Love Is

It was a dreary, rainy, long walk of a day mid-Spain, mid-Camino, mid-October. Thirty or more kilometers, with at least half of it through rocky, rain-lashed fields as far as the eye could see in either direction. It was one of those stretches where all you can do is long for soup and dry socks, hope that the next albergue has enough hot water for everyone and convince yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  The sort of day where you wonder why walking across Spain ever seemed like such a great idea. But this is no easy way out, so you just continue to the next town.

Terradillos de Templarios was small and forgettable. Humble in an un-picturesque, one-bar, ten dirty houses with broken-down farm equipment in the yards, melted cow pies in the street sort of way. It was the type of town that people choose to bypass, pushing ahead to the next bigger city with more comfortable and cheerful surroundings.  However, today my companion Simone and I could no longer bear the slosh of wet feet inside even wetter boots, the cold slap of dripping ponchos on exposed skin, the increased heaviness of our packs as they became waterlogged.  We were desperate to be warm, dry and no longer hungry.

We followed the yellow arrows to the one albergue in town.  A hand-painted wooden sign in the front yard read “Los Templarios”.  It had twenty four beds and only six of them were filled. And they had a fireplace.  We almost wept.

After signing up for dinner, we were shown to our room.  It was small, chilly and crammed with four metal-framed beds holding ancient, sagging mattresses.  Stained pillows rested on each one. Estela, the no-nonsense farm wife hospitalera walked over to the radiator and turned it on.  My shoulders eased down from around my ears where they had been all day long.  She showed us where the bathroom was.  Where to leave our wet boots.  “Gracias. Gracias. Gracias.”  was all I could say.

After showering and changing into dry clothes, we reluctantly donned our almost-dry rain ponchos and crossed town to the bar for dinner.  There were only eight pilgrims in town that night and we all ate together.  Over the ubiquitous menú peregrino of lentil soup, pork chops, fries, iceberg salad, rough red wine, bread and Dannon yogurt, we argued about love. In English, Portuguese, Spanish and German, we dissected what it really is. How you can tell when you’ve found it. What to do when you lose it. How to find it again. No consensus was reached.

Later that evening, sitting in front of a smokey fire, I watched Ramon, a cheerful, beefy man from the Canary Islands, peel off his socks and wince. I asked to take a peek and cringed. Some days before, he had developed a silver-dollar sized blister on the ball of his foot. He’d drained it and cut away the dead skin, cutting far too closely to the living flesh. And had been walking on it, in wet boots, for several days. Bathing in communal showers. And probably wearing socks that were none-too-clean. He was in tremendous pain, not only from the wound in his foot, but from all the other knotted, strained muscles in his whole body, and particularly the other foot and leg that had been compensating for the abuse. He waved me off, insisting that it wasn’t that big of a deal.

I convinced him to accept help.  I made eye contact with Simone, indicated Ramón, and she understood instantly.The three of us went to the room we shared with a middle-aged pilgrim from Barcelona, Alberto, who was already reading in bed. Simone and I set up our traveling shrine on the window ledge – a red plastic votive candle, travel-sized icon acquired at the church in Le Puy, France where I’d begun my pilgrimage, a stone Simone carried with her, painted with the Virgin Mary and a couple of wild flowers gathered from the yard of the albergue. Simone began to sing a simple melody in German.

Ramon lay face down on his cot. Simone sat cross-legged on the facing cot and continued to sing, her eyes closed.   I pulled a small bottle of olive oil from my pack, poured some of the green gold liquid into my hand and handed the bottle to Alberto.  He took one leg and foot and I took the other and together we began to massage and stretch Ramon off the edge of pain.  I could feel the tense, erratic hum in his body begin to slow down as the flesh of his calf and foot softened under my hands. His face was buried in his pillow and soon his shoulders and back began to began to shake with sobs from a very deep place.   He raise his head and twisted around to look at Alberto and me.

With tears in his voice and streaming from his eyes, he said “Joder, coño. ESTE es amor.”

Fuck, man. THIS is love.

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