“The Camino provides.” You hear this all this time from Pilgrims and I read about it in every book I picked up about the Camino de Santiago. There were so many stories about a bed, a room, a meal, or a doctor turning up just in time. Then everyone would smile and say knowingly, “The Camino provides.”
Moritz and I managed to walk the sixteen miles over the Pyrenees in one day only to arrive in Roncevalles where the 183-bed albergue was completely full. Pilgrims—if they had a tent—were sleeping out on the lawn. Moritz had a tent so out to the lawn he went. Two Danish girls and I decided we would walk another two miles to the next town.
We arrived in Burguete only to find that the entire town was full of tired, hungry Pilgrims who just finished their first day on the Camino—and there were no more beds. The markets were closed. The cafés were closed. Since it was getting dark and starting to rain the town officials decided this was a full blow Camino emergency. So they opened the Sports Hall and about forty of us Pilgrims poured in.
The Sports Hall was an enormous gymnasium with a concrete floor and bleachers. There was no heat. There was no light. The only advantage to not sleeping out under the trees was that it was now pouring rain so at least we had a roof.
I put on every article of clothing I owned: two short-sleeved Merino wool shirts, a long-sleeved shirt, a quick-dry button down shirt, a down jacket, a rain jacket, hiking pants, hiking shorts, a neck gaiter and two pair of socks. I wrapped my large scarf around my head. I didn’t bother with the extra two pair of underwear because really—what difference would it make? So I wadded them up and tucked them into my neck gaiter like two nesting mice.
I crawled into my silk sleeping bag liner (but had no sleeping bag). I attempted to put my feet into my backpack but that proved uncomfortable. I tried to use my backpack as a pillow and that proved to be ridiculous.
Here I what learned about sleeping on concrete: concrete will always win.You will never get up from concrete and say, “That warm spot there is where I was lying.” No. You will leave no warm spot. Concrete will suck the heat out of your body like a giant starving leech.
Here is what I learned about sleeping in a cavernous space with forty people: there will be a least one champion mouth breather whose thunderous snores will boom off the walls like a snarling T. Rex.
I’m pretty good at visualization so I thought, “This sound is simply the roar of the ocean waves. Imagine the beautiful ocean waves.” But after a few minutes I wondered, “Why is my beach house so freaking cold? What idiot would build a place on the Arctic ocean?”
I lasted about two hours on the floor. I decided it had to be warmer on the wooden bleachers—the narrow little wooden bleachers. If you didn’t turn over or move at all, you would be just fine. I lay like a casketed corpse with my arms crossed over my chest.
The Sports Hall was connected to a church. Did that mean kindly nuns would greet us with cups of steaming hot leche? Did it mean jovial priests would deliver hot churros and chocolate? No, it meant every half hour the bells rang—from the bell tower—right next to the Sports Hall.
An Exquisite Hell—penance for some hideous sin I’d yet to commit. Damn the Camino! It provided nothing—no food, no bed, no water. This was supposed to be a pilgrimage—not Outward Bound. Then came the horrible realization: I was a privileged white woman who chose this. No Pity Parties allowed.
After a couple of hours I just sat up in the dark and stayed like that until morning. As morning was dawning, one of the Danish girls yawned, sat up and looked at me. “You look like a homeless person,” she said. I said nothing being somewhat frozen. Then she said, “Your under panties are on your shoulder.”
Indeed they were! One of the nesting mice had crawled out of my neck gaiter. We all packed up and trudged to a nearby café. Moritz met me there and we vowed to continue on together even though I was secretly bitter about the night in the Sports Hall.
I didn’t reflect much on that night. I just chalked it up to bad luck—until last week. I was walking to my 6:00 a.m. yoga class. I always walk through a well-lighted little park next to the Lake City Library. There under the stairs, on the concrete was a human form with what looked seventeen-thousand layers of clothes on. Twenty feet away, buried under rags and newspapers was another human form on a bench.
“You look like a homeless person,” she said.
That miserable night in the Sports Hall roared back to me. I stopped in my tracks, my cold hands jammed into the pockets of my down jacket. Unless they choose, nobody should have to sleep on concrete. Unless they choose, nobody should have to sleep outside on a bench. Not people who are homeless, not refugees, not prisoners.
I don’t know how to solve the homeless problem or the refugee problem or the prison problem. I just know that I have a better understanding of what it’s like to be without a bed. That understanding breaks my heart.
The Camino really did provide—just not in the ways I expected and wanted. It provided in a deeper way, a way that provided food for my mind and shelter for my heart. How we use our lives is up to us. Spirit will always provide a way for us to grow or learn or love no matter how crappy our experiences. The Way is there—it’s just up to us to start walking.