other Pilgrims travelling at the same pace, yall end up staying in the same pilgrim hostels. You cook meals together, and you kinda stick together as a familia. On this day though, I hadn’t seen anyone. It was just me, walk’n. I hadn’t thought anything of it.
Just before midday, I’d already been hiking for a few hours, I reached the definite split in the road. It wasn’t much, just a sign post, but this was definitely a choice to be made in the journey. I had already made my choice, and I don’t regret it. Its literally like the Road Less Travelled. They’re both exactly the same, and the only thing lost is that I didn’t take the other. I figured this would be a good place to rest, so I start looking for a place to sit.
And here we enter the mythos of the Journey.
I hadn’t seen him at first, there was I think a little shrine blocking the way as I came up to the sign post. Lots of little shrines in the country side.
As I round the corner, theres a robust red headed man wearing glasses sitting there on the ground, cross legged, drinking a beer. He’s obviously a Pilgrim. We have a certain look. Unkempt, sun baked, and missing the day of the week.
I see him, and I feel like he’s got the right idea, so I plop down next to him, and he hands me his beer. I think I had said something like “Oh, I’ve got my own.” I had gotten in the habit of carrying a small can of beer. It was refreshing on a long hike.
“Sure, drink this, and we’ll share that one.” … There was something about that. Something very different in the way of being done.
This is his 8th Camino. He started doing them when he was younger, in the German equivalent of the Boy Scouts. Spoke pretty good English, though at one point we had to translate an idea through Spanish, which was kinda cool. He tried to get his friends to come along with him, but they wouldn’t. He is 43 and was hiking the Camino to celebrate his graduation from Optometry school. He’s been camping the whole way, no pilgrim hostels. He stayed in a hotel one night for his birthday. Showed me a highly detailed GPS he was using to plan his route. Pointed out where there was a preserved sort of neolithic dwelling, a national monument, a ways off the main route.
Trying to write this story, I can’t for the life of me remember his name.
Just by virtue of being a Pilgrim, talking with another Pilgrim, you hear about each other’s stories and what would lead someone to choose to do this thing that we’re doing, and usually it boils down to someone’s spirituality. Not always, but I don’t think you’d be surprised how often it does.
We talk about how the Camino helps you see things differently. From a single point of experience, this is one of the most selfish things you can do, because only you can do it. You don’t need anything in a day to entertain you, just a destination, no particular speed. You can march, a lot farther than you thought, with 25 pounds of your entire life on your back. And you can just be, and not worry about being, because we’re all a mess. And you have to already be innately a little crazy to do something like this.
Meditating, observing, experiencing the kilometers. Time and space sort of become the same thing. Time becomes less relevant when you truly experience the distance you’ve travelled.
He said he was trying to get his water as often as possible from natural sources along the trail. He had a whole filtration system. Apparently, this extra condition, this challenge that he’d given himself was helping him see differently.
He tells me that he re-upped his water from a fountain about 200, 300 meters back the way we came. “You should get this water, its good water.” I tasted his, it did taste better. But I’m trying to get to Gijon, I don’t need to go back… and I had almost a full bottle from the morning. “This water will help you see.” The way he was going on about it, it was like the Fountain of Youth. I don’t know what compelled me, I dumped out my bottle, told him I’d go back and get that water if he came with me. And so we did.
We hiked BACK in the direction we had just come, to a structure that honestly, I’m not sure was there when I passed through earlier. And sure enough, there was a fountain, built into the wall of what I assumed was a school. I go to the fountain, and above it is a sign that said something like “This water comes from the Mountains. Thank you for trusting us.” I thought that last line was a little, I dunno, maybe lost in translation… I fill my water bottle. It’s good water. I’m not sure what sort of psycospiritual effect I’m bestowing to it, but it was a nice little detour all the same. Its good advice to not turn down a gift.
I begin walking with him, back to the fork, and this part is a little trippy. There was a woman there, I think to check on the shrine, from the local church. We chat with her a bit, and then I notice something.
By the shrine, there is a statue, and its a statue of Saint James/Santiago… and I hadn’t realized this before, but he had horns. Like rams horns. Almost satanic looking… Growing up, my grandmother had a small statue of a horned Moses, so maybe this is something similar… But it was flimsy, made of paper mache. I would see one more effigy of a similar likeness carved out of stone much later on this trip.
After passing through the fork again, we continue on the way to Gijon, still a few days away. We were talking for a bit, I think about trying to find a more scenic route, but instead we go the more direct way. I remember a road winding through an orchard, and some very clever graffiti under a bridge… After a while I could tell that he wanted to go faster. He had somewhere to be. He was covering way more ground per day than I had planned. I was just taking it easy, I told him to go on ahead. Thats the beauty of the Camino, everyone goes at their own pace and sometimes you share just a moment.
I catch up with him one more time, at another fork in the road. We have a breather. Share one last cigarette. And I never see this guy again.
I have no one to corroborate this story with, and it even now feels like a dream. Sometimes the hero encounters something like a Cheshire Cat. Perplexing, but benign and maybe insightful.