Day Nine. Impossible Dreams.
When I was a kid, our school sponsored a trip to a play in New York, and I was lucky enough to go. The theater was unlike any I had ever seen before: it was in the round, and the seats circled a small stage that had no set on it, just literally a platform in the middle of the room. The play began, and what followed was magic to me, but even more, as a young boy it deeply inspired me. It was a musical that was both drama and comedy, and it was called Man of La Mancha. I didn't know anything about Miguel de Cervantes, the famous Spanish writer who in 1605 wrote the novel Don Quixote, on which the musical was based. I didn't know much of anything about Spain, its history and its legends. But that play, entertaining as it was with famous songs like "The Impossible Dream" and "I, Don Quixote", affected me because of the central hope of its protagonist: a knight-errand who dares to dream that life can be better than it actually is. To dream the impossible dream.
When I started out on my walk today to the little town of Colunga, I encountered more pilgrims on the Camino than I have since I began. Usually there might be one or two that I pass or who pass me within an hour or two, but today there were almost a dozen, and we were following one another relatively closely. Maybe it was the weather--this was the first day of steady rain--or maybe it was the sometimes confusing route markers. In fact, several times we all stopped at the same place and were mutually perplexed about the right way to go. Naturally we engaged with more than "hola" or "buon Camino". It was more like, "what the..." (although in much more polite language than we New Yorkers sometime use). That's when it become clear that this was a really big mix of people--from France, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, and America. And of many ages: some in retirement years, some just out of college, some middle-aged. I continue to be amazed at the young women who are traveling this journey alone.
In a few conversations I have had with people along the way, I have gotten the sense that they are good people who are doing this trip with some larger motivation. One told me that his brother has brain cancer and he is hoping that his efforts on the Camino will heal him. Another couple told me that they thought it would help them restore a depth to their marriage. A young woman said that she hoped she would discover what her real gifts are that she might be able to use them to make the world a little better.
Which got me thinking about Don Quixote, and my first encounter with him and his impossible dream. The book and the play is about an old man whose mind gets a little twisted and he thinks he is a knight, with a sacred mission. He wants to "right the unrightable wrong, to fight the unbeatable foe, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause". He goes about trying to do good things as this ancient knight, and when he literally sees windmills as dragons he fights them, and everyone laughs. When he sees prostitutes as good and holy women, they mock him. But in the process of his quest, he touches a number of hearts, and he shows them that if you are willing, you can make a dream come true--good and wonderful things can happen. And when he regains his senses and has no memory of his quest or anything he has done as a knight-errand, those hearts are devastated because he has abandoned the pursuit of an ideal that gave them hope and courage that their lives can be better.
As as boy, I think I was looking for Don Quixote in many places. JFK and Gandhi, and musicians like Cat Stevens and Dylan. When I was in college, I wanted to be a lawyer and maybe enter politics. Somehow another Spaniard's quest got to me--St Ignatius of Loyola, and his men I encountered in college.
There is a lot of the quest and the ideal behind the Camino. Walking these steps, one after another, day by day, seeking something more--you can, I believe, discover the truth about many things. Maybe about yourself, or about the world. Perhaps even to dare to dream that life can actually be better than it is.
It doesn't necessarily require you to fly over here and walk hundreds of miles. (There are certainly a lot of people who will say you are a bit crazy to do something so ridiculous.) It's more about the desire and willingness in your heart to make a difference, to take steps to make the world a little better.
When I was alone along the Camino today, I kept hearing those songs in my mind from the play, and what the hell, I burst out in song until I got to the part where I forgot the words. It kept me going through the rain. Walking in the rain wasn't anywhere as miserable as I thought it would be. In fact, I marveled at how much my poncho protected me, and how easy it was with my high tech shoes, the quick-dry pants, the super-duper backpack, the poncho. At one point the path got very narrow, and I literally had to push aside leaning grasses, ferns, and flowering weeds that were blocking my path. As I brushed past them with my poncho, the bottom part of my pants received all the water from the leaves of the plants, and my pants were soaking wet. Somehow the idea popped in my mind that it was like when Jesus entered Jerusalem brushing through all the palms that were being waved at him. It was like he was absorbing all their humanity, including their impending betrayal. I know, a weird thought. I mean it was only my pants, and they were made of quick-dry material, and I am definitely no Jesus.
How was it for the pilgrims in the 15th century? They didn't have blister prevention packs, or water bladders, or easy to carry protein bar meals, or smart phones to let you get your bearings on Google maps. I learned that there were in those days a number of pilgrim hospitals (whatever a hospital was then). I imagine that the journey was much dangerous to your health than it is today.
I really appreciated that fact when I arrived at my pension/hotel, Hotel Mars del Suave. They really accommodate the pilgrims with inexpensive room charges, amazing meals...and even laundry service. I paid $25 for dinner, laundry, and a fantastic room and was treated with much kindness and care. If you are ever in Colunga, Spain, STAY HERE!
Tomorrow will be a long trek, almost 25 miles, the longest yet. I'm glad I was well fed tonight!