I’d planned to walk to Estella today, but then everything changed.
I woke up in the morning, feeling refreshed and happy. The smell of coffee and baked goods permeated the dormitory, and the showers were still unoccupied. I got dressed, brushed my teeth, and grabbed a cup of hot caffeine from the table. Pilgrims passed by the open door, lively chatter fragments wafting by, and the radio played Big Western Sky by Kik Tracee, one of my favorite songs.
My backpack felt light, and my legs didn’t hurt at all, yesterday’s downhill endeavor seemed to be forgotten. I grabbed my belongings, wished everyone Buen Camino, and made my way into the town center where, according to plan, I’d meet Inga, Lilly, her Polish Beau, and the Canadian girl.
45 Minutes passed, my third cafe con leche was empty, when I decided to carry on without them. This was my Camino, no one else’s, and waiting any longer would set me back. Grabbing my backpack, I rose towards the archway that would lead over the Puente after which the town was named, when a guy, French or Canadian from his accent, asked “You Mikka?”
Yes, Sir, I am. What can I do for you?
His name was Roger, and Lilly had sent him to tell me they’d left at six and would be meeting me in Cirauqui, the next town over.
We walked together, talking about Alsace (he was indeed French), wine vs. beer, Sabaton vs. Grave Digger (it’s a Metal thing), and our shared dislike for people getting up at four and loudly packing in the dormitories.
Inga sat under an awning in a small courtyard the Camino passed through. Seeing me, she rose, looking tired and dissheveled, hugging my French camigo briefly, then just grabbing me and holding on, her body shivering with stifled tears. Roger, looking uncomfortable and clearly more in the know than me, bid us adieu and Inga pulled me onto the chair next to her.
Last night, on her way back to her albergue, she’d gotten lost for a few minutes and, arriving at it, found herself locked out. Her things, including her cell phone, were inside the place, and so she’d settled in for a restless night at a bench on the main square, only to be woken half an hour later by a group of locals unhappy with her sleeping in “their” spot. Looking for a better place, she settled on the entrance to the local church, where someone apparently stole her purse containing her pilgrim passport, her cash, and a picture of her deceased father she’d intended to leave at the Cruz de Ferro.
I let her sob, holding her hand, then suggested the police. “No use,” she shook her head. They didn’t even want to take her report, telling her to be more careful next time. Pulling her up, I recommended we walk, onward, away from the scene of sadness. She nodded, and for an hour we walked next to each other, in silence, each thinking their thoughts of things lost and things gained.
The Way faded into our silence, and even the ancient Roman roads and bridge could not stop us to marvel. At a rest stop, someone sold food and drinks for a donation to restore the old roman settlement there, and I grabbed two bananas and a bottle of water, sharing both with Inga as we continued on.
“I booked us two bunks in Villatuerta,” she finally opened up. “Martin says, it’s the best albergue on the Camino, it’s called Casa Magica.” Thinking of Estella and the additional kilometers that would mean the next day, I briefly hesitated, but sensing my trepidation she took my hand “come on, it’ll be fun and I need fun and a friend around.”
Casa Magica was everything she’d promised and more. A vegetarian albergue that serves a massive vegetable paella every night with wine. Hammocks and a pool invite to relax, a meditation room beckons those who need some quiet, and the owner offers massages. The rooms are small, each bed stands alone, no bunks. Despite the rush of pilgrims passing the Calle below, few stopped to enter, and so I found myself alone in a four-bed suite.
At check in, a Camino Miracle happened. “Are you Inga?” the proprietor asked. “Yes, yes, I am.” “Someone left something for you, they said you’d be here.” He produced a Ziploc bag. Inside, next to a pilgrim passport, the faded photograph of a man, smiling happily, holding a small child’s hand.
A piece of paper was attached to it: “We found this behind the church. Money was gone, but I think you really wanted those two things back. Love and Buen Camino, Paul und Gerta aus Deutschland, Lilly and Tomasz say Hi.”
My electronics tethered, clothes changed, and showered, I walked down to find Inga in a lounging chair at the pool, chatting with two men looking vaguely like very overweight versions of the Chuckle Brothers. Two Americans from Texas, we bonded immediately, traded stories from home, and promised to have coffee should I ever return to the States.
A bell rang and the Chuckles, Inga, myself, and a French man claiming to be a former Special Forces “Agent” for the French government occupied the table directly towards the door where, minutes later, salads and bread appeared, followed by many bottles of wine and, a little later, the paella.
We partook in the wine and paella until a beautiful buzz made the moment even more magical. The laughter of pilgrims at every table, the many languages spoken, the gentle breeze coming in from the open doors, and the sinking sun made me realize that, no matter what I had thought before, I was now, finally, on the Camino, on my Camino.
After dinner, we took a bottle of wine to two lawn chairs and stared into the stars. “Do you ever think what will happen after this?” Inga asked. “It will never be the same,” she continued, then trailed off into thoughts. It took a while for me to answer, “I have some ideas, maybe a hope or two, but I know that my Camino somewhat started today and I am not sure it’ll end any time soon.” Her hand reached across the lawn chairs, taking mine, and, suddenly, I cried.
The house was quiet when I pulled my sleeping bag over me, still shocked by my tears. Warm sleepy embrace crept up, and I dreamed of stars, walking over bridges, and flying over a coastline, looking down and seeing my father wave at me.